The “Anthropocene” in Philosophy: The Neo-material Turn and the Question of Nature

Manuel Arias-Maldonado

Cambridge online

Contemporary social science seems to be addicted to “turns,” both as markers of theoretical shifts and as tools of disruption of established categories. All kinds of such turns are thus vindicated on a constant basis, from the digital to the aesthetical. Of course, some turns are more convincing than others – or, at least, they succeed in attracting attention and thus become more convincing for that simple reason. Either way, turns seem to be the new normal as far as academic research is concerned: they boost the reflection on a given topic, provide legitimacy to the latter, and create new combinations and recombinations as the new viewpoint is duly applied to existing topics or traditions of thought. In this chapter, two such turns will be connected as a means to illuminate a wider issue; namely, the nature of nature. In other words, I study the way in which both nature’s reality and the social understanding of nature have evolved in the last decade or so.

On the one hand, there is the Anthropocene; that is to say, the Anthropocene turn that is taking place as the concept is gaining more and more recognition in both the natural and the social sciences. The proposition that human beings are now a geological force in their own right, so that social and natural systems have become coupled, is supported by a great deal of scientific evidence (see Castree, Chapter 2). Although there are a good number of dissenters, the conversation is increasingly focused on the meaning and interpretation of the notion rather than on its plausibility. After all, the Anthropocene is both a state of socio-natural relations and an epistemic tool that invites us to see such relations from a new standpoint (Arias-Maldonado 2015). As Clive Hamilton and colleagues suggest, “In the Anthropocene, social, cultural and political orders are woven into and co-evolve with techno-natural orders of specific matter and energy flow at a global level, requiring new concepts and methods in the humanities” (Hamilton, Bonneuil, Gemenne, Hamilton, Bonneuil and Gemenne 2015: 4). And this is the case whether or not geologists officially recognize the Anthropocene as a new geological time or epoch, since the evidence gathered by the different scientific disciplines that measure human impact on earth is enough to make the term the best possible depiction of the socio-natural entanglement. To some, in fact, the Anthropocene is mainly a cultural idea that creates new political and ethical possibilities (Purdy 2015: 16–17). This shows that the idea of the Anthropocene has gained already some autonomy from its scientific foundation, which will, however, remain relevant as the ultimate source of legitimacy for the former. If there had not been such a material process of human colonization, the Anthropocene turn would have never taken place.

In this regard, it can be said that the Anthropocene confirms that nature has morphed into human environment. Obviously, nature as a deep structure of causation – a raw material upon which all existence rests – remains in place. But that does not make the change less significant, especially in the light of the ever deeper human interventions in “deep nature,” as Kate Soper (Soper 1995) named it. Genetic engineering and synthetic biology are two apt examples of a reinforced human ability. At a different level, climate change is an unintended consequence of the same process; that is, the human colonization of nature. These material transformations suggest that the Anthropocene turn revolves mainly around the hybridization of nature, as it becomes less and less autonomous with respect to human actions and social processes. To sustain a clear separation between these two realms is now more difficult than ever (Castree, Chapter 2). For Hamilton and colleagues, the Anthropocene should even be the foundation for a new way of seeing reality: “Grand shifts in philosophical understanding are always built on new ontologies, new understandings of the nature of being” (Hamilton, Bonneuil, Gemenne, Hamilton, Bonneuil and Gemenne 2015: 8). The suggestion is twofold: the Anthropocene is in itself a new material reality, and it opens up the possibility of understanding nature – writ large – in a new fashion.

Enter the neo-material turn – sometimes also called “ontological” – that has taken place in the social sciences for some years now. Needless to say, materialism is not a novelty in the history of thought, but the original way in which it has been reformulated by a number of scholars and the variety of disciplines that it covers (from sociology to geography and philosophy, not to mention technology studies and anthropology) merits the special recognition that it has been granted – as a proper “turn,” that is. Above all, new materialists have rejected the deterministic explanations of early materialism, embracing instead key insights from post-structuralists and constructivists (Fox and Alldred 2016: 6). Paradoxically, then, a materialist shift that can be largely explained as an answer to the exhaustion of the linguistic turn that had dominated the social sciences since the early 1970s is also an outcome of such a paradigm. Be that as it may, the neo-material turn has brought about a new view of the material world with quite an emphasis on techno-scientific advancements, based upon a rejection of traditional dualisms such as body/mind or nature/culture (Pellizzoni 2015: 72). The latter should thus not be seen as distinct realms, but as part of a continuum in which entities are relational and in constant flux. As we shall see, this has important implications for agency, as the capacity to produce the social world extends far beyond human actors to the nonhuman and even the inanimate.

As it happens, these two turns can be fruitfully connected, although the connection itself will not be exempt from complications. Yet a constructive dialogue between new materialism and the Anthropocene concerning the nature of nature – as well as socio-natural relations – is worth the effort, as they help to illuminate each other in unexpected ways. How does the Anthropocene relate to new materialism? In which ways can new materialism help us to understand, conceptualize, or deal with the Anthropocene? And what does this all mean for the old but contested question of nature? Does a materialistic approach even allow the view that nature has ended? And also, what does the Anthropocene say about new materialism? How should we see the claims of the former under the light of the latter? The remainder of this chapter will deal with these questions, while searching for new answers to the old interrogation about nature in the new circumstances the Anthropocene has brought about.

New Materialism and the Anthropocene (I): Ontology

New materialists should be well suited to understanding classical environmental concerns. Diane Coole (Coole 2013) has argued that one of the most recognizable features of new materialist thinking is a renewed attention to material changes and processes that are currently under way – complex and volatile transformations that are congruent with the new materialist ontology. Environmentalism has always emphasized the material character of socio-natural relations, pointing to earth’s limits and to the actual damage done to ecosystems and nonhuman species. Besides, human colonization of natural systems resulting in the Anthropocene may very well be regarded as one of those “material changes and processes” Coole refers to. After all, a key Anthropocene insight is precisely that human action throughout history has altered the reality of nature, so that the latter can hardly be conceived – except in an abstract way – as a universal and timeless essence. Attention must thus be paid to actual nature, to the nature that we can observe, that is engaged in multiple exchanges with human beings and societies, being transformed by them while in turn constraining or influencing them. As we are about to see, this reciprocal influence is also recognized by new materialism, albeit in a particular and ultimately flawed way.What distinguishes the new materialist ontology, and how well does it explain the puzzles posed by the Anthropocene? Despite a number of differences among its advocates, a number of basic features can be singled out. Coole and Frost summarize the neo-materialist position in this way:

Our existence depends from one moment to the next on myriad micro-organisms and diverse higher species, on our own hazily understood bodily and cellular reactions and on pitiless cosmic motions, on the material artifacts and natural stuff that populate our environment, as well as on socioeconomic structures that produce and reproduce the conditions of our everyday lives. In light of this massive materiality, how could we be anything other than materialist?

(Coole, Frost, Coole and Frost 2010: 1)

Yet the “matter” so invoked is a process rather than a state: being is less important than becoming. That is so because the old passive matter described by the mechanist tradition is replaced by a lively and vibrant one that is always transforming itself. Such dynamic self-organization lacks a plan: as it is not teleologically prefigured, matter’s emergence cannot be predicted. Nature is just one of its configurations, but the neo-materialist emphasis on matter’s unpredictability suggests that its future cannot be predicted either, despite the long-standing attempt by natural scientists to find patterns and laws in the unfolding of natural systems. Moreover, the very idea of nature as a separated realm is rejected by neo-materialism as an anachronistic categorization. Phenomena are closely intertwined, and entities lack clear boundaries, all sharing the same ontology – a “flat one,” as Bruno Latour (Latour 1993) puts it, that does not privilege entities or agencies, as they are constantly emerging in new configurations and assemblages across a horizontal plane. This matter, however, is multiple: those entities and structures are multidimensional and move with variable speeds. It should be noted that new materialism is informed by modern physics’ description of the underlying structure of reality as a field of subatomic particles. All things, living and nonliving, are constituted by the same basic elements. Connolly (Connolly 2013a) describes this ontological position as a “protean monism.” Under the surface, outer differences collapse.

Crucially, this view drives new materialism to the claim that agency is distributed across a vast range of entities and processes. This is a key and controversial insight that reverberates strongly in the debate on the Anthropocene. It is opposed to a long-standing Western tradition shaped by anthropocentrism and humanism, where agency – the ability to produce changes in the world – has been primarily assigned to human beings. New materialism thinks otherwise, claiming that even categories such as agency, self-consciousness, or rationality are abstractions that hide a complex and manifold process of reciprocal influence between different agentic capacities. The latter are distributed across a vast range of beings and entities, both human and nonhuman. Agency, in short, is decoupled from humanity and is said to emerge in diverse situations and unexpected ways (Burke and Fishel, Chapter 5).

This is formulated by Bruno Latour in his well-known actor-network theory, where a distinction is made between human actors and nonhuman actants, both possessing agentic capacities. The novelty is that the latter are explicitly ascribed to nonhuman beings and even inanimate entities, that is, actants that have efficacy: they produce effects and affects, influence human actors by encouraging or blocking them, alter a given course of events, and so forth. On her part, Jane Bennett (Bennett 2010) espouses a new vitalism – or enchanted materialism – that, dwelling on Latour’s actants, develops a whole “political ecology of things” in which matter is vital and active rather than passive and hence submissive to human ends. In her view, the very idea of a dead matter calls for an active human manipulation and should be corrected by emphasizing the “interfolding network of humanity and nonhumanity” that produces culture, subjectivity, and the social world. Her main example is telling: that of an electrical power grid that must be included in the “agentic assemblage” that explains a blackout. The notion of the assemblage is often invoked: temporary and unpredictable associations of actors and actants that exhibit agentic capacities. In the words of Karen Barad, though, “there is less an assemblage of agents than there is an entangled state of agencies” due to the “inescapable entanglement of matters of being, knowing, and doing, of ontology, epistemology, and ethics” (Barad 2007: 23 and 3).Ontology, it should be mentioned, is at stake. Neo-materialism ascribes generative powers and inventive capacities to materiality, thus proposing a new ontology that stresses immanence rather than transcendence. Matter being vital and agential, it cannot be conceived in a Cartesian way anymore, especially since even inorganic matter is taken as “alive.” The distinctions between organic and inorganic, animate and inanimate, human and natural are ontologically inconsistent according to new materialists, so that,

if everything is material inasmuch as it is composed of physicochemical processes, nothing is reducible to such processes, at least as conventionally understood. For materiality is always something more than “mere” matter: an excess, force, vitality, relationality, or difference that renders matter active, self-creative, productive, unpredictable.

(Coole, Frost, Coole and Frost 2010: 9)

It is interesting to note that this view has not been completely absent from the environmental debate, as Biesecker and Hofmeister (Biesecker and Hofmeister 2006 and Biesecker, Hofmeister, von Egan-Krieger, Schultz, Thapa and Voget 2009) show. Although they do not go so far as new materialists and in fact approach the subject from a different angle, they stress that nature is a dynamic entity that changes on its own and changes in contact with humanity. Nature lives and is in itself productive, forming a non-separable unity of productivity and re-productivity with humanity. And it comes as no surprise that Marx (Marx 2009) himself, an old materialist, talked of a socio-natural “metabolism.” What new materialism suggests is that ontology must also be reconsidered along with the primacy of human agency. Yet this is a contestable idea.

New Materialism and the Anthropocene (II): Agency

At first sight, new materialism can help us to explain the Anthropocene, because it offers a framework that emphasizes the vitality of matter and the transformative power of agentic assemblages that comprise both human actors and nonhuman actants. By pointing to the geological dimension of planetary change, the Anthropocene seems also to displace human agency, or at least dissolve it into a wider field of agentic assemblages, as climate change would show. In fact, climate change would in turn act as an actant that constrains human actions, producing new ecological circumstances to which some form of adaptation is demanded. Moreover, the Anthropocene would be far from a deliberate effect of human actions, thus demonstrating how alive and productive matter is. From this viewpoint, the Anthropocene itself involves a rematerialization of human societies, as the biophysical basis of their existence and its changing quality – as the favorable conditions provided by the Holocene give way to an unpredictable new geological age – make themselves present in a dramatic way.

As its very name suggests, however, the Anthropocene is at odds with new materialism. After all, it puts human beings at the center in an admittedly peculiar manner: they would have massively transformed the planet without being aware of the scale of such change. But that does not make human beings any the less protagonists, a prominent role that does not fit well with neo-materialist claims about the distributed quality of agency. This is the much-discussed core of the Anthropocene turn: the unexpected capacity of human beings to become, by displaying their transformative powers, a major geological force. In this regard, an obvious problem of the neo-materialist account is that – despite offering a new view of socio-natural relations – it blurs the distinction between humans, nonhumans, and things. Such emphasis in connection and agency does not say anything about why assemblages are produced in the first place, or whether any causality can be established (Fuller 2000; Kirsch and Kirsch and Mitchell 2004). Neo-materialism seems to fall into the trap of fetishism, in that it attributes intrinsic qualities to entities and categories that are “extrinsic,” that is, defined (at least in part) socioculturally (Bakker and Bridge 2006: 14). If we think of the Anthropocene, is it the outcome of an indefinite number of agentic assemblages or rather, the effect of one prevalent agentic capacity, that of humans?

The latter seems more likely. Thus, a balance must be kept between the recognition of the unintentional agentic capacities of nonhuman actants, on the one hand, and the far more powerful human agency, both intentional and unintentional, on the other. As this vast, transformative agentic capacity has been exerted throughout history as part of the human attempt to adapt to nature – an aggressive adaptation that involves adapting nature to human ends – the Anthropocene has been produced: a massive colonization of nonhuman matter that now exhibits multiple signs of direct and indirect human intervention. If we just talk of agentic assemblages that coproduce reality, we are neglecting the fact that some agencies are more significant than others. This is also the case with nonhuman agencies, as some actants accumulate more powers than the rest. For instance, it has been claimed that the Anthropocene is the age of “hyperobjects” (Morton 2013), defined as things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans – the biosphere, the Florida Everglades, the climate – and involve profoundly different temporalities from the human ones. Regarding human powers, they are outstanding even when they are not intentional – as when the increase in population in a given territory impacts on biophysical systems without anybody having planned it. In fact, when human beings act unintentionally but produce effects on the world, they might be considered human actants rather than actors. In either case, they show an exceptional ability to transform, influence, and colonize nature. Be the underlying ontology as it may, this ability has left its mark on socio-natural history. And it is history that counts. Actually, evolutionary history sets another limit to the neo-materialist view, insofar as human ultrasociality (the fact that human beings cooperate more efficiently than other species thanks to language and culture as storage and transmission devices of useful information) can be singled out as a key explanation for the Anthropocene – an ultrasociality that gradually, but sometimes exponentially, increases human transformative powers (see Gowdy and Krall 2013).

However, human exceptionality is sometimes recognized by neo-materialists, albeit implicitly. Coole (Coole 2013: 460) has argued that “responsibility” should be considered as an agentic capacity, in order to underline that human beings are particularly responsible for the endangering of planetary systems and the massive extinction of nonhuman species. She is careful enough to point out that she does not refer to “moral agency.” Yet if human beings can be particularly responsible, do they not act more decisively than nonhuman actants? Moreover, if they can be warned about the damage they produce, it is because they can be forced to restrain those powers or to channel them in a different direction. As William Connolly (Connolly 2013b) has aptly argued, humans may not be the center of things, but they think more profoundly about their situation than other species and thus have a greater responsibility; surely an indication of agency, if there ever was one.

New Materialism and the Anthropocene (III): Hybridity

A more promising convergence takes place between new materialism and the Anthropocene regarding the notion – and the reality – of hybridization. Although neo-materialist thinkers are not solely concerned with the hybridity of nature, the latter is encompassed within the hybrid quality of matter, so that a fruitful dialogue can be established between neo-materialist accounts of hybridization and the socio-natural entanglement as revealed – or confirmed – by the Anthropocene. After all, the latter is grounded on the premise that natural and social systems are now “coupled” (Liu, Dietz and Carpenter 2007). And although this coupling does not necessarily involve an actual hybridization, in the sense that something new is produced, there is no lack of examples – from climate change to species alteration, from anthropogenic biomes to newly found rock formations that mix plastic and natural components. Hybridization is arguably one of the key features of a post-natural understanding of nature – a view reinforced by the Anthropocene.

Neo-materialism sees hybridization as the effect of breaking down old dualisms, such as those separating subject and object or the natural and the artificial. If the world is made up of heterogeneous materialities that form transient and unpredictable assemblages with agentic capacities, reality itself cannot be but hybrid, as there are no clear or fixed boundaries inside it. The human being itself has been presented as a “cyborg,” a mixture of organic and technological constituents (Haraway 1991). As for nature, its ontology is less significant than its history – one that assembles the natural, the artificial, the social, and the cultural in a way that can only produce a “quasi-object” that is both material and discursive. That is at least Bruno Latour’s view (Latour 1993Latour 2004, and Latour 2005), one for which “naturalness” does not exist anymore, nor did it ever really exist: it was a cultural representation based upon the denial of hybridity.

For Latour, Western societies have emerged through the interaction of two processes: one of purification (involving the separation of the human world from the world of things and the scientific study of the world of nature) and one of hybridization, as we are caught in networks of interactions and relations between more or less natural and more or less social phenomena. That is why the human social world has never been pure and we have never been modern: it was all a delusion. Therefore, supposedly “natural” objects are actually nature–culture objects that are produced by social practices. Haraway (Haraway 2007) has also talked about “naturecultures” to conceptualize a similar phenomenon. On their part, Cudworth and Hobden (Cudworth and Hobden 2011 and Cudworth and Hobden 2015) advocate a “complex ecologism” that assumes the coevolution and co-constitution of social and natural systems in dynamic configurations, developing relations of dependency and reciprocity within complex natural/social systems. In the same vein, Swyngedow (Swyngedow 1999: 47) has pointed out how the process of hybridization has ontological priority over any natural essence, describing it as a process of production, of becoming, of perpetual transgression. Interestingly, though, he claims that historical materialism offers a better explanation of the former than neo-materialism, given the latter’s propensity to blur any distinction between different agencies – thus downplaying the exceptional human powers that seem to have brought about the Anthropocene itself.

It could be argued that the process of hybridization commingles society and nature in a promiscuous, productive way, generating new forms that result from their reciprocal influence. In other words, this process allows for change in all parties as they relate to one another, while at the same time it produces a novelty that cannot be reduced to its component parts (Hinchliffe 2007: 51). It is in this respect that a relational view of materiality makes sense – one that shows that the competencies and capacities of things are not intrinsic, but derive from association (Bakker and Bridge 2006: 16). Therefore, neo-materialism seems to offer a more convincing ontology than traditional dualist positions, as it emphasizes entanglements and connections over divisions and hierarchies.

But how well does the Anthropocene fit with this view? If we take it to be a given state of socio-natural relations, what does it teach us about hybridity and hybridization? And what about nature itself? On a general level, of course, the Anthropocene même could be seen as a hybrid: the novelty created by the intermingling of social and natural systems, a socio-natural entanglement whose main driver has been the transformative powers of the human species in its quest for adaptive survival; an aggressive adaptation, however, that includes both intentional and unintentional alterations of pristine nature. Perhaps climate change is the most obvious example of such hybridity, as the climate system has been unintentionally altered by human activity. But the latter has also left its mark on the components of ecosystems, as biologist Erle C. Ellis has tried to show. He has introduced the notion of “anthropogenic biomes” in order to describe how the unit of ecological analysis (the biome) can no longer be understood as being purely “natural,” as recent studies suggest that human-dominated ecosystems now cover more of earth’s surface than “wild” ecosystems (Ellis and Ramankutty 2008; Ellis and Cutler 2013). This has been produced by deliberate as much as by unintentional human activity – but human all the same – over the last centuries. Ellis has even cautioned that “natural” biomes have never been the norm, as human beings have been treading the earth for a very long time.

Similarly, Young (Young 2014) has called for a “biogeography of the Anthropocene” that adapts to a new reality where hybridization is the new normal. This includes the developing of methods that allow the study of “novel species assemblages.” It has also been argued that “speciation by hybridization” might become one of the key signatures of the Anthropocene, as human development boosts diversity in unexpected ways: new anthropogenic habitats contain some new species previously rare or absent, while the ensemble of new and old habitats, together with climate change, increases habitat, evolutionary origination accelerates, and hybridization brings formerly separated species into contact (Thomas 2013). At the same time, species invasions have become normalized, a process by which some generalist species – those accommodating best to human systems – take over large portions of the planet, pushing out the specialist species that developed in isolation. Zoologist Gordon Orians has a name for this: the “Homogocene” (Rosenzweig 2011). Finally, in what looks like a phenomenon tailored for neo-materialist observers, hybridization can also combine “natural” and “artificial” inorganic matter, as the rock formations found in a Hawaiian beach demonstrate: formed from melting plastic in fires lit by humans who were camping or fishing, they are cobbled together from plastic, volcanic rock, beach sand, seashells, and corals ( Corcoran, Moore and Jazvac 2014). Tellingly, they have been named “plastiglomerate” – a humble but significant assemblage that could very well serve as a symbol for the Anthropocene as a whole.

