Event

Sep 27-29, 2021
Understanding Anthropogenic Change

Human civilizations developed in a time of relative environmental and climate stability. Whereas Holocene conditions have made us what we are and radically influenced our view of how the world functions, the discourse about the Anthropocene, climate change and no-analog futures have in recent years made clear that the stability of Holocene conditions might have been just an impression—although one that heavily influences how we act and think, imposing serious path-dependencies in both respects.


Starting from these premises, our workshop aims to discuss and historicize the ways in which change in Earth system conditions has been described, conceptualized, and apprehended in a broadly conceived Anthropocene research as a specifically “anthropogenic” change. The idea is that an open, interdisciplinary discussion may contribute to achieving two main objectives: first, capturing the epistemic and conceptual ways in which a new kind of change came to exist; and second, mapping the possibilities of a historical study of anthropogenic change, even prior to its realization and conceptualization.


As to the former aspect, the workshop aims at inquiring into the nature or specific character of anthropogenic change. Does the vocabulary of anthropogenic change entail seeing the human and the natural separately as criticism may hold? Or, quite the contrary, does it rather refer to a change which is neither exclusively in human societies nor in nature as we know it but, rather, a change in the condition of one single entity, unit, or system encompassing both human societies and the environment? The workshop hopes to explore the nature of such changes, the challenges we face in their study, and the potential emergence of new kinds of expertise or new knowledge formations attuned to study anthropogenic changes. This leads directly to the latter aspect, addressing the question of historical knowledge. The emergence of the notion of “anthropogenic change” demands conceptual histories of the methods we use to understand it and calls for studies of such changes before their importance was realized. How far can we go with historicizing anthropogenic changes? Does their historical study entail a renewal of historical knowledge in the first place? Do we need new methodologies that match the shifting epistemic and ontological conventions implied by anthropogenic change?

 

About the Organizers

Wilko Graf von Hardenberg is senior research scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, Germany, where he coordinates the working group Art of Judgement. His research looks at how nature has been perceived, explained, and managed in late modern Europe and how this has had repercussions on the global scale. At the core of his work lies the issue of how political power, scientific concepts, and material practices interact in modern history, with interests ranging from the history of nature conservation to that of the concept of sea level. He is the author of A Monastery for the Ibex: Conservation, State, and Conflict on the Gran Paradiso, 1919-1949 (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2021) and co-editor of The Nature State: Rethinking the History of Conservation (Routledge, 2017). His work has recently been published in such venues as Environment and Planning E, Journal of Historical Geography, Centaurus, and Journal of the History of Biology.
 

Zoltán Boldizsár Simon is research fellow at Bielefeld University. He has been assistant professor at Leiden University, and currently he's a visiting fellow at MPIGW. He has written extensively both on historical theory and the challenges posed by current ecological and technological prospects. His work can be read in journals ranging from History and Theory and The Anthropocene Review to European Journal of Social Theory and History of the Human Sciences. He is the author of History in Times of Unprecedented Change: A Theory for the 21st Century (Bloomsbury, 2019) and The Epochal Event: Transformations in the Entangled Human, Technological, and Natural Worlds (Palgrave, 2020).

Program

Abstracts

Address
Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Boltzmannstraße 22, 14195 Berlin, Germany
Room
Zoom/Online Meeting Platform
Contact and Registration

To register, please contact Wilko Graf von Hardenberg (whardenberg@mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de).

