“On Teaching the Anthropocene: A Q&A with Michael Dango, Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, Benjamin Morgan, and Emily Lynn Osborn”

This is part of our special feature Facing the Anthropocene.

Practicing Interdisciplinarity to Address Climate Change: The Anthropocene at the Intersection of Social and Natural Science and the Humanities

The Neubauer Collegium at the University of Chicago is an illustration of how productive disciplinary crosspollination can be in addressing global complexities of our time such as climate change. In conjunction with the sharing with EuropeNow of their reading group syllabi, I had a chance to discuss the concept of the Anthropocene with four scholars from the University of Chicago who have set their efforts to try to expand and deepen the conversation about the impact of the human species on the planet. By bringing together social and natural scientists, humanists, non-academics and even the work of artists, the course they designed engages with an array of scholarship to detangle the multi-layered, multi-actor, trans-temporal and multi-scalar encounter of human beings with Earth systems.

Emily Lynn Osborn, Fredrik Jonsson, Benjamin Morgan, and Michael Dango unite their fields of expertise (African history, British history, and English literature) to share their approach to the practice of interdisciplinarity in climate research, the opportunities it creates and the challenges it presents. While exploring different conceptualizations of the impact of humans on the planet in various seminal texts, they also focus on place-based case studies and practices, showing that an important requirement in responding to the environmental crisis lies in the building of a community of scholarship that transcends the limits of the classroom and the boundaries of campuses.

–Hélène Ducros for EuropeNow


EuropeNow To contextualize the syllabi of the “Climate Change: Disciplinary Challenges to the Humanities and the Social Sciences” reading group at the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, could you tell me about how the reading group came about?

Fredrik Albritton Jonsson I think it’s fair to think of the Neubauer syllabus as an expression of the “Chicago school” on climate change and the Anthropocene – including not just us and our students but also Julia Adeney Thomas (Department of History, University of Notre Dame, but resident in Hyde Park) and Dipesh Chakrabarty (Department of History, University of Chicago).

The concept of the Anthropocene was coined in 2000 by the chemist Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene Stoermer to draw attention to a major rupture in the history of the planet. Fossil fuel emissions from the rich economies have disrupted the relative stability of the Holocene climate. The impact of economic growth on ecosystems around the world is so great that we should begin to think of it in terms of geological force. Modern economies threaten to disrupt the basic earth system processes that keep the planet habitable. This raises pressing questions far beyond earth system science. How do we as historians assimilate the Anthropocene into our conceptual frameworks?

Emily Lynn Osborn Intellectually, the reading group grew out of an occasional lecture series on climate change that Dipesh (Chakrabarty) and Fredrik (Jonsson) ran two years previously. We decided that we wanted to continue the effort, albeit in a more consistent manner and in a way that would create a sustained conversation and core group of contributors. Our effort was driven by a concern that the ecological crisis of the Anthropocene is often framed as a matter of concern primary to politics and science.  But of course the Anthropocene has enormous implications for all peoples, as well as for a broad range of scholarly disciplines. To fully address the history and scale of the present situation requires new forms of collaborative research across a much broader spectrum of disciplines, and our “Climate Change: Disciplinary Challenges to the Humanities and the Social Sciences” workshop was built upon that premise. There is a relatively new initiative here at the University of Chicago called the Neubauer Collegium, which is designed to support scholars involved in interdisciplinary research projects. Thus, the institutional point of origin to our workshop grew out of our relationship to the Neubauer, which sponsored our efforts, and whose mission and commitments neatly aligned with our own. We were privileged to find and hire a graduate student, Michael Dango, who has an abiding interest in the ways that human beings construct and understand their environment. In short: common interest, happenstance and organizational support helped to make possible our workshop.

EuropeNow In composing the syllabi and selecting readings and speakers, what were your main objectives?

Emily Lynn Osborn Our main objective was to engage with research and scholars whose work intersects with climate science, environmental studies and the humanities. We arranged to have three scholars visit us during the year, one each quarter. Given that we were interested in moving into new disciplinary realms, we felt it was important to not only read the research of our visitors, but to also delve into some of the readings that they thought were critical, in one or another, to thinking about the Anthropocene.  As a result, we invited our visitors to curate a series of texts, which we discussed prior to their arrival on campus.  In this way, we established a common ground, a set of vocabulary, concepts, and questions, which helped to anchor and advance the dialogue that we carried out with our visitors when they arrived on campus.

