Apocalypse Never: Walter Benjamin and the Deferral of the End

Posted on by thewastedworld

Gregory Marks

“This time, then once more I think, then perhaps a last time, then I think it’ll be over, with that world too. Premonition of the last but one but one. All grows dim. […] I’ll manage this time, then perhaps once more, then perhaps a last time, then nothing more.”[1]

With these words from Molloy, Samuel Beckett evokes a curious sense of temporality. The end has already come, yet never seems to arrive; the world appears in its final dying form, but it is only the first of an endless precession of death masks. The end of time doubles back on itself, replaying its last moments like the skipping of a record player.

What appears in Beckett’s novel as a narrative at the limits of the sensible is perhaps no longer so rare an experience. Today there is no shortage of proclamations on the end of days, either in the mode of imminent catastrophe or in the grim acknowledgement that it is already too late to change our fate. It is said that our actions on this planet have inaugurated a new geological epoch—the Anthropocene, the era of humanity—and that this epoch also marks our doom, as an era of inevitable catastrophe and extinction. The concept of the Anthropocene carries within it a temporal ambiguity, as it signifies both “that there will not be complete annihilation but a gradual witnessing of a slow end, and that we are already at that moment of witness, living on after the end.”[2] To call this situation apocalyptic or even post-apocalyptic would be a misnomer, because the catastrophe is one without a moment of revelation, much less a redemptive relation to the history that preceded it. The end is embedded in the earth itself, and made into something always already present, as a simple fact of the human era.

It is the argument of this paper that this vision of an end to human history that is at once finished and unfulfilled is not an innate fact of our ecological predicament but is rather symptomatic of our present historical juncture of late capitalism—which is itself interminably caught on the verge of global climate catastrophe but seemingly without alternatives. To attribute the ecological disasters of a historically novel economic system to the geological epoch of humanity itself risks reifying that system into something ahistorically innate to human nature, and therefore without changeability or recourse. The narrative of the Anthropocene is thus characterised by a mournful order of time—which shrinks from historical consciousness and envisages humanity as fossils in the making.

To make sense of this melancholic disposition, I will turn to the works of Walter Benjamin to give a typology of the forms of time available to us. Specifically, I will examine Benjamin’s early writings on Baroque drama, which stages a model of history in which all human action sinks into the mute eternity of the natural world. This form of time will also be compared with Benjamin’s more famous formulations of industrial capitalism’s homogeneous, empty time and the Messianic time which marks the moment of historical fulfilment. Having examined the temporalities of natural history, mechanical time, and Messianic fulfilment as they are drawn by Benjamin, the final part of this essay returns to the present predicament of the Anthropocene and the possibility of reading this new epoch according to Benjamin’s typology of temporalities. If, as per Benjamin, the funereal vision of nature’s eternity is a mark of historical failure, we are today confronted with a failure of world-historic proportions that threatens to sweep up even the most critical minds in its tide.

I: The Triumph of Vegetation is Total

The subject of Benjamin’s 1925 habilitatian thesis is the trauerspiel, which may be best defined as an obscure genre of Baroque drama originating from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Germany. The trauerspiel has its counterparts elsewhere in Europe, although the most famous of these—Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Calderón’s La vida es sueño—are marked by their transcendence of the trauerspiel form, which in Germany remained an esoteric, even stagnant, genre without a claim to greatness. The term trauerspiel is variably translated into English as ‘Baroque tragedy’ or ‘German tragic drama,’ although both of these translations risk assimilating the trauerspiel to tragedy proper. Unlike tragedy in its classical sense, the trauerspiel lacks a historical dimension, in which its heroes attain the immortality of a fulfilled fate. As Benjamin writes:

“In tragedy the hero dies because no one can live in fulfilled time. He dies of immortality. Death is an ironic immortality; that is the origin of tragic irony. […] Death in the trauerspiel is not based on the extreme determinacy that individual time confers on the action. It is not conclusion; without the certitude of a higher life and without irony […] the time of the trauerspiel is not fulfilled, yet it is finite. It is nonindividual, but without historical generality.”[3]

The plot of the tragedy sustains itself on the interplay between fate and character, and the eventual fulfilment of both in the hero’s fulfilment of his destiny. His death is his gateway to greatness, and therefore a paradoxical kind of immortality as the heroic forefather of a city, a culture, or a faith. As we shall see, the trauerspiel lacks access to an immortal or historic register because it admits neither a permanence to worldly affairs nor a transcendence from the world of creation.

Yet in its lack of historical consciousness, the trauerspiel is in every respect a reflection of its historical context. Emerging from a Europe ravaged by the wars of religion, culminating in the prolonged bloodshed of the Thirty Years War, the trauerspiel was a narrative form which expressed the hideous violence of the age. For the heroes of the trauerspiel there is no immortality following great deeds, much less any redemption conferred from on high for the victors of the bloody squabbles that take centre stage.

