Scholarship in the Anthropocene Era

Several PPEH fellows reflect on how their academic work is impacted by the Anthropocene concept: that we are living in a new geological era, in which humans are the most important force shaping the planet. 



To think with the Anthropocene means reassessing the conceptual division between nature and culture, human and non-human. In this framework, it’s not so easy to distinguish humanistic from scientific inquiry. These disciplinary lines seem increasingly problematic, if not outdated. What we need now is a capacious ecology, one that brings together once distant methods and readings to answer questions about our world, and our place in it, that have never been more urgent. 

-Steve Dolph, Doctoral Candidate, Department of Spanish and Portuguese


Engaging with the Anthropocene has changed and strengthened the way histories of environment, of industry, of technology, of work are done in two major ways. First, it has brought more care and attention to the ways people relate – and are forcibly related – to their environments. Living with waste, walking among pollutants, working in hazardous and un-human-shapeable environments – these have joined older stories of forests and parklands. Second, I think it has brought attention to nonhuman lives – not just thinking of animals as entities for which humans make meaning, but thinking about the way they shape and are shaped by the same processes of industrial capitalism as people. Lastly, preexisting concerns among historians have helped shape how we think about the Anthropocene, showing the ways that it does not affect all equally, but instead follows the paths and is built atop the structures of racism and capitalism.

-Jeff Nagle, Doctoral Candidate, History and Sociology of Science


The Anthropocene concept forces me to acknowledge the dilemma between the ability of humanity to alter the world on a global scale, and the fact that the world exists without us. The knowledge that we can't completely destroy earth ourselves and we can't definitively solve all human-initiated environmental crises brings humility and tension to every creative act. 

-Kasey Toomey, Masters Candidate, Fine Arts and Landscape Architecture


My work has been indelibly shaped by the idea of living in the Anthropocene, from my topics of concern (ecological agricultures and vernacular notions of environment) to my methods and my sense of product and audience, inspired by public and applied folklore work. Anthropocene awareness renders some things more urgent than others. But decisions around what is urgent, what sorts of lifeway changes are required, who needs to make them (under what pressures!), and when and how are critical cultural questions --with no easy answer. Business-as-usual academia is put under a vital pressure by this awareness. For our work to be justified, we must put our efforts toward addressing ecological change as it matters to the public, through more dynamic community partnerships and collaborative public projects. New models for this may need to be invented. But there's a rich tradition of this work in cultural conservation, activism, public history and historic preservation, and beyond. This Anthropocene era thus presents exciting potential for restructuring the academic humanities. It's critical to use that as a spur towards relevant in-the-world efforts -- not as a sexy new vocabulary to justify the same-old. 

-jess lamar reece holler, Doctoral Candidate, English


The idea that humans are a geological force along with the rupture of the nature-culture divide have produced important lines of inquiry for my own work. However, I am hyper-aware that the Anthropocene is not only geologically specific, but also historically contingent upon the story of Western capitalism. Nevertheless, I can't help but wonder if the Anthropocene is only a matter of scientific proof (ice cores, stratigraphic analysis), the rise of the steam engine, and the broader politico-economic circumstances of our common era? For an ancient art historian and archaeologist like myself, thinking and writing in the Anthropocene requires the careful translation of the questions and problems that our present geological era elicits, for contexts that happened "before the common era." 

-Patricia Kim, Doctoral Candidate, History of Art


In “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin,” Donna Haraway writes that “the earth is full of refugees, human and not, without refuge.” As a scholar of Latin American culture, I find this statement resonant because it places the refugee at the epicenter of capitalism’s irreversible social and ecological destruction. The lack of refuge from inequity signals the continuity between destruction of place (enacted by anthropogenic processes) and other historically situated violences. This overlap is made patently clear, for instance, by the NGO Global Witness’s report that of the 116 environmental defenders murdered in 2014, 40% were indigenous. In Honduras, the nation with the largest homicide rate per capita of environmental activists, indigenous claims to land and water access have come under ruthless attack by state and corporate interests such as palm oil and hydropower. Indigenous communities, often located in resource-rich remote areas, have become the primary line of defense against illegal incursions by loggers and other corporate entities. The refugee crisis highlights the absence of safety or shelter—of refuge—from the violence of capital and its environmental consequences that define the Anthropocene. 

-Carolyn Fornoff, Doctoral Candidate, Department of Spanish and Portuguese