Energy Cultures in the Age of the Anthropocene

Energy Cultures in the Age of the Anthropocene, March 5-7, 2015

This multidisciplinary symposium will bring together public figures, scholars, and artists to curate a humanistic effort to make sense of humans’ relationship to energy and to come to terms with living in what many now consider to be the Age of the Anthropocene. Visit our external website:

During the last two centuries, the discovery and exploitation of concentrated forms of energy from the earth -- coal and oil, the two principal fossil fuels – allowed for a massive increase in heat and power in human society.  Coal gave rise to the industrial revolution and launched parts of the world on a trajectory of rapid economic growth.  Oil, the most powerful and versatile fuel ever known, deepened and expanded the industrial transformation, prompted the rise of mobile consumer societies, and drove the process of globalization in the late 20th century.

No Longer in the Holocene Age

The breakthrough to fossil fuels triggered profound changes in the temporal and spatial dimensions of material and cultural life.  In doing so, it allowed for large-scale human alterations of environments and ecosystems, so much so that in 2000, the Nobel laureate and atmospheric chemist, Paul Crutzen, suggested that we were no longer living in the Holocene geologic age, but rather in some other age that began with the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century.  Human intervention in the earth’s carbon, nitrogen, and hydrologic cycles has accelerated to such an extent, he argued, that we need a different geological name to describe this age – the Anthropocene, or the Age of Humans.  As scientists and science media have popularized the concept in recent years, the International Commission on Stratigraphy, the official arbiter of the recent geological time scale, has established a working group to formalize the term.

The concept of the Anthropocene forces us to recalibrate the record of human and environmental history.  Periodization is inherent to many disciplines and central to assigning cultural meaning to the past.  For scholars in arts and humanities, the Anthropocene would mark the first periodization that asks them to take their cues from earth systems and not human activity separate from those systems.  The arc of the Anthropocene thus changes the meaning of the arc of the other periodizations.  This symposium thus will challenge scholars, students, and citizens to reconsider their understanding of the past and visions of the future. 

Humans as agents of change

In doing so, we need to rethink the ideas, values, and aesthetics that shape the way we fuel our lives and transform our environments.  The Anthropocene, by definition, posits humans as agents of change.  Humanists therefore, should play a central role in analyzing this change.  Meeting this challenge requires an investigation of energy not simply as a force of nature or economic calculus, but as a social relation.  Energy systems are products of political and social struggles, cultural mediation, and technological choices.  They embody certain ideas and inspirations, values and ethics, aesthetics and designs.  A humanistic approach to making sense of energy in the age of the Anthropocene is crucial to negotiating the indeterminate boundary between what is “natural” and “man-made,” between the multiple ways humans experience and react to the passage of time, and between the unequal social impacts of human-altered and fossil-fueled environments around the world. 

In the future, the world’s appetite for energy is predicted to grow at a staggering rate, and the impacts of climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels are expected to become more severe.  Eventually, humans will have to draw on a wider array of energy sources.  We appear to be at the beginning of a transition from a high-energy, high-carbon past to a lower-energy, lower-carbon future.  This transition offers opportunities, but it also presents challenges and problems.  As in the past, the United States and other energy intensive societies will have to make choices about how to find and consume energy.  But technologies, habits, practices, and norms lock communities and societies into certain patterns of energy use, which are often carbon-intensive and inefficient.  Solutions to these problems are not just technical or even political, but cultural.  The increasingly massive scale of human activity also will require both local and global approaches to managing the effects.  These are the central issues the symposium will tackle.

3 days to explore problems as well as solutions 

The event will take place over three days, centered on several keynote lectures and panels of invited speakers.  Confirmed keynote lecturers include:

  • Lonnie Thompson, Distinguished University Professor in the School of Earth Sciences and Research Scientist in the Byrd Polar Research Center at The Ohio State University.  Thompson’s path-breaking work on ice core paleoclimatology has provided some of the most convincing evidence of anthropogenic global warming,  Thompson’s participation is supported by an Ida Cordelia Beam Distinguished Visiting Professorship.
  • Rob Nixon, Rachel Carson and Elizabeth Ritzmann Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, and author of Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Harvard, 2011).  Nixon has spoken on the “Anthropocene and Our Age of Disparity,” tying together the global environmental crisis with the global distributional crisis.  He received his M.A, from the University of Iowa in 1982,  His participation in the symposium is also supported by an Ida Beam Visiting Professorship.
  • Charles Mann, journalist and author of bestsellers 1493 and 1491, the latter of which won the U.S. National Academy of Sciences’ Keck Award in 2006 for best book of the year.  A correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, Science, and Wired, Mann covers issues relating to the intersection of science, technology, and commerce.  He is now working on a book about energy and had a cover story in the May 2013 issue of The Atlantic, “What If We Never Run Out of Oil?”
  • Sandra Steingraber, biologist, author, and cancer survivor, writes about climate change, ecology, and the links between human health and the environment. She is the author of Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the EnivronmentHaving Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood, and Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis.  She is also contributing essayist and editor for Orion magazine and currently a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Ithaca College.

