The University of Kansas

The epoch that humans built

Environmental historian traces creation of new age

For more than a decade, earth scientists have been studying a new geologic epoch they call the Anthropocene — the physical changes made by humans on the land, oceans, and atmosphere and to the ecosystem.

Now environmental historians like Gregory Cushman want to look beyond geology. Cushman, associate professor of history and environmental studies, is on a worldwide quest to trace the Anthropocene back to its social, cultural, and political beginnings.

What he finds could help answer environmental questions as simple as “Paper or plastic?” or as complex as whether to allow coal mining.

“It can provide us new insights about humanity’s ability to dominate the earth and all the ramifications of the past,” Cushman says.

As Cushman taught about the Anthropocene in his KU environmental studies classes, he found the topic was so new that it was difficult to find integrative perspectives. So he began creating a base of research himself.

Receiving a Carnegie Fellowship is allowing him to take two years off his teaching duties to travel around the planet to make new discoveries and add to interdisciplinary scholarship on the topic.

KU’s Strategic Plan, Bold Aspirations, seeks to hire, retain, and reward the highest caliber faculty and staff.

Carnegie Fellow Gregory Cushman, associate professor of history and environmental studies, is among our best.

As he pores through documents and manuscripts in European and Latin American archives and travels to talk to indigenous people in the South Pacific, Cushman has found a theme: Not all of humanity has contributed equally to the changes seen by Earth scientists.

Cushman contends the Anthropocene is the result of the willful domination of the planet by industrialized societies during a period that had its beginnings in what historians call the “Age of Revolution.”

One place the Anthropocene began was with the colonization campaigns in the Americas that led to the formation of the United States. Along with a new spirit of political liberty and freedom, those societies also fostered another sense of freedom — an attitude of being free to tap into the Earth and all its resources.

Much of the economic and social progress over the last couple of centuries was based on exploitive environmental practices. Those included unprecedented scales of mining and industrial production, large-scale agriculture and deforestation, and the use of fossil fuels for energy production.

Today’s environmental problems of climate change and pollution can be traced back to the Age of Revolution — especially to the ways we extract resources from the rocks and soil beneath our feet, Cushman argues. “That’s where we should be looking for solutions.”

Carnegie Fellowship

The Carnegie Corporation of New York decided Gregory Cushman’s research project not only had popular interest, but also had ramifications for national and international environmental policies.

Cushman received one of Carnegie’s first social sciences fellowships — $200,000 to continue research for his book The Anthropocene and the Age of Revolution: A People’s History of the Earth Under Human Domination.

The funding allowed him to do historical research last summer in the British Library in London and the Spanish & National Library in Madrid. Last fall he continued his research at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich — among the top think tanks for environmental studies in the world.