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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.

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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