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The Anthropocene

The Anthropocene (Climate Histories) offers alternating sessions in the related fields of climate history and Anthropocene studies. Meetings will involve a mix of invited speakers and reading group sessions held fortnightly on Thursdays, 1–2pm UK time on Zoom, meeting on the odd weeks of term. All are welcome!

Note: Most resources are available online through the University Library; if you have trouble locating them, please contact the organisers.

Organised by Claire Oliver and Richard Staley.

Michaelmas Term 2020

8 October: Introductions

Introductory discussion on themes and guiding questions for the year, including reading group topics and speakers of interest for Lent and Easter terms.

Readings:

  • Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 'Anthropocene Time'. History and Theory 57, no. 1 (2018): 5–32.
  • Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 'Arts of Noticing', in The Mushroom at the End of the World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015): 11–26.

Optional background reading:

22 October: Anthropos and the global

Examining the role of the 'global' in climate history and the significance of scale for the conceptual utility of Anthropocene scholarship.

Readings:

5 November
Vladimir Janković (University of Manchester)
A climate spacebridge: digital diplomacy and Greenhouse Glasnost during the Reagan-Gorbachov era

This paper looks at the world's first online teleconference on climate change – Greenhouse Glasnost: The Coming Global Greenhouse Warming – organized between 1985 and 1988 by a group of the Soviet and American scientists. The meeting took place on ONMET with the express intention to bypass the visa and clearance bureaucracy involved in the organization of face-to-face meetings during the post-Afghanistan cooling of the US-USSR relationship. The idea was originally floated in 1985 by Walter Orr Roberts, sun-earth scientist, past president of NCAR and AAAS and one of the most influential scientific entrepreneurs in post-war America. Roberts introduced the idea in one of his Climate Provocations – a series of vignettes published on the electronic bulletin board of the Western Behavioral Science Institute in La Jolla – arguing that an asynchronous mode of communication via telemail could encourage the Soviets to get on board for a bilateral approach to research and policy considerations while defusing possible tensions and preventing any losses of meaning likely to arise in live, non-edited dialogues on the issues involving the nature, magnitude and security risks associated with the global rise of GHGs.

In organizing the event – which in part drew on experiences from a series of telecom 'spacebridges' between Moscow's Gosteleradio and the San Francisco intentional communities such as the Esalen Institute – Roberts was joined by the Apollo astronaut Russell Louis 'Rusty' Schweickart – founder of the Association of Space Explorers – and by Roald Sagdeev, a prominent nuclear physicists and Director of the Soviet Academy's Institute for Space Research. The project received funding from the Russian Institute for Space Research, the US University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation but at least 36 other governmental, private and non-governmental organizations took part in supporting the event, testifying to an unprecedented appeal of 'cyber-climatology' among the scientists working on international projects during the 1980s. Two follow-up face-to-face meetings took place in 1989 at Berlin under the auspices of Aspen Institute of Humanistic Studies and at the Institute for Resource Management in Sundance, Utah, presided by the Hollywood actor and environmentalist Robert Redford. In December that year, the Sundance participants were joined by major scientists and public figures in the New York Times's 'Open Letter to Our Presidents' – sponsored by singer John Denver's Windstar Foundation – outlining an international climate policy that was echoed in US President George Bush speech at the historic Malta Summit in November 1990.

In this presentation I look at the activities surrounding the organization of the Greenhouse Glasnost conference to discuss the relationships between an emerging scientific understanding of the anthropogenic climate change and the constellation of interests that the greenhouse crisis helped promote among communities involved in the organization of the meeting. First, I wish to provide a brief account of the activities that brought together the American and Russian academics, environmentalists and public influencers at a virtual table of discussion on the security issues emerging in US and USSR at the dawn of anthropogenic climate change. This adds a new dimension to the history of bilateral cooperation between US and USSR by helping us us to compare the governmental programs (such as the Environmental Bilateral's Working Group 8) with the relatively independent and privately funded projects that have hitherto escaped the historical analysis. Second, I address the issue of climate diplomacy during the late Cold War in relation to the role of citizen diplomacy in promoting bilateral agendas and the so-called 'global' environmental issues. Third, I provide a further perspective on the early climate change science by taking into account the technologically assisted communication and digital diplomacy as fundamental to establishing a shared cognitive platform with which it became possible to work with climate as if it were a global phenomenon. Fourth, the paper highlights a need to understand these efforts as intrinsic to the purpose and outputs of the project rather than as mere matters of organizational routine, in which I follow Susan Leigh Star's work on articulation. And finally, I Iook into the role of alternative cultures animating the spirit of the project and creating a heterogenous community of scientists, engineers, educators and cultural entrepreneurs interested in blending of the spiritual and environmental Globality.

greenhouse-glasnost.jpg
'Greenhouse Glasnost Network.' Walt Roberts Papers at the Archive of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, CO.

19 November
Nanna K.L. Kaalund (University of Cambridge)
Josephine D. Peary's constructions of humanity and environment in the high Arctic

In the history of polar exploration, Josephine Diebitsch Peary is remembered primarily for travelling as part of her husband Robert's attempts to reach the North Pole, and for giving birth to their daughter while in the high Arctic. Peary published a travel narrative, My Arctic Journal in 1893, followed by two children's books, The Snow Baby (1901), and Children of the North (1903). As with other women science writers in the nineteenth century, Peary drew on and navigated the styles of authorship open to her. She mobilized her embodied difference to the orthodox persona of the male explorer as a way of garnering attention for her lecture tours and publications. As the publisher's note to My Arctic Journal stated, 'She has been where no white woman has ever been'. Peary also contrasted herself with Inughuit and Kalaallit in North Greenland, including the women she lived with for extended periods. In this paper, I seek to unpack the complex interactions between gender, race, and environment in the colonial 'contact zone' as constructed through Peary's writings. Peary's descriptions of Arctic Indigenous peoples were highly racialized, paternalistic, and embedded within the broader anthropological debates of human developmentalism and nature-nurture. When Peary described Inughuit and Kalaallit, she narrated them as part of the natural environment, an environment she in turn described as inherently foreign and hostile. Peary's books were highly popular, and were part of shaping visions of the Arctic and Arctic Indigenous peoples in the imaginations of American children. By taking seriously her books as significant ethnographic texts, I aim to consider how popular literature influenced perceptions of extra-European peoples and environments within the context of white imperialistic expansionism.