Race, Character, and Education

What kind of character traits should education seek to form in children and young adults? More specifically, what kind of virtues do students need in order to get the most out of their education? These are two of the questions considered by Willie Jennings, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies at Yale University, in his book After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging, and Candace Owens (an author and political activist), in her book Blackout: How Black America Can Make Its Second Escape from the Democrat Plantation. Jennings is writing specifically about theological education, but his book is also a general critique of Western education. Owens is focused on K-12 public school education in the US, though she also touches on affirmative action in university admission programs.

Jennings and Owens come to the question of virtue in education with widely different commitments and they do not agree on much, but they agree that something is wrong with our current educational system. They also agree that the wrong-ness of the system is especially harmful to Black students and teachers.

For Owens, the main problem with education is that less is expected of Black children than of white ones. “I believe that the reason Blacks continue to lag behind whites in terms of educational achievement is due to a culturally widespread belief that we [Blacks] should not be made to put in the same effort because of our earlier oppressive circumstances” (84). Rather than emphasizing to students their abilities, creativity, and intelligence, “today’s curriculum overemphasizes the role that others play in our success,” and so “systematically [disempower]” students (87). For Owens, the solution is hard work, individual effort, and school choice. Parents should be free to choose academically demanding schools for their children, and children themselves need to cultivate the virtue of industriousness.

For Jennings, the problem with education is not that less is expected of Black students, but that Black minds and bodies are seen as largely irrelevant to the academy. European colonialism bequeathed to Western education the idea that Europe “spoke the truth of peoples more accurately than peoples’ own accounts of themselves” (19), and that this was “key to forming institutionalizing processes that were crucial to global well-being” (137). This too leads to low expectations for Black students. If Europe has the answers, then the best answers are white. This, Jennings argues, turns educational material “toward a Black lack” (109). Repeated exposure to Black lack leaves students feeling like they are not “smart enough, mature enough, prepared enough” – they come to experience what Jennings calls “academic despair” (56).

When it comes to solutions, the common ground between Owens and Jennings disappears. As a system of personal formation, Jennings argues, Western education aims to create the self-sufficient man, “his self-sufficiency defined by possession, control, and mastery” (6). Owens’ solution, self-sufficiency achieved through hard work, is Jennings’ problem. Instead of more effort on the part of students, Jennings wants education to “cultivate belonging” (10). His hope is for a form of institutional life that makes it possible “for everyone [to] feel at home in the work of building, sustaining, or supporting an institution without suffering in a tormented gender performance bound up in racial and cultural assimilation” (18). For Owens, the character traits students need are primarily individual: individual work ethic and making good choices. For Jennings, the most important virtues are communal. His question is not “how do you solve this problem for yourself,” but “how do we build a different community.”

I don’t know how to square the circle of Owens’ individualism and Jennings’ focus on community. They are, in many ways, incompatible. I am also hampered by my own biases; my sympathies are all with Jennings’ argument. Still, when I step back, what I see is that both authors speak to the pain of being part of a system which does not take you seriously, which expects you to contribute nothing of importance. They speak of the love of learning and of ways in which that love turns to disappointment and shame for students. They speak of forms of education that leave students with despair instead of courage and creativity.

Maybe we can build something from that. What if we start the conversation around education not with the things we can’t agree on, but with students? What if we ask students, Black students in particular, about conditions that make virtue formation possible? What makes you feel valued, what makes you feel trusted, what makes you feel challenged? What makes you feel disempowered, what makes you feel underrated, what makes you feel overlooked? When is hard work satisfying and when does it feel useless, a road to nothing at all? What motivates you to work hard and who motives you to work hard? What aspects of education are important to you, what makes you feel passion, drive, and purpose? When do you feel like you belong?

Owens and Jennings agree that if our educational system consistently produces better results for white students than for Black students, that means something is wrong. Perhaps we can build something from that agreement, from that small overlap between two thinkers who otherwise see eye-to-eye on next to nothing. And it isn’t next to nothing, to agree that education should serve Black and white student (and all the students who fit into neither category) equally well. That is quite a lot, and something to take hope from. We are not all suddenly going to agree, and yet we need each other in order to create thriving communities. How do we become the kind of people who can build such communities out of our disagreements, rather than let our disagreements become reasons to despair of change?

Jennings, Willie. After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2020.

Owens, Candace. Blackout: How Black America Can Make Its Second Escape from the Democrat Plantation. New York: Threshold Editions, 2020.