As Noel Castree (Castree 2014; see also his contribution to this volume, Chapter 2) has argued, some human geographers see the Anthropocene as an opportunity to rethink old Western categories that foster a false separation between human beings and the nonhuman world. Moreover, this has implications for conservation and ecosystem management, as a post-natural paradigm is emerging that is grounded on the hybrid character of current “nature” (Lorimer and Driessens 2013; Marris 2013). Castree points out that many conservationists now accept that “natural biomes” are a myth – one that is grounded on a “purified” view of nature hardly tenable in the Anthropocene age. In truth, this purity view has long been challenged by cultural historians (Cronon 1996). Yet the angle from which the argument is put forward is new: not the cultural construction of nature but the ultimate materiality of it. This is interesting because, as we have seen, Latour’s view of nature as a hybrid involves both matter and discourse, physical realities as much as narratives and figurations. Yet this is not the kind of hybrid that the Anthropocene produces, as the latter reinforces the material dimension of socio-natural relations without overlooking its cultural dimension. Ultimately, what is at stake here is the social construction of nature – or rather, the validity of such a position.

In part, neo-materialism is an attempt to go beyond the realist–constructivist debate, taking the side of a newly found reality in which the distinction between nature and culture collapses under the unanimity of matter. This turn has resonated in geography as well, where a materialist revolt took place against the emphasis on the social dimension of nature: resource and environmental geography have conceptualized nature in predominantly physical terms (Bakker and Bridge 2006: 8). Waste studies, for instance, have accentuated an engagement with materiality as transformation and process (Kirsch 2012: 438). Such an emphasis also possesses a normative side, as this re-ontologization of nature is seen to remind us of its resistance against human transformative efforts, a quality that the constructivist account may help to obscure (Fitzsimmons 1989). Yet this resistance is weaker than it used to be, as human efforts are now more fruitful in more and more realms. Be that as it may, though, these views confirm that constructivism must incorporate the physical dimension of the socio-natural relation in order to be credible. In other words, a material version of constructivism is to be developed: the recognition of the fact that any social construction of nature is first and foremost a material reconstruction of nature, a process which, of course, is conditioned in turn by cultural representations of nature. Through this process, nature is transformed into human environment, so that it can be said to be a hybrid in at least two senses: as the Latourian quasi-object, where matter and ideas merge, and as a product of the complex process of hybridization that results in new socio-natural forms.

Remarkably, the social construction of nature reaches more and more deeply into nature due to the increase of human manipulative abilities – as genetic engineering and synthetic biology attest. This means that our understanding of what it means to reconstruct nature must change, since it cannot be restricted anymore to “shallow” nature (Demeritt 2002: 776). In turn, this leads to the existential question: does nature still exist? To put it differently: is a reconstructed and hybridized nature, the nature of the Anthropocene, natural at all? The question is not trivial, as the prior reference to conservation strategies shows.

Nature Questioned

At first glance, there is nothing new in the claim that nature has ended. For over two decades, this event has been announced repeatedly, either by sociologists interested in risk or by environmentalists resigned to accept a sad reality (McKibben 1990; Giddens 1991; Beck 1992). Despite the grandeur of the statement, it is a simple idea: nature can no longer be defined by its independence from human beings and society. Socio-natural relations currently exhibit a number of features that reinforce this entanglement: hybridization, transformation, and manipulation. It is not that nature is seen as dead matter in a mechanistic fashion; rather, the process by which human beings colonize the natural world has reached a quantitative degree that makes for a qualitative change. This is reflected in the social sciences, where simple “nature” has been replaced by concepts such as social nature, second nature, or hybrid nature (Pollini 2013: 30). An uncomplicated nature is not on offer anymore.

Yet natural beings and forms stay out there, as a living proof in the eyes of many environmentalists of the nonsensical character of this absurdly anthropocentric claim. Even climate change can be seen as a denial of this premature death, reminding human beings of their dependency on the living conditions provided by natural systems. Moreover, nature cannot end: we should not conflate the shallow nature that is manifest in nonhuman beings and wild landscapes with the set of causal powers and deep structures upon which our social activity ultimately depends. In this regard, Valerie Plumwood (Plumwood 2006: 135) speaks of “elements of independence” that demonstrate the indestructibility of nature. All in all, this quarrel has been taking place for a long time now.

However, the Anthropocene seems to reinforce the claim that nature has ended. As the evidence about the socio-natural intermingling stacks up, the pristine autonomy of nature seems harder to defend. The latter existed before humans, whereas we are writing now after history and thus after nature. Erle C. Ellis (Ellis 2011: 1027) reaches the same conclusion: “From a philosophical point of view, nature is now human nature; there is no more wild nature to be found, just ecosystems in different states of human interaction, differing in wildness and humanness.” What Ellis is suggesting is that we should forget about the supposed essence of nature and focus instead on the socio-natural interaction as it is. Again, history trumps ontology. And from this standpoint we can simultaneously acknowledge nature’s “elements of independence” and a state of relations marked by the coupling of social and natural systems, the development of more and more human manipulative abilities, as well as a hybridization process accelerated under the unpredictable conditions provided by the Anthropocene. To talk about the end of nature in the Anthropocene, then, is to claim that natural processes can no longer be defined as independent of human influence (except in a very general sense), as well as to observe that natural forms and processes have been influenced by human beings to a very high degree. It makes no difference whether this colonization has been intentional or unintentional, and the same goes for the visibility or invisibility of such influence: a dog may bear no traces of human manipulation of the species, but that does not make it less true.

Interestingly, neo-materialism seems to travel in the opposite direction. But it does so by operating on a different level; namely, that of matter. As the latter becomes rather than is, it makes scant sense to talk about nature’s “end.” This is especially patent in the case of the new vitalism advanced by Jane Bennett (Bennett 2010), for whom nature is less a passive object of human action than a dynamic entity that changes on its own as well as in contact with human actors, while constraining and influencing them as well. She goes on to argue that nature’s definition should make room for this natural creativity, so that the very term “nature” describes a process of morphing, formation, and deformation – the outcome of the strange conjunctions of things in motion. Therefore, if a “creative not-quite-human force capable of producing the new” is recognized as the main source of change, nature simply cannot ever end – it is just transformed. That is why she describes a “vibrant matter.”

However, the neo-materialist position is not incompatible with the claim that nature has ended and can, in fact, help to illuminate it. Leaving aside for a moment the theory of agency defended by neo-materialists, the key here lies in the distinction between matter and nature: as they are not necessarily the same thing, neo-materialism may very well serve as an additional foundation for a post-natural conception of nature in the Anthropocene. The reason is that matter lies below nature or is contained within it, but is not identical with it: nature would be a phenomenon of matter, which remains as the noumenon that often escapes our senses. At first sight, matter would seem to be tantamount to “deep nature,” so that this further reconceptualization might appear as unnecessary. But it is something else: matter in the neo-materialist understanding encompasses both shallow and deep nature, as well as the world of things and artifacts, as they all are made of it and, at a subatomic level, there are no differences among them. Therefore, nature can be said to end without matter ending at all. To put it differently: nature’s end is not the same thing as nature’s death, as the former can take place without the latter also happening. Because even if nature ceases to be autonomous with respect to humanity, matter retains its autonomy as a vital force that underpins the visible world. This vitality is, however, captured by human beings for their own goals through a number of techniques, in such a way and to such degrees that the distinction between shallow and deep nature becomes increasingly untenable. As we saw earlier, human agentic capacities are prevalent over those of nonhuman actants – a hierarchy that neo-materialism fails to recognize, but without which it is hard to make any sense of the Anthropocene. There is a distributive agency, to be sure, but one where human actors possess more influence than others.

On the other hand, such enhanced capacities do not provide anything close to human “control” of nature, as environmentalists rightly point out. For them, it is another proof of the impossibility of nature’s end. But that is not necessarily the case, since the end of nature can take place in the precise sense that has been explained above, while an increasingly self-reflective control of socio-natural relations gradually takes shape. This is not a perfect control, but an increased one that proves to be sufficient for realizing a number of human goals – among them the protection of species and ecosystems.

What emerges from this reconceptualization is actually a post-natural understanding of nature; that is, one that accepts that we are not dealing with old nature anymore but rather, with a transformed, hybridized, humanized one. A questioned nature thus leads to a new formulation of the question of nature.

Ontology in the Anthropocene: Does It Matter?

So far, I have taken the Anthropocene as a valid scientific observation, which in turn is deduced from a number of measurable facts that can be compared with previous data, in order to make a statement about the current state of socio-natural relations. To accept the basic facts communicated by scientists, of course, is not compulsory: it is well known that science is not isolated from society, and thus, a perfectly neutral scientific knowledge does not seem feasible. That said, the impact of sustained human activity on the planet seems uncontroversial, and the Anthropocene provides a new framework for studying the socio-natural entanglement, as well as a new vantage point from which to make normative claims about it. Thus, I would distinguish between the acceptance of the Anthropocene as a scientific observation and the conversation about its causes, meanings, representations, narratives, and normative implications.

In this chapter, I have reflected upon the relationship between neo-materialist thinking and the Anthropocene. The former’s emphasis on matter over nature, on becoming over being, on a distributed over a human-centered agency, poses an interesting challenge for environmental thinking, as it offers new answers for old questions concerning socio-natural relations and, ultimately, their long-term sustainability. But how can we translate this into normative language? And what are the implications for environmental policy practice? In sum, what would a post-natural agenda entail for both environmental thinking and policy practice?

To begin with, such normative translation is not easy; at least not in the case of neo-materialist claims concerning ontology and agency. If nature, as well as the distinction between the natural and the human, dissolves into matter, what is left? Which would the object of environmental thought then be? Therein lies the danger of hollowing out not just “nature,” but even socio-natural relations themselves. In other words, to talk about matter is, despite the ontological verisimilitude of neo-materialist claims, normatively sterile. Besides, there is a limit to the explanatory capacity of this approach as far as socio-natural relations are concerned: the loss of biodiversity might be irrelevant on a molecular level, as matter is simply transformed, but the same cannot be said if we adopt an ecological or a moral viewpoint. As for agency, similar issues can be raised, since a distributional view of the former cannot fully explain human impacts on the environment. Furthermore, placing too much emphasis on nonhuman agency and suprahuman processes such as those of geology or deep time may give the impression that human action does not count for much, thus weakening the case for political involvement and sustainable policies.

On the other hand, the neo-materialist case for hybridity should prove more helpful as a contribution to devising a post-natural understanding of nature that is both non-reductionist and nuanced. Hybridity, as manifested in a spectacular fashion in the Anthropocene hypothesis, means that society and nature are irrevocably entangled. In that sense, nature does not exist anymore. But this claim is not to be taken literally. Instead, the natural should be seen as a matter of degrees, as hybrids have a composition and a history that allow us to establish their place in the nature–social continuum. This has undeniable implications for environmental policy and the environmental research agenda. As Adams (Adams 2016) has pointed out, new conservation strategies can thus be conceived wherein the idea of a pristine or untouched nature is discarded. At the same time, the complexity of this socio-natural entanglement demands explanation on a number of levels, ranging from the ecological to the technological and, of course, the technonatural. Future emphasis should not be placed on the entity called “nature,” but rather, on socio-natural relations in all their complexity.


Human beings have been asking themselves about the nature of nature for millennia. Now, this question looks more pressing than ever – as the coupling of social and natural systems brought about by the aggressive adaptation that is typical of the human species has reached such a degree that a new geological epoch has been announced. In the Anthropocene, it is not just ecosystems or species that become endangered, but rather, the whole planet. Human transformative powers go more and more deeply into natural forms, processes, and even causal structures. As a result, leaving the risk of unsustainability aside, nature seems to lose its autonomy with respect to human beings and social systems. The question thus arises as to whether nature is still nature – or whether its end can finally be proclaimed. This chapter has tried to shed light on this intricate question by crossing the Anthropocene literature with that of neo-materialism, as both epistemological turns can fruitfully engage in a dialogue about the different aspects of nature’s nature: from ontology to reproduction, from agency to representation. Neo-materialism proves to be an interesting angle from which to observe nature in the Anthropocene: its emphasis on matter, its claim about distributive agencies, as well as its view on hybridity illuminate the current state of socio-natural relations and thus the wider interrogation about nature. It also exhibits some limitations, the most troublesome of all being the neglect of human agency as the main source of natural transformation. In this sense, it is the Anthropocene that serves as a correction for neo-materialism. At the same time, though, the distinction between matter and nature creates new possibilities for framing the controversial “end of nature.” By doing this, neo-materialism indirectly contributes to the urgent task of formulating a post-natural understanding of nature for the Anthropocene age.


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Climate Change vs Nihilism: Leading Meaningful Lives in the Anthropocene

W. Russ Payne

Original blog here

Many people already recognize moral reasons for driving less, eating less meat, supporting public policies aimed at mitigating climate change and so forth. And most will see acting on those moral reasons as calling for personal sacrifices for the sake of distant and future people and life. But the degree of sacrifice called for is as much a function of our values and interests as it depends on what we are actually called on to do or not do. Little philosophical attention to climate change has critically addressed the underlying values and interests that drive climate change. Here, I will argue that these are ultimately nihilistic and that addressing climate change presents an opportunity to lead more meaningful lives. The argument will proceed by first examining some of the blind spots in thinking of climate change as a Tragedy of the Commons (TOC). We’ll then consider the variety of nihilism implicit in complacency about climate change. Finally, I’ll introduce Irving Singer’s naturalistic account of meaning in life and show how on this account, acting on climate change is a path out of nihilism and towards a more meaningful way of life.

Game Theory and its Limitations

We may be most familiar with hearing climate change addressed as a kind of collective action problem. Indeed the moral problem of climate change does share some of the features of a classic TOC. But this theoretical model has important limitations, perhaps most notably concerning the intergenerational and geopolitical aspects of climate change. The agents who are in a position do something about avoiding the worst results are not the ones that will suffer the worst of the consequences. Stephen Gardiner has made the moral hazards of such asymmetries a central feature of his treatment of Climate Change.[1]

Beginning with well understood models and exploring their limitations can be a reasonable strategy for inquiry. But models can obscure their limitations as well and the TOC does this in assuming a prior understanding of the interests of the parties involved. This pre-empts critical examination of the values that drive climate change and the role these play in leading, or failing to lead, meaningful lives.

Collective action problems like the prisoner’s dilemma or the tragedy of the commons reveal how choices that appear rational for individuals can lead to outcomes that are collectively disastrous. The interesting feature of collective action problems is that what seems rational relative to the interests of the individual turns out to be irrational for the collective, including that individual. In the classic case, individual farmers deem it rational to turn another sheep out on the village commons because as part owners of the commons they only bear some of the cost of feeding that additional sheep and yet they reap the full reward when it comes time to take the sheep to market. When every farmer reasons after this fashion for one additional sheep and then another, the commons gets exploited to the point where its carrying capacity is so diminished it’s of negligible value to anyone. At the end of the day, the seemingly rational choices of each farmer result in a commons that is of no value to any individual and all are worse off. The general recipe for a tragedy of the commons is just self-interested, rational individuals having free access to a limited commonly held good. As a corollary, we can note that the only way to avoid a tragedy of the commons is to eliminate one or more the ingredients in the general recipe. For practical purposes, this generally means adopting policies that regulate access to the commons.

This much will seem quite familiar to most of you. Here I want to raise concerns about the broadly consequentialist framework presumed by models like the TOC. Game theoretic models like the TOC do not assume anything as specific as classic hedonic utilitarianism. But they do treat our values and rational interests as a given. The conflicts between what is individually and collectively rational in such models are a function of those presupposed rational interests. In the prisoner’s dilemma, for instance, the collectively disadvantageous outcome of more jail time arises only on the assumption that each suspect is concerned only with minimizing jail time. But suppose instead that the suspects are in love and care only about maximizing their time outside prison together. In this case, cooperation is rational for each both individually and collectively. No dilemma is generated. Because the interests of individuals are assumed in game theoretic models like the prisoner’s dilemma and the TOC, the focus on these models will tend to pre-empt critical evaluation of interests and values. But, the ethical problems we face in adressing climate change concern not just matters of finding rational means to given ends. They are also, perhaps centrally, concerned with the worthiness of the ends we pursue as we dig up and emit carbon. Considering nihilism and meaning in life affords a useful framework for evaluating the worthiness of our ends.


Nihilism is popularly understood as the view that nothing matters at all. All values are valueless and human life is absurd according to this sort of Nihilism. Paul Katsafanas finds a very different view of nihilism in the thought of Nietzsche.[2]  Katsafanas argues that nihilism in Nietzsche should be understood not as the devaluation of values generally, but as the devaluation of “higher values.” Zarathustra’s encounter with the last man is offered as the dramatic portrayal of Nietzsche’s conception of nihilism:

The earth has become small, and on it hops the last man, who makes everything small. His race is as ineradicable as the flea-beetle; the last man lives longest. ‘We have invented happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink. . . . . Who still wants to rule? Who obey? Both require too much exertion. No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels differently goes into the madhouse ‘Formerly all the world was mad’, say the most refined, and they blink. . . . ‘We have invented happiness,’ say the last men, and they blink.

Nietzsche’s last man has not rejected value all together. He still values his happiness, his comfort, complacency and convenience. What the last man lacks are higher values. These are values that place demands on us, give us purpose, inspire our passions and orient our communities.[3] It is tempting to think that such higher values must be transcendent in some sense. If not set by Divine decree, higher values must, it seems, be found beyond us. How else could they make demands on us. Skepticism about the external reality of higher values could then lead us into the nihilism of the last man. Nietzsche’s last man does provide a prescient vision of our own cultural moment, when students come to philosophy classes assuming as a matter of common sense that all values are subjective. Subjective values place no demands on us and inspire passion or form the basis of community only until our concern shifts to new and different subjective values. A consumerist conception of the good life as the life of getting whatever you happen to want is ideally suited to this sort of nihilist. Nietzsche provides a clear diagnosis of consumerism as a variety of nihilism, and one we might easily ignore precisely because it is so pervasive.

Nietzsche was anxious about the pending loss of higher values and held out little hope for resurrecting the higher values that had previously animated civilization. I don’t plan to venture where Nietzsche despaired. Instead, I’ll appeal to a more contemporary naturalistic account of meaning in life with the ultimate goal of arguing that the crisis of climate change presents an opportunity to escape from the nihilism of consumerism and Nietzsche’s last man and to lead more meaningful lives.

Nihilism doesn’t imply caring about nothing, it just involves failing to care about things in the right way. This much in Neitzsche let’s keep, but we needn’t also follow Nietzsche in thinking that transcendent higher values are essential to leading a meaningful life. In a shift roughly analogous to the move from foundationalism to holism in epistemology,[4] we might instead take caring about things in the right way to involve internal coherence rather than transcendent or fundamental values.

Meaning in Life: Singer’s Naturalistic Approach

As a form of life I can identify in specific ways with all other forms of life. Like me, all life forms seek a good of their own. Even when I pluck a fish from a river and obliterate its vital force to feed my own, I can’t help but regard that vitality as a good thing. Irving Singer likens this vital force, this seeking a good of one’s own, to Spinoza’s conatus and Nietzsche’s will to power[5] and deems it a source of meaning in life. Vitality is not the only or even the most fundamental source of meaning in life on Singer’s view. But it is a source of meaning that inexorably binds us to the rest of life on this planet. Pursuing interests that undermine vitality on the planet puts us at odds with ourselves. And this, being at odds with ourselves, I’ll suggest, is the essence of nihilism.  Leading a meaningful life requires a degree of coherence among our values.

In considering what it takes to lead a meaningful life we needn’t assume that our purposes, lives or the fate of humanity matter in any transcendent sense, to the universe at large, for example, or to any supernatural deity. We also needn’t assume that there is some correct answer to questions about the meaning of life. Our central concern is just with meaning in life. We must ultimately contend with arguments for the absurdity of human purposefulness based on the idea that the fate of humanity is of no significance to the universe at large. But we shouldn’t assume up front that arguments to this effect are cogent.

