Rethinking the 'age of the human'

Research news
14 November 2018

By all accounts, you’ll be hearing the word “Anthropocene” more and more, especially as universities around the world are starting to host “Anthropocene Campuses.” But what does it mean? Chair of the Anthropocene Campus Melbourne and Alfred Deakin Institute researcher Dr Timothy Neale explains.

The term “Anthropocene” has become many things since it was coined by geologists in the 1980s and popularised in the 2000s. On one level, the Anthropocene is a proposed geological epoch (the ‘age of the human’) debated by geologists who variously disagree on how human beings’ environmental impacts have been etched into Earth’s geological strata. From a geological perspective, this is a matter of deciding how we are written into rock.

At another level, beyond geology, the Anthropocene is a social idea, an inspiration for debates by a legion of interested parties about the terrible environmental mess we are in, how we got here and how we can get out of it. Whether or not the geologists agree that “the Anthropocene” exists, the very thought of it has put in motion a lot of important reflection about how and why we are pushing this planet beyond habitability – for humans and other animals, at least.

It is this second sense of the Anthropocene that motivates the Anthropocene Campus events that have been taking place around the Western world since 2014, with participants from all over the world.

Starting in Berlin, and supported by the Haus der Kulturen der Welt and Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, these “campuses” bring together a range of scholars and artists from different backgrounds for several days of interdisciplinary wrangling. Unlike most academic conferences, they are not based around presentations and PowerPoint slides, but rather involve several days of workshops, art exhibits, fieldtrips and the occasional keynote lecture.

From my understanding, the first Anthropocene Campus in Berlin in 2014 was motivated by a sense that the challenges we face – particularly anthropogenic climate change and mass extinction – require ‘pathways towards a new interdisciplinary culture of knowledge and education’. Another way of saying this is that the mess we face is so complex and all-encompassing that we cannot maintain the robust disciplinary boundaries between the arts, social sciences and STEM if we are to rise to them. We have to work together on new ways.

Arguably, the Berlin event achieved its purpose because it inspired a series of similar events and spin-offs led by its participants and others. Several campuses (Berlin, 2016; Philadelphia, 2017; and Melbourne, 2018), reading groups, research clusters, and labs have sprung up since 2014 in the United States, Canada, India, Japan and Australia.

Each campus has drawn upon the ideas, structure and participants of the previous event. Over time, though, they have changed in two clear ways. The first is that they have become more participatory, moving towards more group work and discussions of topics rather than presentations of research.

The second is that they have increasingly involved participants going on fieldtrips to sites that speak directly to the campuses’ environmental focus. The Philadelphia campus, for example, involved some participants kayaking down a river to learn from environmental scientists and artists about its waters.

Another group of participants went to a town on the fringes of the city that was formerly host to a major asbestos factory, speaking to government representatives and residents about the present and future of managing mounds of harmful waste left behind by industry.

At the Melbourne campus, which was held between 29 August and 1 September this year and hosted by the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI) and Deakin University’s Science and Society Network, participants went to a variety of sites including the Western Treatment Plant in Werribee, Melbourne Museum, and the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, engaging with engineers, curators, ecologists and others caught up in the tricky practical work of adapting to climate change.

It’s hard to measure success when your aim is to transform thought and how thinking is done. The fact that the campuses continue to grow and attract interest is one sign of success. Another sign is if they are bringing together a sufficiently diverse group of academics, activists and artists from a range of disciplinary backgrounds.

There is plenty of guidance on what has motivated the campuses, and the thinking behind them, at the Anthropocene Curriculum website maintained by the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. One way of thinking about the campuses is to conceptualise them as platforms for interdisciplinary experiments, places where everyone is a visitor and the primary aim is to collectively formulate some pathways towards better responses to our collective predicament.

Campuses have led to new academic publications and collaborations, as well as less strictly academic outputs. The Anthropocene Campus Melbourne, for example, is going to lead to two collections of short essays, as well as some blog posts, and has already released several videos (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o35MyxAcdrQ&t=2s) and a podcast (https://soundcloud.com/user-910866758/ep16-kenner-darwish).

Like the campus in Philadelphia, the organising group behind the Melbourne campus sought to maximise opportunities for the public to engage with the event. This included holding two art exhibits at Testing Grounds in Southbank, a live performance of Vertov’s 1931 coal-loving film Enthusiasm, a performance at Melbourne Museum of creative responses to the Anthropocene, and several public lectures.

In this way, we sought to bring people into the Campus and allow their responses to inform it. After all, it will take all of us, working together, to address the crises we face.

Dr Timothy Neale is a cultural anthropologist whose work addresses questions of how knowledge practices – Indigenous, settler and otherwise – are mobilised and transformed in relation to environments. He is also Deputy Convenor for Collaborations of the Deakin Science and Society Network.

By Deakin Research

For all media enquiries please contact Deakin’s media team.

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