Extinction Rebellion

Rupert Read

Reader in Philosophy, University of East Anglia

Article first published in the Conversation here: 

Not heard of the “Extinction Rebellion” before? Then you heard it here first. Because soon, everyone is going to have heard of it. The Extinction Rebellion is a non-violent direct action movement challenging inaction over dangerous climate change and the mass extinction of species which, ultimately, threatens our own species.

Saturday November 17 2018 is “Rebellion Day” – when people opposed to what they see as a government of “climate criminals” aim to gather together enough protesters to close down parts of the capital – by shutting down fossil-powered road traffic at key pinch-points in London.

I’m a Reader in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia and I have thrown myself headfirst into this movement. Our long-term aim is to create a situation where the government can no longer ignore the determination of an increasingly large number of people to shift the world from what appears to be a direct course towards climate calamity. Who knows, the government could even end up having to negotiate with the rebels.

As someone who is both a veteran of non-violent direct actions over the years and an academic seeking to make sense of these campaigns, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about what’s old and what’s new about the Extinction Rebellion. Here are my conclusions so far.

From world peace to climate justice

The Extinction Rebellion is rooted in longstanding traditions exemplified by the radical nuclear disarmament movement. The founders of the Extinction Rebellion have thought carefully about past precedents, and about what works and what doesn’t.

They’ve noted for instance that you don’t necessarily need active involvement from more than a tiny percentage of the population to win radical change, provided that you have a righteous cause that can elicit tacit backing from a much larger percentage.

The Extinction Rebellion is also quite different from its predecessors. True, the disarmament movement was about our very existence, but nuclear devastation was – and still is – only a risk. Extinction Rebellion’s aim is to prevent a devastation of our world that will come – and quite soon, unless we manage to do something unprecedented that will radically change our direction.

Climate activists often compare their struggle to victories from the past. But in my view comparisons which are often made – to Indian independence, the civil rights movement or the campaign for universal suffrage, for example – are over-optimistic, even fatuous. These historical movements were most often about oppressed classes of people rising up and empowering themselves, gaining access to what the privileged already had.

The Extinction Rebellion challenges oligarchy and neoliberal capitalism for their rank excess and the political class for its deep lack of seriousness. But the changes that will be needed to arrest the collapse of our climate and biodiversity are now so huge that this movement is concerned with changing our whole way of life. Changing our diet significantly. Changing our transport systems drastically. Changing the way our economies work to radically relocalise them. The list goes on.

This runs up against powerful vested interests – but also places considerable demands upon ordinary citizens, especially in “developed” countries such as the UK. It is therefore a much harder ask. This means that the chances of the Extinction Rebellion succeeding are relatively slim. But this doesn’t prove it’s a mistaken enterprise – on the contrary, it looks like our last chance.

Risking arrest is a small sacrifice when life itself is on the line. Andy Rain/EPA

From the lecture hall to the streets

This all leads into why I sat in the road blocking the entrance to Parliament Square on October 31, when the Extinction Rebellion was launched – and why I will be “manning the barricades” again on November 17. As a Quaker, I cherish the opening words of the famous Shaker hymn: Tis the gift to be simple. What does it mean to live simply at this moment in history? It means to do everything necessary so that others – most importantly our children (and their children) – can simply live. It isn’t enough to live a life of voluntary simplicity.

One needs also to take peaceful direct action to seek to stop the mega-machine of growth-obsessed corporate capitalism that is destroying our common future. That’s why it seems plain to me that we need peaceful rebellion now, so that we and countless other species don’t face devastation or indeed extinction.

The next line of that Shaker hymn goes: “Tis the gift to be free.” In our times, to be free means to not be bound by laws that are consigning our children to purgatory or worse. If one cares properly for one’s children, that must entail caring for their children, too. You don’t really care for your children if you damn their children. And that logic multiplies into the future indefinitely – we aren’t caring adequately for any generation if the generation to follow it is doomed.

As mammals whose primary calling is to care for our kids, it is therefore logical that an outright existential threat to their future, and to that of their children, must be resisted and rebelled against, no matter what the pitifully inadequate laws of our land say.

I’ve felt called upon to engage in conscientious civil disobedience before, at Faslane and Aldermaston against nuclear weapons and with EarthFirst in defence of the redwood foreststhreatened with destruction in the Pacific Northwest of the USA.

But the Extinction Rebellion seems to me the most compelling cause of them all. Unless we manage to do the near impossible, then after a period of a few decades at most there won’t be any other causes to engage with. It really now is as stark and as dark as that.

If you too feel the call, then I think you now know what to do


The Anthropocene: A different learning landscape for a different world

Lecture delivered at the Universitas Nusa Cendana in Kupang, Indonesia, on 10 October 2018, by Jan Visser, President, Learning Development Institute

Questions about who and what we are, where we come from, and where we are going have long fascinated human beings. They are perhaps the most profound questions we can ever ask. They are also questions to which we may never find definitive answers. This is exactly why they inspire both our art and science—our ways to come to grips with an only partially understood reality.

In art we express our deepest feelings and reflections on where we belong. In our scientific endeavor we seek to grasp where we stand amidst all that surrounds us. Earliest artistic expressions of this quest can be found in rock art that dates back tens of thousands of years. Science, as it evolved over thousands of years, has given us beautiful mathematical descriptions—such as Maxwell’s equations or Einstein’s field equations—to aid in contemplating our world.

It’s a pleasure to address an audience that understands physics. However, what I should like to discuss with you today surpasses the boundaries of our discipline. You may ask: Does physics have boundaries? I know—we physicists maintain that everything, even life itself, is ultimately physics. We can be forgiven to think that way as long as we look at the world from a reductionist point of view. However, we should not be forgiven if—despite the profound knowledge and deep insight we gather about the nature of things—we fail to recognize the larger picture of which things are part. Allow me to illustrate this with an example from my personal experience.

During the 1960s I had a strong interest in the question ‘What is life?’ The question was first brought into prominence, as a matter of serious scientific interest, in 1943 by Erwin Schrödinger, when he delivered a series of public lectures at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. A year later he published his thoughts in a book with that same title, while apologizing, eloquently, for deviating from the expectation that, as a scientist, one should “not…write on any topic of which…[one] is not a master.” He wanted to free himself of the obligation to stay within the norm while addressing this uncommon issue, trespassing in the domain of a different discipline.

This little book, of less than a hundred pages, had a profound, revolutionizing, impact, not in the least because it encouraged the participation of scientists from different disciplines in researching issues pertaining to the realm of the life sciences. Only a decade later the structure of DNA had been unraveled as—in a landmark publication in Nature—Watson and Crick suggested, based on X-ray crystallographic evidence gleaned from work by Franklin, that it should be double- helical. It motivated further work to be done to understand life from a molecular point of view. This, in turn, led to the development during the 1960s and beyond of a dynamic field of multidisciplinary research that brought biology, chemistry and physics together under one roof. Quantum biochemistry was born.

I was a young theoretical physicist at the time, inspired by the question originally raised by Schrödinger, and hopeful to reach greater wisdom and more profound insight in what life really is. I had the great privilege to be working in close proximity to some of the senior colleagues who were shaping the new field. It was fascinating. But did the study of molecular orbitals bring me any closer to a real understanding of life the way we, humans, experience it? Could we correctly assume that such work as my colleagues and I were involved in would eventually contribute to our knowledge of life itself? Few people I knew were troubled by that question. The one exception I am aware of was Christopher Longuet-Higgins, a theoretical chemist and a prominent as well as respected figure in the field.

I remember well reading, in the Spring of 1967, while working at the Technion in Haifa, Israel, a document written by Longuet-Higgins that, sadly, I have never been able to trace again. It is long ago now, but I believe that what I read was not an officially published paper, but rather something like an open letter to colleagues that went from hand to hand. It argued— convincingly to me—that our assumptions were naïve. The work we did would never reveal the fullness of life. I have occasionally asked colleagues from that same period if they recalled the article. The answer has always been ‘no.’ The paper must have been generally ignored; an accidental deviation from the norm by an otherwise brilliant scientist, one may have thought. I now read in the Wikipedia that in 1967, Longuet-Higgins “made a major change in his career,” turning his attention to the brain and artificial intelligence rather than the quantum chemistry of life. In retrospect I note that I made a similarly crucial move a year later.

My brief autobiographic interlude above, presented in the context of developments that took place over a couple of decades in one particular multidisciplinary branch of science, shows that important benefit can be derived from the collaboration between researchers from different disciplines who work on dissimilar aspects of a given problem, each from the perspective of their own discipline. While that is the case, not everyone is happy. Surely, we understand things more fully, but greater depth of understanding can be achieved. In fact, greater depth of understanding must be achieved for humanity to interact constructively with the ever more convoluted problem situations of our time.

Allow me to explain.

As we have seen, sharply enhanced insights into the riddle of life were obtained. We understand life much better.

However, our understanding of life is still restricted by what the methods and procedures that define our science allow us to explore. We have to step outside the boundaries of our discipline if we want to consider issues such as ‘the value of life’ or Albert Schweitzer’s ethical principle of ‘reverence for life.’ And it’s often exactly such considerations that matter most when it comes to confronting the vexing problems of our time. So, where do we really stand within the grand scheme of evolution of the universe and life on planet Earth?


The composite graphic shown above locates us in space-time. It may help us feel both happy and humble. Our conscious existence now is the result of evolutionary processes over billions of years on the crust of an ordinary planetary satellite, of an ordinary star, located in some insignificant corner of one particular galaxy among the more than 100 billion (1011) that are known to exist. It is unlikely that no other similarly (or more) complex life forms could have emerged elsewhere in the universe. Regarding the amazing fact of our own conscious existence on planet Earth, which for each of us lasts no longer than a brief period that can best be expressed in tens of years, we should consider that it required 13.82 billion years of evolution, starting with a singularity that we call the Big Bang, for us to appear. As said, it should make us feel happy, because we have this brief opportunity to consciously participate in the ongoing evolution. It should also make us feel humble, because it is so infinitesimally short.

In what I so far discussed, I have deliberately added the adjective ‘conscious’ to words such as existence and its derivatives. I have done so for a reason. We are not separate from nature. We are nature. As we see nature evolve we should also see us—the species ‘Homo sapiens’—co-evolve with everything else that evolves. According to the most recent findings, our species emerged, from earlier hominids, such as Homo heidelbergensis, more than 300,000 (3 x 105) years ago.

That’s of course an ephemeral event when looked upon against the backdrop of the 1.382 x 1010 years of evolution since the Big Bang. Yet, our impact has been enormous, particularly due to the agricultural revolution (dating back to circa 10,000 BCE) and more specifically since the industrial revolution (starting during the 18th century CE). Both developments have benefited us in the short run (short in evolutionary terms), but consequences may be disastrous from the longer-term perspective of human existence on earth.

What are some of those short-term benefits and long-term adverse consequences? Here are some examples. The list is far from exhaustive.

It is thanks to the agricultural revolution that members of our species could liberate time for doing other things than satisfying their basic needs to survive. Food could be produced in much greater quantities than what could have been obtained through hunting and gathering. After food storage technologies were invented, humans managed to cope with the stresses of food shortages over long periods of time. Freeing up time was an important precondition for cultural development. We owe to it the beauty of music, literature, the graphic and plastic arts, and the marvelous science-based insights into our world and ourselves.

The industrial revolution and the current technological revolution have further contributed to freeing up even more time and to changing conditions that determine how we live together. Without the latter revolution, the emancipation of women might not have happened to the extent that it has been successful so far. It has also made life much easier for most of us.

On the downside it should be noted that, as a consequence of the agricultural revolution, the human population on Earth ceased to be naturally kept in check in ways similar to what happens in the case of other animals. Moreover, agriculture, industrial practices and the possibilities offered through technological development, have led to attitudes of ‘taking it all.’ It is felt that everything we can do, we also must do. Consequently, we have increasingly started living in ways that are unhealthy for both our bodies and the environment.

Commercial interests promote a generalized sense that we should feel happy about the replacement of our physical and mental faculties by machines. As a result, many of us have foregone the pleasure of living in harmony with nature as determined by our biologically evolved features. ‘Assisted living by default’ has become the norm.