Iowa - An energy crossroads

Iowa is a logical place to hold a high-profile event that advances understanding of energy cultures and the Anthropocene.  It is the center of energy-intensive commercial agriculture; an energy crossroads traversed by oil and gas pipelines, railroads shipping coal and oil, wind farms, solar installations, and biofuels plants; and a threatened prairie laced by one of the most vital river systems in the United States.  The University of Iowa has a wide and deep reserve of faculty experts and centers of expertise such as Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research (CGRER), the Public Policy Center, and the Office of Sustainability who we invite to participate in or support the symposium.  We also hope to take advantage of UI’s long tradition of engaging writing and other arts as part of its scholarly investigations.  We are planning linked activities that include a dance performance, art exhibits, films, and community events.  The organizers will also conduct a one-credit graduate seminar in the spring with interested graduate and advanced undergraduate students to study the work of the presenters and issues raised by symposium.

The organizers invite faculty, campus organizations, and community groups to help build on the symposium by holding related events or finding creative ways of collaboration.  In addition to moderating or participating on panels, faculty could offer new courses or tailor existing courses on environmental topics to fit the themes of the symposium.  We encourage student organizations to design and host their own events that can be leveraged off the symposium.  Finally, we hope to find ways to create public engagement through local partners such as Film Scene, the Englert Theater, the Pentacrest Museums, the University of Iowa Museum of Art, ECO Iowa City, the Iowa City Public Library, and the Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities.

For more information, contact the Obermann Center, 335.4034, or the co-directors: 

Tyler Priest,, 319-335-2096

Barbara Eckstein,, 319-335-2789

Bradley Cramer,, 319-335-0704

Thursday, March 5, 2015 (All day) to Saturday, March 7, 2015 (All day)

To learn more about this event and for a full schedule, please visit our external website:

The 2015 Obermann Humanities Symposium is Energy Cultures in the Age of the Anthropocene. Organized by Tyler Priest (History) Barbara Eckstein (English), and Bradley Cramer (Earth & Environmental Sciences), the goal of this event is to bring together public figures, scholars, and artists to make sense of humans' relationship to energy. It is an opportunity to collect and curate some of the best ideas for dealing with the large-scale human alterations of environments and ecosystems that have given a new name to the age in which we live: the Anthropocene.  

Energy Cultures in the Age of the Anthropocene will explore the illusory boundary between what is “natural” and “man-made,” between the multiple ways humans experience and demarcate time, and between the unequal distribution of social impacts caused by human-transformed and fossil-fueled environments around the world.  The symposium will challenge people to rethink the ideas, values, and aesthetics that shape the way we fuel our lives and transform our environments.

We invite ideas for linked activities through the spring, including courses, readings, performances, art exhibitions, films, and awareness-raising events.

headshot of Eckstein
Co-director , University of Iowa , English
Barbara Eckstein (English, CLAS) co-directed the Graduate Institute in 2014 and 2015. Her own engagement work includes co-leading the The People's Weather Map, a digital humanities project. She is also a member of the Oakdale Community [Prison] Choir. In 2014, she co-directed the Obermann Humanities Symposium, Energy Cultures in the Age of the Anthropocene
Co-director , University of Iowa , Earth & Environmental Sciences
Bradley Cramer works on Earth System Science, deep-time Earth history, stable and radiogenic isotope geochemistry, chemostratigraphy, biostratigraphy, stratigraphic nomenclature, history of geology, geochronology, and the Geologic Time Scale. His work tries to understand the major biotic, chemical, and physical events that punctuate the history of our planet by throwing every tool and proxy at the problem as is possible. Currently, he is the project leader for the International Geoscience Programme (IGCP) Project 591—The Early to Middle Paleozoic Revolution.
Headshot of Tyler Priest
Co-director , University of Iowa , History
Dr. Priest came to the UI in 2012 after eight years as Director of Global Studies at the C.T. Bauer College of Business, University of Houston. His primary interests are in the fields of energy, environmental, global, business, and public history. He has a joint appointment in the Department of Geographical and Sustainability Sciences, where he teaches a course on U.S.