Annette Gough


 The term ‘Anthropocene’ was coined in 2000 by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer to denote the present time interval as a new epoch of geological time dominated by human impact on the Earth. The starting date for the epoch is contentious – around the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (c1800 CE), at the start of the nuclear age, or some other time, both earlier or later than these dates. The term itself is also contentious because of its humanist and human supremacy focus, and the way it hides troublesome differences between humans (including gender and cultural differences), and the intimate relationships between technology, humans, and other animals. Endeavours such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals aim to achieve gender equality by empowering women to participate in society. However, within this goal is the assumption that women and ‘other marginalised Others’ can be assimilated within the dominant social paradigm rather than questioning the assumptions that maintain the subordination of these social groups. The goals also overlook the divergent impacts on women around the globe.

Education in an Anthropocene context necessitates a different pedagogy that provides opportunities for learning to live in and engage with the world and which acknowledges that we live in a more-than-human world. It also requires learners to critique the Anthropocene as a concept, and its associated themes, in order to counter the humanist perspective that fails to consider how the nonhuman and material worlds co-shape our mutual worlds. In particular, education in the Anthropocene will need to be interdisciplinary/transdisciplinary/ cross-disciplinary, intersectional, ecofeminist/posthumanist, indigenous, and participatory.


Educational Politics and Policy; Anthropocene; Sustainable Development Goals; Education and Society; Ecologising Education; Education, Gender, and Sexualities


Up until the early 2000s geologists classified the current geological period as the Holocene epoch (Lewis & Maslin, 2015). However, in 2000, Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer proposed that the epoch should be called the Anthropocene because humans are now exerting so much influence over planetary processes. This caused much discussion in the scientific community (Monastersky, 2015a, 2015b). Nevertheless, the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) of the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) was formed in 2008, and in 2019 the panel moved to finalise this re-naming by submitting a formal proposal for the new name to the International Commission on Stratigraphy in 2021 (AWG, 2019; Subramanian, 2019). Nevertheless, there is still much indecision about when the Anthropocene started, if it exists, and whether it is an appropriate name. The Anthropocene is also contentious because of its humanist and human supremacy focus, and the way it hides troublesome differences between humans (including gender and cultural differences), and the intimate relationships between technology, humans, and other animals. Does the Anthropoceneend “the concept nature: a stable, nonhuman background to (human) history” (Morton, 2014, p. 258), or “is nature no longer separable from culture in this age of the Anthropocene” (Åsberg , 2017, p. 198)? And what does this mean for education?

These aspects are discussed in the context of the role of education in the Anthropocene, or whatever the present and future period is called.

Tensions around the “Anthropocene”

Before formally proposing the Anthropocene as a new geological epoch the AWG needs to identify a definitive geological marker or Global boundary Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP).  Ideally this is a single site with physical evidence in the sedimentary records that represents the start of the epoch (Lewis & Maslin, 2015). However, even this is contentious, as some members of the AWG argued that the Anthropocene is time-transgressive, with multiple beginnings due to the progressive impacts of humans in the world since prehistoric agriculture, rather than having a single origin (Subramanian, 2019). Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin (2015), for example, discuss suggestions for the beginning of the Anthropocene, including the impact of fire, pre-industrial farming, sociometabolism, the meeting of Old and New World human populations, industrial technologies, and the atomic age. They conclude that there is currently not enough evidence to formally ratify a new Anthropocene epoch, but that “More widespread recognition that human actions are driving far-reaching changes to the life-supporting infrastructure of Earth may well have increasing philosophical, social, economic and political implications over the coming decades” (p.178).

Some scientists see the Anthropocene as a reassertion of human dominion over the Earth: “If the Anthropocene is the epoch in which ‘the human’ itself has become a force of nature, then it only marks the full realization of what it has always implicitly been…. The practical consequence of these theories is the model of stewardship: their power nominates humans as guardians of the earth” (Bajohr, 2019, n.p.). In this vein, Crutzen and Schwägerl (2011) write of “steer[ing] nature’s course symbiotically instead of enslaving the formerly natural world” in a form of technological fix. Similarly,  Bruno Latour (2014) believes that the Anthropocene is an era of negotiation where humans must engage with in a different kind of relationship with the rest of the members of our planet and acknowledge the need to leave behind ideas of human privilege.

