Humanities in the anthropocene (I): Towards a new environmental coherence

25.05.2016 Jasmin Hettinger


‘Anthropocene?’, you might ask. Well, this expression has come a long way since its very first utterance by Paul Crutzen in 2000.1 Just recently, its career has been crowned by the publication of an article in the renowned Science magazine at the beginning of this year.2 In this article, the authors (mainly geoscientists of different specializations) argue that time has come to name a whole geochronological era after us – the human beings – and our impact on the earth. The reasons for their argument are to be found right under the earth’s surface: In recent geological deposits there are more and more traces of artificial materials produced and – finally – dumped by man, changing the soil’s natural composition to a considerable degree. Starting from this perspective, the anthropocene is more than just a geological time scale. It has rather become a new concept of our perception of human-nature-interaction on the whole, a new heuristic programme, a new way of seeing the world with us living in it.3 The most significant change, though, is the shift in our perception of ‘nature’: from a dangerous one to an endangered one, from natural impacts on society to human impacts on natural environments – subconsciously implying man’s power to shape nature according to his will.


There has been scholarly debate about human influence on the natural environment for quite a few decades, but both quality and quantity are undergoing a major change just now. There is a new tendency to focus on past and current environmental issues in a much more multifaceted way than ever before.4 One obvious reason for this shift is the growing awareness of today’s global climate change and its impacts. In the early 1980ies historian Arno Borst in his noteworthy article on the Villach and Friaul earthquake of 1348 stated that modern European self-consciousness ‘isolates natural disasters in the present and eliminates them from the past because they are not to define the future’.5 While still prevalent in his days, this statement doesn’t seem to hold true in recent times. Greg Oulahen even promotes natural hazards like urban floods as the ‘new normal’ of our days due to a combination of real-life weather-worsening and abundant sensational media coverage.6 So, the current formation of the term ‘anthropocene’ as a new standard trigger word in the academic world turns out to be only the tip of the iceberg, a symptom for a paradigm shift in both environmental sciences and the humanities.


Environmental Sciences: After having investigated present (and past) climate change and its effects following a sort of ‘science only’ paradigm, environmental scientists become more and more aware of the shortcomings of this exclusive scientific way of looking at global environmental issues.7 Even technical solutions to environmental risk cannot seem to fix the problem – neither hold down the effects in the long term. So, modernist confidence in (as well as reliance on) western technology is apparently crumbling away. At the same time it is giving way to the post-modern and somewhat disillusioned insight that man can never fully control his own intervention in natural processes. Instead, there is a growing consciousness that it might be more worthwhile to try to adapt and keep interventions to a minimum. Following this point of view, the anthropocene concept seems to be overcome and outdated already – at least as far as intentional geoengineering is concerned.


Humanities: Humanities, in turn, have widely neglected natural and environmental issues of human past and present for the sake of a social-constructivist perspective that predominated social, cultural and historical research over the last few decades,8 certainly fuelled by theoretical conceptions of modernity. Modern humankind seemed to have lost touch with its natural environment. First intentions to break through this artificial wall of human-nature separation from a historical point of view were already made in the 1960ies through the formation of environmental history as an additional branch of historical research. But only recently are consistent and institutionalised efforts being made from both sides – humanities and natural sciences – to finally work together on questions of how natural phenomena and human presence interact(ed) and shape(d) each other mutually in order to find solutions for current challenges.9


When civil engineering, natural and geoscience alone have failed to deliver appropriate solutions to growing environmental problems in the long run, time has come to broaden perspectives. This at least is the overall consent among political leaders, city planners, environmental scientists and to a lesser extent even the media: We can’t do without humanities. Environmental humanities, that is.10 The social and cultural aspects of natural disasters, of risk perception and of coping patterns have been neglected in favour of a one-sided focus on western technology and science so far. As a response, the term ‘environmental humanities’ unites a whole range of different and somewhat inhomogeneous currents in philosophy and ethics, social and political science, arts and literature and finally historical research, all dealing with human-nature-interaction. Their common idea: Turning our interest to non-western lifestyles and studying human-nature-interactions of past societies might help to get a better understanding of our own situation and time. Once identified the path dependencies that define our present, it could be possible to find new solutions for the future. But one issue has to be considered before: the paradigm of western modernity.


