Elements of the Anthropocene

earth, air, water, fireSponsored by the Institute for Advanced Studies and the Cabot Institute

An interdisciplinary discussion workshop on the complex relationship between nature and society in the ‘age of man’.  Each workshop took a physical element - earth, air, water and fire – as its starting point.

What does it mean for something as ethereal as CO2 to be necessary for human life, fuel for photosynthesis, the primary indicator of man-made climate change and a tradable commodity?

How can our valuing of land make it at once a sacred space, an exploitable source of fuel, an ecosystem service and dumping ground?

How is water apportioned between rivers, rice and cattle?  How does the trade of commodities effectively move water around the world?

How has industrialisation brought fire from the hearth to the power station?


The aim was to bring people from the social, natural and physical sciences, arts and humanities together to stimulate new ideas about the Anthropocene and how to consider this concept in our own research.  We hoped to form collaborative working relationships with a view to applying for research funds.

The workshops took place in different locations around the University and Bristol with relevance to the theme.  A variety of objects (machines, visual data, oral histories) related to these elements contributed to and frame the discussions.  Participants were also invited to bring their own objects, texts and pictures.

These workshops followed on from the Cabot Institute Society in the Anthropocene conference in June 2013, which interrogated the divide between nature and society, including the effects of human activity on the environment and on other species, and reciprocal ways that the environment shapes humans.  Read Bronwen Morgan and Tim Edmunds’ summary Elemental figures of a future politics.