“Histories of the Future & the Anthropocene” (with Libby Robin)

Let’s get this out of the way right at the outset: there are very few people whose work I admire, appreciate, and enjoy more than Libby Robin’s. Her writing, talks, and insights into environmental history, the history of science, and the intersections between the two are always worth heeding. More: her work on the future and the Anthropocene are incisive and provide valuable direction for engaging with these difficult and under-considered topics. I was thrilled when she was willing to sit down for an interview, even if catching up with her globe-trotting posed some tricky time zone challenges. Our catastrophic conversation ranged across themes of the Anthropocene (there’s a terrific oral history here) and into ideas about how to tackle the history of the future.

[EDIT]: Note that this interview was conducted in October 2016. The world has changed since then. More markedly than any of us might have imagined. Too: my audio introduction to Libby Robin includes information that was current then, but not now. By way of updated introduction, Robin is an historian based at the Fenner School for the Environment and Society at the Australian National University. I first met her through her work on Expertise for the Future, an international and interdisciplinary venture that married history, technology, environment, and society to use the past to reflect upon our environmental futures. That project curated a terrific collection of primary source documents tracing The Future of Nature: Documents of Global Change (Yale University Press, 2013). The Environment: A History, co-authored with Paul Warde and Sverker Sörlinis in preparation with Johns Hopkins University Press.

Next week: 10 October: “Günther Anders & the Catastrophic Imagination” (with Jason Dawsey)


5 September: “Dysfunctional Relationships: Love Songs for Pesticides” (with Michelle Mart)

12 September: “Catastrophic Environmentalism: Histories of the Cold War” (with Jacob Hamblin)

19 September: “Disaster Narratives: Predictions, Preparedness, & Lessons” (with Scott Knowles)

26 September: “Catastrophe in the Age of Revolutions” (with Cindy Ermus)

The Water Knife: Contemplating Aridity in the American Southwest

Look: the American southwest is already parched. Much of the early, excellent environmental history I encountered in graduate school straddled subdisciplines of environmental history and the history of the American West. Though I resisted the premise that the West was flat, arid, and treeless—courtesy of Walter Prescott Webb—I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, which was geographically west, but none of these things. So I didn’t really relate. Nevertheless, upon reading Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire, and Charles E. Wilkinson’s Crossing the Next Meridian, it became abundantly clear to me that my wet West was very much the exception, and that water or its absence was a defining feature of the western landscape and its history.

Below is a brief reflection on another book—a recent read—Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife, set in the not-so-very distant future, where water scarcity has become even more severe. Earlier this week, I attended a sci-fi book club at the Ark + Anchor café to discuss The Water Knife. The great pleasure of participating was that my older two children read the book as well and participated, too.

Catastrophic History: Learning to Die

Another thinky-piece. No interventions needed, I promise. But here’s another look at catastrophe as an all-consuming feature of the modern condition. If one purpose of philosophical helps us to examine how to die, then Roy Scranton—in his recent book, Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene—argues that this new environmental condition means we need to start thinking about how to die not as individuals but as a civilization. Then I think about Herman Hesse. I don’t get out much, but I’m sure I’d be great at parties.

Incidentally, in addition to his short book above, also check out Scranton’s War Porn, which is also fabulous in a brutally stark kind of way. Maybe not for the faint of heart, but very, very compelling.

May 28: Barry Commoner Day

Barry Commoner would have been 98 today.

Reflecting on his writings in the context of some more recent work, I was reminded of his talk, “What Is Yet To Be Done,” delivered in 1997 at an event in New York to celebrate his 80th birthday. In those remarks, Commoner argued:

The environmental crisis arises from a fundamental fault. Our systems of production—in industry, agriculture, energy, and transportation—essential as they are, make people sick and die. As the Surgeon General would say, these processes are hazardous to your health. But that is only the immediate problem. Down the line, these same production processes threaten a series of global human catastrophes: higher temperatures; the seas rising to flood many of the world’s cities; more frequent severe weather; and dangerous exposure to ultraviolet radiation. The nonhuman sectors of the living ecosystem are also affected by the crisis: ancient forest reserves are disappearing; wetlands and estuaries are impaired; numerous species are threatened with extinction.

Eighteen years later, we continue to share the same concerns. Further, the vocabulary has evolved. We can talk about an Anthropocene: a new geological epoch driven by human actions. As severe as the environmental crisis confronting us remains, the good news is that this new vocabulary acknowledges that we now live in an age of change and that we must prepare for the inevitable challenges facing us. Breeding resilience in our cities in our food production and in our energy and transportation networks has become a necessity and there are encouraging signs in many sectors.

But spare a thought for the Anthropocene’s social implications. The title of Commoner’s 1997 talk was an explicit reference to Lenin’s famous essay, and the environmental crisis for Commoner was unmistakably a human event: it was caused by human actions, but the ultimate measure of its impact was the threat to human health and well-being. As a concept, the Anthropocene is less good here. We are not all exposed to environmental catastrophe equally. Nor are we all susceptible to environmental vulnerabilities in the same ways.

At a 2014 Earth Day function at the University of Wisconsin’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, the author China Miéville spoke about “The Limits of Utopia,” and noted the devil’s bargain in “Anthropocene”:

The very term “Anthropocene,” which gives with one hand, insisting on human drivers of ecological shift, misleads with its implied “We.”

“We” are not Tuvalu. “We” are not forced into migration by advancing deserts or retreating waters. Many (likely all) readers of this post are among the privileged, relative few who can lament the almost theoretical/hypothetical hazards confronting us and debate their contexts, outcomes, and solutions. The story is always more complicated, but in Commoner I always found an explicit effort to not lose sight of the signal within the noise. The environmental crisis was a global phenomenon and environmentalism was devoted to human welfare. Thus, he concluded his 1997 talk with a missive to tackle the kind of social change that is so often overlooked when we talk about climate change or other “big” environmental problems. Their source is rarely in the air, soil, or water, but in human actions (and, tragically, human inactions). Even in the context of this new vocabulary, I doubt Commoner’s message would have changed:

We, who are environmental advocates, must find a way—for the sake of the planet and the people who live on it—to join a historic mission to end poverty wherever it exists.