2021-09-27T10:00:00SAVE IN I-CAL 2021-09-27 10:00:00 2021-09-29 12:00:00 Understanding Anthropogenic Change Human civilizations developed in a time of relative environmental and climate stability. Whereas Holocene conditions have made us what we are and radically influenced our view of how the world functions, the discourse about the Anthropocene, climate change and no-analog futures have in recent years made clear that the stability of Holocene conditions might have been just an impression—although one that heavily influences how we act and think, imposing serious path-dependencies in both respects. Starting from these premises, our workshop aims to discuss and historicize the ways in which change in Earth system conditions has been described, conceptualized, and apprehended in a broadly conceived Anthropocene research as a specifically “anthropogenic” change. The idea is that an open, interdisciplinary discussion may contribute to achieving two main objectives: first, capturing the epistemic and conceptual ways in which a new kind of change came to exist; and second, mapping the possibilities of a historical study of anthropogenic change, even prior to its realization and conceptualization. As to the former aspect, the workshop aims at inquiring into the nature or specific character of anthropogenic change. Does the vocabulary of anthropogenic change entail seeing the human and the natural separately as criticism may hold? Or, quite the contrary, does it rather refer to a change which is neither exclusively in human societies nor in nature as we know it but, rather, a change in the condition of one single entity, unit, or system encompassing both human societies and the environment? The workshop hopes to explore the nature of such changes, the challenges we face in their study, and the potential emergence of new kinds of expertise or new knowledge formations attuned to study anthropogenic changes. This leads directly to the latter aspect, addressing the question of historical knowledge. The emergence of the notion of “anthropogenic change” demands conceptual histories of the methods we use to understand it and calls for studies of such changes before their importance was realized. How far can we go with historicizing anthropogenic changes? Does their historical study entail a renewal of historical knowledge in the first place? Do we need new methodologies that match the shifting epistemic and ontological conventions implied by anthropogenic change?   About the Organizers Wilko Graf von Hardenberg is senior research scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, Germany, where he coordinates the working group Art of Judgement. His research looks at how nature has been perceived, explained, and managed in late modern Europe and how this has had repercussions on the global scale. At the core of his work lies the issue of how political power, scientific concepts, and material practices interact in modern history, with interests ranging from the history of nature conservation to that of the concept of sea level. He is the author of A Monastery for the Ibex: Conservation, State, and Conflict on the Gran Paradiso, 1919-1949 (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2021) and co-editor of The Nature State: Rethinking the History of Conservation (Routledge, 2017). His work has recently been published in such venues as Environment and Planning E, Journal of Historical Geography, Centaurus, and Journal of the History of Biology.   Zoltán Boldizsár Simon is research fellow at Bielefeld University. He has been assistant professor at Leiden University, and currently he's a visiting fellow at MPIGW. He has written extensively both on historical theory and the challenges posed by current ecological and technological prospects. His work can be read in journals ranging from History and Theory and The Anthropocene Review to European Journal of Social Theory and History of the Human Sciences. He is the author of History in Times of Unprecedented Change: A Theory for the 21st Century (Bloomsbury, 2019) and The Epochal Event: Transformations in the Entangled Human, Technological, and Natural Worlds (Palgrave, 2020). Program Day 1 (Sep. 27, 2021) 14:00-14:05 Introduction 14:05-15:35 Session 1 Ricarda Winkelmann (PIK, Potsdam): Domino Effects in the Earth System Pablo Pellegrini (CONICET, Argentina): Styles of Thought on the Anthropocene 16:00-17:30 Session 2 Helge Jordheim (University of Oslo): Syncing the Anthropocene: Temporal and Rhetorical Practices Sverker Sörlin (KTH, Stockholm): Synchronizing Geo-Anthropology – Environmental Objects and the Temporal Science Politics of the Human-Earth Relationship 18:00-19:30 Session 3 Lydia Barnett (Northwestern University): Noah’s Flood as a Man-Made Eco-Catastrophe: Imagining Anthropogenic Change in Early Modern Europe Ling Zhang (Boston College): Geoengineering an Empire: The Consumptive Mode of Analysis and China’s Medieval Economic Revolution Day 2 (Sep. 29, 2021) 14:00-15:30 Session 4 Vinita Damodaran (University of Sussex): Adivasis in the Anthropocene: What an Environmental History of Eastern India Can Tell Us About Global