Making Sense of the Anthropocene

You’ve maybe heard of this concept of the Anthropocene recently? It made the mainstream (if readership of the New York Times can be considered mainstream) a little over two years ago when Roy Scranton’s piece “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene” became widely shared and commented on. Scranton expanded the piece into the recently released Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (City Lights Books).

I recently got the idea in my head to spend part of my sabbatical developing a course on the Anthropocene. But not just any course. The University of San Francisco’s Davies Forum is a program that gives a competitively selected faculty member resources to offer a seminar on a proposed topic that engages with the broadly defined theme of “The Search for Values in Contemporary America.” The “resources” include a lighter teaching load the semester the seminar is offered and money to bring in speakers and organize events around the seminar’s topic. As an example, my colleague Gerard Kuperus is teaching a Davies Forum seminar this semester on “Displacements: Retrieving a Sense of Place.”

So I tweaked my idea of developing a course, which I am tentatively calling “Making Sense of the Anthropocene,” into a Davies Forum proposal.

UPDATE! My proposal was successful. The course is underway. See the syllabus or the Making Sense of the Anthropocene website with class blog and program of public events.

Below is an excerpt from the narrative I included with the proposal, as well as an annotated draft of a possible course outline. Since this topic is getting so much attention recently, especially in the humanities, I figured I’d share the proposal with the hope that I’d get some good critical feedback. Leave a comment, email me, or tweet my your thoughts.


“Making Sense of the Anthropocene”
Davies Forum Proposal for Fall 2016

Importance, Significance and Timeliness

The Anthropocene, a term popularized by the atmospheric chemist and Nobel Prize laureate Paul J. Crutzen, describes the idea of a new geological era. Scientifically speaking, the Anthropocene epoch is an unofficial interval of geologic time which would constitute the third worldwide division of the Quaternary period (after the Pleistocene and Holocene) and be distinguished by the geological scale of human impacts on the Earth’s surface, atmosphere, oceans, and systems of nutrient cycling.

So profound are the implications of such a concept that the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy (a constituent body of the International Commission on Stratigraphy, the largest scientific organization within the International Union of Geological Sciences), has formed an ‘Anthropocene’ Working Group tasked with developing a proposal to formalize the ‘Anthropocene’ as a new geological epoch (or, alternatively, as a new subdivision within the ongoing Holocene Epoch). The ‘Anthropocene’ Working Group’s proposal must demonstrate that “the ‘geological signal’ currently being produced in strata now forming [is] sufficiently large, clear and distinctive”; and that “Anthropocene” is useful as a formal term to the scientific community. The International Union of Geological Sciences is set to make a decision in 2016.

While much hinges on the outcome for the geological and other scientific communities, historians, philosophers, artists, social scientists and others are already rapidly demonstrating the Anthropocene’s hermeneutical significance. First, the Anthropocene links a scientific understanding of the consequences of human activity for planetary systems to important ontological, phenomenological, existential and even theological questions. Other organisms, like the cyanobacteria that oxygenated the atmosphere two billion years ago, have disrupted earth systems. But what does it mean, as Andy Revkin asks, to be “the first species that’s become a planet-scale influence and is aware of that reality?”

Second, the Anthropocene confronts modernist assumptions about agency and control rooted in the perception of humans as separate from nature. As Bruno Latour has eloquently argued, the anthropocene is the final refusal of the separation between Nature and Human, a separation that has paralyzed science and politics since the dawn of modernism. This means that for historians, the very nature of the historical enterprise as the age-old humanist distinction between natural history and human history becomes less and less tenable.

The Anthropocene also forces us to rethink our belief in the human ability to engineer our way around, or even out of, a system that we assumed could be understood by human faculties organized to know the world through the epistemology of science. In the environmental humanities and social sciences, scholars argue that the Anthropocene fundamentally challenges how we perceive human agency, human ethics, and human responsibility. Does our conception of the human, they ask, have to change? If so, we will need new interdisciplinary stories that deconstruct worldviews of the past while also constructing new understandings of humans that can shape visions of a collective future.

The prevalence of these discussions and debates around the Anthropocene–whether among or between natural scientists, humanities scholars or social scientists–highlights the importance and significance of a Davies Forum focused on engaging students, scholars, and others in conversation aimed at “Making Sense of the Anthropocene.” As for its timeliness, the pending decision in 2016 on the ‘Anthropocene’ Working Group’s proposal to make the Anthropocene official will be well timed with a Fall 2016 Davies Forum.

Meanwhile, a frenzy of recent activity in the environmental humanities and social sciences ranges from books (e.g., Jamieson and Nadzam’s sci-fi/literary fiction/novel/essay Love in the Anthropocene), to museum exhibitions (e.g.,the Deutsches Museum’s “Welcome to the Anthropocene”),  museum-hosted discussion series (e.g., “Anthropocene: Life in the Age of Humans” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History), and even an “Anthropocene Slam” that invited scholars and artists to “pitch” objects for inclusion in an Anthropocene “cabinet of curiosities.”

