The Anthropocene and the Need for a Crisis in Teaching

Abstract:
Humanity’s ecological footprint has come to threaten the earth’s planetary system. Exponential population growth, energy consumption and mass production have led to critical tipping points that endanger central ecological systems. Processes already initiated will continue to harm life on earth beyond the foreseeable future. To reduce the human impact on the environment, profound lifestyle alterations are necessary. Thus, crisis awareness must go beyond the present and take root in our historical consciousness; crisis is temporary, but learning to live with the consequences will be long term. Nonetheless, history education continues to be arranged around the same anthropocentric and methodological nationalism that dominated modern historicism.
DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2021-17397.
Language: English

Humanity’s ecological footprint has come to threaten the earth’s planetary system. Exponential population growth, energy consumption and mass production have led to critical tipping points that endanger central ecological systems.[1] Processes already initiated will continue to harm life on earth beyond the foreseeable future. To reduce the human impact on the environment, profound lifestyle alterations are necessary.[2] Thus, crisis awareness must go beyond the present and take root in our historical consciousness; crisis is temporary, but learning to live with the consequences will be long term. Nonetheless, history education continues to be arranged around the same anthropocentric and methodological nationalism that dominated modern historicism.

The Unprecedented Situation 

History education carries a dark heritage as a servant of grand narratives. In general, educators are sceptical of grand narratives, but for good reasons – it is easy to agree when Sirkka Ahonen emphasises that such narratives ‘are unsustainable as truths and socially exclusive as identity builders’.[3] Sound educational strategies are, rather, intended to debunk single narratives and promote historical thinking and multiperspectivity.[4] That being said, the problem, is perhaps not the single narrative so much as the meta-narrative schema which orders and explains knowledge and experience on a deeper level.[5] Multiperspectivity may eliminate this belief in single narratives. However, it could not abolish the methodological nationalism that continues to cast its orderly shadow.

The Anthropocene pushes historical time in two opposite directions, both of which are outside the comfort zone of history teaching. The geological dimension of the concept pushes towards humanity’s early history and the ‘longue durée‘ of climate and natural changes. The specific start of the Anthropocene, however, pushes towards contemporary history and begins with the industrialisation, or even more so with the great acceleration after 1945. Without a compelling narrative, the rest will be of mere sentimental interest.

It is sometimes argued that the Anthropocene cannot, or should not, be narrated, because while history can explore aspects of climate injustice, the Anthropocene demands immediate action.[6] Zoltan Boldizsar Simon argues that history and nature reflect different logics of temporality, conceptions of change and modes of action, and that ‘Anthropocene is a condition about which no stories can be told’.[7] The tensions and differences that Simon identifies are real; however, we should be cautious not to mystify the Anthropocene condition. The scale of loss and suffering due to human impact on the environment is probably incomprehensible, but its causes and processes are not. What we can understand, we need to tell. It is true that the way out of poverty, we know, comes with higher energy consumption, but it is also true that due to number, injustice, poverty and migration are also drivers of the Anthropocene. Rather than collapsing the narrative, distribution of resources and power is a thread that can combine the geological and the historical. However, there is a need for a plot involving a broader set of resources, actors and conflicts.

As an epochal term, the Anthropocene construes a matrix for such a new master narrative. This is not to say that all history should be cast in an overgeneralised genealogical template, but rather to emphasise that nature, migration and cultural encounters must be the crux around which narratives of the school subject are propagated. Multiperspectivity is central to understanding conflicting perspectives, but it is not a rationale for selecting and arranging what is to be studied.

Causes and Consequences

If the Anthropocene epoch carries a fundamental grid for a new master narrative, it also stirs up binaries in historical explanations and narratives, such as between the universal and particular. The Anthropocene is a different kind of periodisation. It does not start with an embryonic trajectory of empires, nation-building modernity or information technology. Instead, it begins with a wicked problem, first identifying a reluctant and divided humanity as a geological force, then it reintroduces the earth as a historical actor, disrupting the notion that culture has overcome nature.

