Some Thoughts on Disciplinarity and the Anthropocene

Last week, I attended the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Conference in San Francisco. I had the pleasure of participating on a special panel titled “What’s the Big Deal about the Anthropocene” which was hosted by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP). The IGBP was celebrating its Landmark Synthesis Event and the conclusion of thirty years of research as well as its transition into Future Earth.

The session’s conveners were Ninad Bondre, James Syvitski, Eduardo Brondizio and Owen Gaffney. Bondre and Syvitski served as chairs. The other panelists were  Will Steffen, Karen Seto, Naomi Oreskes, Jedediah Purdy and Gaia Vince.

In preparation for the panel, the chairs circulated several questions. Here was the question that I received:

Jason, you are currently involved in a project called “Rivers of the Anthropocene”, which brings together natural and social scientists, humanists, artists and others. Do you feel that the Anthropocene concept is uniquely suited to break down disciplinary silos in a more lasting and innovative manner than was possible in the past?

The AGU recorded the entire conversation, but I have posted my notes below.

In short, yes, the Anthropocene does provide us with a unique concept to bring together scientists, social scientists, humanists, artists, policy makers, and the public.

In fact, I would suggest that the Anthropocene necessitates it. Why?

This is because at its core, the concept of the Anthropocene sees geophysical systems and biocultural systems as entangled with each other.

The Anthropocene emphasizes the centrality of human agency in shaping and reshaping our environments.

It is, after all, the “Age of Humankind”.

What I think is most important to recognize about the Anthropocene is that the human transformation of natural systems is the product of dynamic, historical socio-cultural structures and processes.

Because of this, any long-term solutions to the environmental challenges we face require cultural analyses and solutions every bit as much as they require technological solutions.

To give just one small example.

In Indianapolis we had a major drought in the summer of 2012.

By the middle of the summer, our reservoirs were dropping 1 foot every 5 days.

We were consuming water at an unsustainable rate.

In the years that followed, some policy makers argued that we needed to build a new reservoir so that we could plan for the peak demand that we experienced in summer 2012.

However, analyzing the data from that summer, one thing becomes apparent:

The spike in water use that was draining our reservoirs was almost entirely caused by lawn irrigation.

As California knows too well, green lawns are not a necessity. They are an aesthetic preference.

In effect, what we were facing in Indianapolis was not an engineering problem, it was a cultural problem.

And, it was a cultural problem that had deep roots.

The importance of the green lawn as a cultural signifier goes back to at least the 17th and 18th centuries.

By the 1780s, the Shakers in Philadelphia were producing grass seed on a commercial scale to feed the desire for lawns.

Over those centuries, particularly in Europe and North America, the lawn has absorbed a host of meanings — many of which we aren’t even cognizant of until we think about it.

A lawn has become wrapped up in notions related to:

    • Control over nature
    • Notions of beauty
    • Ideas about proper estate management
    • Conspicuous consumption — no need to cultivate land
    • Civic humanism and democracy
    • Leisure
    • Gender
    • The American Dream — embodied in the suburb of Levittown

If we are going to create a solution for peak water demand in Indianapolis, we can’t simply engineer ourselves out of the problem.

We need to transform cultural attitudes — and this is where social scientists, humanists, and artists are essential.

To be effective facing the problems of the Anthropocene, I think that transdisciplinary teams are an absolute necessity.

But, to do so might require us to conceive of our projects a bit differently — and to operate in new modes that are both unfamiliar and which our institutions might not yet be organized to support, fund, or reward.

There are a few areas on which I think we need to be more focused while building transdisciplinary teams:

Framing the research problem

  • Understanding the Anthropocene condition as an entanglement of geophysical and bicultural systems necessitates that big problems be framed through a collaboration of experts in earth systems and human systems
  • One of the keys to a successful interdisciplinary project is regular meetings to identify and examine our disciplinary assumptions — even simple ideas that don’t seem problematic at first can become roadblocks to success.

Self-study and critique

  • Embedding humanists, social scientists, and artists not simply as supporting figures, but as core participants in a research team allows for
    • the research process and design to be assessed while in motion. Perhaps embed an ethnographer into the team in the process, which can help to identify potential internal problems / biases / tensions before they arise
    • the critique of practices that might undermine the spirit of transdisciplinary inquiry or the goals of the project

Education and socio-cultural transformation

  • Publicly engaged scholarship is about putting ideas into practice.

  • Arts and humanities are powerful tools to help educate people and getting them involved in effecting change.

  • If the ultimate purpose of a project is to effect change, we need to focus on designing solutions that can work on different scales of governance and adoption.

    • Education and transformation at the local level is important to addressing the challenges that we face in the Anthropocene

    • Embedding policy makers and community leaders at the beginning of the research project — perhaps as members of the leadership team — will go a long way in producing long-term success

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