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How do we think about population in the Anthropocene?

1 December 2021
5.00pm – 6.15pm AEDT
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Join us for the keynote address for the Australian Historical Association 2021 Conference, Unfinished Business by Professor Alison Bashford, Laureate Professor of History at UNSW Sydney.

How do we think about population in the Anthropocene?

In this lecture, I explore first how modern (post c. 1780) population changes have entered discussion on the Anthropocene. Second, I ask how historians specifically, might (not should) begin to answer this question, with attention both to accelerating global net population growth and local population decline, caused amongst other dynamics by the fertility, mortality, and migration impacts of colonisation.

I consider the ‘Anthropocene’ (not, say, ‘climate change’), since the former is an historical as well as a geological phenomenon, and, it turns out, a familiar one. In one version, the parameters of the Anthropocene are simply what historians have long called ‘the modern period’ or (importantly) ‘industrialisation’. Looked at this way, the Anthropocene was core business for historians long before it was named by atmospheric chemists: our own unfinished business.

This was a field of historical work in which demographic change was centre stage analytically speaking, including the relationship between energy transitions to fossil fuels and population growth. If this is one common origin point for both ‘the Anthropocene’ and the work of historians of ‘the modern world’, what happened to analysis of population?

Chaired by Professor Timothy O’Leary. Hosted by UNSW Sydney and the State Library of NSW.

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Professor Alison Bashford


Alison Bashford is Laureate Professor of History UNSW Sydney, and Director of the Laureate Centre for History & Population. Previously she was Vere Harmsworth Professor of Imperial History at the University of Cambridge. She is author of Global Population (Columbia, 2014) and The New Worlds of Thomas Robert Malthus with Joyce E. Chaplin (Princeton, 2016). Forthcoming are: New Earth Histories (co-edited with Emily Kern and Adam Bobbette, Chicago, 2022), and An Intimate History of Evolution (Penguin Random House/Chicago, 2022).

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Professor Timothy O’Leary


Timothy O’Leary is a philosopher who has worked and studied in Ireland, Paris, Hong Kong, and Australia. His research is in the area of contemporary European philosophy, in particular the work of Michel Foucault.

In his position as Head of the School of Humanities & Languages at UNSW, he is particularly keen to promote the critical role of the study of humanities and languages in our contemporary world of splintered politics, structural racism and inequality, and a global environmental crisis. He is a UNSW Diversity Champion for Gender; and an LGBTIQ+ ALLY.