Ecological and Climate Crisis Emily Brownell (University of Edinburgh): The Art of Robbing the Soil 16:00-17:30 Session 5 Christoph Rosol & Jürgen Renn (MPIWG, Berlin): Anthropogenic Changes Minus the Anthropos Zoltán B. Simon (University of Bielefeld) and Wilko Hardenberg (MPIWG, Berlin): Anthropogenic Change: A Conceptual History 18:00-19:30 Concluding Roundtable A discussion with all workshop participants Abstracts Session 1 Domino Effects in the Earth System Ricarda Winkelmann Vital parts of the Earth’s climate system, such as the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, are at risk even within the aspired aims of the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. These ‘tipping elements’ are characterized by qualitative shifts in their states once a critical threshold in the global mean temperature is transgressed, which could lead to severe impacts on the environment and threaten the livelihood of millions of people. Recently, social tipping or “positive tipping” processes have received increased attention as potential key drivers to prevent such crossing of critical thresholds in the climate system. Social tipping processes have for instance been suggested with respect to changes in technological and energy systems, financial markets, political mobilization, or sociocultural norms and behaviors.  Drawing from expert elicitation and comprehensive literature review, we develop a framework to characterize social tipping processes critical to facilitating rapid social transformations. We find that social and climate tipping processes exhibit several fundamental differences in their structure and underlying mechanisms: In particular, we identify human agency, social-institutional network structures, different spatial and temporal scales and increased complexity as key distinctive features underlying social tipping processes. We illustrate these features with the European political system as an example for a potential social tipping element, highlighting the role of the FridaysForFuture movement. Building on these characteristics, we propose a formal definition for social tipping and filtering criteria for those processes that could be decisive for future trajectories towards global sustainability in the Anthropocene. Styles of thought on the Anthropocene Pablo Pellegrini In this presentation I will discuss how the notion of Anthropocene makes sense and is conceived, within the framework of a style of thought. The concept of styles of thought is to be found in the origins of the sociology of knowledge and has proven useful to understand the cultural backgrounds in scientific controversies. In that sense, to analyse the notion of Anthropocene from this perspective, implies to revisit a recurrent discussion within the philosophy of science, that is, the debate between relativism and absolutism. Indeed, the styles of thought concept assume that all of our statements are shaped by cultural conditions. The objective is not to doubt the impacts of human actions on the environment, but to think about the notion of Anthropocene as a specific historical and cultural product that makes particular sense to that kind of actions. How did the Anthropocene become thinkable? That would be the question that will guide this presentation. In order to do so, I will present the general perspective of styles of thought, I will then sketch the main features of the Anthropocene style of thought and how it manifests in different instances of cultural activities (from geological discussions to theories about the origin of the current pandemic). Session 2 Syncing the Anthropocene: Temporal and Rhetorical Practices Helge Jordheim This short intervention starts from a somewhat simplified assumption: Never has so much time been involved in a periodization as in the case of “the Anthropocene”, from thousand, even millions of years of geochronology to the now-times of politics, from extinction rates to the degradation times of plastic etc. All the more complex is the work to synchronize these times, to align them, and fit them into a shared temporal framework provided by the concept itself. The talk will look more closely at some of these synchronization practices, mainly the so-called “golden spike”, linking geochronological and stratigraphic time, as well as the more politically salient “declarations” of climate crisis and climate emergency. Even though these practices or technologies originate in different societal fields, and operate on different platforms, they have the same implicit aim: to establish a uniform, shared, actionable temporal framework for understanding anthropogenic change. Synchronizing Geo-Anthropology – Environmental Objects and the Temporal Science Politics of the Human-Earth Relationship Sverker Sörlin Concepts from the last few decades such as “Earth system”, “planetary boundaries”, and “the Anthropocene” serve as ontological heuristics for an emerging new human-Earth relationship and its dire predicament. These concepts have helped expand “the environment” to encompass environmental objects, including the Earth itself in its entirety, where profound and severe