Singer argues that absurdist views like those advanced by Sartre, Camus and Nagel overlook the possibility that meaning is something we bring to life through our own purposefulness.[6] On Singer’s naturalistic approach, meaning in life doesn’t depend on any external grand design. He contends that we bestow value on things through caring about them. For Singer, if something matters to us, it matters, and this is sufficient for meaning. He’s prepared to grant that a person who devotes his life to collecting bottle caps still leads a meaningful life. Regarding love as a source of meaning in life, Singer contends that,

Love is not merely a contributor – one among others- to a meaningful life. In its own way it may underlie all other forms of meaning. . . Seen from this perspective, meaning in life is the pursuit of love, circuitous and even thwarted as that can often be.[7]

Love, for Singer, has both an appreciative aspect where we find value in the beloved, and an aspect of caring where value is bestowed on the beloved. The beloved is made important through our caring. The value we bestow on things through caring about them is a source of meaning in life. Singer proposes that our regard for vitality understood as a generalized “love for life” in all of its forms can be seen as a kind of bedrock source of meaning in life. But we love many and assorted things beyond this.

Meaning grounded in love appears to be morally neutral since one can love bad things. Nazi’s committed atrocities on the basis of their love for an ideology of racial supremacy. Singer must grant that there is meaning in this devotion. However, a point from Harry Frankfurt on the closely related matter of self-love is pertinent. [8]  When some of our loves stand in conflict with others, the value we thereby bestow is compromised. The love for an ideology of racial supremacy distorts, obscures or obliterates the love for people generally, grounded in the degree to which we can identify with fellow human beings. Resolving the internal conflict the ideology of racial supremacy demands somehow turning a blind eye to humanity of others. This failure of love represents unrealized, indeed spurned, meaning in life. Meaning in life is compromised by loving incoherently.

In the case of climate change, many of us similarly find ourselves internally conflicted. We do value the convenience and comforts of high consumption lifestyles and yet we value the continued flourishing of humanity and the planet. We now have a view on which it is clear how this internal conflict undermines meaning in our lives. The mere presence of this conflict is not enough to indicate nihilism. When we find a moral crisis in this conflict and strive to resolve it, we seek a more meaningful life. But to acquiesce in this conflict is to give in to nihilism understood as valuing incoherently.

That self love and meaning in life demand internal coherence among the things we care about sheds helpful light on the vigor with which climate change is denied by some in spite of the clear scientific evidence. What is at stake isn’t just the pleasure of a high consumption lifestyle, but an ill informed and misguided sense of meaning and purpose built around that lifestyle. The coherence required for a sense of meaning can be sustained only by denying the science. Climate deniers can sustain the illusion of leading meaningful lives only at the price of obliviousness. Yet, in spite of their willful ignorance, their loves remain in conflict.

Many more of us are stuck in the middle, grasping the science at some level and yet loving lifestyles that are ultimately at odds with our love for life in general. And so we are at odds with ourselves. Nihilism threatens. The cure is to face our own crisis of values more deliberately, examine our values and re-align our interests with the life-loving values we must ultimately recognize as indispensable.

Final Thoughts

Garrett Hardin argues that appeals to conscience will be self-defeating in the face of a tragedy of the commons. Those who are responsive to appeals to their better nature merely afford greater opportunities for exploitation of the commons by those who lack scruples as the conscientious forego their own interests. Worse yet, appeals to conscience are pathological in that they undermine psychological integrity by placing people in a double bind. We all recognize that we are imposing burdens on future humans and other living things when we burn fossil fuels. Now suppose we make a moral argument for reducing our individual carbon footprints. According to Hardin, the message of this argument will be twofold. We condemn those who don’t make sacrifices to reduce their carbon footprints as moral reprobates. At the same time “we secretly condemn [the person who is responsive to the appeal to conscience] for a simpleton who can be shamed into standing aside while the rest of us exploit the commons.”[9] The conclusion Hardin drives at is that only mutual coercion mutually agreed upon can save us from a tragedy of the commons.

I fear that Hardin’s argument places us further double bind. For how are we to get to mutually agreed upon mutual coercion without appeals to conscience in cases like climate change where the inter-generational and geopolitical aspects give the privileged the option of “buck-passing”, as Gardiner puts it,[10] distancing ourselves personally from the worst of the tragic consequences and accountability for those consequences. Ultimately, mutually agreed upon mutual coercion is necessary, but the dynamics of climate change require that this be the product of conscience, not an alternative to it.

There remains an open question concerning whether an individual is morally absolved for exploiting the commons in the absence of mutually agreed on mutual coercion. From a consequentialist perspective it might appear so since futile efforts yield no good consequences. My personal efforts to reduce emissions might be so insignificant as to be deemed futile. But this is shallow even as a consequentialist analysis since it neglects the value I find in leading a more meaningful life. Efforts I make to fight climate change, whether these involve activism or shrinking my personal carbon foot print afford an opportunity for me to build greater meaning in my life by reconciling internal conflicts among my loves. I can’t reconcile my love for driving with my general love for life in all its forms. I do, however, have an opportunity to lead a more meaningful life through cultivating a love for cycling. I might even aspire one day to walk. Such shifts in my interests, the things I care about, bring greater unity to my loves and the result is a more meaningful, more coherently purposeful life.

As a callow graduate student I inadvertently started a family. After sharing the news that I was soon to be a parent, one of my professors told me that having a child is something that’s rational to do, but only after the fact. The advent of this loving relationship so completely changes one’s interests that the resulting value structure will lead us to find many things rational that weren’t before. The moral crisis of climate change impresses upon us our kinship with future lives, human and otherwise. As soon as we take up the burden of love for future and distant life, our lives are enriched with meaning and the game theoretic equilibria are upended.  As we seek coherence between our present interests and our concern for life like us that is more distant, the interests and values that generate tragedy are displaced by interests and values that heal.

[1] Stephen Gardiner, The Perfect Moral Storm (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011)

[2] Paul Katsafanas, “Fugitive Pleasure and the Mingingful Life: Nietzsche on Nihilim and Higher Values”, Journal of the American Philosophical Association (2015) 395-416.

[3] Katsafanas, 406.

[4] Katsafanas would resist understanding Nietzche’s higher values simply as foundational values. His developed view of Nietzsche’s conception of higher values includes a role as final ends that can justify others, but more than this. Foundational values are not necessarily higher values.

[5] Irving Singer, The Creation of Value (Baltimore, Maryland: John Hopkins University Press, 1992), 88.

[6] Irving Singer, The Creation of Value, 33-40.

[7] Irving Singer, The Pursuit of Love (Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press, 1994), 2.

[8] On the more specific but highly relevant issue of self-love, Frankfurt argues that conflicted love undermines self-love. Self love demands whole heartedness which in turn requires coherence. This view complements Singer nicely and helps to explain the failure of love that undermines meaning in life when our loves are in conflict. Finding meaning in life demands a kind of internal coherence in the structure of our values, a coherence that can result in harmony in our purposes. Harry Frankfurt, The Reasons of Love (Princeton, New Jersey: The Princeton University Press, 2004), 91-99.

[9] Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162 (1968): 1246-1247.

[10] Stephen Gardiner, The Perfect Moral Storm, 148-59.

Celebrities and Climate Change

Michael K Goodman, Julie Doyle, Nathan Farrell


Summary and Keywords

Since the mid-2000s, entertainment celebrities have played increasingly prominent roles in the cultural politics of climate change, ranging from high-profile speeches at UN climate conferences, and social media interactions with their fans, to producing and appearing in documentaries about climate change that help give meaning to and communicate this issue to a wider audience. The role afforded to celebrities as climate change communicators is an outcome of a political environment increasingly influenced by public relations and attuned toward the media’s representation of political ideas, policies, and sentiments. Celebrities act as representatives of mass publics, operating within centers of elite political power. At the same time, celebrities represent the environmental concerns of their audiences; that is, they embody the sentiments of their audiences on the political stage. It is in this context that celebrities have gained their authority as political, social, and environmental “experts,” and the political performances of celebrities provide important ways to engage electorates and audiences with climate change action.

Contemporary celebrities work to shape how audiences and publics ought to feel about climate change in efforts to get them to act or change their behaviors. These “after data” moments are seen very clearly in Leonardo DiCaprio’s documentary Before the Flood. Yet, with celebrities acting as our emotional witnesses, they not only might bring climate change to greater public attention, but they expand their brand through neoliberalism’s penchant for the commoditization of everything including, as here, care and concern for the environment. As celebrities build up their own personal capital as eco-warriors, they create very real value for the “celebrity industrial complex” that lies behind their climate media interventions. Climate change activism is, through climate celebrities, rendered as spectacle, with celebrities acting as environmental and climate pedagogues framing for audiences the emotionalized problems and solutions to global environmental change. Consequently, celebrities politicize emotions in ways that that remain circumscribed by neoliberal solutions and actions that responsibilize audiences and the public.

Keywords: celebrity, climate change, affect, emotion, embodiment, spectacle, neoliberal, commodification, activism, media


Given the increasing pervasiveness of celebrities in humanitarian and environmental campaigning since the late 1990s—as spokespeople for NGO campaigns (Anderson, 2013) and as creators of their own organizations (Alexander, 2013)—it is surprising that relatively little research has been undertaken to explore celebrity involvement in climate change campaigning and communication. Indeed, as the COP21 negotiations in December 2015 indicated, high-profile A-list celebrities were the “charismatic megafauna” (Boykoff, Goodman, & Littler, 2010) in Paris: They lent global star power to this high-profile political event by “expertly” navigating the intersections between media, politics, and science through speeches at the UN conference from actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Alec Baldwin, and former celebrity politician and actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. With the rise of “Celebritus Politicus” (Goodman, 2013) in recent years, it is not surprising that a global political event about the future of our planet would garner elite celebrity endorsement, yet research on understanding this growing “celebritization of climate change” (Boykoff & Goodman, 2009, p. 395) is relatively scarce.

Climate change communication scholars and practitioners have over the last decade called for more culturally meaningful and socially relevant forms of climate change communication that connect it to the cultural values, and mediated/social practices of our everyday lives (Boykoff, Goodman, & Curtis, 2009; Doyle, 2011; Moser & Dilling, 2008). Celebrities have arguably provided a significant response to these challenges, using their Celebrities and Climate Change celebrity status to draw media and cultural attention to climate change, helping to bring it within the popular cultural sphere, as well as utilizing their fan bases to mobilize engagement and action via social media (Alexander, 2013). But, they have done so through what might be termed the “spectacle”: highly visible, eye-catching, and visually exuberant media appearances that have the potential to distract audiences from the “real” environmental issues under scrutiny. Here, then, celebrities provide an important human dimension to climate change beyond polar bears and melting glaciers to develop a kind of “human embodiment of the spectacle” (Goodman, Littler, Brockington, & Boykoff, 2016) in the ways they utilize their very bodies to garner media and audience attention around environmental activism. Yet concurrently, these visible embodiments may render climate change as monetized and meaningless media performances rather than interventions related to the intricate social practices of the everyday or political realms.

This article explores these tensions to understand what is politically, socially, and ethically at stake in the growing celebritization of climate change. How is it that celebrities have come to be the preferred spokespeople for climate change at global scientific events, and in what ways might their involvement reshape the cultural politics of climate on a global, national, and everyday level? In order to explore these questions this article reviews a set of distinct and interrelated literatures from celebrity and media studies, cultural geography, development studies, and environmental and climate communication. The first part of the article examines the research on the historical developments of celebrity culture within mainly Western contexts in order to situate the changing media and political landscape through which celebrities have gained their authority as political, social and environmental “experts.” In doing so, it explores the emerging literature on celebrity activism in relation to humanitarian and environmental issues and considers the problematic ways in which politics and a commodified culture are mutually entwined and reinforced through the practices of celebrity. The article then moves on to examine the small amount of existing research on celebrity involvement with climate change specifically, and simultaneously draws upon the work of climate change communication scholars and practitioners to consider the possibilities and limitations of celebrity work on climate change. This allows an exploration of the broader sociopolitical-economic factors that shape celebrity work on climate change in the context of a media consumer culture, and a more specific investigation of celebrity’s role in (potentially) making climate change more visible and embodied for Western audiences.

From there, the article examines campaigns from 2014–2016, in which celebrities offer novel engagements with climate change, helping to move public discourse beyond scientific data, and facilitating more emotional and visceral connections with climate change. The article ends by speculating upon the challenges generated by such emotional particularly when undertaken by celebrities who may politicize emotions that remain circumscribed by neoliberal solutions and action.

Celebrity Politics, or the Politics of Celebrity

In order to understand the role celebrities play in the cultural politics of climate change, it is important to establish how celebrities have come to occupy privileged position within 21st-century media, culture, and politics. Throughout history, famous or well known individuals have featured commonly within many cultures across the globe (Braudy, 1997), reflecting and re-inscribing the characteristics held in esteem within their particular societies. Consequently, historical fame reflected social structures that valorized rigid class distinctions and legitimized the inherited positions of social elites (Inglis, 2010). Despite these historical precedents of fame, contemporary celebrity culture is commonly understood within academic literature as a phenomenon of predominantly Western origin, arising in the 20th century (Schickel, 2000, p. 21; see also Rojek, 2012).

However, just as historical fame acted as an indicator of the moral, political, or economic orthodoxies of a society, due to the corresponding elevation of those individuals who embodied such ideals to the level of “famous,” contemporary celebrity culture reveals much about current global societies. In this instance, celebrity reflects and validates, to some degree, ideas of social mobility and the political ascendancy of the crowd, and is informed by what P. David Marshall credits as the “twinned discourses of modernity: democracy and capitalism” (Marshall, 2001, p. 4). As both of these intertwining discourses work to emphasize and centralize the individual—in the respective roles of citizen or consumer—it stands to reason that celebrity, with its “capacity to house conceptions of individuality and simultaneously to embody or help embody ‘collective configurations’ of the social world” (Marshall, 2001, pp. xi–xii), would assume such a primary position within current global cultures. Celebrities are simultaneously socially exceptional hyper-individuals and the embodiment of the affective will of their audiences. That the 20th and 21st centuries have witnessed a significant increase in the agency and territorial reach of the mass media industries within which many celebrities have forged their fame (Turner, 2013, p. 3), further helps to solidify their position. Richard Dyer, whose work on film stars (Dyer, 1979, 1986) provided a foundation for later scholarly work on celebrity, considers that stars reflect socially acceptable modes of being. They are role models for particular ways of being someone of a certain gender, ethnicity, sexuality, class, etc. This imbues celebrities with considerable power and influence, which led to them being considered a type of “powerless elite” (Alberoni, 1972).

However, in more recent decades, the political activity and possible influence of celebrity upon formal politics has become more pronounced, particularly as politics has become increasingly mediatized and more heavily influenced by public relations. Developed as a means of explaining the “process of change in which politicians tend to adapt to various constraints imposed by the media” [original emphasis] (Asp, 2014, p. 351); “mediatization” refers to the ways in which aspects of social and political discourse are shaped to fit the structures and conventions of contemporary media platforms of communication. One outcome of mediatization is the convergence of celebrity and political cultures. This is further enabled by publics who, as John Corner and Dick Pels (2003) suggest, “want to vote for persons and their ideas rather than for political parties and their programmes.” In this context, Corner and Pels write, “political style” becomes a key “focus for post-ideological lifestyle choices, which are indifferent to the entrenched oppositions between traditional ‘isms’ and their institutionalization.” Instead, “more eclectic, fluid, issue-specific and personality-bound forms of political recognition and engagement” (2003, p. 7) are enacted. Consequently, the role of the political leader, “who must somehow embody the sentiments of the party, the people, and the state” has become aligned with the role of the celebrity, “who must somehow embody the sentiments of an audience” (Marshall, 2001, p. 203).

Outcomes of this emerging political formulation include the “celebrity politician” and the “political celebrity.” Defining and developing a taxonomy of celebrity politicians is a primary focus for some of the academic literature. John Street, for example, categorizes two types. Celebrity Politician Type 1 is represented by “the traditional politician who engages with the world of popular culture in order to enhance or advance their preestablished political functions and goals” (Street, 2004, p. 437). Celebrity Politician Type 2 “refers to the entertainer who pronounces on politics and claims the right to represent peoples and causes, but who does so without seeking or acquiring elected office” (Street, 2004, p. 438). Van Zoonen (2005) offers a more detailed typology of celebrity politician, the focus of which is the relative distance of the individual to traditional centers of political power. She focuses on four key points along a spectrum that runs from traditional politician and political insider, to political insider with mass media appeal, to political outsiders, to the celebrity performer who is also a political outsider. This article focuses more on the celebrity who pronounces on politics (Street, 2004) and the celebrity performer (Van Zoonen, 2005), rather than the celebrity politician, to explore the celebritization of climate change.

Consistent with this literature, Boykoff and Goodman (2009) develop a taxonomy informed by the institutional background of the individual. They offer a more diverse range of celebrity types that includes celebrity actors, celebrity politicians, celebrity athletes, celebrity business people, celebrity musicians, and celebrity public intellectuals, thus indicating the potential for different access points for audiences and forms of affective engagements with climate change. This is explored in more detail in the “CELEBRITIES AND CLIMATE CHANGE” section of this article. What unites the various manifestations of the Celebrity Politician and/or Political Celebrity is that they provoke concerns among some commentators regarding “the trivialisation of public affairs” (Gitlin, 1997, p. 35); concerns that can be traced, perhaps, as far back as Daniel Boorstin’s dismissal of celebrity as the human “pseudoevent” (1963). Indeed, for Eric Louw (2010), celebrity politics amounts to a form of “pseudo politics.” Similarly, Daryl West expresses concerns about a political system “where star power is weighted more heavily than traditional political skills, such as bargaining, compromise and experience” (West, 2008, p. 83). Celebrities, it is thought, might crowd out more expert voices from public discourse. However, any consideration of the role of celebrities in the politics of climate change must account for the necessity of climate change being made culturally meaningful and accessible to a wide range of audiences beyond scientific and political discourse—a function that celebrities may be better placed to undertake given the dependency of their celebrity status on mediatization (Driessens, 2013).

Other scholars, perhaps taking their cue from Marshall and Street, turn away from questions of the legitimacy celebrities’ political interventions in terms of a potential dumbing down. Seeing this as something of a false dichotomy, they accept that celebrity activists serve as the embodiment of the affective responses of their audiences to a range of social and/or environmental concerns. They seek, instead, to determine the cultural, political, economic, and institutional factors that facilitate this and determine its form. One factor is the celebrity’s status as outsider to political establishments (Cooper, 2008). This is particularly the case when considering the decline in trust of traditional politicians and institutions, and the suspicion among the electorate that “politicians are in it for themselves and that they serve special interests” (West, 2008, p. 79). Nonpoliticians such as celebrities, West argues, are by contrast “considered more trustworthy and less partisan” (West, 2008, p. 79) because “[i]n a world where entangling alliances are the rule, these individuals are as close to free agents as one can find” (West, 2008, p. 81).

Celebrity Activism

The celebrity activist’s status as an embodied representation of the affective will of their audience, then, both reflects and informs the relationship of both to elite institutions: They are outsiders. However, as Van Zoonen suggests, the successful political celebrity projects a persona that has inside experience of politics but is still an outsider to political institutions (van Zoonen, 2005, p. 84). This distance from formal politics lends celebrity activists a type of moral authority, the meaning of which is transferrable to the cause with which they are associated. Yet, celebrity activists can provide clear qualitative benefits to humanitarian and environmental causes associating the cause with aspects of their public persona. They can, as Richey and Ponte suggest, “guarantee the cool quotient” of campaigns concerning issues that might otherwise be unappealing to mass publics (Richey & Ponte, 2011, p. 37). These qualitative benefits, provided by entertainment celebrities to environmental organizations, work in tandem with clear quantitative benefits: Celebrities can attract significant public attention for a cause (Anderson, 2013). This is a valuable asset for a social or environmental organization as the competitive nature of the “attention economy” increases (van Krieken, 2012).

Such ideas move scholarship of celebrity beyond concerns of a potential democratic deficit caused by celebrities’ political interventions. This is replaced by an understanding that, as Wheeler suggests, “[c]elebrities engaging in partisan or causal affairs can bring a guile and persuasiveness in using the media, which may reinvigorate politics with new ideas” (Wheeler, 2013, p. 24). The question that prompts much research on celebrity politics is what might these “new ideas” be? In the case of this article, what new ideas can celebrities bring to the politics of climate change? And how might these approaches reflect and reinforce existing political and economic orthodoxies? Accepting that celebrities might “teach us how to think and act politically” (Ross, 2011, p. 5), academics have questioned the types of discourses and practices into which audiences and consumers are being interpellated. For example, Boykoff and Goodman (2009) point to branding as a determinant of celebrity political intervention, hinting at the commercial nature of celebrity culture and opening up the possibility for tensions between the political economy of the celebrity industry, on the one hand, and the needs of social and environmental causes, on the other.

