Project on the ‘Age of Humans’ to explore human effect on environment

A Divinity School scholar at UChicago will partner with colleagues from three other universities to better understand the impact of climate change from a humanities perspective among other theological, philosophical and religious inquiries.

Asst. Prof. Sarah Fredericks and a team led by Lisa H. Sideris of Indiana University will receive $141,215 over three years to fund their project, “Being Human in the Age of Humans: Perspectives from Religion and Ethics.” Their research will seek new ways to define what it means to be human in the Anthropocene, or the “Age of Humans,” a period marked by unprecedented human interaction with the planet that includes mass agricultural practices, nuclear weapons and climate change.

“One of our arguments is that the Anthropocene raises many questions about what it means to be human—to think of humans as a collective and to understand our agency, responsibility, capacities and limits,” Fredericks said.

The project will focus on three themes: the different and diverse contributions of humans to the Anthropocene, the implicit religiosity of Anthropocene narratives and indigenous understanding of environmental change.

“To study such ethical and religious issues might help us to better understand the causes of human influence on Earth, including climate change and why people can be slow to respond to it,” Fredericks said.

The grant for the project comes from Humanities Without Walls, a consortium of 15 Midwestern universities that funds cross-institutional teams of faculty and graduate students researching topics in the humanities. Humanities Without Walls is funded by a $3 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Fredericks and Sideris will work with Kyle Powys Whyte of Michigan State University and Celia Deane-Drummond of the University of Notre Dame. The project will seek to catalyze a larger conversation around the Anthropocene, with activities occurring at each university.

On the UChicago campus, Fredericks will lead a workshop in October 2017 featuring the work of five researchers in one of the three areas of focus for the project. An evening panel will include discussions with scientists and humanities scholars. UChicago Urban will help sponsor the workshop.

Anne Dodge, director of UChicago Urban, said she was excited to help support Fredericks’ work and hopes the research will appeal to a larger audience.

“It was clear Sarah was thinking very deeply about this issue, and about the range of perspectives she wanted at this convening,” Dodge said. “And this was great to see, because any meaningful response to climate change is going to require a lot of different approaches. And it was also exciting to see the Divinity School take the lead on a topical conversation and anchor it in their own research and approach."

In addition to the workshop, Fredericks will teach a College course on the themes of the project in Winter Quarter 2018. She also will lead an effort to collect syllabi from researchers connected with this project and beyond to create a repository of materials about the Anthropocene dealing with religion and ethics.

“This grant gives us an opportunity to shape future research and thinking about what it means to be human in an age where humans act as a geological force,” Fredericks said.