Our meetings were often animated, but occasionally not. Our effort to delve into readings and texts that stretched our own individual disciplinary orientation often sparked lively conversations, but sometimes spawned frustration.  We learned a great deal from the process either way, from our successes and our stumbles.

The workshop was voluntary, but participation in this kind of intellectual community is not novel to this institution – there is an energetic workshop culture here at the University of Chicago, and workshops play an integral in graduate training and scholarly research in disciplines across the Social Sciences and Humanities.  The organization of this particular workshop differed from others, but it definitely benefited from the general commitment among faculty and students to this kind of scholarly engagement.  Participants in this workshop included faculty and graduate students from History, English, Film and Media studies, South Asian Languages and Cultures, and History of science. Two post-doctoral fellows from the Franke Institute for the Humanities joined regularly, and two climate scientists who are faculty members also occasionally took part. At the end of the year, we organized a symposium at the Neubauer where we brought in three of the people who curated the readings, as well as some other scholars carrying out research relevant to our interests.

EuropeNow In your course series, did you come up with a consensual definition of the Anthropocene?

Michael Dango We didn’t come to a specific shared definition of the Anthropocene, and part of the aim of the syllabus was also to explore alternative namings—the Capitalocene, the Chthulucene —to see what they bring to the fore in our discussion of the causes and effects of a global distribution of environmental risk.  In part, the many different definitions available for the Anthropocene also provided a resource for mediating multi-disciplinary perspectives, because the word came to serve a bit like a boundary object: something around which discussion could develop even if not given strict definition.  In one of our discussions, we considered how the looseness of “Anthropocene”—and its multiple uses in both the humanities and social sciences—was similar to the work that “queer” did as a concept for academic work in the 1990s.  A great deal of fertile work was organized by the disorganization of “queer” as a concept, with scholars from multiple fields entering into conversation with each other whether or not they could put into words a shared definition of the word.  Perhaps “Anthropocene” can be a similarly generative concept, pointing people to shared political commitments and academic questions even without being pinned down in a specific definition.

Emily Lynn Osborn We developed what I would say was a basic understanding of what we meant by referring to the Anthropocene. We delved into debates about dating the origin of the Anthropocene. We discussed the research of authors who propose alternatives terms, such as the Capitalocene, to describe human-ecological interactions. Ultimately, our discussions moved from the premise that human beings have become geological actors who influence and shape the dynamics of the Earth’s ecology. And we likewise accepted that it is no longer possible to think about the condition of this planet and its environments without considering how human beings and our material actions shape the operation of the earth’s ecological systems.

EuropeNow Why do you think that interdisciplinarity is particularly important to approach the issue of climate change and more generally the impact of humans on the planet? How do you see the relationship between the natural sciences, the humanities, social sciences and the arts articulating to provide a better understanding of climate change?

Fredrik Albritton Jonsson It is a transdisciplinary approach, in contrast with science studies, so science is treated as a something more than the mask of ideology. This means that we spend a lot of energy trying to “translate” between fields, not just between climate science and the humanities, but also between the different approaches to the Anthropocene within history and literature. As an example of that: Jason Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (2015) versus Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us (2016). .

The approach is also multi-scalar. If modern history is revealed to be a story of massive unintended environmental consequences, where does this leave our old narratives of progress, liberty and equality? Clearly, the Anthropocene concept nudges us in the direction of big and deep histories, embracing planetary and geological scales. But just as importantly, it also opens up new areas of research on smaller scales. What were the social, cultural and political origins of this unfolding crisis? How have different societies coped with climate change in the past? Can we draw on historical experience and literary representations to imagine alternative ways of thinking about the economy and politics? In this way, I think the Anthropocene framework, for all its troubling and difficult questions, will also be a source of deep intellectual excitement and creative ferment.

Emily Lynn Osborn The Anthropocene is a referent to a historical process. Disciplines across the humanities and social sciences are devoted to understanding human beings, their behaviors, ideas, languages, and actions. Once the Anthropocene is apprehended as a profoundly human-generated problem, it becomes obvious why humanists should be thinking about it. Historians are very good at moving across time and space and considering issues of scale and locale. Scholars of culture, literature, and linguistics help to illuminate the norms, values and creative practices that people use to interact with each other and make sense of the world around them. In effect, there are numerous openings for scholars from a variety of traditions and disciplines to help us to understand why humans do and think and act as they do – and to track their material corollaries. Which have, ultimately and cumulatively, produced the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is, in effect, a record of material transformations – and that transformation is also a product of the complex interactions of values and cultures, and of social, political and economic processes.