Translated literally, the trauerspiel is a ‘mourning play’ or even a ‘funeral pageant’—terms which better express the melancholic disposition of the genre. It is the prevalence of mourning which informs the trauerspiel’s unique relation to time and history, which it conceives under the symbol of the ruin: a marker of humanity’s passing, where historical triumph is recognised in decay, and nature reasserts itself over the greatest of human achievements. As a measure of decay, the time of the trauerspiel is marked by its transience and the sinking of historical time into the timelessness of non-human nature. “With decay, and with it alone, historical occurrence shrinks and withdraws into the setting.”[4] Its narrative, and the prevailing symbol of the ruin, provide a model for a conception of history that is inevitably fated for decline. The ruin figures the failure of history to achieve any ends beyond inescapable death.

If the trauerspiel occupies a curious position in relation to historical time, this relation is only complicated by its conception of nature and the natural world. As Benjamin writes, “what has the last word in the flight from the world that is characteristic of the Baroque is not the antithesis of history and nature but total secularization of the historical in the state of creation.”[5] This is not an opposition between history and nature, but the total submergence of the former within the latter, silencing historical consciousness in favour of a melancholic rumination upon the cruel whims of nature. Human history is caught within the much wider movement of nature itself, and inevitably cycles downwards from glory to desolation. It is this turn from history to nature which marks the barrier between classical tragedy and the trauerspiel; as Fredric Jameson suggests, “tragedy brings history into being by emerging from legend, by overcoming myth; Trauerspiel is condemned to a history without transcendence, which it can only think my means of natural categories, cycles, organisms, the seasons, the eternal return.”[6] This nature appears “not in the bud and blossom but in the overripeness and decay of its creations. Nature looms before them as eternal transience.”[7] Nature in this sense is not merely the non-human world or the earthly basis for human affairs, but a force external to history which constantly intervenes to dash the dreams of historical permanence.

Although preoccupied with death, the trauerspiel is not an apocalyptic vision of the end of history, because there is no end to speak of. Eternal transience destroys all sense of permanence, but it also precludes any fundamental change to the state of the world. It is in this interminability of natural history that the time of the trauerspiel shows in diabolical face. The eternity of nature’s dominion is experienced as the endless torment of perdition. In the trauerspiel’s bloody dramas the most boastful of nature’s creations are the most overripe, and the most accomplished are the ones most ready for decay. Something abyssal is recognised at the heart of humanity, god’s fallen children who cannot be anything but the imperfect mirrors of a creation lacking all transcendence. The subsumption of history within nature begets a theory of human nature: a bloody turmoil, a lust for power, and a war of all against all. History does not end, because it can come to no lasting conclusion; it eddies in the vastness of nature but does not entirely subside. “History finds expression not as [a] process of an eternal life but as [a] process of incessant decline.”[8] The narrative of the trauerspiel realises a melancholy negation of historical consciousness, which retains the historical interest in disputes of power while simultaneously undercutting the lasting achievements of those historic struggles.

II: Eternity on the Clock

The time of the trauerspiel stands in contrast, but not necessarily in opposition, to the time of industrial capitalism, which possesses its own interminable cycles and myths of inevitability. In his famous “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin calls the latter of these temporalities “homogeneous, empty time,” because its units are purely formal, interchangeable, and emptied of specific historical content.[9] This is the temporality of the clock, by which time is regimented according to the strictures of the factory and the office, divided into abstract units of time, and measured according to their pace and intensity in purely quantitative terms.[10] Within this form of time, we are caught in a “sequence of events” which pass rhythmically “like the beads of a rosary.”[11] Like a rosary this form of time is not only broken into uniform and discreet units, but at a larger scale assumes a cyclical organisation. At the scale of society as a whole, mechanical time describes the capitalist processes of production, circulation, and accumulation—great circuits of capital which everyone from the most destitute worker to the wealthiest capitalist. The motion of the clock whirs ever onwards, and in its cycles it amasses heaped moments of abstract time.[12]

This organisation of time brings with it a corresponding vision of history as the sum of all homogeneous, empty moments. Benjamin calls this “universal history,” the method of which is additive; “it musters a mass of data to fill the homogeneous, empty time.”[13] The result of this quantitative accumulation of time is the vision of ‘progress’ as something inevitable, as the simple amassment of cultural and social wealth. With each circuit of the clockface, as the story of progress goes, the moments pile up, and history advances one step forward in a world necessarily enriched by each moment elapsed. But this narrative of progress is also an empty one, because it cannot attain historical fulfilment in its endless task; the curve of history bends upwards, but infinitely, and without content to give meaning to its quantitative acceleration. If the concept of progress once played a critical role as a demand, or as a declaration of the right of all people to partake in the growing wealth of society, “in the course of the nineteenth century, as the bourgeoisie consolidated its positions of power, the concept of progress would increasingly have forfeited the critical functions it originally possessed.” No longer the fruit of political struggle, progress became naturalised as an innate feature of history itself: an automatic and unthinking movement in which are all unknowingly swept along.[14]

