UW-Madison Center for the Humanities

Center for the Humanities

Past Faculty Development Seminars
Fall 2013: Anthropocene

Fall 2013: Environmental Studies in the Time of the Anthropocene

Led by Rob Nixon (Rachel Carson and Elizabeth Ritzmann Professor of English and affiliate of the Center for Culture, History and Environment.)

Seminar Description

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.

Ten sessions with approximately fifty pages of reading per session.

Schedule of Readings

  1. What are the Environmental Humanities?
    Readings: Sverker Sorlin, Environmental Humanities: Why Should Biologists Interested in the Environment Take the Humanities Seriously?; Deborah Bird Rose, Thinking Through the Environment, Unsettling the Humanities.
  2. The Environmental Humanities and Environmental History
    Readings: William Cronon and Gregg Mitman, essays on storytelling and historical methodology.
  3. The Environmental Humanities and the Social Sciences, North and South
    Reading: Ramachandra Guha, How Much Should a Person Consume? (excerpts).
  4. The Anthropocene as Concept and History
    Readings: Will Steffen et al, The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Forces of Nature?; Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams, The New World of the Anthropocene.
  5. Rethinking Environmental Time in the Anthropocene
    Readings: Rob Nixon, Introduction to Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor.
  6. The Forms of Feeling: Environmental Elegy and Apocalypse
    Readings: Essays by Lawrence Buell and Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands.
  7. Imagining Resilience and Agency
    Readings: Essays by Susie O’Brien and Jane Bennett.
  8. Climate History and Planetary Storytelling
    Readings: Dipesh Chakrabarty, Postcolonial Studies and the Challenge of Climate Change and The Climate of History: Four Theses.
  9. The Public Anthropocene and Environmental Storytelling
    Reading: Either Elizabeth Kolbert, Extinctions (2013) or Naomi Klein, Climate Change and Planetary Futures (2013) (excerpts).
  10. The Public Anthropocene on Display
    Readings: We will engage with material from exhibits—and debates over how to exhibit—at the Smithsonian, the American Museum of Natural History, Deutsches Museum and the Venice Biennale. Essay by Subhankar Banerjee.


Some readings may be password protected; contact Rob Nixon for more information.