An Anthropocene Primer Syllabus in the Literature Classroom

An Anthropocene Primer Syllabus in the Literature Classroom
David Rodriguez
david.m.rodriguez@stonybrook.edu

I am particularly fond of “an” in the title An Anthropocene Primer as a signal that it is a medium that suggests use rather than determines use. The precise definition of the term “Anthropocene” is debated, so the variety of routes and approaches–rather than an implicit argument about golden spikes or timelines–is an effective way to communicate, to students in particular, that the participation in discourse relating to the Anthropocene is part of the present constitution of its meaning. I think my students were also interested in this open approach, which they curiously identified and formulated that An Anthropocene Primer “lacks bias.” This impression, I suppose, likening the site to the experience of an encyclopedia even though it looks much different, toned their encounter with it.

I have just wrapped a climate change themed, introductory-level “Literature, Science, and Technology” course in the English Department at Stony Brook University. I used the syllabus from An Anthropocene Primer to organize the independent work that my students did to prepare for group presentations, which ran parallel to our reading and discussion schedule. As the semester progressed, the work they did in groups with the Anthropocene Primer syllabus outside of class inevitably made its way into daily class discussions.

I intended the course to be an opportunity to encounter the environment and climate change in their imaginary form, which I see as primary, as opposed to foregrounding mimetic or representational interpretations of environment in literature and film. I introduced the class by emphasizing fictionality and the imaginary as the main resources for negotiating the boundaries of aesthetic and extra-aesthetic engagements with the environment. This afforded us the opportunity to talk about literary texts as a unique form of research into the Anthropocene as the dominant concept organizing contemporary scientific and popular thinking about the environment. Michel Butor’s 1968 essay “The Novel as Research” provides the guiding principles:

“Even though veracious narrative always has the support, the last resort, of external evidence, the novel must suffice to create what it tells us. That is why it is the phenomenological realm par excellence, the best possible place to study how reality appears to us, or might appear […].”[1]

We studied one novel, Ben Lerner’s astounding 10:04, and other texts with various degrees of fictionality, such as Climate Changed by Philippe Squarzoni, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, and Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee. These narratives engage with the question of how reality might appear to their subjects and narrators; my students’ work was to tease out why the environment appears to become foregrounded in these texts and the implications of the strategies used to arrange this “internal evidence.”

The class was structured by three sets of student presentations that sequentially engaged with the “beginner,” “intermediate,” and “advanced” questions on the Anthropocene Primer syllabus. They were organized into five groups of three or four students to match each of the five modules. For each presentation, they chose one of the questions to use as a framework to interpret examples from the texts we had been studying up to that point in the semester. A benefit of the Anthropocene Primer syllabus is that it prescribes no answers. The questions in each “difficulty” section of the syllabus have varying degrees of specificity, but each invites more questions rather than straightforward answers. This fits into a useful paradigm for humanists engaging with Anthropocene issues, as Janet Fiskio puts it: “not-solving the problem of climate change.”[2] The part of the research process in which humanists join study of the Anthropocene is this negative position, critically thinking with the ways in which the environment possibly appears in our literary imagination and using the negation of the present to open up new ideas about the future.

My students had the choice of engaging with the resources on the syllabus to enrich each question, but many found the organizing principles of questions such as “In which ways do issues of responsibility and stewardship in the Anthropocene vary according to scale?” (an “Advanced” question from the “Scale” module) enough to find connections with the discussion of the literary texts from our course. During their presentation, this particular group broke the class up into smaller sections to brainstorm how the particular subjects of the texts we had studied are partially determined by scale: Does the national scale of Carson’s critique of specifically U.S. American values influence her images? Or, how does the ideology of globalism constrain how Jennifer Baichwal treats Edward Burtynsky’s photographs in her film Manufactured Landscapes?