human omnipresence is now acknowledged. Quantified thresholds, or tipping points have been suggested beyond which life conditions become distinctly undesirable. Yet, science based quantifications and models depicting the directions, rates of change and boundaries of the global environment keep struggling with the complexity of humans, societies, and technologies as they entangle with the Earth, applying environing technologies to change, terraform, and conceive of the natural world. Operating within the boundaries – i.e. defining how the ‘operational space’ of humanity can and should be used and shared – remains a societal and political challenge and, hence, a relevant subject of knowledge in the humanities and the social sciences. This paper offers approaches that take stock of ongoing theorizations and conceptualizations and suggest ways forward. A key part of the argument is the current emergence of integrative human-earth narratives pursued in tandem by historians and other practitioners of environmental humanities (geo-humanities, climate humanities, and others), and earth system scientists, co-exploring new ways of linking past, present and future. I call this the synchronizing work of Geo-anthropology. I will argue that such narratives hold a potential of bringing environmental knowledge and data (widely construed) into resonance with societal and historical temporalities and thus offer valuable input to the continued, necessary expansion of environmental and climate governance, offering critical reflexivity of the implications of an ever more environed world. Session 3 Noah’s Flood as a Man-Made Eco-Catastrophe: Imagining Anthropogenic Change in Early Modern Europe Lydia Barnett This talk focuses on scientific theories of Noah’s Flood from early modern Europe in order to stage a series of questions about the long intellectual history of “anthropogenic change.” From well-known authors like the English natural philosopher Thomas Burnet to long-neglected authors like the Italian apothecary Camilla Erculiani, scholars in early modern Christian Europe used the biblical story of Noah’s Flood in order to think critically and imaginatively about the interdependence of global nature and global humanity in times of environmental crisis. They speculated about the human role in causing the Flood (both materially and spiritually) and about the long-durational environmental harms and climatic consequences of this global inundation. This talk touches on several such theories of the Flood-as-eco-catastrophe in order to ask: In what sense were they also theories of anthropogenic change? What kinds of environmental or geologic agency did early modern scholars ascribe to the human species? How did religious belief stimulate and circumscribe the accounts they gave of the human capacity to change non-human nature? How was the human-nature relationship conceptualized at the dawn of the earth and environmental sciences? Geoengineering an Empire: The Consumptive Mode of Analysis and China’s Medieval Economic Revolution Ling Zhang Geoengineering is deliberate, large-scale intervention of Earth’s geological system by human forces. We tend to associate geoengineering with the modern age, during which we have used technology and machinery to flatten mountains, redirect rivers, extract fossil fuels, and design techno-solutions to combat climate change. I argue that geoengineering is not a modern innovation; rather, it has a lengthy premodern history. To take just one case from China, the imperial state of the Northern Song dynasty (960–1127) developed colossal projects of land transformation to facilitate its military, financial, and environmental management agendas. As the state became a powerful geological agent, geoengineering served as both a means and an end to the regime’s empire building.  But geoengineering costs. Large-scale land transformations not only led to complex geological and environmental consequences, but also subjugated the imperial state itself. Geoengineering demanded that the state slavishly create a new political economy in which economic relations of different parts of the empire were reconfigured, natural resources, labor, and wealth were redistributed, and regional differences were widened. From the state’s painstaking service to the altered land, an empire-wide market emerged to drive economic growth. Unlike many Chinese historians, who laud the growth of this period as China’s “Medieval Economic Revolution,” I take a more cautious view. I argue that the growth was a regional phenomenon and its success was highly dependent on the state’s political intervention, but that it also derived from tremendous harm inflicted by the state’s geoengineering projects. Session 4 Adivasis in the Anthropocene: What an Environmental History of Eastern India Can Tell Us about Global Ecological and Climate Crisis Vinita Damodaran Historians such as Richard Grove have argued for major global turning points in environmental history. In South Asia the onset of rice cultivation allowed valley dwellers to start building hierarchical societies pushing areas of resource control into forested