Dipesh Chakrabarty cautiously pointed out that humanity’s impact on ecosystems creates a new condition for common political interests.[8] Such a notion of universalism is, however, widely contested, along with the term Anthropocene itself. Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg remind us that ‘in the early 21st century, the poorest 45% of the human population accounted for 7% of emissions, while the richest 7% produced 50%’.’ They ask, ‘Are these basic facts reconcilable with a view of humankind as the new geological agent?[9] From the post-humanist and postcolonial positions, the concept has been criticised for being anthropocentric and universalising what is basically eurocentrism.

Clive Hamilton argues that this criticism misses the point, which somewhat puts the critical theorist in a conservative position, unable to accept that their explanatory models (in this area) become insufficient. The Anthropocene does label not only an increase in exploitation and pollution but also a state in which the earth’s system has never been before.[10] The epoch neither diminishes nor distributes guilt and responsibility. Chakrabarty is concerned about the dilemma between the generalising implications of the Anthropocene and the postcolonial reluctance toward the universal, but insists that it has to be addressed: ‘This is why the planet’s history must become routine in humanists’ critical thought’.[11]

Recontextualising disciplinary knowledge of the Anthropocene into the educational context calls for careful consideration of how to process layers of universalism and particularism. These layers occur in concepts (such as humanity and nature) and explanations (such as causes of the sixth mass extinction), and geopolitical processes (such as in Western colonialism and industrialisation). Layers of universalism will also occur in ethical considerations: Education has to respond to the hope of shared human interest to fight global warming and pollution, but also to the diverging interests due to climate injustice. Jörn Rüsen has suggested a history education based on values of human dignity.[12] Rüsen is right; we need to address universal values in education. However, human dignity might have become too limited in its anthropocentrism and probably need to be accompanied by virtues such as justice, hope and truthfulness[13] to remain critical towards hegemonic discourses.

A Reciprocal Relationship

A crisis is argued to activate our historical consciousness. It is worth reflecting on whether The Anthropocene is a crisis for the genetic formation of historical meaning.  Rüsen defines the genetic logic as ‘based on the idea that change creates or makes meaning’, oriented towards future situations not predefined by the past.[14] But now, changes have come from a blind spot in our experiences, with consequences that limit our expectations of an open future. For a historical consciousness in the Anthropocene, change becomes less an opportunity and more a necessity.

The possibility of history teaching should be understood hermeneutically, as a reciprocal relationship between explanation and what is to be explained. We need to explore what can be powerful historical knowledge to orient in this new normality. As the Anthropocene is not mysterious, we need systematic knowledge and methods to think beyond common sense. However, there must also be a reciprocal influence. As the Anthropocene is unprecedented, it follows that many past and current ways of thinking about history are unlikely to be helpful and need to change. This crisis concerns the relevance of historical learning; we need to see that to explore its potential.

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Further Reading

  • Chakrabarty, Dipesh, and Bruno Latour. The Climate of History in a Planetary Age. Chicago, Il: Chicago University Press, forthcoming, 2021.
  • McNeill, John Robert, and Peter Engelke. The Great Acceleration: An environmental history of the Anthropocene since 1945. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.
  • Nordgren, Kenneth. “Powerful knowledge for what? History education and 45-degree discourse”. In, Knowing History in Schools: Powerful knowledge and the powers of knowledge, edited by Arthur Chapman, 177-201. London: UCL Press, 2021.

