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The Anthropocene? Planet Earth in the Age of Humans

Today’s guest blog post is by AAA member Shirley J Fiske. Fiske is an environmental anthropologist and Research Professor at University of Maryland’s College Park campus.  She is the Chair of the American Anthropological Association ’s task force on Global Climate Change. 

The first in a series of Grand Challenges symposia organized by the Smithsonian for the public (at least the highly educated, concerned public from what I could tell)—a full day with stellar speakers and response panels.  Invigorating discussion and ideas.  Kudos!  Many well-known names Charles Mann (1491, 1493 ), Richard Alley, Andrew Revkin, Senator Tim Wirth and incredibly moving & convincing presentation by photographer Chris Jordan whose images of “the infrastructure of our mass consumption” are familiar to many – as well as his photos of the stomach contents of dead baby Albatrosses on Midway Island, showing them starved with their bellies full of plastic debris.

Environmental humanities were well-represented and exciting, but the social sciences less so – disappointingly, economist Sabine O’Hara did nothing to illuminated the human aspects of the changes in the Anthropocene but chose to talk about “internalizing the economy.”  However, two archaeologists, both at the Smithsonian, did an excellent job as panelists-rapporteurs, ensuring that the audience kept the long dimension of human evolution and development in mind.  Rick Potts, (National Museum of Natural History, Human Origins Program Director), a paleo-anthropologist, offered a tantalizing insight, roughly paraphrased as a lot of change took place during periods of high climate variability (unstable periods)—such as innovations in lithic technology and other things.  He also stated that he’s in the process of getting a long core that will show us 500,000 years of climate change in East Africa during the time period of the development of our species.  Torben C. Rick (NMNH Director of the Program in Human Ecology and Archaeobiology)  focused on the “mid-term time frame”—the last 1,000 years!  and offered that sustainability rests on reconciling the short term developments with long term cycles.  The last 10,000 years has been a series of changes, re-organizations—not collapses. Continue reading

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