While geologists and other scientists are still debating about the existence of the Anthropocene, the concept has been taken up enthusiastically in the humanities.  As Hannes Bajohr notes, (2019, n.p.), “its attraction lies in its omnicompetent radiance: not only a geochronological coinage, it implies an ontology, a theory of history, and an anthropology” perhaps exploding “the classic separation between the history of nature and that of mankind [sic]”. However, this enthusiasm is not necessarily supportive of the term. Indeed, the rise of the Anthropocene “has arisen at a most inconvenient moment” (Morton, 2014, p. 258) from a posthumanist position, such that Colebrook (2017, p. 6) writes, “the notion that there is no such thing as the human (either by way of our difference from animals or because of intrahuman differences in culture and history) must give way to a sense of the human as defined by destructive impact”. She then concludes,

One effect of the Anthropocene has been a new form of difference: it now makes sense to talk of humans as such, both because of the damage “we” cause and because of the myopia that allowed us to think of the world as so much matter or “standing reserve.” Humans are, now, different; and whatever the injustices and differences of history and colonization, “we” are now united in being threatened with nonexistence (pp. 7-8).

These notions of Anthropocene are stimulating discussions about what it is to be human and our relationships with non-humans. For example, Timothy Morton (2017) argues that our relationship with nonhumans decides the fate of our humanity, and humans need to develop a network of kindness and solidarity with nonhuman beings. Rosi Braidotti (2013, pp. 87-88) is troubled by the reassertion of humanism and what it hides

I am, however, seriously worried about the limitations of an uncritical reassertion of Humanism as the binding factor of this reactively assumed notion of a pan-human bond. I want to stress that the awareness of a new (negatively indexed) reconstruction of something we call humanity must not be allowed to flatten out or dismiss all the power differentials that are still enacted and operationalized through the axes of sexualization/racialization/naturalization, just as they are being reshuffled by the spinning machine of advanced, bio-genetic capitalism.

While most agree that we do need new ways of thinking our collective existence, the “Anthropocene” is seen by many as the wrong descriptor because it surreptitiously purveys a human supremacy complex and the assertion of anthropocentrism (as distinct from an ecocentric worldview).

Women troubling the Anthropocene

Some scientists argue that adopting the Anthropocene makes “man” the centre of the universe again, to the extent that “Man the taxonomic type” becomes “Man the brand” (Haraway, 1997, p. 74). And this “Universal ‘Man’ is implicitly assumed to be masculine, white, urbanized, speaking a standard language, heterosexually inscribed in a reproductive unit and a full citizen of a recognized polity” (Braidotti, 2013, p. 65). This anthropocentrism ignores the global and gendered, classed and national disparities in human impacts on the planet that actually exist. As Lara Stevens et al (2017, p. 2) argue, while Anthropocene “neatly evokes the contradiction between the human causes of environmental destruction and the human capacity to protect… the inherent social inequity of such drastic and rapid environmental change is not illuminated”. They are also concerned that “the idea of the Anthropocene might even imply that all humanity is equally responsible” (p. 2). This is echoed by Jill Schneiderman (2017, p. 184) who, among others, argues, “The Anthropocene does not acknowledge that some groups of human beings have had greater effects on the planet than others”.

Women have been trying to get recognition of the impact of environmental degradation on their lives and livelihood for decades. As Bella Abzug (1991, p.2) so clearly articulated in the lead up to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, “Women are half the world’s population, yet we have almost no say in the environment and development policies that affect us, the lives of our families and the survival of this planet”. Advocacy from groups such as WEDO (Women’s Environment and Development Organisation) resulted in women having their own chapter in Agenda 21, the outcomes document of the 1992 Earth Summit (United Nations, 1993). Gender equality has remained on the UN sustainability agenda ever since, including as Sustainable Development Goal 5 (United Nations, 2016). However, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (which came into force in 1994), did not include any gender aspects. This led to the strategic actions to draw attention to the impact of climate change on women around the 2012 COP18 meeting which produced the Gender Decision – “Promoting gender balance and improving the participation of women in UNFCCC negotiations and in the representation of Parties in bodies established pursuant to the Convention or the Kyoto Protocol” (UNFCCC, 2012) – and subsequently.  The impact of climate change on women is summarised by the Global Gender and Climate Alliance (2013):