Web Resources

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[1] Johan Rockström et al., ‘Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity’, Ecology and Society 14, no. 2 (18 November 2009), https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-03180-140232.
[2] ‘Special Report on Climate Change and Land — IPCC Site’, accessed 28 January 2021, https://www.ipcc.ch/srccl/.
[3] Sirkka Ahonen, ‘The Lure of Grand Narratives: A Dilemma for History Teachers’, International Perspectives on Teaching Rival Histories: Pedagogical Responses to Contested Narratives and the History Wars, 2017, 41–62, https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-55432-1_3.
[4] Stéphane Lévesque and Penney Clark, ‘Historical Thinking: Definitions and Educational Applications’, in The Wiley International Handbook of History Teaching and Learning, ed. Scott Alan Metzger and Lauren McArthur-Harris (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2018), 117–48, https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119100812.ch5.
[5] John Stephens and Robyn McCallum, Retelling Stories, Framing Culture : Traditional Story and Metanarratives in Children’s Literature (Routledge, 2013), https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203357750.
[6] Zoltán Simon, ‘Why the Anthropocene Has No History: Facing the Unprecedented’, The Anthropocene Review 4 (15 November 2017): 239–45, https://doi.org/10.1177/2053019617742170.
[7] Zoltán Boldizsár Simon, ‘The Limits of Anthropocene Narratives’, European Journal of Social Theory 23, no. 2 (1 May 2020): 184–99, https://doi.org/10.1177/1368431018799256.
[8] Chakrabarty, ‘The Climate of History’.
[9] Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg, ‘The Geology of Mankind? A Critique of the Anthropocene Narrative’, The Anthropocene Review 1, no. 1 (1 April 2014): 62–69, https://doi.org/10.1177/2053019613516291.
[10] Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2017).
[11] Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘Anthropocene Time’, History and Theory 57, no. 1 (2018): 5–32, https://doi.org/10.1111/hith.12044.
[12] Jörn Rüsen, ‘Forming Historical Consciousness–Towards a Humanistic History Didactics’, Antíteses 5, no. 10 (2012): 519–36.
[13] Byron Williston, The Anthropocene Project: Virtue in the Age of Climate Change (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).
[14] Jörn Rüsen, Evidence and Meaning: A Theory of Historical Studies, 1st edition (New York: Berghahn Books, 2017).

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Image Credits

Fridays for Future, May 24 2019, Ladakh, India © 2019 Sonja Markovic

Recommended Citation

Nordgren, Kenneth: The Anthropocene and the Need for a Crisis in Teaching. In: Public History Weekly 8 (2021) 9, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2021-17397.

Editorial Responsibility

Caitriona Ní Cassaithe / Arthur Chapman

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Categories: 9 (2021) 1
DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2021-17397

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  1. To all our non-English speaking readers we recommend the automatic –> DeepL-Translator for 11 languages. Just copy and paste.

    OPEN PEER REVIEW

    Part of the problem or Part of the Solution: Historical Thinking and the Anthropocene

    This thought-provoking article takes up the most urgent and pressing issue for history educators to grapple with in the present and future. What contributions can history education make to helping students contend with the Anthropocene and the ongoing climate emergency?

    If I understand the author correctly, the basic argument is that current ways of thinking about history and history education are unlikely to be helpful in dealing with an unprecedented event like the Anthropocene. The author presents two proposals to help history education better respond to the Anthropocene. Firstly, use the Anthropocene as the basis for organizing a new master narrative for history education that emphasizes nature, migration, and cultural encounters. Secondly, use universal categories and ethics to teach students how humans unintentionally became a geological force of nature. This involves the recontextualization of disciplinary knowledge of the Anthropocene into history education by “layering processes of universalism and particularism” in concepts (e.g. humanity and nature), explanations (e.g. causes of the sixth mass extinction), and geopolitical processes (e.g. Western colonialism and industrialisation).

    The author’s argument is premised on the notion that because the Anthropocene is an unprecedented event in history, “many past and current ways of thinking about history are unlikely to be helpful and need to change.” While I certainly agree that history education reforms are needed to help students better deal with the Anthropocene and current climate emergency, I’m less convinced that current approaches to history education need to be entirely cast aside. After decades of challenging over-generalized national grand narratives, history educators are rightfully uneasy about imposing master narratives on students. Creating a new master narrative that emphasizes nature, migration, and cultural encounters seems to move us further away from the kind of historical thinking and historical consciousness essential for dealing with an unprecedented epoch like the Anthropocene. Nature, migration, and cultural encounters are important first-order concepts for students to learn about, but I am hesitant about using them as the basis for a new narrative framework.