Another group used the question, “How does the meaning of the Anthropocene change if we define it as either a: hyperobject, process, concept, framework, or something else entirely?” from the “What is the Anthropocene?” module to analyze how these conceptual forms are also identifiable across narrative forms: Anthropocene as process is exemplified in James Balog’s glacier time-lapses in the film Chasing Ice; as a framework, the Anthropocene is diligently outlined in Squarzoni’s graphic memoir Climate Changed.

The questions and resources on the Anthropocene Primer may be basic for the educator, or have mixed origins and histories, but presented in this format they delivered apparently revelatory information accessibly to my students. I had just one student who was an Environmental Humanities major in the Sustainability Studies program at Stony Brook, but none of my other students had encountered “Anthropocene” as a term, in any context. Though the work with the Anthropocene Primer syllabus was independent, and spaced out through the fifteen-week course, the site had the cumulative effect of broadening the kinds of discussions my students were willing and able to initiate.

My maybe too-strictly aesthetic context for studying literature and environment alluded to above was met by my students’ willingness to engage openly and playfully with political, social, and economic issues raised by the syllabus. An Anthropocene Primer afforded pathways for my students to transit between the literary texts and their daily lives. The concerted effort to present to the class, for example, how a specific aspect of “polycentric governance” (from the “Policy” module) is related to the political issues raised by Encounters with the Archdruid stretched them (and me) to consider new ways in which the text proposes that the encounter with the environment is always mediated through the various politicized narratives embodied by figures on all sides of the conservation / preservation / responsible-use debates.

I am interested in how open resources like this will continue to influence pedagogy for the variety of disciplines now invested in engaging with the Anthropocene in a dynamic classroom. Another pattern that my students noticed from the texts in our course was the prevalence and value of of autodidacticism for Thoreau as he builds both his house and his home in Walden, for example, or in the representations of research in the reflexive memoir form for Squarzoni in Climate Changed. Both Thoreau and Squarzoni engage with their vastly differently scaled environments by following paths through literary as well as scientific texts. An Anthropocene Primer models this same practice; it shows students and teachers alike a variety of paths for answering difficult, new questions and feeds back into a reflection on past and present methods for learning about our environments.

 

David Rodriguez is an English PhD candidate at Stony Brook University. His dissertation, “Spaces of Indeterminacy” studies aerial descriptions in American novels as a keystone to the environmental imagination in the 20thcentury. He has forthcoming articles on econarratology in English Studiesand geographical narratology in Frontiers of Narrative Studies. He is currently editing a book with Marco Caracciolo and Marlene Marcussen, Narrating Nonhuman Spaces: Form, Story, and Experience Beyond Anthropocentrism, which is currently under review.

 

[1]Butor, Michel. “The Novel as Research.” Inventory: Essays by Michel Butor. Ed. Richard Howard. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968. 26-29.

[2]Fiskio, Janet. “Building Paradise in the Classroom.” Teaching Climate Change in the Humanities. Eds. Stephen Siperstein, Shane Hall, & Stephanie LeMenager. New York: Routledge, 2017. 101-109.

COP23: The 10 Science ‘Must Knows’ on Climate Change

Read a new statement from Future Earth and the Earth League called “The 10 Science ‘Must Knows’ on Climate Change” delivered at the Bonn Climate Change Conference on 13 November.

Prepared by the Earth League and Future Earth for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP23), 2017.

The Paris Agreement aims to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels” and pursue efforts “to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels”. In 2016, global average surface temperature reached about 1.1 °C above pre-industrial levels, making it the warmest year on record1. Globally averaged concentrations for carbon dioxide (CO2) reached 403.3 parts per million in 2016, up from 400.0 ppm in 2015. This is a record annual increase2. The science is clear that meeting the Paris Agreement will require rapidly ridding society of fossil fuels. In addition, the world will have to safeguard and enhance existing carbon sinks, and major efforts will be needed to build societal resilience in the face of unavoidable climate change . . . .