Given that the production and maintenance of celebrity status is dependent upon the interrelated processes of commodification, mediatization and personalization (Driessens, 2013), these pressures are not surprising. Lisa Ann Richey and Stefano Ponte’s Brand Aid (2011) offers a sophisticated analysis of these tensions, where social and environmental campaigning meet cause-related marketing and corporate social responsibility initiatives, through a series of case studies of brands that give financial aid in a way that gives aid to brands. In other words, through ethical consumerism, initiatives such as Product (RED), for example, rather than focus on poverty in the Global South, celebrate the agency of consumers in the Global North “solve” such problems through their choice of consumer purchases. Celebrity, in such instances, becomes a means to market these ideas to citizen-consumers and lends campaigns the types of moral authority. Goodman (2013) goes further to identify a “novel ‘species’ of celebrity called Celebritus Politicus” whose members “have situated and also have worked to situate themselves as a stylised form of the neoliberalized governance of the problems of environment and development.”

In its most simplistic sense, neoliberalism is understood as “a political-economic project which advocates, first, a strong free-market economic system, facilitated by and unrestricted by the state and, second, the use of the market as a model for other areas of political and social life” (Farrell, 2015, p. 256). Individual manifestations of this philosophy vary historically, geographically, and culturally. However, they often involve unique combinations of processes such as the privatization of state assets; the deregulation of markets, and/or the re-regulation of areas of civic life in a manner more favorable to markets; the turning of people and objects into commodities to be bought and sold through the processes of commodification, such that natural assets are converted into goods tradeable within a market; the commercialization of institutions and sectors not previously oriented toward for-profit practices—such as charity, health care, or education; the marketization of sectors of society in which such commercialized institutions may function; the individualization of societies, such that populations are encouraged to self identify as discrete individuals, operating as entrepreneurs or consumers, rather than part of collective groupings; and entrepreneurialization. The methods of social and environmental campaigns involving celebrities so often feature consumer practices, and encourage supporters to identify with the subject position of “consumer” engaging in moral activity within a market place (Richey & Ponte, 2011). Consequently, Celebritus Politicus both reflects and contributes “to the moral authority of a hegemonic market-led governance of sustainability” (Goodman, 2013, pp. 72–73). In a sustained but far less empirically grounded critique, Ilan Kapoor argues that celebrity humanitarianism “legitimates, and indeed promotes, neoliberal capitalism and global inequality” (Kapoor, 2013, p. 1).

Concerns about the commercial imperatives of celebrity involvement in environmental and humanitarian advocacy and activism thus characterizes much scholarly work in this area. Other important contributions highlight, for example, the colonial nature of Global North-South relations as embodied by celebrity activists. Repo and Yrjölä (2011), for instance, analyze media representations of Western celebrities engaged in development campaigns in Africa, and trace the lineage of such portrayals back to colonial narratives concerning popular European figures and their travels to the “dark continent.” Such media representations work to subtly promote ideas of the rational White, European man, as a binary opposite to the irrational African subject (also, Biccum, 2016). Taking account of these critiques, this article now examines existing scholarly research on celebrity involvement with climate change to explore the possibilities and limitations of this work in creating more culturally meaningful and affective engagements with this issue in the context of a neoliberal commodity culture.

Celebrities and Climate Change—Media, Politics, and Commodity Culture

Much of the earliest work on celebrity and climate change seeks to provide conceptual and theoretical frameworks through which to make sense of, and analyze, the celebritization of climate change, laying the foundations for specific case studies of climate celebrities in later scholarly work (Alexander, 2013; Anderson, 2013; Boykoff & Olson, 2013; Doyle, 2016; McCurdy, 2013). Anderson’s (2011) review of celebrity involvement in climate change was the first of its kind, signaling a growing academic interest in celebrity work on climate change. However, with very little published research in this area to draw upon at the time (notable exceptions being Boykoff & Goodman, 2009; Smith & Joffe, 2009), Anderson brings together work on media coverage of climate change, news media sources, and the PR packaging of news/politics, celebrity advocacy in environmentalism, celebrity culture and democratization, and public perceptions of climate change, to explore how the contemporary media and political landscape has shifted to include a wider variety of voices, beyond scientists, to publicly speak about climate change.

Anderson argues that as news media increasingly rely upon PR agencies to provide content, voices and sources are increasingly more packaged, in turn facilitating the amplification of celebrity voices within news stories. Anderson explains that the symbolic power that celebrities can bring to climate change, particularly if supported by the work of an established environmental NGO (such as Greenpeace), importantly shifts the issue from the domain of science into popular culture. Celebrities thus act as mobilizing agents (like NGOs) to raise awareness and potentially shape public opinion: particularly important at a time when world news coverage of climate change peaked in 2009 and then fell, following the “Climategate” scandal. As news actors in their own right, celebrities can provide “a powerful news hook with a human interest angle, crystallizing issues that may otherwise be perceived as relatively removed from people’s everyday lives” (Anderson, 2011, p. 535). Yet, Anderson concludes that increasing the visibility of climate change through celebrity work represents a “double edged sword” (p. 543). For example, while environmental NGOs have used celebrities for “symbolic leverage” to gain access to news media, thus bringing attention to an issue, there is a lack of public trust in celebrities as spokespeople for the environment and climate change (see Smith & Joffe, 2009). Rather than characterizing celebrity involvement in climate change politics as “either democratization or distraction,” she thus calls for more “ethnographic research into the impact of celebrity advocacy on public perceptions of climate change and trust” (Anderson, 2011, p. 543): a call that is subsequently taken up by researchers working on public perceptions of climate imagery (O’Neill, Boykoff, Niemeyer, & Day, 2013).

In one of the first journal articles to critically explore the celebritization of climate change, Boykoff and Goodman make the case for a nuanced understanding of celebrities as non-state actors involved in “the cultural politics of climate change” (Boykoff &Goodman, 2009, p. 396), rather than dismissing celebrities as mere distraction (Wieskel,2005). Through the confluence of “science, celebrities, and politics,” they explore how celebrities have become “authorized speakers” on climate change in the context of a “Politicized Celebrity System” (p. 396). By identifying a system, Boykoff and Goodman (2009) call attention to the multifarious ways in which celebrities as authorized speakers operate within a broader media and political landscape that highlights the interconnected and contested dimensions of celebrity as brands, performances, and images that circulate through the political economies of news, media, and entertainment, and whose signs are variously consumed by audiences. Calling attention to these spaces of interaction that produce, sustain, and contest celebrity work (on climate change), enables a more complex understanding of the socio-economic-political conditions that characterize and shape the ways in which celebrities speak on climate change, and to also help illuminate the material implications of celebrity work in shaping beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, values, and types of (in)action on climate change.

Representative of a more nuanced approach to the study of celebrity climate politics, Boykoff and Goodman (2009); see also Boykoff & Olson, 2013) suggest employing a celebrity typology to highlight how different cultural factors (through diverse celebrity types) may shape different forms of discourse and action on climate change. Drawing upon the “circuits of culture” model (Du Gay, 1997) from cultural studies, as well as Carvalho and Burgess’s (2005) reinterpretation of this model in their analysis of news media coverage of climate change in the U.K. press, Boykoff and Goodman (2009) suggest employing a “Cultural Circuits of Climate Change Celebrities model” to focus our attention upon celebrity status as the means by which celebrities gain their “privileged spaces of interaction” (p. 402). What Boykoff and Goodman point to is the ways that climate celebrities’ images, words, and deeds circulate within and around the cultural sphere across media and meditated conversations about climate change.

Their framework foregrounds three key relations that underpin celebrity climate work: celebrities as commodities (i.e., goods to be bought and sold); celebrity bodies, performances and embodiment (i.e., the ways that celebrities embody certain environmental politics); and celebrities as signs/values (i.e., images to be marketized for social and economic value). While commodity culture is central to the development of contemporary celebrity culture (Driessens, 2013; Rojek, 2001; Turner, 2004), the implications for considering the effects of celebrity work on climate change in particular are important here. Although celebrities can raise awareness of this issue through their elevated media voices, it is the question of what is being consumed and the extent to which this alters audience beliefs and values, or impacts upon courses of political, social, or personal action on climate change, that is key: a concern that continues to underpin subsequent scholarly work in this field (Doyle, 2016; McCurdy, 2013).

Individualism as a form of neoliberal consumer identity arguably has limited capacity to engender large-scale collective changes required for mitigating and adapting to climate change. As such, individualism is a key issue for scholars examining celebrity involvement with climate change communication and campaigning. As high-profile commodities and images circulating within culture, Boykoff and Goodman are concerned about the celebrity being viewed as the “heroic individual” (2009, p. 404), further entrenching individual responses to climate change through neoliberal commodity actions—such as purchasing green products, or carbon offsetting—that distract from “the articulation of discourses calling on systemic and large-scale political, economic, social, and cultural shifts that will likely be necessary to address the multifarious problems and difficult choices associated with modern global climate change” (p. 404). Anderson similarly echoes this concern when she notes that research on celebrity involvement in environmental and climate politics “points to a tendency for the celebritization of climate change to promote individualist rather than collective frames of action” (Anderson, 2011, p. 535). Indeed, in an interesting observation on the rise of celebrity endorsements of climate change in the media, Keeling (2009) notes the impact of such endorsements on climate mitigation practices such as carbon trading: “Celebrities are commodities and increasingly the atmosphere is beginning to be thought of as another commodity, with a price and value being placed on it” (Keeling, 2009, p. 50). While celebrities may have helped bring climate change into the popular imagination, it is the very nature of their celebrity status and its problematic rise and fall that could impinge upon media coverage in the long term, as celebrity climate failures such as Live Earth in 2007 or DiCaprio’s 11th Hour documentary are deemed more newsworthy than successes (Keeling, 2009).

Can Celebrities Help Make Climate Change More Visible and Felt?

While much earlier (and subsequent) scholarly work on celebrity and climate change situates celebrities within their socioeconomic networks and practices of global media, politics, entertainment, consumer culture, and neoliberalism, with its attendant dimensions of individualism and commodification, there are also important points through which celebrities can potentially reach out to audiences precisely because of their celebrity status as “intimate strangers” (Schickel, 2000) using their affective capacities to get audiences to feel certain emotions (Marshall, 2001; Nunn & Biressi, 2010). Celebrities’ capacity to communicate and engage with diverse audiences through (social) media and popular culture could bring climate change awareness—and its perceived distance—into different social and cultural spheres, particularly for younger audiences (Alexander, 2013).

Indeed, climate change communication research over the last 20 years (see Moser, 2010) highlights that persistent barriers to communication and engagement have prevailed, with climate change perceived as a distant, remote, and future threat for Western audiences (Boykoff, 2011; Doyle, 2011), unless its impacts have been experienced personally. As such, scholars have explored the role of imagery, framing/discourse, ideology, and values in communicating climate change, and how these forms of meaning-making shape public understanding of, and engagement with, this issue. Researchers and practitioners are increasingly calling for more localized, emotional/affective, and participatory modes of communication that more clearly link to, as well as challenge, people’s existing social values and identity in order to make climate change understood and felt at the level of the everyday. Two key opportunities for climate communication through celebrity work coalesce here: the potential to personify and make climate change more visible and salient as a human (rather than simply an environmental) issue; and the role of celebrities as human signs who can embody and generate a range of feelings and affects about climate change. Here, though, the confluences of visibility/image and embodiment through celebrity are problematic. Boykoff and Goodman’s (2009) observation that celebrities literally and figuratively embody climate change politics refers to the media performances of celebrities as commodities. As such, these human embodiments problematically focus upon the celebrity body as a politicized site that embodies economic relations, transforming into what Goodman (2010) later discusses as “spectacular” visuals that deflect attention away from the political cause under question.

While maintaining this critical perspective on climate celebrities and the spectacles they create, reviewing the research on climate imagery highlights some of the potential that celebrities offer in terms of generating different types of imagery to make climate change more culturally meaningful. Earlier research by Doyle (2007, 2009) on environmental NGO campaigning highlighted the problematic role of photographic imagery in prioritizing climate impacts to non-human nature (particularly polar bears and melting glaciers) at the expense of humans, as well as reinforcing the notion of “visible truth” and “bearing witness” as a representational condition of climate change knowledge and its communication. Focusing upon humanitarian and development NGOs, Manzo (2010) found a wider repertoire of climate imagery used, including humans and non-human nature, but criticized the ways in which humans affected by climate change were positioned through a colonial gaze that rendered climate change as happening to geographically “distant others.”

More recent work by O’Neill (2013) has demonstrated a broader range of images of climate change within news media in the United Kingdom, United States, and Australia, with people being the most frequent theme, followed by impacts. Celebrities were present in the people theme—a finding that supports earlier research by Smith and Joffe (2009) into climate imagery in U.K. press coverage. Smith and Joffe note that celebrities are often visualized in activist modes, for example, at demonstrations, and that such images help personify climate change for a British audience. In contrast, research on climate imagery within Canadian print media by DiFrancesco and Young (2010) found that while human beings were the most common form of imagery, celebrities made a minimal appearance, demonstrating national differences in terms of celebrity saliency in the context of climate change. Yet, even as celebrities become visually associated with climate change, further research by O’Neill et al. (2013) finds that people in the United Kingdom, United States, and Australia, perceive images of celebrities to undermine the saliency of climate change.

Taken together, these findings identify an increase in celebrity images within the visual iconography of climate change, while simultaneously indicating the public’s lack of trust of celebrity involvement with climate change. Celebrities, it is suggested, are not helpful in terms of raising awareness and facilitating action on climate change. However, it is important to acknowledge the current lack of textual or ethnographic research in this area beyond still imagery within print or online media, particularly as social media, rather than print news or news websites, are the main source of news for women and young people (Reuters Institute for Journalism, 2016). Given that celebrity culture is largely youth and female oriented, different types of imagery (such as video), celebrities, media, and consumption practices would need to be analyzed.

Importantly, this research also points toward a diversification of voices in climate change communication beyond scientists and NGOs (Anderson, 2011). Historically, environmental NGOs, and particularly Greenpeace, were the main non-state actors making climate change meaningful to the public through their campaign and communication strategies (Doyle, 2007), “bearing witness” to climate impacts through photographic documentation (Doyle, 2009). Goodman and Barnes (2011) have explored how celebrities bear witness to suffering by visiting “spaces of poverty.” Thus, have celebrities become the new witnesses of climate change? What are the spaces that celebrities are visiting/embodying/signifying within the cultural politics of climate change, and how do these reinforce, challenge, and/ or advance different forms of public and political engagement? These questions will be explored in the next section.

Indeed, if we return to the question of the embodiment of climate activism by climate celebrities, the potential for celebrities to offer more affective, and effective, forms of public engagement can be explored by diversifying the range of celebrities, media forms, and demographic groups analyzed. For example, Alexander (2013) explores the use of Twitter by U.S. actor Ian Somerhalder, star of The Vampire Diaries, to engage his youth fan base with environmentalism and climate change. The assumed “authenticity” of Somerhalder’s apparently self-created tweets, including his appreciative tweets to his followers, are important in creating a two-way relationship with his fans, helping build an affective relation. Alexander analyses the forms of communication used by Somerhalder in promoting environmental advocacy, finding both a marketing approach (of small step changes and altering consumption practices) and values-based approach (advocated by Crompton, 2008) that focuses upon relationship building, rather than external status, as a means of enabling more long-term pro-environmental behavior change. While tensions occur between these two discourses—partly due to Somerhalder’s celebrity status—his use of social media enables the “collectivism of the social media generation” (Alexander, 2013, p. 364) to be aligned with the ethical/moral values he communicates. In doing so, Alexander is hopeful for the emergence of more “eco-celebrities such as Somerhalder, role models and objects of desire with embedded spiritual/environmental values and collaborative modes of address” (p. 365). Indeed, given the increasing level of overwhelm and hopelessness associated with climate change (Moser, 2016), and the need for more emotionally resonant and participatory modes of communication and engagement, we wonder if celebrities who are able to engage with young people specifically through social media and popular culture, might find more hopeful ways of facilitating social and political action, in “cool” (Richey & Ponte, 2011) and creative ways. The next section explores some of these questions.

Emerging Climate Celebrities After Data: Emotion, Affect, and Journey in Novel Modes of Climate Engagement

Considering celebrities as contemporary forms of “climate muses”—regardless of how potentially commodified or individualizing in action or outcome—the nature of celebrity reflections and media production around climate have shifted over time. They have changed in both the format—from telling audiences about climate change to witnessing its impacts for us—and also characteristics—from knowledge and exhortations for action to affective and emotional appeals to audiences and the public. Through a brief overview of some of the key celebrity interventions in climate change discourses, here we explore how celebrity involvement in climate change pedagogies has formed part of a shift in climate change communication. This has moved from dry accounts of the latest scientific knowledge about the changing climate, to stories of personal and/or literal journeys upon the climate landscape and those of climate-related impacts. Indeed, as the header on Leonardo DiCaprio’s documentary Before the Flood (2016) suggests, “the science is settled, the future is not.” This section works to briefly explore these shifts in what we might call novel “modes” of climate change celebrity engagements, from climate celebrities as narrow pseudo-experts and green lifestyle gurus to the newly expanded role of a climate change witnesses who work as on-the-ground correspondents telling audiences the stories of ordinary people and everyday ecologies at threat from climate change. In doing so, this section builds on the previous research previously analyzed to pose questions that, we argue, necessitate further research and suggest where research on celebrity and climate change communication might find fruitful possibilities.

From An Inconvenient Truth to Before the Flood: Getting Emotional About Climate Change Through New Modes of Media and Celebrity Performance Celebrities and Climate Change

Al Gore’s Academy Award winning documentary in An Inconvenient Truth was designed to provide its audience the latest data, information, and knowledge about climate change and the threat it posed to the planet. Simply put, it attempted to educate and convince the public in minute PowerPoint detail about the rise in CO emitted by humans and the corresponding rise in global average temperatures. At roughly the same time, the Leonardo DiCaprio-produced documentary the 11th Hour was also designed to teach the public about climate change. Utilizing the “talking head” appearances of numerous environmental movement figures such as Paul Hawken, Wangari Maathai, Bill McKibben, and David Suzuki, all voiced-over by DiCaprio, it spread the word about climate change exclusively through climate “experts.” Equally, 2007’s Live Earth concerts intended to raise global-scale awareness about climate issues educating the public about climate change through “enviro-tainment” in order to make these politicized, educational-focused encounters more audience friendly. These three celebrity-fronted climate change media events utilized celebrities to not just bring attention to the issue, but also act as public pedagogues who could speak about the science of climate change and vouch for its “reality.”

In profound contrast, more contemporary celebrity climate interventions are quite different. While celebrities are still public pedagogues, they intervene in ways that intend and create alternative, novel, and more complex outcomes. Such interventions offer, we suggest, “After Data” media modes of discourses, practices, and audience connections. For example, one important recent After Data climate change celebrity intervention comes in the form of the documentary Before the Flood (2016; BTF). We briefly discuss BTF in order to illustrate the ways that more contemporary celebrity-fronted climate change media—and the role of the celebrities themselves—have moved us into novel, more affective modes of celebrity climate change engagement and framing.

BTF is a heavily resourced and visually stunning documentary film produced and narrated by, but also starring, Leonardo DiCaprio. In the film, he goes on a “witnessing” journey as the UN Ambassador of Peace to see the firsthand impacts of climate change in the Arctic, the island nation of Kiribati, the oil sands of Alberta, and the polluted streets of Shanghai. Unlike the 11th Hour, this is a significant personal journey for DiCaprio shot through with stories of his early childhood to the ways he has been ridiculed and critiqued by conservative pundits. This is a journey that has DiCaprio front and center as our serious, earnest and caring, emotive and affective guide and male “lead.” He solemnly implores us to do something about the climate in front of the UN, sheepishly admits he has a larger carbon footprint than most people, and is angrily confronted by an Indian conservationist about America’s grotesque levels of material and energy consumption. As Fisher Stevens, the film’s director, stated about DiCaprio: “. . . it’s nice to film someone like Leo who has the quality of charisma. We wanted Leo to meet the experts and make the experts more palatable, so that everyone could understand them” (G’Sell, 2016). Importantly, on the ground and emplaced encounters with nature, experts, environmentalists, and elite politicians and business leaders are specifically interspersed with ordinary people and communities “performing” their emotive responses to the everyday ways they are being impacted by climate change.

