Anthropocene Campus 2017

Fence surrounding one of the piles of waste asbestos in the Ambler township

by Timothy Neale @tdneale

We have all likely heard the term ‘the Anthropocene’. Coined in the 2000s by geologists and earth system scientists, as Ben Dibley explains, ‘the Anthropocene signals a geological interval since the industrial revolution, where, through its activities, through its numbers, the human species has emerged as a geological force now altering the planet’s biosphere’. Today, many remain wary of the term, uncertain of the value of putting the ‘anthro’ or human back at the centre of the earth’s story; maybe it would be better to speak of our present predicament, as Donna Haraway has suggested, as the Capitalocene, the Plantationocene, or the Chthulucene? Whatever your position, it is clear that, first, the Anthropocene has become central to debates about contemporary environmental crises and the long-term future of the planet and, second, the term has produced an inordinate amount of academic discussion and events.

One of the first major Anthropocenic events was the Anthropocene Campus, convened by the Haus der Kulturen der Welt and Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin between 2014 and 2016, using ‘the Anthropocene predicament… to make previously uncharted transdisciplinary connections’. The Campus has since spawned a number of related events in other countries that venture, in various ways, to generate new ways of making and producing knowledge by bringing together artists, writers, activists and others with academics from across the humanities and social and physical sciences (you can find out much more through the Anthropocene Curriculum website). These various events are all loosely bound to the original, and its intent, but have quite logically taken on their own mutant forms, often combining art events, seminar series, keynote lectures, workshops, fieldtrips and much more.

For example, the recent Anthropocene Campus Philadelphia (ACP) I attended at Drexel University involved all of these activtives over the space of four days. Following an opening lecture by Max Liboiron about plastics and how we might do anticolonial environmental research, we moved into workshops of four streams devoted to key topics: writing global histories in the Anthropocene, voice and representation in the Anthropocene, slow disaster, and environing technology. Like many of the other people who attended, I was at once a student and an educator. Over the space of ACP, I was a participant in the ‘voice and representation’ and ‘slow disaster’ streams, a ‘roving plenarist’ providing one of several provocations on the final day, and I also provided a ‘fieldnotes’ lecture on my own work.

An air monitor at the building site where the former Ambler asbestos factory is being redeveloped into apartments

There is a lot I could say about ACP and those who organised it. In the ‘voice and representation’ stream, for example, a small group of us decided to spend some time mapping how we might turn the dramas and networks of knowledge production within today’s research universities into a hit television series. During one ‘slow disaster’ session, the conveners explained a number of methodological tools, whereas another session involved group interviews of academics (Scott Knowles the master organiser of ACP, and Lee Vinsel) who publicly write about disasters. One of the last sessions involved us choosing an object that the art collective from Continent had salvaged from local areas: discarded wrappers, seed pods, ‘toy’ soil in a can, fake geodes, the branch of an oak tree, and much more. Ali Kenner then lead us through a method for paying attention such prosaic objects and writing about them. Like much of the above, and many other exercises I do not have space to describe, such exercises got out of our convenient scholarly habits and gave us space to think both seriously and playfully about how we might do ‘research’ differently.

The third day involved fieldtrips to different ‘Anthroposcenes’ (I’m sorry) that reveal the profound effects of human activity. I was lucky enough to be part of the group that travelled on the train to Ambler in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, just north of Philadelphia. Ambler was once the site of a large asbestos factory founded by Keasbey & Mattison in the 1880s. In the early 20th Century, Keasbey & Mattison was the world’s largest manufacturer of asbestos products, but the Ambler factory was progressively abandoned, shutdown and shuttered as concerns about the health effects of asbestos exposure became public between the 1960s and 1970s and, between 1973 and 1975, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) progressively banned the sale of asbestos products. By this time, the Ambler factory had not only helped distribute asbestos across the nation, but it has also produced several massive piles of castoff asbestos – factory seconds, cancelled orders, unsold product – and was itself thoroughly dressed in various layers of asbestos.

A grassy hill covering waste asbestos in the Ambler township, funded through the EPA’s Superfund program

Our guides to Ambler were three researchers from the Chemical Heritage Museum in Philadelphia, as well as representatives from government pollution agencies and the owner of the Ambler Boilerhouse. As the latter explained, by deftly negotiating various federal and state tax arrangements, they had been able to fund the redevelopment of the factory’s power-station as chic offices for legal and software firms. Nine cubic metres of asbestos-contaminated rubble had been sealed and buried on-site, rather than be shipped to the national asbestos dumping ground in Ohio, saving money and improving the building’s ‘sustainability’ rating. Nearby, years of investment by the EPA had transformed one of the piles of cast asbestos into a grassy hill. Another knoll was formed on top of waste asbestos in a slurry form, more like toothpaste or cottage cheese. No trees are allowed to grow on these grounds, and no built structures can be formed on top of them, lest roots or piles pierce the plastic wrapped around the toxic burials beneath. To be safe this landscape needs to stay the same, as the EPA representative said, ‘until the end of time’.

Of course, over the deep time of geological ages the toothpaste asbestos slurry will be compacted by the weight of soil and debris. It will not biodegrade as it is pushed and cajoled by weathering, subterranean tremors, and shifting tectonics; as the weight above it builds and builds. In deep time, time outside human experience, it will come to form what some call a ‘technofossil,’ a remnant of human culture and society captured in the earth’s geological strata for future unknown archaeologists to uncover and ponder (perhaps). Asbestos slurry and nuclear waste will, in outlasting us all, stand for us all. But, as I reflected in event’s final plenary, while deep time has been an occupying interest for various debates about the Anthropocene to date, it was largely absent from the four days of ACP; there was little of melancholy and narcissism that often comes with the contemplation of the coming ‘world without us’. Instead, the participants at ACP sought to wrestle with more practical matters of how to work together now, piece by piece, in better ways to support better worlds. In considering the massive temporal and spatial scale of ‘the human age,’ our speculations were nonetheless always situated, directed towards the immediate tomorrow, the places around us, and the publics within which we already take part.

My own task for now is to start formulating an Anthropocene Campus for Sydney in 2018 that will run in advance of the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) conference. Thankfully, many of the excellent people who made ACP such a success have committed to lend a hand (though we could always use more help, if you’re asking).

Further reading:
Dibley, Ben. 2012. “‘The Shape of Things to Come’: Seven Theses on the Anthropocene and Attachment.” Australian Humanities Review 52:139-153.
Fortun, Kim, and Scott Frickel. 2012. “Making a case for disaster science and technology studies.” STS Forum on Fukushima.
Haraway, Donna. 2015. “Anthropocene, capitalocene, plantationocene, chthulucene: Making kin.” Environmental Humanities 6 (1):159-165.
Liboiron, Max. 2016. “Redefining pollution and action: The matter of plastics.” Journal of Material Culture 21 (1):87-110.