The Anthropocene, Modelling Socio-Environmental Transformations in the Americas, and a New Interdisciplinarity

by Eleonora Rohland

By now almost everybody has heard of the “Anthropocene” and knows that it’s a term for a new era, the “era of humans”. The concept was coined by the Dutch atmospheric physicist and Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen and the U.S. biologist Eugene Stoermer in 2000 (Crutzen & Stoermer 2000), referring to considerable human-caused modifications of the earth system. Since 2009 the international and interdisciplinary “Anthropocene Working Group” (AWG), a sub-group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy, has been working on the question of whether this new epoch can be formalized, which might imply the end of the Holocene (the last 11’700 years before present). This formalization process also and importantly includes the question of when such a new era should in fact begin. For the International Commission on Stratigraphy (that is, geologists) this involves finding a “golden spike”, a stratigraphic marker in rock or recent sediments that would indicate the human takeover as a planet-altering force. Consequently, earth system science, other natural sciences and a small hand full of historians have been busy over the last ten years, checking different such historical markers for their viability to count as the start of the new epoch. In June 2019, a majority of the members of the AWG voted to look for a marker around 1950, which is also the beginning of the “The Great Acceleration”, a phase in socio-economic expansion after World War II (Steffen et al. 2007).

Meanwhile, apart from a few notable exceptions (John McNeill, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Amitav Ghosh, Franz Mauelshagen, Julia Adeney Thomas, Zoltan Simon), the humanities have largely focused on criticizing the concept and its Euro- or Western-centric focus. While this is to a certain extent an important and worthwhile endeavor, it is also quite limited considering the scope of the problem that the concept of the “Anthropocene” encompasses – whether one thinks the term adequate or not. As a consequence, the discourse of the humanities has largely remained detached from the research of the earth system sciences involved in collecting evidence for different Anthropocene starting dates or involved in highlighting the multilayeredness of the predicament of the Anthropocene. For, contrary to popular belief, it is not the same as anthropogenic climate change (Adeney Thomas 2019) but encompasses a multiplicity of problems that have most tangibly been visualized in Johan Rockström et al.’s Planetary Boundaries concept (2009, 2015).

It is true that the diagnosis of the Anthropocene has come largely from research by the natural sciences. However, some social and political scientists have since argued for expanding the understanding of the “Anthropocene” by including their perspective (e.g. Lövbrand et al. 2015, Pattberg et al. 2016). Most of these approaches have remained in or deepened the “us vs. them” logic of the divide between the natural sciences and the humanities/ social sciences.  A small number of proponents from the humanities have, however, started to link their own research more directly to the work of the AWG and earth system scientists working in the field. An example for this bridging of the great interdisciplinary divide is the group of researchers that met for the Workshop Modelling Socio-Environmental Transformations of the Americas during the Little Ice Age at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF) Bielefeld in November 2019 in order to explore the possibilities of modelling societal impacts on the earth system in the post-Columbian Americas.

This uncommonly concrete regional focus on the Americas in the context of the usually lofty global scope of the Anthropocene is due to an ongoing research controversy that involves the Western hemisphere and – for (colonial environmental) historians crucially – the era of the European Expansion. Evidence from CO2 captured in Antarctica ice cores shows a significant decrease in atmospheric concentration levels from around the beginning of the 17th century. While back on the rise soon after that, CO2 concentrations stayed below the long-term average of the previous 700 years until around 1750. One hypothesis attributes this to the mass-death of indigenous Americans at the hands and germs of Spanish conquistadors after 1492 and to the consequent reforestation of their agricultural lands. Those new forests acted as a carbon sink and, hence, greater amounts of carbon than before was withdrawn from and thus cooling the atmosphere (Lewis & Maslin 2015). Another hypothesis explains the decline in CO2 levels with natural feedbacks in response to northern hemispheric cooling during the 17th-century peak of the so-called Little Ice Age.

The workshop’s aim was not so much to resolve the research controversy, but rather to bring a highly interdisciplinary group of researchers (earth system scientists, archaeologists, historical geographers, environmental and climate historians and historical climatologists) to the table who would be able to refine the data of current earth system models with information from the social sphere, in particular. Earth system modelers have become very skilled at modelling the behavior of natural systems, yet the great conundrum is still how to, and in particular, historically, with which data to model the societal realm. Fine-grained historical land-use data from historical records could help to improve the reconstruction of past (and hence also future) climate modelling. Among many more content-specific insights the workshop made clear that research in the context of the Anthropocene must be radically interdisciplinary.

This endeavor is not only continued by the Modelling research group, but also by the Maria Sibylla Merian Center for Advanced Latin American Studies (CALAS), the Center for Advanced Studies Bielefeld University (and the ZiF) is setting up in collaboration with the University of Guadalajara in Guadalajara, Mexico. An interdisciplinary research group will work on the Anthropocene from a Latin American perspective.

Eleonora Rohland is Professor for Entangled History in the Americas (Early Modern Period) and Director of the Center for InterAmerican Studies (CIAS) at Bielefeld Universty