Two weeks before ‘Superstorm Sandy’ hit the Northeast, Smithsonian researchers convened a symposium on how humans are reshaping the planet. Now they are considering how a focus on ‘The Anthropocene’ could reshape their institution.

An imposing presence on the National Mall since 1910, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History now has a staff of 400, issues roughly 10 scientific reports or updates each week, and receives some seven million visitors per year. How might the Smithsonian leverage this position to deliver a persuasive message about climate change to the Capitol, located 10 blocks to its east, and to the White House, seven blocks northwest?

That, in essence, was the question posed by United Nations Foundation President Timothy E. Wirth, former Democratic U.S. senator from Colorado, at an event held at the Museum October 11.

Invited to offer some closing reflections on the presentations and panel discussions at the Smithsonian’s one-day symposium on “The Anthropocene,” Wirth challenged organizers to break out of “the cocoon” of Baird Auditorium, site of the event, and to play a prominent role in the national and international conversations about our common future. The one-day symposium had been productive, he suggested, but the Smithsonian needs to think in much bigger terms.

The Anthropocene: Planet Earth in the Age of Humans” was the second in an on-going series of public events the Smithsonian plans to stage as part of its Grand Challenges Consortia, which includes the Consortium for Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet. (Since 2011, the Smithsonian has also hosted an annual “Grand Challenges Share Fair” for its staff as part of the Consortia.)

First proposed in the fall of 2009 as part of its strategic plan for fiscal years 2010–2015, the Grand Challenges Consortia draws on the considerable talents and resources of Smithsonian researchers and curators to address interdisciplinary challenges and opportunities Americans face in the 21st century. Implicit in this undertaking are questions about the role of national museums in a digital age dominated by the global commons of the Internet.

“The Anthropocene” seemed designed to highlight the Challenge-ing roles to be played by the institution’s researchers. More than half of the 16 panelists who responded to four featured presentations were from, or had been funded by, Smithsonian museums, programs, and observatories. The four main presenters, however, were from outside. Through the featured presentations and panel responses, those in attendance (anyone who responded to the Smithsonian’s e-mailed invitations) were introduced to the history, possible futures, visible presence, and economics of the Anthropocene.

After opening remarks by the Smithsonian’s new Under Secretary for Science, Eva Pell, journalist and author Charles Mann presented the surprising backstory for the Anthropocene. Drawing on his pair of books on the Columbian Exchange, 1491 and 1493, Mann described “the extraordinary worldwide biological mixing set off by Columbus.” In 1493, he proposed his own name for this new world, The Homogenocene. As humans adopted and adapted species, especially food crops, from around the world, they took their intercontinental collections with them everywhere. Similar communities of the same cosmopolitan organisms can now be found, and have left their bones or pollen behind, in many different places around the globe. The question going forward, as Mann also notes in an extended essay just published in Orion, is how 7-10 billion people will manage the next round of Earth-shaping changes.

The four panelists commenting on Mann’s presentation focused primarily on ways to best preserve indigenous knowledge and species while adapting to the homogenizing forces of the Anthropocene.

Precautions to Avoid Potentially Catastrophic Impacts

Richard Alley, Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences at The Pennsylvania State University, delivered the second featured presentation. In the energetic and humorous style he has displayed in Web videos and in his PBS TV special, “Earth: The Operators Manual,” Alley explained what is known about the climate risks posed by the greenhouse-gases humans have added, and are still adding, to the atmosphere.

After presenting a standard probability distribution of risks and impacts — on a scale between “no harm” and “catastrophic harm,” we are most likely to experience something in between — Alley said that the public debate over the forecasts of climate models too often has focused on the minimal-to-moderate side of that probability curve.