Before the Flood is one of the most watched documentaries of all time with over 60 million views across multiple media platforms (Calvario, 2016). Unlike previous climate change interventions, BTF accentuates and showcases emotions and affects throughout the film: the smiles and sincerity of Elon Musk who is ready to deploy his battery business and entrepreneurial skills in service of a carbon-free future; the dire warnings of Ban Ki-Moon; and, of course, those of the main witnessing muse of DiCaprio who marvels at the “violence” of icebergs calving into the ocean, the surprise of being confronted about his own personal climate impacts, and his hopeful tone in discussions of easy climate “wins.” The narrative that DiCaprio crafts and the images he shows us are as emotional and affective at their core as they are “rational” and “statistical” in the climate science that should underpin our feelings. The “‘debate’ about climate change is over” (BTF, 2016) the film’s website shouts—the word “debate” firmly squeezed between quotation marks—as we move into the human-induced era of the Anthropocene. As a review of the BTF in The Hollywood Reporter states (DeFore, 2016), “Maybe movie stars can sway public opinion more effectively than tightly reasoned activist docs full of hard data and compelling narratives. Here’s hoping.” BTF illustrates the distinct shift to an After Data mode of climate change intervention whereby the emotional registers of climate change—be they of the “star” celebrity, those they are talking to or those feeling the impacts of global environmental change—are what define and carry the narrative arcs of these new forms of spectacular environmental media (Goodman et al., 2016).

Feeling the Atmosphere Through Star Power: Initial Thoughts and Potential Future Directions

While space does not allow a fuller exploration of this novel After Data mode of celebrity climate change media outputs and engagement, we do want to provide some short thoughts on why, we think, this shift has occurred and some of its implications. Why this shift, then? Several potential and further “testable” reasons come to mind. One of these seems quite simple: According to a Pew Research Center Global study, the majority of those in their study of global attitudes to climate change from the United States (74%) and United Kingdom (77%) believes global climate change is either very or somewhat serious (Stokes, Wike, & Carle, 2015). Moreover, 69% of those polled from the United States supported action as part of an international agreement, while in the United Kingdom 79% responded similarly (Stokes et al., 2015). Given these shifting public attitudes and beliefs, narratives and urgings have to shift into new registers to not just gain audience attention but spur public action for those who “believe” but also as a strategy to engage the remaining “non-believers.”

At the same time, however, these polling numbers belie the fact that there are still large numbers who maintain partisan denialist and skeptical outlooks on climate change—including many powerful political figures in the media—as any quick read of the comments section attached at almost any climate change article on the Web will lay bare. In particular, there is growing concern over “climate silence,” which is the worry that there are not enough public, media, or even personal discussions about the severity and impacts of climate change (Romm, 2016); emotional climate celebrities are perhaps working to maintain climate change as a topic worthy of continued urgent and critical public discussion. In a way, no matter what, these shifts in celebrity-fronted climate media are quite astute given the knowledge/action gap —whether that be individual action or policy action—that has come to bedevil larger scale, immediate solutions to the climate conundrum. In some ways, the moves to these impact and emotional registers through celebrity media interventions is not just about making these new tropes and registers “fashionable” but also utilizing them in ways that might work to cut through not just the normalized, everyday media cacophony, but as a means by which to transcend the knowledge/action gap to spur more and greater action.

Furthermore, if Dan Brockington’s (2014) work on the role of celebrities in the realms of humanitarianism rings true, then one of the key audiences for these new interventions might actually not be the general public but rather other elites and those in power in order to make affective connections and get them to work for more and better climate policy. DiCaprio’s position as Peace Ambassador is certainly what this is about so his documentary seems like a logical extension of this elite-to-elite emotionally tinged communication.

A second reason for these movements might also be quite simple, if somewhat problematic: These shifts might be about maintaining and expanding these celebrities’ brands as eco-warriors to both use but also expand their fan base in a desire to create greater cultural, political, and economic capital for themselves. As Jo Littler (2008) has so astutely put it, being socially conscious and politically active is part of the very job description of celebrities operating in the early 21st century, such that caring is not just a part of their brand but caring works to create economic value for the “celebrity industry complex” that is behind even these climate change interventions. Thus, the move to more emotional and impactful registers is not mutually exclusive from the creation of value nor deepening of the celebrity industrial complex, but instead go right to the heart of the “conspicuous redemption” Boykoff and Goodman (2009) discussed as one of the characteristics of climate celebrities. As argued earlier, climate change celebrities are commodities in human form that generate cultural and economic capital but are also caring commodities that embody, perform, and work to elicit the concerns, emotions, and behaviors of care and responsibilities in audiences. As the old adage goes, climate change celebrities are “doing well by doing good” and more research is needed to determine not just what the impacts of their notions of “the good” are but also how audiences’ react to these changing registers in contemporary climate change media.

Discussion and Conclusion: From Accentuated Celebrity Emotion and Affect to More Vociferous Climate Action?

By way of a brief conclusion, we offer a short discussion of what we feel some of the implications might be with this more emotionally charged celebrity-fronted climate change media that seems to have ushered in our proposed After Data era of climate communications. First, as suggested throughout this section, the example of BTF works through a different set of framings than previously offered by earlier “numbers” and “science” focused climate media interventions by articulating and fully accentuating emotion and affect through narrative arcs and encounters of the impacts of climate change on people and nature, communities and ecologies. Thus, the overall “feel” of these novel celebrity-fronted climate media outputs is one of a greatly heightened emotional register, the desire here for the audiences—and of course wider publics—to emotionally and viscerally connect with and through recognized celebrities to those people and places witnessing and experiencing climate change.

Second, not only have the engagements and outputs of celebrity-fronted media interventions shifted, so too has the role of climate change celebrities themselves: They now work as morally tinged, affective pedagogues, framing for us through emotional discursive reflections, embodiments, deeds, and performances how and in what ways we should feel about climate change impacts and what to do about them. In addition climate change celebrities have taken on the novel roles of emotive climate journalists and investigative documentarians, allowing us to see and feel firsthand the impacts of climate change. Climate change celebrities, through this new “witnessing” mode of their persona and performances become “affective translation devices” who emote about climate change but also report, interpret, and explore those communities and ecologies impacted by climate change. No longer are climate change celebrities sales people and endorsers of the products of brand “climate science,” but instead they are witnesses to, and the affective voices of, the Anthropocene. In a twist, then, on the byline from BTF, given these contemporary climate change celebrity media engagements, the science of climate change might be settled but how to feel about it is certainly not.

Third, and directly connected to the previous two points, the emotive climate change media and the celebrity engagements and performances that facilitate novel climate affects normalize emotion as a response and as a motivational force to “solve” climate change. In this, celebrity performances of affect also normalize the celebrities themselves: They feel as ordinary people and so should and must we. They care—showing this in words, deeds and affect—and so should and must we. They are ordinary, they are authentic, they are genuine, and, most importantly, they are believable. Their performances of ordinary emotion—a kind of performance of a non-performance as it were—are those designed for maximum authenticity such that we too can and should feel, we too can and should do. For example, as the director put it about DiCaprio’s role in BTF,

We wanted Leo to be Everyman. Obviously, he lives a very rarefied life, but in this film he plays a kind of Everyman in terms of this issue. He actually has a good effect on the experts during interviews; they want him to understand, to make it clear . . . It was important to humanize Leo, to make him seem vulnerable. And he was vulnerable; we all were. When you’re walking on ice in the Arctic you have trust people to tell you where to walk or you’re gone. When you’re in Greenland, you take a wrong step and you shoot down the rapids. When you’re in a helicopter flying over bushfires in Sumatra, it can be pretty terrifying. The fact that Leo is willing to go there and do all this—none of us made any money on this film, and certainly he didn’t—it shows that he really cares.

(G’Sell, 2016)

Yet, climate change celebrities are also, at the very same time, extraordinarily, or better yet, extraordinarily ordinary in ways that are also about authenticity and connection. Their extraordinariness provides them that heightened perch from which to feel, from which we want to watch them feel, and to which we are supposed to respond. They are, but also are not, outside of their elite status through their emotive behaviors and concerned words. It is this vacillation between and among elite and not elite, ordinary and extraordinary, every day and spectacle, through their media performances that allows climate change celebrities the ability and multiple identities from which to attempt to transcend climate politics. Affect and emotion are wielded here as sorts of “transcending” tools to cut across audience political identities and get them in the “gut” or “heart” from which care, responsibility, and action will flow. But of course, as we know, there really is no transcending of politics either in general nor in this highly charged case of climate change. Rather, a better way to see all of this might be that these novel modes of affective climate media and celebrities work to specifically politicize emotion and affect in the context of climate change in ways and to ends that have yet to be seen but which have also begun to define the After Data era of the climate mediascape.

Fourth, the proposed pathways to change and climate change solutions through these new emotive climate media interventions have potential implications and offer up important new questions, particularly the gendered modes of engagement and action this may generate. What if emotion and affect, the core entryway to raising awareness and spurring public action, don’t gain the traction that these celebrities hope? Moreover, will these attempts actually overcome the knowledge and now, emotion and action gaps that might appear and be maintained? This begs a further question: Perhaps these moves to affect and impacts are missing the point in that some of the issues with lack of rapid movements on climate impacts are less about feelings and more about what the audience does (Mendick, Allen, & Harvey, 2015) with the science, knowledge, and data around climate change? Either way, further research needs to explore the ways that the public and climate media audiences actually engage in shifting everyday actions or broader political action in light of our suggested affective shifts in climate change celebrity media.

A second issue of concerns is the ways that climate celebrities and their media interventions, affect, and emotion or not, work to set up particular pathways to solutions. Thus, we might be more emotive about climate change, but if the solutions celebrities propose include the typical “weak brew” of more and better conscious capitalism, sustainable consumption, and individual responses of light bulb changing, then it seems that even the historic Paris Agreement might now not mean much. Critical interrogation of what affective climate celebrities propose as solutions, like the overall public impact of the turn to impacts and emotions in climate media, is greatly needed.

Finally, we end this section with a more speculative and possible set of implications worthy of critical questions. Namely, will science and data return as a celebrity-endorsed product as climate change impacts accelerate and we get deeper into the Anthropocene? Will the science of mitigation and resilience come to the forefront of celebrity performances? In particular, it seems as if feeling more deeply about climate change might not be enough as the “climate denialist in chief” of Donald Trump begins to move on reversing U.S. climate policy and creating much wider global impacts in terms of the Paris Agreement. Or will these accentuated affects spur greater and more vociferous climate action that might cross both social media and city streets in unprecedented ways working to combine knowledge, pedagogy, affect, and celebrity in ways unforeseen as of yet? The new roles and performances of climate change celebrities will be fascinating to watch, if nothing else, as we potentially move into even more dangerous times in the Anthropocene.


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(1.) See Moser (2016) for an excellent summary of climate communication research in the last five years, and its potential future directions.

(2.) The COP21 Paris Accords are a ray of light here, and it might be interesting to consider the impacts of these media interventions and indeed the role of affect and emotion both before Paris and after as well as how further interventions might be called upon in light of the “climate change denier in chief” in form of Trump coming to power in the United States.

Achieving a climate justice pathway to 1.5 °C

Mary Robinson & Tara Shine 

Nature Climate Change volume 8, pages 564 –569 (2018) Cite this article


It is vital for climate justice to pursue a pathway to zero carbon emissions by 2050 to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels and to minimize the adverse impacts of climate change on people and their human rights. But can such a pathway be achieved without undermining human rights and restricting the right to development? This Perspective discusses the risks of action and inaction to identify a fair and just transition. It compares the risks posed to human rights from climate impacts with the risks posed by climate action and suggests that rights-informed climate action can maximize benefits for people and the planet.


Climate justice is a concept that views climate change and efforts to combat it as having ethical implications and considers how these relate to wider justice concerns1. Climate justice links human rights and development to achieve a human-centred approach, safeguarding the rights of the most vulnerable people and sharing the burdens and benefits of climate change and its impacts equitably and fairly2. It is informed by science and responds to science. As a result, climate justice strives to achieve the 1.5 °C temperature goal and avoid dangerous climate change. This approach is underpinned by a desire to respect and protect the human rights of all people, particularly those living in vulnerable situations, in the face of climate impacts and through climate actions.

Climate change is well established as an issue of ethics and justice3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11; in terms of climate impacts (including asymmetrical impacts12 and skewed vulnerabilities13), the international climate negotiations14, responsibility for climate responses15 and the role of climate policies in protecting and strengthening basic capabilities such as human rights16. So far considerations of ethics and justice have primarily focused on responsibility, distributive justice, burden sharing and equity, including intergenerational equity17. As the global temperature rises ethicists ask: if the international community accepts that climate change is happening, understands its causes and knows what needs to be done to change course — how can it justify its continued delays to act on the scale, and with the urgency, required14? Answering this question leads to many more ethical questions about the fact that the benefits of industrialization have been enjoyed primarily in developed countries, while the costs in terms of climate change are borne by the entire global community and future generations18. Linked to this is the question of the right to development. If developed countries became rich by burning fossil fuels that have consumed the majority of the Earth’s carbon budget, how can people in developing countries reap the same benefits of development without burning the fossil fuels that would surpass the remaining carbon budget and lead to global warming well in excess of 1.5 or 2 °C: an outcome that would be disastrous for people in all countries19,20. This challenge, to lift people out of poverty and achieve national development goals, without fossil fuels, is the very real and very daunting task facing developing countries today21. It is also at the centre of discussions on just pathways to 1.5 °C.

Until the Paris Agreement was adopted in 2015, unpacking of these ethical questions focused on what equity and justice meant in terms of the design of a new climate regime. Now, with the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda in place, the focus moves to how justice and equity can inform implementation. The preamble to the Paris Agreement includes a commitment to respect human rights and gender equality in all climate action. This is a less explored and less well understood area of climate justice: how human rights can inform climate action — particularly the aggressive climate action needed to pursue a 1.5 °C pathway.

This Perspective investigates whether it is possible to make the rapid transition to low-carbon, climate-resilient development without undermining human rights, including the right to development. First the impacts of climate change on human rights are assessed, followed by an appraisal of the risks to human rights from climate action and international regulations on GHG emissions. Both sets of risks are then compared, and the implications for climate action consistent with a 1.5 °C pathway are discussed to identify the critical factors for a fair and just transition.

Climate risks to human rights

Human rights are the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family22 and human-induced climate change is putting these rights at risk. For example, the right to health is undermined by the impacts of climate change. The World Health Organization predicts that between 2030 and 2050, climate change will cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress. The direct damage costs to health from climate change (that is, excluding costs in health-determining sectors such as agriculture and water and sanitation), is estimated to be between US$2–4 billion per year by 203023. Action on climate change is critical for the realization of the right to health24.

Table 1 demonstrates that climate change poses an immediate threat to people around the world and undermines the full range of human rights25. The Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council have concluded that the risks posed by climate change to human rights are considerable at 1 °C to 2 °C above pre-industrial levels. At 2 °C of warming, unique and threatened ecosystems such as the Arctic sea ice and coral reefs would be at risk, with impacts on the right to food and the right to an adequate standard of living. Consider, for example, the people directly reliant on coral reefs for their livelihood and diet; 2 °C or more of warming will be detrimental to coral reef ecosystems and as a result will undermine the right to an adequate standard of living for at least 30 million people and undermine the rights of up to 500 million people26. Extreme weather events pose a high risk for human health, urban infrastructure and resource-dependant livelihoods such as farming and fishing. At 2 °C of warming, sea-level rise could exceed 1 m and crop production would be at risk, with impacts on global food security and the right to food.

Table 1 Climate change impacts and affected human rights

Climate change ImpactsImpacts on human/social SystemsHuman rights affected
Temperature risksIncreased health risks/fatalities from diseases and natural disastersLife
Risk of extreme weather eventsIncreased water insecurityPoverty, adequate standard of living and means of subsistence
Threats to unique ecosystemsLoss of livelihoodsFood and hunger
Changes in precipitation and distribution of waterChanges in agricultural productivity and food productionHealth
Threats to biodiversityThreats to security/societal cohesionCulture
Sea-level rises, flooding and storm surgesEffects on human settlementsProperty
Large-scale ‘singularities’Land and property leading to migration and displacementAdequate and secure housing
 Impacts on political/public servicesEducation
Damage to vital infrastructure and public utilitiesWork
Loss of cultural integrityProperty
Decline in natural systems servicesWomen’s, children’s and indigenous people’s rights
Distribution of impacts (vulnerable, poor and marginalized people are hit first and hardest)Self-determination

Beyond 2 °C the climate moves into unchartered territory. The risk of triggering positive feedbacks such as the release of carbon from soil increases, as does the likelihood of passing climate tipping points, where greenhouse gas emissions change the climate so much that it is impossible (or extremely difficult and costly) to return it to its original state. The risks and uncertainty associated with such tipping points make it correspondingly more difficult for states to fulfil their obligations under international law to respect, protect and promote human rights.

A study by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) published in 201527 reviewed the projected climate impacts associated with a global mean temperature increase of between 1.1 and 3.1 °C (under IPCC Representation Concentration Pathways (RCPs) 4.5 and 6.0) and noted the affected rights in each case. Neither this report nor the work of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Special Procedures could assess the difference between 1.5 °C and 2 °C of warming with respect to outcomes for human rights. Nevertheless, both conclude that human rights are already being undermined by climate impacts and that the risk rises incrementally as temperatures increase.

The risks from climate action

The imperative for climate action at scale has increased with the commitment to keep global temperature increase well below 2 °C and to pursue 1.5 °C. The result is a drive for more climate action, at scale and in a more immediate timeframe. Despite the implications of climate impacts for human rights being well established (as discussed above), the potential risks to human rights from climate action have been less well documented.

Climate actions that do not respect human rights can have direct and indirect negative impacts on people and their rights (Table 2)28. In 2009 initial concerns were raised about the impacts of mitigation policies on human rights29. This included impacts on the right to food due to changes in land use or increasing food prices due to competition between crops for food and for biofuels. Since then further examples have come to light demonstrating that climate adaptation and mitigation projects that are designed without the participation of local people can lead to conflict or to the project being rejected by the community30,31. Climate action including reforestation and afforestation, hydroelectric dams, wind or solar energy installations and biofuel plantations pose risks to human rights. The rights affected include the right to housing and to a livelihood, the right to water and to food, and the right to take part in cultural life27.

Table 2 Potential direct and indirect risks to human rights from climate action

Direct impactsIndirect impacts
Inadequate consultation with citizens and communitiesIncreasing food prices and energy costs
Displacement (sometimes violently) of people and communitiesLoss of livelihoods for communities employed in fossil fuel sectors
Exclusion from, or diversion of, essential resourcesDiminished developmental progress reducing the overall ability of countries to provide conditions for the realization of rights

There are already examples from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Clean Development Mechanism and Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) where climate action has resulted in human rights violations27,32. For instance, the construction of the Barro Blanco Dam — a Clean Development Mechanism project in Panama33. According to civil society organizations, the indigenous community has not been adequately consulted and their right to free, prior and informed consent has not been respected. The issues have been brought before the Inter American Human Rights Commission and in 2016 the Government of Panama withdrew its registration of the project under the Clean Development Mechanism34, demonstrating that formal compliance with CDM rules is not enough to avoid human rights infringements33.

There are also cases of renewable energy projects having negative impacts on human rights35. For example, the Baharini Electra Wind Farm in Kenya, operated by Electrawind and Kenwind and financed by the International Finance Corporation (IFC). Over 8,000 local Mpeketoni residents were allegedly not informed of the project’s intention to acquire their land, and were not offered any compensation or alternative settlement. The local residents filed a lawsuit at the Lamu County Assembly to stop compulsory acquisition of their land. The project was then approved with a number of conditions, such as the requirement to give priority to local people for employment, and provide land and monetary compensation to 259 families. Community consultation and hearing the concerns of the people who will be impacted by the project kept the project from suffering devastating economic and social losses.

There are also human rights aspects to adaptation to climate change36. Large-scale adaptation projects related to infrastructure such as dykes, coastal management systems and rerouting transport systems can pose risks to human rights. Take, for example, a planned relocation from a coastal village or small island that is no longer habitable. Without adequate consultation with the local community, consideration of socio-economic and cultural issues, as well as the choice of a suitable new site with adequate resources to re-establish the community, there is a risk of increasing, rather than decreasing, people’s vulnerability37, a concept known as maladaptation38. As many adaptation actions take place at the local level, the need to ensure adequate involvement of communities in decision-making has so far received more attention than in mitigation, and is often expressed as rights-based or community-based adaptation39,40,41,42.

The Paris Agreement (building on a decision adopted at the Sixteenth Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC (COP 16) in Cancun and a series of Human Rights Council Resolutions spanning almost a decade) establishes the links between human rights and climate change in international law. This is an important signal to climate policymakers to integrate human rights into climate policies, plans and actions, but it does not assure legal certainty43,44. The question is whether these signals will be adequate to ensure a human rights informed transition.