A Man Could Eat a Pancake

In Ford Maddox Ford’s A Man Could Stand Up-, set during World War I, several characters reflect on what peace means to them. To one man, peace means that “a man could stand hup on an ‘ill” (the title of Ford’s book rendered in Lincolnshire dialect). “You want to stand up!” he continues, “Take a look around…Like as if you wanted to breathe deep again after bein’ in a stoopin’ posture for a long time” (Ford, 616).

To the main character of the book, Christopher Tietjens, peace means being “being able to finish your talks.” He isn’t referring to just any conversations, but “intimate conversations that means the final communion of your souls,” conversations between life partners. “You have to wait together – for a week, for a year, for a lifetime, before the final intimate conversation may be attained…and exhausted.” These conversations aren’t just long, but require being able to put things off. After all, “You mayn’t be in the mood when she in the mood” (680).

In the first example, peace brings bodily freedom. No longer hunched over in trenches, a man can stand up on a hill without fear of being shot. Peace is felt in the body as a lack of caution, a lack of alarm. Tietjens’ vision of peace is focused on time. In the trench, he counts minutes till the next expected German barrage. “Forty-five minutes,“ “forty minutes,” “thirty-two minutes.” Like the Lincolnshire man’s sense of bodily confinement, Tietjens’ time is cramped and claustrophobic. But in peace time, you can wait till tomorrow to say what’s on your mind. You can wait till it suits the other person to start a conversation. You can wait until you are both in a similar frame of mind. That kind of patience isn’t possible if in twenty-six minutes you may be buried by a projectile.

Both men reflect on what is known as positive peace. Negative peace is, as the term suggests, defined negatively, that is, by the absence of armed conflict (the distinction between positive and negative peace is associated with the work of Johan Galtung, the father of Peace Studies). A ceasefire is an example of negative peace. Bombs and bullets aren’t flying, but to call the result peace, in its fullest meaning, would be to exaggerate.

Positive peace, on the other hand, is defined by what is, rather than what is lacking. Definitions of positive peace vary more than definitions of negative peace, because they depend on personal, cultural, and political ideas of what for a good, thriving society. Positive peace isn’t just conflict on hold, but an enduring, reliable state. During positive peace, you can stretch out, you can wait till tomorrow, because the state of peace is dependable. Soldiers won’t suddenly go back to shooting at each other.

Covid19 has made me think again of the distinction between positive and negative peace, terms I have ignored since my last political science class. In conversations with friends, we often talk about what it will be like when things go back to normal. But the longer this lasts, the less clear I feel about normal, about what it is I most want to go back to. There are multiple things involved in normal that feel more like negative than positive peace. Not wearing a mask at the grocery store. Waiting inside the doctor’s office instead of in my car. Going off hand sanitizer. These would all be nice, but they have little to do with what I most miss about the world before the virus. I don’t pine for my clinic’s waiting room.

To describe what positive normal is to me, I need stories. What I miss are not little practical things, but a whole way of being in space and time. For example, a couple of weeks ago a friend asked if we wanted anything from the coffee truck in our neighborhood. I realized then that what I wanted wasn’t coffee, but a pre-pandemic version of that kind of interaction. Now, dropping off coffee is just dropping off coffee, an exchange across our garden gate. Short, to the point. Before the pandemic, he would have come inside. We would have pressed pancakes on him. He would have said he couldn’t stay, because he was bringing coffee and treats to his family, but he still would have stayed for 10 minutes or so, eaten a pancake, maybe some sausage, given our son a hug, petted our dog, examined the old Christmas cards on the fridge. Still an exchange of coffee, but also of so many other things, with no one concerned for droplets, aerosols, and crowds in confined, non-ventilated spaces. Freedom in body and in time. No hunching over, no counting down minutes.

Or, to put it another way, were I to write a Covid19 version of Ford’s A Man Could Stand Up-, I would call it A Man Could Eat A Pancake. It doesn’t have the serious ring of Ford’s title, but it captures what I want, the normal I miss. What sort of normal do you long for?

White Lies

In Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, Saidiya V. Hartman writes about empathy as modeled by the white abolitionist John Rankin. In an effort to convince his slaveholding brother of the horrors of slavery, Rankin describes imagining himself as a slave. “My flighty imagination added much to the tumult of passion by persuading me, for the moment, that I myself was a slave, and with my wife and children placed under the reign of terror” (Hartman, 18).

