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Environmental Studies in the Time of the Anthropocene

September 9, 2013

Portrait image of Rob Nixon

Fall 2013 Faculty Development Seminar:

Rob Nixon

Senior Fellow (2009-2012)

English; Center for Culture, History and Environment


This seminar has two goals. First, it will explore the vital role of the environmental humanities in reimaging the intellectual priorities of environmental studies. Compared to forty years ago, when scientists dominated America’s first environmental studies programs, we are witnessing a new appreciation of the power of the humanities to create intellectual bridges between imaginative, narrative and ethical issues on the one hand, and, on the other, more data-driven fields. In a world drowning in data, stories matter, playing a critical role in the making of environmental publics and the shaping of environmental policy.

The seminar’s second goal is to explore the implications of one such ascendant story, that of the Anthropocene. The Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen coined the term Anthropocene to register the epochal changes that humans have wrought on the planet. According to Crutzen and a growing chorus of scientists, the Holocene is history: we have entered a new, unprecedented epoch. For the first time in Earth’s history, a biological species, Homo sapiens, has had a geomorphic impact on the planet’s physical systems that will continue to be felt 5,000 years from now.

While scientific in origin, the Anthropocene is also reshaping the environmental humanities. Our seminar will ask what kinds of intellectual bridgework—and environmental publics—the Anthropocene can help facilitate. How does this neulogism impact our thinking about environmental time and the entangled relations between human and non-human actors? What can the Anthropocene contribute to discussions of critical environmental terms like resilience, adaptation, justice and sustainability? And, as the Smithsonian Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Deutsches Museum all gear up for major Anthropocene exhibits in 2013 and 2014, we need to ask: how can we most effectively narrate and curate the Anthropocene?

Are there possible limitations to the Anthropocene turn in environmental studies? Crucially, if accelerating, anthropogenically-driven change is a defining feature of our age, so too is deepening disparity, the widening gulf between mega-rich and ultra-poor. In Timothy Noah’s phrase, we are living through “the great divergence.” How do we reconcile this deepening divergence within the economic meaning of “the human” with the convergent grand narrative of the Anthropocene as “the Age of the Human?”

This seminar should appeal to a diverse range of faculty interested in exploring the dynamic interface between the environmental humanities and the social, biological and earth sciences, including faculty interested in theorizing, historicizing, representing and mobilizing the Anthropocene.


September 9, 2013
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University Club, Room 212
432 East Campus Mall
Madison, Wisconsin 53703 United States