A much more elaborate and comprehensive analysis of benefits and adverse consequences of what we have done to our living conditions and ourselves would be justified if time were available to present it as part of this brief talk. But I hope you get the point.

Our actions since 12,000 years ago, but particularly and increasingly during the last two to three centuries, have made us our own enemies. In the face of extreme meteorological events and changing temperature patterns around the world we are being told that we must ‘fight climate change.’ Yes, me must, but, as I see it, the fight is in the first place against ourselves and our disastrous habits. Particularly, we must come to grips with our superior intelligence. It’s a great gift, but we seem to have seriously lagged behind in emotional development. A profound change in our entire ‘way of being in the world’ is imperative to guarantee that we can survive as a species under the conditions we have ourselves so carelessly made to evolve.

The title of my intervention mentions the term ‘Anthropocene.’ For those who are unfamiliar with it, here is a brief update. In Greek, the word ‘ἄνθρωπος’ (anthropos) stands for ‘man’ in the sense of ‘human being,’ including male and female members of our species. In May 2000, Paul Crutzen, an atmospheric chemist and 1995 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, and the biologist Eugene Stoermer proposed the term ‘Anthropocene’—the era of man—to refer to the epoch in the history of our planet when humans started to have a significant impact on the Earth’s geological and ecological systems. They emphasized that “to develop a world-wide accepted strategy leading to sustainability of ecosystems against human induced stresses will be one of the great future tasks of mankind, requiring intensive research efforts and wise application of the knowledge thus acquired…” (p. 18).

Of course, it’s just a word, but its increased use in our daily conversations may hopefully keep reminding us that we live in a different world. It is a world in which there is a real threat that our species, the humans, will disappear and many other species with it. It is not impossible that we will see first signs that we are, irreversibly, on the way out in our lifetime or that of our children or grandchildren. The impending possibility of a Sixth Mass Extinction is being noted increasingly in the scientific literature. Our species may well be among those that go extinct.

Being reminded of the vulnerability of our species may sound like a call to pessimism, but it isn’t. The prospect of species extinction has always been there, and there is no reason why Homo sapiens would be excluded. But note that the past five extinctions have all occurred due to non-human causes, often a combination of different factors. The last one took place 65.5 million years ago. As long as there is still time, we should consider reversing the current trend.

We live in a world that is strikingly different from where we started, tens of thousands of years ago, when members of our species kept themselves alive through hunting and by gathering whatever they could find that was edible. Their (ecological) footprint was small and so was their number. We have now populated the Earth to an extent to which, when we see other animals do so, we find it is time to cull the population. I am not advocating any such deliberate violent means to control the size of the world’s human population. Yet, I should like to merely point to the fact that we have acquired knowledge about sexual reproduction and developed medical and technological innovations that allow us to regulate growth of the world population.

Not only the sheer size of our population, but also the ways in which we live (particularly by standards of the Western world), have dramatically increased our footprint on this planet. To change all that, new ways of being in the world, new ways of interacting with it, new ways of thinking within and about it, and thus new ways of learning must be invented and implemented. Not doing so will seriously threaten our sustained existence and dramatically change the biosphere or extinguish life on Earth altogether. Action at the individual, community, national/societal, and global level is needed to avoid this from happening.

Earlier, I referred to consciousness as an important attribute that characterizes our existence. We exist consciously. More than any other participant in the process of planetary evolution, we have an enhanced ability to be aware, cognitively and emotionally, of what we are doing; to foresee likely consequences; to learn from what we have seen happening in the past; to think about it; to imagine alternative scenario’s; and to correct our behavior while inventing new futures.

Not thinking deeply enough has allowed us to screw up the world. Going to greater depth in our thinking should allow us to fix the world as long as there is time left for things to be fixed. We should feel hard pressed. Periods as short as three years may already count.

It is precisely these ‘enhanced abilities’ of humans I just referred to that allow us to interact constructively with a changing world—a changing world to whose change we contribute ourselves, collectively and individually.

The highlighted words are important and I shall explain why.

There are certain concepts about which people usually don’t ask questions. The question ‘What is life?’ with which I started my intervention was such a question until it was raised by Schrödinger in 1943. We all knew we were alive and how it felt to be alive, but what exactly it was, well, that would have been hard to explain. Thanks to research since 1943 we now know a little better, but still don’t fully understand.

In addition to physics, an important—if not my most important—mission in life has been devoted to the development of human learning, of helping people to learn. Doing so is the task of teachers as well as parents, but, if you think about it, we are all continually playing a role in helping other people learn while, at the same time, we ourselves learn our entire life. But what is learning?

Just like the ‘What is life?’ question, also the ‘What is learning?’ question is seldom asked. It seems unnecessary. It is taken for granted that everyone knows what it means. Besides, if the question was asked, most people would find it difficult to come up with a concise and satisfying answer. Try it out at a party and you’ll see.

Should you ask the average person, you would probably get an answer like: “Well, why would you ask a silly question. Isn’t that what we all do in school? Don’t you know that.” When asked of a professional who studies learning or is involved in designing and creating the conditions for learning, the likely answer would be that it is about acquiring knowledge and skills. But is that all? Is that really what matters most, or is it simply what matters to those who teach or who administer education?

The question has long been on my mind, until I thought: ‘Let me find out.’ Starting in the year 2000 and continuing for several years, I used every appropriate opportunity to ask people some simple questions: ‘What is the most meaningful thing your learned in life?’ ‘Why do you consider it meaningful?’ ‘What prompted it and in what circumstances did it happen?’

Colleagues joined me and together we collected and analyzed over the years hundreds of so-called ‘learning stories’ that respondents had written down, expressed in drawings or poetry, or delivered orally to be recorded by the researcher. The stories were collected at different places around the world. They represented a diverse spectrum of people, including well-established academics as well as illiterate farmers living in the Andean mountains in South America.

Analysis showed that hardly any of the reported meaningful learning experiences had anything to do with what happened in schools and other formal learning environments. The most profound, most transformative, learning occurred in informal settings. That is a good thing. Transformative learning is a key condition for sustained human existence in the Anthropocene. It is therefore also a good thing that we spend most of our time in diverse informal learning environments. Yet, educators, education experts, administrators, and policy and decision makers hardly ever think about or recognize the importance of informal settings. Considering the challenges posed by the Anthropocene it is imperative that this should change.

But I digress, and do so intentionally, because the issue is so important that I can’t help bringing it up time and again.

Now, let me return to the research I was referring to. The results of it, in combination with what I had learned from my prior experience as an educator and developer of learning systems, compelled me to rethink the meaning of learning, redefine it, and figure out why it is so difficult to change people’s perceptions about it. This led to a definition of learning which highlights the following four things:

  • Getting better at constructive interaction with change is the essence of what it means to learn
  • Learning is a lifelong disposition rather than something one engages in only from time to time
  • The disposition referred to in the previous item does not only apply to individual people. Social entities (such as families, organizations, corporations, ) also learn and thus get better at interacting with change
  • Learning results from dialogue. It should be noted that we develop such dialogue along the lifespan with the human, social, biological and physical environment that surrounds us.

As said—and I repeat it here for enhanced emphasis—there is, as we face the challenges of the Anthropocene, an urgent need to indeed get better at how we interact constructively with a changing world. And, please, be aware that we contribute ourselves to that change. We thus must learn in the sense of my enhanced definition of learning. It requires that we all broaden our vision of learning, giving it a much richer meaning. This is as such a tremendous task. Changing one’s perceptions about such things as learning is difficult and may take a long time. It may even take generations, but it must be done, however difficult it may be.

A key issue regarding life in the Anthropocene is that we must be fully aware of its complexity and thus be capable of dealing with complexity. Life is not complex simply because it is complicated or difficult. Surely, it is also complicated and difficult, but the more important issue is that the essential problems of life in the Anthropocene cannot be addressed in isolation from their context. Any attempted ‘solution’ of a problem in isolation will change the context of which the problem is part and thereby redefine the problem, often making the situation worse. Solutions to complex problems come from complex approaches in which all actors (human as well as non-human actors) participate. Such solutions recognize that complex systems are adaptive and can be made to adjust under the influence of, generally, gentle forces. Such forces are equally applied in a complex manner in which actors work together in harmony. On the part of human actors this means that humans must be capable of complex thinking, an issue that is well addressed in the work of Edgar Morin.

Let me conclude. I started off by referring to questions that are at the origin of humanity’s intellectual and spiritual development. They express all at once awe, fear, veneration, respect for the unknown, and recognition of ignorance. We marvel and tremble as we look into the void of not knowing. When asked, such questions can only be answered partially. The partial answers obtained reveal more ignorance at ever higher levels. It is the recognition of such ignorance that fuels our curiosity and that drives us forward.

We have long thought of ourselves as separate from the world, a message that one finds embedded quite strongly in some of the major world religions that situate humans between God and nature, giving humans the divine responsibility to care for the world and all that it contains while transforming the world to serve humans’ best interests. Humans are not seen as part of the world but rather as the apex of evolution, as the crown of the creation.

Everything else is in the service of humanity.

This worldview has made us feel dominant and has led to a sense of license to transform the world to our liking. After tens of thousands of years we have come full circle and look ourselves in the eye. Yes, we have transformed the world, our home in the universe, but we are suddenly discovering that the way we changed it is now threatening our very existence. We are finally becoming aware of the complexity of a world to which we belong, of which we are an integral part, a world that we cannot escape.

This notion is poorly represented in how we currently think about human learning, what we do to create propitious conditions to facilitate learning. Recognizing our shortcomings, we should feel compelled to reimagine the entire learning landscape. In conclusion, therefore, I suggest a comparative, non-exhaustive, even minimalist, listing of necessary changes.

Accumulative vs. Transformative
Linear vs. Complex
Focused on acquiring skills and static change vs. Focused on process and dynamics of change
Aimed at transforming the world vs. Aimed at constructive interaction with the world
Mainly formal vs. Across formal, non-formal and informal
Documented in quantifiable terms vs. Documented in quantifiable and qualitative terms
Disciplinary silos vs. Integral knowledge and visions
Mono- and multidisciplinarity vs. Inter- and transdisciplinarity
One design fits all vs. Following a self-designed learning path
Curriculum driven vs. Flexible curricula or curriculum free
Acquisition-memorization-retrieval vs. Creative participatory involvement
Expository and didactic vs. Exploratory, discovery and inquiry based, participatory
Focus on single organ: The brain vs. Focus on organism as a whole, including the brain
Rational (part of the brain) vs. Rational and emotive (entire brain)
Knowledge and skills in isolation vs. Knowledge, skills, attitudes, values
Learning bounded in space and time vs. Learning without frontiers
Learning about nature vs. Learning in and from nature

Thank you.

Find version with extra pictures and footnotes here

Learning to Think Like a Planet

Kenneth McLeod,

Anthropocene Transitions Program, October 2018

The first draft of this paper was prepared as a talk for Social Ecology students and staff at Western Sydney University in July 2018. Their comments and suggestions from other colleagues since have informed several iterations and are gratefully acknowledged.

The Anthropocene – literally, the Age of Humans.

The term entered popular usage as the proposed designation of a new geological epoch generally held to date from the 1950s. But over recent years it has been widely adopted across the social sciences and humanities to signify a transition in human affairs in response to changes in the Earth System triggered by humankind. The Anthropocene Transition is about what we do collectively to reshape the most fundamental of our relationships which has become deeply dysfunctional – our place in the Earth’s precious web of life. Ultimately it is about what it means to be human in the 21st century and beyond.

There has never been anything like 7.6 billion humans on planet Earth. There has never been another species able to invade and occupy almost every ecological niche in the biosphere from the equator to the poles. There has never been another species able to force so many of its planetary cohabitants into an unequal contest for habitat and critical environmental resources as to trigger a 6th planetary extinction spasm. And there has never been a single species capable of disrupting the life support systems of the planet.

From the very earliest chapters of our story humans have altered their immediate environment. But now, for the first time in the evolution of human cultures, our impacts on the Earth System have become inter-connected, systemic, and global.

