a new era in human-environment relations

Daniel Lord Smail


“We need to write history in the space between humans and things.”

In his lecture Humans and Things in Deep Time, Daniel Lord Smail brought a framework to talking about the Anthropocene that we had yet to see up until now . He focused on the importance of considering history both microscopically and macroscopically in order to conceptualize the current moment and its relation to the past. Smail explains that his work does not always concern itself with the Anthropocene, but he feels that many of his ideas are applicable to the topic. He discussed the importance of looking at the history of humans as a history of things, emphasizing how “things cling to us because we fill them with meaning”–a notion that raises the question of whether people own things or things own people. His work proposes a co-evolution between people and things that is important to think about, especially in this new epoch. He went on to discuss the progress of tools in shaping the evolution of the human body and how physical features  evolve with things that we own. The human form aside, Smail argued that one of the most pressing issues of the future that will be the accumulation of waste and the trash that we collect now. In the end, Smail concluded that the only thing that endures is the underlying instability in the relationship between humans and things.

I think that this framework of simultaneously considering a history of things and the concept of deep time is incredibly influential for the discussion of the Anthropocene. It mirrors the problem of environmental discussions that attempt to reconcile the large scale of geologic time with the small scale of human history–a perceptual challenge that mirrors the problem of understanding local processes within a larger, global view. This lecture by Smail reminds us of the importance of employing a variety frameworks and perspectives when analyzing the Anthropocene. It is easy to get stuck in one methodology and to therefore become blindsided to other impacts or discussion that are outside of your own range. Smail prompts a reevaluation of existing frameworks. I believe that it’s these moments of reevaluation, of thinking outside our frameworks, that spur some of the most insightful realizations, especially in such an interdisciplinary problem.

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