Growing up in New Orleans, I used to try and imagine the city filling up like a bowl; but in recent years, I find myself trying to imagine what will happen when the Mississippi River cuts a new path to the Gulf of Mexico and no longer flows through the city. Will neighborhoods slide into the riverbed? Or will the Gulf of Mexico encroach and fill our streets before the river shifts course? And will we be prepared by then, with a built environment that adapts with sea level change?
This past spring, I traveled with a friend to scout sites for Anthropocene River Campus: The Human Delta, an international gathering that the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South (NOCGS) is hosting in November 2019. My friend and I visited water management structures that hold the swollen river in its current navigation channel—a situation on which the city, country, and numerous multinational corporations depend. We ate lunch on the levee across from the Old River Auxiliary Control structure, a massive Brutalist gate that helps to drain 30% of the Mississippi River into the Atchafalaya River so that the Mississippi does not jump from its existing path. I’d read all about this year’s record high river levels, but I was still in awe of the views from the levees that read not as river but as lake, and witnessing the epic 20th century engineering straining to keep order.
Nothing compares with beholding a place. It was on this premise that the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin (MPIWG) founded the Anthropocene Curriculum in 2013, a strategic effort to build an international network of scholars, scientists, and artists who collaborate on new research methodologies that respond to the multifaceted challenges of the era in which we live. First coined in 2000, the term Anthropocene—or the “Age of Humankind”—is a useful concept recognizing the present era in which human-generated forces have altered the earth’s surface, atmosphere, and planetary patterns.
To ground the Anthropocene Curriculum in the local, HKW and MPIWG have studied a sampling of sites around the world and forged deep and ongoing relationships with their collaborators. Most recently, they chose to focus on the United States’ Mississippi River Basin area, an “all-encompassing example of an immense space continually being reshaped by human activities.” Mississippi. An Anthropocene River, a two-year long investigation that is taking the form of transdisciplinary research projects, international convenings, and an online curriculum, studies this river as a “catchment for ecological, industrial and social realities—both historical and current” and as a zone of longstanding interaction between humans and the environment. This project includes five Field Stations—clusters of scholars and artists from the headwaters to the delta whose projects explore the anthropogenic landscape through a variety of experimental methods. Anthropocene River Campus: The Human Delta (November 9-16, 2019 at Tulane University) is the week-long culmination of this two-year study and welcomes a confluence of local, upstream, and international perspectives for an exploration of our beloved and troubled river landscape.
When NOCGS agreed to host the culminating event, we did not know this year would bring the longest period of sustained flood stage river levels since 1927 and the third earliest hurricane on record, with Hurricane Barry arriving on July 13. The possibility of storm surge pushing water up the channel and overtopping river levees, or worse, forming a crevasse or breach, was real. Today, this “freshwater” is poisonous, a toxic stew of fertilizers from mono-agriculture along the river, carcinogenic materials from the row of refineries right outside New Orleans called “Cancer Alley,” and human and corporate waste flowing from settlements upriver. Our anthropogenic river embodies the ongoing ecological impact of colonization, slavery, industrialization, racism, and hypercapitalism, and here in New Orleans, life-changing effects of climate change no longer sound fantastical, but are the norm.
Hosting Anthropocene River Campus fits with our practice at NOCGS to create immersive, site-based learning experiences by bringing together curious practitioners from a variety of methodologies and perspectives. The event will bring 120 participants to New Orleans for plenary talks, seminars, and public programming. The week will include a keynote by the Anthropocene Working Group, an international group of scientists collaborating to conduct and compile stratigraphic research for the purpose of formalizing the term Anthropocene as a new geological era, as well as reports presented by members of the five upriver Field Stations, and six seminars exploring themes that play out along the river on macro and micro scales, such as “Commodity Flows” and “Un/Bounded Engineering and Evolutionary Stability.”
As with our other projects of this scope, NOCGS serves as a portal between Tulane University and beyond. Several Tulane faculty are participating, including environmental historian Andy Horowitz and ByWater Institute environmental scientist Amy Lesen, both whom introduced us to HKW, as well as Dorothy Cheruiyot, a biologist who studies the impact of water management on plant and animal life, and Amalia Leguizamón, a Latin Americanist who is beginning comparative research in the Gulf South. Several graduate students are engaged, too.
Weeks after my upriver visit, NOCGS faced the dilemma to cancel a long-anticipated National Endowment for the Humanities program because of threats of the river flooding during Hurricane Barry. Having witnessed the sheer volume of water being controlled upriver, I understood that much more—through all my senses—the catastrophic possibility of the river levees failing. Will the river overtake what we’ve concretized before we shift our relationship to it? What will it take to prepare New Orleans infrastructurally for sea level change? To face these questions, we need spaces for collective contemplation, knowledge production, and play! These are the kinds of gatherings we aim to co-create at the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South in order to consider our surroundings and future.
The New Orleans Center for the Gulf South at Tulane University (NOCGS) instigates and supports visionary research, teaching, and public programming at the intersection of culture and ecology. All of our programming is based on a belief—and portable mindset—that the more we understand where we are, the more fully we can engage in our democracy and collective destiny. tulane.edu/NOCGS