This is in part a function of our sheer weight of numbers and of the even greater numbers of the animals we breed for our use, currently estimated as 70 billion each year. It’s also a function of our ever more powerful technologies and the capacity they give us to exploit and manipulate the environment. But most significantly it’s a function of a globalised system of hyper-production and consumption that depends on continuous growth and an unceasing flow of raw materials to maintain its stability.

We are a species in swarming mode consuming our host, with a technological hubris largely unrestrained by ecological or ethical limitations, driven by a globalised economic ponzi scheme.

Hence, the Anthropocene — the age of humans.

Humankind a geological force

The term “Anthropocene” arose from the physical sciences. It denotes the end of the relatively benign and stable environmental conditions of the Holocene, the very brief, in geological terms, 11-12,000-year period since the end of the Palaeolithic Ice Age in which most human civilisations past and present emerged. Only in this land, now called Australia, does there exist a culture that stretches back with uninterrupted continuity beyond the last Ice Age.

While the name and starting date have been vigorously debated, usually because of the supposed implication of the term “anthropocene” that humanity as a whole is equally responsible for this rupture in the Earth’s history, the focus of the Earth sciences is, in the words of leading geologist Jan Zalaisiewicz, “planet-centred rather than human-centred”(1). Their concern has been to establish if a planetary state change is in fact underway and, if so, when it began. At this point the empirical evidence from all the relevant disciplines is overwhelming. We can now say with a high degree of certainty that we are witnessing the start of a new biophysical epoch, one likely to be characterised by systemic planetary disruption and instability.

The Earth can be seen as a single Complex Adaptive System – an integrated whole, a nested system of systems, all dynamically interacting and continuously forming new structures and patterns of relationships that cannot be readily isolated or predicted with any certainty. It is a system that has evolved to its present state of emergent, life-sustaining complexity over 4.5 billion years — a number functionally incomprehensible to our human consciousness.

While humans came very late in the history of the Earth System, human societies have always been an embedded part of it. But, as Soviet geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky wrote, with great prescience, in 1926, “man [sic] is becoming a mighty and ever-growing geological force”(2).

The Anthropocene Paradox

While it has been the physical sciences that have progressively revealed the scale and nature of the Anthropocene, we must not forget that this research is describing the symptoms and the bio-geo-chemical dynamics of these changes. It does not necessarily address their origins in the human-technology complex.

Because these symptoms are most easily seen in physical systems like the climate, the water cycle, the carbon cycle, the phosphorus and nitrogen cycles, biodiversity loss, habitat destruction, ocean acidification, etc, much policy debate and informed public awareness is focused on disruption of physical environments as problems we need to address.  And, indeed we do.

But, at least in the public domain, we talk as if each symptom is a discrete problem with its own answer – banning CFCs to solve atmospheric ozone depletion, renewable energy to solve climate change – and by addressing them separately we can ignore the dynamic interconnections and unpredictable knock-on effects with the potential to cascade across the whole Earth System. Thus, our political responses have generally been conceived within dubious notions of simple linear causality and framed in terms of technological innovation and hard-systems interventions like geo-engineering.

This encourages a very dangerous disconnect, a belief that the answers are “out there” in the hands of scientists and technocrats and politicians. But the changes we have triggered just in the lifetimes of the post-World War II generation will endure for thousands of years.

There is no going back. We must, as a species, learn to live with what we have created however discomforting this may be. This clash of our power to wrought planetary change with our inability to control what we have done is the great paradox of the Anthropocene.

Understanding the Earth as a whole

The concept of the Anthropocene has propagated, and in many ways mutated, through the humanities, social sciences and, increasingly, in the popular imagination (even if in fragmentary and sometimes incoherent ways). As Jan Zalaisiewicz says, “There are many Anthropocenes out there, used for different purposes along different lines of logic in different disciplines”(3).

The uses of Anthropocene as a concept in the humanities and social sciences entails, in the words of historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, “a constant conceptual traffic between Earth history and world history”, that is, between geological time and human time. “[I]f we do not take into account Earth-history processes that out-scale our very human sense of time”, Chakrabarty writes, “we do not quite see the depth of the predicament that confronts humans today”(4).

‘Anthropocene’ is a powerfully integrative concept. It draws together our thinking about specific aspects of Earth System disruption — like climate change or biodiversity loss or ocean acidification — to focus on their interdependencies. It illuminates the ways in which economic, social and cultural malignancies at the core of the dominant globalised mono-culture are triggering major shifts in the Earth System which in turn rebound on human systems and practices. By directing our attention to whole system dynamics, it encourages us to see the Earth as a single socio-ecological system of which human societies are dynamically interactive parts, conditioned by the whole. This is not a new idea. Buddhist scholars, for example, speak of the dependent co-arising of phenomena. But for the dominant Western culture it demands a reset of our reductionist worldview for the Anthropocene cannot be adequately understood through any single disciplinary lens. It requires a holistic knowledge synthesis that aims to transcend closed discipline-based modes of inquiry, driving a shift towards a transdisciplinary, Earth-centric epistemology.

Holism is an epistemic principle that emphasises the intrinsic coherence of complex systems and their emergent properties that cannot be understood from a knowledge of their parts. It implies that the system as a whole conditions in important ways how the parts behave, even while interactions between the parts determine the nature of the whole. As an approach to inquiry and learning, holism does not displace other modes of knowing but transcends them and opens the door to a more creative engagement with change in complex systems at all levels from the micro-organic to the planetary. Both scholars and activists must set aside their fragmented disciplinary and historically-bound world views to consider the implications of humans unsettling the entire Earth System.

A crisis of culture

The Anthropocene is a concept that challenges many of our most deep-rooted taken-for-granted cultural assumptions.

Throughout recorded history humanity has regarded the continuity of Nature as a given — the reliable if episodically capricious backdrop against which the glories and tragedies of the human story are enacted. Now that backdrop is shifting rather rapidly. In the face of increasingly radical discontinuity, we must achieve feats of rapid adaptation beyond anything in our evolutionary experience. This will be a challenge for many generations to come.  As science and technology scholar, Sheila Jasanoff, warns, it could take “decades, even centuries to accommodate to … a revolutionary reframing of human-nature relationships.”(5)

For this reason, in the Anthropocene Transitions Program at UTS we chose to use the term “Anthropocene Transition” to designate a dawning historical period of indeterminate duration characterised by widespread and erratic disruption of human systems interacting with unpredictable changes in the Earth System. We can confidently say it will be an era that will profoundly challenge humanity’s collective resilience and creativity. We can’t know where this period of transition will take us over the generations to come but we can be assured it will result in a fundamental reframing of what it means to be human and of our relationship to life on Earth.

Anthropocene Transition is a cultural term that encompasses the ways in which changes in the planet’s bio-geo-chemical dynamics, triggered by the human-technology complex, interact with that complex. It spans the geo-political, economic, social, and even the personal. Look around. The symptoms are already everywhere apparent. They include resource wars, increasing competition for shrinking productive lands and fresh water, the eruption of violent extremisms, economic instability, trade wars, huge disparities of wealth and power, rising food shortages coexisting with massive waste, an ever-increasing risk of pandemics, large-scale population movements and societal trauma, political polarisation, and pervasive demoralisation and despair. These are soft-systems issues – driven by cultural understandings, aspirations, behaviours and values.

Culture is a civilisation’s shared way of making sense of the world: what is real, what is knowable, and what has value. It conditions our ways of being, seeing, doing and imagining. It determines what we consider appropriate action in and on the world. It defines the taken-for-granted limits of the possible and the acceptable. As Swedish scholar Steven Hartman has written: “The great environmental predicament of the early 21st century is not primarily an ecological crisis, though its ramifications are far-reaching within ecological systems. Rather it is a crisis of culture.”(6)

In the final analysis the Anthropocene Transition may prove to be either the apotheosis or the dénouement of humanity’s cultural evolution.

Out-scaling politics

Most of the public debate about specific aspects of the Anthropocene, like climate change, takes for granted the need to maintain the economic, social and political status quo, even as that status quo unravels around us. Unfortunately, our political, commercial and educational institutions show themselves to be stubbornly wedded to “business-as-usual”.

One of the most entrenched business-as-usual orthodoxies is belief in the primacy of economics and the equivalence of progress and growth. As we approach and exceed key planetary thresholds the words of evolutionary economist and cofounder of general systems theory, Kenneth Boulding, resound with ever greater force: “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”(7)

Conventional thinking across the political spectrum from right to left sees politics as the principal vehicle for social change. But what does it mean when the issues we face lay well beyond the remit of politics as we know it? British social theorist Nigel Clarke expresses this conundrum when he observes that the Anthropocene “confronts the political with forces and events that have the capacity to undo the political.”(8)

“Political thought”, says historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, “has so far been human-centric, holding constant the ‘world’ outside of human concerns or treating its eruptions into the time of human history as intrusions from the ‘outside’. This ‘outside’ no longer exists.”(9)

Around the world under virtually every form of government we see political processes and institutions floundering, paralysed, deeply polarised, and frequently mired in denial in the face existential threats. While often diagnosed as a failure of political will or leadership, this hiatus more likely reflects forms of governance that evolved in and for a fundamentally different world. Thus, our institutions lack the capacity to deal with complex, long-term, planetary-scale processes. They are intrinsically maladapted for the Anthropocene. Again, we see the clash been human time embodied in the political process, and geological time that is shifting the very ground on which we stand. As Chakrabarty says:

“What does it mean to dwell, to be political, to pursue justice when we live out the everyday with awareness that what seems ‘slow’ in human and world-historical terms may indeed be ‘instantaneous’ on the scale of Earth history, that living in the Anthropocene means inhabiting these two presents at the same time? I cannot fully or even satisfactorily answer the question yet, but surely we cannot even begin to answer it if ‘the political’ keeps acting as an anxious prohibition on thinking of that which leaves us feeling ‘out-scaled’.”(10)

Let’s consider one example of this mismatch been our legacy institutions and the needs of this moment of existential danger and creative challenge.

Sovereignty is a foundational concept for our systems of governance, jurisprudence and international relations. But its expressions in the sovereignty of the nation state since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 and the sovereignty of the individual according to some readings of the United States Constitution of 1787 have become inimical to the viability of our own species and many others as well. A new conception of sovereignty vested in the Earth and asserting the pre-eminence of respect for all life and the integrity of the biosphere has become a necessity. Such a definition of Earth sovereignty as prior to and more fundamental than human agency would provide a basis on which to reframe all our doctrines of authority, justice and responsible governance.

A new imaginary

The Anthropocene Transition challenges us to explore new ways of imagining ourselves and our relationship to the planet and the other complex life forms we share it with. To recap, this new imaginary entails:

  • First, a move beyond a modular view of the Earth System as an aggregation of its component “spheres” to a more holistic and participatory view of our place in this complex, dynamic, tightly coupled, evolving system of systems;
  • Second, abandoning the underpinning conceit of the human-technology complex — that humans stand outside of nature with first claim on environmental resources. The nature/culture divide has been at the core of Western civilisation for centuries. It is no longer a tenable worldview and the sooner we recover more intimate and empathetic ways of being present to the Earth the greater our chances of a successful Anthropocene Transition. Enduring indigenous cultures have much to teach us about the interdependence of all life, and about respect and responsibility for our relationship with the Earth.
  • And third, a new sense of scale, both spatial and temporal that locates human experience within the Earth System and deep time. To grasp the full implications of this transformation of our Western worldview requires us to scale-up our imagination of the human. The fact that we have reached the numbers and invented the technologies that can impact the planet itself implies that we have unleashed forces of similar intensity to those that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. We have reached “a time when the geological and the planetary press in on our everyday consciousness.”(11) This not only requires us to stretch our social imaginations. It also has far-reaching ethical implications that call us to accept an expanded collective responsibility for the consequences of our cultural choices at planetary and geological (or deep time) scales for generations yet unborn and for non-human others.

Perhaps the place from which to face the uncertainty and the unknowable we will encounter in our journey through the Anthropocene Transition is from an agnostic viewpoint, not in a theological sense but as a commitment to approaching the experience of living as an open question. Certainly, at this point framing the right questions about what it means to be human in this radically different reality should be a priority.

