Faculty Panel Discusses the Anthropocene in Anticipation of Elizabeth Kolbert’s Visit

On September 7, students and faculty gathered to listen to five professors from varied disciplines discuss the “Anthropocene.”

The Anthropocene is the controversial proposed name under consideration for the current geologic period, referring to the fact that humans have been the dominant influence on earth during this epoch.

The panel event was organized by Associate Professor of Geography, Russian and Eurasian Studies and University Studies Jessica Graybill and Professor of Anthropology and Peace and Conflict Studies and Director of the Division of University Studies Nancy Ries. It was held in anticipation of Pulitzer-prize winning author Elizabeth Kolbert’s visit to Colgate scheduled for September 14 as part of the Living Writers series, run by Associate Professor of English Jennifer Brice. Kolbert’s book, The Sixth Extinction, explores the idea of the Anthropocene by describing ways in which humans are currently contributing to global extinctions. Kolbert’s book was the required reading for first-year students entering Colgate.

The panel consisted of five speakers, including Professor of Geology Connie Soja, Assistant Professor of Chemistry Jason Keith, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Andy Pattison, Assistant Professor of Art and Art History Margaretha Haughwout and Assistant Professor of English Ben Child.  The diverse backgrounds of the speakers led to a highly interdisciplinary discussion. Each professor was allotted five minutes to share his or her perspective.

Soja opened the discussion with an explanation of geologic time scales and the context of the current era. Soja also gave background on the previous five mass extinctions, making the point that previous extinctions were triggered by huge catastrophes, yet the current extinction was arguably triggered by humans.

“So no wonder, with the sixth extinction unfolding before our eyes and as we speak, that homo sapiens, our species, has been likened to a rogue, home-grown asteroid,” she said.

In arguing for the Anthropocene, Soja also cited the fact that humans are now earth’s most powerful geological force. Studies have shown that, on an annual basis, humans move more earth materials than landslides, earthquakes, volcanoes and rivers combined.

Keith spoke next, explaining that, as a chemist working with molecular modeling, he is used to working in small time scales, which stands in vast contrast to the global nature of climate change. However, he still uses the principles he knows as a chemist to understand it, particularly Le Chatelier’s Principle. This principle explains that when one side of an equilibrium is modified, the system self-corrects. This is how he perceives the ecosystems and the disruption of extinction events.

Keith also stated that human actions and innovation are not binary choices between good and evil. He cited the example of Nitrogen activation. This innovation helped to create fertilizers to grow more food and feed the growing human population’s needs, which is often viewed as objectively good. However, it is also currently very damaging to ecosystems. He used this example to make the point that everything is complicated, everything is connected and everything is a balance of risk and reward. 

Pattison discussed the implications of climate change in the future shifting food patterns, the release of new diseases from the permafrost and potential economic collapse, among many other implications. He explained that the climate humans created will continue to go to war with us in the coming decades. He also highlighted the importance of sharing stories and collaboration with others during this time, especially as people have a tendency to resist changing their minds. He feels we need to overcome these biases to come up with a “light-bulb solution.”

Haughwout introduced the term “Capitalocene” and raised the relation of capitalism and climate change. She also described various art projects that are attempting to process the current state of the planet, including one she worked on grieving lost life and biodiversity globally. Haughwout also asserted that it is important to undo the false dichotomy of nature and culture, presenting art projects that are working to do so.

Child spoke to the role of literature in processing topics of climate change. The problems of the Anthropocene are imaginative, he explained, and the term “hyperobjects,” coined by Timothy Morton, is useful to understanding it. Hyperobjects are ideas too big to comprehend, those that reach beyond our own individual capacity of visualization. One example he mentioned was trying to grasp every Styrofoam cup used in the world. Child explored how hyperobjects and the Anthropocene are portrayed in art and literature.

During the question and answer portion of the event, questions posed to the panel included the use of new words to frame climate change, whether or not we should feel hope about the problem of climate change, what role technology should play as we tackle the problems of the Anthropocene and why some scientists continue to deny climate change.

Pattison had a lot to say on the topic of hope in the era of the Anthropocene, and whether we are too far gone.

“I’ve recently decided to slide a few more chips into this in terms of how committed I am despite teaching and doing research in this area for quite awhile. My wife is pregnant, and her due date is actually today. So you have to do something, because my daughter is not going to be able to engage in climate change with climate action planning and mitigation and adaptation strategies in an intersectional and pro-feminist approach for at least three or four more months,” he said.

Students felt that the diverse range of viewpoints from the  faculty was valuable. Senior Rachel Weinstein especially enjoyed the varied perspectives. 

“I wasn’t expecting the panel to include faculty from the English and Art departments, so I was a little taken aback by that. As the panel went on, I began to really appreciate their point of view. Another student pointed out that this was ‘an interdisciplinary panel for an interdisciplinary issue.’ This issue won’t just affect ‘hard scientists;’ it’s going to affect everyone and so everyone is going to have to be involved in the discussion,” she said.             

Contact Sarah Anderson at [email protected].