  • Women in developing countries are particularly vulnerable to climate change because they are highly dependent on natural resources for their livelihood.
  • Women experience unequal access to resources and decision-making processes, with limited mobility in rural areas.
  • Women make between 30 and 80 per cent of what men earn annually.
  • 103 out of 140 countries surveyed by the World Bank impose legal differences on the basis of gender that may hinder women’s economic opportunities.
  • Women make up half of the agricultural workforce in the least developed countries.
  • In developing countries, they own between 10 and 20 per cent of the land.
  • Two thirds of the world’s illiterate adults are women.
  • Socio-economic norms can limit women from acquiring the information and skills necessary to escape or avoid hazards (e.g. swimming or climbing trees to escape rising water levels).
  • Dress codes imposed on women can restrict their mobility in times of disaster, as can their responsibility for small children who cannot swim or run.
  • A lack of sex disaggregated data in all sectors often leads to an underestimation of women’s roles and contributions, thus increasing gender-based vulnerability.

Women from the third world, such as Vandana Shiva (1989, 1991, 2005), have been particularly strong in the environment movement, and there are many other individuals and organisations (such as UN WomenWatch) that are trying to get women’s voices heard. Importantly, as Greta Gaard (2015, p.21) argues, the gendered environmental discourses which constructed them as individual “victims of environmental degradation in need of rescue” have shifted to now focus on “gender as a system structuring power relations” (p.22). This has been an important development in feminist responses to climate change.

While acknowledging that the term “Anthropocene” is contentious, here it is used for its capacity to do useful work as the term has been taken up within the humanities and by artists, social scientists and scientists (Bajohr, 2019; Grusin, 2017). It is also increasingly being referenced in the education field including arts education (e.g., jagodzinski, 2013; Wallin, 2017), environmental education (e.g., Greenwood, 2014; Malone, 2017; Malone & Trong, 2017; Taylor, 2017; The Crex Crex Collective, 2018; Thorne & Whitehouse, 2018), science education (de Freitas & Truman, 2020; Gilbert, 2015; Wagler, 2011), early childhood education (e.g., Nxumalo, 2018; Somerville & Powell, 2019), educational research (e.g., Charteris et al., 2018; Lloro-Bidart, 2015; Somerville, 2017), teacher education (e.g., Brennan, 2017),  and higher education (e.g., Carstens, 2016; Decuypere et al, 2019).

So what does the Anthropocene mean for education?

Changing roles for education

Education has a role to socialise people to live in societies, and educational institutions (as well as families, peers, the media, employers etc.) socialise individuals by passing on the social and cultural values and knowledge of the group, as a form of social reproduction. In many ways, society “wants to keep and continue itself by reproducing as it is” (Kurt, 2015, p. 224). From the time of the industrial revolution and the introduction of free, compulsory and non-religious education for all children, through acts of parliament in the 1870s in many countries (including England, Canada, Germany and Australia – but 1841 in France, and not until the early 1920s in the United States of America and 1986 in China), education has had a function of social reproduction. As Michael Apple (2004, p. vii) argues: “Educational institutions provide one of the major mechanisms through which power is maintained and challenged”. While education gives people access to jobs and a “better” life (and access to universal education remains as one of the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 (United Nations, 2016)), the knowledge and values implicit in the current  dominant education process remain contentious, and many critique the social reproduction role of education and how they go about achieving this. For example, bell hooks (1989) discusses the ways in which racism, sexism, and class exploitation work in the lives of black females and how they are dehumanised; Sandy Grande (2004) explores the intersection between dominant modes of critical educational theory and the socio-political landscape of American Indian education, and Antonia Darder and Rodolfo Torres (2013) discuss the link between educational practice and the larger socioeconomic and structural dimensions that shape Latinos’ lives.  Shirley Steinberg (2012), draws on cultural studies and extends our notions of cultural pedagogy to focus attention on the complex interactions of power, knowledge, identity, and politics and “the methods by which  cultural differences along the lines of race, class, gender, national origin, religion, and geographical place are  encoded in  consciousness and processed  by  individuals” (p. 233).