One important lesson I drew from our workshop pertains to science fiction; I had not previously given much thought to how science fiction could be useful for thinking about the Anthropocene. But I came to recognize how, in a fundamental way, scientists and fiction writers are not so very different – they simply use different sources of evidence and forms of interpretation and analysis. Scientists studying climate change, for example, use empirical data to draw interpretations, discern patterns, posit causal connections, and make predictions. Science fiction writers likewise uncover patterns and make predictions, but they do so from an evidentiary base consisting of social forms, cultural practices, scientific knowledge and fertile imaginaries. While climate scientist can clearly map out and demonstrate the geological effect of, for example, rising sea levels, science fiction writers can help us to contemplate the political and social ramifications of that change. As a result of this workshop, I came to appreciate the way that fiction writing can help us to ponder the roots of the Anthropocene and hypothesize its future consequences.

We also thought about how the Anthropocene connects to the arts when we created a poster to visually communicate climate change. We explored some of the ways artists have grappled with climate change and tried to represent it in various mediums – ultimately, we decided to use (with his permission) photographs produced by Olafur Eliasson in the Weather Project. Those images resonated with our project – they include human beings and built forms, and suggest the staggering force and palpable immediacy of environmental forces.The images are overwhelming and stunning – and yet they also contain easily identifiable, scalable elements. In a sense, that exhibit encapsulates many of the themes that we discussed. Thinking about it now, I wish we had spent some time at the end of the workshop revisiting Eliasson’s work and reflecting upon what we learned about it over the course of the year.

In terms of other disciplines – we were occasionally joined by two professors of the natural sciences, they work on climate change. One of them, Liz Moyer, does work on atmospheric conditions of water vapor and on climatic and human responses to greenhouse gas production. The other, David Archer, is an expert on the global carbon cycle and he has made it a mission to engage a wider audience– he has taught classes on the science of climate change on Coursera.org and has written books meant for lay readers on the topic of climate change, one of which we read in our group, The Long Thaw: How Humans Are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of Earth’s Climate (2010).  Our discussions revealed that a great deal can be accomplished when we come out of our disciplinary silos and bring the hard and soft sciences together with the humanities. But there are also limits – disciplinary and otherwise – that act upon those conversations.

Michael Dango Humanistic inquiry asks us to consider, as a supplement to the scientific and historical questions of when and how global environmental crisis emerged, what cultural technologies and representations make it possible for us to sense a change in our planetary world and intervene into it.  For instance, if the scientific question around periodization is when did the Anthropocene begin—at what point does the geological record reflect irreversible human impact, and is this historically calibrated to, e.g., the Colombian Exchange or the Industrial Revolution or the Atomic Age?—then a humanistic question is: when did people start to feel the importance of climate or develop a consciousness of their imbrication with planetary boundaries and ecologies and the possibility or necessity of politicizing this feeling? And how is this consciousness distributed across and within cultures?  What is the cultural record of the Anthropocene, and what can cultural products do both to historicize and contextualize the scientific record and to provide representations that translate or intervene into that record?  The humanities help us not only to better theorize the “Anthropos” of the Anthropocene—by querying definitions and critiques of the “human” as a concept—but also to feel out for its ongoing human dimensions: the affects, fantasies, ideas, and ideologies implicated by and involved in environmental conditions and processes.  Only by understanding how people process their environmental world in belief and in feeling can we also understand how new beliefs, feelings, and desires can be cultivated to shape activism for the world.

EuropeNow How do you think the reading group might help in the practice of interdisciplinarity beyond the course and readings?

Michael Dango One practice we adopted in the reading group was having a respondent for each set of readings who may have come from a different discipline—or certainly a different specialization—than the writers of the essays under review.  Coming from a different perspective, the respondent naturally translated some of the more technical concepts of the papers into vernacular language that in turn gave us a common idiom for talking about the readings.  This work of translation—developing a common language that is intermediate between the specialized languages of particular disciplines—is a practice we imagine to be fundamental to any interdisciplinary reading group.

Emily Lynn Osborn I will concede that it proved to be challenging. When we read historical material, historians had the most to say, when we were going over literary works, scholars of literature were most comfortable. It was an ongoing effort to try to come to terms with the stakes of these different scholarly and disciplinary paradigms. There is a tremendous amount to be gained by thinking critically across disciplinary boundaries. At the same time, we also granted disciplines certain fundamental parameters and interpretations – we did not dispute, for example, the core findings and arguments of climate scientists who argue that human actions have influenced the workings of ecological processes.

