Sunday, June 24, 2012

Generation Anthropocene: a review

The Generation Anthropocene podcasts, interviews of Stanford faculty by Stanford students, were published back in May. I didn’t get around to listening to them right away; I was busy finishing up veterinary school. I did listen to the compilation overview, which includes snippets of interviews from all 14 podcasts, in May, which incited me to download the whole lot onto a thumbdrive. During the 21 hour drive from Massachusetts to Florida, I stuck the drive in my car stereo and listened to it. I loved the podcast so much that when I got to Florida, I handed the thumbdrive to my husband and told him to listen to it. Of course, he has not gotten around to it, so this morning I played him the first part of the overview to get him psyched.

Listening to the overview again after listening to all the interviews has been an interesting experience. The compilation podcast originally left me feeling that humans are affecting the planet in even more ways than I had realized before, and that we are plunging towards a crisis which it may already be too late to avert. I’ve heard that before and, as with so many listeners before me, sometimes avoid the details of our imminent destruction. But there were snippets in the compilation that I really wanted to know more about, mostly from people interested in sustainable agriculture. And exploring the variety of answers to the question asked in every interview — “When do you think the Anthropocene began?” — intruiged me.

The first thing I noticed when listening to the individual interviews was the genders of the interviewers and the interviewees. The compilation mixes the interview snippets together, removes all comments from interviewers so that it appears to just be free association from a bunch of Stanford professors, and draws heavily on particular interviewees, one woman in particular. When I listened to the actual interviews, I was struck by the fact that 12 out of 14 of the interviewers (the students) were young women, while 12 out of 14 of the interviewees (the faculty) were men. The gender bias hadn’t been at all apparent in the compilation, but it was an interesting one, since one of the themes of the podcast is how the next generation will live in a world that differs so much from today’s. The next generation, apparently, will differ too: many more faculty will be women. Or, as my husband suggested, perhaps faculty gender ratios will not change, and the two male students are the only ones on track to get PhDs. (In fact, if I recall correctly, the only graduate student on the podcast was one of the men.)

The second thing I noticed was how almost universally optimistic these experts in their fields were about their future. There were exceptions, but for the most part I did not come away from the interviews feeling alarmed about our future. I felt energized: there’s lots to do! And we have lots of tools and lots of smart people with which to do it! Let’s get going! Before listening to the podcast, I felt that humans needed to back off and leave the world alone a little more. My appreciation for the value of thoughtful stewardship has increased enormously.

So when do I think the Anthropocene began? I would have answered differently before listening to these interviews, but now I will confidently say that I think it began when humans ventured out of Africa and began affecting environments which were not prepared for them. Long before the Industrial Revolution (a favorite starting point of the Anthropocene for many), we were already causing mass extinctions with new hunting methods. And we were creating new species using domestication. We’ve been changing the face of the world for a very long time.

I loved listening to these interviews. I would love to see more like this: more interviews between students and faculty at other schools, on other topics. Want to communicate science to the world, but don’t have the time to start a blog? Get interviewed by a student and let them publicize what you have to say. There’s lots to talk about, so let’s get going.


  1. Thanks for posting this series. It looks like something I'll enjoy listening to.

  2. Thanks so much for the review, I'm glad you enjoyed listening! We've got several more interviews to be posted soon.

    Sam (Generation Anthropocene intern)

    1. Excellent! I didn't expect there to be more. I'll watch for them!

  3. Hello - this is the other Gen Anthro intern here! Thanks again for the review of our podcast, we're so excited that you like the work we're doing.

    Regarding the gender and grad/undergrad status of the interviewers - I just want to clarify that the podcast originally sprung out of a class that was targeted for undergrads, although we did have one grad student (Bryan) get into the class, and the majority of the class just happened to be undergrad women.

    Thanks again! Stay posted for our new interviews soon.

    All the best,

    1. Thanks, Leslie!

      I'm curious -- are there new podcasts because there's a new class? Or is Gen Anthro taking on a life of its own separate from class?