Educational institutions achieve social reproduction through controlling the ways people access economic and cultural resources and power: deciding “whose knowledge is ‘official’ and about who has the right to decide both what is to be taught and how teaching and learning are to be evaluated” (Apple, 2004, p. vii), and in the twentieth century this role was questioned by social reconstruction educators (Schiro, 2007) who saw society as unhealthy and that education can provide the means to reconstruct society. Some of the roots of social reconstructionism can be traced to John Dewey in Democracy and Education where he described education as “that reconstruction or reorganization of experience which adds to the meaning of experience, and which increases ability to direct the course of subsequent experience” (1916, p. 76). However, it was in the mid twentieth century with the growth of critical theory that social reconstructionism really connected with educators  and acknowledged the oppression of women in the dominant forms of education:

These forms of critical theory revolted against traditional ways of viewing and conceptualizing our world; against powerful (oppressive, exploitative, and/or dominant) social groups who made economic, cultural, and educational decisions affecting the lives of those less powerful; and against rationalist, Eurocentric cultural traditions that privileged those who were white, educated, rich, and male in comparison to those who were nonwhite, uneducated, poor, or female. They focused on the subjective and social construction of knowledge rather than on objective knowledge. (Schiro, 2007, p. 156)

Stephen Kemmis et al (1983) developed the notion of the “socially critical school” as a way of opening up possibilities for social change and reconstruction, along with improved or enhanced curriculum and schooling. This was very much consistent with critical theory and the views of Michael Apple (Ideology and Curriculum was first published in 1979). Within the socially critical school model knowledge is viewed as “constructed through social interaction and thus as historically, culturally, politically and economically located” (p. 11), and is linked to action and to emancipation, and social critique.

As discussed in the section on “Changing priorities in concern for the environment and society”, the field of environmental education, and subsequently (environmental) education for sustainability and education for sustainable development, was seen as being based around these concerns by several scholars (eg. Greenall Gough and Robottom, 1993; Huckle, 1991; UNESCO, 1980), arguing that it “should adopt a critical approach to encourage careful awareness of the various factors involved in the situation” (UNESCO, 1980, p. 27). As an example, Greenall Gough and Robottom (1993) provide a case study of how a school was adopting a socially critical curriculum and students were taking action for the environment.

Sadly, the flourishing of socially critical approaches to education were short lived, and with the rise of neo-conservative and neo-liberal agenda the revolution went backwards. In the almost two decades since Apple (2004, p. xii) wrote of some people’s desire to return to a supposed  Eden that was also “a politics of cultural control that marginalized the lives, dreams, and experiences of identifiable people”, society has continued to “return to shallow understandings of science [witness the climate change deniers], the search for technical solutions based on this (mis)understanding of science, a new managerialism that relies on the massiveness of the resurgent regime of “measuring anything that moves in classrooms,” the reduction of education to workplace skills and the culture of the powerful” (p. xii). This is, of course, the exact opposite of what is needed for education in the Anthropocene: “we now live on a bio-physically different planet than the one in which modern civilization developed and in which our common assumptions about education were formed” (Greenwood, 2014, p.281).

There are some exceptions to this desire for the maintenance of cultural capital and a return to Eden, and people who see education as having a role in preparing critical thinkers and agents of change. One example comes from David de Carvalho (2019, n.p.), the CEO of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), who you would almost expect to be a neo-conservative because of what his agency does, but who writes, of education serving “in ascending order, social, cultural and personal needs and values… [thus] paradoxically serv[ing] simultaneously the purposes of social and cultural continuity, and social and cultural change”.

