From the President of the INfAST
THE NEED FOR A NEW EPISTEMIC TRADING ZONE: THE ANTHROPOCENE STUDIES
1. The Anthropocene.
The word "Anthropocene" first appeared in a one-page article by Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen and American limnologist Eugene Stoermer, published in 2000 in the Global Change Newsletter 41 of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program (Crutzen & Stoermer 2000). Since then, it has not stopped circulating, inside and outside the academic environment, and the idea it embodies continues to be intensely discussed.
It can take on two fundamental meanings.
First, the Anthropocene is a scientific hypothesis that states that the Earth entered a post-Holocene state, in which the aggregated action of the members of the human species becomes a power (technologically mediated) to intervene and modify its main natural systems, if not the entire Earth System, a power that rivals that of the main geological forces. This is a chronogeological hypothesis and should be supported by chronostratigraphic evidence. If confirmed as true, it will cause the International Chronostratigraphic Charter to be updated.
Second, the Anthropocene is a civilizational event in which awareness and concern about the increasing risks of a collapse of Nature and Civilization and the extinction of Humankind, induced by the action of our species, has reached a planetary expression. As such, it is causing a profound change in our way of being-in-the-world, that is, in how we feel, think, act and imagine in it.
2. The Anthropocene Studies.
The Anthropocene is a complex object. Its complexity results, first, from having as its referent a non-linear and highly dynamic system of energetic and biogeochemical flows, which is the Earth. This complexity is even greater if we take into account that the social, political and economic systems built and developed by the human species not only interfere with the Earth System, but its evolution and subsistence have become inseparable from it. This means, on the one hand, that we have added and superimposed an artificial layer, a Technosphere, to the other natural spheres. It also means, on the other hand, that the Earth's natural history is now inextricably linked to human civilizational history.
To address this complex object, it is not enough to mobilize the Sciences and the Humanities, Charles Percy Snow`s “two cultures” (Snow 1959), nor just to bring into play the Natural Sciences, the Social Sciences and the Humanities, Jerome Kagan`s “three cultures” (Kagan 2009) . In addition to the last three, the contribution of Engineering is also indispensable. We need these four cultures, then, to inquire and explore the Anthropocene in all its extension, details and depth.
The just mentioned is, I believe, a sufficient reason to claim the establishment of the Anthropocene Studies as a new epistemic field. Its emergence, therefore, stems from an objective need. At first, the structure it presents is that of a multidisciplinary field, with a clear division of the labor that each "culture" must carry out. The Natural Sciences should explain the causes and effects of the Anthropocene as a sui generis geological age. The Social Sciences, on the other hand, are committed to understand the social, political and economic reasons and consequences linked to its arrival and development. The Humanities, instead, should critically examine the historical, philosophical and cultural assumptions and implications involved in the Anthropocene as a global civilizational phenomenon and process. Finally, Engineering should try to provide solutions to the practical challenges and concrete problems that arise for the subsistence of the natural and artificial systems on which the existence of ours and other species on this planet depend.
However, the epistemic field of the Anthropocene Studies aims to have an interdisciplinary organization and, ideally, a transdisciplinary configuration. That is why in the academic scientific event in which the official establishment of the Anthropocene Studies was proposed as a new epistemic field – the 2019 edition of EIBEA-Encontro Iberoamericano de Estudos do Antropoceno (Ibero-American Meeting on Anthropocene Studies), held at the University of Minho, in Braga, between June 11th and 13th (v. Mendes & Sylla 2019) – I claimed that it could perhaps be better conceived as a “trading zone” (Hare 2015).
The metaphorical expression “trading zone” started to be used in the 1980s in the fields of Linguistics – to refer a space where pidgins and creoles develop out of necessity so that exchange can take place without fluent mutual understanding – and of Anthropology – to denote the process of how different cultures are able to exchange goods, despite differences in language and culture. It was Peter Galison that later extended its meaning and transformed it in a significant epistemological concept for post-kuhnian philosophy of science. According to the U.S. historian and philosopher of science, a “trading zone” may emerge as follows: «Two groups can agree on rules of exchange even if they ascribe utterly different significance to the objects being exchanged; they may even disagree on the meaning of the exchange process itself. Nonetheless, the trading partners can hammer out a local coordination despite vast global differences. In an even more sophisticated way, cultures in interaction frequently establish contact languages, systems of discourse that can vary from the most function-specific jargons, through semispecific pidgins, to full-fledged creoles rich enough to support activities as complex as poetry and metalinguistic reflection» (Galison 1997, p. 783). In other word, as Jacopo Leveratto (2017) put it, we should conceive a “trading zone” as a knowledge-production domain «(…) where different actors can find a common ground of dialogue through the creation of a new intercultural language.» (Leveratto 2017).
