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


2020 Graduate Fellowships – Call for Application

Each year, the Kenan Institute for Ethics awards between 10 and 15 fellowships to outstanding graduate students at Duke University.

Students from any Duke doctoral graduate program may apply. What each cohort of Graduate Fellows will have in common is that their dissertation research engages in interesting ways with significant normative issues. Some students, for example – from disciplines such as philosophy, political theory, or theology – focus directly on fundamental ethical or political concepts and theories. Other fellows, from the sciences and social sciences, try to understand phenomena that are relevant to major, and often controversial, public policy debates. Still others attempt to resolve debates in their areas of research that seem to be sustained by long-standing disagreements over both empirical claims and ethical or ideological commitments.

The aim of the on-going discussions throughout the year, among the Fellows and KIE faculty members, is to enhance everyone’s ability to contribute to debates involving ethical issues, and to do so in ways that engage scholars and others within and outside of their own academic disciplines.

Ideal Graduate Fellow candidates will be in the third, fourth, or fifth year of their Ph.D. studies, finished all (or almost all) of their coursework requirements, but still developing new ideas and approaches for their dissertation research. Fellows each receive a stipend of $3,000 that supplements their current funding.

Graduate Fellows meet for a Monday seminar about a dozen times across the Fall and Spring semesters. THIS YEAR, OUR MEETINGS WILL BE HELD SYNCHRONOUSLY ON-LINE, and perhaps occasionally in ultra-safe formats outdoors. These seminars usually feature visiting speakers and do not typically require preparation in advance. There are also two half-day workshops – one at the end of each term – in which Fellows showcase their own research.

Alumni in good standing of the Fellowship program will have access to conference- and research-travel funds during their final years in the Ph.D. program.

To apply: e-mail the application, along with a copy of your CV, to mari.jorstad@duke.edu with the subject line “Graduate Fellowship.”

Deadline: 12 noon, Friday, July 31, 2020.

For further information, email mari.jorstad@duke.edu with “Graduate Fellowship question” in the subject heading.

What are academics for? (Or why I am in Hufflepuff)

The main thing I want out of academics is friends. No seriously.  I am here to make friends.

I don’t mean that the intellectual stuff – the classes, the books, the library card, the conferences – are just excuses to make friends. I mean that I love all those things because, to me, they are about making friends. Sometimes the kind I go to lunch with, sometimes the kind I only interact with through books. Sometimes the books themselves.

When I first arrived at Duke to do a PhD, I was disoriented. I had meandered into academia and biblical studies through a series of accidents and rabbit holes, whereas everyone else seemed to have a plan, with binders and spreadsheets. Everyone was busy with work, at all hours. I wanted to have dinner parties, but couldn’t convince anyone to show up. It made me feel terribly unprofessional, and also lonely.

When the feeling that I had been let in by mistake became too strong, or when I couldn’t remember why I wanted to be here in the first place, I would read a reference letter written by my university chaplain. Goeff said I had the perfect disposition for academics for three reasons. First, I loved my academic work. I spoke of my thesis with unflagging enthusiasm. Second, I didn’t stay put in my academic discipline. I was generally interested. And third, I could always be counted on to bring food.

Geoff spoke of the things that made me feel unprofessional – enthusiasm, a bit of scatter brain, food – as strengths. He described someone I wanted to be, even though I knew that I am often more competitive, less generous, less at ease, than the person in the letter. It wasn’t enough to drown out my imposter syndrome, but it was enough to convince me that my values and priorities were worth sticking with. Now, almost a decade later, I think of that letter as a gracious piece of wisdom, and an excellent guide to what intellectual life can be.

First week of classes is over, syllabi have been handed out, assignments are becoming due. Academics are competitive and we are constantly evaluating and being evaluated. It is easy to feel like the point of it all is to be the smartest. But the drive to be the smartest is not, I think, a good way to learn. I tell my students that a critical reading always starts with the question “What does the author say?” Not “What do I think about this?” Not “Where is the author wrong?” Not “How could I write this better?” A critical reading starts with an effort to understand, to give another your full attention, with the assumption that you might learn something. A critical reading begins by listening to a book, an author, a talk, with the kind of attention you give a friend. “I want to understand you,” not “I want to be smarter than you.”