Mitigation, adaptation, transformation

Learning to frame our thinking in whole planet, deep time scales doesn’t mean resiling from urgently seeking every possible way to mitigate human impacts on the biosphere – like rapidly reducing and then eliminating our dependence on fossil fuels and stemming the tsunami of toxic and intractable wastes overwhelming many terrestrial and ocean eco-systems, habitats, communities and even whole regions. But there is one vitally important caveat: In framing these interventions we must remember that all human knowledge is incomplete and thus provisional and our actions must be tempered by the precautionary principle lest we make bad situations even worse — which is the danger of attempts at large-scale techno-fixes like geo-engineering.

At the same time as mitigation we need to develop comprehensive adaptation strategies to deal with the accelerating disruptions that cannot be avoided or reversed in a human timescale. Our priority in this respect must be to strengthen the resilience of our social and ecological systems, that is, to build their capacity to absorb and even utilise disturbances. A resilient ecosystem, human community, economy or society can withstand unexpected shocks by reorganising itself to preserve its sustaining structure and functions. Adaptation strategies are particularly important for the most vulnerable communities, populations and social infrastructures, fragile eco-systems and endangered species which typically bear the brunt of environmental dislocation. Thus, eco-social resilience must be a core organising principle for the Anthropocene Transition. It establishes eco-systemic integrity as a fundamental design criterion for human technologies, economies, habitats and systems of governance.

Eco-social resilience focusses attention on the critical relationship between human systems and the eco-systems in which they are embedded and on whose vitality they ultimately depend. Within this context it values the preservation, enhancement, and ultimate unity of both social and “natural” capital and favours distributed networked technologies with localised capability and control instead of centralised, capital intensive systems, even those labelled “renewable” or “sustainable”.

But mitigation and adaptation are palliatives, necessary palliatives for sure, but palliatives nonetheless. In the longer-term humanity’s future will depend on our success in creatively transforming the soft systems – the human systems – that are driving the disruption of the Earth System. Thus, along with mitigation and adaptation, the third dimension to our response to the predicament we have created: the transformation of human social, economic and political systems and core cultural values to align with the life support systems of the planet.

We can already see the often catastrophic effects of environmental, geo-political, economic, social and institutional breakdown in many areas of the world — in the Middle East, wide areas of Africa, parts of Asia and Latin America, and indeed in several “developed” countries. History teaches us that when social and political institutions fracture and collapse all too often conflict, displacement, famine and disease follow. If the probability of systemic breakdown in the Anthropocene is high in many places around the world, surely the sensible thing to do is to build our capacity to respond creatively rather than reactively. This offers the best chance of ensuring that the sites of such collapse do not become the settings for societal and political polarisation and conflict or, in worst case scenarios, the next killing fields.

In his 2006 book, The Upside of Down, Canadian political scientist Thomas Homer Dixon, discussing the likelihood of varying degrees of breakdown, coined the term “catagenesis” to denote: “The creative renewal of our technologies, institutions and societies in the aftermath of breakdown.”(12) He argued that complex systems go through a continuous adaptive cycle that includes stages of growth, decreasing adaptability, breakdown and then renewal. It could even be said that breakdown is a necessary condition for renewal. Wouldn’t it make sense, Homer Dixon argued, to prepare now to seize the opportunities for renewal inherent in breakdown?

Upending centuries of cultural orthodoxy in the industrial world will involve a shift from the crippling conceit that we are the exception, standing outside and above nature, to a story of eco-mutuality – a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship that restores our place as a co-creative partner within the planet’s community of life. Eco-mutuality is a core relational principle that incorporates the principle of equity but extends it beyond the sphere of social relations to embrace our inter-dependence with all living creatures and the eco-systems of which they are an integral part. It transcends the essentially anthropocentric and utilitarian concept of sustainability to recognise the intrinsic value of all life forms within the socio-ecological wholeness of the Earth System.

The virtual habitat of human culture has become the primary vehicle of our continuing evolution. We are both the subject and author of our part in a bigger evolutionary story. Now, the Earth calls us to mobilise this consciousness to creatively refashion the medium of our own evolution by restoring values of eco-mutuality at the core of our shared human culture. This means we must learn to think like a planet.

Reaching beyond the limits of sustainability

For decades our principal response to the looming existential threats of our own making has been a grab bag of policies, processes, practices and products bearing the label “sustainable”. But “sustainability” as both a concept and a practice all too often falls short of the mark. As Christopher Wright, co-author of Climate Change, Capitalism, and Corporations: Processes of Creative Self-Destruction, suggests, many of the policies and practices of sustainability are really about being less un-sustainable. As such they fail the test of proportionality — valuable but inadequate in the context of the challenges of cultural renewal and systemic redesign we face in the Anthropocene Transition.

Sustainability is a contemporary story that inspires many deeply committed people to worthwhile action. But it is a story being steadily leeched of relevance. Even fossil fuel corporations and their political camp followers proclaim their own version of the sustainability narrative, apparently without a skerrick of irony.

Within the fair dinkum sustainability community there is a perennial tension between the relative merits of “weak” sustainability, which aims for a pragmatic balance between the needs of the economy, society, and the environment using tools such as triple bottom line accounting; or “strong” sustainability which asserts the primacy of environmental values over the demands of both society and economy.

The 1987 Brundtland Report offered a now widely accepted definition of sustainability: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”(13). By making human needs the basis for judgement and action it reproduces the very problem that has brought us to the brink of catastrophe. Focusing on sustainability within the cultural and political envelope of the status quo means we maintain the convenient illusion that “we” (who?) are in control and can manage the transition to a viable planetary future by economic, technical and lifestyle tinkering. At the very least the continuing use of the term sustainability now requires a qualifying prefix such as “eco-systemic” to have any real meaning in the Anthropocene.

It’s not that honest efforts to advance sustainability are pointless. Many significant incremental gains can be achieved. Indeed, the true worth of many sustainability initiatives lies not so much in their outcomes as in the opportunities they open up for essential professional and social collaboration and co-learning, particularly when embedded in value networks which have the potential to become learning networks. It’s just that we’re attempting ad hoc workarounds when the problem is with the operating system — the dominant cultural values and economic and political orthodoxies they generate that shape the forms and functions of key social institutions.

How apt is Einstein’s oft cited warning about the futility of attempting to solve complex problems using the modes of thinking that created them. This is precisely what we are doing in response to the systemic issues of our times.

Regenerative transitions

For eco-systemic sustainability to address the Anthropocene paradox we need a fresh mode of thinking about our professional, social and cultural practices. The key to this fresh approach may well be the word “regenerative”.

“Regenerate” means to revive, to grow again. Instead of simply buying time by slowing the pace of destruction, a regenerative approach aims to restore and enhance the integrity of local and regional ecosystems with the human actors conceived as integral and creative partners in this process. The goal of regenerative transition strategies is to create conditions for more life, more diversity, more resilience, and antifragility. Earth-centric regenerative practices are an antidote to the maladapted extractive, growth-driven, human-technology complex that threatens to be an evolutionary dead end.

One example of this approach is regenerative design, the practice that best reflects the latest phase of ecological design thinking.  Regenerative design is based on process-oriented systems theory. A regenerative system makes no waste; its output is equal to or greater than its input; and part or all of this output goes toward creating further output — in other words, it uses as input what in conventional systems would become waste. This concept is being applied in areas as diverse as architecture, urban planning, agriculture, business enterprises and even civil engineering.

Another attempt at breakthrough in this key practice domain is Transition Design, developed by a team at the Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design in the USA.

“Transition Design acknowledges that we are living in ‘transitional times’. It takes as its central premise the need for societal transitions to more sustainable futures and argues that design has a key role to play in these transitions. Transition Design focuses on the need for ‘cosmopolitan localism’, (Manzini 2009; Sachs 1999) [an approach] that is place-based and regional, yet global in its awareness and exchange of information and technology.”(14)

Commons-based movements for societal and cultural change offer other examples of creative thinking about the transformation of human systems within the Anthropocene Transition. They are animated by, in the words of Patterns of Commoning authors David Bollier and Silke Helfrich, “the irrepressible desire of people to collaborate and share to meet everyday needs”(15). Versions of this can be seen in a flowering of experimentation and collective learning from the bottom up in countless communities around the world from the citizens of Bologna, Italy, who have declared their whole city a commons, to indigenous agriculture and community forests, Bolivian water committees, high-tech FabLabs, theatre commons like Latinx and HowlRound, arts festivals like Burning Man in the USA and Woodfordia here in Australia, innovation networks designing open-source farm equipment and reviving troubled neighbourhoods in Kenya, the Enspiral enterprise network in Aotearoa/New Zealand…  The list goes on.

One key institution in this loosely coupled global network is the P2P Foundation, the name of which is derived from the abbreviation of “peer to peer”, or sometimes “person to person”, or “people to people”. The essence of P2P is this direct relationship and its core characteristics include the creation of common goals and goods through open, participatory governance processes. These global trans-local networks include social change movements like Lock the Gate, experimenting with new modes of organising and mobilisation in defence of local eco-systems and communities threatened with devastation by rapacious fossil fuel corporations. Lock the Gate has utilised complex systems theory and network theory to develop an approach to community self-organising designed to avoid the polarisation of traditional environmental campaigning and unite whole communities across often deeply entrenched cultural and political divides.

Then there are initiatives like FlipLabs, Forum for the Future, Next System Project, Transition Network, New Weather Institute, Small Giants, New Economy Network Australia, Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, Australian Institute of Ecological Agriculture, Next Economy Australia… and an expanding and deepening dialogue across this diversity of practice labs.

Transition times require this kind of innovation and experimentation in the way we organise and govern ourselves at all levels. We must seek for more dynamic social forms with permeable boundaries that can respond rapidly and flexibly to emergent needs and opportunities. The plasticity of the human brain is a metaphor for the organisational forms we need to invent. As neurologist Elkhonon Goldberg has observed: “The evolution of the brain teaches us the lesson that a high degree of complexity cannot be handled by rigidly organised systems. It requires distributed responsibilities and local autonomy.”(16)

By and large it is not governments and corporations that are demonstrating the necessary creativity to meet the challenges of the Anthropocene Transition, despite their rhetoric of innovation and agility. Everywhere we can see how deeply compromised they are by the blinkers of short-termism, the greed of vested interests, the denial and obfuscation of ideologues, institutional inertia, political opportunism and, all too often, corruption. It’s grassroots organisations, local communities, collaborative and mutual enterprises, and civil society movements and networks that are nurturing the transformative changes we must embrace to remain a viable species on a planet conducive to life.

There are good reasons to believe that such open source experimentation and rapid prototyping is most likely to flourish in local communities, small workplaces, and networks of practice where institutional inertia is weakest, resistance by vested interests less, the risks of failure manageable, and the bonds of human solidarity strongest. It is in these settings that the seeds of a deeper and more authentic democracy are emerging.

A new story of co-creation

Ultimately humanity’s ability to survive and thrive in a period of radical uncertainty and profound change will depend on our capacity for wise collective action reflecting a new consciousness of our place in the Earth System. This requires a greatly enhanced capacity for adaptive social learning — groups of people sharing their experiences in action, experimenting with different ways of dealing with common challenges, reflecting together on the meaning of their experiences, and deciding on new forms of co-operative action.

At the very core of every civilisation lies a theory of human nature and a cosmology — the foundation stories of who we are and where we came from. These stories are the ultimate source of the unifying narratives of our societies. They are explicitly or implicitly manifest in the cultural practices of society; its public ceremonies, its performing and visual arts, its literature, its music, its popular culture. Contemporary science has unfolded for us an origin story of breath-taking magnificence. This story shows us that our human journey on planet Earth has seen the emergence of a uniquely reflexive consciousness, embedded in our many cultures, and complementing the great diversity of non-human adaptive intelligences with which it has co-evolved.

There is no blueprint to guide us through the Anthropocene Transition. This will be a learning journey along a path we must invent as we go. By its very nature, it is a collaborative undertaking. Finding ways to more fully manifest this collective creativity to serve the future of our species within planetary boundaries is the key challenge before us. Creativity is not a singular event, but an on-going universal process within which each one of us has a part to play. As the ancient stories tell us, we issued from a creative universe and can continue only as participants in its inexorable creativity.

