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Anthropocene Summer Fellows 2018: Reflections

The Luce Anthropocene Summer Fellowships support graduate and professional students whose research considers the relationship between humans and their environments. For the summer of 2018, the five fellows came from diverse fields, including religion, evolutionary and cultural anthropology, and environment. In their reflections, they connect the details of their research with questions of how humans, animals, and plants live on a planet whose basic characteristics are now in part determined by human consumption, transportation, and industry.

Early one Sunday, I meet up with Peter Illyn in the parking lot of a small Baptist church in the Harriman Park neighborhood of Birmingham, Alabama. Peter is a Russian, Foursquare pastor. He started the organization Restoring Eden after he emerged from a six-month llama packing trek through the Cascades. His trip took place in the middle of the historic battle between environmentalists and loggers over the fate of the region’s remaining old growth forests.

Peter, outraged that the place where he had just encountered God in the wilderness was to be logged for toilet paper, redirected his ministry from the pulpit to protecting creation. Until he was convinced otherwise, Restoring Eden’s slogan was to read, “Stop wiping your ass with the choir of God!” Instead, it became “If you love the Creator, take care of creation.”

After learning about the destructive effects of mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining, Peter started taking Christian college students on Appalachia Witness Tours. He hoped to igniting their own passion for God’s creation. This developed into a partnership with local residents, public health researchers, and Christian colleges to gather and map household health data. The program became the first research study in the United States on the community health impacts of coal mining. It showed strong links between MTR and elevated levels of cancer and birth defects.

But today we’re in the neighborhoods that once formed the epicenter of the Birmingham movement of the black freedom struggle of the 1950s and 60s. Restoring Eden was invited to organize a similar citizen-driven health census near two industrial coal sites. Many residents suspect they are the cause some of the highest levels of chronic illness and death in the state.

The Baptist church sits about a stone’s throw from one of the coal plants. After the Sunday school lesson, the pastor invites the twenty of us in attendance to “speak about the good God is doing your life.” An African American man in his fifties stands up with his hands leaning on the pew in front of him. “My asthma was so bad yesterday I had to stay in bed all day. I couldn’t even walk from here to there,” he says, gesturing to the fifteen feet between himself and the pulpit. “I couldn’t make it to my friend’s funeral. But God is good,” he says. This man got a ride to the hospital “where they fixed me up so I could come to church this morning with enough wind to praise God and sing and thank God.”

Preliminary research shows that asthma and other lung diseases are clustered in this part of Birmingham. One researcher says about three quarters of the students at the neighborhood’s K-8 school suffer from asthma. To date, further research and clean-up efforts have been stymied by bribery and corruption.

How does the Anthropocene and its debates over the nature-culture distinction shed light on any of this? Critical Anthropocene thinkers point to the unevenness of the Anthropocene. It’s not humankind as a whole that has become a geological agent, they say. Some people have extended their agency to and through nature in ways that make life in some bodies and places more endangered. The Paul Crutzens of the world contend that the blurring of nature-culture distinctions calls for more scientific management of the world, while critical theorists demand more politics and political analysis.

My ethnographic attention to environments more aggressively ‘anthropocened’ than others suggests a need to also engage grace. Grace is how many on the front lines of the Anthropocene talk about their condition. Theologians tend to understand grace as the divinity’s active presence in history with and for creatures. As a theologian, the Anthropocene challenges me to investigate how grace mediates, disrupts, and works at a time when nature and culture are hard to parse out.

Peter sees grace as an invitation to develop ways of loving and caring for particular places and creatures. The Baptist man seeks medical attention, in part, so that he can transfigure defiled air into praise. Does the Anthropocene have room for this kind of grace? Might the old categories of theology help name the era or navigate ways through it?

Ryan Juskus is a PhD candidate in the Graduate Department of Religion at Duke University. His research engages theological ethics, religious studies, and political ecology in the modern Americas.