In the wake of European enlightenment, modern humankind finally freed itself from the chains of religious compulsion and at the same time departed from its deterministic world view, so the story goes. And with increasing industrialisation, so the story goes on, man got more and more confident in oneself and in the machines that he created. For the first time in history – so it is supposed – man was confident enough to actively change his own future to the better and to ‘prevent’ instead of simply ‘defend’ himself against anticipated dangers. Now of course this is a very short and rather simplistic summary of the dominating narratives about western modernity that there are. But the essence of all those established theories can be kept as simple as: Western civilisation could finally strip off compulsory behavioural patterns dependent on strong social hierarchies and limited by natural forces. Besides, human striving for security is supposed to have been successfully replaced by a certain disposition to actively take risks. This linear teleological concept of modernity might be the reason for our not recognizing the lessons that can be learned from the past and therefore from so called ‘pre-modern’ and ‘non-western’ societies.


Especially by researchers in post-colonial studies11 and now to a growing amount also by other historians and sociologists, this view of modernity has been challenged.12 There is more than enough evidence that also in former historical and cultural contexts people faced new and unforeseen (climatic) conditions, made up their mind and tried to overcome these urgent problems by actively manipulating their environment – also their natural environment. Technological innovations have led man’s way right from the start. But technologies are always linked to their own specific cultural and social conditions, changing the environment as well as societal structures and mind-sets. Former studies on human-nature-interactions have widely ignored or played down the role of technology in these interactions. Only in most recent research the aspect of technological knowledge and its application is being considered systematically as one crucial aspect of human-nature-interaction, or better human-technology-nature-interaction. This new perspective is by some called ‘environmental coherence’,13 emphasizing that the use of technology can considerably alter our – physical and mental – disposition to interact with natural phenomena and with each other. But: The role of the material world like tools and machines or even physical space for human life is re-gaining importance on humanities’ schedule, too. Man adds a social aspect to technology and space by the way he uses it, but at the same time his actions are shaped and led by his own tools and environments.14 Furthermore, different kinds and forms of knowledge – so called transdisciplinary knowledge15 – about ecological issues are considered to be crucial for a culture’s overall relationship with nature, including non-academic indigenous and practical experiential knowledge. So maybe the most important premise of ‘environmental coherence’ is not to treat the natural and the material world on the one hand and the human world on the other hand as two neatly separated and clearly defined timeless entities. Historicity, interrelationships, ‘entanglements’, path dependencies and mutual influences between all aspects of human life in an integrated world history have to be investigated more thoroughly and on a transdisciplinary level in the future – avoiding to establish a new biological or physical determinism. Plus, applying this concept to different historical and cultural settings and at the same time focusing on one specific topic (the coping with urban floods, for example), it will even permit pan-epochal multicultural comparative studies. Examples will be given in my next blog entry.


Coming up soon on this blog by the same author:

‘Humanities in the Anthropocene (II): Some Remarks about Urban Floods and Resilient Cities’


More on environmental humanities and environmental history on the web: (free online course)