areas. From 1800 the British empire and their resource demands transformed environments including the disease environment creating conditions for periodic mass mortalities during extreme climate events, introducing an element of great instability as well as transition in population terms. It is useful for us as historians to identify these global turning points in history. In this context, this paper highlights the importance of also exploring local thresholds (ecological tipping points) in history by mapping environmental change in Eastern India in the longue durée. The shifts from planetary debates to the local allows us to analyse the impact of what has been termed as the Anthropocene in the locality. It looks particularly at the relationship between environmental change and livelihoods of Adivasi or indigenous communities in the context of famines and food crisis from the eighteenth to the twentieth century primarily in Singhbhum, now Jharkhand and examines the impact of mining in the region as a new ecological tipping point. By documenting the geographies of resistance to these changes by Adivasis it outlines the importance of understanding resistance as synonymous with resilience in the Anthropocene. The Art of Robbing the Soil Emily Brownell  Soil health has long been used as an indicator of human impact on environments as well as to determine “carrying capacity” of the planet. The specter of soil exhaustion — and the understanding of human interference and its potential costs — has also animated imperial expansion over the past 250 years as a way to not just secure more arable land but access to agricultural inputs to restore exhausted soil in the metropole. What has come of all the work to measure and determine human impact on soil? Who has it helped and who has it harmed and how has this knowledge now come to shape our attempts to mitigate climate change? And finally, how are the ways of sensing and measuring the Anthropocene impossibly bound up in reproducing the inequalities that produced it? With examples from East Africa, this paper considers a brief history of 20th century anxieties around soil and the tools used to measure soil productivity as not merely measurements of human interference but potential accelerators of such harm. Session 5 Anthropogenic Changes minus the Anthropos Christoph Rosol and Jürgen Renn What is the signal that determines that the geological fingerprint of the Anthropocene is indeed anthropogenic? Following the footsteps of recent developments in astrobiology the paper proposes a thought experiment: take modern humans out of the picture, e.g. by considering a similar geological event long before human appearance on Earth, or the existence of a far-away exoplanet, in both cases of which distinctive biogeochemical traces would suggest the existence of an intelligent, energy-harvesting civilization. What exactly is this what we would detect then? How could we distinguish an industrial cause from an otherwise naturally occurring event and how could we, as a result, identify a quasi-anthropogenic perturbation of elemental conditions? Could or should we draw boundaries analogous to those between nature and culture or does such a thought experiment rather suggest a more holistic description? Or does, in the end, the evolutionary capacity of the planetary system determine whether a gradual differentiation into spheres like the biosphere or the technosphere is possible? We look very forward to discuss with all of you such open questions that provocatively shimmer between epistemological and ontological domains. Anthropogenic Change: A Conceptual History Zoltán B. Simon and Wilko Hardenberg In our opening talk we aim to set the stage for the coming discussion by providing a conceptual history of the notion of “anthropogenic change.” We argue that the conceivability of a kind of change that is specifically anthropogenic paved the way for the thinkability of the Earth system science notion of the Anthropocene in more recent times. In other words, while affirming their close links, we also decouple “anthropogenic change” and the “Anthropocene” in locating the emergence of the former notion in the interwar discourse on plant ecology and vegetation change. We argue that “anthropogenic change” became conceivable as soon as a system-view has been developed in the context of scholarly debates on vegetation change with the coining of the notion of “ecosystem” in the 1930s, and go on to sketch its “historical” career through its occurrence in climate change discourse and its contemporary reiteration in the Anthropocene discourse (as distinct from the issue of climate change). Finally, in an open invitation for discussion, we pose the question concerning the possibilities and limitations to study “anthropogenic change” across discipline and across times that address the theme outside the spatiotemporal context in which the notion has emerged. Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Boltzmannstraße 22, 14195 Berlin, Germany Zoom/Online Meeting Platform Wilko Graf von HardenbergZoltán Simon Wilko Graf von HardenbergZoltán Simon Europe/Berlin public