Welcoming a new geologic epoch

Posted on Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Head of a rhinoceros — without its horn — is mounted to a wall.

A taxidermist prepares this mount of a rhino’s head (without its horn) for a hunter from Russia. Photo: Laura Shine.

By Linda Scales

More tigers live in captivity in the southwestern United States than remain in the wild globally, says Professor David Jaclin of the School of Sociological and Anthropological Studies. This startling fact about tigers, which number fewer than 4,000 in the wild, reflects the pressure they are under from poaching, habitat loss and environmental degradation. How we combat threats to tigers “is the exact same challenge we have of protecting any life form that comes into close contact with humans,” Jaclin says.

And he should know. Jaclin is an anthropologist specializing in human-animal interaction who, in 2014, started HAL (short for HumAnimaLab). The bilingual cross-disciplinary research group funded by the Faculty of Social Sciences attracts students and professors from across the University. HAL aims “to map contemporary human/animal relationships and inquire about wildlife trafficking and green criminology,” says the group’s website.

“In this lab, we’re interested in all life forms and all forms of life,” Jaclin adds.

Bring on the Anthropocene epoch

The group is trying to get a better picture of the Anthropocene — anthropos meaning “human” and cene “new” — epoch, Jaclin says.  This proposed new geological epoch, characterized by humanity’s impact on the Earth and its ecosystems, would end the Holocene epoch, which began almost 12,000 years ago. “For that we need the contribution of many colleagues,” he says. “Everyone has a different point of view about what is happening today, but everyone agrees that the world is changing at an unprecedented pace.”

 one sitting is wearing a knitted cap, one in the rear is holding a boom microphone and one is operating a camera on a tripod.

Professor David Jaclin interviews a trophy hunter during recent field research in South Africa. Photo: Laura Shine

“It’s geologists who are bringing in this new epoch,” Jaclin says. “They’re the ones saying, ‘When we look at the Earth today, we see concrete, aluminum, even traces of radioactivity, everywhere.’ The face of the planet has changed and they acknowledge this by calling the new epoch the Anthropocene.”

Anthropologists, who have intensely reflected on the term anthropos for centuries, are “interested in people, cultures and everything that renders them alive, including non-humans, of course,” says Jaclin. In this respect, social scientists have a big role to play in better understanding the new epoch and the changing world, and finding solutions to its many challenges. “But we can’t play this role alone.”

Lab only part of the picture

At its core, HAL is an open lab that engages students and professors from anthropology, physics, international development, communications and law, among other disciplines. It is connected to a network of like-minded people across the world, sharing information and solutions. On campus, the lab meets as a reading group every Tuesday afternoon during the school year, to develop projects and exchange points of view. They also hear from guest lecturers once a month.

“The lab is meant to help a bigger project,” says Jaclin, referring to his 10-year research study that involves mapping a number of notable places. “They all face huge challenges in terms of conservation and exploitation,” such as poaching and animal trafficking and other human-nature conflicts.

“My goal is to provide a better sense of transformations occurring in iconic natural spaces such as the mythical South African bush or the Great Canadian North. In mapping out both challenges and proposed solutions — and, sometimes, absence of solutions — offered by different people facing the same kinds of struggles, I look at the invention of both a new world of solutions and solutions for a new world. So, in the end, it will be very practical.

“The lab is a vehicle for thinking about those challenges,” Jaclin says.

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