Humanities Symposium

Energy Cultures in the Age of the Anthropocene

(From left to right:) Bradley Cramer, Tyler Priest, and Barbara Eckstein
(From left to right:) Humanities Symposium Co-directors Bradley Cramer (Earth & Environmental Science), Tyler Priest (History), and Barbara Eckstein (English)

From the opening talk by Lonnie Thompson, the Ohio State University geologist who first proved the world’s glaciers are melting, to the final dance performance that contemplated our ability to imagine ourselves out of our present circumstances, this three-day symposium probed, questioned, and inspired. The conference showcased how the humanities can help us understand our relationship to energy and come to terms with living in what many now consider to be a new geologic age.

Energy Cultures in the Age of the Anthropocene offered participants and viewers a rich array of talent along with the panels, keynotes, and performances, including:

  • An exhibit at the Englert Theatre’s Doug and Linda Paul Gallery featuring photographs alongside prints produced by Anita Jung’s (Art & Art History, CLAS) graduate printmaking class.
  • Two feature film presentations related to the symposium’s topic—The Great Invisible in conjunction with FilmScene and Living Downstream in conjunction with the UI Museum of Natural History.
  • A WorldCanvass radio and television program focused on the Anthropocene, the symposium co-directors, and other guests.
  • An Obermann Afternoons event featuring the co-directors
  • A performance of UI Dance professor Jennifer Kayle’s Smoke Screen: This and Other Warnings.
  • A graduate seminar that prepared students to participate in the symposium.

One of the great strengths of this symposium was the way it bridged communities: undergraduates and faculty, local citizens and campus, the arts and the sciences. As keynote lecturer Libby Robin of Australian National University reflected: “The fit between the city and the event was perfect. I always think that scholarship is about place and time, as well as about abstract ideas. Good public intellectual activity gives back to its community—and the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies enabled scholarly conversations in museums, public events and art shows, and the spectacular final dance event.”

Keynote Lonnie Thompson,“Climate Change: The Evidence and Our Options”
Views from the symposium events:

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Views from the art exhibition opening:

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Learn more about the Humanities Symposium program.


  • A teach-in will take place in February 2016 focused on how to weave issues of sustainability more deeply into the UI undergraduate curriculum.
  • Barbara Eckstein contributed an introduction to a special edition of Philological Quarterly that was informed by the symposium.
  • Several courses were developed through the symposium or were greatly enhanced by the thinking of the symposium:  “Literature, Culture, Environment: Foundations of Environmental Humanities,” “American Environmental History,” “Energy and Society” (now part of the GER and “Big Ideas” curricula), “Literature of the Anthropocene,” “The History and Science of Oil,” and “Beyond Petroleum.”
  • Jennifer Kayle (choreographer, UI Department of Dance) and her group of undergraduate and graduate student dancers performed Kayle’s Smoke-Screen: This and Other Warnings at Highways, a Los Angeles dance and theatre venue, in May 2015.