- Anthropocene FrontiersThe Place of Environment in Western Studies
To think of the West as “geological”—rather than, say, as pastoral, agricultural, arid, domestic, or wilderness—is to challenge without erasing the environmental frames that have dominated western American studies. Recently the Anthropocene has brought just such a geologic imagination into the humanities. For western studies this prompts a return to the nineteenth century, in which the US West became synonymous with what Clarence King, leader of the Fortieth Parallel Survey, called its “impressive geological drama” (4). For King and his contemporaries—Timothy O’Sullivan, Albert Bierstadt, and Frederic Church—the imposing western landscapes affirmed a school of geology called catastrophism, so named for the rapid and violent rate of change through which it envisioned alterations to the earth’s surface occurring. The geologic imagination of the Anthropocene retains this catastrophic sensibility, but sublime awe has given way to the anxieties of climate change. The western environment is especially prone to this increasing precarity, dependent as it has been—and continues to be—upon a complex infrastructure to maintain its livability: railroad construction, irrigation, wildfire management. Every summer, it seems, more of the West burns, its rivers and groundwater run lower, and temperatures rise to such extremes that the heat map has needed new colors.
In western studies, it might be tempting to call this moment a frontier, poised between civilization and what can be salvaged of it. The American West and its erstwhile frontier mentality is central to the history that has stranded us here: rich in petro and other resources, the West—in both its cultural and material manifestations—helped to fuel the use-it-up-and-move-along [End Page 21] attitude that continues to drive our reliance on fossil fuels, extending the “western frontier” to spaces like Alaska and the Arctic. As scholars have by now long shown, the concept of the frontier offered a monologic account of US national progress—white, settler, masculine, agricultural—insufficient to represent its diverse cultures. In smoothing over a story of resource exploitation and colonial violence with a tale of national progress, the frontier narrative silenced communities with other stories to tell. Recently, these voices have grown louder, even as the universal collectivity invoked in Anthropocene critique has grown beyond the confines of the nation; as Dipesh Chakrabarty insists, the human acts now at the level of the species. And yet, while there may be value in such a concept of a species-based collectivity, in order for it to be of use, as Stacy Alaimo has argued recently, it cannot efface its localized manifestations, expressed through the categories of social difference that have helped to unmask the workings of power in a diversity of cultures.1
This construction maps onto the human what western studies has recently claimed about place: that the forms of contemporary society that scale up our frames of analysis amplify, rather than diminish, our commitment to understanding the local—or what William Lombardi has called the “postlocal”—as embedded within these larger formulations. Critical regionalism, the postwestern, and the postregional each provide frameworks to understand the interlocking scales of place that unsettle the Western environment. And as in Stephen Tatum’s postregionalist account of the “ceaseless haunting of the present by the contagious residue of a violent past,” these scalar concerns are temporal as well as spatial (17). The Anthropocene expands these frames, invoking a geologic West that moves backward through the nineteenth century into deep time, even as it anticipates a catastrophic future in which human persistence appears precarious.
“Scale” and “precarity”: these two terms are central to the environment of the US West and its representations in western studies. In the Anthropocene it is precisely the conjunction of these two terms that marks a break with the genealogies we’ve inherited, as the vast spatial and temporal scales of climate change put both the [End Page 22] human and nonhuman at increasing risk. This is appropriate for the geologic West, for geology is a story not of continuity but of rupture, of gaps in the record that open up space for speculation. And while this account of the Western environment...