Loading Events

Ischia Summer School: Humans, Natures and the Nature of Humans

Course organizers

Christiane Groeben (Naples, local organizer), Nick Hopwood (University of Cambridge), Erika L. Milam (Princeton University), Staffan Müller-Wille (University of Cambridge) and the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn

Confirmed faculty

Christophe Bonneuil (Centre des recherches historiques, CNRS/EHESS, Paris, France), Rebecca Flemming (University of Exeter, UK), Jia Hui Lee (University of Bayreuth, Germany), Sadiah Qureshi (University of Manchester, UK), Laura Martin (Williams College, USA), Pietro Daniel Omodeo (Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, Italy), Amanda Rees (University of York, UK), Suman Seth (Cornell University, USA)

Introduction to the theme

In May 2019, the Anthropocene Working Group formed under the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy proposed that a new geological “epoch” should begin with the early 1950s. In this period thermonuclear bomb tests left a record of radioactive fallout in sediments around the globe, and the surge in measures of human activity that demographers and historians term the “Great Acceleration” began. The working group’s intervention seems to have closed the question of how to demarcate the anthropocene in geological strata, though the proposal still awaits ratification by the International Commission on Stratigraphy.

But in debates over when the anthropocene began, and whether it deserves to be considered a unique period in earth’s history, more has always been at stake than a technical question of demarcation in stratigraphy. Depending on when one dates the start of the period when humans began to interfere in nature’s course, responsibility for the current climate and biodiversity crisis is either placed on humanity as such, or on the emergence of animal domestication and agriculture, or on industrialization, colonization and capitalism as relatively recent historical developments originating in “the West”. This in turn raises questions about the relationships with the natural world of different groups of humans, and thus about distributive and environmental justice. Who should be held accountable for the damage caused by climate change, and who should be listened to when it comes to developing solutions mitigating those harms? Answers to these questions highlight alternative ways of thinking about and being in the world that might better accommodate the lifeways of other organisms and put the course of human development onto a more sustainable path.

This summer school provides an opportunity to take stock critically of the historical presumptions that underwrite the current anthropocene discourse with its emphasis on fateful developments in the past, uniqueness of the current crisis and urgency in developing new visions of the future. Our discussions will follow three thematic strands through their manifestations in ancient, modern and indigenous cultures. The first is cosmological and relates to what nineteenth-century naturalists called “man’s place in nature.” The second is temporal and addresses cyclical and stadial conceptions of change and progress. The third, which is anthropological, concerns our physical and moral relationships with other beings, whether other humans, other species or other entities altogether. All three strands revolve around what philosophers call the “human condition”, that is, the facts that humans are born from, live within, and ultimately return to nature, while sharing the capacity to create and carve out their own “cultural” niches from it.

“Premodern” world-views are often said to be static, or at most cyclical, yet in antiquity, in west and east, the human body was understood as dynamically embedded in its environment, and earthly life as subject to imperfection and decay. Humoral pathology as developed in ancient Greece, like the theory of circulating “vital energies” (qi) in traditional Chinese medicine, established a fundamental relation between the human body and the surrounding elements that needed to be balanced to achieve well-being. This left more room for projects of improvement than is usually assumed. These theories not only accounted for individual health, which in light of knowledge of one’s constitution could be promoted by careful management of lifestyle. They could also be transposed, through agriculture and sound government, to the level of collectives. A remarkable body of ancient Roman literature, for example, was dedicated to agricultural themes and the notion that nature could be “improved”, indeed that cultivation could bring out the “true” nature of plants, animals and humans. At the same time, luxurious lifestyles and exploitative behaviours provoked early warnings, such as from Seneca, against the detrimental effects of urban air pollution and deforestation.