Risks from impacts versus action

When determining whether or not climate action on the scale needed to phase out carbon emissions by 2050 is consistent with climate justice, it is important to compare the risks posed to human rights from climate impacts to the risks posed to human rights by climate action.

Warming of 2 °C or more leads to large, biophysical, unpredictable — and in many cases irreversible — risks that humanity is ill equipped to deal with, negatively undermining the rights of millions of people around the world. Limiting warming to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels would mean that climate-related extremes that are rare now would be part of the new climate normal, but the climate would remain within the upper end of present-day climate variability and would avoid entering a new climatic regime45. In turn, it is assumed that the climate-related risks to human rights would also be reduced and the extreme injustice of loss of livelihood, displacement or loss of life would be less than they would otherwise have been.

However, the climate actions required to achieve the 1.5 °C goal will be at an unprecedented scale and evidence shows that responses to climate change are already posing risks to human rights. This is particularly the case when climate actions do not take the rights of people living in the vicinity of renewable energy infrastructure or adaptation infrastructure into account.

Of particular note is the likelihood that a 1.5 °C pathway will require the deployment of new technologies, especially those needed to achieve negative emissions. This includes bioenergy with carbon capture and storage and carbon capture and storage from fossil fuel installations and solar radiation management46. There are concerns about the wide-scale deployment of these technologies and their ethical implications, including the realization of human rights47,48,49. There are questions about the biophysical and socially acceptable limits on the scale of land required for bioenergy, for example, and the potential negative impact on food security, soil nutrients and water availability50. Although the risks associated with warming above 1.5 °C are biophysical and unpredictable, the risks posed by climate action at scale can be managed by human institutions and are driven by processes that have a better chance of being predicted and controlled. Human society has centuries of experience in developing policies and plans, building infrastructure and investing in development. There is evidence of what works and what does not, and there is at least an imperfect knowledge of what needs to be done to protect human rights when taking action as an individual, a company or a country. Sectors ranging from mining and forestry to agriculture and energy have experience of how to avoid human rights infringements and deliver benefits from rights-based approaches51. Many of these are the same sectors that will be central to climate action — so in many ways it is a question of acting on the learning and good practice generated so far.

Human rights are legal guarantees that protect individuals and groups against actions that interfere with their fundamental freedoms and entitlements. Human rights obligations, standards and principles can shape policies for climate change mitigation and adaptation and ensure accountability for climate commitments24. Although the Paris Agreement does not create any new human rights obligations on member states, it does remind states that their existing human rights commitments apply to all aspects of climate decision-making and action.

There are guidelines to help policymakers and businesses to respect human rights; including the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights52, the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises relating to responsible business conduct in a global context53 and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights Guidelines and Principles on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights54. Few of these guidelines address climate change specifically, but the norms and procedures they advocate are equally applicable to climate action. In addition, tools such as environment and social governance reporting can be used by companies to ensure their actions are good for both people and the environment55.

Procedural rights, such as the right to information and the right to participation, are increasingly being highlighted in the context of climate action56,57. Most states have several procedural obligations that apply to climate change decision-making, including duties to assess environmental impacts and make environmental information public; to facilitate public participation in environmental decision-making; and to provide access to remedies for harm57. Although ensuring rights of access to information and participation in climate decision-making are not a panacea (particularly if the quality of participation is poor58,59), meaningful participation that is informed by access to information can increase public support, promote sustainable development and improve the protection of rights60.

The significance of these procedural rights in ensuring that climate action does not lead to human rights violations cannot be overestimated61. Procedural rights have been interpreted as critical to the exercise of substantive human rights, such as the rights to life and health62. By respecting and fulfilling procedural rights in climate action, the risk of undermining a wider range of rights can be averted, and the contribution of climate action to sustainable development enhanced63.

The climate actions required to keep warming to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels will need to be informed by human rights to mitigate the risk of any negative impacts on people. While society has relevant experience, lessons have been learned and guidance is available to help states and businesses to protect human rights; the challenge lies in respecting the provisions of existing human rights treaties in the execution of climate policy and action64.

Climate just pathways to 1.5 °C

Climate justice recognizes that that the only way to limit warming to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels is for all countries to take appropriate climate action, in line with the universal nature (that is, it applies to all countries regardless of their level of development) of the Paris Agreement. Even with aggressive mitigation action in developed countries, mitigation in developing countries can be no less aggressive. Developed countries must accelerate their decline in emissions, and with equal effort must support climate action in developing countries21. Although the previous two sections highlighted the risks to human rights from climate responses involving infrastructure and technology, this section also considers how international regulations on carbon emissions could restrict the right to development in developing and emerging economies. This is illustrated in Fig. 1, which shows that developing countries face the greater challenge in the rapid transition to 1.5 °C as they have to develop and lift their people out of poverty while reducing emissions at the same time21. This means that the citizens of developing countries are doubly at risk — due to their vulnerability to the negative effects of climate change as well as the fact that their opportunity to reduce this vulnerability, increase adaptive capacity and achieve sustainable development could be limited by international climate regulations on GHG emissions65.

figure 1
Fig. 1: Carbon phase-out by 2050.

Figure 2 shows a set of developing countries, and their projected annual per capita incomes during the 2015 to 2025 time period21. There is a substantial range of incomes across countries, but most developing countries will be considerably less wealthy when their emissions need to peak than most developed countries were in 2010. For example, China is projected to have an income one-sixth to one-half of the income levels of the United States in 2010 at the time it needs to peak its emissions. Indonesia and India are projected to have per capita incomes corresponding to the income level of the United States in the 1890s at the time their emissions peak21. At that time, industrialization in the United States was based on the consumption of fossil fuels and its emissions were increasing incrementally. At this same level of development, countries such as Indonesia and India will need to be eliminating GHG emissions — and adopting green growth strategies — at an annual percentage rate similar to the rate at which the United States had been increasing its carbon emissions21.

figure 2
Fig. 2: Annual per capita income of several developed and developing countries when emissions peak.

This transition away from fossil fuels will need to take place while most of the developing world’s citizens are preoccupied with maintaining or improving their livelihoods and raising their material living standards. Yet the only proven routes to development involve expanding access to energy services, which up until now has depended on the consumption of fossil fuels66. As a result, the challenge is to meet the demands to develop and to decarbonize simultaneously and to forge an alternative route to the rapid expansion of sustainable energy services for all67.

Although there is now plenty of evidence that it is possible to achieve growth without emissions68, the challenge facing developing countries, and in particular least developed countries, is unprecedented. No industrialized country has achieved its wealth without fossil fuels. The scale of this challenge has to be acknowledged and support provided for a just transition. If not, climate injustice will extend well beyond the adverse impacts of climate change to include restrictions on the right to development of people in developing countries.

Countries such as Ethiopia and Mongolia are adopting a green economy approach to their development that decouples economic growth from GHG emissions69,70. UN Environment (formerly UNEP) defines a green economy as one that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities71. Countries pursuing a green economy are putting in place policies and plans that can contribute to 1.5 °C pathways while achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and enabling social development. In less developed economies the success of these strategies in practice depends to a great extent on access to investment, including climate finance72.

A just transition to zero carbon by 2050 is possible, but only with the necessary scale of international cooperation, comprising both financial and technological support. The commitment made by developed countries in Copenhagen at COP15 and reiterated at COP 21 in Paris, to mobilize US$100 billion per year of public and private finance by 2020 for climate action in developing countries, lies at the lower end of the estimates of the finance needed to enable developing countries to adopt 1.5 °C-compatible development pathways73,74.

Developing countries, including those most vulnerable to climate change, have shown that they are ready to lead on climate action75,76. However, to put the pledges they have made through their Nationally Determined Contributions into action they will require financial and technical support from the international community (these commitments consist of unconditional and conditional elements. The conditional elements require support from the international community). This should not be seen as charity; it is an investment in our common future; because if the countries of the world don’t make the transition to zero carbon together: (1) the 1.5 and 2 °C goals will be surpassed and everyone will suffer the consequences, but the most vulnerable people in society will suffer most; and (2) there is a risk of exacerbating inequality by creating a world where those who can afford green energy and clean air leave behind a poorer majority who have no option but to use fossil fuels and live with the pollution they produce.

Developing countries need to be supported to realize the right to development in the context of climate action. This is often expressed as the right to sustainable development; that is the right to develop in the context of global policies to reduce GHG emissions and achieve sustainable development. The right to sustainable development is captured in the UNFCCC (Article 3.4) and is reflected in the Paris Agreement, which emphasizes the intrinsic relationship that climate change actions have with equitable access to sustainable development. An equitable transition to a zero-carbon society depends on all countries being enabled and empowered to play their part in global climate action and in achieving the SDGs. In fact, ending poverty, achieving sustainable development and stabilizing climate change are mutually reinforcing objectives77.


In all countries, at all stages of development, the key to making these pathways to 1.5 °C just extends beyond equity and access to finance to include attention to human rights. As climate action increases in scale and in urgency, it will be critical to ensure respect for human rights in the design and implementation of these actions. If not, there is a risk of undermining individual rights in pursuit of climate action to protect the climate system as a global good. Respecting human rights in climate action will also strengthen the 1.5 °C pathways as promoting procedural rights such as the rights to information and participation help to engage more people in climate action78,79, whereas attention to substantive rights can help to identify actions with co-benefits in terms of development, the SDGs, resilience and mitigation. For example, mainstreaming gender equality into climate action leads to benefits in terms of sustainable development, women’s empowerment, increased resilience and low carbon-development80. A just climate pathway to 1.5 °C has people at the centre — it never loses sight of people, and their rights — while pursuing ambitious and climate resilient actions towards the goal of sustainable development.

The transition to zero carbon by 2050, with global emissions peaking in 2020, is by far the best way to achieve the 1.5 °C temperature goal that is a prerequisite for climate justice. Without it, the impacts of climate change associated with 2 °C or more of warming would undermine the full range of human rights, in many cases irreversibly (for example, the right to food, right to water, right to self-determination for Small Island Developing States). For this transition to be just, all aspects of climate action have to be informed by human rights. Much of what is required to respect human rights in climate action is already established as good practice, if not universally implemented — access to information, the right to participation, gender equality, respect for indigenous peoples’ rights — and will have to become the norm in planning and implementing climate action.

As a result, we find that the risks to human rights of climate inaction and of climate impacts far outweigh the risks to human rights posed by climate action consistent with meeting the 1.5 °C goal set in the Paris Agreement. This is a new challenge for humankind, requiring that the reserves of empathy and humanity are found to meet it.

All states need to be enabled to take part in the transition to zero carbon so that they can reap the benefits of clean air, green jobs and food security — all of which are critical to achieving the SDGs. All countries and all people need to be enabled through access to financial investment and technology to be part of this global effort, by respecting their rights and investing in their agency to drive change. Climate justice puts these human factors at the centre of decision-making on climate change, to inform policies that are good for people and good for the planet.

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We thank C. Clarke for reviewing the early drafts of this Perspective. We also acknowledge P. Baer and S. Kartha, who prepared a paper for the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice on Zero Carbon Zero Poverty in 2015 that informed this Perspective. P. Baer is missed by all who work on climate justice and we dedicate this article to his memory.

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  1. Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, Trinity College, Dublin, IrelandMary Robinson & Tara Shine

M.R. and T.S. wrote the initial version of the paper. T.S. led on reviewing and analysing the literature, and on redrafting with inputs from M.R.

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Correspondence to Tara Shine.

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Cite this article

Robinson, M., Shine, T. Achieving a climate justice pathway to 1.5 °C. Nature Clim Change 8, 564–569 (2018).


The Walking Dead: The Anthropocene as a Ruined Earth

Nicholas Beuret &

Gareth Brown


Much has been made of the claim that humanity has ascended to the status of a terrestrial force and inaugurated a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. While attention has been paid to the contestable nature of the epoch and its disputed histories, insufficient attention has been paid to the significance of the Anthropocene for political praxis. Contrary to much Anthropocenic discourse that articulates a renewed sense of mastery over nature through assertions of humanity’s complete subsumption of the environment, recent work in both science and technology studies and human geography suggests an alternate reading of the Anthropocene as an epoch without mastery, one where humanity exists in a permanent state of vulnerability. The political significance of this state of vulnerability is explored through a reading of popular TV show The Walking Dead, a post-collapse narrative of a world in ruins and overrun by zombies. On a ruined earth, political praxis is orientated not towards a return of the earth to its previous productive state, but rather as an unending labour of survival and salvage. Survival is not a life reduced to bare life, but rather a state of tension between a life reduced to necessity, and the refusal to separate the question of how to live from the work of securing life itself. Left unresolved, this tension animates the politics of the Anthropocene, suggesting that in place of the teleology of progress social life is organised within it through unceasing care and repair time.

1. Introduction

Island nations are subject to the slow violence of rising seas. Drought and savage weather events drive cycles of migration and violence. Storms and heat waves batter Europe and North America. Slowly tales of the Anthropocene as an unending series of disasters gather pace (Waters et al., 2016). What is articulated in the idea of the Anthropocene is not a speculative future disaster (Adams et al., 2009) but a past event. Unlike other ‘images of doom’ (Buell, 1995), the Anthropocene names something that has already happened that ‘humanity’ must now adapt to rather than a future disaster that must be prevented. The Anthropocene, considered as a breakdown in the functioning of the Holocene (Winner, 1986; Star, 1999), marks a moment where maintenance and repair as practices are transformed from a labour of possible restoration (Jackson, 2014) to a ceaseless labour of salvage. The Holocene has ended and cannot be restored. The biosphere is caught up in a long thaw that will reshape the context of life for the next 10,000 years (Archer, 2009). There is no return to modernity, either as an epoch, environment or project.

How can we practice politics in the Anthropocene, a space of not only of an environmental breakdown but a ‘late industrial’ (Fortun, 2014) ecosystemic state of on-going disaster (Clark, 2014)? The uncertainty of the earth sciences and the urgency of ecological issues such as climate change compel us to reconsider what should count as a suitable object of research or political concern (Latour, 2015). Indeed this is perhaps the very point of the concept of the Anthropocene—to compel a planetary mode of politics adequate to issues such as climate change (Steffen et al., 2011). The Anthropocene as a concept has brought to light ‘material conditions that not only defy prediction, but reveal the precarious existence of those beings who are asking questions of it’ (Clark, 2010, p. 21), putting not only the process of research but the researchers themselves into question.

Since the concept of the Anthropocene was first proposed in 2000 it has been significantly developed and informally adopted by geologists and a broad range of scholars and has sparked much debate as to its import and significance (Szerszynski, 2012; Malm and Hornborg, 2014; Castree, 2014a; Latour, 2015). It also signals a transformation of these various fields of study, with boundaries between disciplines blurring if not collapsing in many instances. We therefore deliberately move away from the realm of stable truths in this article and into what may at first glance look like the opposite, the realm of speculative fiction.

A small band of survivors find an abandoned prison. They repair the fences, and set to work tilling the fields, building communal kitchens and living quarters. They organise bands to go out looking for food and things to salvage and bring back, as well as find more survivors. Another band of survivors find them, lay siege to their fortified home, the result being the destruction of them all.

The scene above is taken from the TV programme The Walking Dead. Based on the comic book series of the same name by Robert Kirkman, it centres on (former) deputy sheriff Rick Grimes who wakes from a coma to find the world overrun with zombies1 and in a state of total social collapse. The narrative of the show stutters and jumps: there is no singular narrative progression from one event to another, with a clear end or terminus. What we see is the emergence then collapse (both partial and total) of social forms and bonds as well as modes of government. Stability is only ever temporary, and there is no progression in either social or personal senses. Social and personal progress is undone continually by inhuman acts of violence, carried out by zombies.

The Walking Dead is an extended meditation on the reconstitution of community life under conditions of social collapse. Creator Kirkman explicitly suggests as much when he asks readers to consider how they would survive in a world without the infrastructure of modern consumer capitalism, and what sort of people they would become when confronted by a daily struggle over the necessities of life (Kirkman and Moore, 2008). Survival, and not a project of political renewal, is the objective of The Walking Dead. As such it offers a fictional meditation on the political conditions of the Anthropocene as a ruined earth.

The location of The Walking Dead within the southern states of the USA is suggestive of an answer to the (unasked) question ‘ruined for whom?’. Gendering and racialising the Anthropocene brings forth a series of questions as to the temporality of this particular ecological catastrophe (Gunaratnam and Clark, 2012; Crist, 2013; Haraway, 2014; Lewis and Maslin, 2015). As has been noted, the long dyings and slow violence of environmental injustice have provided the context for marginal, black and poor lives for decades (Ammons and Roy, 2015). Indeed, whatever ‘start date’ is officially chosen for the Anthropocene it will mark a legacy of expropriation, colonialism and dispossession as well as environmental injustice. The earth is already—and has long been—ruined for many.

The Anthropocene speaks to a specific ruining however: the ruining of modernity, bound to the centres of capitalist accumulation and the gendered and racialised orderings of the modern world-system. As such it speaks to not only the threat of climate change as that which undoes existing climatic (and with them biotic) regimes, but to the threats posed by the exhaustion of our current ecological regime (Moore, 2015): the loss of the ecological surplus (energy, food, raw materials) that maintains the global economic system. The exhaustion of these ecological frontiers provides the material grounds for the end of human history as distinct from natural history (Chakrabarty, 2009), the end of the notion of limitless socio-economic growth (Mitchell, 2013), and perhaps to the very notion of progressive time as a temporality organised around the accumulation of power and knowledge (Roitman, 2014). As Fortun (2014) suggests, the disasters of ‘late industrialism’ mark the collapse of the separations that maintain modernity. Within this context our task is not to contribute to the growing body of work critiquing the concept of the Anthropocene but to begin to map out the contours of political life on a ruined earth.

Taking up the challenge of the Anthropocene as an expression of the speculative turn within geology, we turn to the imaginary presented by the first five seasons of The Walking Dead as expressive of symptoms of the emerging politics of the Anthropocene. We concentrate on the television series The Walking Dead as a fictional rendition of life on a ruined earth, an imaginary that we see as central to the project of imagining social change in the Anthropocene. While we draw on the comics as additional materials, our focus is the specific imaginary of the TV series. We suggest that within this narrative political practice in the Anthropocene takes as its subject not the citizen or worker, but the survivor.

Through an exploration of The Walking Dead as an image of a ruined earth, the question of how the politics of organising human/more-than-human relations is brought into sharp relief. We contend that the Anthropocene brings the biospheric conditions of life to the forefront of political thought. This foregrounding of ‘nature’ does not signify a subsumption of nature into culture, nor does it denote the ascendency of humanity over nature as a masterful subject (Asafu-Adjaye et al., 2015). Rather it suggests an unending state of vulnerability in the world, where political practice is framed as the unceasing labour of survival. Survival here is a work of care and repair, of maintaining ourselves, our social relations and our worlds against the socio-ecological unravellings of a period of complex environmental disaster.

2. The Anthropocene as a Period of Ruin and Disaster

Since first proposed by Crutzen et al. in 2000, the concept of the Anthropocene has been significantly developed and expanded upon, most notably by geologist Zalasiewicz et al. (20082010). The concept designates a shift from the geological conditions of the past 10–12,000 years known as the Holocene to one irreversibly marked by human activity. The Anthropocene refers to the geological age defined by the aggregated species-impact of humanity—the point at which the activities of the human species became a crucially significant factor in shaping the dynamics of the Earth. It is argued that the impact of humanity is now so significant that it will be possible to be read in the geological record thousands of years from now. Humanity has altered not only the planet’s ecosystems, atmosphere and surface appearance, but also it’s chemistry and geology. As such, it has been argued that the ‘proper’ political response to the Anthropocene is to assume a stewarding role over the entirety of the earth, extending and consolidating a mastery over nature without limit (Steffen et al., 2011).

The prospect of human activity triggering irreversible change within the earth’s atmosphere is the principle driving force behind the adoption of the Anthropocene as a heuristic device (Clark, 2014). Szerszynski suggests that ‘the truth of the Anthropocene is less about what humanity is doing, than the traces that humanity will leave behind’ (2012, p. 169). Here we not only see the question of legacy, a question evocatively explored by Weisman in his best-selling book The World Without Us (2008), but, we would suggest, the question of our own extinction as a species.

