2019 Anthropocene Fellows Research Reports

Marble bust of CleisthenesLand and Territory – Charles Nathan

A piece of land can be understood on many different registers. It can be considered as property, as ecology, as valuable for what is below (mineral rights) or above (air rights), as a legal jurisdiction. My summer research was inspired by the question: “What is the difference between land and territory?” Put another way, how is it possible that a state can be unwilling to give up one inch of territory but can allow hundreds of square miles of land to be made unusable due to environmental degradation? The question is not why a state might make such a tradeoff. My approach to this question is genealogical: how it is possible that we can think land as territory — as political land totally devoid of any material, ecological, or productive content.

I focused my research on a crucial moment in the history of politics, the founding of Athenian democracy in 508/7 BC, led by the reforms of the ancient statesman Cleisthenes. I find at this moment a novel political decision to divorce the institutions of government from the physical land and to develop an ecologically vacuous notion of political land — territory — that stays with us today.

Athens was not the first democracy, but it was the first big democracy. It was more like a region state than a city-state. Its huge size presented a novel political problem: how can you have a popular government in a large territory? Even distant regions far away from the levers of political power needed to endorse the democratic government.

Cleisthenes’s reforms solved this problem by developing a new conception of political land — which I call territory — that was capable of accounting for political, geographic, and ecological diversity by abstracting the political conception of land from the land’s physical traits. The “imagined community” of Athens required an “imagined territory” in order to redirect political affiliation to the overall polis and break down aristocratic, place-based factions. This dematerialized notion of territory was useful precisely because it was ecologically vacuous. To be useful, the imagined territory could not be connected to the material reality of the physical land, like its productive capacities or its health. Rather it was an abstract and politicized notion of land, reinforced by myths, that, by virtue of its ecological vacuousness, was capacious enough to account for political, geographic, and environmental diversity.

Today this Cleisthenic notion of territory still live with us in modern age of the nation-state. Environmental crises transcend these national borders, and yet their solutions generally occur within them as the result of political efforts. In this sense, in the Anthropocene, the political land — territory — has come into conflict with the health of the physical land. If we understand the influence of Cleisthenes, we can better understand our current situation and begin to find political solutions.

An image of hurricane damage to New Jersey's barricade islands, including a damaged farris wheel

We’ve Reached A Climate Impasse. Can The Environmental Humanities Help Us Get Unstuck? – Casey Williams

Towards the end of Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04, as Hurricane Sandy whips through Manhattan, the narrator and his friend encamp in a hospital room on New York City’s Upper East Side. They study the television, consuming images of the hurricane as it floods subway tunnels only blocks away. “We watched… the coverage of the storm we kept failing to experience,” the narrator recalls. Insulated from the hurricane’s worst effects by cushions of class and race, the narrator experiences disaster through its televisual mediations — images he feels are somehow inadequate to the catastrophe unfolding around him. “We talked constantly about the urgency of the situation,” he says, “but were still unable to feel it.”

And yet of course, the narrator does feel it — he’s there, after all — just not as he expects to be. The issue is not that the narrator’s mediated experience of the hurricane fails to square with an unmediated experience of the storm, but rather that his experience fails to square with what he believes catastrophe ought to feel like. The narrator’s conflict reminds us that the material features of climate change — from hydrocarbon combustion to shifting weather patterns — receive meaning from the images, tropes, narratives, and other aesthetic forms we use to make them present to thought.

We might think of Lerner’s narrator — who is an avatar for the author — as a stand-in for a class of professional writers and scholars for whom climate change manifests initially as an aesthetic problem. In his desire to confront disaster directly, the narrator raises questions taken up by some scholars in the “environmental humanities,” who observe that existing cultural forms can block climate change from view, compelling a search for images and stories adequate to global warming’s devastations.

More and more, these scholars are asking questions of practice: What is to be done about climate change? And what role does, or should, humanistic inquiry play in projects of carbon mitigation, climate adaptation, and energy transition? I’m interested in how scholars answer these questions. But I’m first interested in how they frame them — especially when they describe climate change, as Lerner does, in terms of its supposed unrepresentability — the way its spatial and temporal scales exceed the aesthetic forms typically used to mediate the world.

