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Facing the Anthropocene: History, Ethics, and Local Soil

As part of the KIE’s Facing the Anthropocene initiative, funded by the Henry Luce Foundation, two graduate students were awarded 2018 Farm Fellowships this spring. Each of the two fellows is charged with working at Duke Campus Farm — alongside other interns, faculty, and staff — engaging in archival and field research on the history of land use and habitation on the Farm and the surrounding region. Topics they may choose to engage with include native land use, enslaved labor, environmental justice, food systems, future land use, and sustainable agriculture, past or present.

Photo courtesy of Duke Campus Farm.

Brett Stonecipher, a second-year MTS at the Divinity School and a 2018 Farm Fellow, describes his summer research project as focusing on “geographic place and theological imagination as they crystallize in language.” This helps explain how, within minutes of meeting, he and I are talking about Walker Evans and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the renowned 1941 book taking Alabama sharecroppers as its focus. He tells me he admires how Agee’s writing makes the familiar seem strange, how he is able to “reshape and re-enchant the vision of a landscape.”

“I am interested in the ways that place-focused writers — such as Agee, poet B.H. Fairchild, and others — use language to present re-enchanted visions of their places,” he says, “running counter to the disenchantment, linguistic and otherwise, that characterizes the Anthropocene.”

The 2018 Farm Fellowship he was awarded will enable Stonecipher to “think deeply about this farm site and its relationship to Durham’s past and present through both research and hands-on work, to encounter my driving research questions from the other side, [and] to devote attention to Duke Campus Farm through both manual labor and research.”

He summarizes his self-appointed task as “to intertwine the past and the present,” and hopes to writes about both in a way that reconciles them. Ultimately, he hopes to connect these questions to “immediate considerations of justice and land use” in Durham. By the end of the summer, he will have produced a work of prose that is accessible, inviting, and appealing to non-Anthropocene specialists.

“I hope to renew my own vision of Durham,” he says, “to learn to see it anew by attending to it, and then to share that way of seeing.”

— Emily Bowles

Fellows’ Summer Research Considers the Anthropocene in Madagascar, Japan, and Birmingham, Alabama

Facing the Anthropocene is a project that considers humanity’s place in the world and what it means for social, political, and institutional change. The Anthropocene marks the unprecedented moment when humanity becomes a dominant force in planetary history, responsible for widespread alterations of the world’s land, ocean, and atmospheric ecosystems.

Photo courtesy of Duke Lemur Center.

Led by professors Norman Wirzba and Jedediah Purdy, funded by the Henry Luce Foundation, and housed at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, Facing the Anthropocene offered three 2018 Summer Graduate Research Grants, open to Duke doctoral students incorporating investigations of Anthropocene themes into their research. Grant recipients each received a stipend of $6000.

Sally Bornbusch, a graduate student in Evolutionary Anthropology, will be traveling to Madagascar this summer to conduct research on lemur health and ecology, as well as implications of human decisions on wildlife and their ecosystems.

“Specifically, my research examines the effects of anthropogenic disturbances — including habitat destruction, environmental contamination, and human-wildlife interactions — on the gut microbiomes and overall health of ring-tailed lemurs.”

Of the connection between her work and ethics, Bornbusch says, “As scientists and people, understanding our ethical obligations to the natural world and its other inhabitants is vital in performing progressive and successful research. The ultimate goals of my research are not only to better understand animal biology but also to inform conservation practices and help shine a light on how ethics can play an important role in determining how we interact with the natural world.”

Jieun Cho’s research will take her to Japan this summer, where she will be meeting with refugees and returnees of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. “I will continue to work with the nuclear-affected, as well as scientists, lawyers, and activists, to see how low-level exposure to radiation is made sense of in different fields.”

One of Cho’s specific areas of interest is residents living in irradiated environments who are caretakers of children. She plans to work with a group of citizen-scientists studying this sub-group and in so doing, “think about how ‘exposure’ is complicated through practices on the ground. This will help me to understand the specific contexts and constraints of care work, and how caregiving becomes (im)possible through loose connections in degrading environments, both social and ecological.”

Her summer fellowship will enable Jieun to visit multiple locations in Japan, “which is crucial for a study of mobile populations. Thinking through ethnographic materials, I hope to join the broader conversation about cultures of science, social justice, and human agency in the Anthropocene.”

Ryan Juskus’s research goal for the summer is to deepen his ethnographic field research in North Birmingham, Alabama, where he is studying and participating in a citizen-driven environmental health project.

“Residents of this area suspect that their extremely poor health is related to two nearby coal facilities,” explains Juskus. “Federal investigators recently exposed a corruption scandal involving one of the coal companies, their lawyers, and local politicians in an effort to keep these residents’ suffering invisible to the public. After spending most of this year organizing for the project, the faith-based environmental organization that I research is launching a health study, and I will spend this summer preparing for and conducting fieldwork.”

The connection between Juskus’s current work and ethics are many. “For one,” he says, “citizen-driven science that puts scientific knowledge in the hands of residents is an ethical act.” In addition, because “the dominant narrative about the Anthropocene has been shaped by earth systems scientists…[it] sets out a rather narrow range of prescriptive measures: technical problems demand technical solutions. However, my work looks at how ethics is not a second, normative, and evaluative step that takes place only after a first, descriptive step is completed; rather, how we describe problems and narrate things already points toward those solutions that can be seen as responsible and appropriate.”