To be worthy ancestors

Last year I received an email headed: “What’s your 1,000-year plan?” It referenced a TEDX talk by Canadian author Rick Antonson in which he spoke about what he called “cathedral thinking”. Antonson reminds us that when medieval architects, artisans and labourers began work on one of the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe many of them knew they would not live to see its completion. Such undertakings were the work of generations – each making a contribution to a collaborative venture that others would build on to bring to fruition in the future.

How different from our myopic contemporary mindset with its immersive focus on the 24-hour news cycle, 3 to 5 year electoral cycles, quarterly corporate reporting, and short-term business cycles. What a contrast to the competitive individualism embedded in the very labour process of so many industries and professions, including academia.

It struck me that cathedral thinking is closer to what we need to be doing now to prepare for the Anthropocene Transition. What should our generation be doing to lay the foundations for those to come who must face the task of transforming our institutions, our professions, our social structures and our core cultural values to restore a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship?

So the challenge for us is to climb out of our disciplinary and professional silos, take off our institutional blinkers, and start exploring genuinely transformative change; to ask ourselves how can we step into the “space between” disciplines and cultures where new thinking and ways of knowing and acting in the world are possible; where new ways of understanding and valuing the Earth can emerge?

In short, what must we do today to earn the title of worthy ancestors?

(1)Jan Zalaisiewicz, ‘The Extraordinary Strata of the Anthropocene,’ in Environmental Humanities: Voices from the Anthropocene, ed Oppermann and Iovino, London, Rowman and Littlefield International, 2017.

(2)Vladimir I. Vernadsky, ‘The Biosphere’, originally published in Russian 1926, republished in English: Springer Science & Business Media, 1998. Long unknown in the West, ‘The Biosphere’ established the field of biogeochemistry and is one of the classic founding documents of what later became known as Gaia theory. It is the first sustained expression of the idea that life is a geological force that can change Earth’s landforms, its climate, and even the contents of its atmosphere.

(3)Jan Zalaisiewicz, 2017

(4)Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘Anthropocene Time’ History and Theory 57, no 1, March 2018

(5)Sheila Jasanoff, ‘A New Climate for Society’, Theory, Culture and Society 27, nos. 2-3, 2010

(6) Steven Hartman, ‘Unpacking the Black Box: the need for Integrated Environmental Humanities (IEH)’, Future Earth Blogg (online), June 3 2015, (http://www.futureearth.org/blog/2015-jun-3/unpacking-black-box-need-integrated-environmental-humanities-ieh)

(7) Attributed to Kenneth Boulding in United States Congress, House (1973), Energy reorganization act of 1973: Hearings, Ninety-third Congress, first session, on H.R. 11510. p.248

(8)Nigel Clarke, ‘Geo-politics and the Disaster of the Anthropocene,’ Sociological Review 62, 2014

(9)Chakrabarty, 2018

(10) Chakrabarty, 2018

(11) Chakrabarty, 2018

(12) Thomas Homer Dixon, ‘The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization,’ Island Press, 2006

(13) Gro Harlem Brundtland (Chair), ‘Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development,’ United Nations General Assembly, 1987.

(14) About Transition Design, (http://transitiondesign.net/about-transition-design)

(15) David Bollier & Silke Helfrich (Editors), ‘Patterns of Commoning: The Commons Strategies Group,’ Levellers Press, 2015

(16) Elkhonon Goldberg, ‘The New Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes in a Complex World, Oxford University Press, 2009.

We Need an Ecological Civilization Before It’s Too Late

Jeremy Lent 

In the face of climate breakdown and ecological overshoot, alluring promises of “green growth” are no more than magical thinking. We need to restructure the fundamentals of our global cultural/economic system to cultivate an “ecological civilization”: one that prioritizes the health of living systems over short-term wealth production. 

[Originally published in Patterns of Meaning]

We’ve now been warned by the world’s leading climate scientists that we have just twelve years to limit climate catastrophe. The UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has put the world on notice that going from a 1.5° to 2.0° C rise in temperature above preindustrial levels would have disastrous consequences across the board, with unprecedented flooding, drought, ocean devastation, and famine.

A global crisis of famine and mass starvation looms unless we can turn around the trajectory of our civilization

Meanwhile, the world’s current policies have us on track for more than 3° increase by the end of this century, and climate scientists publish dire warnings that amplifying feedbacks could make things far worse than even these projections, and thus place at risk the very continuation of our civilization. We need, according to the IPCC, “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” But what exactly does that mean?

Last month, at the Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS) in San Francisco, luminaries such as Governor Jerry Brown, Michael Bloomberg, and Al Gore gave their version of what’s needed with an ambitious report entitled “Unlocking the Inclusive Growth Story of the 21st Century by the New Climate Economy.” It trumpets a New Growth Agenda: through enlightened strategic initiatives, they claim, it’s possible to transition to a low-carbon economy that could generate millions more jobs, raise trillions of dollars for green investment, and lead to higher global GDP growth.

But these buoyant projections by mainstream leaders, while overwhelmingly preferable to the Republican Party’s malfeasance, are utterly insufficient to respond to the crisis facing our civilization. In promising that the current system can fix itself with a few adjustments, they are turning a blind eye to the fundamental drivers propelling civilization toward collapse. By offering false hope, they deflect attention from the profound structural changes that our global economic system must make if we hope to bequeath a flourishing society to future generations.

Ecological overshoot

That’s because even the climate emergency is merely a harbinger of other existential threats looming over humanity as a result of ecological overshoot—the fact that we’re depleting the earth’s natural resources at a faster rate than they can be replenished. As long as government policies emphasize growing GDP as a national priority, and as long as transnational corporations relentlessly pursue greater shareholder returns by ransacking the earth, we will continue accelerating toward global catastrophe.

Currently, our civilization is running at 40% above its sustainable capacity. We’re rapidly depleting the earth’s forestsanimalsinsectsfishfreshwater, even the topsoil we require to grow our crops. We’ve already transgressed three of the nine planetary boundaries that define humanity’s safe operating space, and yet global GDP is expected to more than double by mid-century, with potentially irreversible and devastating consequences. By 2050, it’s estimated, there will be more plastic in the world’s oceans than fish. Last year, over fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issued an ominous warning to humanity that time is running out: “Soon it will be too late,” they wrote, “to shift course away from our failing trajectory.”

plastic in the ocean
By 2050, there is projected to be more plastic than fish in the ocean.

Techno-optimists, including many of the GCAS dignitaries, like to dismiss these warnings with talk of “green growth”—essentially decoupling GDP growth from increased use of resources. While that would be a laudable goal, a number of studies have shown that it’s simply not feasible. Even the most wildly aggressive assumptions for greater efficiency would still result in consuming global resources at double the sustainable capacity by mid-century.

A desperate situation indeed, but one that need not lead to despair. In fact, there is a scenario where we can turn around this rush to the precipice and redirect humanity to a thriving future on a regenerated earth. It would, however, require us to rethink some of the sacrosanct beliefs of our modern world, beginning with the unquestioning reliance on perpetual economic growth within a global capitalist system directed by transnational corporations driven exclusively by the need to increase shareholder value for their investors.

In short, we need to change the basis of our global civilization. We must move from a civilization based on wealth production to one based on the health of living systems: an ecological civilization.

An ecological civilization

The crucial idea behind an ecological civilization is that our society needs to change at a level far deeper than most people realize. It’s not just a matter of investing in renewables, eating less meat, and driving an electric car. The intrinsic framework of our global social and economic organization needs to be transformed. And this will only happen when enough people recognize the destructive nature of our current mainstream culture and reject it for one that is life-affirming—embracing values that emphasize growth in the quality of life rather than in the consumption of goods and services.

A change of such magnitude would be an epochal event. There have been only two occasions in history when radical dislocations led to a transformation of virtually every aspect of the human experience: the Agricultural Revolution that began about twelve thousand years ago, and the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. If our civilization is to survive and prosper through the looming crises of this century, we will need a transformation of our values, goals, and collective behavior on a similar scale.

An ecological civilization would be based on the core principles that sustain living systems coexisting stably in natural ecologies. Insights into how ecologies self-organize offer a model for how we could organize human society in ways that could permit sustainable abundance. Organisms prosper when they develop multiple symbiotic relationships, wherein each party to a relationship both takes and gives reciprocally. In an ecology, energy flows are balanced and one species’ waste matter becomes nourishment for another. Entities within an ecology scale fractally, with microsystems existing as integral parts of larger systems to form a coherent whole. In a well-functioning ecosystem, each organism thrives by optimizing for its own existence within a network of relationships that enhances the common good. The inherent resilience caused by these dynamics means that—without human disruption—ecosystems can maintain their integrity for many thousands, and sometimes millions, of years.

An ecological civilization would be based on the principles that sustain all living systems

In practice, transitioning to an ecological civilization would mean restructuring some of the fundamental institutions driving our current civilization to destruction. In place of an economy based on perpetual growth in GDP, it would institute one that emphasized quality of life, using alternative measures such as a Genuine Progress Indicator to gauge success. Economic systems would be based on respect for individual dignity and fairly rewarding each person’s contribution to the greater good, while ensuring that nutritional, housing, healthcare, and educational needs were fully met for everyone. Transnational corporations would be fundamentally reorganized and made accountable to the communities they purportedly serve, to optimize human and environmental wellbeing rather than shareholder profits. Locally owned cooperatives would become the default organizational structure. Food systems would be designed to emphasize local production using state-of-the-art agroecology practices in place of fossil fuel-based fertilizer and pesticides, while manufacturing would prioritize circular flows where efficient re-use of waste products is built into the process from the outset.

In an ecological civilization, the local community would be the basic building block of society. Face-to-face interaction would regain ascendance as a crucial part of human flourishing, and each community’s relationship with others would be based on principles of mutual respect, learning, and reciprocity. Technological innovation would still be encouraged, but would be prized for its effectiveness in enhancing the vitality of living systems rather than minting billionaires. The driving principle of enterprise would be that we are all interconnected in the web of life—and long-term human prosperity is therefore founded on a healthy Earth.

Cultivating a flourishing future

While this vision may seem a distant dream to those who are transfixed by the daily frenzy of current events, innumerable pioneering organizations around the world are already planting the seeds for this cultural metamorphosis.

In China, President Xi Jinping has declared an ecological civilization to be a central part of his long-term vision for the country. In Bolivia and Ecuador, the related values of buen vivir and sumak kawsay (“good living’) are written into the constitution, and in Africa the concept of ubuntu (“I am because we are”) is a widely-discussed principle of human relations. In Europe, hundreds of scientists, politicians, and policy-makers recently co-authored a call for the EU to plan for a sustainable future in which human and ecological wellbeing is prioritized over GDP.

Examples of large-scale thriving cooperatives, such as Mondragon in Spain, demonstrate that it’s possible for companies to provide effectively for human needs without utilizing a shareholder-based profit model. Think tanks such as The Next System ProjectThe Global Citizens Initiative, and the P2P Foundation are laying down parameters for the political, economic, and social organization of an ecological civilization. Meanwhile, visionary authors such as Kate Raworth and David Korten have written extensively on how to reframe the way we think about our economic and political path forward.

As the mainstream juggernaut drives our current civilization inexorably toward breaking point, it’s easy to dismiss these steps toward a new form of civilization as too insignificant to make a difference. However, as the current system begins to break down in the coming years, increasing numbers of people around the world will come to realize that a fundamentally different alternative is needed. Whether they turn to movements based on prejudice and fear or join in a vision for a better future for humanity depends, to a large extent, on the ideas available to them.

One way or another, humanity is headed for the third great transformation in its history: either in the form of global collapse or a metamorphosis to a new foundation for sustainable flourishing. An ecological civilization offers a path forward that may be the only true hope for our descendants to thrive on Earth into the distant future.

