The Anthropocene: Challenging the Disciplines

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Workshop Report (8 April 2019, Vienna, Austria)
Vienna Anthropocene Network, University of Vienna

By Eugenio Luciano

On 8 April 2019, the University of Vienna hosted the workshop “The Anthropocene: Challenging the Disciplines” organized by the recently established Vienna Anthropocene Network. The 12th floor Sky Lounge of the university building at Oskar-Morgenstern-Platz 1 granted the participants a breath-taking rooftop view over the city of Vienna. The surrounding mixture of medieval churches and cathedrals, mountains, and modern architecture constituted the perfect setting to discuss history, nature, and science at the intersection of perhaps the most debated concept of the last decade: the Anthropocene.

Many important voices in the Anthropocene international research attended the workshop, including members of the Anthropocene Working Group such as Colin Waters, Matt Edgeworth, Davor Vidas, and Michael Wagreich. Jean-Robert Tyran, vice-rector for research and international affairs at the University of Vienna, inaugurated the event with preliminary remarks on the value and importance of funding multidisciplinary efforts in an often-conservative academic environment. Afterwards, the workshop organizers and moderators Eva Horn (professor of German literature at the University of Vienna and current fellow at the Rachel Carson Center) and Michael Wagreich opened the workshop by delineating its trajectory and scope.

It was clear from the first keynote speaker, Davor Vidas֪, research professor in international law and director of the Law of the Sea program at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, Norway, that the issue at stake was not how single disciplines define the Anthropocene, but rather how they operate given that we are already in the Anthropocene. Epistemologically speaking, the Anthropocene as a shift of biogeochemical magnitude is not a matter of interpretation—it is an objective (and ongoing) circumstance. Its traces will last in strata millions of years into the future. The question was thus how and why disciplines should model this challenging state of affairs, and what conceptual framework they should refer to in doing so.

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Developing this framework was a key theme of the workshop. Vidas identified two tasks of the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG)—the main body working on the formalization of the Anthropocene within the International Chronostratigraphic Chart and the International Geological Time Scale. The first was to scientifically identify and assess the geological and stratigraphical evidence; the second, to explain the utility of the formalization of the Anthropocene for geology, scientists, and scholars from other non-scientific disciplines. These two tasks, Vidas argued, are of different natures, but still related. The first task is a purely scientific endeavour. The AWG follows a set of very strict scientific rules and protocols. Its outcome needs to be conclusive and comprehensive. This is a very important task, in that it makes the Anthropocene a scientific concern rather than a cultural object, which the scientific community would have less interest in. The second task is about being convincing. Research on the Anthropocene has political obvious political implications, but it is not a political program per se. Against criticism alleging a hidden political agenda behind the AWG, Vidas stressed how remaining in the  Holocene—our current geological epoch—is itself also a political claim, in that it means denying the dawn of another, documented, state of affairs .

The question concerning the political dimension of the Anthropocene and the broader socio-political role of natural sciences did not constitute a major discussion topic, and it remained undiscussed throughout the workshop. Nevertheless, it was made clear that the AWG was guided by scientific reasoning rather than a specific political aim, and criticism of this was dismissed—with some sarcasm—early in the workshop.

A recurrent theme was criticism from scientists of traditional sociological approaches to the Anthropocene, and in particular from Bronislaw Szerszynski, a reader in sociology from the University of Lancaster exploring new approaches in studying the relationship between humans, environment, and technology. His presentation, called Thinking Through the Planet, played on the ambivalence of its title, which could mean both analysing the planet carefully, and thinking through it. He identified three constitutive knowledge interests of the Anthropocene; the same interests, he argued, that make up knowledge in the first place:

  1. Epistemological: what we know about the state of affairs that makes up the Anthropocene and how we know it.
  2. Political: the implications on a socio-political level of formalizing (or not) the Anthropocene as a new geological epoch.
  3. Ontological: how the Anthropocene reconfigures the ontological relations between humans and non-humans (insofar as the Anthropocene goes beyond the human, redefines how things are).

These interests led Szerszynski´s critique of social thought, which he claimed need a change because it has strayed too far away from the comfort zone of social sciences. Social thinking in the Anthropocene ignores deep time, the stability of the Earth, the discontinuity between Earth time and human time, and builds the notion of Earth based only on its lithosphere, ignoring deep space. He criticized the emphasis on relationality, since we depend on things that do not depend on us. For these reasons, Szerszynski argued that the social thought is unprepared for planetary thinking. But what does planetary thinking look like? This is the challenge that the Anthropocene poses to the social sciences and humanities alike.

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What is the status of the scientific research conducted by the AWG? Colin Waters and Matt Edgeworth—respectively, a geologist and an archaeologist from the University of Leicester—provided an overview of the group’s research of the last decade, along with new material. Moving away from the British-centric idea of the Industrial Revolution as a possible starting date for the Anthropocene, they are now looking at a variety of signals, such as plutonium, plastic sediments, and fossil records. A curious example of the latter is that of the domesticated chicken (Gallus gallus domesticus) and the morphological changes of its bones due to human domestication. Similarly, Edgeworth’s research investigates stratigraphic evidence that departs from existing frameworks. This is archaeological evidence that is not yet accepted by geologists as evidence for the beginning of the Anthropocene. The example he provided was landfill, which constitutes “extraordinary Anthropocene landscapes” created by humans as geological agents. Landfill represents a rich pool of ‘mummified’ (rather than fossilized) stratigraphic material of various kinds, which will be detectable in the distant future (assuming there will be such a future for humankind, as one of the participants pointed out), and testimony to the geological nature of human activities.