As the naturalisation of decline, the trauerspiel’s symbol of the ruin functions as an inverted image of progress (which naturalises the gradual rise of prosperity). In the former, humanity is fated by nature to toil and struggle for no lasting gain, while in the latter the bounty of future generations is assured by the natural shape of history itself. That these two forms of time carry contradictory visions of history does not mean that they cannot be made complementary to one another. Although the fortunes of history may rise or fall, the upward curve of mechanical time may be fitted neatly into the eternal recourse of the time of the trauerspiel—as one segment of the great circle which encompasses times of prosperity and destitution alike. Likewise, the circular motion of time in the trauerspiel has its counterpart in the circulating components of mechanical time, which pass through many repetitions on their way upward. It is little wonder then that Benjamin describes progress and the eternal return as complementary, if indissoluble, opposites which mirror back to one another their most hidden traits:

“The belief in progress—in an infinite perfectibility understood as an infinite ethical task—and the representation of eternal return are complementary. They are the indissoluble antinomies in the face of which the dialectical conception of historical time must be developed. In this conception, the idea of eternal return appears precisely as that ‘shallow rationalism’ which the belief in progress is accused of being, while faith in progress seems no less to belong to the mythic mode of thought than does the idea of eternal return.”[15]

In the theses of 1940, it was mechanical time and its myth of progress which predominated the European intellectual and political scenes. Conversely, the melancholy and boredom which Benjamin discovers in the culture of the nineteenth century appear as oases of eternity amidst the tumult of a ‘progressive’ century. Regardless of which predominates, both progress and the eternal return function as partial views of history, which cannot sustain a historical consciousness unencumbered by myth. For Benjamin, the dialectical conception of history emerges out of the antinomy of these two forms, rejecting the panacea of universal history and the resignation of the eternal return, and discovering a natural history which undoes both mythic modes of thought.[16] The trauerspiel and its universal narrative of decay may for this reason be regarded as an abortive theory of history, springing from an ahistorical formation of time. Whereas the myth of progress sooths the complaints of capitalist society’s periodic crises with the promise of future prosperity, the trauerspiel carries the concept of crisis to the heart of nature and justifies all that follows as the preterition of a doomed world.

III: Redemption and Death

While the time of the trauerspiel possesses a hidden complicity with mechanical time and an ambiguous relation to historical time, its structure could not be more opposed to the most famous and perplexing of Benjamin’s temporal forms: Messianic time. In the theses of 1940, Benjamin delineates the relation of Messianic time to homogeneous, empty time, to which it is not so much opposed as it is situated within and against. The structure of Messianic time, for Benjamin, is not indefinitely extended into the past and future like mechanical time or historical time but is condensed into a single moment or event. As early as 1916, Benjamin would write of Messianic time a collective mode of “fulfilled historical time” that instantiates the idea of history in a moment of truth.[17] Fulfilment in this sense, and the attendant concept of redemption, is a relation between events already past and those which bring their promise to fruition. As Fredric Jameson suggests, events in the past “demand completion by events in the future; their redemption is not a personal one, not a bodily resurrection, but a reenactment that brings them to realization and fulfillment.”[18]

By 1940 this idea would only become more urgent and politically charged, when Benjamin uses it to chart out the goals a renewed of historical materialism, which must search for those seeds of Messianic fulfilment in the homogeneous grains of mechanical time:

“He [the historical materialist] takes cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the homogeneous course of history—blasting a specific life out of the era or a specific work out of the lifework. As a result of this method the lifework is preserved in this work and at the same time canceled [aufheben]; in the lifework, the era; and in the era, the entire course of history. The nourishing fruit of the historically understood contains time as a precious but tasteless seed.”[19]

This is all to say that Messianic time occupies a position both within and without the mechanical sequence of events. The seed of the Messianic event lies hidden within the course of homogeneous, empty time, but when its time comes it is blasted out of that continuum, so that it may bring to fruition its own temporality. If mechanical time is formally alike to the beads of a rosary, which are homogeneous in appearance, Messianic time is what seizes a hold of a singular bead and suffuses it with the mystery of divinity. Messianic content fills the empty form of time.

For Benjamin, this Messianic time is also the time of the revolutionary event, the year zero, when the old regime is overthrown and the new order composed: “The awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode is characteristic of the revolutionary classes at the moment of their action.”[20] Each revolutionary movement brings to fulfilment those that preceded it: the French revolutionaries reenacted the Roman Republic; the Communist movement fulfilled the promise of the peasant revolts; Spartacus marched through the streets of Berlin—history is not so much repeated as it is seized from its grave and given new life. The revolutionary, the historical materialist, and the Messianic movement act “to interrupt the course of the world.”[21] The inevitable motion of universal history is put on hold, caught by surprise by the irruption of a revolutionary event unassimilable to the linear course of homogenous, empty time.

