View of earth from space
(Photo credit: NASA)

New years that end in zeros often prompt longer-range reflections. Not just “What does the New Year hold?” but “What might the new decade bring?” (as with 2020) or even “What should we hope for in the new century or new millennium?” (as happened with 2000).

And when that turn in the calendar coincides with unprecedented and catastrophic wildfires, such as those having ravaged large parts of Australia, then an even more foreboding question might be asked: In what new age are we living?

The titles selected for this month’s bookshelf provide several different answers to this last question, but all agree that the name of this new age is the Anthropocene, the geological age in which humans are leaving the most indelible marks on the planet.

It has been three years since Yale Climate Connections’ first bookshelf on the Anthropocene. All 16 of the titles listed below – 12 with covers and blurbs, four without – have been published since then. This newer set of titles also considers the Anthropocene from a wider variety of perspectives: the Earth and life sciences, the social sciences, the humanities, and the arts.

As always, the descriptions of the books are adapted from copy provided by the publishers. When two dates of publication are listed, the latter is the date for the release of the paperback edition.

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Anthropocene: A Very Short Introduction, by Eric C. Ellis (Oxford University Press 2018, 208 pages, $11.95 paperback)

The “Anthropocene,” as the proposed new epoch has been named, is regularly in the news. This Very Short Introduction explains the science behind the Anthropocene and the many proposals about when to mark its beginning: The nuclear tests of the 1950s? The beginnings of agriculture? The origins of humans as a species? Erle Ellis considers the many ways that the Anthropocene’s “evolving paradigm” is reshaping the sciences, stimulating the humanities, and foregrounding the politics of life on a planet transformed by humans. The Anthropocene remains a work in progress. Is this the story of an unprecedented planetary disaster? Or of newfound wisdom and redemption? Ellis offers an insightful discussion of our role in shaping the planet, and how this will influence our future on many fronts.

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The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene, by Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin (Yale University Press 2018, 480 pages, $25.00)

Meteorites, mega-volcanoes, and plate tectonics – the old forces of nature – have transformed Earth for millions of years. They are now joined by a new geological force – humans. Our actions have driven Earth into a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. For the first time in our home planet’s 4.5-billion-year history a single species is increasingly dictating Earth’s future. To some the Anthropocene symbolizes a future of superlative control of our environment. To others the illusion of our mastery over nature. Thus the Anthropocene evokes a heady mix of science, philosophy, and politics linked to our deepest fears and utopian visions. Tracing our environmental impacts through time, scientists Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin reveal a new outlook for the future of humanity in the unstable world we have created.

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The Anthropocene as a Geological Time Unit: A Guide to the Scientific Evidence and Current Debate, edited by Jan Zlasiewicz, Colin N. Waters, Mark Williams, and Colin P. Summerhayes (Cambridge University Press 2019, 382 pages, $62.99)

This book presents the evidence for defining the Anthropocene as a geological epoch, written by the international team analyzing its potential addition to the geological time scale. The evidence ranges from chemical signals arising from pollution, to landscape changes associated with urbanization, and biological changes associated with species invasion and extinctions. Global environmental change is placed within the context of planetary processes and deep geological time, allowing the reader to appreciate the scale of human-driven change and compare the global transition taking place today with major transitions in history. This is an authoritative review of the Anthropocene, crossing scientific, social science and humanities disciplines.

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The Politics of the Anthropocene, by John S. Dryzek and Jonathan Pickering (Oxford University Press 2019, 224 pages, $26.00 paperback)

The Politics of the Anthropocene considers how human institutions, practices, and principles need to be re-thought in response to the challenges of the Anthropocene, the emerging epoch of human-induced instability in the Earth system and its life-support capacities. The world remains stuck with practices and modes of thinking that were developed in the Holocene, toward the end of which modern institutions such as states and capitalist markets arose. These institutions persist despite their failure to respond to the challenges of the Anthropocene, foremost among them a rapidly changing climate. The pathological trajectories of these institutions need to be disrupted by ecological reflexivity: the questioning of core socioeconomic commitments while listening and responding effectively to signals from the Earth system.

See also: Politics and the Anthropocene, by Duncan Kelly (Polity Books 2019, 185 pages, $19.95 paperback)

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Rethinking the Environment for the Anthropocene: Political Theory and Socionatural Relations in the New Geological Epoch, edited by Manuel Arias-Maldonado and Zev Trachtenberg (Routledge 2019, 224 pages, $44.95 paperback)

This book brings together current thinking about the Anthropocene in the field of Environmental Political Theory (‘EPT’) to develop the idea of ‘socionatural relations’ – an idea that frames the environment in the Anthropocene in terms of the interconnected relationship between human beings and their surroundings. The chapters in the book show the diversity of points of view theorists take toward the Anthropocene, and socionatural relations more generally. All the chapters exemplify EPT’s self-conscious effort to provide normative interpretations that are responsive to scientific accounts. Rethinking the Environment for the Anthropocene will help readers interested in the Anthropocene from any disciplinary perspective develop a critical understanding of its political meanings.

