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Scholars Exam Humanity and Our Planet

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Planet Earth
View of the sunlit side of Earth from one million miles away, captured by NASA’s Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) camera on the Deep Space Climate Observatory, 2015. Source:

Earth Day has been celebrated on April 22nd since 1970, and in the Kluge Center’s fifteen years several scholars and programs have explored our planet and the human relationship to it.

The “Longevity of Human Civilization” symposium in 2013 addressed the long-term future of the planet and our existence on it. Led by inaugural Astrobiology Chair David Grinspoon, the four-part event asked difficult questions about whether the technologies that humanity has developed will imperil our survival on Earth or prolong it. The symposium was part of Grinspoon’s multi-year book project at the Kluge Center on the current era in the Earth’s history, referred to by scientists as the Anthropocene, in which humans are the main drivers of geological change. Taken in the context of the Earth’s multi-billion year history, and what we have learned about the history of other planets, how do we understand the changes that are currently happening to the Earth and how do we address them? In the symposium’s first session, for example, Grinspoon asked if humanity is capable of clarifying what we mean when we say we want to save the world. To quote Grinspoon:

“Are we mostly concerned with preserving humans? Are we mostly concerned with quality of life? Do we want to preserve biodiversity? What do we do when biodiversity is in conflict with one of these other goals? Do we want to preserve what they call the charismatic megafauna, animals like elephants and rhinos. What if that’s in opposition to being able to preserve land that allows for a lot of biodiversity of other creatures? When you get into what you mean by saving the world, you get into these interesting questions of what do we care most about.”

The question of what we can preserve was also addressed by Grinspoon in 2014, when he and literary scholar Charlotte Rogers participated in an interdisciplinary conversation titled “The Myth of Wilderness: What’s Left to Save and What Never Existed.” Rogers was at the Kluge Center researching depictions of the Amazon and the lost city of El Dorado in contemporary South American literature. In their conversation, the two scholars probed at the history of human influence on nature and the goals of modern-day conservation movements. Notions of returning to an ideal state in the Earth’s history are nostalgic and mythical, the pair asserted. Understanding that humans have always changed the planet, and finding useful metaphors for that reality that are less negative (humans as a virus, a cancer) and more positive (we are at an adolescent stage of realizing our powers and responsibility) may help us in managing our world.

In 2013, the panel discussion “The Evolving Moral Landscape: Perspectives on the Environment – Literary, Historical and Interplanetary” united the works of Grinspoon, environmental historian Jean-Francois Mouhot, and literary scholar Matthias Klestil. The trio were at the Kluge Center simultaneously, examining topics that related to humans and the environment. While Grinspoon worked on the Anthropocene, Mouhot used the Library’s collections to write an ambitious environmental history of Haiti. Klestil, a Bavarian Fellow from the University of Bayreuth in Germany, examined environmental consciousness in African American literature.

The Anthropocene was first discussed at the Kluge Center in 2009.  In an event titled “The Anthropocene: Are We There Yet?“, historian David Christian, a distinguished visiting scholar at the Kluge Center, and historian John R. McNeill discussed how rapidly increasing human effects on the planet changed how scholars and experts viewed human history. Humanity was transforming the chemistry of the atmosphere; the range, variety and distribution of plant and animals species; the nature of the water cycle; and fundamental processes of erosion and sedimentation without understanding the full consequences, they said. This compelled humanities scholars to no longer ignore the relationship between humans and the biosphere. The pair spoke only a year after a distinguished group of scholars supported the theory of Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen that the world in about 1800 had entered a new geological epoch, the “Anthropocene,” a period of global environmental change.

Finally, last year German Fellow Sybille Machat used the Library of Congress collections to trace how the planet has been described to children in the 19th and 20th centuries through children’s books. How did we explain to children in the 1800s the Earth’s shape, its features and its place within the cosmos? How did that change as we began to learn about our atmosphere, space beyond our planet, and the vastness of the solar system? In her lecture and in an interview on our blog, Machat discussed how new perspectives on the planet from outer space and the discoveries about our galaxy changed how the Earth was depicted and explained to children.

Links to the work of these scholars are below. For more information about Earth Day and its history, visit the website of the Environment Protection Agency.

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