The problem with Rankin’s imagined scene, argues Hartman, is that “the effort to counteract the commonplace callousness to black suffering requires that the white body be positioned in the place of the black body in order to make this suffering visible and intelligible” (Hartman, 19). Black suffering is so difficult a concept for white people that it can only be made plausible by saying “now imagine that the people beaten are white men, white women, and white children.” This kind of empathy, writes Hartman, is “related to both the devaluation and the valuation of black life” (Hartman, 21). Rankin’s aim is to create sympathy for slaves, but the only way he knows how to do that is by replacing black bodies with white ones.

I thought of this recently when I read Kiese Laymon’s Heavy, the second line of which is “I wanted to write a lie” (Laymon, 1). Of the many lies Laymon considers and rejects, two relate to stories told side by side in the chapter “Train.” One: Layla, a fifteen-year-old girl, “had to go in Daryl’s room with all the big boys for fifteen minutes if she wanted to float in the deep end” (Laymon, 15). Two: Laymon’s babysitter undresses in front of him, undresses Laymon, and makes him touch her. (Laymon, 23).

Both stories are almost too painful to think about, and it is so tempting to evade them. Laymon makes you feel the full force of “I wanted to write a lie,” the urge to tell something other than the truth. Maybe Layla wasn’t raped. Maybe the “shallow grunts” coming from Daryl’s room mean something else (Laymon, 17). Laymon thought Renata was his girlfriend – maybe her assault wasn’t traumatic to Laymon. Laymon himself struggles to imagine Layla as someone to whom bad things can happen. “I was taught by big boys who were taught by big boys who were taught by big boys that black girls would be okay no matter what we did to them” (Laymon, 16). White people are taught a similar lesson, that black people can stomach more pain, more poverty, more abuse than their white peers. Only this makes my desired reading of what Renata does to Laymon plausible in the least. Pre-teen boys do not come through sex with adult women unscathed.

Laymon’s book is not addressed to white people (he writes “to and for black Americans in the Deep South“[131]), and Laymon never says, “please don’t believe lies.” He speaks of his own desire to write a lie and of the desire of others to read lies. But as a white person reading his book, I do wonder about lies and about the connection between lies and the problem of empathy described by Hartman. Rankin has to imagine himself in the place of the slave in order to describe the slave’s pain. He acts out one particular understanding of empathy, that is, empathy as putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. It is a kind of empathy that leaves the lie more or less intact. Instead of having to confront the lie that slaves don’t suffer, Rankin tells his brother what his brother already knows: Rankin and his family would suffer under the conditions endured by slaves.

Laymon’s book suggests to me that empathy can be something else. His refusal to write a lie is a refusal to ignore, disbelieve, and cover over his own pain and that of others. Or to speak only of acceptable pains, pains that come from outside the family, pains that bring a manageable load of shame. He isn’t trying to put himself in Layla’s shoes and he doesn’t ask us to put ourselves in his shoes. He does put us in a position where we have to choose whether we believe that these things happened and that that they hurt. As such, Laymon’s stories challenge me to believe the experience of others without being able to imagine them as happening to myself. They challenge me to believe and act on what others tell me, without having to understand, without feeling it in my bones. It is a form of empathy that is more about trust than about identifying with someone else. Because you say so, I believe you. Because you are in pain, I will act.

Imaginary Individualism

One of the things that surprised me about COVID and social isolation is the extent to which it made the world feel less real. Turns out that when I don’t see people outside my immediate family, my experiences begin to feel a bit gauzy. This effect is especially true of work. Working at home sounds nice – so much flexibility! – but it is challenging not to see colleagues, the people with whom I share tasks and projects. Maybe I made work up! Maybe the typing I do, the spreadsheets I fill out, the zoom meetings – maybe they are just a weird dream I keep having. Every day I convince myself to start working. When I had an office to go to, I didn’t have to do that. When I was at work, I’d work – no pep talk required. It turns out that all those interactions at work, the ones that might show up in an efficiency study as not quite necessary – good mornings in the coffee room, random conversations in the hallways, please watch this cat video – those make the shared project of work feel real. Real and meaningful. Not on their own, of course, but they are part of the important fabric by which we tell each other that the world is real, we are real in it, and the work we do matters.

