Energy Cultures in the Age of the Anthropocene

Anthropocene Poster

This multidisciplinary symposium, held March 5-7, 2015 in Iowa City, Iowa, brought together public figures, scholars, and artists in an effort to make sense of humans’ relationship to energy and to come to terms with living in what many now consider to be the Age of the Anthropocene.

During the last two centuries, the discovery and exploitation of concentrated forms of energy from the earth — coal and oil, the two principal fossil fuels – allowed for a massive increase in heat and power in human society. Coal gave rise to the industrial revolution and launched parts of the world on a trajectory of rapid economic growth. Oil, the most powerful and versatile fuel ever known, deepened and expanded the industrial transformation, prompted the rise of mobile consumer societies, and drove the process of globalization in the late 20th century.

The breakthrough to fossil fuels triggered profound changes in the temporal and spatial dimensions of material and cultural life. In doing so, it allowed for large-scale human alterations of environments and ecosystems, so much so that in 2000, the Nobel laureate and atmospheric chemist, Paul Crutzen, suggested that we were no longer living in the Holocene geologic age, but rather in some other age that began with the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century. Human intervention in the earth’s carbon, nitrogen, and hydrologic cycles has accelerated to such an extent, he argued, that we need a different geological name to describe this age – the Anthropocene, or the Age of Humans. As scientists and science media have popularized the concept in recent years, the International Commission on Stratigraphy, the official arbiter of the recent geological time scale, has established a working group to formalize the term.

The concept of the Anthropocene forces us to recalibrate the record of human and environmental history. Periodization is inherent to many disciplines and central to assigning cultural meaning to the past. For scholars in arts and humanities, the Anthropocene would mark the first periodization that asks them to take their cues from earth systems and not human activity separate from those systems. The arc of the Anthropocene thus changes the meaning of the arc of the other periodizations. This symposium thus will challenge scholars, students, and citizens to reconsider their understanding of the past and visions of the future.

In doing so, we need to rethink the ideas, values, and aesthetics that shape the way we fuel our lives and transform our environments. The Anthropocene, by definition, posits humans as agents of change. Humanists therefore, should play a central role in analyzing this change. Meeting this challenge requires an investigation of energy not simply as a force of nature or economic calculus, but as a social relation. Energy systems are products of political and social struggles, cultural mediation, and technological choices. They embody certain ideas and inspirations, values and ethics, aesthetics and designs. A humanistic approach to making sense of energy in the age of the Anthropocene is crucial to negotiating the indeterminate boundary between what is “natural” and “man-made,” between the multiple ways humans experience and react to the passage of time, and between the unequal social impacts of human-altered and fossil-fueled environments around the world.

In the future, the world’s appetite for energy is predicted to grow at a staggering rate, and the impacts of climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels are expected to become more severe. Eventually, humans will have to draw on a wider array of energy sources. We appear to be at the beginning of a transition from a high-energy, high-carbon past to a lower-energy, lower-carbon future. This transition offers opportunities, but it also presents challenges and problems. As in the past, the United States and other energy intensive societies will have to make choices about how to find and consume energy. But technologies, habits, practices, and norms lock communities and societies into certain patterns of energy use, which are often carbon-intensive and inefficient. Solutions to these problems are not just technical or even political, but cultural. The increasingly massive scale of human activity also will require both local and global approaches to managing the effects. These are the central issues the symposium tackled.

The event took place over three days and featured keynote speakers:

  • Lonnie Thompson, Distinguished University Professor in the School of Earth Sciences and Research Scientist in the Byrd Polar Research Center at The Ohio State University. Thompson’s path-breaking work on ice core paleoclimatology has provided some of the most convincing evidence of anthropogenic global warming, Thompson’s participation is supported by an Ida Cordelia Beam Distinguished Visiting Professorship.
  • Charles Mann, journalist and author of bestsellers 1493 and 1491, the latter of which won the U.S. National Academy of Sciences’ Keck Award in 2006 for best book of the year. A correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, Science, and Wired, Mann covers issues relating to the intersection of science, technology, and commerce. He is now working on a book about energy and had a cover story in the May 2013 issue of The Atlantic, “What If We Never Run Out of Oil?”
  • Sarah Steingraber, biologist, author, and cancer survivor, writes about climate change, ecology, and the links between human health and the environment. She is the author of Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Enivronment, Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood, and Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis. She is also contributing essayist and editor for Orion magazine and currently a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Ithaca College.

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