PIs: Lisa Wedeen, Hussein Agrama

Affiliated Faculty: Cathy Cohen (Political Science), Jennifer Cole (Human Development), Julie Chu (Anthropology), Michael Dawson (Political Science) and Rochona Majumdar (SALC).


The current planetary condition of global climate change elicits responses from individuals, groups, and governments ranging from denial, disconnect, and indifference to engagement and activism of varying kinds and degrees. Taken together, these responses help characterize our experiences of the now and our expectations about future possibilities. Putting debates about climate change in conversation with discussions of contemporary history, this module seeks to understand how an increasing sense of the environment’s vulnerability works to modify the stories scholars tell about the beginnings and trajectories of human civilizations.

As the idea gained ground that we face grave environmental risks stemming from the excessive accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, a set of scientific propositions began to circulate in the public domain with profound, even transformative, implications for how we think about what the historian C. A. Bayly recently called “the birth of the modern world.” Indeed, what scientists say about climate change challenges the basic ideas of the human usually taken to sustain the disciplines of the humanistic social sciences, particularly history. These scientific judgments call into question the analytic strategies that postcolonial and post-imperial historians (e.g., scholars of subaltern studies, “poco,” and empire) have deployed in the last two decades in response to decolonization and globalization.

To be clear: this module is not intended to produce scientific discoveries or adjudicate the scientific claims made by experts. It presupposes only that climate change is a focus of genuine concern, and then uses the debates in the scientific literature to rethink prevailing notions of the human in the social sciences and humanities. In particular, it explores the differences between views of human history advanced in debates on climate justice and those expressed by climate scientists (such as James Hansen, David Archer, and Wallace Boeker) in their more popular writings. Among the questions we shall pose are the following: How has the discourse on climate change served to re-conceptualize humans as a geological force, and how has this idea qualified humanist histories of modernity and globalization? Is climate change to be explained as simply another instance of the selfishness of developed countries, or does it counsel a much longer term view of the human species? How do global histories of capital intersect with the species history of human beings? What are the implications of this intersection for new modes of historical understanding in the present, and how might understanding the interrelations between these various global processes inform local contexts of political action (such as political mobilizations around environmental change)? What can contemporary debates about both climate change and history tell us about human collectivity and cosmology, as well as the vexed, ever-ongoing search for a political universalism that includes the particular?