More significantly, there have been some moves, particularly at an international political level, that recognise and advocate for a very different role for education – one that is directed at social reconstruction and transformation. This view is encapsulated in the Sustainable Development Goals (United Nations, 2016) but the origins, in an environmental context, can be traced to the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (United Nations, 1972) and the subsequent United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (United Nations, 1993), World Summit on Sustainable Development (United Nations, 2002), and the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (United Nations, 2012). These origins are important, as they mark the longstanding international concern about the impact of human activity on the state of the environment, and the increasing concern for gender, race, and class issues as the decades progressed.

Changing priorities in concern for the environment and society

The Declaration from the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm provides a vision and set of common principles focused on preserving and enhancing the human environment. The second paragraph of the Declaration highlights the importance of protecting and improving the human environment: “The protection and improvement of the human environment is a major issue which affects the well-being of peoples and economic development throughout the world. It is the urgent desire of the peoples of the whole world and the duty of all governments” (United Nations, 1972, p. 3).

The Common Vision in the outcomes document from the Rio+20 conference, The Future We Want (United Nations 2012), is grounded in a very different orientation. It opens with a commitment to ensuring “the promotion of an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable future for our planet and for present and future generations” (Paragraph 1, p. 1), and continues with a focus on mainstreaming sustainable development, “integrating economic, social and environmental aspects and recognizing their interlinkages, so as to achieve sustainable development in all its dimensions” (Paragraph 3, p. 2). which is a very different focus from the Stockholm Declaration’s concern for the protection and improvement of the human environment. Here, economic development is much more foregrounded.

Another change is in the prioritising of the human condition above that of the environment. The second paragraph of the Future We Want states, “Eradicating poverty is the greatest global challenge facing the world today and an indispensible requirement for sustainable development” (United Nations, 2012, p. 1). This is also the first Sustainable Development Goal (United Nations, 2016). Like the concerns of the Anthropocene, these Goals are very human-centred with the focus of the first five being human issues: eradicating poverty, removing hunger, human health and well-being, education for all, and achieving gender equality. It is not really until Goals 9, 11, 12, 14 and 15 that there are concerns about the state of the environment and reducing human impact on it through reducing resource consumption and protecting and conserving life in the water and on land. What these goals add to considerations of the Anthropocene is recognition of gender, age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status as human factors related to achieving sustainable development. However, these goals are not perfect. For example, UN Women (2012) called for a “new gender responsive global development framework”, explicitly positioning women as “agents of change, innovators and decision makers” (p. 11). Kate Wilkinson (2016, p. 558) reviews the Rio+20 outcomes document, The Future We Want (United Nations, 2012) and the Sustainable Development Goals, and concludes that they reaffirm a liberal understanding to gender equality because “there are still many barriers to full and equal participation by women in environmental issues” which are related to “those ideological and structural assumptions that inform the dominant social paradigm within the concept of sustainable development”. Wilkinson also points out that the analysis of green economy introduced in the outcomes document “maintains separation and distance between humanity and nonhuman nature” (p.16).

One response to this agenda being so human centred has been the development of concerns for the more-than-human (and posthumanism which recognises that there is no one unified cohesive “human”(Seaman, 2007)), as well as animal studies and “the green plant-human relationships that undergird human cultures as well as the darkly petroleum-fueled industrialization, mass species extinctions, and strange new ecosystems in the Anthropocene” (Sullivan, 2019, p. 152). To this Morton (2017) adds, that there is a need to negotiate the politics of humanity in order to reclaim the upper scales of ecological coexistence and resisting corporations who would rob humans of kinship with nonhuman beings. Donna Haraway (2018, p. 102) in many ways sums up these positions when she argues “There can be no environmental justice or ecological reworlding without multispecies environmental justice and that means nurturing and inventing enduring multispecies—human and nonhuman—kindreds”.

Others are not so hopeful. For Roy Scranton (2015) humanity’s task is “learning to die in the Anthropocene”, so “We need a new vision of who “we” are. We need a new humanism—a newly philosophical humanism, undergirded by renewed attention to the humanities.” (p. 19)

So, what are the implications of this for education in the Anthropocene?

