Anthropocene Impacts: A Roundtable Discussion

Student post by Isabelle Jargowsky.

On November 28th’s Anthropocene Impacts Forum, six scholars from different fields, including Mellon-Sawyer Seminar fellows, each gave five minute lightning talks, focusing on how the notion of Anthropocene relates to their own work, followed by discussion. Some participants, however, gave a broader view of the role of the Anthropocene in their discipline as well as their individual research.

John McNeil, an Environmental Historian at Georgetown University, discussed his work with the Anthropocene Working Group of the International Union of Geological Sciences, including a broad description of the Anthropocene Working Group’s history and activities. In the ten years since its inception, the predominantly white, male, and british members of the Anthropocene working group have pursued research in response to the question “Should the anthropocene be geologically recognized?” Although this process inverts the IUGS’s normal process, in which working groups are established to codify the official names and divisions of rock layers (stratigraphy) only after a large body of field work has been amassed, the group has published a series of papers in support, recommending that the IUGS indeed vote to formalize the Anthropocene. A majority of geologists, however, still require a “golden spike” – an indisputable mark comparable to the marks by which other geological periods are distinguished, which will be preserved in locations around the world and sufficiently preserved for millions of years, despite the entirely hypothetical nature of any geologists who might observe such a trace. Dr. McNeil has suggested that the radioactive signature left in the bones and teeth of mammals developing during the period of nuclear testing between 1945 and 1963 would fulfill the criteria for such a golden spike, however the proposal has yet to be adopted. He also collaborates and revises the papers the working group produces.

Evan Berry, a professor of Philosophy and Religion at American University, and co-director of that institution’s Ethics, Peace, and Global Affairs master’s program, discussed the origins of Religious Studies as an idealist domain that arose in tension with theology, positioning itself as an idealist domain outside any individual tradition. Religious Studies as a whole nevertheless retained what Berry called “a crypto-protestant emphasis on belief.” The subfield of Religion and the Environment begins in 1967 with Lynn Townsend White Jr.’s lecture “The Historic Roots of our Ecological Crisis,” which traced environmental degradation to a centuries-old Judeo-Christian framework for separating man and nature and endorsing man’s dominion over nature. Turning to the present, Berry noted that the framework of the Anthropocene promotes research into ontology, reconstructing human culture not as a self-possessed absolute but in terms of reciprocity and relationships. His own work focuses on the international and political engagement of religious leaders and communities and how climate change is affecting religious traditions, as seen in things like Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si, which is a response not purely to theological concerns but also biophysical facts of the earth.

Mabel Gergan, is a post-doctoral fellow with the seminar who received her PhD in Geography from UNC Chapel Hill, with an emphasis on environmental justice and post/de-colonial perspectives. She critiques the narrative of the Anthropocene for its eurocentric and imperialist aspects and applications. She discussed her work with indigenous peoples in India’s Himalayan regions, which have experienced both strong impacts of ecological disasters and a strong push for modernizing interventions. Since the seventies, extraction industries and population growth have exacerbated the difficulties in the region. Anxieties about climate change have placed the burden of forest preservation on indigenous peoples who rely on those areas for their livelihood, destroying historical linkages between man and the environment, despite the responsibility for the climate change crises lying elsewhere. Further, hydropower development in the region is promoted as “benign” and “clean” energy and drawing massive investment, despite the risk of exacerbating earthquakes and landslides. All of this, Gergan emphasized, is part of a broader pattern in which vulnerable populations in specific regions are held responsible for “fixing” climate change because of overpopulation. Infrastructure, rather than ameliorating this injustice, often interacts with unequal power dynamics to make these populations even more vulnerable. Those with the least responsibility for climate change end up bearing the greatest burden of the consequences.

Megan Dean, a doctoral candidate in Philosophy at Georgetown University, is working on her thesis, a feminist critique of healthism around eating. The two premises of healthism she identifies are 1) all humans should value health and 2) health is solely a product of individual moral behaviors. She finds this view “distorted and ethically impoverished.” For Dean, the Anthropocene is a claim about what people are and how they relate to the planet – relations which include consumption, and relations which are often similarly misconstrued exclusively as atomized personal and moral responsibilities. Taking the anthropocene seriously, says Dean, means accepting that humans are fundamentally interdependent and relational, shifting a previous epistemic and ethical era which blocked us from considering responsibility in terms of our dependencies. Eating is particularly entangled in everything from food production and animal cruelty to industrial distribution chains and must be judged not only in terms of health but in how we relate to all of the systems we are enmeshed in. For Dean the Anthropocene provides both a “relational logic” for exploring these systems, and as a result of its semi-empirical origins, a degree of interdisciplinary recognition and caché which similar forms of relational logic such as ecofeminism and anti-individualism don’t provide.

Meredith Denning, a doctoral candidate in History at Georgetown University, researches the history of trans-border water management in the Great Lakes region. She traced the shift between the first water treaty in 1909, which concerned only surface water and participated in a fully humanist and progressive paradigm of mastery over nature, to the 1972 Water Quality Agreement. This later treaty involved stakeholders at the local, state, and federal levels, and reflected a better understanding that the watershed could suffer unintended consequences as a result of human activity. The Anthropocene is a useful framework for Denning to examine the process of cultural learning about climate change and the consequences of human industrial activity, and how that learning eventually leads to or informs institutional change.

Dana Luciano, a professor of English at Georgetown University, finished the panel section by presenting an avidly-received performance piece reacting to the ways an anthropomorphized version of the term ‘Anthropocene’ traverses (not necessarily to say transgresses) disciplinary boundaries. Written in the form of a tongue-in-cheek break-up letter, her piece pointed out that many of the supposedly “revolutionary” aspects of the Anthropocene actually aren’t so new: “humanists already know about finitude.” She distinguishes between the Anthropocene as an “objective description” and “a wake-up call” – and points out how difficult it is to be both things at once. Moreover, while “stratigraphers got to stratigraph”, she points out that for the Anthropocene to function as a wake-up call, as “not demarcation, interruption,” then narrative is as important as empiricism, and that using the Anthropocene as a concept should not make humanities scholars second-class participants in their own field. She ends her critique of the “pretension of objectivity” by proposing a kind of disciplinary polyamory.

The following Q&A and discussion wove rich connections between the contributions of all speakers, focusing on themes of the Anthropocene’s protean character between fields. McNeil acknowledged the primary critique of the Anthropocene Working Group as an organ of the IUGS is precisely the dichotomy between fact and wake-up call that Luciano observed; he phrased it as “a political endeavor masquerading as science.” Gurgen and Denning both discussed the importance of grounding a nonhuman agency/perception in knowledge of actual nonhuman processes, the better to evaluate human experiences and perspectives in a larger context. The panel discussed the hazard of establishing a hierarchy of disciplines, with Berry emphasizing the danger of assuming the western academic mode of “knowing” as the only valid mode, despite its importance. One of the very questions provoked by the Anthropocene concerns the many human ways of knowing, and one of its legacies is to put those ways of knowing in conversation.  Gurgen discussed her own role as a translator between scientific, sociological, and indigenous knowledge types. The discussion concluded with a discussion of Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement, and how it relates fiction, politics, history, and religion into a conversation about climate change, and what different forms of genre and narrative might also contribute to that conversation.

Isabelle Jargowsky is M.A. student in the English Department. She is interested in pedagogy, mythology, and the power of science fiction to examine our society or imagine new ones.


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