To focus on our extinction is to re-centre history on humanity and in some senses void the troubles of the increasing human-non-human entanglements of the present (Latour, 2004). Clark (2014) suggests that there has been an over-emphasis on the human within the Anthropocene, with a concurrent sidelining of properly geological concerns. Turning to the more-than-human world, Crist (2013) argues that the focus on human mastery as a political response to the Anthropocene works to erase the threat to the Enlightenment ideal of mastery over nature that the debasement of humanity into a mere geological force enacts. She further suggests that we undo the reversal that takes place in Anthropocenic thinking in order to lower humanity into the muck of ‘merely-living life’ (2013, p. 131) and foreground the question of limits to human mastery, focusing on what are a series of unforeseen or undesired side-effects. Recent work in science and technology studies and infrastructural studies points towards a similar conclusion (Fortun, 2014; Denis et al., 2015; Howe et al., 2016). Fortun suggests that it is the failures to maintain industrial infrastructure that has led to the collapse of modernist separations keeping the ‘sludge’ out of our lives, noting the role waste plays in producing the ruined biosphere of the Anthropocene.

Agency here, as something that denotes a specific characteristic of particular relations and qualities (Braun and Whatmore, 2010; Castree, 2014b; Haraway, 2014), is framed as a relationship to the on-going disasters of our epoch and the failures to maintain the socio-technical infrastructures of the Holocene. We can contrast this approach to a resurgent Prometheanism that sets out to posit the ‘proper’ relationship to the Anthropocene as one of renewed human mastery (or stewardship) over nature (Steffen et al., 2011; Asafu-Adjaye et al., 2015). This latter position is, as noted by Crist, predominant within the Anthropocenic discourse of earth system scientists who often focus on the need to constitute a global human agent capable of planetary stewardship (i.e. Steffen et al., 2011).

3. The Walking Dead and Necromancy: On Reading Zombies

We contend that TV shows such as The Walking Dead offer a meditation upon the idea of foregoing mastery over nature in favour of an alternate political practice. In particular, we would suggest that the show explores the labour of maintaining a form of life (Winner, 1986; Papadopoulos, 2010) in a period without security on what Fortun calls ‘soiled ground’ (2014). That is, not only a period without social or political security, but of a fundamental biological and geological uncertainty (Clark, 20102014). As such the show depicts an alternative to contemporary accounts of the Anthropocene that posit a masterful human species-agency (Malm and Hornborg, 2014).

The primary narration of agency vis-à-vis disaster is as a response to the breakdown of socio-technical infrastructure. Disaster is theorised to either reveal hidden social processes (Wynne, 1988) or to weaken their grip (Solnit, 2010) in such a way as to enable other forms of life to emerge. In both instances what enables agency to function is the disaster itself. Disaster appears as an opportunity for the work of renewal or construction. Here we find the basic engine of modernist human history, the mechanism of crisis-renewal (Roitman, 2014). Crisis reveals itself to be a problem that must be rectified or corrected for progress to be made. With the breakdown of the world, space is made for us to set to work to resolve the problems that brought about the crisis in the first place, thus enabling the accumulation of knowledge and power (Roitman, 2014). Progress figures here as a kind of continual work of repair (Jackson, 2014; Denis and Pontille, 2015; Howe et al., 2016).

The Anthropocene as an unending disaster undoes this process of crisis-renewal. The extinctions are irreversible; the climatic and geo-chemical transformations will take thousands of years to undo, if they are undone at all (Archer, 2009). The disaster is, to all intents and purposes, permanent (at least as far as humanity is concerned). Repair as a practice of renewal cannot take place. Within the Anthropocene humanity’s agency is limited to the question of how to dwell within the ruins of the previous geological epoch. Neither mastery nor repair-as-renewal frame political agency. Rather, it is the question of survival that marks Anthropocenic politics out from the modernist politics of the Holocene. Survival as a situation or mode of politics stands in contrast to calls for a renewed mastery of nature as espoused though calls for geoengineering (Hamilton, 2014) or in texts such as the Ecomodernist Manifesto (Asafu-Adjaye et al., 2015).

How does survival trouble modernist distinctions between nature and culture? Survival speaks to an unsettling of the dyads upon which the discourse of the mastery of nature rests, particularly the pairing of active/passive as it maps onto culture/nature (Plumwood, 1993). The vulnerability that calls for practices of survival and care on a damaged Earth is suggestive of a state of biospheric exhaustion. Agamben (2002) suggests that a condition of exhaustion enables the rethinking of ethics. Extending this from the moment of exception found in the camp out to encompass the biosphere, we would argue that such a possibility extends to broader political concerns, insofar as the concept of the political still holds in such a state.

Such an ethico-political practice would contest not only the active/passive pairing, but also the notion that mastery (or survival) is ever finally achieved. Rather, a critical reading of Agamben as set out by Whyte (2013) suggests that survival is always contested within exhausted spaces, and that there is a lived contestation of the terms of survival. This is the question posed by Whyte in her reading of Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer, critically interrogating his notion of bare life suggesting that rather than a historical tendency towards the complete realisation of biopolitics, bare life be considered as a continually contested political terrain. We set out from Whyte’s critical reading in part as an acknowledgement of the controversial nature of Agamben’s bare life thesis to argue that bare survival names bare life as a contested political category.

Such a contestation could be read against the dystopian brutality of The Walking Dead as an expression of a kind of care-time (de la Bellacasa, 2015). However, we would posit the politics of survival as found in The Walking Dead as a form of care, where not only is care ‘never done’ (de la Bellacasa, 2015) vis-à-vis human life, but the work of caring for the conditions of life, of the worlds we precariously make and the ecologies we inhabit, is constantly at the forefront of minds, as opposed to being a ‘naturalised’ backdrop to the ‘proper’ activity of life (Plumwood, 1993; de la Bellacasa, 20122015).

The survivor, as one who cares (Mol, 2008; de la Bellacasa, 20122015), offers an alternative approach to acting on the material conditions of life contrary to the renewal of a mastery over nature. With a renewal of mastery over the Earth, the planet is made once more to sink into the background, remade as an object of control and manipulation. However, what we find with survival and care is a never-ceasing emphasis on our dependency on the biosphere, and the need to continually work with its varied capacities and processes.

We are not arguing that The Walking Dead is consciously about the Anthropocene, nor suggesting the zombie itself is the political figure of the Anthropocene, as interesting as that suggestion is (Lauro and Embry, 2008). Rather we understand the environment of The Walking Dead to be representative of an increasingly utilised trope in contemporary fiction; that of survival in a post-catastrophic world. Russell (2014, p. 83) has noted that the core element of zombie narratives is the image of a ruined world, the old order overturned only for nothing to be posed in its place. This contrasts with the presentation of the zombie as either the paradigmatic figure of work under neoliberalism (Shaviro, 2002), the figure of post-crisis capitalism itself (Harman, 2010; Quiggin, 2012), or as the hordes that necessitate a racialised security regime (Canavan, 2010). We are interested in taking up Yuen’s (2012) suggestion that the figure of the zombie provokes us to ask what remains of political praxis after the world has ended.

We are not interrogating The Walking Dead in search of solutions. We do not expect to find ourselves having to deal with the zombie horde and we do not necessarily think the actions taken by Rick and his cohorts are the same ones we would take in their world, let alone the ones we shall take in ours. Instead we are interested in the nature of the problematic played out through the creation and the consumption of these films and television programmes. In particular we are interested in what we can take from fictional narratives of life at the end of the world in order to understand our current geological epoch.

4. The Work of Surviving

Throughout The Walking Dead’s first five seasons there are sporadic echoes of the previous lives of the characters. Occasionally this serves as a dramatic device to build a sense of hope in the viewers only to then dash those hopes shortly afterwards. It is really only in the first episode of the third season that we encounter the possibility that there will be no going back to life before the collapse. While the first five seasons are dominated by a seemingly downward spiral into mere survival, there is a reoccurring tension (most strongly articulated in season six) that survival can assume a less fragile state and can become about making something more than mere survival, thus preparing the grounds for a return of some form of hope, albeit not hope for a better future, but that a particular form of life will be made to endure.

The first episode of season three opens with the characters methodically and in grim silence clearing a house first of its undead residents and then of its food, a category that also includes an unfortunate owl who has taken up residence in an attic bedroom. They arrange blankets and sleeping bags in one of the rooms and set about opening tins of dog food. Rick picks up one of the tins, and throws it away with a look that is clearly intended to show that he is experiencing a brief revisitation of the question ‘what have we become?’ Before the gang even have time to pluck their owl, let alone settle in for the night, an approaching zombie horde necessitates a hasty exit, travelling in salvaged vehicles not towards a final destination where a better life might unfold but simply in the direction in which the characters hope that they might find food, shelter and fuel for the next day or so. The long hair, beards, torn clothes and general indicators of neglect tell us that this process has been repeated again and again since we left them at the end of season two (The Walking Dead, Ep. 3.1, 2012).

Survivors exist in a world without frontiers or new territories to expand into. It is a world saturated with waste and ruins—with objects severed from their previous use values. Abandoned factories, empty buildings, quiet roads. More than this, social roles no longer hold their value. It is not who we are that forms the basis of action, but what our bodies can do. In The Walking Dead we encounter ruination and wastelands. Progressive politics ceases to work in this world as there is nothing left to transform, overturn or overthrow. There is only the question of how to survive: will it be mere survival, survival as a bare biological fact, or will it be with others, collective survival, survival as the making of a life in the ruins?

At the start of season three it appears as though even collective survival constitutes little more than bare survival with others. In season two we see Rick and his band join a farming family, creating a collective life, only for this to break down through acts of human (patriarchal) violence and the arrival of a zombie horde. The unstable settlements of the opening of season three serve to mark how time works within The Walking Dead. Rather than the time of progress that accumulates and builds (Roitman, 2014), where the life takes place within an abstract space (Lefebvre, 1991), what we see is time bound to the labour of survival, what van Dooren (2014) calls knots of time, where rather than accumulation we see a contingent process where settlements and communities are made and unmade by both human and inhuman violence. This oscillation between fragile settlement and the flight into bare survival forms the basis of the first five seasons, giving way to a more extended meditation on the forms of collective life in season six, where, following the on-going storyline of the comics, we can expect further irruptions of human and inhuman violence to undo and threaten the existences of the nascent human communities.

Reading the Anthropocene through the lens of The Walking Dead suggests that we live in an on-going complex disaster and that the terrain of struggle is no longer capitalism per se but the inhumanity of a ruined world, of the un-natural excesses of nature (Clark, 2010). This on-going disaster is significantly different to the anticipated crises of modernity and signals an end without hope of renewal or repair (Williams, 2011), thus a period where works of maintenance, repair and care must be reconceived. We propose that this tension between bare survival and making a life, as an irresolvable tension, characterises politics in the Anthropocene. The question of survival as a condition of late modernity has been raised by a number of authors. Abeles (2010) has suggested that survival constitutes the basic condition of political life after the decline of the welfare state. This suggestion resonates with those of a number of other theorists who have suggested variously that we now dwell within an everyday atmosphere of fear (Massumi, 1993; Virilio, 2012), risk (Beck, 1992) or ‘after the future’ (Berardi, 2011). Abeles—like Franco Berardi—argues that the decline of the welfare state and current stuttering of neoliberal capitalism eviscerate the very notion of progress and thus the future. The Anthropocene figures a break with existing narrations of survival however, insofar as it suggests an ecological and not economic end to the future. As the name for an on-going ecological disaster that has already arrived, it is not something than can be repaired or transformed, only endured.

A sequence in the tenth episode of season five of The Walking Dead represents another point in the ongoing story where we see this seeming interminability played out. Here the situation is somewhat more dire due to an absence of residential or commercial sites from which to salvage and an absence of rain creating a serious risk of death from thirst. By this point in the story though, the reversal wherein these nomadic periods have become normality and the periods of temporary settlement have become exceptional is a well-established one. A group conversation takes place almost entirely through looks, gestures and brief verbal exchanges (‘Don’t think, just eat’) as the gang make their way slowly along a narrow road, occasionally veering off to investigate carrion or look for water. This eventually crystalises into more substantial reflection on the protagonists’ condition when they take shelter in a barn.

Rick [referring to those survivors who have not yet reached adulthood]:

Growing up’s getting used to the world. This is easier for them


This isn’t the world … This isn’t it.


It might be


That’s giving up


It’s reality until we see otherwise. This is what we have to live with

(The Walking Dead, Ep. 5.10, 2015)

Central to the figure of the survivor as a political agent is how time—and the future—is inhabited. In contrast to the figure of the revolutionary worker, the survivor does not overcome capitalism and begin history in a work of crisis-resolution (Roitman, 2014), but instead dwells within a collapsing world. Where the worker was an agent that sought to resolve the ‘final’ crisis of capitalism through a dialectical movement of internal overcoming, the survivor exists within a fracturing of modernity’s history. Time is no longer linear but fragmented, partial, bound to the life of the survivor. It is no longer abstract, but bound to specific activities and localities. That is to say, the survivor is not going anywhere. Nor does the survivor have a purpose beyond living unlike the revolutionary worker, be it bare life or collective life. What we see in The Walking Dead is a grappling with purposeful time without the discipline of the clock, without the 24/7 of work-time. What we see is the stumbling out of old work habits and routines into the tempos of reproductive labours shorn of their ‘productive’ counterparts.

In The Walking Dead we see specific tempos attached to the meeting of basic needs. There are specific tempos attached to the social life of the protagonists and the various other survivors that are encountered. All of these tempos are interspersed with inhuman zombie eruptions and novel events that set new courses and narratives in train. There is no over-riding time however. Time becomes a terrain within which to stumble and struggle. But importantly the struggle is not against anyone but our own habits; that is, with the habits of life before the catastrophe. Survival is an unending process of adaption to the world and the transformation of the self into one who can survive. Our own processes of becoming or unbecoming set the rhythm—as Rick says time and time again, ‘we’ve all done things’, and it is those ‘things’ that set the pace of life within the zombie-scape.

In the wastelands and ruins of The Walking Dead, time-discipline has broken down. Instead what emerges is a harsh kind of care-time (de la Bellacasa, 2015),2 that is focused on the maintenance of bodies and social relations that does not hold to a singular tempo. Care-time is focused on ‘living in the present in order to make it work well’ (de la Bellacasa, 2015). But not well—in The Walking Dead the focus is on desperately make it work at all. Or better still, it is repair time, time focused on ‘things’ and their maintenance in a world that is always-already falling apart (Jackson, 2014; Howe et al., 2016). The difference is perhaps that within the Anthropocene the ‘ordering work’ of maintenance and repair (Denis and Pontille, 2015) gives way to a disorderly and disordering practice of salvage, where ruins must be further broken down if they are to be made useful once more. Here then, to dwell in a world that is always-already falling apart is, to take up Jackson’s phrasing, to undertake ‘broken world thinking’ (2014, p. 222). To practice broken world thinking means to consider yourself as existing in the aftermath (2014, p. 237). That is, it is to posit that the disaster has already occurred and that we now dwell within it, a thesis Williams (2011) amongst others proposes as the basis for political practice today.

5. Fear the Living … 

Introducing the first paperback edition of the comic book version of The Walking Dead, Kirkman sets out that the comic is not a work of horror but is about ‘watching Rick survive’ (Kirkman & Moore, 2008). Survival in The Walking Dead is about dwelling in a ruined world littered with the dead who have become an atmosphere of inhuman violence, menacing and without end. Life within the ruins exists in a state of tension between two tendencies within survivalism: that of bare survival, the focused activities of merely fighting to survive, and that of making a life, of refusing to be reduced to bare survival and instead investing in a form of life that is at odds with the notion of unrelenting civil war that characterises bare survival (Tiqqun, 2010). It is this tension that we see played out without teleology in The Walking Dead. Here we turn to the pivotal events of season three of the TV series to draw out this tension and its significance.

During season three Rick and the band of survivors find an apparently abandoned prison, and decide to hide out there as it is easily defended once the existing zombie population is destroyed (The Walking Dead, Ep. 3.1, 2012). Inside the prison they encounter a small band of convicts with whom they try to negotiate a space-sharing arrangement, by putting the two groups into separate prison blocks. The deal brokered is that Rick and his group will help the convicts clear a wing of the prison that they will then live in, leaving another already cleared wing for Rick and his group. However, while clearing the new wing, the apparent leader of the convict group twice attempts to kill Rick, with Rick dispatching him to a grizzly end instead. One of the other convicts runs off to be chased by Rick, who locks him outside amidst a group of zombies (we do not see him die, but hear sounds of screaming and fighting from behind a closed door).

The episode continues, moving to a scene with the two remaining convicts, one where Rick and his group are poised to kill them, but decide to let them live in the newly cleared wing. Here we see the first act of the tension, where Rick oscillates between brutally slaying those people who appear as a threat to his group, and embracing a broader notion of life that is open to chance human encounters and new social bonds, a process often mediated through how the community of survivors is defined (‘us’ or ‘we’) (The Walking Dead, Ep. 3.2, 2012). These moments of The Walking Dead are always overshadowed by an atmosphere of fear born of a vulnerability of existing outside of a state of law. Will the group be betrayed? Are lives of those who are known to be ‘trustworthy’ being put at risk by the unknown (living) bodies? The opening up of the community of survivors suggests the need to trouble—but not eradicate—the necessarily violent work of making a world fit for some lives but not others (van Dooren, 2014). This moment in season three is put to the test in the next episode where the convict we thought dead, ravaged by zombies when locked outside after fleeing, returns to kill Rick. In the resulting carnage, Rick’s pregnant wife Lori dies during childbirth. Rick is distraught, and descends into madness (The Walking Dead, Ep. 3.16, 2012).

This moment of consequence—to kill or not to kill—plays out across the season via an extended encounter with a ‘gated community’ ruled by a sadistic individual known as ‘The Governor’. In the gated community we see a series of attempts to live life with others, letting go of the horror outside the community’s walls (even if those attempts do include scenes of barbarity and zombie blood-sports). It is a contrast to the prison, which is still the scene of a life in the making, one that while safe is nothing more than a space for bare survival. Ultimately the season ends, after a series of raids, kidnappings and reprisals, in The Governor launching an assault on the prison, intending on killing Rick and his group and taking their place inside the safety of the prison walls. The assault fails and The Governor is forced to chase after his ‘troops’ as they flee. Once he manages to arrest their flight, he turns on his own people, killing most of them before departing with a handful of others into the ruined world (The Walking Dead, Ep. 3.16, 2012). This interplay between survival and life takes place throughout the show on a series of ever-more detailed levels.

In one of the season finale’s final scenes, Rick’s son Carl (who is 13 years old) shoots a boy not much older than himself, who was one of The Governors troops. The boy had surrendered, but Carl told his father that he shot the surrendering boy because ‘he couldn’t take the chance’, telling his father that many of the group’s members who had recently died, including his mother (Rick’s wife Lori), had died because Rick failed to kill those responsible when he had the chance—that is, he was not brutal enough. As the show progresses we see Carl become ever-more hardened to the violence of survival, at one point graphically explaining to a surviving priest in season four exactly how to make sure you kill a zombie with a machete, a process that elicits deep concern from several of the characters including Rick (The Walking Dead, Ep. 3.16, 2012). This transformation, like that of his father, is not an even process implying a telos to survival. Carl—like Rick—swings between modes of survival, at turns focused on the brutality of life in the world of the walking dead, and at others on making more out of his life than mere survival. From parenthood and childhood through to love affairs, fraternal relations to friendship, the process of survival undoes them all, leaving them as a series of unresolved tensions—does one fight to survive, no matter what the cost, or is there something more to hold to, something more to live for?

Like other seasons, season three is a long exercise in brutality—in pitting the desires for community, either in a prison or in the gated community ruled by The Governor, against the savagery of a life outside the commune. The season concludes with Rick and his group victorious, but only at a high cost. The ending sees the remaining gated community survivors being bussed into the prison, to live in a now expanded community, in a moment that is expanded in the fourth season where we find a thriving community, replete with self-managed social roles, communal kitchens, makeshift schools and a farm. The prison community is ever-growing, as Rick and his band of survivors bring in more people that they find outside the walls. Rick has transformed himself—he has taken leave of the savagery of bare life and taken up farming (The Walking Dead, Ep. 4.1, 2013).

But again the season swings between savagery and community, as The Governor returns with another band of survivors and a tank, to once again try to take the prison and enact revenge. Rick pleads with The Governor at the fence, saying that they could leave all that had happened in the past, and that they could live in the prison together. But The Governor has no faith in communal bonds—he declares Rick a liar for uttering such a thing: there is only violence and savagery, and the kind of form of life Rick is proposing is, to The Governor, nothing but a lie masking the brutality of survival. There is a battle, the prison walls are torn down, The Governor dies, zombies invade the once-refuge, and the survivors are scattered. In a sense the story goes nowhere: there is, in the end, nowhere for it to go. There is only the pulsating narrative between bare survival and making a life, and the struggle to inhabit the process of living (The Walking Dead, Ep. 4.8, 2013).

