by Alec Israeli

Joyce E. Chaplin is the James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History at Harvard University. Specializing in the histories of science, climate, colonialism, and the environment, she is the author of An Anxious Pursuit: Agricultural Innovation and Modernity in the Lower South, 1730-1815 (1993), Subject Matter: Technology, the Body, and Science on the Anglo-American Frontier, 1500-1676 (2001), The First Scientific American: Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius (2006), Round about the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbit (2012), and The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus: Rereading the Principle of Population (2016, with Alison Bashford). She has also been the editor of several other volumes and written numerous reviews and essays.


Contributing editor Alec Israeli interviewed Professor Chaplin about her latest article in the Journal of the History of Ideas, “Historians of Ideas Rush in Where Stratigraphers Fear to Tread,” which reviews six new books on the concept of the Anthropocene.

In Part Two of this two-part interview, they discussed how new histories of the Anthropocene—as well as our very experience of climate crisis—has troubled inherited notions of modernity, humanity, and progress, concluding with reflections on the role of historians of ideas in this urgent moment.


Alec Israeli: I want to talk about what I took as certain hints of ambivalence—toward the distinctiveness of humanity and toward notions of modernity/progress—in your review, both in the intellectual narrative itself and in the books in question.

Joyce Chaplin: Just to quickly note that the ambivalence you note may be part of a fast-evolving story. I wonder if things will look the same in books published even next year, let alone five years from now (or later)? But, yes, there is a lot of questioning going on about the definitions of modernity and what they imply for definitions of the human, going forward. Rethinking humans’ capacity and status is being done in multiple fields, including biology (as in animal cognition) and technology (with AI), and it is notable that the history of ideas is now one of those fields.


AI: First, then, on the ambivalence around humanity: the suggestion to look toward humanists in this time is of course urgent, but curious, too, in its own right. Isn’t part of the problem of the past few centuries that we have looked to the self-reflexively human too much? There is a dialectical, world-historical irony to it, isn’t there: the environmental processes induced by our favoring of the human have, in their destructiveness, humbled humanity’s sense of its power and revealed humanity’s lack of separation from nature, as these processes will continue long after us. Is there a rethinking of “the humanities” that this humanistic interest in the environment paradoxically entails?

JC: This depends on what human is supposed to mean. As beings who can and should achieve a kind of mastery over the natural world (and I use “mastery” to indicate a sense of command that has been associated, in the global West, with a masculine proprietary power), humans in the global West have defined themselves as a unique and privileged species. This definition has ancient antecedents, of course, but a sense of total control over the nonhuman is recent and fundamentally modern. That’s the self-reflexive emphasis on the human that’s been a powerful element of modern history—and it’s the element that’s put us into peril. (I’ll just quickly add that there have been a lot of exceptions to and criticism of this element, but these exceptions weren’t as culturally dominant.) So, you’re right, this is a problem, and a paradox, or maybe an irony. (Maybe it’ll be a tragedy, but it’s too soon to tell and I wouldn’t want to conclude that.) The question now is whether this kind of self-confidence in our power could be used to solve the problem. This part of the paradox has seemed most acute in the sciences: can knowledge of nonhuman materiality give humans the means to protect themselves from the worst outcomes of their degrading of the natural world? As a historian of science and technology, I think talking to scientists and engineers about climate solutions is important because it might help them communicate to the general public what they know and how they know it, if they know the cultural context for their knowledge.

I don’t see this as dialectical, however, or at least not in the way most people immediately think of dialectic. By “most people,” I kind of mean historians of ideas, who are likely to think of dialectical materialism, meaning they assume the philosophical dialectic Marx and Engels defined, representing a confrontation of two different sets of ideas related to material conditions, with possible synthesis of them. The dialectic we may have now, however, is between humans and the nonhuman, and the latter doesn’t care about us and isn’t engaged with us—there isn’t dialogue or synthesis, necessarily, not in terms of a synthesizing of ideas. In fact, that dialectic may always have been there, but some people began to ignore it, and then a lot of people ignored it. This raises pretty big questions about humanity, and about philosophy, frankly, representing processes about which we may have ideas, but which aren’t going to be affected by our ideas, as such. In which case, the whole concept of dialectical materialism, originally representing human material life under capitalism, now seems painfully incomplete and inaccurate as a way of conceptualizing the modern condition.


AI: That brings us to the ambivalence toward modernity/progress: You note that the six books reviewed converge on the “fledgling industrial era” and the “post-1945 Great Acceleration” as the “major developmental moments within the Anthropocene.” Loosely put, this time period bookends the rise of modernity and the earth-shaking events that began to undo its faith in progress and the rational ordering of the world.

