Theologian Norman Wirzba and law professor Jedediah Purdy, with support from the Henry Luce Foundation and the Kenan Institute for Ethics, have convened a group of scholars from across disciplines to discuss how the academy might better respond to the environmental crisis. When the Luce Anthropocene Working Group had their first meeting on June 27-29 at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, Purdy opened by inviting participants to reflect on what issues and problems has led each of them to their current work, and to share one or two questions that they find particularly difficult. Quoting Donna Haraway, Purdy encouraged working group members to “stay with the trouble,” that is, to seek out those areas of their field that resist solutions.
The responses were diverse, but connected. Historian Kate Brown said that she struggles to write narratives of the landscapes and people harmed by nuclear industries that are not so depressing as to lead readers into despair: how, she asked, do we write stories of environmental crises that give people tools for survival? Anthropologist Tim Ingold spoke of the important distinction between optimism and hope; while optimism lulls us into comfort by leading us to believe that science will fix everything, hope makes room for each generation to be a new generation, to begin again. As educators, he said, it is tempting to think it is our job to say what the end will be, but instead we should help our students cultivate hope by leaving room for the kinds of uncertainty that make hope possible. Willie Jennings pointed out that from his point of view as an African American theologian, hope is a discipline shaped inside a melancholy situation. “I do not have to stay with the trouble,” said Jennings, “the trouble stays with me.” Jennings pointed to two troubles in particularly: the ongoing commodification of everything, which makes black life in the West a constant negotiation with commodification and exploitation; and the problem of projection – so much of our educational pedagogies revolve around the idea that the world does not speak to us. This idea limits the ways in which students are invited to connect with and experience landscapes. Physicist Rhadika Khosla, whose work focuses on issues of energy and climate change in urbanizing environments, spoke of forms of optimism rampant at the intersection of physical and social sciences. She explained how a vocabulary of solutions allows scholars to avoid thinking about complex issues that defy quick fixes. This, she said, has produced a divorce between what academics write and the lived realities of communities, the latter of which do not always conform to sellable stories of improvement.
These opening comments gives you a sense of the range and complexity of the working group’s conversations over the next two days. In addition to the people already mentioned, participants included writer Robert Macfarlane, biologist Robin Kimmerer, theologian Janet Soskice, professor of Law Douglas Kysar, literature scholar Kate Rigby, and historian Micah Muscolino. “We have invited scholars from multiple fields in order to discuss urgent questions posed by the planetary crises,” said Wirzba. “It is a special privilege in academic life to participate in sustained and rigorous conversation with such diverse and generous guests over topics of great urgency and complexity. It was an outstanding beginning to a project that promises to be both generative and creative.”
Some of the topics covered at this first meeting were analytical. What conceptions of humanity, the non-human world, political economy, democracy, and justice can help us navigate this time? What assumptions must come into question – about species and nature, about politics and agency, about economics and value? Others are more practical. How might academics reach non-academic audiences? What forms of publishing are appropriate for this time? Are there means of communication available beyond the written word and how might we utilize them?
Muscolino suggested that attention to aesthetics – to making beautiful books, for example – is one way of engaging audiences beyond academia and of cultivating hope. Rigby, Brown, and Kimmerer imagined making survival videos based on 1950s nuclear bomb drills; using humor and parody, they proposed, is one way to express the scale of the problems facing us without overwhelming audiences. Macfarlane highlighted story-telling. He pointed out that when Kate Brown had told a story of the Red Forest near Chernobyl, everyone in the room leaned forward, eager to listen to her narrative. Perhaps, he said, the best way to engage people in the questions of climate change is not to start with theory and questions, but to start with stories.
The Luce Anthropocene Working Group will continue these conversations and others next summer, when they will again meet at the Kenan Institute for Ethics. Their work will culminate in a conference in 2020, at which each member of the group will share writing and other projects inspired by the collaboration of the group.
Illustration courtesy of Jackie Morris