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  • Teaching the AnthropoceneTechnology and Environmental Justice
  • Melissa Sexton (bio)

What does it mean to say we are in the Anthropocene? How might such a term affect the ways in which we imagine and interact with the environments and technologies surrounding us? These are the questions I asked students in the composition and communications classes I taught with an Anthropocene theme. And these questions, I told students, were ones that we (groups without stratigraphers or climate scientists among us) could consider ourselves qualified to debate. I taught these classes in 2015 and 2016, while the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) discussed whether to vote on the Anthropocene as a new geological epoch.1 As an intro-level humanities class, we lacked the expertise to evaluate the term's validity. What we could discuss was how the term made us act, feel, and think. Did the novelty of the term shake us out of the "apocalypse fatigue" that set in when we heard the term climate change?2 Or did this idea—this notion that human influence is the predominant force of our geological age—fill us with hubris, making us imagine we could engineer ourselves out of the very problems we had engineered ourselves into? Such questions felt particularly relevant as I was teaching at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where many students were headed toward scientific or technological careers. By looking at both historical case studies and speculative fiction, I wanted to help students think about what it means to be a scientist or an engineer in the Anthropocene. I also wanted to help students complicate their ideas about technology, the environment, and society.

The relationship between the idea of the Anthropocene and cultural [End Page 26] attitudes toward technology is contentious. Eileen Crist argues that accepting the idea of the Anthropocene might lead environmental problem solvers to overemphasize technocentric solutions—if we imagine human impact as a given, then why shouldn't humans address environmental problems through greater forms of (albeit benevolent) control?3 One danger of such "delusional techno-optimism" is that it may ignore justice concerns, leaving structural injustices in place while we attempt to geoengineer our way out of environmental risks.4 As Noël Sturgeon argues, "It is quite possible to imagine that a green society could be created but only be available to the rich, while the poor live in a world of toxins, scarcity, and violence."5 Critics including Jedediah Purdy, Jason W. Moore, and Dana Luciano have also argued that the Anthropocene concept homogenizes humans into a singular force.6 Such homogenizing rhetoric erases the ways in which specific societies, races, genders, and social groups disproportionately suffer from or cause environmental degradation. I wanted to help students explore how unreflective technological innovation can be a part of these systemic patterns of injustice. Thus, one of my goals was to complicate simplistic technocentrism without invalidating students' interests in science and technology.

We explored these issues by looking in two directions: toward future, imagined environments and toward past, historical case studies. Looking to speculative futures, the dystopian and disaster narratives we discussed imagined worlds where technological innovation cannot be neatly separated from justice issues. Perhaps our most thoughtprovoking discussion involved the film Interstellar, which celebrates technology as the answer to environmental risk. In this film, an unspecified ecological disaster has decimated global food supplies; while most of the world has given up technological innovation for farming, one secret NASA base struggles to find a way to move human survivors off planet.7 A scientist named Professor Brand (played by Michael Caine) sums the film up clearly: "We're not meant to save the world; we're meant to leave it." One way to read this film, as my classes discussed, is as a story about technological triumph. But the characters might also be read as examples of delusional techno-optimism. Imagining the bulk of humanity and the entire earth as an already-lost cause, the film frees itself to focus on individual acts of genius. While such heroism makes [End Page 27] great stories, it does not offer compelling solutions to real ecological dangers like climate change.8 As I ask students, when...


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pp. 26-31
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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