    In the last fifty years historical thinking became a standard in the theory and practice of history education in Western Europe and North America before spreading globally.[1] At its most basic level, historical thinking can be defined in relation to history. If the past is everything that has ever happened, and history is comprised of narratives that are told about the past, then historical thinking is the cognitive process of analyzing and interpreting historical evidence to construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct historical narratives.[2] Central to historical thinking is the notion that history is more than an “informational” subject focused on learning factual knowledge and master narratives, but an “educational” subject that emphasizes learning open and critical disciplinary methods, concepts, and procedures essential for active participation in a liberal and democratic society.[3]

    Rather than create a master narrative for the Anthropocene, students should use second-order concepts like evidence, interpretation, cause and consequence, continuity and change, historical perspectives, and the ethical dimension to investigate different aspects of the Anthropocene to construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct their own historical narratives. What historically significant events and developments led to the Anthropocene? When did the Anthropocene begin? What caused the Anthropocene to occur and what are its consequences? What groups of people have been most impacted by the Anthropocene? Given the current climate emergency what is human’s ethical responsibility to mitigate its effects?

    In addition to adapting current history education approaches to teaching about the Anthropocene, history educators might further investigate how other innovative approaches to history education can contribute to teaching about the Anthropocene and addressing the anthropocentrism that is commonly featured in many history curricula. This includes transnational and multi-disciplinary approaches like the Big History Project (https://www.bighistoryproject.com/home) and the World History Project (https://www.oerproject.com/World-History), but also core concepts and disciplinary practices from environmental history and other related fields. These approaches might help de-centre the anthropocentrism that is currently pervasive in history curricula and provide students with the historical consciousness needed to better understand the past and build a better future.

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    [1] Christopher Berg and Theodore Christou, eds., The Palgrave Handbook of History and Social Studies Education (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2020); Scott Alan Metzger and Lauren McArthur Harris, eds., The Wiley Handbook of History Teaching and Learning (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2018).
    [2] Peter Seixas and Tom Morton, The Big Six Historical Thinking Concepts (Toronto: Nelson Education Ltd, 2013).
    [3] Ken Osborne, “‘Our History Syllabus Has Us Gasping’: History in Canadian Schools B Past, Present, and Future,” Canadian Historical Review 81, no. 3 (September 1, 2000): 403–71, https://doi.org/10.3138/chr.81.3.403; Ken Osborne, “’To the Past’: Why We Need to Teach and Study History,” in To the Past: History Education, Public Memory, and Citizenship in Canada, ed. Ruth W. Sandwell (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), 103–31.

  2. To all our non-English speaking readers we recommend the automatic –> DeepL-Translator for 11 languages. Just copy and paste.

    OPEN PEER REVIEW

    Responding to crisis: placing humanity, nature and justice at the heart of history education

    As I write this response, research findings that sea levels may rise by 1.35m by 2100 are making the headlines alongside reports of the continued dependence on coal in key parts of the world. Almost daily, we are forced to reflect upon dilemmas and uncertainties for which history offers no salve and only the faintest hope of redemption. In this context, it is hard to defend the continuation of ‘life as normal’ in any context and I completely endorse Kenneth’s view that this must include school history. If I think about future generations – who may well consider our anthropocentric separation of human and natural history as absurd – I can only imagine how quaint (this being the polite version) they may consider the history curriculum in our schools to have been in 2021.

    The two arguments raised here – that we need to rethink the role of meta-narratives and multi-perspectivity and revisit the role of universal values in order to respond to the current climate crisis in history education – are useful starting points. Kenneth believes that a story of the Anthropocene can be told – or at least a story of its causes and effects – if we embrace more porous boundaries between human and non-human history. The assertion that nature, migration and cultural encounters must be the crux around which narratives of school history are propagated is a bold assertion; more powerful for me are suggestions about the kinds of universal values that could help to define our purposes as history educators such as ‘humanity’, ‘nature’ and ‘justice’. I believe these – and the connections between them – should be at the heart of the questions our students ask about the past. Geographers see one of their distinctive contributions to the curriculum as the study of natural and human processes coming together and we should likewise be offering historical perspectives on the intersection between the broad principles that Kenneth suggests.

