Making Sense of the Anthropocene

Syllabus • Assignments • Class Notes


Course Description

What is the Anthropocene? Put simply, it is a term that describes a new geological epoch triggered by human activity and producing planetary changes that are as big as those that happened at the end of the last ice age. A Working Group within the International Union of Geological Sciences is due to announce a decision later this year regarding formalization of the ‘Anthropocene’ as a new geological epoch.

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 conceptual importance. 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 forces us to rethink modernist assumptions about agency and control that are rooted in the perception of humans as separate from nature. For historians, for example, the very nature of the historical enterprise as the age-old humanist distinction between natural history and human history becomes less and less tenable. This is to say nothing of the potential for the Anthropocene to undermine the foundation of virtually all social sciences in a belief that human social life can be explained independent of the physical environment humans inhabit.

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.

Attempting to “make sense of the anthropocene” by engaging with the discussions and debates around the Anthropocene–whether among or between natural scientists, humanities scholars or social scientists–will be the focus of this Davies Forum. In particular, we will aim to explore the imagination, creativity, and rigorous intellectual thought continuing to emerge around the Anthropocene.

The course will also aim for some very practical outcomes, including supporting students in developing life strategies for entering into adulthood in the Anthropocene–a time likely to be defined by uncertainty, unpredictability, and potentially even chaos, disorder and disruption.

The seminar-style class will be student-centered, meaning class discussions will be led by students and students will participate in giving shape to how, as a class, we want to make a statement or expression of what it means to live in the Anthropocene. Individual or collective forms of artistic creation will be one form of expression. Students will receive support in this process from the professor and, more importantly, from our cutting-edge thinkers, writers, activists and artists who are engaged in their own attempts at “making sense of the anthropocene.”

Collectively, the class will engage in the production of a museum- or gallery-quality anthropocene exhibition of artifacts and artwork that communicate to the public what it means to live in the anthropocene.