Re-thinking education in/for the Anthropocene

Many educators have enthusiastically embraced the notion of the Anthropocene. For example, Jane Gilbert (2016, p. 188) sees the Anthropocene as possibly “the ‘crisis to end all crises’, the catalyst to provoke real change” in science education, and Reinhold Leinfelder (2013, p. 26) asserts, “The Anthropocene concept appears particularly useful also for educational purposes, since it uses metaphors, integrates disciplinary knowledge, promotes integrative thinking, and focuses on the long-term perspective and with it our responsibility for the future.” Others, however, argue that we need to interrogate the contested nature of the term itself and its political and cultural implications, “rather than unwaveringly accepting the ‘age of humans’” (Lloro-Bidart, 2015, p.132).


The concerns about human impact on the planet that underlie the naming of the Anthropocene have been around for some time – hence the convening of the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, and subsequent conferences. And there has been an environmental education movement since the late 1960s, albeit mainly on the fringes of formal education in many places, even though it has been seen as serving “as a catalyst or common denominator in the renewal of contemporary education” (UNESCO, 1978, p. 20). Thus, perhaps the time for environmental education has finally arrived as the most suitable form of education for the Anthropocene.

One of the earliest international agreements on environmental education was the Belgrade Charter Framework for Environmental Education (UNESCO, 1975, pp. 1-2) where it states:

Millions of individuals will themselves need to adjust their own priorities and assume a ‘personal and individualised global ethic’ – and reflect in all of their behaviour a commitment to the improvement of the quality of the environment and of life for all the world’s people…

The reform of educational processes and systems is central to the building of this new development ethic and world economic order…

This new environmental education must be broad based and strongly related to the basic principles outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the New Economic Order.

A similar statement could be written about the needs for education in the Anthropocene. Indeed, Target 4.7 of Sustainable Development Goal 4 on Education calls on countries to

ensure that all learners are provided with the knowledge and skills to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development (United Nations, 2016, np).

Addressing the Anthropocene through education

Teresa Lloro-Bidart (2015, p. 133) identifies three overarching conceptual and/or practical shifts that need to be engaged in education in/for the Anthropocene:

  • interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity and cross disciplinarity;
  • community- and/or participatory-based approaches in the natural sciences; and
  • alternative modes of thought, including “mobile lives”, “post-carbon social theory”, Indigenous, ecofeminist/posthumanist and connectivity to oikos perspectives.

Many of these are part of (environmental) education for sustainability discussions, and have been for some time. Environmental education has always been thought of as being interdisciplinary: the word interdisciplinary is mentioned multiple times in the report from the 1977 UNESCO-UNEP Intergovernmental Conference on Environmental Education, for example, one of the guiding principles for environmental education is that it should “be interdisciplinary in its approach, drawing on the specific content of each discipline in making possible a holistic and balanced perspective” (UNESCO, 1978, p.27). Indeed, it is its interdisciplinary character that has made it difficult for environmental education to find a place in the school curriculum – is it a separate subject or a cross-disciplinary theme? (Gough, 1997).

Environmental education also has a participatory orientation: one of the five categories of objectives included in the Tbilisi Declaration was “Participation: to provide social groups and individuals with an opportunity to be actively involved at all levels in working toward resolution of environmental problems.” (UNESCO, 1978, p.27). For some this was a contentious aspect – while it is fine to be educated about and in the environment, acting for the environment, as in a socially reconstructionist or transformative approach to education, was not acceptable (Gough, 1997). Such concerns led David Greenwood (2014, p. 279) to question: “are schools relevant to the complex realities of a changing planet? Or, do they mainly serve an outdated vision of an industrial society that is turning rapidly into a complex mix of decline and transformation?” Education in the Anthropocene requires participatory approaches as people need to be learning to work together and live with climate change and the other environmental crises, as well as working across cultures and genders in addressing environmental issues.