Such concerns frequently appear in writing on the Anthropocene and its signal crisis: climate change. For instance, in The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene, Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin write that “The idea of the Anthropocene is so immense it can be debilitating. It is hard to comprehend a geological epoch.” Similarly, David Wallace-Wells writes in his best-seller The Uninhabitable Earth that “When it comes to contemplating real-world warming dangers, we suffer from an incredible failure of imagination.” “Imaginative failure” is also the central conceit of Amitav Ghosh’s widely acclaimed 2016 book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. For Ghosh, global warming’s unthinkability is its signal challenge: he writes that the question of ”why today’s culture finds it so hard to deal with climate change… is perhaps the most important question ever to confront culture in the broadest sense.”

To me, concerns about the unrepresentability of climate change testify to a more general sense of impasse, or a sense of stuckness, in the academic humanities. We can think of impasse as “the gap between knowledge and action, insight and involvement” — the space between knowing there is a problem and doing something about it. Framing climate change in terms of unrepresentability is one way of making sense of impasse. It narrates inaction as a consequence of invisibility. In response to questions like — Why have lawmakers failed to begin a program of total decarbonization in line with the recommendations of the IPCC’s 2018 report? — a diagnosis of unrepresentability suggests that perhaps we are not perceiving the problem clearly.

But who is the “we” here? It’s worth putting this idea of “impasse” in conversation with efforts to provincialize “the Anthropocene” concept. Scholars in Marxist, Black Radical, and Decolonial traditions have argued that the Anthropocene names a set of concerns that emanate from and pertain to a cultural imaginary specific to settler colonialism and modern capitalism — both of which are modes of accumulation that rely heavily on planet-warming fossil fuels.

For instance, Marxist scholars have criticized the Anthropocene concept for privileging the human species in a way that erases material differences across human subgroups, and for obscuring the central role that capitalism has played in carbonizing the atmosphere. Scholars of Black Radical and Indigenous Thought have challenged the ostensible novelty of the Anthropocene condition, as well as the apocalyptic projections that sometimes circulate in Anthropocene discourse. For instance, Kyle Whyte argues that climate change is “an intensification of environmental change imposed on Indigenous peoples by colonialism.” Nick Estes argues that the environmental harm imposed on racialized Others is precisely what makes possible modernity’s dubious promise of security and freedom for some, which climate change today threatens. Estes also challenges the notion that nothing is being done about climate change, situating anti-pipeline militancy, like the Standing Rock encampment, in a history of Indigenous struggle against colonial and capitalist extraction.

Summing up these positions, Kathryn Yusoff writes in her recent book A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None: “The Anthropocene might seem to offer a dystopic future that laments the end of the world, but imperialism and ongoing (settler) colonialisms have been ending worlds for as long as they have been in existence. The Anthropocene… is just now noticing the extinction it has chosen to continually overlook in the making of its modernity and freedom.” In other words, modernity is itself an apocalypse.

Such thinking does not deny that climate change is catastrophic. Rather, it aims to show that the Anthropocene offers a provincial way of reflecting on the present moment. Starting from this provincialized view allows us to see the Anthropocene concept not as a universal condition, but rather as a form of self-reflection — and specifically, a form of colonial and capitalist self-reflection that emerges in response to a perceived threat.

But what exactly is the threat registered by settler colonial and capitalist cultures? I think a complete answer may have to do with what some scholars have called “energy deepening” — which describes the way capital tends to overcome threats to profitability by deepening material and cultural investments in fossil fuels. Automation is one example of energy deepening. But we might also consider how the American (and now global) love affair with the automobile makes it relatively easy to displace the costs of getting to work onto workers themselves, as governments cut spending on public transit in accordance with neoliberalism’s overall project of privatization. Encouraging automobile use might have short-term benefits for employers and governments, but of course this makes it harder to transition away from oil in general over the long run. This is a problem for capital because, as climate change shows, deepening our overall investment in fossil fuels is starting to create crises that capital cannot resolve by simply using more oil.

The authors of the 2018 IPCC report write that mitigating the worst effects of climate change will require “rapid, far reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” First and foremost, that means changing how we produce, distribute, and use energy. And because fossil energy saturates everything, this means rethinking every aspect of modern life, including the material and intellectual foundations of academic scholarship. This, in turn, requires understanding that the ways we make sense of planetary warming are themselves shaped by the material, social, and cultural relations of fossil fuels. And it means asking whether modes of sense-making inherited from the era of fossil dominance can move us beyond impasse — or whether these too must go.

I think these questions actually point to the productive work impasse can do: the sense of being stuck forces us to reflect on the structural conditions constraining our movement — including the cultural forms that lock us into old habits of thought.

