After 400ppm: science, politics and social natures in the Anthropocene

after-400-ppm-poster2I’m looking forward to the After 400ppm conference later this spring (the call for papers was here among other places). The conference website is being developed here. Sarah Whatmore will be the keynote speaker.

My contribution will be from some work that won’t make the final cut of the book that I’m working on and which should be finished (the first full draft, that is) in late May. Here is the abstract for my paper:

The Cosmos Club: 19th century earth-making and the anticipation of the Anthropocene

Although a nascent concept, precursors to the Anthropocene have already been identified in a relatively unchecked narrative that runs from George Perkins Marsh, through figures such as Pierre Tielhard de Chardin, Henri Bergson, and Vladimir Vernadsky (see Steffen et al., 2011). In this narrative, earth system science and environmental policy begin intersecting mid-20th century through the work of NASA and the Club of Rome. In this paper I offer an alternate historical basis for connecting considerations of geologic agency, planetary evolution and social policy. It emerges out of historically over-looked members of Washington’s Cosmos Club in the late 19th century. These individuals formed America’s intellectual vanguard while also holding key bureaucratic positions in the USGS, the Smithsonian and in the survey and settlement of North America. A central notion that each was committed to was the idea of “earth-making” – of giving an account of planetary evolution without a divide between humans and nature. To accomplish this, they developed a novel account of geologic agency that included humans as one part of an evolutionary plentitude of geologic agents. Through this paper’s historical account, I show how the idea of geologic agency comes packaged with certain ethnocentric assumptions that ultimately find their way into key concepts – such as the idea that the world is a reservoir of natural resources – that anticipate the intersection of environmental policy and emerging understandings of earth systems several decades prior to those in the current narrative.


Will Steffen, et al., “The Anthropocene: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London A 369 (2011): 842-67.