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A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, by Kathryn Yusoff (University of Minnesota Press 2019, 99 pages, $7.95 paperback)

No geology is neutral, writes Kathryn Yusoff. Tracing the color line of the Anthropocene, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None examines how the grammar of geology is foundational to establishing the extractive economies of subjective life and the Earth under colonialism and slavery. Yusoff initiates a transdisciplinary conversation between feminist black theory, geography, and the Earth sciences, addressing the politics of the Anthropocene within the context of race, materiality, deep time, and the afterlives of geology. Part of the press’s Forerunners series, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None draws on the intense thinking, change, and speculation of contemporary scholarship.

See also: Anthropocene Feminism, edited by Richard Grusin (University of Minnesota Press 2017, 256 pages, $28.00 paperback)

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Infrastructure, Environment, and Life in the Anthropocene, edited by Kregg Hetherington (Duke University Press 2019, 312 pages, $27.99)

Infrastructure, Environment, and Life in the Anthropocene explores life in the age of climate change through a series of infrastructural puzzles – sites at which it has become impossible to disentangle the natural from the built environment. With topics ranging from breakwaters built of oysters, underground rivers made by leaky pipes, and architecture gone weedy to neighborhoods partially submerged by rising tides, the contributors explore situations that destabilize the concepts we once relied on to address environmental challenges. They take up the challenge that the Anthropocene poses both to life on the planet and to our social-scientific understanding of it by showing how past conceptions of environment and progress have become unmoored and what this means for how we imagine the future.

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Sustainability in the Anthropocene: Philosophical Essays on Renewable Technologies, edited by Roisin Lally (Rowman & Littlefield 2019, 250 pages, $95.00)

We are facing an environmental crisis that some say is ushering a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. In the face of this crisis it has become clear that we need a more sustainable culture. “Sustainability,” however, is a contested word, and it carries with it, often implicitly and unacknowledged, deep philosophical claims that are entangled with all kinds of assumptions and power relations, some of them very problematic. This book attempts to set this urgent goal of sustainability free from its more reductive and harmful interpretations and to thereby apply a more thoughtful environmental ethics to current and emerging technologies, particularly those involving reproduction and the harnessing of energy that dominate our elemental relations to sun and air, wind and water, earth and forest.

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Visualizing Posthuman Conservation in the Age of the Anthropocene, by Amy D. Propen (Ohio State University Press 2018/2019, 224 pages, $29.95 paperback)

How do we understand the lives of nonhuman animals and our relationships with them? And what does it mean to practice conservation in the Anthropocene? Environmental Studies scholar Amy D. Propen seeks to answer these questions in Visualizing Posthuman Conservation in the Age of the Anthropocene. Through case studies in which visual technologies and science play a prominent role in arguments to protect threatened marine species – for example, photographs showing the impact of ocean plastics on vulnerable sea birds – Propen advances a notion of conservation that decenters the human enough to consider ideas about the material world from the vantage point of the nonhuman animal. Thereby Propen shows how interdisciplinary ways of knowing can shape and illuminate our various lived and embodied experiences.

See also: Thinking about Animals in the Age of the Anthropocene, edited by Morten Tonnessen, Kristin Armstrong Oma, and Silver Rattasepp (Rowman & Littlefield 2016, 272 pages, $39.95 paperback)

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Searching for the Anthropocene: A Journey Into the Environmental Humanities, by Christopher Schaberg (Bloomsbury Books 2019, 224 pages, $24.95 paperback)

We live in a time of rampant consumerism and irresponsible disregard for the natural world. Still, we strive to find authentic interactions, something to counter the feeling of looming doom in which humans are inherently implicated, often searching for these in literature and art. The debates around the Anthropocene are in one sense an effort to reveal and work through these tensions. Developing a wide-angle approach to environmental studies, and blending personal narrative, cultural criticism, and environmental thought, Searching for the Anthropocene offers fresh ways to ponder literature and the humanities side-by-side with current conditions of ecological urgency, existential crisis, and social unrest.

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Inhospitable World: Cinema in the Time of the Anthropocene, by Jennifer Fay (Oxford University Press 2018, 272 pages, $31.95 paperback)

Film, like the Anthropocene, is a product of the industrial revolution, but it arises out of a desire to preserve life and master time and space. Filmmaking stages the process by which worlds and weather come into being and meaning. Whereas standard ecological criticism attends to the environmental crisis as an unraveling of our natural state, Inhospitable World looks to film (from Buster Keaton, to Jia Zhangke, to films of atomic testing and early polar exploration) to consider how it reflects upon the creation and destruction of human environments. What are the implications of ecological inhospitality? As an art form, film enjoys a unique relationship to the material, elemental world it captures and produces. Through it, we may appreciate the ambitions to design an unhomely planet that may no longer accommodate us.

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Anthropocene, by Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal, and Nicholas de Pencier (Goose Lane Editions, 2018, 256 pages, $35.00)

In photographs that are both stunning and disconcerting, Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal, and Nicholas de Pencier document species extinction (the burning of elephant tusks to disrupt the illegal trade of ivory), technofossils (swathes of discarded plastic forming geological layers), and terraforming (mines and industrial agriculture). The book also features a range of essays by artists, curators, and scientists, some part of an international group of scientists who have proposed that the Earth is now entering a new era of geological time where human activity is the driving force behind environmental and geological change – i.e. the Anthropocene. Thus the book brings contemporary art into conversation with environmental science and anthropology on a topic that urgently affects all of us.

See also: Art, Theory, and Practice in the Anthropocene, edited by Julie Reiss (Vernon Press 2018, 174 pages, $36.00 paperback).

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...