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The challenges that disciplines such as archaeology, stratigraphy, and the social sciences face are a product of a shift into a new conceptual framework brought about by the Anthropocene. These challenges are mostly defined by the organization of knowledge itself among specialized disciplines, and the multidisciplinary exchange of such knowledge. This exchange might happen in different ways, and with different outcomes. Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik, an expert in Chinese historiography and biography, proposed a new approach to practice multidisciplinarity based on four rules:

Rule 1: “Do not re-invent the world from a euro-centric perspective, but acknowledge that a global problem can have multiple local solutions.”

Rule 2: “Do not replicate the hierarchy of academia, but identify the core disciplines and the peripheral “service” disciplines according to the necessities of your project in an open discussion among the participating disciplines.”

Rule 3: “Overcome prejudices and build trust among the collaborating disciplines with the aim of establishing equality among the partners.”

Rule 4: “Re-focus your attention from complying with existing rules to inventing new ones.”

If the Anthropocene constitutes a challenge to disciplines, it constitutes a challenge to knowledge as well. This explain perfectly why disciplines with different histories, methodologies, and goals are being rapidly affected by the dawn of this new state of affairs. Jürgen Renn, a historian of science researching on structural changes in systems of knowledge, sees the Anthropocene not only as a challenge, but also as an opportunity for the history of science to break out from its scholastic fragmentation and look to a larger goal. The Anthropocene cannot be understood without taking into account global history, human history, and the history of knowledge. The result of these convergent timelines symptomize the closing of the rift between historical and geological time scale.

The importance of discussing knowledge was acknowledged in a very interesting contribution from Manfred Laubichler, President’s Professor of Theoretical Biology and History of Biology and director of the Global Biosocial Complexity Initiative at Arizona State University. His presentation asked two specific questions: what knowledge do we need to understand the Anthropocene, and what knowledge do we need to survive it.

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The first question is a descriptive one. It looks at stratigraphy as a central discipline in understanding the Anthropocene as a state of affairs. However, another crucial contribution is provided by Extended Evolutionary Theory, an eco-evolutionary approach combining niche construction and ecological inheritance to genetic inheritance. This framework applies to evolution of complex systems at all scales (and species), including cultural and technological evolution. Another major concept is that elaborated in The Major Transitions in Evolution by John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry, involving structural changes in the way information is stored and transmitted among living beings in their environments. As Laubichler argues, the Anthropocene might identify the next major transition in life´s history.

The second question is the most problematic one. It requires assessment of normative nature—what knowledge is best for humans to survive what might be their own culturally produced extinction. Answering this question requires understanding transformations of complex system by also accounting for historical, cultural, sociological, or political perspectives on the Anthropocene. This is where the convergence of knowledge—and the challenges to its modes of organization—is most evident.

As a philosopher interested in the development and epistemology of the Anthropocene within the scientific debate, I could not have been happier to see participants provide evidence supporting an underlying theory of the Anthropocene, which in my research I identify as an interdisciplinary scientific theory. However, I was also surprised to see the Anthropocene referred to as a concept, a notion, a word, or a narrative rather than a theory—even by scientists themselves. A theory is not dissociated from the realm of materiality. On the contrary, it efficiently represents and explains a specific state of affairs. It connects dots through a coherent and consistent semantic network, rendering a possible (that is, highly probably and strongly plausible) vision of a specific state of affairs—the Anthropocene.

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The workshop made two points very clear. The first, that the Anthropocene has very little to do with social constructivism, and even less with anthropocentrism. As Franz Mauelshagen, an environmental historian and senior fellow at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, claimed, the sociological explanation does not necessarily need to be the ultimate answer, nor the only answer. The state of affairs characteristic of the Anthropocene is independent of us (although we still represent a measure of it), yet brought about by us, and certainly some of ‘us’ more than others. The second point has to do with the domain of the Anthropocene. Multidisciplinarity is neither merely a function of the stratigraphic quest of formalizing the Anthropocene (in this respect, I agree with Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik on the non-hierarchy of knowledge), nor an indistinct welcome to all possible interpretations of it. It is rather a challenge in rethinking standard models of analysis among disciplines, especially those sitting at the frontline of the Anthropocene research. This stance does not exclude possible humanistic interpretations of the Anthropocene, nor does it neglect contextualizing the Anthropocene and the political debate surrounding it. What it does is delimit the task posed by natural sciences, especially those concerned with assessing the stratigraphical markers for this proposed new epoch.

The Anthropocene has ignited interest worldwide. Several journals now exist under its name, such as Anthropocene, The Anthropocene Review, and Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene. The University of York has inaugurated the Leverhulme Center for Anthropocene Biodiversity, and the University of Oslo has opened the Centre for Biogeochemistry in the Anthropocene. Last year, a Center for Anthropocene Studies was established at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. This is symptom of an increasing recognition of this global phenomenon, and the urge of further inquiring into this unprecedented stage in the history of Homo sapiens.

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