In 2008, a proposal was presented to the International Commission on Stratigraphy to officially recognize a new geological era defined by the planetary scale of human activity: the Anthropocene. While the Commission has yet to decide on whether to formally adopt the term, the Anthropocene serves as a rich, if problematic, concept with which to designate what is utterly unique about our current conditions. It isn’t simply that human action has impacted the Earth; it is that humans have impacted the Earth to the point of altering its biogeochemical profile. Human agency, in other words, has become geological agency.

This, however, is also the era in which we are experiencing drastically changing environmental conditions that are beginning to impinge on our way of life. From rising atmospheric temperatures to mass species extinctions, the Earth no longer seems able to sustain the agricultural, energy, and capital networks that humanity has built to drive itself.

The concept of the Anthropocene thus figures human beings as the agent of a grand planetary drama at the same time as it stymies our ability to act. It challenges the dominant perception of human beings as separate and superior to nature, raising many philosophical and political questions of what it means to be human in our current environmental conditions. As Dispesh Chakrabarty puts it, “to call human beings geological agents is to scale up our imagination of the human.” How might the intertwining of the human with the geological challenge traditional assumptions about human ethics, responsibility, power, and capacities for meaning-making?

Engaging with the growing scholarship within the humanities and social sciences on these questions, this module examines how the acknowledgement of humans as geological agents might change the ways in which we think of and realize our agency. Does the planetary scale of our agency mean we are in total control? Does the dawn of the age of the Anthropos culminate in species narcissism? Or do our imbrications with the geological reveal our entanglements with all sorts of non-human agencies from the movement of carbon molecules to those of tectonic plates? Do they also reveal that the notion of ‘human agency’ is itself multiple, made up of differentials of power and exploitation? Further, since the Anthropocene is also the age of mass species extinctions and mounting environmental disasters, what does the realization of our geomorphic power mean in the midst of so much human and non-human death? What, this module ultimately asks, does a warming, liquefying, and dying world reveal about the realities and limits of human agency?

Learning Outcomes

  • Gain insight and familiarity with some of the philosophical and political dimensions of climate change
  • Gain critical understanding of the key dimensions of the Anthropocene concept
  • Identify and pursue connections between “theory” and “event”
  • Apply the writing and analytical skills learnt in academia to public discourses and spaces of debate