In contrast to the fulfilled time of the Messianic, the time of the trauerspiel is left absolutely unfulfilled. Its moments are not alike to the beads of a rosary, which, although homogeneous in form, are the vessels of revelation. Rather, the law which governs the time of the trauerspiel is not homogeneity or fulfilment but repetition, which summons up each moment in time as a mere reflection of another, which in turn is only the mirror image of another yet further removed. Eternity makes itself visible in every moment of time by way of the mise-en-abîme of repetition:

“The law of a higher life prevails in the restricted space of earthly existence, and all things play until death puts an end to the game, so as to continue, in another world, the greater repetition of the same game. It is this repetition on which the law of the trauerspiel is founded. Its events are allegorical schemata, symbolic mirror images of a different game. We are transported into that game by death.”[22]

This ‘higher life’ which governs the world of the trauerspiel appears not in transcendence but in immanence, as the law which governs nature from within its eternally returning cycles of fruition and decay. Whereas Messianic time sees each moment as the potential gateway of redemption, the trauerspiel’s “profane exposition of history” envisages it “as the Passion of the world—meaningful only in the stations of its decline.”[23]

Although preoccupied with the death of all things, the trauerspiel is not only unfulfilled but also lacking in eschatological potency. It does not mark the end of history in redemption, but the failure of that redemption to take place. This refusal to contemplate the end of time is partially attributed by Benjamin to the theological situation of the Counter-Reformation, in which “the hierarchical tendency of the Middle Ages resumes its authority in a world that was denied immediate access to the beyond.”[24] This closing up of theological horizons was expressed positively in the pomp and ideology of the Baroque’s golden age, but by necessity also enclosed a negative force to ward off all challenges to this glorified order:

“And one of these necessities, consequent upon the collapse of all eschatology, is the attempt to find consolation in the renunciation of a state of grace in reversion to the bare creaturely condition. […] The German trauerspiel wholly buries itself in the desolation of the earthly estate. Such redemption as it knows will lie more in the depths of these vicissitudes themselves than in the fulfillment of a divine plan of salvation.”[25]

Order reigns on earth! An order which is guaranteed in aeternum by the sword and cross. Worldly transience has this as its political lesson: nothing can change—nothing can be allowed to change—and all things must bend to this eternal kingdom of tyrants and slaves or else be condemned to the grave. Salvation is precluded by the revocation of grace, once more placing the trauerspiel in contradistinction with the Messianic, which is motivated by the unpredictability of the event and the promise of the resurrection of the dead.

Just as the time of the trauerspiel and mechanical time differ in their relation to the future (the former foreseeing a cyclical regression and the latter projecting a linear increase), the forms of time found in the trauerspiel and in the Messianic event are incompatible because they posit fundamentally different relations to the past. Messianic time is the redemption of the dead, whereas the trauerspiel is the final forgetting of the lost. The Messianic is a reenactment or a revitalisation of the unfulfilled past, which blooms like an ancient seed finally placed in fertile soil. We may recall Benjamin’s famous proclamation: “Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.”[26]  In contrast, the trauerspiel seeks to bury the past ever deeper, to make each event only a spectral repetition in an eternal return of the same. The fruition of Messianic time means crossing the river Styx to retrieve what would be lost forever, while the trauerspiel bathes in the waters of Lethe, hoping to return to the paradisical timelessness of pre-history.

But this is not to condemn the trauerspiel out of hand as a misjudged or even false vision of the world, because for all its regressive tendencies it remains a genuine expression of historical failure. Ultimately, Benjamin’s Messianism hinges precisely on its unpredictability, its seizure of a moment which flashes up in a moment of danger, which for this reason cannot be accounted for or even counted on in advance.[27] As Peter Osborne writes, Benjamin’s Messianism is:

“consistent with materialism insofar as it depends upon the impossibility, not the imminence, of a willed redemption. Only if the Messianic remains exterior to history can it provide the perspective of a completed whole (without the predetermination of teleological end), from which the present may appear in its essential transience, as radically incomplete.”[28]

The Messianic fulfilment of history is not assured, and its formulation risks affirming its opposite: that history will remain forever trapped in its incomplete state of transience. The time of the trauerspiel is in this respect the infernal double of Messianic time because it affirms the impossible exteriority of all salvation. Its world is Gnostic, presided over by an evil god who prevents access to the fullness of another world.[29] The subservience of historical time to nature’s eternity precludes all escape from the former. The ouroboros tightens its grip, keeping history pinned to the earth and foreclosing any possibility of the “tiger’s leap” into the Messianic event.[30] Seen through the eyes of eternity, to quote Osborne once more, “the anticipation of historical death, the death of the species, is the material meaning of Messianic exteriority.”[31]