But, Alley then noted, the unlikely-but-possible catastrophic impacts on the other side of that curve are important in considering risk management options. For instance, people take steps to reduce risks in their daily lives: they wear seat belts, purchase fire extinguishers and surge protectors, and try to eat sensibly and exercise regularly. They also buy car, home, and health insurance to avoid the potentially crushing costs of what they take to be low-probability events. Science offers methods, and western economies have the means, to take similar precautions with the planet. In the end, which of these methods and means people choose, however, is a question of policy, not of science.

Another four panelists responded to Alley’s presentation on “Energizing the Anthropocene.” By several different disciplinary routes, all came to the conclusion that more is known more about the science of climate change than about its social consequences. Humans are changing the planet faster than they can process those changes culturally, the speakers cautioned.

Lag Time between Human Actions and Their Consequences

In the third formal presentation, artist and cultural activist Chris Jordan offered a visual metaphor for the Anthropocene in a series of photographs of dead baby albatrosses taken on Midway. In the exposed stomachs of these chicks, reared on an atoll 2,000 miles from the nearest continent, dozens of pieces of plastic can be seen, detritus from the trash gyre circulating in the north Pacific Ocean. Although he did not propose this, after seeing Jordan’s photographs one could imagine fossilized clumps of bird bones and plastics as another geological marker for the Anthropocene.

Volcanologist Elizabeth Cottrell, science historian James Fleming, materials scientist Odile Madden, and NASA Ecological Forecasting Program Manager Woody Turner responded to Jordan’s photographs and videos. Although Cottrell expressed some skepticism about the indelibility of humans’ impacts on the planet, the panelists all kept circling back to the lag time between human actions and the recognition and understanding of the consequences of those actions. Madden noted that we had learned our disposable habits in the wake of World War II, when economists worried that much of the enormous industrial capacity of the United States would be idled when production shifted back to more durable domestic goods. The solution was to make more products disposable, and plastic was the ideal raw material for that solution. Fleming then suggested another word to capture the excesses of this new age of humans: the “Anthro-obscene.”

But the audience for this third panel appeared more concerned about the birds. In response to several versions of the same question, Jordan acknowledged that he had no data linking the plastic in the dead chicks’ stomachs with higher mortality rates for the population as a whole. Chicks die from many causes; now many of these dead chicks have stomachs full of plastic.

In the final presentation of the day, Sabine O’Hara, Dean of the College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability and Environmental Sciences (CAUSES) at the University of the District of Columbia, addressed the challenge of “Internalizing the Economy.” When economists discuss “sustainability,” they typically describe it as the area where the otherwise independent spheres of the economy, society, and the environment overlap. In this model, addressing the environment consists of internalizing externalized costs. True sustainability, O’Hara countered, requires a much more radical reconfiguration of the relationship: the economy is a sphere within society which is a sphere within the environment. Or as Tim Wirth rephrased this point later, “The economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment.”

Over the course of her presentation, O’Hara explained the principles of an internalized economy and enumerated five pillars of sustainable economic development. Working within those new parameters, she argued, requires new measures of costs, growth, and progress.

Concerns for the Anthropocene Given ‘Age of Terrorism’ Worries?

The final panel included two Smithsonian Institution researchers — Torben Rick, Curator of North American Archaeology and Director of the Program in Human Ecology and Archaeobiology, and S. Joseph Wright, Senior Scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama — and two “external” reviewers: Rob Nixon, the Rachel Carson Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Gavin Schmidt, climate modeler at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Schmidt questioned the need for new measures; we simply need to be more honest about the numbers that go into the rational choice models of economists, he said. Wright, Rick, and Nixon, however, each spoke of mismatches between perceptual frameworks and actual consequences of human actions. Nixon, for example, spoke of the Anthropocene as an “imaginative category,” as a corrective to the tendency to view the globalized economic system, with its rising inequalities, as beyond human intentions or responsibilities.

In the question and answer period that followed, one audience member asked why “the Anthropocene” had not gained more traction with the American public. O’Hara attributed this to the greater perceived urgency of what she called the “Age of Terrorism.”

