In the Beginning: Species Histories in the Era of Climate Change

Submitted by Sonja Johnston on Thu, 11/21/2019 - 21:56

Stephanie Bernhard (PhD English, University of Virginia, 2017) is the JHI New Media and Public Humanities Early Career Fellow for 2019-2020. She is an Assistant Professor of English at Salisbury University, where she specializes in the environmental humanities. Stephanie’s project at the JHI is titled Writing Species History in an Era of Climate Change—an examination of stories of the human species from ancient epics to contemporary science fiction to scholarly attempts to define a newly human-dominated geological era. She argues that the urgent threat of anthropogenic climate change compels a re-envisioning of the origins, traits, purposes of, and divisions within humans as a species.

Stephanie’s Fellows’ Lunch presentation began with an introduction of the Anthropocene as a species history and an overview of different “cenes” as a classification alternative to Anthropocene (e.g. Capitalocene, Plantationocene and Chthulucene). She explained that each of these different “cenes” are themselves a species history—the title of a story told about the way humans have inhabited this planet—and these narratives are not actually intended for the geologist of the future, but for people living now. The general intent of these “cenes” is to uncover and address some sort of injustice. For example, capitalists have created a problem for large segments of humanity and for nonhuman species of the world. Plantationocene is similar, but places the movements of a species globally in the 17th century.

Stephanie emphasized that the way we write about the stories of our deep past matters as we think about the present and the future, especially in an environmental context. For the next part of her presentation she moved on to examine new and ancient critiques of the Neolithic, including Western species histories and some Indigenous cosmologies from the Potawatomi Nation. These narratives illustrate how different cultures approach the transmission of stories into the contemporary world and into the future, particularly around the introduction of agriculture as a turning point in history.

An interesting trend emerged recently in new species histories coming from the West and across fields—a sense that humans used to have it really good back when we were hunters-gatherers. We lived longer than we did immediately after adopting agriculture. Our teeth were better, we were taller, we lived in less hierarchical societies. In 1966 anthropologist Marshall Sahlins developed the idea that hunter-gatherers were the “original affluent society”. In 1997, historian Jared Diamond famously calling agriculture “the worst mistake in the history of the human race”. Literary critic Timothy Morton called the Neolothic “the severing”, the point when humans snipped themselves away from the earth and any sense of reality.

Stephanie shared a passage from science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction in which she sets up a division between work and leisure:

“The mammoth hunters spectacularly occupy the cave wall and the mind, but what we actually did to stay alive and fat was gather seeds, roots sprouts, shoots, leaves, nuts berries, fruits, and grains, adding bugs and mollusks and netting or snaring birds, fish, rats, rabbits, and other tuskless small fry to up the protein. And we didn’t even work hard at it—much less hard than peasants slaving in somebody else’s field after agriculture was invented, much less hard than paid workers since civilization was invented. The average prehistoric person could make a nice living in about a fifteen-hour work week.”

Although Le Guin is a speculative writer, Stephanie believes that it's important that we tell stories even when we can’t be precise about them––e.g. do what degree can we know that the average prehistoric person worked about 15 hours a week? However, there are also problematic assumptions embedded in the prose: “since civilization was invented” implies that only with agriculture can we have civilization; what about today’s hunter-gatherers?

Historian Yuval Noah Harari, whose Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind came out in 2011, also asserts that Neolithic and the introduction of agriculture was a disruptive time when everything went wrong for humans:

“Scholars once proclaimed that the agricultural revolution was a great leap forward for humanity…This tale is a fantasy…Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers…The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return.”

Political scientist James Scott, in his book Against the Grain – A Deep History of the Earliest States views the Neolithic from a Marxist perspective, and asserts that not everyone wanted to be a farmer, it was states that wanted farmers, forcing people to farm.

“Hunters and gatherers have, in fact, never looked so good—in terms of their diet, their health, and their leisure.  Agriculturalists, on the contrary, have never looked so bad—in terms of their diet, their health, and their leisure.”

This notion that the Neolithic and the coming of agriculture was a disruption is not an idea limited to the 20th and 21st centuries. Greco-Roman mythology critiqued farming and its role in human progress. Latin poet Virgil’s The Georgics—a didactic poem on how to be a farmer in ancient Italy—asserts that farming is associated with more work and toil than hunting and gathering:

For Father Jupiter himself ordained
That the way should not be easy. It was he
Who first established the art of cultivation,
Sharpening with their cares the skills of men,
Forbidding the world he rules to slumber in ease.
Before Jove’s time no farmer plowed the art;
It was forbidden to mark out field from field,
Setting out limits, one from another; men shared
All things together and Earth quite freely yielded
The gifts of herself she gave, being unasked.

Then came the hardness of iron and then the shriek
Of the sharp blade of the saw as it made its way
(For earlier men used wedges to cleave their wood);
Then followed other arts; and everything
Was toil, relentless toil, urged on by need.

An obvious ancient example from the Judeo-Christian tradition is the story of Adam and Eve. They live in a place where they don't have to work for their food and then fall from grace. Their punishment? They have to become farmers and work the land. This Judeo-Christian story can be read as the tale of trauma experienced by a civilization that moved from a hunter-gatherer era to the farming era, coming to terms with that transition and figuring out why they have to work so hard. Farming was also associated with more divisions and hierarchies.

Are there some alternatives to these origin stories around the introduction of agriculture that focus on a cycle of humans rising and falling, or on good or bad (e.g. leisure is good/work is bad)? Stephanie ended her presentation by summarizing the Skywoman origin story from Potawatomi Nation member Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants,followed by this passage:

“Like any good guest, Skywoman had not come empty-handed. The bundle was still clutched in her hand. When she toppled from the hole in the Skyworld she had reached out to grab onto the Tree of Life that grew there. In her grasp were branches—fruits and seeds of all kinds of plants. These she scattered onto the new ground and carefully tended each one until the world turned from brown to green.”

Here Skywoman acts both as hunter-gatherer and also as farmer. First she gathers and then she plants, breaking down that dichotomy where it always has to be one or the other. Skywoman also collaborates with the other animals in order to create the world. Later in the same essay, Kimmerer compares the story of Skywoman to the Adam and Eve story. Instead of a story that involves a banishment and an oppositional relationship with the earth, Kimmerer claims we need a new set of stories to help develop a beneficial relationship with earth.

The discussion following Stephanie’s presentation focussed on the notion of labour vs leisure --how we define what counts as “work” and what counts as “leisure”. That led to a conversation about equality and hierarchy. Implicit in many of the new species histories that critique the Neolithic as a disruption is that people didn’t just have more leisure time as hunter-gatherers but they were also more equal and this idea of equality or lack of hierarchy goes unexamined in many of the writings. We also discussed the difference in not only the content of origin stories, but the practice of storytelling that surrounds them—the Christian origin story is different in form than the Anishinaabe origin story. Stephanie reiterated the need to keep in mind who are the writers and who the readers? Who are the tellers who are the listeners? We rounded out the lunch with a debate about whether there is room for indecision and speculation in species history as well as conversations around how Marxist thinking affects interpretations of the Neolithic societal hierarchies, and how climate change is as much a social problem as it is science problem.