IV: An Epoch of Ruins

In summary, we may envisage in Benjamin’s work a system of plural temporalities which stretches beyond the temporal dyad described in his 1940 theses. Homogeneous, empty time (or mechanical time; clock time) presents one kind of closure to historical time by shackling it to a mythic notion of progress. This mechanical form of time remains unfulfilled because it is a purely formal organisation of time, but it nonetheless sequesters within it the explosive charge of genuine historical consciousness. This historical consciousness finds its fulfilment in the moment of revolution, when a unit of homogeneous, empty time is blasted from the continuum and resurrected by the hands and minds of the living. This is the intrusion of Messianic time into the dreary motions of a ‘universal’ history without end, and the establishment of a truly universal history as the history of salvation. Alongside historical, mechanical, and Messianic time stands the time of the trauerspiel, which encloses all within the desolate expanse of nature’s eternal return. As a ruin in the making, history is put in retrograde motion, falling from grace into perdition. Without the storehouse of historical memory to seize a hold of, Messianic time is defused; its salvation deferred until an end of days which will take an eternity to arrive.

But where does this damned, earthly time of the mourning play find its expression today? If this melancholy resignation to the vicissitudes of nature came to the fore of German drama during the social crises of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, I argue that similar attitudes toward history and formulations of time are also near at hand for many who today see climate change as the augur of a new, posthuman age. As we have seen, the time of the trauerspiel has four key traits:

(1) It is, first and foremost, a time which is historically unfulfilled: a litany of lost causes; (2) it is a spectral time in which history is understood under the symbol of the ruin; (3) it naturalises eternal transience as the order of the world at large; (4) its drama is one of earthly creation without hope of messianic redemption.[32]

Now it remains to be shown that the grand narrative of the Anthropocene possesses parallel traits to those of the trauerspiel narrative, allowing it to be understand as both an anti-historical narrative of naturalised decline and as a symptom of the world-shattering catastrophe which it purports to describe.

As in the narrative of the trauerspiel, the concept of the Anthropocene carries with it a sense of time which twists back on itself, carrying the catastrophe which it marks far into the unimaginably distant future and into the primordial past. As Deborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro write, although the Anthropocene is an epoch “in the geological sense of the word,” it also “points toward the end of epochality as such, insofar as our species is concerned.”

“For it is certain that, although it began with us, it will end without us: the Anthropocene will only give way to a new geological epoch long after we have disappeared from the face of the Earth. [It is] a present ‘without a view,’ a passive present, the inert bearer of a geophysical karma which it is entirely beyond our reach to cancel.”[33]

The Anthropocene, from this perspective, is not only a description of a new era, but an injunction to think of the present time in a resigned fashion. Danowski and Viveiros de Castro’s invocation of ‘karma’ is no anomaly. Among the proclamations upon the changed circumstances of history there is no shortage of statements on the moral meaning of those changes. The discovery that we have entered not only a new era of history but a new geological epoch has brought with it a chiliastic fervour, spoken in, for example, Roy Scranton’s manifesto for “learning to die in the Anthropocene” and Patricia MacCormack’s argument that “the only solution for climate change is letting the human race become extinct.”[34]

It is little wonder that the trauerspiel has not gone unnoticed by some theorists of the Anthropocene. As the editors of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s Anthropocene Project write, “the Trauerspiel plays on in the Anthropocene, for ‘the catastrophe here is in the form of the age itself, meaning our entire civilization, and its requisite way of life, is already a ruin.’”[35] The Anthropocene is rendered as a trauerspiel drama for the entire globe:

“A return to the earthly conditions of man, the name of a fated history, the passing away of Renaissance humanism, humans above all, for a general ideology of the creaturely, an immanent intermingling between rocks, trees, angels, and tyrants.”[36]

A rosy picture, but one we will not be fated to see with our own eyes. What at first sounds like an eschatological vision of paradise returned to earth belies the infernal heart of the trauerspiel. In its shock at the unrepresentable catastrophe which lies before it, the trauerspiel finds solace in a catastrophic conception of nature itself. In the eternal stretch of natural time, we are already dead; a fate we must contemplate in melancholic resignation. In Anthropocene theory, too, there is a recognition of shock, a desperate need to make sense of a world which no longer conforms to the myth of progress—and the answer these theorists provide is a new, earthly myth. At precisely the moment that the planetary reign of Anthropos is declared it is disavowed, and the eternal transience of nature’s dominion is reaffirmed.