A final example eludes categorization. “Anthropocene Observatory,” created by the design-activism organization Territorial Agency and artist Armin Linke (curated by Anselm Franke), is a research exhibition and discursive environment. Functioning as an observatory, the project traces the formation of the Anthropocene thesis across a range of data and knowledges so that observers can “probe how the Anthropocene thesis is being recognized and disputed, embraced and discredited, negated and applied across a wide spectrum of scientific, political, and cultural contexts.” “Anthropocene Observatory” provokes us to explore the ways of seeing and knowing, of feeling and being, that might allow us to make sense of the “radically altered circumstances” of the Anthropocene, and to begin constructing the “(future) vocabularies of politics, science, and art [that] might enable us to know, envision, and do things otherwise.”

The imagination, creativity, and rigorous intellectual thought continuing to emerge around the Anthropocene, exemplified in “Anthropocene Observatory,” make the proposed Davies Forum particularly timely while also producing extensive (and intensive) resources on which to draw for the course as outlined below.

Annotated Course Outline (Tentative)

Week 1–Welcome to the Anthropocene 

  • Topics/Questions: A stratigraphy primer. Scientifically speaking, what is the Anthropocene? What is the geological debate? Why does it matter?
  • Possible readings: “The Anthropocene: a new epoch of geological time?” (Jan Zalasiewicz et al.)

Week 2–Making sense of the Anthropocene from the future

  • Topics/Questions: Backcasting is an approach to planning for the future in which a successful outcome is imagined, then asking “what needs to happen right before the vision is realized?” and repeating this question until you’ve worked your way back to the present. Instead of backcasting, the Anthropocene seems to have triggered a type of “reverse forecasting” in which authors position themselves in a dark or even apocalyptic future and then explain from the present how the situation devolved to get to their future position. Is this a useful technique? What do the authors who practice this technique seem to be saying about the Anthropocene? About humans? About our ability to adapt or capability for compassion?
  • Possible readings: The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future (Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway); The Great Bay: Chronicles of the Collapse (Dale Pendell)

Week 3–(How) Does the Anthropocene Mend the Nature/Culture Split?

  • Topics/Questions: Many environmental theorists have posited that our current environmental predicament can be understood as the outcome of our insistence on viewing and experiencing ourselves as separate from the rest of nature. Yet the Anthropocene is defined by the inscription of  human presence on the geologic record and human transformations of earth systems. In other words, from the view of the Anthropocene humans have obliterated the very nature we once believed to be separate from us. What can we make of this? Does the Anthropocene, therefore, mend the human/nature split? And if so, what is the new relationship of humans to the earth?
  • Possible readings: “The End of Nature” (Bill McKibben); “Love Your Monsters: Why we must care for our technologies as we do our children” (Bruno Latour); “Thinking the Anthropocene” (Clive Hamilton, Christophe Bonneuile and Francois Gemenne); “The Anthropocene: The Promise and Pitfalls of an Epochal Idea” (Rob Nixon); “The Anthropocene and Ozymandias” (Dave Foreman)

Week 4–How to Be(come) Human in the Anthropocene

  • Topics/Questions: According to Roy Scranton, author of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, “there’s a line of thought in different spiritual traditions that says that the practice of philosophy is a practice of learning to die, which usually means three things: first, developing realistic perspectives about the limits of one’s own life; second, practicing equanimity in the face of change; and third, deepening a process of conscious reflection about one’s own emotional reactions.” How can this perspective be applied to our own personal journey into the Anthropocene and/or to the journey we are collectively on as a society? What role do sense of loss, grief, anger or other emotions play in our ability to let go of the world we thought we inhabited and enter instead into the Anthropocene?
  • Possible readings: Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (Roy Scranton); “Eschatology in the Anthropocene: from the chronos of deep time to the kairos of the age of humans” (Michael Northcott); “Teach Your Children: Ten things the next generation will need to know to thrive in the Anthropocene” (Minda Berbeco)

Week 5–Science (Fiction) and Other Forms of Writing in/on the Anthropocene

Week 6–Agency and Control in the Anthropocene

  • Topics/Questions: What do we make of the deeply held Western convictions regarding human agency and self-determination in the Anthropocene? If we hold dear to these values, as do the “command-and-control Anthropocene optimists” described by Rob Nixon, the Anthropocene is viewed not as a crisis but as an opportunity to double-down on the human-directed future we intend to create. On the other hand, if the Anthropocene forces us to relinquish the notion that humans have agency, what are the implications? What motivates and directs us if not our own free will? Whence hope in a world not of our own making?
  • Possible readings: “Agency at the time of the Anthropocene” (Bruno Latour); “Human Agency in the Anthropocene” (Dipesh Chakrabarty); “The paradox of self-reference: sociological reflections on agency and intervention in the Anthropocene” (Florence Chiew)