I can think of other examples of how a disposition towards friendship is essential for good thinking, but metaphors aside, I am always looking for friends. I often tell myself this is naïve, that people are busy and important and can’t be expected to take the time. But more and more, I try to choose collaborators based on whether they will be friends. I make an effort to correspond with people who extend friendship with me. I try to remember people’s names. I am grateful when people remember mine. I consider projects I feel unsure about because friends suggest them. I don’t have a clear utilitarian reason for this, but I believe it is a good way to proceed. It beats networking, if only because when things don’t go well, at least you have people to have drinks with.

kenan insider friendship and hufflepuff

All this used to embarrass me. I still have qualms about telling the whole internet that I am here to make friends. The part of me that gets embarrassed is the same part that scoffed a bit when the Pottermore sorting ceremony put me in Hufflepuff. Shouldn’t my PhD at least earn me a spot in Ravenclaw?! But then I thought about it. Hufflepuff values “hard work, patience, loyalty, and fair play.” Me too. Hufflepuffs are fierce friends. Me too, or I hope to be. Hufflepuff wanted to “teach the lot and treat them just the same.” That is the kind of teacher I want to be.

I am here to make friends. That may seem like a cop out, a soft-brained diversion from real thinking, a failure of ambition. I don’t think so. Making friends and being a friend is hard. Treating people you disagree with like friends is hard. Listening is hard. Making delicious pies and sharing them with people…actually, that’s not hard, that’s just fun. When I encourage you to consider friendship as the point of academics, I am not saying that the time you spend out of class is more important than the time in. All I am saying is you might get more out of this time, these years spend reading and arguing and thinking about things you might never think about again, if you are on the lookout for friends. Friends to have lunch with, friends from long ago whose words seem to be for you specifically, books to keep you company.

I am here to make friends. I hope you are too.



Familial Climate Literature

Familial Climate Literature

The first sentence of ‘Ghosts and Empties,’ the opening story of Lauren Groff’s terrific Florida, does not bring to mind climate change. ‘I have somehow become a woman who yells, and because I do not want to be a woman who yells, whose little children walk around with frozen, watchful faces, I have taken to lacing on my running shoes after dinner and going out into the twilit streets for a walk, leaving the undressing and sluicing and reading and singing and tucking in of the boys to my husband, a man who does not yell.’ It sounds like the opening of a story about the ways in which parenthood can trap women, about frustration with no acceptable outlet.

climate change

‘Ghosts and Empties’ have moments along those lines (bent mothers ‘scanning the floor for…the people they once were, slumped in the corner’), but the dread that brings its narrator out into the streets is ecological: ‘During the day, while my sons are in school, I can’t stop reading about the disasters of the world, the glaciers dying like living creatures, the great Pacific trash gyre, the hundreds of unrecorded deaths of species, millennia snuffed out as if they were not precious.’

The other beings she observes on her walks – a pair of black swans, a homeless couple – try to provide care for others under desperate circumstances. Otters eat two of the swan’s four cygnets, and the other two die of fright when the wildlife service tries to move them. The homeless couple disappears, their camp among oaks the site of a controlled burn and the mall plaza used for sleeping fenced off ‘for construction, or so the sign says.’ People and animals trying and failing to protect their families, the narrator caught in the terror that everything is rolling towards an inevitable end. The plastic pull tabs she sees in the aisles of a drugstore are not just pull tabs, but pull tabs ‘that will one day end up in the throat of the earth’s last sea turtle.’ 

Amitav Ghosh, in The Great Derangement, argues that fiction, especially the kind we consider ‘serious,’ has failed to depict climate change. Its events – big storms, unpredictable seasons, unprecedented fluctuations – are too unlikely-sounding for realist fiction, and so do not fit within its genre requirements. Groff’s story includes no such spectacular events, and yet she narrates climate change. Not as natural disasters, floods, or tornadoes, but as anxiety that she is not able to care for her children.

Thinking of the missing homeless couple, she writes, ‘Please…please let my couple come by, let me see their faces at least, let me take their arms.’ Her approach to the difficulty of writing about climate change, to make carbon parts per million into compelling narrative, is to write about climate change as the end of care. It is an end she feels responsible for (she passes up the Epson salts she means to buy because ‘I am not ready for such easy absolution’) and one she cannot by individual effort avoid. Like Ada Limón, in her poem ‘The Leash,’ also a reflection on climate and care, she finds herself unable to do much more for her family than Limón does for her reader, a desperate ‘Reader, I want to say: Don’t die.