Jeremy Lent is author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, which investigates how different cultures have made sense of the universe and how their underlying values have changed the course of history. He is founder of the nonprofit Liology Institute, dedicated to fostering a sustainable worldview. For more information visit jeremylent.com

Creating Learning Cultures in Village Sri Lanka


Jerry A. Moles[2]


ABSTRACT: Facing unprecedented changes in global climate patterns, major drainage basins, stable human communities, the distribution of capital resources, and the threat of thermonuclear war; we must acknowledge that the Anthropocene is upon us. In a world of centralized authorities and powerful corporations, the “unintended consequences” of political and financial decisions occur as a consequence of ignoring the diversity across natural resource endowments and human settlements.  To address this challenge, the NeoSynthesis Research Centre (NSRC) was created in Sri Lanka to engage with villagers in establishing more productive and resilient landscapes and financially beneficial practices.  Recognizing that only the managers of the land could effect the needed changes, the NSRC collaborated with villagers in establishing adaptive management schemes, the continual evaluation of farming and forestry practices.  By synthesizing the knowledge of villagers with the analytical perspectives of contemporary sciences, learning cultures were created attuned to household needs and environmental health and stability.  Over a 30-year period, water supplies have been made safe, incomes and food security improved, recovery from a devastating tsunami effected, and a handbook guiding farmer decisions into the future produced in Singalese, Tamil, and English, the three languages of the Island.

Key words: Sustainable agriculture, learning organizations, forest gardens, project design, Sri Lanka.

Vast your calling: Serve everyone.

Small your power: One voice.

Clear your path: Honest words.

Certain your days: Struggle.

Vast your purpose: Make history.

Focused your goal: A mere footnote

                                    that sings.

–Kim Stafford


With the growth of human population; relationships with land, water, food supplies, and the creation and movements of capital are changing at unprecedented rates. An evaluation is required with attention given to circumstances in households, communities, landscapes, and watersheds.   To increase food production and availability while maintaining resource bases resilient to human and natural disturbances is the challenge. Humans determine flows of materials, energy, capital, and information.  To survive and avoid unprecedented turmoil and danger, we must learn to live as part of a rapidly changing planet in the Anthropocene.  The question is can such change be inspired?

The NeoSynthesis Research Centre (NSRC) was established in Sri Lanka in 1982 to integrate farmers’ knowledge in Sri Lanka villages with contemporary biological, environmental, and social sciences including economics. In a sense, the goal was the creation of a new culture that blended the wisdom of past centuries with recent discoveries and interpretations.  The Centre was designed as a catalyst engaging the people who influence the production and distribution of food and other agriculture and forestry products.  The mission was described as establishing self-perpetuating sustainable and resilient environmental and social relationships linked to natural and market forces that did not degrade resources while achieving financial independence for participants. Without solutions in hand, the only answer available was to learn by doing, becoming a learning organization and developing a learning culture with those engaged.

In 1981, I was invited to Sri Lanka by Upali Senanayake and his son Ranil to explore how the people of the island nation could maintain their cultural heritages and traditional wisdom based in over two thousand years of written history. Confronting a dominate global economy based on extracting goods and services in exchange for modern science and technology, there was little questioning of systematic consequences environmentally, socially, or culturally.  Sri Lanka experienced European colonialism, first by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, and finally the British.  The country gained independence in 1949 with a parliamentary system of governance guided by Dutch-Roman law.  First coffee and later tea, coconut, and rubber plantations were established providing income for the colonial masters and, after independence, those governing the island.  Once food self-sufficient, the island imported small grains to bolster diets and national leadership was increasingly serving the export sector often at a cost to villagers and an urban labor force.  Trade offs between continued investment in the welfare of the people and investment in economic growth were questioned (Edirisinge, 1979).  As population expanded, the landless moved onto once forested landscapes and the plantation sector went into decline as a consequence of poor management with loss of soils and degradation of water supplies.[3]

Planning agriculture and forestry projects from a distance had proven difficult often resulting in unintended consequences for villagers.[4]   In adopting adaptive management suggested by the resiliency theorists,[5] each management proscription became a testable hypothesis providing feedback separating the permissible from the harmful and destructive.   Recognizing nonlinear dynamics of complex systems with different scales in time and space, and the possibility of multiple causality; on-the-ground study of real consequences in real time is required (Walters, 1986).  Rather than concentrating on controlling natural variability to maintain human en situ circumstances in some perceived optimal state, a wiser option is to focus on alternate system regimes and to avoid thresholds beyond which no return to a stable or resilient state is possible.  Exchanges in dynamic social and ecosystems must be monitored and addressed (Walker and Salt: 122, 1986).  Attention to daily, monthly, seasonal and longer-term outcomes determine successful adaptation.[6] Adaptive management is a fundamental tool in learning cultures.

Bateson (Bateson and Bateson:161,181, 1987) reminds that living systems (learning cultures) are recursive. Reflecting back on what is known as they continually “learn”  through time.  He then separates the realm of the “hard sciences,” that discriminate between parts and wholes from the biology, ecology and other disciplines concerned with living systems en situ. In the latter, there is consideration of parts and wholes and how they compose the environment of wholes (Harries-Jones:182-3, 1995).  In other words, it isn’t sufficient to attend to the things that can be influenced directly but rather to think more broadly in terms of systemic exchanges.  Senge (269, 2006) quotes Bateson as saying, “The source of all our problems today comes from the gap between how we think and how nature works.”  The relationships between mind and nature are fraught with unseen challenges and, in designing the NSRC as a learning organization, we remained cognizant of the systems of which we were a part.

Even with this added sophistication, the understanding of the dynamics that produce observable consequences may not be apparent. It is far easier to separate beneficial from the harmful than to design a guidance system (decision support) to enjoy the former while avoiding the latter.  This requires knowing what to attend to and what can be safely ignored.  This knowing is formed in real time, relying on multiple perspectives and feedback from key systemic indicators amenable to management adjustments.

As a starting point, the NSRC vision was defined as “being realistic in where we are headed with an understanding of the forces that maintain the present as experienced.”

Setting Contexts

The first thing required in creating NSRC was a description of present circumstances. Once interpretative frameworks were agreed upon, the positions of villagers and others influencing the practices of agriculture and forestry could be intergraded.  Following Bateson and citing Korzybski, Harries-Jones (69, 1995) commented that “All order has context and the temporal context in which ordering takes place is expressed as ‘antecedent’ or ‘consequent.’”   For applied scientists, listening to and observing the people engaged make possible the elaboration of contexts.  Blending in understandings of the dynamics of social and environmental systems, descriptions are created. What are the causes and effects of ongoing activities, and how may we best understand our respective plights as we attempt to make a difference beneficial to all involved?

In a sense, this is about the creative and dynamic nature of what we have called “culture” throughout the history of our discipline. The existence of culture is moment to moment; it’s what’s on our minds and the minds of others as we make sense of the past, present, and future.[7]  This does not mean that people agree or even, based upon past experiences, share similar interpretations of the present.  Rather, the search in Sri Lanka was for complementary interests sufficient for joining together to advance the mission.  I’m reminded of a quote by Amos Tversky (Lewis:230, 2017).  “It is sometimes easier to make the world a better place than to prove you have made the world a better place.”  We can never see inside the minds[8] of others.  We only know of their presence, and, if they join with us or we with them, we share the same fate.

Finding Place

All I have to share is what I have learned from personal experience attempting to make a difference at ground level engaging diverse communities to maintain themselves through the use of surrounding natural resources and exchanges through existing enterprises. As cultural practices change, the surrounding social and environmental milieu change and new challenges emerge that require continual evaluation and adjustment.  From an ecological perspective, the engagement is multifaceted and requires attentiveness to changes in both resource endowments and social relations.  As we enter the field with certain perspectives, the hope is that we learn enough along the way to make sound decisions through time.  Bateson (505) suggested that “. . . the ecological ideas implicit in our plans are more important than the plans themselves, and it would be foolish to sacrifice these ideas on the altar of pragmatism.  It will not in the long run pay to ‘sell’ the plans by superficial ad hominem arguments which will conceal or contradict the deeper insight.”

As an initial step, the literature on the state of Sri Lanka agriculture was reviewed and, through extensive interviews with Upali, three position papers were written. From the perspective of the National Heritage Trust founded by Upali, government policies were changing traditional cultural values and a threat to the stability and sustainability of agriculture.   The support for greater export of agriculture commodities and increasing farmer indebtedness to adopt green revolution technologies required a reevaluation of priorities.  Taking Upali’s argument that all people have the right to live, the right to use the basic natural and physical resources of Sri Lanka “in ways that protect the rights of all others and provide adequately for themselves,” the focus of the NSRC as the research arm of the National Heritage Trust was set.  The papers were published in the Lanka Guardian[9], a nationally distributed news magazine (Moles and Riker, 1982) and considered “very controversial” by government ministries and university faculty and students.  Having made our intentions public, we proceeded to refine the focus to guide activities into the future.

Starting with Singalese Buddhist villages that Upali knew best, the focus was on the temple, the tank (earthen reservoir for irrigation) and the villagers as a composite whole. The priests (bikkhues) in village temples were responsible for declaring auspicious days for community endeavors including irrigation of the paddy-fields, ceremonies, and other public works.  Further, through their daily rounds with their begging bowls, the bhikkues were current with the state of the larder of each household and, in times of need, organized appropriate assistance.  Each village had a gramaseveka, chief cultivator, who coordinated with the temple the needs of the cultivators and represented the villagers to the outside world.

Within this context, we positioned ourselves as the NSRC. Over the years, there were many discussions about both the principles that guided our actions and what was required to benefit the villagers.  Exploration was constant; on-going experiments on the research station and activities in surrounding villages were monitored as we tried to make sense of what we were learning and how well the needs of villagers were being addressed.

What parts of our formal training in the sciences were relevant to our activities?

Ranil who had experience as an estate owner and manager with a doctorate in systems ecology from the University of California, Davis, offered an overarching perspective attending to environmental circumstances as follows:

  1. Systemics. Capture of solar energy through photosynthesis and its consequences in native, disturbed, and anthropogenic communities and landscapes. All life is dependent upon photosynthesis and the village cultivators make choices of what plants to produce for their own uses and surrounding markets.
  2. Energetics. Exchange of energy, materials, and information among and between species, groups, and individuals. Here the focus was upon the interdependencies of the living entities in landscapes and the cultivators and the choices possible given available capital, labor, and technology. How are livelihoods gained from the local resources?   Answers included the uses of composts, chemical fertilizers, water buffalos, powered equipment, family and hired labor, market information, etc., the list is very long but the emphasis was on the mechanisms (relationships) that held in place the present.
  3. Cycles, The great cycles — hydrological, nitrogen, moon, tides, seasons, etc., — plus the landforms including geological histories that define the basics including soils and slopes that must be respected if what was offered was to endure.

As the social scientist and given that we were thinking in systemic and dynamic terms based upon relationships and exchanges, I defined capital as the capacity to command goods and services.  Conceptually, capital can be viewed as another form of energy.  Looking at the flows of capital, it is possible to evaluate costs and benefits and how wealth is distributed.[10]  At the same time, aware that any description devised is not the territory described, it was essential to engage the targeted beneficiaries to guide us as created descriptions.  Also, we focused upon our experiences in interacting with the villagers, their lives, and their surroundings.  The notion that the people could teach us how we could help them seemed especially relevant.  To reasonably expect any changes in practices, the people effected must realize definite benefits to their livelihoods.  Finally, it was clear that the complexity of the effort was daunting.  Analysis without engagement is one thing, but to actually enter the fray, careful observation of people’s reactions to our efforts was necessary.  The NSRC was and remains a learning organization.

We were engaging with an ancient agriculture representing a culture and landscape evolutionary history of many centuries (Sri Lanka has a written history of over 2,400 years (Geiger, 1912)), it was important to understand the inbuilt wisdom that made food self-sufficiency prior to the colonial era possible (Moles, 1989). The existing intensive hill and paddy agriculture became a reference point upon which to develop strategies and guide experimentation.  The traditional system employed earthen reservoirs (tanks), wirwas (river diversions), and pumps, to spread water perpendicular to stream flows as far as gravity and available energy allowed.  Recognized as monument to ancient understandings of hydrology, engineering, and construction plus administrative skills to organize thousands of workers and animal power, the irrigation systems of Sri Lanka supported major populations and many still function to the present day (Brohier, 1934).  Two rice crops are possible and are often rotated with temperate zone vegetables with high market value.  Steeper slopes that were not possible to irrigate were in forest gardens with multiple canopies, species, and tropic levels providing food, medicine, fiber, and fodder serving village household needs and markets (Everett, 1995).  Requiring few external inputs and labor intensive, the intact hill and paddy systems were environmentally stable and recovered from perturbations quickly whether caused by drought, pests attacks, harvest of trees to meet financial needs, or market fluctuations.  Producing a wide variety of products used by village households, there is little wonder why these systems have endured for centuries.

