“Being Human in the Age of Humans” is a multi-year project led by Lisa Sideris (Indiana University) and project team members Celia Deane-Drummond (Notre Dame), Sarah Fredericks (University of Chicago), and Kyle Powys Whyte (Michigan State University).

While the concept of the Anthropocene grew out of earth systems science, it has captured the imagination of many humanists. By portraying humans as a collective species, a spatio-temporal entity that acts as a geomorphic force or agency, scientific narratives of the Anthropocene place humans into the longue durée of geology. For many scholars, research on the Anthropocene seems to offer an exhilarating collapse of disciplinary boundaries. At the same time, however, this interdisciplinary perspective has not often compelled scientists to engage with humanities frameworks. The traffic is not always two-way.

Scholars in science and technology studies, cultural studies, history, and literary studies, have all weighed in on interpreting the Anthropocene. Yet scholarship on the Anthropocene and related climate change issues by researchers in religious studies, theology, and ethics has not led these conversations, despite the ideal placement of such scholars to offer correctives to dominant scientific narratives. Discourse of the Anthropocene resonates strongly with mythic and religious genres—declensionist or ascendant storylines; tales of hubris, forbidden knowledge, theodicy and eschatology—making the Anthropocene ripe for analysis by religion scholars. The Anthropocene raises religious and ethical questions about how to understand humanity’s place within planetary evolution, and how to envision the future trajectory of human societies. Scholarly debates arise over dystopian and utopian visions; whether some human groups bear greater moral responsibility than others for environmental harms stemming from colonialism, capitalism, and industrialization; and whether the Anthropocene represents a spiritual aggrandizement or condemnation of humanity. Our project assumes that these debates about what it means to be human in an “Age of Humans” fall within the purview of religion, philosophy, theology, and ethics.

Areas of research that our project targets:

  • (a) Counter-narratives of Anthropocene Agency. The monolithic “we” of Anthropocene macro-narratives obscures issues of environmental justice and intra-species differences. Proposing universal methods for mitigating climate change, such as climate engineering and solar radiation management, may well perpetuate these disparities. Present discourse on the Anthropocene lacks viable counter-narratives that are genuinely sensitive to climate injustice and disparities of wealth and accountability, but also powerful enough to galvanize social change. Alternative models of communal responsibility, personhood, agency, and identity are needed in the Anthropocene, especially those arising from relevant fields that are often implicitly excluded from discussion, such as women of color feminism and Indigenous studies.
  • (b) Implicit Religion Is Anthropocene discourse filling a void created by secularism? Despite their secular/scientific appearance, Anthropocene storylines often function as religion-resembling propositions about human nature and the planetary future, exhibiting structural similarities to theodicies or to mythopoeic, “epic” tales. The scientific aspect of Anthropocene discourse tends to naturalize these storylines, foreclosing alternative futures. Scholarship in religion, theology, and ethics is needed to analyze implicit religious structures and their implications. Additionally, our project will bring such analyses to the attention of relevant scientists and create a more equal exchange of disciplinary perspectives.
  • (c) Indigenous and Alternative Cosmologies. The Anthropocene assumption that the human/nature divide has only recently been breached ignores current knowledge of human evolution, as well as Indigenous histories. Whereas the Anthropocene signals for many a radically altered environmental future, tribal communities perceive the Anthropocene, and climate disruption, as a dystopian or post-apocalyptic present. That is, these developments are seen as a continuation of human-caused environmental degradation introduced by settler colonialism. Research is needed to understand how Indigenous cosmologies and histories narrate the present and future. Our project will generate new research on the ethics and knowledge systems, and unique adaptive strategies, of Indigenous communities.

Our project aims to foster innovative research in the Anthropocene-humanities nexus by (1) delivering concrete outcomes that address neglected areas of scholarship and (2) establishing an ongoing presence of such interdisciplinary humanities research in the Midwest. By establishing a framework for ongoing collaboration among scholars of religion, theology, and ethics at Indiana University, University of Chicago, Michigan State University, and Notre Dame University, we hope to initiate a second wave of Anthropocene research that closes gaps in existing scholarship and promotes a continued dialogue with the sciences.