A final questioner asked the panelists what major political candidates, including the vice-presidential candidates who would debate that night, need to understand about the Anthropocene. That the jobs vs. environment dichotomy is a false dichotomy, Nixon responded. Rick simply commented on “the sad state of affairs … we’re in when no one is talking about the environment.” O’Hara wanted to remind the candidates that Adam Smith valued moral sentiments as much as economic efficiencies. Schmidt stressed the need to develop the capacity to address chronic as well as acute problems. But to effectively respond to any of these matters, Wright pointed out, Americans must first address the dysfunctions of a political system widely perceived to be broken.

These political concerns were echoed in Wirth’s closing remarks to the symposium; indeed, they were likely behind the challenge he issued to the Smithsonian. While the new head of the World Bank had recently stressed the importance of dealing with climate change, Wirth noted, neither of the two major presidential candidates even wanted to acknowledge the issue as part of their campaigns. How then, he asked, could Americans begin a real dialogue about our common future?

The next day the symposium’s presenters and panelists considered how the Smithsonian might answer Wirth’s question and meet its own “grand challenge” to understand and sustain a biodiverse planet. With their invited presenters and panelists, Smithsonian staff sketched out an institution-wide program that could engage the public in the Anthropocene, possibly as early as 2016.

In follow-up e-mails exchanged with The Yale Forum, W. John Kress, Director of the Consortium for Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet and moderator for the final panel on economics, also described how the work started at the symposium could reshape the institution itself.

[We plan to use] the concept of the Anthropocene (1) to link scholarship within the Smithsonian . . .; (2) as a unifying theme [for new] scholarship . . . within the institution; (3) to define and clarify the connections between science and the humanities; and (4) to ultimately change . . .behavioral patterns in the inhabitants of the planet.

In the near term (~6–12 months), Kress added, visitors to the National Museum of Natural History can expect to see a display of Jordan’s plastic-filled albatross chicks. But he could not yet say in which hall (e.g., Ocean Life, Birds of the World, or a special exhibit). And there were no plans as yet to coordinate these efforts with the Institution’s flagship periodical, Smithsonian.

Scientists Alley and Schmidt: Smithsonian … and Beyond?

In separate e-mail exchanges, climate scientists Richard Alley and Gavin Schmidt both applauded the ambition of the Grand Challenges in general and of the plans for the Anthropocene in particular. Both said they appreciated the mix of disciplines and outlooks represented by the presenters and panelists invited to the symposium. (“Useful connections were forged,” Schmidt said.) And both confirmed one of Wirth’s reasons for challenging the Smithsonian to spearhead this effort: When the Smithsonian calls, good researchers answer.

“I have been a fan of the Smithsonian literally for decades,” said Alley, “so the chance to discuss important topics there was a treat.” Schmidt agreed: “The Smithsonian is one of the preeminent cultural landmarks in the U.S., and so for them to be inspired by . . . the Anthropocene . . . is a huge endeavor, and many voices need to be part of that effort,” including scientists.

Alley concluded his e-mail by offering his own assessment of the symposium and its theme:

Oversimplifying perhaps too much, each of us makes life a little harder for others on the planet through our pollution and use of resources, and each of us makes life a little easier for others … through our learning, teaching, sharing, and building. [Thus far], at least for people, the sum has been positive — more of us can live better now than at any time in the past. But there is no guarantee that this will continue. . . . The Smithsonian is one of the very best strong, forward-looking institutions, with a long tradition of helping the learning , teaching, sharing, and building, and I believe those efforts have never been more important for our well-being than now.

An idea, the Anthropocene, has taken root at 10th and Constitution. How long will it take for that idea to reach the nearby White House at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue … or the House and Senate chambers just up Constitution Avenue? Or perhaps more to the point, if Smithsonian museums and programs log 35 million visits each year, how long will it take for that idea to reach the nation’s 435 voting districts?

That may be an Anthropocenic research project in itself.

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is the Yale Climate Connections books editor. He is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since...