Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

15 Scopus citations


Giving the Anthropocene a public resonance involves choosing objects, images, and stories that make visceral those tumultuous geologic processes that now happen on human time scales. How can we most effectively curate and narrate the Anthropocene, an idea that can seem, by turns, dauntingly compendious and elusively abstract? What objects, images and stories can best express the imaginative politics of the Anthropocene as an ascendant planetary story, speaking simultaneously to the promise and potential pitfalls that that the idea contains? To approach such large questions requires straddling two of the most pressing challenges of our time: the environmental crisis and the inequality crisis. Over the past thirty-five years-and ever more acutely in the twenty-first century-we have witnessed, in society after society, a widening divide between the super-rich and the ultra-poor, between islands of walled off privilege and ecologically ravaged sacrifice zones of human abandonment, zones stripped of the resources necessary for sustaining life. For if accelerating, anthropogenically-driven planetary change is a definitive feature of our age, so too is an intensifying disparity, the gulf between the haves and the never-will-haves that mars social mobility and scars social cohesion. In Timothy Noah’s phrase, we are now living through “the Great Divergence.” So a crucial imaginative challenge facing us is this: how do we articulate the story of the Great Divergence to the story of the Great Acceleration? How do we find the material objects that will bring into emotional focus two large stories that can often seem in tension with each other, a convergent story and a divergent one? First, the story of how a single sentient species has become, for the first time in Earth’s history, a quasi-geological force, above all during the post-World War II Great Acceleration that has seen an exponential increase in the globalization of human institutions, trade, and environmental and geological impacts. This collective story expresses an increasingly widespread awareness that humanity’s geomorphic and biomorphic impacts will be legible in the Earth’s geophysical systems for millennia to come, that our accumulating, accelerating and durable impacts are being written in stone. To recognize the full force of this morphology entails asking far-reaching questions, like how can we, as a species, pool our creative energies to produce some viable mix of adaptation, resilience, and sustainable endeavor in the name of an already compromised, but best possible planetary future? Can the grand Anthropocene story, which highlights humanity as an exceptional actor in planetary morphology, help provoke a greater sense of human responsibility? For if the Anthropocene is, in both senses, an epochal idea, it achieves that force by shaking the very idea of what it means to be human. The perceptual and conceptual jolt that the Anthropocene delivers is indissociable from a yearning for innovative ways to reframe human power and planet-wide human policies. Environmental historian Libby Robin puts the matter succinctly: “The question is how people can take responsibility for and respond to their changed world. And the answer is surely not simply scientific and technological, but also social, cultural, political and, above all, ecological.” Against this epic species story, which positions and invokes Homo sapiens as a collective force, we need to remain alive to a more divided story. The species-centered Anthropocene meme has gained traction in the twenty-first century, which has seen, in most societies, a hollowing out of the social middle alongside intensified resource capture by the most affluent and intensified resource depletion that leaves the most vulnerable ever more exposed. This deepening schism is evident in nations as diverse as the United States and China, India and Russia, South Africa, Spain, Nigeria, Indonesia, the Philippines, Jamaica, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Bangladesh, Costa Rica and Italy. Yet in the most influential articulations of the Anthropocene, environmental justice considerations have remained marginal, giving at best incidental attention to unequal access to resources and unequal exposure to risk. This chapter is an effort to help spur us to think through the implications of the Anthro - pocene’s ascent as a grand explanatory story during a plutocratic age. As we take the Anthropocene deeper into the public realm, as we search for material ways to release its imaginative potential, a critical creative challenge is this: how to unearth stories that disturb conventional assumptions about the temporal and physical limits of humanity’s planetary agency, while also disturbing the idea of a unitary species actor in terms of impact and responsibility. It may be helpful here to add a more personal note about what prompted me to begin to address the Anthropocene from an environmental justice perspective. After I had finished writing Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, I sensed that I wasn’t finished with the politics of environmental time as it bears on environmental justice. But I also wasn’t sure exactly what direction the new work would take. Then in 2012 I was invited by the Smithsonian Institution to participate in one of their Great Ideas Consortiums, in this case, a brainstorming two-day workshop on the Anthropocene. The plan was to test run the viability of a vast projected Smithsonian exhibit on the Anthropocene that would span all nineteen of the Smithsonian’s museums. At the consortium, which had some thirty participants, just a smattering of whom were from the arts or humanities. I was keenly aware that scientists were driving the Anthropocene conversation. I also soon learned that not only the Smithsonian, but the American Museum of Natural History, the Deutsches Museum, the Venice Biennale, the National Museum of Australia, Duke University and institutions from Stockholm to Leiden were all gearing up for Anthropocene exhibits or events over the next couple of years. I felt it was critical that perspectives from the arts and humanities become an active part of the mix as influential international institutions started to stage the Anthropocene as a planetary story with the potential to reshape environmental publics. As makers of stories and scholars of storytelling we have powerful roles to play, particularly at this historical juncture. During the first decade of Anthropocene thinking-since atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and ecologist Eugene Stoermer coined the term in 2000-the exchanges about its implications remained largely scholarly, interdisciplinary affairs. But, as evidenced by the 2013 conference at the American Museum of Natural History, Anthropocene debates have taken a decidedly more public turn. So how can we most effectively animate this charismatic, planetary, but divisive story-in our writing, our image making and our curation-in ways that speak not just to the global environmental crisis, but also to the global inequality crisis?.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationCurating the Future
Subtitle of host publicationMuseums, communities and climate change
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages9
ISBN (Electronic)9781317217961
ISBN (Print)9781138658516
StatePublished - Jan 1 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities
  • General Economics, Econometrics and Finance


Dive into the research topics of 'THE ANTHROPOCENE AND ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this