This experience put flesh to research that was for me more theoretical than felt. Writing about how Melanesians understand individuals and relationships (Melanesia is a sub-region of Oceania, stretching from Papua New Guinea to Fiji and Tonga), anthropologist Marilyn Strathern writes that Melanesians understand relationships very differently from how most of us in the West do. She writes that “relationships do not link individuals” ⁠ (Strathern, 59). Instead, persons are made up of relationships. ⁠

Drawing on a term “fractal person,” coined by another anthropologist, Roy Wagner, Strathern writes that individuals cannot be “expressed in whole numbers.” (Strathern 59; Wagner 162). That is not to say that persons are less than whole, as if each person is a half or a third of something. Wagner uses the term “fractal person” as a way to get around an alternative we tend to take for granted, the alternative between “individual and group.” In Melanesian understandings, he argues, persons are “neither singular nor plural” (Wagner, 162). A person is not a single unit (an individual), which, if added to other single units, becomes a collective of related members (a group). Relationships do not flow between free-standing persons, who would exist in the absence of those relationships. Persons are made up of their relationships, relationships with kin, with land, with animals; take those relationships away, and the person “fades away” (see Descola, 25). Sociality and relationships are not things a person can engage or not engage in – relationships are not between persons. A person is someone who relates, and relationships make persons.

At a recent Virtues & Vocations webinar, Yuval Levin described how COVID-19 has made us realize the extent of our dependence on each other. “Our individualism is a luxury. It’s something we can imagine because other things are working really well in our society. When things aren’t really working well, you can’t take them for granted, you realize that you are not actually self-reliant.”

The work of Wagner and Strathern suggests that the problem with social isolation is not only that we are dependent on others in practical terms (we need grocery stores and garbage collection and health services), but that we rely on others to be full people, to be real. Seen through that lens, my feeling of unreality is not an illusion, but a clue to the vital importance of relationships for being and staying human. Levin first calls individualism a luxury, but his second description, that it is something “we…imagine,” is the truer one. We weren’t free-standing individuals before COVID hit, we just imagined we were

All these experiences make me work harder to maintain relationships during this time. I don’t mean I am throwing COVID-19 parties or the like. It is important that we maintain distance right now. But I try to aim for physical distance, rather than social distance. Conversations in my friends’ driveway, 6 feet apart and outside. Hikes in open spaces where we can spread out but still see each other without the means of a computer. Dinners in our yard. The latter leaves much to be desired in terms of hospitality. “Do you want to come over to our house? Please bring your own food, utensils, and maybe pee before you come?” It is not an invitation to make the heart sing. But it is a lot more than nothing. And it makes me and my world feel real. This sense of reality isn’t just good for me, but it motivates me to keep working and hoping for the real world to be better. If it is all a dream, why do anything? But if we are all real – and on days I see people, I am sure we are – then working together towards something better is meaningful, important, and joyful.

Descola, Phillipe. Beyond Nature and Culture (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2013).

Strathern, Marilyn. “Partners and Consumers: Making Relations Visible,” in Readings in Indigenous Religions, edited by Graham Harvey (London; New York: Continuum, 2002 [originally published in 1991].

Wagner, Roy. “The Fractal Person,” in Big Men and Great Men: Personifications of Power in Melanesia, edited by Maurice Godelier and Marylin Strathern (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

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.




Facing the Anthropocene Senior Fellows


Head shot of Douglas Kysar.

Douglas Kysar is Faculty Co-Director of the Law, Ethics & Animals Program, Deputy Dean, and Joseph M. Field ’55 Professor of Law at Yale Law School. He was born and raised in Indiana. Under his mother’s guidance, he developed a love of reading and a love of the more-than-human world. Kysar later studied at Indiana University, where his two loves developed further with guidance from the great nature writer and teacher Scott Russell Sanders. After law school, Kysar began teaching at Cornell Law School and moved to Yale in 2008. Kysar’s work studies the way society utilizes laws and regulations to prevent, manage, and respond to threats of harm to life. He has had a particular focus on climate change law and policy for several years now because climate change will bring harm to life on an almost unimaginable scale. He is the author of Regulating from Nowhere: Environmental Law and the Search for Objectivity and the faculty co-direct (with Jonathan Lovvorn) of the Law, Ethics, & Animals Program at the Yale Law School.

Headshot of Joyce Chaplin

Joyce Chaplin (BA, Northwestern; MA, PhD Johns Hopkins) is the James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History at Harvard University. A former Fulbright Scholar and Guggenheim Fellow, her work has focused on the histories of science, the environment, and climate. Her books include The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus: Rereading the Principle of PopulationRound About the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbit, and The First Scientific American: Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius

Headshot of Norman Wirzba

Norman Wirzba is the Gilbert T. Rowe Distinguished Professor of Theology at Duke University. His teaching, research, and writing happens at the intersections of theology and philosophy, and agrarian and environmental studies. He is the author of several books, including Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating (2nd Edition), From Nature to Creation, and The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age. In his spare time he likes to bake, play guitar, and make things with wood.

