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