Lastly, Juskus considers another category for thinking about ethics and the Anthropocene: theology. “Through making visible the environmental injustice of coal pollution in the neighborhoods that nurtured Birmingham’s Civil Rights Movement,” he says, “[individuals] are also pointing toward the unseen forces of grace operating in creaturely life and human community to make all things new.”

— Emily Bowles

How to Not Think Alone in the Anthropocene

By Michaela Dwyer

Sometimes I like to envision all of us sharing a groupthink of early-week rituals, cleansing our minds from days past to begin each week anew. Mine recently has been reading “We Think Alone” every Monday morning. The multi-media artist and writer Miranda July has been running the curated email project, which just ended this week, since July 1. The premise is simple: anyone can subscribe, and every Monday July sends a giant email made up of already-sent messages from a diverse group of variously famous people like Lena Dunham, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Lee Smolin, and Kirsten Dunst. Each compiled email centers around a certain theme: “an angry email,” “an email about the body,” “an email with a song in it.” More than a ritual, these emails are confirmation that people—people I’ve never physically met—continue to exist in the world and think similar thoughts, write emails in the same formal and informal ways I do. The project is called “We Think Alone” but its format does the exact opposite, intentionally mashing up different voices and contexts along their points of connection.

It’s been harder for me to do this—this Monday Cleanse—recently, and especially as last Friday blended into Saturday-Sunday and then Monday of this week. Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines beginning on Friday and the death toll has since risen dramatically. On Sunday night I read Roy Scranton’s piece in the New York Times about the Anthropocene—a recent buzzword geologists and humanities folks alike have used to refer to “a new epoch in Earth’s geological history, one characterized by the arrival of the human species as a geological force.” His contention is that as humans, we’ve already done our part in destroying the natural world and must now learn to live within this destruction—and to do so, crucially, with the understanding that we’re already, in a way, dead. On Monday morning I drove to work and pulled into campus to the sound of scratchy BBC reports from the Philippines. A reporter was interviewing several small children, asking them if they were hungry. “Yes, yes,” they kept repeating, their high-pitched voices in stark contrast with the reporter’s deep British accent and trained newspeak. It was desperate in-the-moment journalism, pulled straight from the field, nothing polished. I suddenly felt physically ill. How do you go to work when this is happening in the world? How do you open your email and read “an email about a problem you’re having with your computer”? My thoughts were spiraling in the second-person, and fittingly so. During times like these I want an instruction manual for ethically being. I want someone, or something, to tell me if it’s okay to read and enjoy July’s email as I usually do. I want to know how long I can put thoughts about the typhoon on hold as I sit down at my desk and organize my daily tasks, post-it-notes, highlighters.

In his piece, Scranton accuses us precisely for living this way: “…humans are wired to believe that tomorrow will be much like today — it is unnatural for us to think that this way of life, this present moment, this order of things is not stable and permanent.” He says our desire for livable stability—put another, more ironic way, sustainable living—orients us toward disaster. And maybe this desire will come to define this era of the Anthropocene as an era of accumulated self-destruction. If any solution is possible, he posits it’s more serious groupthink: “learn[ing] how to die as a civilization.”

But an injunction like “hey, we need to collectively think a little more about the state of our [already-dead] existence” doesn’t seem to do much—and even seems deleteriously unethical—when more than 2,000 people die and 600,000 are displaced from a disaster, natural or not. Reading a think-piece like Scranton’s won’t solve this tension; reading Kant won’t do it; reading the compiled-and-curated emails of public figures won’t, either. But thinking about these issues and approaches in tandem—in connection, and in balance—doesn’t have to be wrong.

“We Think Alone” was commissioned by Swedish gallery Magasin 3 as part of a larger exhibition called “On the Tip of My Tongue.” The curators’ statement says that the collection of art projects “aim[s] to trigger situations and experiences that linger as if ‘just out of reach,’ to generate encounters that keep growing— in thought and through conversation—long after each actual event has ended.” In reality, on this day in November 2013, traveling either to the Philippines or to a white-walled Swedish art gallery is out of my reach. But I could, just like anyone else in the world with an email address, sign up for “We Think Alone” earlier this year (and, as you know, I did). I wanted to see what happened when I placed myself—my email-correspondent self—in the space of sustained technological connection with people I wouldn’t typically encounter. I often feel consumed and subsumed in buzzwords others attach to “my generation,” to “people like me.” We’re being trained to see something so pure and so distilled—ourselves in relation to each other—in emphatic balloon-type: collaboration! co-working! sharing! empathy! With “We Think Alone,” I (somewhat warily) drafted myself into a test-run of contrived global community. It wasn’t perfect. And it wasn’t enough to sustain me throughout the week, every week. And it’s not enough to sustain me when events in the world feel beyond my control. So maybe Scranton would applaud this ethos of self-aware unsustainability, though I’m not looking for his moral approval. I’m looking for more mechanisms to think and talk and be together, to live and die as ourselves, with each other, and outside of isolation, to figure out what we can change—alter, bring to light, frame in a new way— and what we cannot. And perhaps we can change that, too—we’re all living in this muck of uncertainty, after all.