Now that the workshop has ended, we, the organizers still continue to meet, about once or twice a quarter, typically with various interested graduate students and an outside visitor. The whole endeavor has proved to be productive, weighty, of course depressing – and very exciting, intellectually.

EuropeNow In your teaching experience, what may be the most difficult aspects of discussing climate change or the Anthropocene with students or members of the university community? And the most exciting aspects?

Benjamin Morgan One very basic difficulty is that existing disciplinary and institutional structures are not always well-adapted for a topic like the Anthropocene, which requires many different modes of disciplinary expertise. If you aren’t teaching in the natural or physical sciences, a course on the Anthropocene may not fit well into the usual menu of survey courses or your department’s teaching needs, and it is a topic that requires students to have a basic awareness of the science of climate change, ocean acidification, extinction, and so forth. In this sense, many of the intellectual questions about disciplinarity that we posed through our project are reflected at an institutional level when it comes to teaching. As an English professor, I’ve designed a course on climate fiction from the nineteenth century to the present that invited students to place current discussions of global environmental crisis in a much longer history of cultural narratives of apocalypse, utopia, nature writing, and ecological awareness. An upside is that students are very energized by a topic that has obvious relevance to their lives and their future, and that allows them to place material they may have studied in other courses in a new light. Undergraduates in my courses have often said to me that they appreciate the opportunity to think about the broader cultural implications of some of the topics that they have touched on in science classes, where such questions are beyond the purview of the course.

EuropeNow How does your own research inform your teaching of climate change? How do you draw on your research experience in the classroom?

Benjamin Morgan I am currently researching a book that explores how narratives and images have historically attempted to bring the vast scales of geological time or human planetary existence down to human size. Beginning with the writings of eighteenth-century geologists and paleontologists, literature and visual culture has grappled with understanding the human place in deep time. This question returns to us with special urgency in the Anthropocene. My teaching often begins with these same questions: for example, I’ll ask students to analyze a range of texts that try to give readers a sense of deep time, from the Victorian geologist Charles Lyell to Darwin’s description of natural selection to contemporary popular works about climate change that imagine what the earth may look like in a hundred thousand years. I ask students to understand the problem of imagining and representing inhuman scales of time and space not just as a current concern, but as one that extends deep into cultural history. More generally, I introduce students to some of the critical debates about the Anthropocene around environmental justice and the uneven distribution of responsibility and harm that are part of the broader parameters of my research. We discuss how a science fiction novel like Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, which contemplates the intersection of radical income inequality, global warming, and genetic engineering, can offer a unique perspective on recent critical debates about the Anthropocene versus the Capitalocene, or humans versus capitalism as agents of ecological crisis.

EuropeNow Your course series was open to the public. What do you think is the role of civil society in the debate over the Anthropocene?

Emily Lynn Osborn It was open to the wider public. We attracted a small contingent of people from the local community who attended with some regularity: A scientist at a federal agency, an environmental activist who has done a good deal of work for a global environmental non-profit; another individual who is a local community activist and concerned citizen.  It was terrific to have people from beyond the academy in the room. When the presumptions of a particular disciplinary approach or argument ran into challenges or faced skepticism, sometimes that questioning came from other academics, and sometimes from lay people. The problem of the Anthropocene and its implications for our future on Earth involves all people, and our group became a place to test ideas and arguments about how to conceive of and understand the crisis in which we find ourselves.

Michael Dango Although the popularity of recent events such as the March for Science begin to suggest an increasing engagement of the public with science and with using the facts presented by science as the ground of political work, historically, however, the work of translating research from the academy into the public has been as difficult as translating work between disciplines within the academy.  Scientists, including political scientists, and humanists alike can learn from the public techniques and strategies for translation, and that will be an important part of how we talk about climate change and the Anthropocene moving forward.  At the same time, recent events remind us that researchers and theorists are themselves part of the public and civil society.

EuropeNow How is climate change changing the disciplines and shaping research and teaching agendas in the humanities, social sciences or natural sciences?

Michael Dango A frequent discussion topic for the reading group was the issue of scale, and how thinking about processes both longer in time and larger in size than we are used to thinking about in our respective social scientific and humanistic disciplines requires us to develop not only new objects of inquiry, but also new methods of reading and analyzing them.