Including alternative modes of thought is probably where the traditional conceptions of environmental education are extended. Although there has been encouragement for valuing Indigenous knowledge in environmental education for some time (e.g. Lowan-Trudeau, 2015; Shava, 2013; Simpson, 2002; Tuck et al, 2014), it is still not a common consideration. Similarly, the need for connections with non-human nature and the more-than-human that have been part of ecofeminist and posthumanist discourses for some time have not been widely taken up in environmental education (Bell & Russell, 2000; Fawcett, 2013; Gough and Whitehouse, 2003, 2018; Lloro-Bidart, 2017; Russell & Bell, 1996; Snaza et al, 2014). Rather, the emphasis in environmental education was more humanist – people know what is good for the environment and how to protect it. Such an approach can still be found in the UNESCO (2019) Framework for the Implementation of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) Beyond 2019 which, although recognising that “Climate change is a real and rapidly-evolving threat for humanity” (p.2) does not provide a great deal of guidance for dealing with this threat beyond “encourage learners to undertake transformative actions for sustainability” (Annex II, p. 4), but there are silences around connecting with non-human nature and the more-than-human.

An additional consideration for education in the Anthropocene is in addressing social and environmental justice. For example, Huey-li Li (2017) argues that “schooling should embrace and engage ecological and human vulnerability. In this way, education might better assume ethical responsibility for mitigating the ongoing ecological decline” (p. 435). She sees the vulnerability of communities as growing because of human activities. These vulnerabilities include increased poverty, increased violence (due to firearms and drugs as well as family violence), greater urban density, environmental degradation and climate change, all of which are included in the Sustainable Development Goals. Li argues that people need to be resilient to minimize or overcome their vulnerabilities. She then questions why schools ignores the “irrefutable glocal ecological devastation that renders students vulnerable” (p.442) and proposes ecologizing education as a solution. This dismisses the arbitrary distinction between natural and human-induced ecological disasters (because both render people vulnerable) and commences with an inclusive recognition of human embodiment in the biophysical environment and the coterminal coexistence of human and ecological vulnerability “in order to cultivate an active and responsive citizenry that is capable of and committed to promoting and implementing ecologically congenial cultural and social transformation” (p.450) and address the interrelated social and environmental issues.

Li is not alone in making these arguments. Richard Kahn (2008) has argued for ecopedagogy to bring about liberation for animals, nature, and the oppressed people of the earth. Rebecca Martusewicz et al (2014) envisage ecojustice education as working towards diverse, democratic and sustainable communities. Randy Haluza-DeLay (2013) also argues for educating for environmental justice and recognition that poor, racialized communities are disproportionately impacted by environmental degradation. More recently these concerns have been encompassed within intersectionality (see, for example, Lloro-Bidart & Finewood, 2018; Maina-Okori et al, 2018). An intersectional approach to education in/for the Anthropocene would enable consideration of social and environmental justice issues.

Such an approach has been elaborated by the authors in Lloro-Bidart and Banschbach  (2019). Constance Russell (2019), for example, how she implements “an intersectional approach to learning and teaching about humans and other animals in educational contexts”, which includes a social justice dimension. Joshua Russell (2019) argues for critical pedagogies that espouse feminist, posthumanist, queer, and Indigenous methodologies, decentre the traditional human/adult/Western perspective and emphasise the materiality and knowledges that emerge from careful attunement to place, nonhuman animals as agents, decolonizing Indigenous perspectives, and the perceptual worlds of children.

Thus, Education in the Anthropocene needs to be socially reconstructive and transformative – business as usual and social reproduction in a neo-liberal and neo-conservative agenda will not work as society and our environment has changed so much. Many of the elements of that education have surfaced previously – in interventions such as socially critical schools and environmental education – but we need these and more as we confront the future.

Gendered and global dimensions of educating in the Anthropocene

While an intersectional approach to education – that takes into account gender, age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic status is important in the Anthropocene, a gender based approach is particularly important because women are so impacted by the events that comprise much of what constitutes the Anthropocene (as discussed in the section on “Women troubling the Anthropocene”). The Global Gender Gap Report 2017 (World Economic Forum, 2017) benchmarked gender parity in 144 countries and came to the conclusion that, at present rates of social change, global gender equality was still over two hundred years away.  The United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative’s (2019) Situational Analysis of SDG 4 with a Gender Lens similarly found huge deficiencies in girls’ engagement with education and that gender equality is often underrepresented in ESD curricula. This is not a good sign for a humankind facing a planetary accounting in the next decade when the absence of gender parity is analysed as being largely responsible for the climate crisis. Sandra Harding (2015, p. 79) admonishes that:

The failure to address women’s issues directly in development contexts not only damages women’s chances for flourishing and for equality; it also renders it impossible to achieve the eradication of poverty and advance of other, noneconomic kinds of flourishing that supposedly have been the goals of development projects for more than six decades.