  1. The expression itself has been known and used before, but it was coined and finally spread by Paul J. Crutzen’s work ‘Geology of Mankind’, Nature 415, Nr. 6867 (2002): 23, doi:10.1038/415023a []
  2. Waters u. a., ‘The Anthropocene Is Functionally and Stratigraphically Distinct from the Holocene’, Science 351, Nr. 6269 (2016): 137-148, doi:10.1126/science.aad2622 []
  3. Will Steffen u. a., ‘The Anthropocene: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 369, Nr. 1938 (2011): 842–67, doi:10.1098/rsta.2010.0327 []
  4. Hilary McMillan u. a., ‘Panta Rhei 2013–2015: Global Perspectives on Hydrology, Society and Change’, Hydrological Sciences Journal, 2016, 1–18, doi:10.1080/02626667.2016.1159308 []
  5. Arno Borst, ‘Das Erdbeben von 1348’, Historische Zeitschrift 233 (1981): 532 Original quotation in German. []
  6. Greg Oulahen, ‘The Production of Unequal Vulnerability to Flood Hazards: A Conceptual Framework for Hazards Research in Canada’s Cities’, The Canadian Geographer / Le Géographe Canadien 60, Nr. 1 (2016): 83, doi:10.1111/cag.12232 []
  7. Mike Hulme, „Meet the Humanities“, Nature Climate Change 1, Nr. 4 (2011): 177–79, doi:10.1038/nclimate1150; David Victor, ‘Climate change: Embed the social sciences in climate policy’, Nature 520, Nr. 7545 (2015): 27–29, doi:10.1038/520027a; Mark Carey, Lincoln C. James, und Hannah A. Fuller, ‘A New Social Contract for the IPCC’, Nature Climate Change 4, Nr. 12 (2014): 1038–39, doi:10.1038/nclimate2442 []
  8. Timothy James LeCain, ‘Against the Anthropocene. A Neo-Materialist Perspective’, International Journal for History, Culture and Modernity 3, Nr. 1 (2015): 1–28, doi:10.18352/hcm.474 []
  9. To name only a few projects an institutions based in Germany: Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society; Project Klimakultur at the Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut Essen; A Green City Mandate? Interdisciplinary Project of the FRIAS at Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg; Integrative Research Institute on Transformations of Human-Environment Systems – IRI THESys at HU Berlin; Helmholtz-Zentrum für Umweltforschung []
  10. Poul Holm u. a., ‘Collaboration between the Natural, Social and Human Sciences in Global Change Research’, Environmental Science & Policy 28 (2013): 25–35, doi:10.1016/j.envsci.2012.11.010; Martin F. Price, ‘Humankind in the biosphere’, Global Environmental Change-human and Policy Dimensions – GLOBAL ENVIRON CHANGE 1, Nr. 1 (1990): 3–13, doi:10.1016/0959-3780(90)90003-R; Sverker Sörlin, ‘Environmental Humanities: Why Should Biologists Interested in the Environment Take the Humanities Seriously?’, BioScience 62, Nr. 9 (2012): 788–89, doi:10.1525/bio.2012.62.9.2; Poul Holm u. a., ‘Humanities for the Environment – A Manifesto for Research and Action’, Humanities 4, Nr. 4 (2015): 977–92, doi:10.3390/h4040977;  Gisli Palsson u. a., ‘Reconceptualizing the ‘Anthropos’ in the Anthropocene: Integrating the Social Sciences and Humanities in Global Environmental Change Research’, Environmental Science & Policy 28 (2013): 3–13, doi:10.1016/j.envsci.2012.11.004; W. V. Reid u. a., ‘Earth System Science for Global Sustainability: Grand Challenges’, Science 330, Nr. 6006 (2010): 916–17, doi:10.1126/science.1196263; Maximilian Probst, ‘Klimawandel: Historiker, sprecht über das Wetter!’, Die Zeit, 18. September 2014, Abschn. Wissen. []
  11. One of their most important representatives is Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’, in Ecocriticism: The Essential Reader, hg. von Ken Hiltner (London / New York: Routledge, 2014), 197–222. []
  12. For a multifaceted overview in German language see Thorsten Bonacker und Andreas Reckwitz, Hrsg., Kulturen der Moderne: soziologische Perspektiven der Gegenwart (Frankfurt am Main u.a.: Campus-Verl., 2007). []
  13. Martina Heßler und Christian Kehrt, Hrsg., Die Hamburger Sturmflut von 1962: Risikobewusstsein und Katastrophenschutz aus zeit-, technik- und umweltgeschichtlicher Perspektive, Umwelt und Gesellschaft 11 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Rupprecht, 2014). []
  14. In a broader sense, it is a further development of ANT. There is a range of alternative names for this concept, among them is to be mentioned ‘entanglement’ by Ian Hodder, Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships Between Humans and Things (Chichester u.a.: John Wiley & Sons, 2012). []
  15. Cf. Tobias Krueger u. a., ‘A Transdisciplinary Account of Water Research’, Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water 3, Nr. 3 (2016): 370, doi:10.1002/wat2.1132 []

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