We might, therefore, define the Anthropocene Studies as a new epistemic trading zone «(…) set upon the basis of several contributions from several theoretical and disciplinary backgrounds» (Hardt 2017) given by the referred four cultures. It is in this space that an ambitious research program is being developed, aimed at explaining, understanding, criticizing and discovering solutions for the theoretical and practical problems posed by the Anthropocene.
3. The Institute for Anthropocene Studies (INfAST).
The motivation for the creation of the Institute for Anthropocene Studies came from the need to understand the unprecedented geocivilizational situation that we face and the corresponding desire to contribute to the realization of the referred research program.
As stated in its bylaws, INfAST is mainly committed to achieving it through multidisciplinary R&D&I. Under this goal, INfAST will regularly organize national and international scientific events (seminars, conferences, workshops), will promote and support the publishing of books, conference proceedings, and scientific journals, will launch and develop research projects in collaboration with similar national and international, private and public, organizations. All these, of course, about the Anthropocene and its major and more pressing challenges.
Furthermore, INfAST will endeavor to offer specialized training programs and to share the results of its scientific production with general society through participated public meetings and dissemination in the media.
The challenges that the Anthropocene raises should not be identified with or reduced to those of anthropogenic global warming, climate change, environmental disasters, or ecological crises. The Anthropocene encompasses all of these phenomena, but it is also more comprehensive and dramatic than all of them.
That is why INfAST chose a tree as its symbol; in this case a special tree: a Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis). This species is the third largest living being on Earth after only Sequoia and Eucalyptus. Although native to the west coast of North America, it was introduced throughout Europe and Oceania. It was in this last continent that on Campbell Island, New Zealand, a specimen was found, planted in 1905 by the then governor of the country Lord Ranfurly, dubbed “the most lonely tree in the world”, as it is the only tree in a 200 km radius. Recently, a research team from the University of South Wales, Australia, led by Chris Turney, investigated it and found in the respective rings not only marks of the radioactivity of atomic tests carried out in the 1950s and 1960s but also in a specific area of them a peak of radiocarbon -14 dated around 1965. Turney and his team published an article in 2018 in Scientific Reports in which they proposed that this spruce be a global synchronic marker (technically known as GSSP, Global Stratotype Section and Point; popularly called “golden spike”) to the beginning of the Anthropocene. As the marker chosen to represent the Holocene-Anthropocene border will have to endure so that geologists can continue to identify it, pieces of wood from that spruce are kept at the University of New South Wales in Sydney and in a museum in Invercargill in New Zealand.
Crutzen, P. & Stoermer, E. (2000) The “anthropocene”. Global Change Newsletter, 41: 2000: 17-18.
Galison, P. (1997). Image and Logic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hardt, J. (2017). Environmental Security in the Anthropocene. Assessing Theory and Practice. London: Routledge.
Hare, L. (2015). The Anthropocene Trading Zone. The New Conservation, Big Data Ecology, and the Valuation of Nature. Environment and Society: Advances in Research 6: pp. 109-27.
Kagan, J. (2009). The Three Cultures: Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, and the Humanities in the 21st Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Leveratto, J. (2017). From a Trading Zone to a Sharing Zone: Exploring Interior Architecture as a Multi-Scalar Approach to Inclusivity. In D. Littlefield and S. McNulty (eds.), IE: Studio: Edges (pp. 30-36). Manchester: Interior Educators. URL: https://interioreducators.co.uk/from-a-trading-zone-to-a-sharing-zone
Mendes, J. & Sylla, B. (Eds.) (2019). EIBEA 2019. Encontro Iberoamericano de Estudos do Antropoceno. Atas. Braga. http://repositorium.sdum.uminho.pt/handle/1822/62541
Snow, C. P. (1959). The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Turney, C., Palmer, J., Maslin, M. et al. (2018). Global Peak in Atmospheric Radiocarbon Provides a Potential Definition for the Onset of the Anthropocene Epoch in 1965. Scientific Reports 8 (3293). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-20970-5
* The photo in the header is by Edward Burtynsky, Polders, Grootschermer, The Netherlands, 2011