If the Anthropocene contradicts the narrative of historical progress by naturalising decline in the place of ascent, this is not to say that it has no relation to the mechanical time from which the momentum of progress springs. In fact, the time of the Anthropocene depends just as much upon a homogeneous, empty construction of time as does the myth of progress. But whereas the universal history of progress sees a timeline stretching indefinitely upward into the heavens, the Anthropocene envisages a timeline which infinitely curves back upon itself across millennia. As Claire Colebrook writes, conceptualising the Anthropocene means envisaging a world without us which is already present, virtually, at this moment:

“The positing of an anthropocene era (or the idea that the human species will have marked the planet to such a degree that we will be discernible as a geological strata) deploys the idea of human imaging—the way we have already read an inhuman past in the earth’s layers—but does this by imagining a world in which humans will be extinct.”[37]

This construction of time is no less uniform than its progressive counterpart, but whereas the latter takes the clock as its model the Anthropocene measures itself on a cosmic scale. In the place of the seconds, minutes, and hours of the clockface, the Anthropocene’s homogeneous, empty units are geological layers—trace remnants which we imagine ourselves as in advance. Chronological time is distended across an inhuman expanse of time, projecting forward a future in which we must necessarily meet our demise—a future which is then brought back to the present as the lesson that our fates are already sealed: sic transit gloria mundi. Just as mechanical time and its universal history of progress work to negate true historical consciousness by turning our gaze from the sacrificed dead to an imagined future paradise, so too does this vision beget an ahistorical image of eternity: which seals up the past and future alike in forgotten aeons.

In its retreat from historical time, the concept of the Anthropocene is opened to a mythic sensibility, which discovers in the inhuman void of extinction a hard-faced divinity staring back. Isabelle Stengers has made much of James Lovelock’s ‘Gaia hypothesis,’ taking seriously the theory’s personification of an impersonal planetary system. For Stengers, Gaia is a strange kind of god, who announces the end of days but does not preside over the casting of judgment or distribution of redemption:

“Gaia is the name of an unprecedented or forgotten form of transcendence: a transcendence deprived of the noble qualities that would allow it to be invoked as an arbiter, guarantor, or resource; a ticklish assemblage of forces that are indifferent to our reasons and our projects.”[38]

Mirroring the demiurgic divinity of the trauerspiel, this is a ‘transcendence’ which does not, in fact, transcend, but remains mired within the world it governs without recourse to a world beyond. This curiously non-transcendent divinity also finds its spokesperson in Bruno Latour, in his lectures on natural theology, who proclaims the coming rule of Gaia over a terrestrial world of “immanence freed from immanentization.”[39] Whereas for Stengers the inauguration of a new mythology for the era of climate change stops short of a definite political project, for Latour the intrusion of Gaia means a return to the bellum omnium contra omnes of Hobbes, the ‘earthly’ politics of Schmitt, and the repudiation of the modern world proclaimed by Voegelin.[40] For this mystified faction of Gaia, the world as we know it is damned, and all that remains to be done is to make a choice of future barbarisms. An apocalypse is proclaimed, but redemption is postponed, as myth reasserts itself over a humanity with neither a history nor a future.

Even apart from these more explicit attempts to formulate a mythology for the era of ecocide, the Anthropocene has been subjected to a great deal of scrutiny for its ahistorical qualities. One cogent expression of this critique has been given by Andreas Malm, who writes that the main paradox of the Anthropocene narrative is that, within it:

 “Climate change is denaturalised in one moment—relocated from the sphere of natural causes to that of human activities—only to be renaturalised in the next, when derived from an innate human trait. Not nature, but human nature—this is the Anthropocene displacement.”[41]

For Malm the core problematic of the Anthropocene is a sleight of hand, which displaces the culpability of industrial capitalist society onto a wider complicity of ‘human nature,’ presumably including the masses of humans today and in the past who did little to fuel the climate crisis. Seen through the lens of the trauerspiel and Benjamin’s typology of temporal forms, we can see how this act of legerdemain extends into the heart of the Anthropocene concept. As the proclamation of the first human epoch, the Anthropocene naturalises the present state of humanity and its crises as symptoms of human nature specifically and nature itself in general.

Against this naturalisation of history it is necessary to historicise nature; to understand the recursive, or dare we say dialectical, feedback loop between history and nature, and the way in which both are composed in a mutually dependent natural history. The merely natural processes of the world—from weather, to digestion and respiration, to the architecture and fashion we take for granted as part of our living environment—are, Benjamin insists, only those things of which we remain unconscious, allowing them to slip into the subterranean zones of dream and myth. To the dreaming collective, these phenomena “stand in the cycle of the eternally selfsame, until the collective seizes upon them in politics and history emerges.”[42] This is the meaning of historicised nature: the emergence of unconscious forces into the light of day, transforming their motions from the vicissitudes of chance or fate into the known causes of a totality in which nature and history are inextricably linked. The failure to recognise the historical component of this system is to lose this foothold, and to conceive nature as an unconscious and seemingly inalterable force that slowly engulfs history in its myths.