Emily Lynn Osborn The Anthropocene challenges us to consider what we mean by “development” and “progress.” I am a West Africanist and I have lived and worked in some very poor countries in that region, nations that we typically label as “underdeveloped.”  And they are.  But it is also clear that the means and methods that we currently use to generate economic development and to enhance quality of life and well-being depend centrally upon fossil fuels. From education to infrastructure, our efforts to improve our material conditions invariably draw on a resource that takes a huge toll on the earth and the health of its systems.  If our mode of creating “progress” is taxing the Earth to the point of making it uninhabitable for future generations, what sort of development is that? On the other hand, it would be immoral and unethical to deny people the technologies and practices and resources – from healthcare to communication to transportation systems – that have become commonplace in industrialized parts of the world. Thinking about the steady toll on the earth’s resources being created by human activities thus destabilizes some fundamental ideas about, for example, the relationship of resources to economic growth. That perspective also raises a whole new set of questions about how we should interpret and characterize the past, present and future, questions that can and should be considered by scholars from a wide range of disciplines.

EuropeNow Were there moments in class that you found particularly telling about participant’s approaches and engagement with the issue of climate change and how the course resonated with their concerns?

Emily Lynn Osborn One moment that stands out for me is when one of our participants, a local resident, talked about grassland habitats in Central Illinois and an initiative to return some parcels of land to a condition that more closely resembles how they functioned prior to the advent of industrialized agriculture. This participant discussed the difficulties of that undertaking. Of course we know how widespread and profound is the human fingerprint on the world around us, but there was something very vivid and visceral that emerged in that discussion, in the challenges faced by environmentalists, concerned citizens and others who labored and toiled in soils and streams. The massive scale at which the Anthropocene takes place can be so overwhelming, vast and abstract; there is, as a result, great utility in case studies that bring precision, specificity and tangible proximity to the effects of human-ecological interactions.

Michael Dango I don’t have a particular anecdote in mind but I can comment generally that having a multi-disciplinary reading group made it so that no one is an expert on everything, in turn creating a space that feels more collaborative and generous in terms of trying to understand where people are coming from and what they contribute to a discussion. This is an ideal setting for graduate students to be invited into discussion.  It also made the space accessible for members of the public, because we are all together learning from experts and developing knowledge together.  Instead of a classroom setting where there are more clearly defined hierarchies of expertise, the reading group setting feels more communal or democratic.



Michael Dango is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Chicago, where he is also a residential fellow in the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality.  His dissertation, on how people are adapting to contemporary conditions of political and environmental instability, is “Style Today: A Taxonomy of Actions.”  His articles on contemporary literature and the global distribution of risk are forthcoming this summer from journals including Novel and Social Text.

Fredrik Albritton Jonsson is an Associate Professor of British History and also a member of the Committee for Conceptual and Historical Studies in Science at the University of Chicago. He is the author of Enlightenment’s Frontier: the Scottish Highlands and the Origins of Environmentalism (Yale University Press, 2013) and, with Vicky Albritton, Green Victorians: the Simple Life in John Ruskin’s Lake District (University of Chicago Press, 2016). He is currently working on several projects, including a history of fossil fuel and science in the Victorian era and a critical study of the Holocene norm in Anthropocene science.

Benjamin Morgan is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Outward Mind: Materialist Aesthetics in Victorian Science and Literature (Chicago University Press, 2017). His recent publications have addressed the ecological imagination of nineteenth-century literary genres such as the utopian novel, decadent writing, and naturalism. He is currently working on a study of how the literature and visual culture of industrial Britain depicted inhuman scales of time and space.

Emily Lynn Osborn is an Associate Professor of African History at the University of Chicago. She is the author of Our New Husbands Are Here: Households, Gender, and Politics in a West African State from the Slave Trade to Colonial Rule (Ohio University Press, 2011). She has also published on colonial intermediaries, labor, the color red in the Atlantic world, and the global history of chemistry. Currently, she is writing a book on artisans and processes of technology transfer and diffusion in West Africa.

Hélène B. Ducros is Chair of the Research Editorial Committee at EuropeNow. She obtained a JD and PhD in geography from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Her research delves into rural livelihoods, heritage preservation and the effect of tourism and branding on historical landscapes construction, perception, and imaginaries. Starting this Fall, she will be Lecturer in International Studies at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington.

Photo: Pollution, Jan Smith | Flickr
Click here to view Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, Benjamin Morgan, and Emil Lynn Osborn’s syllabus on Climate Change: Disciplinary Challenges to the Humanities & the Social Sciences

Published on May 2, 2017

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