Being Human in the Anthropocene
English 265: (Introduction to Environmental Humanities)
“Being Human in the Anthropocene”
In the year 2000, atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen proposed that the world had entered a new geological age, the Anthropocene. Crutzen argued that human action, most notably due to anthropogenic climate change, had so altered Earth systems, that no feature of planetary processes could be considered outside the rubric of human impact. Later this year, an Anthropocene Working Group within the International Commission on Quaternary Stratigraphy, (the body responsible for establishing the official geological time scale) will issue a recommendation on whether the Anthropocene should be adopted as an official epoch and, if so, when it began. In this course, we will explore both the implications of the Anthropocene idea for the study of the humanities, and why the humanities are essential to any understanding of (and response to) the Anthropocene. Indeed, because it removes the division between “nature” and “society” the Anthropocene concept arguable does away with the possibility for a firm divide between the humanities and the sciences. So what are the “humanities” anyway?
The humanities study humans, asking basic questions about what “being human” means, especially in light of the many differences between humans, whether as individuals or groups. Indeed, the humanities in their broadest terms might be defined as the study of social difference, whether arising from class, race, nation, religion, or language. How does the Anthropocene change that most basic unit of humanistic study, the human? How can questions of the human as species intersect with the human as construed in and through social difference? How does the academic study of the humanities help shed light on pressing issues of social justice raised and exacerbated by the Anthropocene? We tend to think of climate change, for example, as a scientific problem consisting of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse effect, ocean acidification and mass extinction. But what about the millions of refugees already being driven from their homes by rising sea levels and intractable drought? While the Anthropocene affects everyone, everywhere on Earth, it affects us all differently. And in so doing, it demands new stories, new histories, and new modes of analysis. In the Anthropocene, social problems are always ecological and ecological problems are always social. This course will draw on literature, film, history, photography and other media in order to probe these questions.
This is an interdisciplinary course. While the readings will be extensive, no prior English experience is required or expected. Students from all majors are encouraged to enroll.
Possible texts include (excerpts or in full): Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate; Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor; Emile Zola, Germinal; Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness; Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost; Ed Kashi & Michael Watts, The Curse of the Black Gold; Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sower; Indra Sinha, Animal’s People. Films may include: Edward Burtynsky, Manufactured Landscapes; Lucy Walker, Waste Land; Spec Ops: the Line (video game, play or watch on Youtube); Andrew Stanton, Wall-E.