Culture and Society in Contemporary India: The South Asian Anthropocene

Culture and Society in Contemporary India: The South Asian Anthropocene

Convenor: Professor Nayanika Mathur

We are now, it is widely agreed, living in a new geological epoch that has been termed the Anthropocene. Defined by the profound and irreversible impact of human (the Anthropos) action and agency, the Anthropocene presents us with unique planetary, political, and intellectual challenges. It remains a concept that is still to be fully developed, yet it is already posing foundational questions not just of the present and future of humankind and the planet, but also of how academic knowledge should be produced and consumed. This course explores these debates by rooting them in India: a region where 1/7th of humanity resides and which is tipped to experience some of the most cataclysmic effects of anthropogenic climate change.

The course begins with the debates on the definition of the Anthropocene as well as its timing. Neither – definition or timeline – are yet established with a degree of certitude. While there is almost complete agreement that humans are now acting as a geophysical force, different disciplines and expert bodies are still mulling the precise wording of the definition. Similarly, there is a fraught discussion on the onset of the Anthropocene: was it with the Industrial Revolution in Europe or decolonisation of the global South?

From definitional and timing discussions, we will move on to study the weaknesses with and strengths of the concept of the Anthropocene. The greatest weakness is its domination by the natural sciences and a depoliticisation of the concept of the Anthropos. At the same time, the Anthropocene pushes us towards a new inter-disciplinarity as well as engagement with the world seen as a collective. We will explore how academic literature and climate activism emerging from India contributes to the conceptualisation and enforcement of the Anthropocene.

The course operates largely through a close reading of emerging climate ethnographies of India. These works put the environment/climate/ecosystem front and centre. India has produced a rich corpus of work on the environment, that can be read alongside the more recent focus on climate change to ground the Anthropocene in the lives of people.

The Anthropocene is profoundly imbricated not just with human lives but also has a strong bearing on biodiversity loss and species extinction. We will study the charismatic species of tigers, lions, and elephants as well as the lesser-celebrated nonhuman animals that are currently endangered or on the brink of extinction in the Anthropocene.

Finally, the course will look at policies, laws, regulations, climate activism, and movements for climate justice in the region to ask how and in what ways they might reshape the Indian Anthropocene. 



Take a look at …

Dipesh Chakrabarty, 2009, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 35, No. 2, pp. 197-222

Dipesh Chakrabarty, 2012, “Postcolonial Studies and the Challenge of Climate Change,” New Literary History, Vol. 43, No. 1, pp. 1-18

Amitav Ghosh, 2016, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Bruno Latour, 2014, “Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene,” New Literary History, Vol. 45, No. 1, pp. 1-18

Navroze K. Dubash (ed.), 2011, Handbook of Climate Change and India: Development, Politics and Governance, Delhi: Routledge.

Anand Pandian and Cymene Howe (eds.), 2016, Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen. Theorizing the Contemporary, Cultural Anthropology website, June 28, 2017.


The image above shows: the river Ganges in flood, partially submerging a Shiva idol in Uttarakhand, India, June 2013.

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