Seven years after the nuclear meltdown of 2011, radiation has become a taboo topic inside Fukushima. Many parents, however, are seeking ways to address concerns about their children’s health. Official decisions as to whether an area is fit for living have been made based on the average level of airborne radiation. These primarily consider radiation exposure that start from outside the body. Internal exposure results from radioactive material that gets inside the body; its impact has been discounted in policy decisions.

People who live with low-level radiation carefully manage and monitor internal exposure. To examine how imported scientific knowledge shapes the ways in which people struggle to form a sense of livability amidst radioactive uncertainty, I traced unofficial care networks between parents with children living in low-level radiation and a lab that is run by citizens. By examining the parents’ experience of living with low-level radiation and the history of the lab’s cases, I discovered a collaborative process through which a sense of responsibility is fleshed out by giving concrete forms to radioactive material.

The “Facing the Anthropocene Summer Fellowship” not only enabled me to meet with citizens, scientists, and residents, but also urged me to think more about the relationship between responsibility, agency, and livability. The term ‘responsibility’ has been charged with moralizing values primarily through nuclear-related lawsuits in post-nuclear politics. But unofficial care networks show efforts to enact responsibility as an intergenerational value that holds adults accountable for children. I am grateful for the intellectual and financial support I received this summer from the Kenan Institute for Ethics.

Jieun Cho is a PhD student in the department of cultural anthropology. Her research considers how mothers in nuclear-affected families in Japan manage radiation risk for their children.

I am examining the role of anthropogenic disturbance in shaping microbial communities. Bacteria are some of the oldest living lifeforms and they inhabit almost every habitat on Earth. This includes the internal ecosystems of humans and animal hosts (i.e. in their guts). These communities, known as microbiomes, are invaluable to the host’s health and wellbeing.

As an ecologist and microbiologist, I aim to address questions such as (a) what are the factors that shape commensal microbial communities and (b) how do microbiomes influence their host’s health? Answering these questions requires considering both the host’s natural ecology and the impacts of anthropogenic factors. I am particularly interested in how specific facets of the Anthropocene, such as pervasive antibiotic use and increasing human-wildlife interactions, can impact both environmental bacteria and the microbiomes of wildlife. The rapid and global spread of antibiotic resistance, known as the ‘resistance crisis’, is a consequence of Anthropocene behaviors. It poses a growing threat to human health. Despite the potentially severe consequences of the resistance crisis, we know little about its impact on the environment and wildlife.

This summer I was able to travel to Madagascar to conduct research with ring-tailed lemurs in their natural environment. Lemurs are one of the most endangered animals on the planet largely due to increasing anthropogenic disturbance (i.e., habitat contamination and destruction, and the illegal pet trade). I am studying the prevalence of antibiotic resistance in (a) natural ecosystems and (b) lemur microbiomes, and (c) how this antibiotic resistance influences lemur health. Understanding and mitigating the negative impacts of the Anthropocene on lemur populations will be vital to future conservation efforts for these endangered primates.

The goal of my research is to highlight how the Anthropocene can influence the relationships between microbes, the environment, and the earth’s many inhabitants.

Sally Bornbusch is a PhD candidate in the department of Evolutionary Anthropology. She studies the effects of human antibiotic use on the gut microbes of wildlife.

For my Luce Anthropocene Farm Fellowship, I explored the spatial and temporal history of land use in the area once farmed by the Couch family. It now contains the Duke Campus Farm and the Duke Forest’s Couch and Widener Tracts, among other things.

The story of this land is an Anthropocene tragedy that ends on a hopeful note. It includes the rise of a large family farm, freed slaves and survival through war, degradation of soil through cotton and tobacco, financial difficulties, and, currently, soil restoration through reforestation and through sustainable practices on the Duke Campus Farm. Through it all, forests grew, creeks flowed, and people harvested and hunted from the land. In this space, cultural and natural history intertwine and layer atop each other. One cannot understand the landscape without considering people, or people’s actions without understanding the land upon which they lived and worked.