(continue reading here)

“Environmental Humanities and Climate Change” by Libby Robin

Libby Robin has recently published “Environmental Humanities and Climate Change: Understanding Humans Geologically and Other Life Forms Ethically” with WIREs Climate Change. Here’s the abstract:

The task of reconceptualizing planetary change for the human imagination calls on a wide range of disciplinary wisdom. Environmental studies were guided by the natural sciences in the 1960s, and in the 1970s broadened to include policy and the social sciences. By the 1990s, with global environmental changes well-documented, various humanist initiatives emerged, expanding the idea of ethics, responsibility and justice within the transdisciplinary mode of environmental studies. Shared problems, places, and scales form the basis for collaborative work in the environmental humanities, sometimes in partnerships with natural sciences and the creative arts. Experiential learning and trust in judgments based on different methods typically guide humanities interventions. Shifting the frameworks of environmental research to be more consciously inclusive and diverse is enabling concepts of the physical world that better include humans and taking ethics beyond humans to consider more-than-human Others. This review considers historically how the environment and the humanities became conceptualized together. It then explores three emerging fields in transdisciplinary environmental scholarship where environmental humanities are playing major leadership roles: (1) climate and biodiversity justice, both for humans and for other forms of life; (2) the Anthropocene as a metaphor for living with planetary changes and (3) life after ‘the end of nature,’ including rewilding and restoration. While environmental humanities also work in many other fields, these cases exemplify the crucial tasks of situating the human in geological and ecological terms and other life forms (the ‘more-than-human’) in ethical terms.

The article is open access and available here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/wcc.499/full

The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health Report

The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health has recently released a report examining the relationship between environmental pollution and public health.   Their Executive Summary is below. To read the full report, visit the commission’s website at http://www.thelancet.com/commissions/pollution-and-health.

Executive Summary

For decades, pollution and its harmful effects on people’s health, the environment, and the planet have been neglected both by Governments and the international development agenda. Yet, pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and death in the world today, responsible for an estimated 9 million premature deaths.

The Lancet Commission on pollution and health addresses the full health and economic costs of air, water, and soil pollution. Through analyses of existing and emerging data, the Commission reveals pollution’s severe and underreported contribution to the Global Burden of Disease. It uncovers the economic costs of pollution to low-income and middle-income countries. The Commission will inform key decision makers around the world about the burden that pollution places on health and economic development, and about available cost-effective pollution control solutions and strategies.

The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health 

Philip J Landrigan, Richard Fuller, Nereus J R Acosta, Olusoji Adeyi, Robert Arnold, Niladri (Nil) Basu, Abdoulaye Bibi Baldé, Roberto Bertollini, Stephan Bose-O’Reilly, Jo Ivey Boufford, Patrick N Breysse, Thomas Chiles, Chulabhorn Mahidol, Awa M Coll-Seck, Maureen L Cropper, Julius Fobil, Valentin Fuster, Michael Greenstone, Andy Haines, David Hanrahan, David Hunter, Mukesh Khare, Alan Krupnick, Bruce Lanphear, Bindu Lohani, Keith Martin, Karen V Mathiasen, Maureen A McTeer, Christopher J L Murray, Johanita D Ndahimananjara, Frederica Perera, Janez Potočnik, Alexander S Preker, Jairam Ramesh, Johan Rockström, Carlos Salinas, Leona D Samson, Karti Sandilya, Peter D Sly, Kirk R Smith, Achim Steiner, Richard B Stewart, William A Suk, Onno C P van Schayck, Gautam N Yadama, Kandeh Yumkella, Ma Zhong

Are We all Living in the Anthropocene? by Matthew Henry for the OUP Blog

A new blog post by Matthew Henry (PhD candidate in English and Environmental Humanities at Arizona State University) for the Oxford University Press blog is worth checking out. Asking the question, “Are We all Living in the Anthropocene?,” he challenges readers to remember that

the Anthropocene operates under the assumption that the human species as a whole is responsible for potentially irreversible environmental catastrophe without acknowledging that some (read: industrialized Western societies) are far more responsible than others (developing nations, indigenous peoples) for rising carbon emissions, ocean acidification, industrial pollution, and the like.