While there were viable examples of the hill and paddy agriculture and ancient irrigation systems still functioning, a tragedy occurred during the colonial period with effects that endure to the present day; the removal of the montane forests. First came the great Ceylon “coffee rush” often compared to the gold rush of California. Europeans rushed to the mountains removing forests and planting coffee to meet the British and European demand for morning caffeine.  In the mid-1800s there were more than 90,000 acres in coffee plantations.  Then a blight destroyed the industry.  By 1890 most of the coffee had been replaced by tea, as the British adapted to a different morning beverage.  But all was not well.  There followed a period when much of the tea land wasn’t well cared for with erosion removing much of the A horizon of the soils and, in many cases, estates were abandoned.  Depleted soils couldn’t hold moisture and streams perished.  With the growth of a landless population, people occupied many of these lands, moving periodically due to soil exhaustion and the inability to purchase fertilizers to maintain fertility.  To the impoverish population, standing trees represented ready cash; even in the towns and cities, trees were often removed piece by piece to serve as fuelwood.

To rectify these dire circumstances in many locations and with the assistance of foreign aid agencies, the mountains were replanted with exotic species from North America and Australia, primarily Pinus and Eucalyptus. With no native decomposers to reduce litter and no food sources for native fauna, fires frequently swept through these forests making colonization by native species impossible.  Further, food and medical resources that were traditionally harvested from the montane forests were no longer available to villagers and the remaining landscapes could correctly be called ecological deserts.  Top-down planning without considering environmental consequences or the experiences and needs of the villagers created an ongoing disaster.

Water was the lynchpin to anything that might be done to stabilize landscapes and improve livelihoods. Thus, watershed restoration became a key challenge.  Even within established villages, there were needs for secure food supplies, greater financial benefits, erosion control, and protection for the remaining biodiversity.

Aided by a grant from USAID in 1988, research was initiated to explore in greater detail specific locations in mountainous areas of the country. Along with identifying land use patterns, the conditions of landscapes within villages were evaluated.  Inventories of all fauna and flora were mapped for specific villages and estates and ecological functions identified.[11]

A primary interest was to identify keystone species required in maintaining the various tropic levels and structure of the forest gardens. In cooperation with villagers, species used for food, fiber, fuel, fodder, medicines, oils, etc., were identified promoting understanding of how any changes would effect households and forest collectors.  In many localities, there were more than 70 plant species used by the villagers for various purposes.[12]

Concrete Measures of Success

In order to become a learning organization, NSRC selected measures of success against which to judge progress. We asked what were the indicators demonstrating movement in the direction of resilient and self-perpetuating environmental and social relationships linked to natural and market forces that did not degrade the resources while achieving financial independence for participants?  The demonstrable answers were:

  1. Stopping soil erosion. As noted, in many circumstances the A horizon of soils were depleted or missing, with streams and rivers running brown after rains. Planting up riparian zones with perennials plus terracing and channeling would slow and eventually minimized erosion. Rebuilding soils through composting to increase organic content was also an immediate need in many locations.
  2. Clean water and increased availability. With the removal of the forests, soils were less protected from rainfall and less moisture was absorbed into the soils. Many streams dried up and runoff from rainfall was immediate. By revegetating the land, especially with perennials, soils would gain greater water-holding capacity and streams could be reclaimed.
  3. Healthy food supply. Mindful of the dependence of the people on what they produced, the focus was on both households and villages. To what degree were they self-sufficient with adequate nutrition?
  4. Improved incomes for cultivators. This required an understanding of existing marketing opportunities and of activities that could be undertaken to generate greater benefits.
  5. Protecting indigenous biodiversity. In dealing with an ancient system of human-environmental interactions, it was important to understand the threats to the present mix of plants and animals and how this flora and fauna could be protected into the future. With inventories, baselines were set.

With limited staff[13] charged with engaging the people in evaluating their resources and discovering alternatives to meet these measures of success, cultivators’ lands were mapped noting soil quality, water availability, vegetation, management styles, etc.  We remained aware of the specific parcels as parts of larger landscapes.  The mapping process gave both staff and cultivators opportunities to share understandings of the resources and to build rapport.  We were aware that changes in agriculture and forestry are long-term ventures and progress should be judged not only on seasonal and annual bases but also over the longer-term.  In some cases, farmers were persuaded to keep financial records to determine the benefits gained from their various enterprises.

Design Features

We knew that the most solar efficient systems in terms of total biomass production are natural forests. Struck by the efficiency of the forest gardens and the range of products generated, we realized that these gardens exhibited the characteristics of natural forests in terms of structure and environmental services.  Erosion was minimal, soil improvements continued through accumulation of leaf litter, water absorption maintained perennial streams, and, with multiple tropic levels, the gardens were biologically diverse.  Using the surrounding natural forests and village forest gardens as models, we focused on utility and marketable species to create tree-dominated ecosystems and called this form of silviculture “analog forestry” in that it was analogous in structure and function to the surrounding native forests.  Later, as we grew to appreciate the complexities of the positions of villagers in serving both household needs and meeting market demands, we began calling the approach “restoration agriculture” because there was often a need to produce annual crops along with rice in the paddy fields that required a more complex mosaic of land-use.  Evenso, the goal was to move to a tree-dominated ecosystem as much as feasible and, as recent research has shown, the forest gardens produce more for household consumption and greater financial returns than other land use alternatives (Melvani,2018).

In our contacts with farmers, we avoided any criticism of traditional practices but rather offered positive alternatives, giving realistic hope for improvements in livelihoods. Program costs had to be modest given the limited resources of the cultivators plus the numbers of people to be served.  Finally, the rewards to be gained were to be based upon the energies expended by the beneficiaries.  In some cases in order to create examples in villages, we leased the lands of particular cultivators paying significantly more than what could be expected from continuing current practices.  We also paid for the labor expended in transforming their gardens.  The before-and-after benefits were there for all to see as the land was returned to the owner after the demonstration period.

Getting On With the Job

Ultimately, finding solutions to the cultivators’ problems must be in terms of their perspectives. It is their decision to ignore or join in.  Within and across villages, cultivators had different resource endowments, access to capital, labor availability, and household needs, so solutions had to be found to fit their particular circumstances. As noted, in the targeted villages, cultivators’ parcels were mapped and designs created to introduce new cropping systems.  The NSRC staff was faced with synthesizing information at ground level with our understanding of possibilities and opportunities that included improving current practices, adopting new crops, and responding to market demands.

An initial challenge was finding the planting materials required to implement the designs agreed upon by the cultivators and staff. The solution was creating village nurseries with a mix of utility trees and other perennials plus annuals that could generate quick income.  With funding from a variety of sources, many nurseries contained more than 70,000 plants and, after demonstrations, were turned over to villagers.  In addition, because of the demand for organic tea and other products, NSRC created and implemented management programs that meet the requirements of international certification agencies on behalf of large tea estates encompassing several thousands of acres (including Thomas Lipton’s first estate).

There are numerous examples of success where households stabilized landscapes while increasing incomes, in some cases by over 700 percent, and became more food secure; two examples demonstrate the utility of meeting major challenges from a learning perspective. The first concerns the infiltration of nitrites and nitrates into wells from the application of chemical fertilizers that resulted in spontaneous abortions and methaemoglobinaemia (blue baby syndrome) in infants.  The second is the recovery from the impact of the 2004 tsunami on the coastal town of Kalmunai, where 3,000 of 30,000 lives were lost. As noted with the creation of nurseries, the means of addressing challenges whether concerning the environment, finance, or personal health, was through vegetation management using specific plant species to address human needs while stabilizing landscapes and watersheds.

Clean Drinking Water for All

Along the Kalpitiya Peninsula, a sandy abutment into the Indian Ocean on the northwest coast of Sri Lanka, agriculture is practiced with large applications of inorganic fertilizers and chemical pesticides. With concentrations of nitrate, nitrite, chloride and potassium in the ground water, 77 of the 171 wells tested failed to meet World Health Organization (WHO) safety standards. When people have a high nitrate intake, the oxygen carrying capacity of blood is reduced resulting in methaemoglobinaemia. This condition impacts infants more frequently than adults because the higher pH of the gastrointestinal tract in newborns favors the growth of bacteria that convert nitrates to nitrites, cause of the disease.  In a study of infants on the peninsula, 64 percent had methaemeglobin levels above the normal range (Melvani and Moles).

In 2001, the Sri Lanka National Water Supply and Drainage Board (NWSDB), with the support of the Asian Development Bank, initiated 12 community-based drinking water supply schemes. Many were soon abandoned because of the contamination of water with nitrates and nitrites. The drinking water well tested in the village of Nawakkaduwa was the most effected.

In 2003, the NSRC proposed to the NWSDB that bioremediation around the wells could possibly remove contaminates and a contract was signed to start a research and demonstration project in Nawakkaduwa. A tree-dominated landscape design was created that included the cultivation of annual crops using strictly organic regimes as a means of producing immediate food and cash returns. The efficacy of the experiment in bioremediation was assessed periodically by measuring the levels of the contaminants in the water.

Concurrent with the increase in maturity of the vegetation was a decrease in contaminant levels, specifically nitrates. The WHO standard for nitrate nitrogen in water is 10 milligram (mg) per liter. When testing began in early 2004, the level in the Nawakkaduwa well exceeded 58.5 mg per liter, but by February 2008, levels had dropped to 12.1 mg per liter.  Through bioremediation, nitrate contamination was reduced in four years to safe levels providing safe water for the surrounding community.

Once the demonstration proved successful, the program was extended to 85 wells in the region along with the introduction of improved home garden management that included trees and annual crops. Calling the approach “Total Ecosystem Management,” the program was extended to the wells and lands of 20 schools on the peninsula and included the training of an “environmental cadet corps” to further extend the management techniques.  Based on census figures, water was made safe for 1,511,612 people.

Tsunami Recovery in Kalmunai (Melvani, 2011)

In December of 2004, a tsunami struck Kalmunai, a town on the east coast of Sri Lanka, with heavy loss of life, catastrophic damage to property, and contamination of land with seawater. In January 2005, with the assistance of a number of international aid agencies, the NSRC began the relief work distributing food and drinking water, cleaning wells, constructing toilets, and providing school supplies and livelihood assistance to craftspeople. This effort benefited 8,616 adults and 8,009 children. Equally important was reclaiming land through revegetation and restoring farmlands to arability.  In communities protected from the tsunami by forests, damages were minimal compared to the unprotected communities.  Thus, a three kilometre conservation forest was planted along the coast to buffer any future tsunamis and protect against predicted sea level rises.

Based upon the experiences with bioremediation along the Kalpitiya Peninsula, microwatershed surrounding 1,001 wells were planted with perennial and annual species. Given the results of demonstrations in reclaiming land into village gardens, regenerative farming models were established for 250 households.

Five years later, farmers in this area were food-secure and generated income despite a severe drought. Soils regained arability, and the coastline was protected by a wall of native vegetation.  The NWSDB Laboratory random sampled 26 of the 1001 wells and found safe potable water with decreased amounts of nitrate and chloride.  Twenty-eight thousand two hundred and ninety-two plants and shrubs of 74 species were established in the home gardens between 2005 and 2010.  Organic methods were used to create secure food supplies for families in a region severely challenged by 21 years of ethnic conflict and provided for local markets.

