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History and the Anthropocene – A Conversation with Joyce Chaplin

Facing the Anthropocene: a webinar series hosted by the Kenan Institute for Ethics, with Professor Norman Wirzba of Duke Divinity School

Faced with climate change, species extinction, and sea level rise, we are compelled to rethink humanity’s place in the world, as many of the built environments designed for human flourishing now imperil the lives of countless fellow creatures and the places they inhabit. Join leading scholars in political economy, history, anthropology, theology, philosophy, environmental science, and law, as they address these and other questions (including those from the audience):

  • How shall we evaluate and correct the economies and institutions that undermine the bases and flows of life?

  • What can we learn from the past as we look toward the future?

  • Where is there reason for hope?


What should our relationship to the past be? And how does the past inform the future? These were the central questions of Joyce Chaplin’s talk on March 18. Or, to put it another way, what do we do with history as we enter the distinctively new era of the Anthropocene?

Chaplin outlined several ways of relating to the past, some of which are inadequate or unhelpful.

Nostalgia, for example, can be an uncritical hankering for a time when women were in the kitchen and other people (people of color) did the hard work that sustained our economies. To simply go back to a pre-fossil fuel age, without changing the oppressive structures of that time, is neither feasible nor desirable, argued Chaplin.

Chaplin also cautioned against an understanding of technology that blames it for societal changes or expects it to solve issue for us. For example, she described theories that argue that the cotton gin caused slavery and plantation agriculture. In a nutshell, such theories argue devices makes people do things and so let us off the hook. And, conversely, others argue that the invention of the steam engine made abolitionism possible by providing an alternative source of labor. But, Chaplin argued, black Americans sought their own liberation long before the steam engine, white abolitionism emerged prior to its invention, and, crucially, the steam engine did not turn most white people into abolitionists. Nor did the cotton gin turn all people, all over the world into slave holders. Technology exists within a complex set of societal forces. It does not create our moral and cultural ideas and ideals on its own.

Chaplin tied this to concerns and hopes related to contemporary energy markets. Some fear that if we transition away from burning fossil fuels, we will be plunged back into the suffering and misery of the preindustrial era, when everyone was cold, sick, and constantly chopping wood. Chaplin argued that there is no reason a post-fossil era should look identical to the pre-fossil past. Others hope that renewable energy will solve our other societal issues. But racism and inequality will not go away simply because we shift technology, said Chaplin. We must do cultural work to achieve cultural change. We cannot expect our technology and devices to do that work for us.

Chaplin suggested a couple of ways forward. Energy has always been tricky for societies, Chaplin argued. In order to have as equitable and calm transition away from fossil fuels, Chaplin argued for greater public awareness of the costs of different energy processes and of where in the process things are likely to get messy. The cost of energy options should be part of a public conversation, rather than simply decided by experts.

Chaplin also argued for restoration of land to its original owners. One critique of the concept of the Anthropocene is that it suggests that all humans everywhere are equally culpable for climate and environmental crises. But many indigenous societies have lived and continue to live sustainably on their land. It is not that they haven’t changed or molded their land, but that they have done so without doing damage to other species. Restoring land to original owners and relying on their wisdom about how to live well on land would be one way of learning from the past. Indigenous stewardship now is obviously central to maintaining health of planet, she said.

Understanding how original owners were denied ownership of their lands is a roadmap into the past, but it can also be a roadmap into the future as we consider how to restore land.

Chaplin concluded by drawing together the strings of environmental, technological, and cultural histories. Some of the worst foundations of the Anthropocene were built in the early modern period by exploitation of indigenous peoples and lands. We must face the Anthropocene, she said, by undoing two connected kinds of damage: damage to the natural world and damage to other humans.


Join us on March 25th, 2021 at 12:00 PM (EST) for the next installment in the Facing the Anthropocene series. Dr. Norman Wirzba will be joined by Jedediah Purdy, William S. Beinecke Professor of Law at the Columbia Law School. To register for this webinar and learn more about the series, click here.

Mari Jorstad

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

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