Read the entire post here.

Physical Geography in the Anthropocene (Editorial by Erle Ellis in Progress in Physical Geography)

In a recent editorial in Progress in Physical Geography, Erle Ellis asks the question

Should physical geographers be doing more to embrace the Anthropocene? As the term has come to embody the global-scale coupling of human and environmental change, it seems awkward that a discipline with such deep paradigmatic connections with this is not clearly associated with it. Why is geography not waving its flag at the head of the Anthropocene movement?

Ellis outlines some of the critiques of the Anthropocene concept–including the criticism that it is an “academic fad”–and asks what role, if any, geographers should play in engaging with the topic. His answer is that it is essential for geographers to be at the forefront of Anthropocene research and debate:

Geographers, with such a deep historic and processual understanding of the complex realities of human–environmental change, are ideally placed to lead in shaping the future of Anthropocene scholarship. Given that the Anthropocene is attracting interest to some of the most important core areas of geographic expertise, areas where geography can make major impacts across the academy and beyond, the Anthropocene is just too important to leave to others.

Readers can link to the full open access essay at http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0309133317736424

Ellis, Erle C. “Physical Geography in the Anthropocene.” Progress in Physical Geography 41, no. 5 (2017): 525–32. https://doi.org/10.1177/0309133317736424.

Framing the Anthropocene

In 1976, the scholar Raymond Williams published Keywords. The subtitle describes the book as “a vocabulary of culture and society.”[1] Flipping through its pages, the volume reads like a dictionary. There are entries for dozens of words: “art,” “tradition,” “industry,” “violence,” etc. Below each word, he provides a bit of history about the words’ origins. But, this isn’t a typical dictionary. Williams wasn’t interested in providing definitions. Instead, he was interested in exploring ambiguities in meaning. He wanted to understand how different groups of people could use the same word to mean fundamentally different things and how those differences developed over time.

Take the word “nature” for example. We all have a sense of what we mean when we say “nature,” as well as “natural” and “naturalistic.” When we try to define it for other people, however, the word becomes difficult to explain. This is because “nature” is a concept that has developed and changed over decades and centuries. It has different meanings depending on our political perspectives, religious beliefs, and cultural backgrounds. What is “natural,” and what is “unnatural?” We tend to give the word a moral sense: for example, “nature is good.” That’s why marketers tell us that our food is “all natural.” But, sometimes we talk of “nature’s wrath,” for example, when forest fires or floods affect us. What do we mean when we say “human nature?” Are humans guided by reason or emotion, or some combination of two? Is “human nature” good or is it evil? Are humans part of the “natural world” or are we something apart from it – special somehow?

These are the types of questions that Williams asked in Keywords. He wasn’t interested in clarifying word meanings. Rather, he was interested in pointing out that the words we use have unstable definitions, and that some of them are particularly loaded with meaning. The “Anthropocene” is one of these words. For some, it is a scientific term, designating a measurable geological epoch. For others, it is a throwaway jargon word, bereft of any significance. For still others, it represents an ethical stance, one which recognizes the impact that humans have had on the planet and one that holds them morally accountable for it.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there are many other words that are often associated with the term “Anthropocene”: “environment,” “justice,” “anthropogenic,” etc. These are themselves words whose meanings might be ambiguous or which mean different things to different people. We might think of these as “fuzzy words.” With “fuzzy words,” we have a sense of what they mean, but this meaning is often contextual—to culture, place, and time. The meanings might depend on who is using the term and the assumptions that they bring to it. Their interpretation might be contingent on their upbringing or cultural knowledge.