As in the trauerspiel narrative, we find in Anthropocene theory a recognition of historical crisis which precludes a consciousness of history itself. Rather, crisis is naturalised and made the founding myth for a melancholic model of history. According to this narrative, we are the doomed creatures of a monstrous world, residing in the ruins of a geological epoch which will stretch far beyond the life of our species. But even though extinction is at hand, the end is nowhere in sight as we drift further into an anti-apocalypse; an event which mutes revelation and casts its transient shroud across our collective horizons. That is, until we can grasp the historical as well as the natural genesis of the present conjuncture—to understand that the present epoch is not the consequence of an eternal order but the work of human hands; hands which, if conscious of the work they do, can just as well halt what they set in motion.


[1] Samuel Beckett, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable (New York: Everyman Library, 1997), 4.

[2] Claire Colebrook, The Death of the PostHuman (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2014), 40.

[3] Walter Benjamin, Origin of the German Trauerspiel, trans. Howard Eiland (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019), 262; 264.

[4] Benjamin, Origin of the German Trauerspiel, 190.

[5] Benjamin, Origin of the German Trauerspiel, 81.

[6] Fredric Jameson, The Benjamin Files (London: Verso, 2020), 68.

[7] Benjamin, Origin of the German Trauerspiel, 190.

[8] Benjamin, Origin of the German Trauerspiel, 188.

[9] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 261.

[10] Jonathan Martineau, Time, Capitalism, and Alienation (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), 38.

[11] Benjamin, Illuminations, 263.

[12] “The pages of Marx’s Capital are filled with terrifying examples of the tyranny of the clock over workers’ lives. In pre-capitalist societies, time bore qualitative significance, but, with the advance of the process of industrialization, this gradually gave way to the dominance of clock time alone.” Michael Löwy, Fire Alarm, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso 2016) 91.

[13] Benjamin, Illuminations, 262.

[14] Within the bourgeois ideology of the nineteenth century, the discoveries of the natural sciences played a significant part in justifying the inevitability of progress: “In this process, the doctrine of natural selection had a decisive role to play: it popularized the notion that progress was automatic. The extension of the concept of progress to the whole of human activity was furthered as a result.” Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1999), N11a,1.

[15] Benjamin, Arcades Project, D10a,5.

[16] This is the conception of natural history which Adorno would find so compelling in Benjamin’s work. As Susan Buck-Morss writes of this Benjaminian inflection to Adorno’s thought: “Whenever theory posited ‘nature’ or ‘history’ as an ontological first principle, [the] double character of the concepts was lost, and with it the potential for critical negativity: either social conditions were affirmed as ‘natural’ without regard for their historical becoming, or the actual historical process was affirmed as essential.” Susan Buck-Morss, The Origins of Negative Dialectics (New York: The Free Press, 1977), 54.

[17] Benjamin, Origin of the German Trauerspiel, 262. This formulation is constructed alongside the concept of “tragic time,” which is the individual mode of fulfilled time.

[18] Jameson, Benjamin Files, 232.

[19] Benjamin, Illuminations, 263. See also, Agamben, who uses the Greek kairos and chronos in the place of Messianic and mechanical time, respectively: “What do we have when we have Kairos? […] Kairos (which would be translated banally as ‘occasion’) does not have another time at its disposal; in other words, what we take hold of when we seize kairos is not another time, but a contracted and abridged chronos […] kairos is nothing more than seized chronos. The pearl embedded in the ring of chance is only a small portion of chronos, a time remaining [restante].” Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains, trans. Patricia Dailey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), 68-9.

[20] Benjamin, Illuminations, 261.

[21] Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume IV, 1938-1940, eds. Marcus Bullock, Howard Eiland, Gary Smith (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 170.

[22] Benjamin, Origin of the German Trauerspiel, 264.

[23] Benjamin, Origin of the German Trauerspiel, 174.

[24] Benjamin, Origin of the German Trauerspiel, 66.

[25] Benjamin, Origin of the German Trauerspiel, 67-8.

[26] Benjamin, Illuminations, 255.

[27] “Great prophecy seems to have been omitted, and Benjamin never formulates the idea of strong messianism as such.” Jameson, Benjamin Files, 240.

[28] Peter Osborne, The Politics of Time (London: Verso, 1995), 147.

[29] See also Benjamin, Origin of the German Trauerspiel, 248 on the “Gnostic-Manichean doctrine” which presides over the material world of the trauerspiel.

[30] Benjamin, Illuminations, 261.

[31] Osborne, Politics of Time, 177.

[32] Corresponding to these traits of the trauerspiel are the following elements of the concept of the Anthropocene, which is: (1) a mournful time of historical failure; (2) an imagining of human ruin and extinction; (3) a naturalisation of this decline in a geological epoch; (4) and by these means a retreat from any possibility of redemption for human history.

[33] Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, The Ends of the World, trans. Rodrigo Nunes (Cambridge: Polity, 2017), 5.

[34] See: Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (San Francisco: City Light Books, 2015) and Patricia MacCormack, The Ahuman Manifesto (London: Bloomsbury, 2020). The exact formulation does not appear in MacCormack’s book, but an advertisement for the book released online.