JC: Yes, to a certain extent, interestingly, the authors all agree that the post-1945 moment in which the Annales school was reiterating the possible significance of the nonhuman, was a watershed. It’s revealing that the founders and early members of the Annales school didn’t themselves agree on the best way to balance the human and nonhuman in any historical analysis, even as they agreed that, for their longer-term histories to work, nature had to be in the story. I’ve written about this elsewhere, so I know Marc Bloch in fact claimed that “it is human beings that the historian is trying to discern . . . The true historian is like the ogre in the story: wherever he smells human flesh he recognizes his prey.” Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie said this definition seemed to him far “too narrow,” concluding that history needed all the rest of nature, the nonhuman elements that Fernand Braudel had also emphasized: “meteorological observations, phenological and glaciological texts, comments on climatological events, and so on.” Within these opposing terms, Bloch was still very high modern and Le Roy Ladurie and Braudel (and some others, like H. H. Lamb in England and the handful of environmental historians in the United States) were beginning to question whether this focus on humanity was warranted. And I think most historians are still like Bloch, ogres who fixate on humans alone. 


AI: Following this unsettling of the “human” idea within the postwar unsettling of modernity: do these newer historical receptions of the climate crisis view this crisis as a hard material instantiation of the postmodern crisis of grand narratives, showing not only what these narratives have wrought, but also the irremediable contingency of the world (as you note, Carolyn Merchant suggests theories of “unpredictability and irregularity . . . to get a grip on climate change”)? On the other hand, though, do these intellectual histories you discuss demonstrate a kind of reevaluation—and not dismissal—of the modern project, insofar as they try to find conceptual order to remedy a world of chaos?

JC: Yes, this is central to Pierre Charbonnier’s book, for instance. And I agree that a central question of the Anthropocene—and its inbuilt paradox—is whether humans have created a world that now defies previous human definitions of being at home in the world. This is glaringly the case in terms of the modern grand narratives of progress that, as you point out, had already been in crisis, at least for some communities, defined either as communities of knowledge or of experience. So, for example, academic theorists might have been pointing out the failures and lacunae of capitalism even as that would have been old news to many global communities for whom capitalism never delivered tangible benefit, or else inflicted damage. The climate crisis is now validating all of those doubts and criticisms, but also questioning long-proposed solutions. Capitalism and socialism have many differences, but they both theorized modes of life that would correct for past inequalities, which resulted either from being excluded from market activities or from being denied basic control of material well-being. What these narratives have in common, unfortunately, is an underlying cornucopian view of the natural world—nature is a never-ending source of plenty, and it only remains to distribute justly what capital and labor produce. It’s notable that definitions of environmental scarcity were always equally troubling to capitalist and socialist theories of human development and politics.

So, grand narratives of progress since the Enlightenment, and theories of democratization of the political realm, don’t match what the science may have been saying about diminishing resources and opportunities. The latter form of shrinkage includes time and space: the seasons available for economic activity are truncated or wildly discontinuous; the zones where extraction or planting and harvesting could be done are smaller than they once were, or they now extend into highly risky and speculative places, like asteroids or the ocean floor. I’ll just point out that these brave new worlds of potential resource extraction are extremely capitalist. Any possible plan to mine rare earths from the sea floor on behalf of the workers of the world—that vision isn’t well represented at the moment. So, neither the production nor the distribution of a shrinking set of natural resources are being defined according to goals for justice. Likewise, the costs of pollution and ecosystem damage aren’t evenly or justly distributed, nor the costs for cleaning up these problems or offsetting their hazards.


AI: To tie these questions of ambivalence together as one more hopeful question: the Anthropocene as a concept simultaneously suggests humanity’s imbrication with and historical influence over the natural world; in this combined realization, do new histories thereof suggest that an alternative kind of progress is made possible, in which we can shape the natural world for our sake while being attentive to the irregularities we cannot control?

JC: Thank you for the hopefulness. (Asteroid mining is not exactly the most optimistic scenario for our shared future.) I agree that there’s a tremendous opportunity for historians to talk—to each other, to students, to the public—about historical time and about progress. We’ve seen how improvement of human life might have happened in the past, and how theorization of human benefit has, at least sometimes, helped to define plans that yielded actual benefit. Not for nothing have people trying to plan a way to alleviate the worst of the climate crisis been parsing Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. A lot more of this needs to be done. Climate scientists are very serious that we’re not taking the crisis seriously enough, that it’s an emergency or equivalent to a state of war (though most people ignore or deny that). That being the case, all kinds of scholars of large-scale emergencies or conflicts have expertise that would be relevant: what’s been done in the past, what are the successes, which failures should be cautionary tales of how not to act during an emergency?

Two of the books I reviewed, the ones by Etienne Benson and by Paul Warde, Libby Robin, and Sverker Sörlin, discuss the lingering impact of World War II on conceptions of political mobilization in an emergency. I’m moving us a bit away from the history of ideas, here, but scholars of ideology, government information, and propaganda would have plenty to offer in this regard, too. Certainly, the books by Duncan Kelly and by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz look at political ideology in this way.


AI: In some sense, these histories risk conflation of the environmental concept and the material environment itself—for instance, in “the implication that philosophical modes” surrounding the steam engine were “complicit in that device’s anthropogenic damages.” As you note, this gives ideas potentially too much power. Discussing the work of Duncan Kelly, you suggest that a way out of this history-by-coincidence—“in which material alterations sometimes [intersect] with political theories”—is to make Anthropocene into a verb, that is, if I understand correctly, to be able to place human-environmental implications upon the canon of political thought as it stands.

