Imagining the Anthropocene in Public Life, Art and Activism

Lead Researcher: Dr Hedley Twidle

Debates about the environment are often dominated by the specialized and instrumental languages of science, public policy and developmental economics. Yet the challenge of the Anthropocene age is related in crucial ways to the imaginative capacity of humans as a species: to imagining who we are and what it means to be human at a time when we have fundamentally altered our planetary home. This section of the research project would survey the rich terrain where questions of ecological thought and climate science interact with imaginative writing, film and the creative arts. In our seminars and research projects, we will be asking questions like:

How have writers and artists tried to bring the complex effects of climate change into conceptual focus? What kind of narrative structures and metaphors are embedded in contemporary environmentalism, and what new forms of ‘telling’ and ‘seeing’ are emerging within the present? What kind of written and visual forms are able to render the ‘slow violence’ of ecological degradation, happening as it does within scales of time and size that are often too small or too large for the single human agent to grasp? How can public science writers mediate the complexity and uncertainty that inhere within scientific method for a public sphere that demands easily reproducible, compressed forms of information in a high-velocity digital world? What different ‘cultures of nature’ can be discerned when working with different histories, genres and art forms from across the global South?

If a certain kind of environmentalism has often been framed via European and American locales, this project would seek to track theories of the environment worked up from local contexts, and also to place our work in dialogue with ecocritical thought and social justice initiatives throughout the African continent: whether the ‘green belt’ movement in Kenya or campaigns against petro-imperialism and the dumping of e-waste in Nigeria. What are the dimensions of environmental experience that literary, oral and visual forms allow us to apprehend – dimensions that are often (necessarily) excluded from more specialized discourses?

In a place known for game parks and nature documentaries, we will consider how ideas of the pastoral, of conservation, wilderness and the indigenous are changed and challenged in a postcolonial context. An attention to space and place within southern African literatures, film and art will frame such questions like: how does the ‘story of an African farm’ play out in the 21st century? How can the legacies of the mine, or the consequences of fracking the Karoo thirstland, be understood in terms that do not draw distinctions between the social and the ecological? What of other liminal sites like the littoral zone and the urban edge – sites which visual artists are increasingly drawn to?

We hope to explore different ways of telling stories within the 21st century: to ask what it means to understand the world not via the life of the individual human subject, but rather through the biographies of objects, commodities and infrastructures. We would also do the important but often neglected work of examining the language in which public debates about the environment are conducted, and what such lexicons imply about the conditions of social and political possibility. Also, we would seek to trace what shapes for understanding can be derived from an open and respectful encounter between scientific practice and the humanities: by quite literally bringing together students and individuals from different disciplines to inhabit each other’s practice.

Finally, the challenge presented by imagining the Anthropocene is to recognize both the singular, planetary story of a species, Homo sapiens, that has now assumed geomorphic powers, but also the fractured and diverse story of how environmental questions affect different people in very different ways – particularly in a context like South Africa where inequality and extreme poverty mean that questions of the environment are continually de-prioritized. How, as Rob Nixon asks, ‘can we counter the centripetal force of the dominant Anthropocene species story with centrifugal stories that acknowledge immense inequalities in planet-altering powers?…We may all be in the Anthropocene but we’re not all in it in the same way.’

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