Based upon successful demonstrations in other places, raised beds were constructed and compost of water hyacinth, paddy straw and cow dung was covered by the existing sandy soil, creating ideal conditions for vegetable cultivation. This soil was found to be rich in organic matter and its capacity to retain moisture in times of drought.  Paddy straw plus coconut and Palmyrah leaves were used as sheet mulch to further retain soil moisture.  This released large quantities of carbon increasing soil moisture and creating habitat for soil fauna.  To further improve soils, green manures were combined with other raw materials, (e.g., cow/goat dung, rock phosphate, dolomite and granite dust).  Liquid fertilizer made from tree species, Azadirachta indica, Gliricidia maculatum, Pavetta indica and cow dung proved effective and mixtures of Sida spinosa, Andrographis paniculata, Garlic, Ginger, Chile, Castor Oil and cow urine were used to control pests and fungal diseases. Vermicompost and vermiwash made in farmer’s gardens also facilitated plant growth. With improved habitat, apiculture was introduced to 29 gardens which supplied honey for home consumption and the local market. At the end of five years, farmers were harvesting over 30 vegetable and 5 fruit crops.

The farmers in Kalmunai formed 21 participatory rural appraisal groups to continue monitoring the organic farming activities, waste management, and maintenance of the coastal forests. In addition, microfinance schemes were established and funds were collected from the farmers for loans to members, eliminating the dependence on commercial banks.

Handbook for Regenerative Agriculture 

As can be seen in these two examples, the NSRC staff engaged both people at ground level and international aid organizations, local government agencies, elected officials, craftspeople, marketers, religious leaders, other NGOs, etc., to address challenges at ground level. The learning process not only involved determining what to do, but also who was willing to assist and in what ways.

Based on 30 years’ experience with NSSRC and with support from USAID, Kamal Melvani (2012) assembled a Handbook for Regenerative Agriculture, a synthesis of what had been learned and what was directly relevant to village farmers. The book was based upon the on-the-ground exchanges between staff and farmers in guiding farmer decisions.  Published in Singalese, Tamil, and English, the book was written from the farmer’s perspective.  It starts with the farmer identifying her/his economic, social and ecological needs and then moves to an assessment of resources including crops, soil, water, tree cover, vegetation and weeds, biodiversity, light, wind, waste, and manpower. At this point, the process of mapping the farm garden is underway.  The farmer is directed to consult with family members to discover their needs.  These additional perspectives help identify the diverse components of the land and expand the farmer’s awareness of the environmental function of each including how current uses contributes to household wellbeing.  Seasonal changes, access to water, slope, spaces used for non-agriculture purposes, plants to be used, available materials for composting, etc., become part of the garden plan.

Next comes the implementation of the plan, starting with land clearing, fencing, land preparation, and moving on through composting, seed propagation, laying out the design on the ground, locations of annuals and perennials, deciding what and how much to plant, thinking in advance of rotating crops, intercropping, companion planting, etc. As part of the process, maintenance of the garden with available labor must be considered.  In 88 pages (including photographs), the farmer proceeds putting into practice what is presented in the Handbook while guided by what carries forward as part of the farming tradition, the paramparawa passed down directly through ancestors from many generations past.

Often with less land available than for earlier generations, the Handbook guides a farmer through a transition, addressing new circumstances whether by cultivators on abandoned lands once in forests or tea and coffee estates, or on village land purchased or inherited. New market opportunities were found for speciality crops such as organic black pepper, vanilla, and syrups from the coconut and fishtail palms that require new interpretations of present circumstances to devise beneficial strategies.  The example of forming new groups to work together to gain benefits otherwise not possible in the tsunami recovery in Kalmunai demonstrates the shared learning by both staff and villagers.  Here, collaborative marketing bypassed the traditional mudulalies (middle people) and returned greater incomes to the cultivators.

The Handbook for Regenerative Agriculture is a synthesis by the NeoSynthesis Research Centre.  Through years of identifying and clarifying the results of our efforts and working tirelessly to help farmers understand, accept, and integrate those practices with their traditions, relevancies and irrelevances were separated and ways of understanding the context of agriculture accepted.  Changes can be seen in the practices of cultivators and in the crops grown, land and water resources protected, food available for families, and produce marketed.  The value of the Handbook is demonstrated when villagers turn out in numbers to receive their personal copies and when copies are requested by members of Parliament, government agencies, NGOs, mudulalies who purchase specialty crops from cultivators, and international aid agencies.  Kamal Melvani and her staff have demonstrated how they have established a learning culture relevant to the Anthroposcene.

Part of the success of the NSRC is the extension of its influence into the wider world. Beyond the focus on the village, there is continual exploration for markets for items that can be produced in an environmentally safe way and that return benefits equitable to the energies invested.  There is continuing experimentation in converting small watersheds to organic production and increasing financial returns.  Revegetation of an abandoned tea estate recently completed is a model of restoration agriculture that also serves as a tourist destination.  More recently, the NSRC has been asked to buffer the odors from an improperly place sewage treatment plant through vegetation management.

It’s a Matter of Paying Attention

In addressing complex problems, success comes from paying attention to what matters, what makes a difference as we change and adapt to those changes over the coming decades and centuries. It’s about the definition of contexts out of which we function as people in each and every location around the Earth.  It’s about appreciating our ignorance — how little we do know– and a willingness to learn as members of communities finding our ways.

Rather than continuing as a traditional ethnographer recording and ordering my observations, in NSRC I became a mediator, facilitating exchanges of information in learning about present circumstances in order to discover next steps in problem resolution.

Science is a logic of justification, of answering the question of how we know what we claim to know. We make assumptions, make assertions about the nature of the world, and create and answer questions demonstrating whether or not our assertions are valid in an experiential world.  We then report our findings in various formats to students, colleagues, and others who might find what we have discovered useful.

In Sri Lanka as part of the NSRC, the justification of what I knew took on a different sense. Bateson (Harries-Jones:53-55, 1995) thought in terms of gestalts as related to “wholes” as opposed to “units of information” derived from empirical inquiry.  Here we’re beyond theories of data where the concern is the relationship between the concept and the item observed and are focused on “aggregates of information which appear to be grasped in shifts from static to temporal sequences (Ibid:54).”

From a hypothesis-testing perspective where tests of significance are expected, the reflecting back to the people what was learned falls short of acceptable. On the other hand, the NSRC test of significance is the consequence of the reflecting back and the continual adaptations that have resulted in cleaning nitrates out of wells, recovering from the tsunami, and other successes.  Keep in mind that we’re dealing with nonlinear dynamics of complex systems with different scales in time and space and the possibility of multiple causality so understanding exact cause and effect is difficult if not impossible.  People respond for many reasons and we can only “see” their behavior on the ground in three-dimensioned spaces.

At first I took copious notes but it was soon apparent that there was more to learn than could be recorded. Making sense of things became an all-encompassing challenge.  Understanding how things fit together in some comprehensible form was beyond what I was capable of doing alone.  The “reality” was generated by those involved through ongoing experiences and conversations including visits to villages, chats with members of Parliament and the brother of the President, and meetings with bikkhus and Swami Siva Kalki who, as Mike Wilson, had been the partner of Arthur C. Clarke.  International aid agencies had ideas of what should be done to relieve suffering, avoid environmental damages, and move Sri Lanka toward a “modern economy.”  Employees of the Ministry of Agriculture shared their understandings, and workers in urban slums reported on tragic consequences for villagers who moved into cities.  A representative of the National Water Supply and Drainage Board explained that no water of good quality remained on the Island.  Faculty from the Agriculture College of the University of Peradeniya shared their research, and representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture visited the research station.   Ultimately, it was up to the NSRC staff and the villagers to determine what was useful in deciding future courses of action.

Bateson (1978:277-78) explained that “The business of thinking, the business of learning, becomes very much like the business of evolution when you realize that it is all the time partly experimental – feeling, grasping, exploring (exploring is perhaps the word). It’s called trial and error (it should be called success and error, shouldn’t it?) among which you then find your way.”

I settled on understandings that worked for me, and contributed to the synthesis to catalyze and facilitate a movement towards resilient landscapes and sustainable natural resource care. I summarized what I was learning and shared this with others for their modifications, corrections and additions. Once accepted and integrated into operational plans, we proceeded open to future changes as we continued to learn.  And this takes us back to Bateson and his approach to anthropology as recursive epistemology.   “. . . if epistemology is the study of how people or systems of people know things, and how they think they know things, then in studying the relation between humanity and the biosphere ‘anthropology becomes a critical study of epistemology’ (Harris-Jones:11, 1995 also citing Bateson in Keeney, 1977).”


As we reflect on our work in Sri Lanka, the initial focus on the temple, tank, and villagers remained. Thinking in terms of systematics, energetics, and cycles placed us ecologically in each village and assisted in defining contexts on landscapes and in watersheds. Envisioning capital as the capacity to command goods and services required sensitivity to returns to both labor and agriculture and made possible the discovery of ways of reallocating resources to take advantage of new economic opportunities.  Beyond the villages were other contacts with members of Parliament and a number of bureaucracies, businesses, international aid agencies and local government agents and many contributed time, finances, and expertise.  All of these experiences served as a backdrop to Kamal Melvani as she created the Farmers Handbook.

A remaining issue is that of the time required for agriculture and forestry practices to change. What is to be done must benefit the people whose behavior must change on the ground in real time.  Funding organizations, agencies, NGOs, and others wishing to facilitate changes often don’t appreciate the time required for sustainable implementation and promising starts are too frequently abandoned.  Projects planned for only one, two or even several years often end before the contexts of circumstances can be understood and communities mobilized.   Realizing that adaptation is a never-ending process, the practices developed must be designed to endure, and this requires never-ending learning.


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[1] An earlier version was presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology on March 31, 2017 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Courtland Smith, Roberto Alvarez, Ted Downing, Yvonne Everett, and Deborah Tilson Clark have given beneficial advice improving this manuscript immeasurably.

[2] Chair of the Board, NeoSynthesis Research Centre, Sri Lanka; Secretary, Blue Ridge Plateau Initiative, Central Appalachia, USA; Facilitator, Grayson LandCare, Virginia USA.

[3] A description of circumstances at the time can be found in Moles and Riker, 1982.

[4] At the time, the consequences were documented including the settling of soils and breaking of the hard pan by tractors reducing the effectiveness of irrigation (Carr,1975), reduction of soil quality through the application of pesticides (Abeyesundare, 1980), changes in the carbon-nitrogen ratios due to loss of organic materials (Penabokke, 1967) and the loss of aquatic fauna (Merrill, 1976). Further, the environmental disruptions and indebtedness of both farmers and the nation caused additional hardships (Senananake, 1984).

[5] A useful introduction to resiliency theory can be found in Walker and Salt. For additional information see the Resilience Alliance Website http://www.resalliance.org/index.php.

[6] In the late 1960s, C. West Churchman (1968, 1971) was writing on the importance of learning systems for improving management and planning in government, business, and industry. Since then the ideas have been further elaborated.  Peter Senge’s popular The Fifth Discipline and Stanley McChrystal, et. al., in Team of Teams, New Rules for Engagement for a Complex World. demonstrate the use of learning systems in both business and warfare.

[7] Of course it is we anthropologists who have created and elaborated upon the notion of culture as useful in describing and explaining the differences we see within and across different groups of people. Yet, as Jung has pointed out, history is made by individuals, not vice versa (Waterfield:102, 1987).  We are the creators of the cultures we report upon.  As Einstein noted, physics isn’t the science of the physical world.  Rather physics is the science of measurement because humans, with the apparatus used, create the results found.

[8] Following Bateson (Harries-Jones:74-75), mind is not inside the head but rather “. . . a synonym for a systemic combination of pattern, information, communication, and ideas.” While the complexities are beyond our understanding, we can detect bits and pieces to the point where meaningful exchanges are possible.

[9] Because of the critical stances taken by the Lanka Guardian, pressure from both government and financial interests eventually forced its closure.

[10] Very interesting in a cash starved county, when paying local vendors returned checks would have signatures from top to bottom on the back with the check serving as the currency it represented paying outstanding debts.

[11] While there have been calls to publish the information, the size and complexity of the datasets are great and remain in NSRC offices. Our concern has been the synthesis of this information and, throughout, our objective has been the training of an informed and capable staff. Action takes precedent over publishing.  The data is available for interested scholars.

[12] In 1983, Kamal (Kamy) Melvani joined the NSRC and has directed the on-ground activities since that time. Much of the success is due to her insightful leadership and practical mind.  Ranil Senanayake, a co-founder, left the organization in 2004 to set up another NGO, Rainforest Rescue.

[13] Staff size varied from 6 to more than 30 and was determined by funding for specific projects.