Headshot of Jedediah Purdy

Jedediah S. Purdy joined the Columbia Law School faculty in 2019 after 15 years at Duke Law School. He teaches and writes about environmental, property, and constitutional law as well as legal and political theory.Purdy’s most recent book, This Land Is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth, explores how the land has historically united and divided Americans, shows how environmental politics has always been closely connected with issues of distribution and justice, and describes humanity as an “infrastructure species. In his previous book, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene, he traced the long history of environmental law as a central feature of American political and cultural life.

Headshot of Willis Jenkins

Willis Jenkins lives in the Rivanna River watershed, where he works as Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. He is author of two award-winning books, Ecologies of Grace, which won a Templeton Award for Theological Promise, and The Future of Ethics, which won an American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence. At UVA, Jenkins co-directs several environmental humanities initiatives, including the Coastal Futures Conservatory and Sanctuary Lab.

Headshot of Tim Ingold

Tim Ingold is Professor Emeritus of Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. He has carried out fieldwork among Saami and Finnish people in Lapland, and has written on environment, technology and social organisation in the circumpolar North, on animals in human society, and on human ecology and evolutionary theory. His more recent work explores environmental perception and skilled practice. Ingold’s current interests lie on the interface between anthropology, archaeology, art and architecture. His recent books include The Perception of the Environment (2000), Lines (2007), Being Alive (2011), Making (2013), The Life of Lines (2015), Anthropology and/as Education (2018) and Anthropology: Why it Matters (2018).

Headshot of Kate Rigby

Kate Rigby is Professor of Environmental Humanities at Bath Spa University and Adjunct Professor of Literary Studies at Monash University. Her research lies at the intersection of environmental literary, historical and religious studies, and her books include Topographies of the Sacred: The Poetics of Place in European Romanticism (2004), Dancing with Disaster: Environmental Histories, Narratives and Ethics for Perilous Times (2015), and Reclaiming Romanticism: Towards an Ecopoetics of Decolonization (2020). She was founding co-editor of the journal Philosophy Activism Nature, the founding President of the Association for the Study of Literature, Environment and Culture (Australia-New Zealand) and the founding Director of the Australia-Pacific Forum on Religion and Ecology.

Headshot of Willie Jennings

Willie James Jennings is Associate Professor of Theology and Africana Studies at Yale University. He is the author of the award winning book, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. His most recently book is After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging. He is currently working on a manuscript entitled, Reframing the World: Toward an Actual Doctrine of Creation.

Headshot of Alyssa Battistoni

Alyssa Battistoni is a political theorist and an Environmental Fellow at the Harvard University Center for the Environment. She is the co-author of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal. Her writing has appeared in The Guardiann+1, The NationDissent, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Jacobin, where she is a member of the editorial board.

Headshot of Kate Brown

Kate Brown is a Professor of Science, Technology and Society at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her research interests illuminate the point where history, science, technology and bio-politics converge to create large-scale disasters and modernist wastelands. She has written four books about topics ranging from population politics, linguistic mapping, the production of nuclear weapons and concomitant utopian communities, the health and environmental consequences of nuclear fallout from the Chernobyl disaster to narrative innovations of history writing in the 21st century. Her books include Plutopia: Nuclear Families in Atomic Cities and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters, Dispatches from Dystopia: Histories of Places Not Yet Forgottenand Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide To the Future.

Headshot of Radhika Khosla

Radhika Khosla is the Research Director of the Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development and Research Fellow at Somerville College; and a Senior Researcher at the Smith School of Enterprise and Environment, School of Geography and the Environment, at the University of Oxford. She works on examining the productive tensions between urban transitions, energy services consumption and climate change, with a focus on developing country cities. She is the lead researcher on the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Cooling.

headshot of Robert Macfarlane

Robert Macfarlane is a Reader in Literature and the Geohumanities in the Faculty of English at Cambridge University. He is well-known as a writer about landscape, nature, memory, language and travel. His books include Underland: A Deep Time Journey, The Lost Words (with Jackie Morris), Landmarksand The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot.

Headshot of Janet Soskice

Janet Soskice is Professor of Philosophical Theology at the University of Cambridge. In her work, she explores philosophy of religion, especially religious language and philosophical theology, names for God, gender and ethics, and, in her current project, God and creation. Her books include Metaphor and Religious Language, The Kindness of Godand Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Lost Gospels