The Historians’ Task in the Age of the Anthropocene: Finding Hope in Japan?

October 12 | 17:00
Anthropocene Lecture

Haus der Kulturen der Welt in cooperation with the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies and the MPIWG.

Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Boltzmannstraße 22, 14195 Berlin, Main Conference Hall
Julia Adeney Thomas (University Notre Dame)

Lecture Abstract

Historians explore the past in order to understand not only our present but also our future trajectory.  However, climate scientists today are now telling us that the conditions on our planet are changing so quickly and unpredictably that the past has no bearing on the future.  If our challenges are unprecedented, is history reduced to mere antiquarianism?  What are historians to do?  This presentation explores this predicament and proposes a new form of critical history as we move from modernity’s promise of freedom and development to the more modest goal of sustainability with decency.  I will consider ways that an alternative history might be found by examining the economic, social, and political practices of early modern Japan. The lecture will be introduced by MPIWG Director Lorraine Daston.


About the Speaker

Julia Adeney Thomas, Associate Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, is an intellectual and political historian of modern Japan with a sharp interest in combining intellectual and environmental history. Her questions about how we grapple with the natural world have led to research on the ecological efflorescence in the Korean Demilitarized Zone, a manifesto on the future of environmental history for the Rachel Carson Center, and Reconfiguring Modernity: Concepts of Nature in Japanese Political Ideology, which received the American Historical Association’s 2002 John K. Fairbank prize. With Ian Miller and Brett Walker, she published Japan at Nature’s Edge: The Environmental Context of a Global Power, and is author of more than 30 articles and book chapters. She has held fellowships from the Mellon Foundation, the NEH, ACLS, SSRC, Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton’s IAS, and the Japan Foundation. Her two current projects are "The Historian’s Task in the Anthropocene," on climate change, and an edited collection on the rise of the global right, titled "Visualizing Fascism."


About the Anthropocene Lecture Series

The Anthropocene—the geological epoch of humanity—has established itself as a key concept within a wider scientific and social discourse. In the midst of the dramatic and destabilizing changes to the basic conditions for life on our planet wrought by it, new potentials for human action upon the Earth are to be explored asking: What forms of cooperation can arise from the new awareness of the human role in the increasing interlacing of nature and technology?

In the framework of the Anthropocene Lecture series, a number of prominent speakers accentuating the Anthropocene debate are being invited to respond to a topic that will be a central challenge for many generations to come. With McKenzie Wark, Christian Schwägerl, Helmuth Trischler, Julia Adeney Thomas, Amanda Machin, John McNeill, and many more. The lectures take place at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, the HKW, and the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam.