In Anthropocene Seminar, Humanists Tackle Environmental Issues

A gas flare, used as the cover of the Anthropocene seminar promotional material
Approaching the Anthropocene: Global Culture and Planetary Change is a two-year event series that seeks to examine the ways humans interact with the environment from a humanities perspective. (Image courtesy Nathan Hensley)

February 6, 2018 — Scholars in the natural and social sciences have long advocated for rigorous study of the way humans and the environment interact. A group of professors at Georgetown is bringing a humanities perspective to the table.

Approaching the Anthropocene: Global Culture and Planetary Change is a series of lectures, art installations, and group discussions that critically examine the ways humans interact with and change their environments. It is funded through the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation as part of the Sawyer Seminars, which support comparative research on history and contemporary culture.

NATURE AND CULTURE

Professors Dana Luciano and Nathan Hensley of the Department of English began meeting to discuss the subject of environmental humanities in 2015. A relatively new field, environmental humanities seeks to use humanistic methods to think about the interaction between people and the environment.

“In the old days, there were questions of literature in nature — things like ‘What did Thoreau say about nature?’ — and those were interesting questions. But in environmental humanities, we believe this category we call ‘nature’ is up for contestation,” Hensley said. “This era is breaking down the distinctions between what is ‘nature’ and what is ‘culture,’ when we have human activity legible all around us.”

Hensley and Luciano sought to bring together similarly inclined scholars from across academic departments and even outside Georgetown.

“Until now, there was no forum at Georgetown for humanists to exchange ideas about how our disciplines can contribute to solving the current environmental crisis,” Luciano said. “Much of the problem is cultural — how did we develop the attitudes about resource extraction and habits of energy use that cause climate change and environmental degradation, and how do we motivate people to change those attitudes and practices?”   

DIVERSE BODIES OF KNOWLEDGE

Along with University Professor John McNeill, who has appointments in the Department of History and the School of Foreign Service, Hensley and Luciano developed a proposal for a Mellon Sawyer Seminar grant to fund humanities-focused research and programming on the “Anthropocene,” which refers to the proposed geologic epoch during which humans have come to shape the Earth’s environment.

In 2016, the Mellon Foundation named the Anthropocene project one of its two-year grant winners. In addition to events and materials, the grant funds a postdoctoral fellow in environmental humanities, Mabel Denzin Gergan, and two graduate fellows, Meredith Denning in history and Megan Dean in philosophy, each of whom was given an opportunity to lecture on her area of expertise.

“It was amazing to bring their different bodies of knowledge and sets of concerns and questions into the conversation,” Luciano said.

Events sponsored by Approaching the Anthropocene began in the 2016-17 academic year with one all-day symposium and one graduate student conference, but it was in the Fall 2017 semester that programming truly kicked into gear. Events included a workshop for writing on climate change, a poetry symposium, and an interdisciplinary discussion on water.

“People tend to think of action on climate change at the international level, with things like the Paris agreement. … We’re trying to think about actions at a personal level, and even in unofficial and sometimes surprising forms like arts and performances,” Hensley said. “One of our events started from a basic question that a student asked: How do you write about the climate?”

COLONIALISM AND CLIMATE

This semester’s events examine the issues raised by climate change and environmental degradation through a postcolonial perspective.

“We’re looking at the moral and political dimension of what climate change means,” Hensley said. “There’s a huge focus this semester on the relationship between imperialism and colonial activities — the political infrastructures — and climate justice. We’re looking at the human dimension of this massive inter-species problem we’re facing.”

“Indigenous Peoples and Climate Justice: Resisting Ecological Colonialism, Decolonizing the Anthropocene,” a lecture by Michigan State University Professor Kyle Powys Whyte, kicked off Approaching the Anthropocene’s spring semester events on Wednesday, January 31.

“Whyte connected climate issues to the question of justice, centering Native American history and knowledge," Luciano said. "Indigenous scholarship on climate change builds on longstanding traditions of attending to seasonal variance, as well as the way Native Americans have been subjected to rapid climate and environmental change because of colonial displacement."

CONTINUING DIALOGUE

Approaching the Anthropocene serves as what Hensley calls a “pop-up humanities center” on the Hilltop, enabling faculty and students from all disciplines to come together and discuss important issues. While the Mellon Foundation funding ends after this year, the Seminar’s directors aim to continue interdisciplinary dialogue in the humanities.

“We hope this will leave Georgetown changed in a particular way,” Luciano said. “This has been a place for humanists to come together and have these conversations for the last couple of years, and I’m really hoping they continue.”

"How Should We Eat?," the second event in this semester's Approaching the Anthropocene programming, is an all-day symposium on food in the anthropocene that will be held this Friday, February 9, in New North 204. For more information, including speaker bios, visit the symposium website.

— Patrick Curran