Week 7–The “Good Anthropocene”

  • Topics/Questions: Who are the “Anthropocene optimists” and what is their argument? What’s to be gained by framing the Anthropocene in positive ways? What’s to be lost?
  • Possible readings: “Evolve” (Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus); View Andy Revkin’s talk “Paths to a ‘Good’ Anthropocene” (Revkin); “Embracing the Anthropocene” (Andy Revkin); “An EcoModernist Manifesto” (The Breakthrough Institute); “A good Anthropocene?” (Mark Lynas)

Week 8–What’s the problem with the “Good Anthropocene?”

Week 9–Aesthetics in the Anthropocene

  • Topics/Questions: Does the Anthropocene reinforce or disrupt default visual languages? What would a new visual language of the Anthropocene look like? How do artists, through their chosen visual language, convey a stance in the good/bad Anthropocene debate?
  • Possible readings: Selections from Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies (Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin, eds.)

Week 10–What of Politics and Power in the Anthropocene?

  • Topics/Questions: As Rob Nixon has argued, “we may all be in the Anthropocene, but we are not all in it in the same way.” What are the politics of the Anthropocene and how do the dynamics of politics and power place some people in the Anthropocene in different ways than others? If the Anthropocene inspires us to imagine a positive future, what do politics and power look like in that future? What do the artists, authors and others we’ve been reading seem to think about these questions?
  • Possible readings: “Framing the Anthropocene: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” (Simon Dalby); After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Jedediah Purdy); “The political ecology of the Technocene: uncovering ecologically unequal exchange in the world-system (Alf Hornborg)

Week 11–The Postcolonial Anthropocene: Old Wine in New Bottles? 

  • Topics/Questions: Does the concept of “the”/“an” anthropocene promote or inhibit the possibilities of a polycentric global epistemology? Does it de-center or re-center the West’s worldview? With what implications? When should the beginning of the anthropocene be demarcated? Why there and according to whom? How can we avoid “the Anthropocene” becoming a convenient vocabulary to restore Euro- and Western-centricity, taking us back to an imperial or colonial mode of representation of seeing and extending hegemonic worldview without regard to situatedness?
  • Possible readings: “Anthropocenic Poetics: Ethics and Aesthetics in a New Geological Age” (Sabine Wilke); “Beyond the Anthropocene’s common humanity” (Ninad Bondre and Sabine Wilke); “‘After the End Times’: African Futures and Speculative Fictions” (Matthew Omelsky); “Toxic Tales from the African Anthropocene” (Gabrielle Hecht); “European Colonialism and the Anthropocene: A view from the Pacific Coast of North America” (Kent G. Lightfoot et al.)

Week 12–Is the Anthropocene Male, Straight, White, and Caucasian? Gender, Sexuality, Race and Ethnicity in the Anthropocene

  • Topics/Questions: Often the Anthropocene is explained as a term describing how a single species changed the planet. But the reality is that within the single species there were great inequalities in the contributions to the changes made. How do perspectives from the Global South, feminists, or other marginalized groups challenge what we’ve come to understand of the Anthropocene?
  • Possible readings: “Indigenizing the Anthropocene” (Zoe Todd); “The Anthropocene and its Victims” (Francois Gemenne); “Painfully, from the first-person singular to first-person plural: the role of feminism in the study of the Anthropocene” (Daniel Kirjner); “Must the Anthropocene be a Manthropocene?” (Kate Raworth); selections from Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire (Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson); “A feminist project of belonging in the Anthropocene” (Gibson-Graham in Gender, Place and Culture 18(1):1–21 (2011)).

Week 13–Giving Voice: Storytelling in the Anthropocene

  • Topics/Questions: If injustices of the past could be undone in the anthropocene, whose voices would need to be heard? What would they sound like and what would they say? How would they address issues of politics and power? Agency? Science as a way of knowing?
  • Possible readings: No readings. Readings of student creative writing.

Week 14–Curating the Anthropocene

  • Topics/Questions: What are the other ways, besides written and oral, that we have of telling stories? What do museum exhibitions on the Anthropocene aim to achieve?
  • Possible readings: “In the Planetarium: The Modern Museum on the Anthropocenic Stage” (Vincent Normand); review of museum exhibits such as “Welcome to the Anthropocene” and “Anthropocene Observatory

Week 15–San Francisco Anthropocene Slam

Students will select their own contributions to an Anthropocene Cabinet of Curiosities and then present them as a curated collection of storytelling objects. Guest scholars and other invited panelists will provide commentary on the exhibition.

Note: Inspiration for Weeks 11 and 12 drawn from Anthropocene Curriculum Campus, a project of Haus der Kulturen der Welt and Max Planck Institute for the History of

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