A term hatched in 2000 redefined the time in which we live as the Anthropocene because of human-caused blight on Earth’s ecological systems.
Nobel Prize winner Paul Jozef Crutzen, a Dutch atmospheric chemist, suggested the permanent human footprint on Earth’s geological and ecological systems has been so substantial that it pushed the planet out of the Holocene epoch and into the Anthropocene.
The impending effects of this permanent damage can become paralyzing and depressing, said Colorado College anthropology professor Sarah Hautzinger.
“It is too late to avert major mass extinction at this point,” Hautzinger said. “We’re going to have major climate refugees, and we’re going to have a lot of suffering and inequality. Most of the costs are being inflicted onto peoples who didn’t cause the problem, in the sense of having lower carbon footprints.”
Yet Hautzinger said she’s motivated to act — and works with the hope that others will be, too.
This year, she’s focusing her personal and in-class research on the sociocultural implications of climate change. She said she’s particularly interested in how individuals and communities have responded.
“We know what we should do or could’ve done about climate change 30 years ago, but we’re not doing it,” Hautzinger said. “Many of the climate change scientists say that this has become more of a social problem. Hence the justification of needing more community dialogue and including anthropological approaches.”
She spent much of her career researching discrimination and violence against women in Brazil, then conducted long-term research with Colorado military members returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. On sabbatical last fall, she said, she was struck with a gut instinct to come home from Brazil and work on environmental research full time. She expected it to be a refreshing turn from previously heavy work.
“I sort of thought, ‘Oh, that’s all really heavy, I’m going to turn the page.’ But there’s a surprising amount in common when you think about how where we are right now might have more to do with violence and trauma than we realize.”
The process and results of human-caused climate change can be framed in many ways as emotional, psychological, community and social issues, Hautzinger said.
“What is ecology? Don’t we also have to talk about an ecology of self? An ecology of social relationships, of family, etc.? What are the spiritual aspects? Knowing what we know about human-caused climate change and calling this period ‘the Anthropocene,’ how does that shape our sense of being human and the value of humanity? That’s how it really becomes an anthropological question.”
Frequently developing coursework around topics that preoccupy her, Hautzinger said, two of her classes this year will tackle climate change issues.
One class will go to Colorado College’s Baca Campus, just south of Crestone. Students will have 24-hour home stays with people of different religious and spiritual traditions. They’ll interview their hosts about faith and climate change, taking inventory of diverse approaches and perspectives. The Crestone area is home to people who practice Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism, Shinji Shumeikai and more.
“Over the years, I’ve had more and more collaboration with the Crestone Spiritual Alliance,” Hautzinger said. “In part, in an effort to find sort of ‘through lines’ and continuity across all of these really different traditions. I have looked for themes that brought it together. The one that has come to the floor again and again has been on ecology and environmental policies.”
She said she wants to ask these communities if spirituality serves as a resource for climate change action, mobilization, motivation, mitigation or even just “being present with it.”
“A lot of evolutionary anthropological work says that religion is a great example of behavior that is not adaptive, that does not serve any function,” Hautzinger said. “Others answer, ‘No. If you look at what religion or spirituality can do, it can enjoin people to greater levels of self-discipline, mindfulness and awareness, sacrifice, mutual trust and cooperation on a community level.’ So in some ways, my research question has been, ‘What difference does it make to have all of those different spiritual lineages next to one another in a place that is astonishingly beautiful — in connection with wilderness and many forms of wildlife. What value added is there from the spiritual aspects?’”
In 2017, the United Nations Climate Change Conference held the 23rd annual Conference of the Parties in Bonn, Germany. There, Fiji introduced the concept of the Talanoa Dialogue — inclusive, participatory and transparent.
She said she’ll facilitate facilitating Talanoa dialogue in her classes, employ them in her work with the Crestone community and use them in the Colorado Springs area to address issues such as those around the Martin Drake Power Plant.
She said the Talanoa Dialogue at the conference made a clear difference, spurring inclusive, empathetic conversation.
“The COP sort of shifted out of the typical United Nations language,” she said. “Women’s voices, indigenous voices and youth voices were heard in a way that they really hadn’t been before. And people left so inspired — especially in a time where people were extremely discouraged about even complying with the Paris Agreement, etc. There was a call to do things internationally, locally, regionally, etc.”
This dialogue brought about understanding, she said, leaving people feeling hopeful and better able to respond, or as she refers to it, “response-able.”
That’s her vision for her research results, too.
“I want to fortify people to live with hope, vitality and acceptance — without denial, but without being paralyzed or depressed,” she said. “That’s really different than anything I’ve ever done before. It feels good because, when you’re working on things like war and violence, it’s harder to have a clear mission.”