‘Anthropology of the Anthropocene’
New Senior capstone course tackles anthropology’s role in mitigating climate change effects
By Luke Premo
With communities across western states ravaged by wildfires, and WSU students, faculty, and staff menaced by a thick blanket of hazardous smoke that blocked out blue skies and turned the sun an eerie burnt orange, it wasn’t difficult for the students of Anth 490 to see how their course material related directly to their lives. Unfortunately, they needed only look out their windows to see with their own eyes some of the negative health effects of a warming planet. In the face of such a complex and serious problem, it’s natural for them to ask, “What can anthropologists do to help?”
That question serves as the foundation of a new version of the anthropology capstone course, “Anthropology of the Anthropocene,” designed and taught by Luke Premo, associate professor. The course explores the ways in which human behavior has impacted the environment for thousands of years, with a special emphasis on how the “great acceleration” since the Industrial Revolution has amplified our carbon footprint. The capstone class provides students an opportunity to apply the anthropological perspective they’ve developed throughout their undergraduate career to evaluate relevant research in climate science, cognitive science, theoretical biology, political science, environmental justice, and related fields. They grapple with how the “Anthropocene” is defined differently by physical and social scientists, and what implications its definition might have for the success of policies designed to curb emissions and lessen the enormous social and economic costs warming will exact on human societies for decades (actually centuries) to come. They learn about how the Kruger-Dunning effect, the strong pull of group identity, and our knack for discounting future consequences of current actions present obstacles to not only recognizing but also dealing with the role humans play. They study how social sentiment and local and regional institutions evolve as a function of how ideas, knowledge, and innovations are passed among citizens via the various mechanisms of cultural transmission.
Although climate change might seem like a problem for atmospheric chemists, engineers, and climatologists, there is a crucial role for anthropologists as well. While global warming certainly presents a host of difficult problems for our colleagues in those disciplines, perhaps the most difficult challenge is the “people problem” it presents to social scientists: How do we coordinate efforts among different nations and societies—each of which is marked by its own history, values, interests, cultural norms, and varying exposure to the negative effects of climate change while at the same time inextricably embedded within the larger global community inhabiting a shared planet—to tackle an existential problem that could lead to the suffering of hundreds of millions of people within our children’s lifetimes? Anthropologists have an important role to play in helping to craft the international institutions that will facilitate the cooperation and oversight needed to address a social problem of unprecedented temporal and geographic scale. We trust that our anthropology graduates won’t be the only ones up to the task.
New Human Biology Degree
Responding to the global need for more skilled professionals in health, social, and environmental sciences and public policy, in Fall 2020 the Department of Anthropology and the School of Biological Sciences launched a new, interdisciplinary bachelor of arts degree in human biology, designed for rigorous study in the natural and social sciences. Graduates will be prepared for a wide variety of career options in areas of medical and health sciences, social work and support, development and analysis of public policy, and more. The four-year human biology program, offered on the WSU Pullman and Vancouver campuses, melds approaches and content from social and biological sciences to provide students with a vibrant, synthetic understanding of the roles of culture, the dynamics of natural and social systems, and the biological attributes responsible for shaping the human being.
Human Biology (WSU degree catalog)