Conference: An Ecotopian Toolkit for the Anthropocene

Thursday, April 13, 2017 - 9:00am to Saturday, April 15, 2017 - 5:00pm

University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, PA)

Tool making is a signature trait of the human species. What tools will we make, and require, in the age of the human, the anthropocene: the proposed name for the present geological epoch when humans are the most potent force shaping earth’s systems? Global warming and other anthropocene challenges, including the ongoing sixth mass extinction event, often lead to apocalyptic visions, or apathy.
Prompted in part by the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia, we explore a longer history of the anthropocene to help represent–and respond to–our contemporary moment. At the outset of European imperial expansion across the globe, English humanist Thomas More dashed off an enduring work of speculative fiction, composed in two short parts: Utopia. The first part stages conversations between European intellectuals about the profound changes they were witnessing: the enclosure of commons, regimes of mineral extraction, shifting flows of capital, uneven resource access, and the criminalization of poverty among them. More’s second book voyages out to the island utopia: a republican community purportedly in possession of educational tools for a better life.
Amidst these dystopian scenarios prompted by the anthropocene, this conference aims to recall the role of utopian narratives in the environmental imaginary and in environmental thought, including the environmental sciences. Looking toward the future, we ask how utopian scenarios might prompt the kinds of integrated knowledge production Anthropocene entanglements require. Might a utopian turn help us navigate warmer, rising waters? Can it help build refuge? Can the utopian imaginary help us design tools, both conceptual and material, to make worlds that are simultaneously less carbon-intensive, more equitable, more mutually entangled, and available for visions of other possible futures? Can the utopian imaginary help to conceptualize environmental problems so that their solutions are participatory? Collaborative? Multi-lingual? Open-ended? Hopeful?
We are interested in shedding light on the past and futures of utopian thought not as an escape from the urgency and violence of the Anthropocene, but as a productive response. Utopian explorations, in historian of science Donna Haraway’s formulation, open the possibility “for weaving something other than a shroud for the day after the apocalypse that so prophetically ends salvation history.” Literary critic Fredric Jameson has framed the frailties of speculative and science fiction as important sites for the elaboration of future-oriented thought. Despite the “passing of mass utopia in east and west” after the fall of the Berlin Wall, diagnosed by intellectual historian Susan Buck-Morss, the last ten years have seen an effervescence of projects across the arts and sciences laced with utopian longing. If, as David Pepper has argued, utopian desires lie behind every form of environmental action, including environmental knowledge production, they are rarely constructed consciously and creatively. How might we do so?
Utopia’s two parts inform the conference’s organization: both its scholarly conversations and its future-looking tools for citizens. Over three days of meetings, we will consider how integrated knowledge production can address environmental challenges and what tools scholars and other professional in informal STEAM education might create—not only to maintain but to expand the potential for species-being in the Anthropocene, the age of the human. Scholarly presentations will intersect with live performance; longer invited presentations are punctuated by shorter interventions.  Our gathering hybridizes a scholarly conference with an inventors’ lab, a design workshop, and an experimental performance space. Together, we will create a Toolkit for the Anthropocene.