To get out of these habits, we might consider the kinds of questions may we be asking — in our research and in our classrooms — if we were to begin from the premise that transitioning away from fossil fuels means completely overhauling current ways of living and thinking.

  • How might we further provincialize ways of thinking that developed alongside intensifying fossil fuel use?
  • Can we imagine new, shared ways of seeing that can bind us as a community without erasing our material differences?
  • What might it look like for the environmental humanities, in particular, to engage more seriously with Black Radical, Marxist, and Decolonial traditions — all of which have developed theories and practices for getting beyond various impasses?
  • How might we use university resources to advance a just transition to a non-fossil energy regime?
  • What would it look like for academics to work more closely with social movements struggling for a just transition?
  • And could we think more about the power we have as workers to push for certain goals — like fossil fuel divestment at the university — using tools like the strike?
  • Lastly, what might it mean to take the Green New Deal seriously as academics? Thinking about New Deal arts and education programs, how might we design our research and teaching to feed into public education projects aligned with the goals of decarbonized and democratized energy production?


Image of Palestinian boy tending to his family's sheep

An Original “Agrarian” Jesus-Movement in 1st Century (C.E.) Roman Palestine? – Jonah Bissell

Over fifty years ago Lynn White Jr. famously (and contentiously) identified “Christianity” as the ideological culprit of our global ecological crisis. Since then Biblical scholars have set out to exonerate Christianity from such claims by revisiting the Jewish and Christian Scriptures with ecological interests in mind. However, among such readings of the New Testament there is hardly a consensus concerning the particular interpretive strategies best suited for ecological interpretation. The main weakness of such ecological readings lies in their attempt to isolate “ecology” as a conceptual, analytic lens, a tendency which finds no precedent in the epistemologies of antiquity.

In place of such “ecological readings,” I, therefore, propose an agrarian reading of the New Testament, which roughly follows the methodologies of Ellen Davis and Daniel Stulac in their respective readings of the Hebrew Bible. The logic of this methodology proceeds as follows: both ancient Israel and Roman Palestine were agrarian civilizations, featuring kinship-organized settlements, reciprocal exchange in-kind, and allocative subsistence agriculture. Such civilizations, therefore, differ vastly from those of the modern Western world. Thus, it is only by inhabiting this agrarian worldview that New Testament scholars can “understand [the] traditions of early Christian origins that emerged under [such] prevailing… agrarian conditions” (Oakman, Jesus and the Peasants, 6).

While Davis and Stulac have catalyzed a “paradigm shift” in Hebrew Bible scholarship, an interpretive movement already exists within New Testament studies that pays careful attention to the socio-cultural features of Greco-Roman agrarianism: social-scientific criticism. Stated plainly, “In reading the New Testament and contemporaneous works, it is fundamental to understand both the social values and the social institutions of ancient Palestine” (Hanson-Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus, xvii). Among such social-scientific critics, Bruce Malina, Richard Rohrbaugh, Douglas Oakman, and John Kloppenborg in particular have paid careful attention to the agrarian features of Greco-Roman antiquity, including: subsistence agriculture (arable, viticulture, oeloculture, arboriculture, animal husbandry, fishing, etc.), taxation, debt, monetization, markets, hired labor, etc. Biblical scholars interested in so-called “ecological readings” of the New Testament would, thus, do well to employ such social-scientific “agrarian” methods of interpretation, for only through such a strategy is “ecology” appropriately embedded in the holistic agrarian worldview of the ancients.

To demonstrate the validity of this methodology I decided to narrow my focus to a particular feature of agrarianism (economy) applied to a particular subset of New Testament texts (The Sayings Gospel “Q” or the Gospels’ “Double Tradition” material). Over the course of my research I, ultimately, discovered that 1st Century (C.E.) Roman Palestine featured an extractive, redistributive economy (perpetuated by tri-layered taxation, debt, tenancy, labor markets, and socially determined resource allocation) resulting in marked social stratification (e.g. Roman Elites, Herods, High Priests, Retainer Class, Peasants), particularly between the Elite and Peasant classes. The “agrarian sayings” of Jesus (e.g. Q 6:20-23, 6:32, 11:2b-4, 11:43, 12:22b-31, etc.), thus, appear to have originally functioned as a sort of subversive “anti-Elite” propaganda defending the cause of oppressed Palestinian smallholders and casting an alternative social vision hearkening back to YHWH’s agrarian subsistence ideal for pre-monarchic Israel.