6. Bare Survival

Much has already been written on the significance of zombie narratives vis-à-vis economic crisis: from crisis of capitalism (Harman, 2010) to those of the working class (Shaviro, 2002). There are also numerous accounts of the effects of late modernity as zombifying (Paik, 2012) or even of the zombie as a Bartelby-esque figure of revolt (Lauro and Embry, 2008). Here we want to suggest that a more provocative reading is one that takes the end of the world more seriously. After all, few economic crises actually end the world. There are however actual scientific narratives that describe the end of the world, beginning right now, or if not right now then within a few short years. And as we have noted above what defines the Anthropocene is its status as a factual description of an ending that has already arrived and manifests as an on-going disaster for us as a species. Indeed, as Hamilton has forcefully argued the Anthropocene could signal the end of the human species (2010):

even with the most optimistic set of assumptions … we have no chance of preventing emissions rising well above a number of critical tipping points that will spark uncontrollable climate change. The Earth’s climate would enter a chaotic era lasting thousands of years before natural processes eventually establish some sort of equilibrium. Whether human beings would still be a force on the planet, or even survive, is a moot point. One thing seems certain: there will be far fewer of us. (Hamilton, 2010, pp. 21–22)

The picture Hamilton paints here is one of a ruined world where humans fight to survive. If anything The Walking Dead paints a rosier picture of the future, where the only thing to be survived are zombies and brutal humans and not chaotic and monstrous weather, the inability to grow crops, rising seas and depleted resources. Reading The Walking Dead through this ecological lens suggests that the question of how we survive is central. As Paik notes, the principle ethical dilemma of The Walking Dead, and thus for the praxis of survival, is ‘how far one is willing to go in order to preserve one’s own life or the lives of those whom one loves’ (2012, p. 4). It is this ethical dilemma that animates the narrative oscillation in the Walking Dead between bare survival and making a life, but as an ethical dilemma it is grounded in necessity and not choice. Or rather, the choice is often posed as one over what constitutes necessity, thus making survival a contested state of life.

This dilemma could be said to speak to the tension surrounding the utilisation of ‘humanity’ as a universal agent within Anthropocenic discourse (Crist, 2013; Haraway, 2014; Todd, 2015). In both instances there is a common root to the criticisms: that of the historical construction of the universal subject ‘humanity’. In an effort to address this through the concept of the Anthropocene, Lewis and Maslin (2015) have suggested dating the Anthropocene from 1610, or the period of socio-demographic collapse in the Americas that followed from Spanish and Portuguese conquests. We would agree with the necessary entangling of legacies of violence and dispossession in any accounting for the emergence of the current geological epoch. But while noting this we also would suggest that the Anthropocene potentially marks a novel geo-historical terrain that must be addressed ethico-politically in its own right as the grounds of politics. That is, the planetary exhaustion of innumerable resources, the potentially catastrophic stress being placed on a number of biospheric processes, the ruination of late industrial infrastructure and the fact of climate change all suggest that the Anthropocenic earth as the terrain with and on which politics is to be made is fundamentally different to that of the Holocene. Furthermore, if as Mitchell (2013) suggests the notion of progress itself is an artefact of a particular confluence of human social organisation and energy resources, this would suggest that progress must either be radically reimagined for an earth no longer capable of sustaining boundless accumulation or give way to another political project that articulates an alternative approach to time and the more-than-human world.

Put simply, survival as a form of life brings out the ever-present tension between bare survival and making a life. While this tension is realised as a differentiated horizon insofar as the question of survival is organised through distinct colonial, racial, gendered and (crucially) geographical differences, differences that are radically compounded by the ecological unravelling that characterises the Anthropocene (Parenti, 2011), we contend that it is nonetheless a common horizon. Or, given the Anthropocene dates a past event, a common ground. We can explore the tensions that inhere in survival as a differentiated common ground by turning to Whyte’s critical reading of Agamben’s notion of bare life.

As Whyte (2013) outlines, bare life is a description of a life that has been excised from the protection of the law or community and exposed to sovereign power and the threat of death. Bare life, for Agamben, is not only a matter of exposure and expulsion. The mechanics of bare life function to divide political life from natural life (Whyte, 2013, p. 21)—natural life here meaning the basic animality of life, its biological functioning, in contrast to the social forms that human life takes. Agamben (2003) does not set out to naturalise such a distinction, only to suggest that this fabricated division is fundamental to European political thought. Agamben (1998, p. 11) claims that the originary distinction between life and politics taints all European political traditions, rendering them all problematic as means of liberation. This is because the expansion of the dominion of politics over life—the emergence and unfolding of biopolitics—eventually evacuates politics of substance (Agamben, 2003).

As life is progressively subjected to political practice, all of life becomes managed by the logic of politics, calculable and thus stripped bare of anything particular about it. The mere fact of living, and the necessities that govern that fact, become the basis of politics and thus politics becomes biopolitics. Agamben’s thought here is deeply indebted to Aristotle, in particular his distinction between life itself and the good life. Aristotle distinguishes between the biological necessities of life, necessities that push people to band together for the sake of biological life, and the good life which is a cultivation of social, ethical, artistic and political forms that can only take place once the bare necessities of life have been secured. Freedom, Aristotle believed, can only be secured once people are free from the work of survival.

Whyte’s reading troubles this distinction, or at least suggests how there is no one moment survival as bare life is overcome. Rather there is a constant movement or contestation around making a life that threatens the reduction of life to bare survival. Such a reading echoes suggestions that modernist forms of life are threatened with extinction within the Anthropocene (Hamilton, 2010). Reading such suggestions critically, we could posit that the erosion of social, environmental and infrastructural security (Dalby, 2009; Fortun, 2014; Howe et al., 2016) produces an unstable ground of social life, threatening specific forms of life with extinction (van Dooren, 2014).

Returning to The Walking Dead what we see are lives that have been plunged back into the daily work of survival, the freedoms of civilised life lying in ruins. Read alongside Chakrabarty’s (2009) historical theorisation that the Anthropocene marks the end of modernist conceptions of freedom, survival, not boundless progress, becomes the ground of human sociality. All of life thus appears as bare life. And yet this is not what we find detailed in The Walking Dead. Instead what we see is a process of survival that continually poses the question ‘what is necessary to live?’ At points in the narrative, merely living is not enough—people are willing to die for community, for friends and lovers, for transitory pleasures and for points of principle.

This question of survival vs. life is posed explicitly towards the middle of season five of the TV programme. During a brief moment of respite, Rick tells the story of his grandfather who survived the Second World War by thinking of himself as already dead, only returning to life after the war had ended. Rick says that is how their group will survive—by imagining themselves to be ‘the walking dead’. This is contested, both immediately and later on in the programme by several of the characters. One character, Daryl, reacts in horror, saying that ‘we ain’t them, … we ain’t them’. The idea that survival is a kind of living death fills Daryl with dread. A number say that survival is not enough, and that the world is never going to recover. Speaking specifically against notions that some place clear of zombies exists, or that a cure for the catastrophe will be found, another character Glenn argues that the ruined world filled with zombies is how the future will look forever, that there is no hope of return to the past. Without the hope of return or renewal, to live as though one were dead would be to give up all hope of making a life (The Walking Dead, Ep. 5.10, 2015).

Contra Agamben, what is suggested by The Walking Dead is that survival is always a struggle over what will constitute a necessity, and that life cannot ever be freed from such a labour. This corresponds with Whyte’s (2013, p. 42) reading against Agamben, where she poses a historical sense of the politicisation of life. Whyte suggests that at each moment we are confronted with the need to survive a question is posed: is merely surviving enough reason to live (2013, p. 42). That is, what should we consider to be the foundations of our survival, what will we count as necessities, and what forms of life we will endure. Will survival be mere survival, the reduction of politics to bare life, or will it be a new formulation, a refusal to separate how we live from what we need to live (Whyte, 2013, p. 42).

In The Walking Dead, this tension is never completely resolved. What we witness is a never-ceasing movement between the bare fact of survival—finding food, healing wounds, killing zombies, etc.—and those moment of having a life—love, social ritual, communal and fraternal bonds, etc. What we see in The Walking Dead is a continual work of trying to find the space that can be cleared just enough to make a life and not merely fight to survive. At while there are moments of hope to be found in the narrative, what we see more often than not is the failure to make a life, perhaps best captured by the un-civilising of Rick, who becomes increasingly savage and violent as the series progress, his hopes for a life having been continually dashed and frustrated.

7. To be for some Forms of Life … 

As both the show and comics continue, we see ever-more collective iterations of this tension between bare survival and making a life, as both progress into narrations of a permanent state of civil war between (precariously) settled communities. In season six the TV show takes up the Alexandria plot line from the comics where Rick and his gang join a fortified township. After a series of conflicts with the township residents (and a series of deaths and violent clashes), Rick and his gang embrace the township community. This takes place for Rick after an attack by human marauders (called ‘wolves’) is beaten back and a zombie horde that has breached the walls of Alexandria is cleared out. The actions of the residents of Alexandria, who take up arms and destroy those bodies that threaten the community, are understood by Rick as a demonstration that they have ‘what it takes’ to survive. Because they will fight and kill, Rick understands them to be able to be incorporated into his collective social body. They are now ‘us’.

In his embrace of a broader polity, Rick does not resolve the tension between bare survival and making a life. Rather he is making the capacity for violence central to the project of making a life. Without violence, without the ability and capacity to make a space within which to live, there can be no form of life beyond bare survival.

The world of The Walking Dead is one we have suggested mirrors the ruined earth of the Anthropocene. In both it could be suggested that there is an absence of un-occupied space, an absence that manifests as an exhaustion of frontiers. The creation or reproduction of any given form of life requires putting another form of life (human or more-than-human) into question. This is not just to say that to be for some forms of life is to necessarily be against others (Winner, 1986; van Dooren, 2014). The conflict between forms of life are intensified on a ruined earth insofar as the very possibility of accommodating conflicting or contradictory forms of life is undermined in a period without either progress or frontiers (Chakrabarty, 2009; Mitchell, 2013; Moore, 2015). In The Walking Dead we see conflicts over both the space in which to live and the resources necessary to live. Similarly, what we are already seeing in the Anthropocene is an era of environmentally driven conflicts and the preparations of environmental states of emergency (Parenti, 2011; Klare, 2012). More to the point, the capacity to sustain some forms of life, particularly those consumer lifestyles of the global North, are only possible through the destruction of other spaces of human and more-than-human life.

The Walking Dead presents us with an image of life amidst on-going eco-infrastructural disaster—things have not been maintained, infrastructure is breaking down, and an inhuman catastrophe walks the earth consuming the unwary. The Anthropocene is as much an expression of ruined socio-technical infrastructure and its concomitant accidents in the global North as it is an expression of the impact of human socio-economic activity. The disasters of late industrialism present as complex disasters that must be endured but threaten to never be resolved. Taking care of socio-technical infrastructure in such an epoch is as much a work of salvage as it is of repair and maintenance. Salvage, as the lack of ecological surplus and of frontier space combine with the on-going disasters of the Anthropocene to produce a soiled earth that functionally undermines any capacity to lay a stable foundation for the steady re-accumulation of wealth or mastery over nature (Clark, 20102014; Moore, 2015).

8. Salvage

It is often the visions of looting and salvage that form the secret joy of zombie films, from the characters of Dawn of the Dead (1978) freely looting a shopping mall to the idea that everything is now up for grabs, and that you can take whatever you can claim. In The Walking Dead this joyous vision of salvage quickly gives way to a slow work of salvage that has more in common with the reproductive time of care work (de la Bellacasa, 2015) than it does to the destruction of property-values found in other apocalyptic visions of the future.

Starting from within a period of breakdown and collapse without renewal, the continual and necessary work of repair appears as a labour of salvage, as a work of invention within the ruins (Jackson, 2014). This is the second way the figure of the survivor differs from that of other modernist political agents. Where the classical vision of the worker, for example, is of one who produces value, the survivor produces nothing. The survivor salvages.

Salvage presupposes (and follows from) breakage. It is to take something that has lost its value and find a way to make it work again. In the world of The Walking Dead, everything has broken down, and everything must be salvaged—from cars, to guns, to social roles and relations, to dreams and ideas of what constitutes community and living. This is salvage in its most total and expansive mode—in a utopian mode (Williams, 2011, p. 42). See for example the transformation of the rooms, artefacts and exercise yards of the prison in season three into the tools, equipment and land necessary for low-key farming and treatment of the sick. Perhaps even more poignantly the reappropriation of the pipes of a church organ for the purposes of building defensive structures in the early part of season five (The Walking Dead, Ep. 5.5, 2014).

In The Walking Dead, capitalism as a social form has come to an end. The excesses of plague-nature have undone it. We could suggest that the Anthropocene invokes a future end of capitalism through a similar process of excessive nature—storms, floods, sea-rises, etc. Or also by absences—no people, no workers, no clear ground in The Walking Dead; no oil, no soil, no room to expand in the Anthropocene. In both scenarios that which is terminated by disaster is capitalism.

This is a point that has been long made by many environmental and political thinkers, such as Heinberg (2007), Foster et al. (2010), Klein (2014) and Moore (2015). And despite the diversity of arguments presented by even this small sample of commentators, they all agree on two points. The first is that the cause of environmental crises is capitalism as an socio-economic system, and the second is that the endless growth required by capitalism in order to flourish not only cannot proceed indefinitely, but is in fact now at an end.

If we put political analysis and commentary to one side, we find much the same argument being increasingly made by the scientific community. From editorials in the usually staid journal Nature calling for direct action by scientists (Grantham, 2012, p. 303), to serious sessions at major international conferences, such as that of the American Geophysical Union, where one such session was entitled ‘Is Earth F**ked? Dynamical Futility of Global Environmental Management and Possibilities for Sustainability via Direct Action Activism’ (Mingle, 2012), to the work of Anderson (20122013) from the Tyndall climate change research centre, there is an increasing call from within the scientific community to recognise the unviability of our current economic system.

In The Walking Dead, exchange has broken down and new uses must be found for old things. Labour is focused not on productivity but reproduction, and reproduction is not reducible to utility. As Jackson argues, when repair and not production becomes central to our understanding, economics becomes a matter of sustainability and not growth. Extending this beyond a moment of breakdown that promises a return to functionality, salvage is more of a question of making things work long enough to enable a form of life to endure. In The Walking Dead we are presented with a partial or stalled trajectory however. The struggle to salvage enough, to fabricate the space to live forms the central narrative of The Walking Dead. To be free of desperate survival, to escape from a pitiful life eating pet food, as we find the characters at the start of season three, even if all that can be found to build that freedom is a re-purposed prison, this is the tension around making a life in the ruins of the world that The Walking Dead explores (The Walking Dead, Ep. 3.1, 2012). The struggle is to deepen the work of salvage and turn it into a process of invention, invention being that point where repair becomes something more, a process of ‘making new’ (Jackson, 2014).

9. Conclusion

The Anthropocene is an epoch marked by a pervasive ecological vulnerability, one that takes place at a planetary scale and produced by the progressive exhaustion of the environmental grounds of human social life. This is not to suggest, however, that there is a singular human subject that stands apart or indeed over a unitary ‘nature’. The articulation of the concept of the Anthropocene would appear to be a political attempt by earth scientists to bring a global political subject into being (Bonneuil and Fressoz, 2016), one capable of tackling ‘global’ issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss. Such an articulation would obscure the long history of not only environmental injustices and ecological violence (Bonneuil and Fressoz, 2016), but the disaggregated character of humanity itself (Malm and Hornborg, 2014), insofar as there is no singular ‘human’ subject. Nonetheless, the naming of the Anthropocene does mark a series of biospheric and geo-chemical transformations to the planet, changes that suggest a fundamental (uneven) transformation of the grounds of human life.

Contrary to attempts to renew a sense of human mastery over the earth and to subsume nature in its entirety under the rubric of human action (Crist, 2013), the Anthropocene signals the deepening of the uncertainties produced by the earth sciences (Stengers, 2000). Indeed, the geological science that underpins the naming of the Anthropocene undoes previous notions of terrestrial stability (Clark, 2014), and in doing so collapses human into non-human time (Chakrabarty, 2009). Moreover, such an unsettling brings the more-than-human world out from the background of social life, not as an object of concern but as a locus of unpredicatable actions and events (Clark, 2014). The combination of foregrounding the varied agencies of the biosphere and the production of a profound state of uncertainty and vulnerability vis-à-vis human life turns politics to questions of care, repair and reproduction (Jackson, 2014; de la Bellacasa, 2015). Or, returning to our focus on a ruined earth, to questions of survival and salvage.

We set out to explore the plausibilities of political life in the Anthropocene as an exhausted material ground of politics through a reading of The Walking Dead as an image of a ruined earth, paying particular attention to how the image of a ruined world brings the practices of organising human and more-than-human relations into sharp relief. The visual narrative of The Walking Dead sets out three questions relevant to the concept of the Anthropocene.

It presents viewers with an image of the lived environment as inhuman and unsettling. Infrastructure fails, social life revolves around everyday tasks and life is subject to unpredictable and frequent inhuman violence that erupts out of the refusal of the dead to die. It is not only an unpredictable world, but one that exceeds control. Rather than mastery their environments, the protagonists of The Walking Dead fight to endure within it.

The problem of endurance is a question of the character of survival. Survival is not constituted as a past event that has been overcome in order to pursue more ‘properly human’ tasks, in the Aristotelian sense. Nor is survival a condition to be overcome; it is the character of life itself. It is a form of life in tension, where struggle is constituted as an every-present conflict to make a life and refuse the reduction of survival to bare life. Survival in this register is an acknowledgement that the inhuman and more-than-human will never return to the background, will never become something to be assumed or denied (Plumwood, 1993). As such, survival is an act of unceasing reproduction—of care, maintenance and repair. The time of survival is not that of modernist notions of progress. It is not a singular historical continuum framing the accumulation of wealth, power and knowledge, but rather a complex ecology of tempos, where time is bound to specific practices, events and places. It is a kind of care-time entangled with ruined environments and infrastructures, where the narrative focus is not on making things better but making things work.

The need to focus on survival and making things work is suggestive of the inability to finally resolve the tension between bare life and making a life within survival. And as explored in the trajectories of the characters in The Walking Dead it is also suggestive of the inability to put violence into the past of social life. At no point does the violence foundational to forming social orders, from the fictional creations of community in The Walking Dead to the historical violences that mark the European legacies of colonialism and fossil fuel capitalism, ever cease. At no point does it become a matter that can be incorporated into a history of founding or forgotten within an origin story. Rather the question of violence—how violent to be, what violence is justified and what to care for or abandon—is continually posed.

Exploring the question of violence and the practice of survival through the attempts to constitute community in The Walking Dead, we have suggested that the work of the survivor in the Anthropocene be considered as a labour of salvage. As a particular mode of the practices of care and repair, salvage is grounded in what can be done with what remains. It is a practice that is limited to making do, to improvisation rather than invention.

As such, salvage sets out the limits of the politics of survival. Salvage starts with the world as it is found: it works with the ruins of the Anthropocene, the toxic drifts and broken infrastructures. The existing inequities of material wealth and distribution, the ruins of the present world, form the differentiated grounds of survival. In The Walking Dead this plays out between small bands of human survivors. In the real world we can see this difference geographically striated between those still-wealthy cities of the global North and the slums and informal settlements of the global South. In The Walking Dead the conflict over the material resources needed to make a life takes place in small armed conflicts, ambushes and fraught negotiations undertaken face to face. In the real world it is a matter of drone strikes, boarder police and military occupations (Parenti, 2011).

This formulation indicates the limit of the survivor as political figure. While within the histories of working class struggles, it was always the agency of the worker that was figured to be capitalism’s catastrophe (the real state of emergency), in catastrophic fantasies like The Walking Dead, the survivor changes nothing. It is catastrophe itself—the zombie plague—that appears as the historical agent. This is the significance of vulnerability. With the return of the inhuman as a force that shapes human social life, struggle ceases to be one for progression and instead one over the character of survival. But will survival be mere survival, the reduction of politics to bare life, or will it be a new formulation, a refusal to separate how we live from what we need to live (Whyte, 2013, p. 42). In The Walking Dead, this tension is never completely resolved. Rather it, and not progress becomes the horizon towards which the political is played out. The question raised for we who dwell within the Anthropocene is thus what kind of survival do we want, and how are we to inhabit our differentiated vulnerabilities.


1 Of course, in line with genre conventions, the ‘walkers’ in Kirkman’s work are never referred to as ‘zombies’.

2 Not that care-time in the work of de la Bellacasa necessarily takes up the implied positivity uncritically. Indeed, the preferred device for exploring the interrelation of care-time and soil is the practice of cultivating rot—composting.

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