Present discussions about the catastrophic and rapid changes now underway in the earth system—transformations that include the mass extinction of species, the inundation of cities, and the collapse of entire ecosystems—focus largely upon concepts like sustainability, mitigation, and resilience. After all, the continued existence of human life on earth may in fact depend upon efforts to geoengineer the atmosphere or the reefs, and it is understandable that we wish to protect the remaining members of beloved nonhuman species. Yet scientifically-oriented discussions about the urgency of averting or mitigating climate transformation have proven politically ineffective, with environmental concerns remaining secondary or tertiary despite the heroic efforts of committed activists.
Meanwhile, irrevocable loss has already begun, and it will accelerate even under the most optimistic scenarios for human ingenuity and investment. The nation of Vanuatu is disappearing from the map; millennia of odes to the Yangtze River dolphin refer to a species that will never again be seen on earth; the streets of Miami already flood on sunny days at high tide as a result of rising sea levels. Such facts suggest that we need something more than good planning, and more than fresh approaches to familiar questions. We need new modalities of thinking about loss and commemoration that integrate traditional scholarly research with artistic and activist practices in ways appropriate for this epoch.
To an extent that is rare in academia, the issues are largely uncharted. The questions are existential and profound. They include: What are the limits of hopefulness? How can excellent and constructive science and policy-making coexist with the acceptance that there will be profound loss? Is it morally appropriate to pause for elegy when there is so much to be done? Is it morally defensible not to do so? What can we learn from historical cases of civilizational collapse? How might reflection on loss prove politically productive where consideration of science has fallen short? Does speculative fiction help us envision what may be coming? How can we take stock of what exactly it is that we are losing?
We are assembling an interdisciplinary group of scholars, activists, artists, curators, policy-makers and writers from on and beyond our campus to explore these issues. We want to explore the ethical, epistemological, and artistic challenges of doing theory and history in times of profound global loss. We aim to develop languages and frameworks for communicating about the Anthropocene as an epoch of loss and to explore their political potentiality.