The Field Guide to Lost Futures is a collective project from Literature, Culture, and the Anthropocene (ENGL 4E03), a Winter 2021 seminar offered in the Department of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University.

Course Description

This is a course about loss. The Anthropocene is a term that describes the current geological age, characterized by the dominance of human influence on the planet’s systems, including climate change, deforestation, proliferation of toxic wastes, and mass extinctions. The Anthropocene is a period characterized by losses already endured and many anticipated losses on the horizon. Much writing and thinking around the Anthropocene projects into a future radically remade by loss. Losses of ecosystems, relationships, lifeways, and stories have been unequally created and are inequitably distributed. Race, gender, sexuality, class, and species have profound effects on the varying exposures and vulnerabilities of different communities and geographies to climate change and other impacts of human-induced planetary changes.

Together, we will think through the radically divergent causes and experiences of loss from a diversity of perspectives, locations, and scales. The term Anthropocene was coined by white male chemist, Paul Crutzen, in 2000, but he is not the first and far from the only person to theorize, grasp, and mourn the losses mounting from human-changed ecosystems. Throughout the semester, will look at contemporary explorations of ecological loss, but will also examine practices of identifying, grieving, and attempted managing human-caused losses across the 20th century.

Our work will cluster around loss in three key sites: land, species, and futures. We will approach loss as active processes—wherein lands, species, and futures are made lost by activities such as extractive capitalism, colonial dispossession, ecofascism, and environmental racism. We will also examine a wide range of responses to loss, including affective (grief, hope, and rage), narrative and arts-based (elegy, monuments), and policy (platforms, reparations).

Our efforts to identify and interpret loss across multiple registers will culminate in a collective and collaborative digital humanities project: The Field Guide to Lost Futures. Addressed to near-future audiences, the Field Guide is part time capsule, part memorial, and part speculative experiment. By projecting into the future, we will think about how the Anthropocene and the many losses in the wake of its catastrophes might be remembered. Students will each create an entry to the Field Guide that identifies something on the cusp of or at risk of loss in our current, situated experience of the Anthropocene at McMaster University in 2021.

As we move through the course and develop the Field Guide, we will encourage each other to ask: How do we sense, experience, and document loss? What are the political potentials of grief and mourning? How can we engage loss from a range of perspectives, including nonhuman? How do we tell stories of loss that are not only damage-centered and that do not cast destruction and decline as inevitable processes? Which losses might be necessary for different futures to emerge?

Course Readings: Books

Nate Blakeslee, The Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West (New York: RandomHouse, 2017).

Sarah Broom, The Yellow House (New York, Grove Atlantic, 2019).

adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha (editors), Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories fromSocial Justice Movements (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2015).

Joanna Zylinska, The End of Man: A Feminist Counterapocalypse (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018).

Course Readings: Articles + Other Materials

Anson, April. “No One is a Virus: On American Ecofascism,” Environmental History Now, 21 October 2020, available online.

Burtynsky, Edward, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch

(Toronto: Mongrel Media, 2019), available streaming via McMaster Libraries.

Davis, Heather, and Zoe Todd. “On the Importance of a Date, or, Decolonizing the

Anthropocene,” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, vol. 16, no. 4 (2017): 761-780.

Miller, Elizabeth. “The Losing Coast,” Statesider, 17 May 2020, available online.

Estes, Nick “Fighting for Our Lives: #NoDAPL in Historical Context,” Wicazo Sa Review, Vol. 32, No. 2, Fall 2017, pp. 115-122

How to Save a Planet, “Black Lives Matter and the Climate,” 24 September 2020, available online.

Kanngeiser, Anja and Zoe Todd. “From Environmental Case Study to Environmental Kin Study,” History and Theory, Vol. 59, No. 3 (2020): 385-393.

Keeler, Kyle. “Settler Theft and Indigenous Resistance in the Kleptocene,” Edge Effects, 08 September 2020, available online.

Ladner, Keira. “Governing Within an Ecological Context: Creating an AlterNative Understanding of Blackfoot Governance,” Studies in Political Economy, Vol. 70, No. 1 (2003), 125-52.

Liboiron, Max “Recylcing is Like a Bandaid on Gangrene,” The Atlantic, 13 June 2019, available online.

Little Bear, Leroy. “The Historic Buffalo Treaty of September 2014,” in The Last of the Buffalo: Return to the Wild, edited by Harvey Locke (Banff: Summerthought, 2016), 84-87.

Mirzeoff, Nicholas, “Visualizing the Anthropocene,” Public Culture, Vol. 26, No. 2 (2014): 213-232.

Nixon, Rob. “The Anthropocene: The Promise and Pitfalls of an Epochal Idea,” in Future Remains: A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene, edited by Gregg Mitman, Marco Armiero, and Robert S. Emmett (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 1-18.

Peeples, Jennifer, “Imaging Toxins,” Environmental Communication Vol. 7, No. 2 (2013), 191-210.

Purdy, Jedediah. “Environmentalism’s Racist History,” The New Yorker, 13 August 2015, available online.

Simpson, Leanne Betasamosake, “The Brilliance of the Beaver: Learning from an Anishnaabe World” CBC Ideas Podcast, 16 April 2020, available online.

Táíwò, Olúfẹ́mi O. and Beba Cibralic, “The Case for Climate Reparations,” Foreign Policy, 10 October 2020, available online.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. “Interlude: Tracking,”  “Disturbed Beginnings: Unintentional Design,” and “The Life of the Forest,” in The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 137-144, 151-152, and 155-163.

Van Dooren, Thom. “Mourning Crows: Grief in a Shared World,” in Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction, (New York, Columbia University Press, 2014), 125-144.

Wells, David Wallace, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” New York Magazine, 10 July 2017

Whyte, Kyle Powys, “Our Ancestors’ Dystopia Now: Indigenous Conservation and the Anthropocene,” in The Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities, edited by Ursula Heise, Jon Christensen, and Michelle Niemann (Routledge, 2017), 206-215.