Dietetics and agriculture, their grounding in seasonal cycles and local “climates”, and an associated ethics of improvement through wise governance — these formed powerful traditions that were transmitted by Arabic and Latin scholars through the middle ages and have counterparts in other world cultures. The continuing emphasis on use and improvement might serve as a warning against the prevalent assumption that a holistic, “closed” worldview will prevent those who hold it from treating nature as a means to an end. With the Renaissance, and the discovery of the “New World”, important shifts occurred nevertheless. The European discovery of America placed all of creation on a shared “terraqueous globe”. This challenged representations of cosmological “spheres” and habitable “climates” —the torrid zone morphing into the tropical, for example,— and raised questions about the status of “exotic” natures. An emphasis on pharmacology, breeding and mining in Europeans’ interactions with their new possessions turned nature into a storehouse of resources and forces to be extracted and harnessed to produce surplus and promote “civilization”. Whether this constituted a special European path towards the “death of nature” (Carolyn Merchant), or whether we are dealing rather with global interactions that had cumulative effects, is a question the school will explore.

On the one hand, there is little doubt that with Enlightenment applications of Baconian science new economics of trade, manufacturing and plantation capitalism were legitimized in articulations of political economy and the “economy of nature”. Since then, the life sciences have been Janus-faced in their approach. The economy of nature was centred on (certain kinds of) humans as beneficiaries of mastery over natural resources, which crucially included the gendered household as the ultimate reproductive unit and physical labour by enslaved and waged workers. Projects to optimize the use of these resources through survey, incentivization and control form the core of political economy, and knowledge of natural resources was key to their success. In this context, other species and other cultures were always at risk of being reduced to means (or obstacles) to a politico-economic end, which also included other classes’ and cultures’ knowledge of plants and animals. Economic botany and zoology in the nineteenth century, and “ethnosciences” in the twentieth, testify to the intense attention European naturalists paid to this knowledge, notwithstanding their widespread contempt for “primitive” cultures.

On the other hand, the economy of nature was increasingly described as a complex web of fragile symbiotic relations among sentient beings that was in need of constant readjustment through adaptation. Especially with Malthusianism, extinction became a real possibility, and nineteenth-century naturalists not only noted the devastating effects of industrialization and plantation economies on local floras and faunas, but also turned them into paradigms of dynamic ecologies at a planetary scale. The “sword of extinction” (Charles Lyell) wielded by European colonizers, especially against traditional lifeways of supposedly “primitive races”, anthropomorphized nature in its epic “struggle for life” and raised the spectre of “vanishing tribes” and calls for “salvage anthropology”. Ironically, “the Other” often emerged as a model for a healthy and sustainable life in “harmony” with nature. Such moves problematically associated racialized others with closeness to nature, and intimate knowledge of it, while at the same time asserting European superiority on the march towards civilization. The “savage mind”, as a mentality to be governed, an obstacle to overcome, and an occasion to reflect critically upon one’s own position in the world, emerged as a powerful imaginary.

These trends of the nineteenth century were reinforced in the twentieth. Marine biology, microbiology and parasitology, in conjunction with the atmospheric and oceanic sciences, painted increasingly systemic pictures of life on earth; local ecosystems with their cyclical flows of matter and energy and fluctuations in population numbers were scrutinized and modelled in great detail. While industrialization was celebrated for its achievement of mastery over nature, and modernization theorists denigrated non-industrial forms of life as doomed to die out, ever louder voices were raised against human pollution of the planet. Projects of population control came out of conservation and environmentalist movements, but these have since the 1970s also become critical of the colonialist practices this promoted. Rather than a given, nature was increasingly seen as needing care and protection from human interference. With growing recognition of the anthropogenic climate crisis, it has become ever clearer that environmental justice and reproductive justice must go hand in hand. For those humans who have polluted the most are not those bearing the brunt of rising temperatures, changing weather patterns or environmental degradation. If the anthropocene discourse may have changed one thing, it is perhaps the realisation that the places of humans in nature, and their obligations to nature, are plural, and hence a matter of choices we make. But even that we suggest taking as a question that is open to historical investigation.

The summer school will explore these ambiguities, not only to understand better the past of the anthropocene, but also to develop perspectives for the future by exposing options from the past. Without neglecting the crucial role that dichotomies of modern and premodern, or “the West and the Rest”, have had in structuring past discourses and political action, we thus plan to question such frameworks in order to achieve an understanding of the human condition that might contribute to reflection on the current crisis.

For all information on the summer school and to find out how to apply, please visit this page.