    This is a big topic and I am left with some big questions.

    1. What does this look like in classrooms? In moving away from some of the old certainties of history as a discipline (e.g. by introducing nature as a historical agent), do we need to rethink its fundamental structures? And in doing so, do we also need to reconsider the relationship between academic history and history education and accept that we may forge a divergent path?

    2. In exploring a ‘wicked problem’ that forces us to connect different perspectives, how do we position ourselves in schools in regard to the geographers, the scientists, the religious education specialists and so on?

    3. This article rightly suggests that history educators have a role to play in helping young people to understand how we got to this point. But to take inspiration from the universal value of ‘humanity’ suggested here, are we also able to offer perspectives on different ways to live as human beings? The future is not likely to offer the range of choices that some of us have been lucky enough to have in our lifetimes, but there remain crucial choices to make – as individuals and nations, as global communities and most of all, as a species – and very little time left to make them. Any choice takes us into unchartered waters, but we are there anyway. Can history help us at least to understand something useful here, i.e. that homo sapiens have proved themselves adaptable over time and have lived very differently, not least in their very different relationships with nature. A study of different cultures’ attitudes to land ownership, for example, provides a radical alternative to prevailing norms.

    4. I pose my final questions as an educator and as a parent. There is no doubt in my mind that we must respond to the climate crisis in every sphere of life and history education is no exception. But school curricula – as this piece reminds us – can be glacially slow to change and in high accountability systems such as in the UK, readiness to change is not common. What can we do about this? Finally, in addressing issues of nature and humanity, how can we ourselves act humanely in order to build understanding without deepening fear and despair in our young people?

  3. To all our non-English speaking readers we recommend the automatic DeepL-Translator for 11 languages. Just copy and paste.

    Polythetic narrative frameworks!

    A quite interesting piece about the role of history education in our times of global scale changes that go beyond our social world and affect the planet itself and life on it. I do agree that we need to move beyond anthropocentric narratives that most of the time are ethnocentric and local or regional. However, I am not sure that history education is completely unprepared and that what we need are new master narratives that tell a new but still single story.

    As Lindsay already mentioned above, we already have examples of projects that attempt to teach history at global level focusing on big pictures and large-scale changes and continuities in our planet’s history. Of course, we need to acknowledge here that the vast majority of curricula around the world are still focused on national history. In this sense, I think that moving towards what Kenneth suggests is more about implementing approaches the already exist (perhaps including new questions and new topics) but haven’t found their way yet to individual educational systems rather than developing something completely new.

    Apropos narratives, what we need is not master narratives that are similar to traditional ethnocentric narratives, only in bigger scale. In fact, I am not even sure that this is what Kenneth suggests. I think a more appropriate approach is the development of what Denis Shemilt (2000) calls ‘polythetic narrative frameworks’ where different dimensions of the past are woven in coherent big pictures, large scale changes and their differing significance across themes and timescales are explored, and narratives are approached as constructions instead of single true stories of the past.

    ____________________________________________
    Shemilt, D. (2000) The caliph’s coin: the currency of narrative frameworks in history teaching, in: P. Seixas, P. Stearns and S. Wineburg (eds), Knowing, teaching and learning history. New York: New York University Press.

  4. To all our non-English speaking readers we recommend the automatic DeepL-Translator for 11 languages. Just copy and paste.

    Author’s Reply

    Thank you to Lindsey and Lukas for your thoughtful comments, with which I mostly agree, and to Alison for asking important questions that insist on practical consequences for the classroom. I hope to return to these questions as they are a reminder that what is at issue here is far too important to become lost in over-theorised rhetoric.

    My main aim was to discuss education in the Anthropocene as a reciprocal process. We need history to understand the new condition, but the explanations require the discipline to widen its scope regarding methods, theories, sources and collaborators. We need narrations to integrate the Anthropocene with the past and the future to establish historical meaning; however, as a new epoch, it comes with timescales, spaces and events that are generally absent or marginalised in the general historical culture. About 150 million people worldwide are forecasted to be flooded within 30 years, which also predicts a loss of history and future. Possibly the Anthropocene is a new regime of historicity.