But how is Jesus’s defense of traditional Israelite agrarianism appealing to New Testament scholars interested in contemporary ecological ethics? First, the same political-economic factors which disintegrated Palestinian peasant life have begun to plague the few American farmers who have retained such traditional, agrarian sensibilities. Second, the agrarian vision of both YHWH in the Hebrew Bible and Jesus in his Galilean ministry mirrors the vision of numerous American smallholders whose livelihoods and lifestyle have become effectively “doomed.” In sum, therefore, the agrarian mode of life –which likely offers the most promising solution to our ecological and ideological ills– finds palpable expression in the most ancient sayings of Jesus, who appears to bear witness to an original agrarian gospel.

Black Lives Matter logo

The Duke Campus Farm, Black Lives Matter, and No Human Is Illegal – Perry Sweitzer

There is a sign at the Duke Campus Farm that gets to the heart of the questions I was gripped by this summer. The sign makes several important claims, but the first two — “Black Lives Matter” and “No Human Is Illegal” — were especially important for shaping my research as a Farm Fellow.

While these political claims were familiar, it was the location of the sign that made me pause. What do these claims mean here at the farm? This question accompanied me through the weekly tasks of preparing beds, harvesting, and composting. It hovered in the background as the novelty of these tasks made me painfully aware of my own detachment from the earth, as the “just is” quality of the way I orient myself in the world was being unsettled. “Geography is not,” as Katherine McKittrick puts it, “secure and unwavering; we produce space, we produce its meanings, and we work very hard to make geography what it is.” The farm, then, was challenging me to think about the dominant narratives that shape how I understand space and the efforts by which these spaces are sustained.

In particular, I wanted to think about the relationship between dominant ways of orienting oneself in space and the persistence of anti-black and anti-immigrant violence. By orientation, I am drawing on Charles Long’s understanding of “orientation in the ultimate sense, that is, how one comes to terms with the ultimate significance of one’s place in the world.” The specific orientation that I focused on was the citizen, whose private and public domains are the home and the homeland. These domains are secured through the preservation of private property on the one hand and national borders on the other. My research posed two questions: How does the orientation of the citizen, who relates to the world through private property and national borders, intersect with the socioecological crises marked by the Anthropocene? How does religious language provide the ground of this orientation?

Two contemporary events revealed the urgency of these questions.

The first was the floor debates in the North Carolina General Assembly over House Bill 370. The bill, which passed in both chambers before being vetoed by Governor Roy Cooper, sought to require Sheriffs’ cooperation with ICE detainers. In particular, I was drawn to one senator’s recourse to religious language. “If you believe in the rule of law, if you believe in the sanctity of this nation, if you believe in the very essence of your role as a lawmaker and that the laws you pass should be followed, if you believe we should protect our citizens instead of criminals, please join me in voting ‘Yes’ to this bill.” The creed-like repetition of belief, particularly belief in the nation as sacred space, works to justify the security of some at the expense of others.

The second event was the trial of Amber Guyger, the Dallas police officer convicted of murder for the killing of Botham Jean in his apartment after she mistakenly believed it to be her own. In Guyger’s trial, the judge allowed jurors to consider the “Castle Doctrine” in their deliberations. The legal doctrine excuses the duty to retreat within one’s home, and is extended beyond the home in Stand Your Ground laws. In an 18th-century formulation of the doctrine, William Blackstone quotes Cicero, “For what is more sacred, more inviolable, than the house of every citizen?” Here the Castle Doctrine makes use of the idea that the home is a sacred space in order to justify the use of deadly force.

Taken together, HB 370 and the Castle Doctrine (along with its extension in Stand Your Ground laws) reveal what Joseph Winters has called “the underside of the sacred.” That is, the promise of protection and security often depends upon the invocation of a threat. Both seek to orient us in a world in which one is either citizen or criminal. As the sponsor of HB 370 announced, “I’m convinced that this action is the right thing to do if we are clear about who we should protect, criminals or law-abiding citizens.” If the socioecological crises of the Anthropocene are characterized by forced displacement, we must critically question the prevailing ways of orienting oneself in the world, such as the way in which the citizen is conceived in relation to the sacred space of the home and homeland, which perpetuate this displacement by preserving the security of some at the expense of others.




Mari Jørstad provides support for Facing the Anthropocene, a project under the Ethics and Environmental Policy program area. She is originally from Norway and spent a decade in Canada, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in art & art history and political science and an MA in religion before coming to Duke to work toward a PhD studying the Hebrew Bible.

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