This may sound fatalistic and unhelpful, fruitless despair at the end of the world. But that would be an uncharitable reading. The power of Groff’s story is that she depicts climate change as intimate and familial. Narrating climate change need not be about big events (though there is space of that too), but can be about the small and familiar: two swans trying to have babies, a homeless couple looking for somewhere to sleep, a mother hoping to make it through the bedtime routine without yelling.

‘I hope they understand, my sons’ she writes at the end of the story, ‘both now and in the future just materializing in the dark, that all these hours their mother has been walking so swiftly away from them I have not been gone, that my spirit, hours ago, slipped back into the house and crept into the room where their early-rising father had already fallen asleep…and that…I climbed the creaking old stairs and at the top split into two, and heading into the boys’ separate rooms, I slid through the crack under the doors and curled myself on the pillows to breathe into me the breath that my children breathed out.’ Nothing very grand, no great spectacle. Just a woman doing her best to manage anxiety about a future she fears, a future that is not yet unavoidable, and yet one that no amount of good intentions and parenting excellence can shield her sons from. A story about climate change in which the millennial comparisons and the lists of data settle in to the small, suburban spaces of a home.

The Luce Anthropocene Working Group: Newts and Air-Conditioning

The Luce Anthropocene working group is a gathering of scholars from diverse fields meeting annually during the Facing the Anthropocene grant.  They discuss the need for individual academic disciplines and the university as a whole to address climate change.

Thinking about humanity’s place in and effect on the world is difficult, because it can feel like thinking about everything at once. The stakes are so high, the causes so many, the people, animals and plants affected too numerous to count. One way to address this expanse is to tell stories, to put into human terms that which feels too massive and chaotic, which is just what the Luce working group members did when they met on June 3rd-6th. They told stories from their research and from their lives, and by so doing tried to put words to where we are, how we got here, and what hope for the future might look like.

Douglas Kysar told a story of the time he and his daughter happened on a newly hatched batch of red spotted newts in Vermont. He remembers his own childhood as being full of animals, but this encounter, the pond full of tiny red creatures, feels like an event. His four year old daughter is enchanted. Usually boisterous and rowdy, she gently cups a newt in her hands. Holding the filmy alien, she becomes completely calm and whispers “She must think I am a giant.” Then, after a pause, “I hope she knows I am a gentle giant.”

Radhika Khosla told a very different story. India is currently going through the largest urbanization event in history. Between 2020 and 2030, India will build a new Chicago each year, and 100 million people will enter the workforce annually. The largest growth in energy demand is going to come from India, and much of the demand will take the form of air conditioners. It is projected that the AC energy will triple in the coming decade. The electricity required to cover this is equal to the current energy usage of US, Europe, and Japan combined.

It might seem like these stories have little to do with each other. One the one hand, a child cupping a newt, on the other, charts about projected energy usage and CO2 emissions. The first story is about a child realizing that a nonhuman other is a subject, with its own perspective, but also that there is a gap between her and the newt. She can’t know exactly what the newt knows. She understands that to the newt, she has awful power and yet she imbues this relationship with an ethics that exceeds power. The second story is about the trade offs between development, the quest for a certain quality of life, and the preservation of the earth. It is an effort to think through built environments as sites of intervention, in a context of rapidly changing patterns of human dwelling and consumption.

In different ways, Kysar and Khosla are trying to diagnose both what has gone wrong, why we are in the middle of an environmental crisis, and also how we might get out of it. Set side by side, their stories illustrate the many-faceted nature of climate change. It is both an issue of how we understand the world, how we think of our relationships to newts, trees, rivers, and daisies, and also how we use the world, the stuff we consume in our day-to-day lives. Together with the rest of the Luce Anthropocene working group, they are exploring how bringing together scholars from different academic fields sheds new light on environmental degradation and environmental hope. They are asking what the academy has to offer, but also how the academy might have to change in order to be adequate to the challenges of the Anthropocene. Newts and ACs: thinking about everything, a little bit at a time.  Kenan Senior Fellow Norman Wirzba sums up this problem by saying, “The exercise of certain forms of freedom in the present has resulted in such mastery over nature that the future freedom of many is threatened.” 

Facing the Anthropocene will be holding a public conference/festival in March of 2020 – open to public and Duke community.

Supported by the Henry Luce Foundation, Facing the Anthropocene includes a multidisciplinary working group in which scholars engage in conversations surrounding the human impact on the planet. The group studies how political, legal, and economic orders have shaped landscapes and ecologies through global patterns of human habitation and use.