The concept of climate justice is gaining international traction through NGOs such as The Climate Reality Project and through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). At COP 23 in Bonn, Germany, November 2017, a Gender and Climate Change Gender Action Plan (GAP) was proposed noting that “a gender-responsive climate policy continues to require further strengthening in all activities concerning adaptation, mitigation and related means of implementation … as well as decision making on the implementation of climate policies” (UNFCCC 2017, p. 1). The GAP aims to increase the number of women who are active in climate decision-making, and train up policymakers on bringing gender equality into climate funding programs, and engage grassroots women’s organisations for local and global climate action. These actions are consistent with the targets and indicators of the Sustainable Development Goals (United Nations, 2016) and the associated education for sustainable development. Indeed, the Framework for the Implementation of Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) Beyond 2019 specifically mentions the vulnerability of women to hazards induced by climate change and their need for access to ESD:

ESD is an instrument to achieve all the SDGs, and each of the SDGs comes with specific gendered challenges. ESD takes on a cross-disciplinary and systemic approach that enables the question of gender equality to be linked to the various issues of sustainable development. There is, for example, a gendered facet of vulnerability to hazards induced by climate change. When disasters occur, more women die than men because social rules of conduct mean that, for example in the case of flooding, women often have not learned to swim, and have behavioural restrictions that limit their mobility in the face of risk. It should therefore become a priority to provide women with access to ESD. In this regard, ESD actively promotes gender equality, and creates conditions and strategies that empower women.  (Annex II, p. 3)

The marginalisation of women in environmental education research and practice has been noted for some time (e.g. Di Chiro, 1987; Gough 1999a, 1999b, 2013; Gough and Whitehouse 2003, 2018; Gray, 2018; Mitten et al., 2018; Piersol & Timmerman, 2018; Russell & Fawcett, 2013), but this is slowly changing, as it needs to if we are to address the crises confronting humanity in the Anthropocene. Bringing feminist perspectives into education in/for the Anthropocene is to recognise the complexity of human roles and relationships with respect to environments, and that there are multiple subjectivities and multiple ways of knowing and interacting with environments which cannot be encapsulated within the notion of universalised subjects.  Different feminist approaches each have something unique to offer which could be particularly potent when taken together. The anticolonial methodologies that comes from Black, Chicana and Indigenous researchers, such as Dolores Calderon (2014) and Fikile Nxumalo and Stacia Cedillo (2017), provide interdisciplinary frameworks that can be used to examine the way multiple colonialisms (post, settler, internal, etc.) operate insidiously in educational contexts across the globe. Ecofeminist, posthumanist and intersectional researchers, such as Sutapa Chattopadhyay (2019), Gough and Whitehouse (2018, 2020), Lloro-Bidart (2018), Lloro-Bidart and Michael Finewood (2018), and Maina-Okori et al (2018), argue for the dismantling of nature-culture binaries, the disruption of anthropocentric views, new ways of encountering more-than-human worlds, and assertion of more political standpoints. These different perspectives and methodologies are concerned with the development of pedagogies that are sensitive to relationships between humans, non-human nature and the more-than-human which can help transform education in the Anthropocene for the better.


This article has focused on understandings of, and contestations around, the Anthropocene, the changing role of education in society and what education in the Anthropocene could include, particularly from multiple feminist approaches and perspectives because women are so affected by climate change and other environmental crises. Education in the Anthropocene needs to be very different from the education currently being practiced in schools – it necessitates a different pedagogy and a different curriculum. Are we ready?


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This is an earlier version of Gough, Annette. (forthcoming). “Education in the Anthropocene.” In Cris Mayo (Ed.), Oxford Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality in Education. New York: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780190264093.013.ORE_EDU-01391.R1 

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