    Because the Anthropocene is an unprecedented event in history, we have to think openly and systematically about education’s strengths and weaknesses. I agree that historical thinking (HT) is some of our major strengths. Disciplinary and critical thinking are vital to support learners with ‘powerful knowledge’ to think beyond common sense.[1] I believe that we also should apply this systematic approach to our educational thinking, and I attempted to discuss master narratives and universalism as ‘reciprocal problems’ (there are several) where we may need to think counterintuitively.

    About master or meta-narratives: I believe it is a mistake to think of them as mere ‘informational and factual knowledge’ or single stories. They form patterns of meaning, including lines and logics as well as boundaries of historical cultures.[2] In education, we can detect how they influence what becomes historically significant. We sometimes refer to them as methodological nationalism (or modernity or enlightenment), not because they express nationalistic or ethnocentric stories. Rather, it is about an (often not reflected) methodology of sorting out relevant actors, events and contexts.[3] HT and multiperspectivity can highlight such patterns and help us be critical of them; however, they do not dissolve them. Master narratives are part of our historical consciousness and thus indispensable for our meaning-making process. What I suggest is not a new single narrative, but if the Anthropocene messes with fundamental assumptions about historical significance, then Bruno Latour’s question is justified: ‘how do we tell such a story?'[4]

    Based on big data, David Zhang and colleagues found that 70% of significant dips in population during 800–1800 correlate with short periods of cold. Major periods of war, conflicts and migration can also be closely linked to climate change. [5] Projects like Big History and World History are indeed helpful in finding patterns of new master narratives. Still, history educators should also engage in this discussion because it will (or should) affect the structure of the subject in future curricula.

    Lindsay gave useful examples of questions to enquire the Anthropocene. Nonetheless, global warming and the loss of biodiversity are more than additions to the list of enquiries to teach during the semester. While enquiries are necessary, the challenge lies deeper than that. Another important practical consideration is how to decentre or re-evaluate reasons of significance to give space to climate, nature and migration as integrated dimensions in the storyline. HT could be an obstacle in such an engagement if it causes teachers and curriculum makers to believe that history is all about ‘methods, concepts and procedures’. Master narratives are part of historical cultures; they are not invented by education but can be amplified by it. If educators are unaware or in denial of such underlying discourses for selecting what is of significance, they will be unlikely to open narrations and procedures for alternative perspectives. Historical understanding is not purely methodological; it also includes cultural–epistemological processes. As we can see from the research inspired by Létourneau and Moisan, such internalised narratives are quite resistant to educational methods.[6] The meaning we experience when we connect the dots does more than merely present itself as the result of individual enquiries.

    My argument is not that HT is redundant but rather that we, as historians and history educators, need to pay better attention to the content and its structure. History in the Anthropocene should surely have what Lukas suggests: a polyphonic and ‘polythetic narrative frameworks, where different dimensions of the past are woven in coherent big pictures’. Again, the question is – what makes the picture ‘coherent’? No matter how uneasy we feel or how counterintuitive it seems, if we ignore master narratives as a part of history, we can certainly make excursions to the Anthropocene, but we will remain inhabitants in the old regime.

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    [1] Young, M. and J. Muller, Curriculum and the specialisation of knowledge. 2016: Routledge.
    [2] Halverson, J.R., et al., Master Narratives of Islamist Extremism. 2011, Palgrave Macmillan.
    [3] Wimmer, A. and N.G. Schiller, Methodological Nationalism, the Social Sciences, and the Study of Migration: An Essay in Historical Epistemology. International Migration Review, 2003. 37(3): 576-610.
    [4] Latour, B., Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene. New literary history, 2014. 45(1): 1-18.
    [5] Zhang, D.D., et al., The causality analysis of climate change and large-scale human crisis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2011. 108(42): 17296-17301.
    [6] Létourneau, J. and S. Moisan, Young people’s assimilation of a collective historical memory. In P. Seixas (ed.), Theorising historical consciousness, 2004: 109-128.

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