Raymond Williams would not have encouraged us to abandon our “fuzzy words” or try to give them precise definitions. He recognized that this was impossible. Rather, Williams wrote Keywords to remind us of the ways in which our words might have unintended meanings – to encourage us to inquire about what we mean when we say something. Williams noted for us the importance of understanding what other people mean when they use a ”fuzzy word.” And, he prompted us to probe our hidden assumptions and ask ourselves why we use words in particular ways.

Researchers who work in collaborative, interdisciplinary contexts – including those who work on projects related to the Anthropocene – have long recognized that “fuzzy words” can undermine their research agendas. When a word such as “resilience” goes unquestioned, researchers can end up talking past each other. One person’s idea about what is “resilient” might be fundamentally at odds with another’s notions. In the policy sector, this type of confusion can weaken effective environmental management. To address this, researchers have increasingly focused on framing “fuzzy words” (often called “boundary concepts”) within their disciplinary contexts at the outset of new projects. That way, each researcher is more aware of the ways they understand and use concepts differently. This practice helps avoid confusion and helps generate better collaborations, not just for researchers but for those who work in philantrophy, museum curation, policy making, business, and more. How then can “fuzzy words” be unpacked and meaning clearly articulated? One approach that we suggest is through concept mapping.

Exercise: Framing the Anthropocene through Concept Mapping

Participants

This activity can be done alone, or it can be organized for groups as large as 70 people.

Materials Needed
  • Scissors
  • Paper
  • Tape (optional)
  • Printer (optional)
Objectives and Outcomes
  1. demonstrate the many assumptions that we each bring to our understanding of the Anthropocene.
  2. illustrate the importance of framing concepts before embarking on interdisciplinary and collaborative work.
Summary

For this two-part exercise, we have created a list of “fuzzy words” related to the Anthropocene.

In the first part of the exercise, we encourage you to examine these words and consider the multiple meanings that they might have. How might they be understood differently in different contexts? What is your take on the concept? How have their meanings changed over time? Given different cultural or political contexts, how might their meanings differ? How do certain definitions reflect underlying assumptions, attitudes, beliefs, and biases? In the second part of this exercise, we encourage you to relate these words to each other by creating a concept map. How does each concept inform the other? How do they build on each other? How do they add to or undermine nuanced definitions? Can you create concept clusters with the word list?

Activity (Part 1): Definitions
 Step 1

(before meeting)

Remove the list of words from the primer and separate them by cutting along the dotted lines. If you are using a digital copy of An Anthropocene Primer, you can download a .pdf of the wordlist here.

Step 2

(2 minutes)

Distribute the words evenly to all participants.

Step 3

(15 minutes)

Break participants into groups of 2-6 and ask each person to present one of their words to their group. Have group members try to identify as many meanings as possible for each of the words.

Activity (Part 2): Concept Mapping
Step 1

(5 minutes)

Explain what a concept map is to participants. Simply put, a concept map is a visual method for representing ideas and relationships between ideas. In this exercise, we are interested in creating clusters of “fuzzy words” that relate to each other. Participants will work with each other to decide which concepts should be grouped together and why.

Step 2

(30 minutes)

Have participants lay out their concept map and designate core concepts around which other words can cluster. Our example provides one model for how to do this. There are many other possible variations. We have identified key concepts through color and surrounded them with “fuzzy words” that relate to the key concept. If a “fuzzy word” is related to more than one concept, we have placed it between concepts. Likewise, if “fuzzy words” related to each other, we grouped them together.

Step 3

(15 minutes)

Have participants explain why they chose to lay out their concept map the way they did. Us this as a chance to unpack cultural specificity and illuminate the complexity of language in the work we do.

Step 4

(10 minutes)

Have participants suggest other models for laying out their concept map. Ask participants how different configurations transform the way that we understand “fuzzy words”? How do they help us understand the Anthropocene? How might their concept map change by adjusting some of their assumptions and/or key framing concepts?

Step 5

(10 minutes)

Ask participants what new words they would you add to the concept map. How do these words help us better understand the Anthropocene?

 

[1] Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, revised ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).