JC: Just to quickly clarify: Kelly turned Anthropocene into a verb to demonstrate how awareness of the Anthropocene should cut into politics, should have serious consequence for how democratic societies must adjust to emergency circumstances. This is all the more important for Kelly, given that modern democratic societies grew up during the Anthropocene, fostered by its material conditions, though often without political theorists being aware of that. This is a case of ideas being oblivious of material circumstances, yet having too much power, power defined in what now seems like the wrong way.


AI: Could you speak to this a bit more? How do these books mediate, and to what extent successfully, between the realm of ideas and the realm of the material, and between past and present, in the history of ideas?

JC: To begin with Kelly, I think his emphasis on time and the Anthropocene is critical, given the collision, as he documents, between the shorter-term cycles of politics and the longer-running geologic time of the natural world, now entering an anthropogenic condition that may take hundreds or thousands of years to undo, much longer than the damage took to inflict. This is something many people still can’t get their heads around, and the more books and public analyses of it, the better. What can ideas achieve? We may live at a time of the ultimate test of that question. I think scholars need to begin being more pointed about the implications of ideas. Some of these books warn about past governmental errors in relation to the environment. Fair enough, but the positive way of stating this is in pointing out, not only that the big-government model of developing atomic weapons has obvious problems, but what a big-government model of tackling climate may, therefore, need to look like.


AI: Toward the end of the review you note the risk of a “chronocentrism” in a concept of the Anthropocene based in the modern period—a warped belief that we are now “saddled with a burden that no one else in the entire history of the world has ever had to bear.” But, of course, as you write, premodern history is filled with instances of humans facing what appeared at the time as environmental collapse; modern history too is filled with such instances, as experienced by many peoples on the violent receiving end of American and European extractivist colonialism (a fact which you note is unfortunately lacking in the books reviewed).

JC: Right, thanks for noting that. The experience of any environmental catastrophe is rarely a collective one; different people suffer it differently, and some people, in creating a collapse, aren’t the ones who suffer from it. The histories of modern imperialism and of racism are hugely important in documenting those disparities—the invasion of other peoples’ land, forced removal and migration, enslavement, reduction of food supplies, denial of medical help, have all been significant as human-induced natural disasters. Sometimes these were inflected by natural disasters, as with European colonization of North America during the Little Ice Age, a very bad one-two punch for Indigenous and enslaved peoples. Many of these specifically unequal material constraints continue today because of an economic division between global North and South. The “we” and the “our” within these disaster scenarios is never stable. And yet, collectively, now, we can review what happened in order to prevent a continued occurrence of unequal impacts, over and over and over.


AI: To conclude, then: how might environmental and/or intellectual historians navigate what feels like simultaneous, contradictory truths—that we have been here before, and that our moment feels like a particularly critical inflection point?

JC: Well, do we learn from the past or not? I don’t want to make it seem as if the current crisis is exactly comparable to earlier moments of environmental disaster—that would be a kind of denialism of the extremity of the present moment. But, if there is a longer history of climate change, would we want to admit that we now have fewer or weaker resources for dealing with our own crisis than people had earlier with theirs? I disapprove of the fantasy that climate collapse will bring about societal chaos, an imaginary that permits all kinds of other lurid fantasies in some survival horror scenario. These imaginaries basically naturalize suffering and the inequality of suffering, and this is ahistorical and ethically lazy.

So, I would want to say that two things can be true at once: this is an extremely challenging moment, but emphasizing its novelty in scientific terms, in geological terms specifically, doesn’t mean we can’t comprehend, politically and societally, how to take on the crisis, and that we might as well give up. The history of environmental crises should yield information about ideas, ideologies, programs, practices, technologies that might be helpful. Conversely, past practice may warn us against things that have never worked or have constituted compromised solutions that, by focusing only on some variables, impaired greater social good or longer-term recovery. Ideas matter here, and especially ideas critical of the emerging techno-optimistic statements about very specific devices that will “save us.” That techno-optimism is what makes me most insistent that humanists may have a great deal to offer in how to think of ourselves as humans—still, amid the proliferating discourse on technology—despite the crisis, and I think historians of ideas are very important in this regard. Colleagues: to arms.


Alec Israeli is an assistant editor at Jacobin magazine and a recent alumnus of Trinity College, University of Cambridge, where he earned an MPhil with distinction in Political Thought and Intellectual History as a recipient of a Dunlevie King’s Hall Studentship. His research considers overlaps of intellectual history and labor history in the 19th-century Atlantic world, focusing on theorizations of free versus unfree labor in both political-economic and metaphysical terms. He is additionally interested in the philosophy of history (and the history of the philosophy of history). Alec received a BA in History from Princeton University. His work has also appeared in the Vanderbilt Historical Review, the Columbia Journal of History, the Princeton Progressive Magazine, and the Mudd Library Blog.

Featured image: Large scale mountaintop removal mining operation in the Kentucky Appalachian mountains, Doc Searls, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.