This interdependence, to me, is a defining feature of the Anthropocene. In my dissertation, I explore human-made and -modified aquatic ecosystems. I propose that low expectations of human-influenced systems may self-fulfill, that policy and management constructed with the idea

that human-modified systems are low quality and less worthy of protection may indeed yield poor ecological outcomes.

I found that irrigation-style ditches in California support similar invertebrate communities to natural creeks’, that drainage-style ditches in North Carolina support communities of wetland plants that vary with ditch type, and that natural and artificial lakes in the U.S. generate algal blooms in similar ways but with critical differences. In other words, in stream-like, wetland-like, and lake-like man-made waters, both human influence and natural ecosystem processes matter. These aquatic ecosystems often have a many-layered history of human actions, natural disturbances, and periods of relative calm and growth, rendering them both human and of the non-human earth.

My Luce Foundation Farm Fellowship project reminded me of the individual human stories often left out of the ecological record. These are partially traceable in written records, kept in this case by the Couch family. This information was more personable and personally relevant than the quantitative data with which I am accustomed to work.

For one thing, a family genealogy suggested that the Couch family ancestors trace back to my own hometown of Gloucester, Virginia. For another, my historian aunt was diagnosed with and died of brain cancer during the period of my fellowship, and I thought acutely of her as I sifted through historical records myself, finding kinship with my own ancestry in the research process. I venture that human and natural histories, such as my family has researched and the Couch family has lived, are not, at least not any longer, truly separable. We have imbued the soil that sustains us with records of ourselves.

To see the story map I made of the Couch tract, go here.

Chelsea Clifford recently defended her dissertation at the Nicholas School for the Environment at Duke. Her research focuses on the ecological limitations and potentials of artificial aquatic systems.

In her work The Need for Roots, the 20th century philosopher Simone Weil argues that, following the second world-war in Europe, people were uprooted. They were disconnected from both the land and the people standing before them. They were without stable reference to the world outside of themselves.

This uprootedness that Weil describes is, I think, not only a historical occurrence, but a present threat. A similar sense of uprootedness underwrites what we refer to as the Anthropocene — a way of naming our present ecological moment in which human action and inaction have drastically altered the world’s environmental systems. Many of us do not know where our food or water come from, where our waste goes, the systems of labor and infrastructure that provide our electric power; most of us are blind to and relatively disconnected from the millions of little machinations that make my life of relative material ease and comfort possible.

Attention plays a particular role in the restoration of roots in Weil’s framework, and in my own. By attention, Weil does not mean some brute exercise of will and thought; instead she means the exercise or discipline of noticing. Attention is an attempt to receive the world and other beings as gifts — wholly different, distinct, and autonomous. “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” Weil writes. Such generosity flows from an acknowledgment that what is outside of oneself is a real presence — not a tool or an obstacle to be used or circumvented, not an object to be totally comprehended or possessed.

The work of attention is what I take to be the true object of my own research, which sits at the confluence of theology and poetry. My work turns on literature as askesis — a Greek word meaning “practice” or “discipline”. There are widely varying traditions of ascetic practice across and within religious faiths, but a common thread running through them is that askesis reorients one’s vision — of God and / or of the world.

In the compression and complexity of literature, habits of focus and attention to both the word and the world refuse easy reduction. A poem, like a person or a place, is more than it appears to be, and always presents itself in excess. This has both literary and theological ramifications in my own framework, but may also provide a common language for resisting the commodifying and utilitarian currents that characterize the Anthropocene.

This summer, I attempted to put into practice my driving idea. I spent time with a particular tract of land — the Duke Campus Farm — and engaged its past and present by researching the history of the land and by working it. Holding these things together in a piece of literary non-fiction work helped me to see the place anew; to recognize and know it as a site of great complexity, difficulty, and wonder.

The Anthropocene is an era that, I believe, is both marked and shaped by Weil’s uprootedness. My own research is an attempt to find language to resist the reductionism and displacement that are the effects of that disconnect, and to find in language the resources to articulate anew the presence(s) and excess of the world around us.

Brett Stonecipher is a student at Duke Divinity School. He is interested in the relationship between bodily experiences of landscapes and nature writing.