The start of the interview is featured below. For the complete conversation, please visit the CENHS blog.
Kevin MacDonnell: The Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) is made up of a couple of dozen scholars from across the natural and human sciences, ranging from atmospheric chemists to geologists to historians like yourself. What do you think led the AWG to seek out an interdisciplinary collective? The work of identifying a so-called ‘golden spike’ could presumably be carried out by a team of geologists or paleobiologists, yet the AWG is nonetheless a mixed bag of scholars from numerous fields. Why do you think that is?
J. R. McNeill: I have never been consulted about who should be invited to take part and it has never been clear to me how it is one is chosen. In my own case, the chair of the AWG (Jan Zalaciewicz) asked me personally to join, but I did not ask him why he did so. It happened after we met at a conference some years ago. And he was aware I had co-authored some pieces with Crutzen. Whether he consulted anyone before asking me to join, I do not know. I am aware only of the following: the core of the group are stratigraphers and geologists, mainly from Britain. By the time I joined, it already included a handful of archeologists, soil scientists, and even one lawyer. No other social scientists so far as I know, but I could easily be wrong (I haven’t bothered charting the evolution of the membership). Not too long after I joined, another historian (Naomi Oreskes) also joined. At some point the AWG leadership decided to seek out members from Latin America, Africa, and Asia, and to seek out women who might join. That expanded the membership a fair bit, although I couldn’t tell you by how much. And then, it could be said, there are members and there are members. Some of them never take part in the email discussions; some are commenting on every issue that comes up. The center of gravity of the group, however, is firmly in Britain and in stratigraphy/geology.