[35] Katrin Klingan, Christoph Rosol, Bernd M. Schererm, and Ashkan Sepahvand, eds., Textures of the Anthropocene: Manual (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015), 34.

[36] Klingan, Rosol, Schererm, and Sepahvand, Textures of the Anthropocene, 29-30.

[37] Colebrook, Death of the Posthuman, 28.

[38] Isabelle Stengers, trans. Andrew Goffey, In Catastrophic Times (Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2015), 47.

[39] Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge: Polity, 2017), 212.

[40] Latour, Facing Gaia, 149-50; 242-5. That the liberals of the Anthropocene academy consider Latour’s arch-conservativism a welcome addition to their canon of ‘re-enchanting the world’ stands without comment as evidence for their lack of political seriousness.

[41] Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital (London: Verso, 2016), 270.

[42] Benjamin, Arcades Project, K1,5.

Migration in the Anthropocene

The remixing of peoples

by Cameron Muir

Original article here

THE TASOS MARKOU AND his fiancé, Maria, were on their sofa avoiding Greece’s summer heat when a video of a man carting a toddler in a green wheelie bin turned up in their social media feeds. The place looked familiar: a Mediterranean coastal village, a street sign in Greek.

‘Lesvos!’ said Maria.

The clip showed the man climbing a steep road in the midday sun. The child was alive. More people were walking the roads, or slumped against buildings, or laying spread out on verges and shading themselves with jackets or thin cotton sheets.

Refugees had been making the sea crossing from Turkey since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but this was something bigger. In the summer of 2015, tourists on Greek islands began sharing videos of people landing on beaches or wandering into town from the mountain roads. An internet news channel compiled the mobile-phone footage.

Tasos put his laptop down and turned to Maria. ‘I need to go there,’ he said.

In 2015, more than eight hundred thousand refugees crossed the Aegean Sea to Greece, up from forty thousand the previous year. News media showed images of discarded fluoro-orange lifejackets and PVC boats bulldozed into massive piles on the island of Lesvos. Greek freelancer Tasos Markou was one of the first photographers to share those dramatic images with the world. His photos were published in major British papers and across Europe.

LIFEJACKETS SAY SOMETHING about how it feels to live in these times. You can buy a factory-direct child’s lifejacket online for US $4.14 apiece. Shipping is free to most destinations. Some Turkish apparel shops have switched to selling lifejackets exclusively. Even kebab vendors saw an opportunity, and started hanging them above their counters. The orange colour is a signal for help; it communicates the courage and desperation of people on the move, hopes dashed at the borders while the rest of us watch on feeling powerless.

Lifejackets also allow us to think through global political and material circumstances. The strategic desire for control of fossil fuels in the Middle East gave rise to colonial interference, to new borders and conflicts; the burning of those fuels has increased the volatility of the climate, which influenced the severity of the drought preceding the uprising against Assad in Syria. The industrial use of petrochemicals and the globalised workforce made plastic lifejackets cheap enough to be used in sea crossings by hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war in Syria and Iraq.

Populist fear and anger are fuelled by more than economic and cultural insecurities. For more than a decade, experts have issued warnings about resource scarcity and the disruptive consequences of climate change. I want to try to consider our anxieties and fears, displacement and migration, with the social and the environmental combined.

A concept in the natural sciences offers a way to bring these strands together: the Anthropocene. Some scientists argue that humankind’s activities – deforestation, soil erosion, chemical pollution, species extinctions and greenhouse gas emissions – have altered Earth’s systems so much that we have entered a new geological epoch. The concept pushes our imaginations to think in vast timescales and expands debate beyond climate change to include the many other environmental pressures we face. However, the Anthropocene narrative makes political claims that flatten historical difference, casting all people as responsible for problems the privileged created. If we can return contingency to the Anthropocene it will be a richer concept for thinking about our current circumstances.

I want to think about a place, its people and the situation – about life­jackets, nationalism, economic globalisation and resource exploitation – and consider these histories as part of one context.

MAKING A LIVING as a news photographer was tough for Tasos in austerity-ravaged Greece. He’d worked for the major international press agencies covering riots, the war in the Ukraine and the ongoing consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The refugee crisis on the Greek island of Lesvos presented him with an opportunity to freelance on a matter he cared about in his own country. I first emailed Tasos last year when I sought permission to reproduce one of his photos. We began corresponding, and when I learnt he was continuing to document the plight of refugees in Greece I asked to interview him. We spoke regularly on Skype over several months.

In June 2015, Tasos flew from Thessaloniki to Lesvos with five-hundred euros in his pocket. He and Maria had been saving the money for a holiday. It was more than Maria earned in a month as a home-care nurse, but she urged him take his camera and go. Tasos hired the cheapest car available, a 1000 CC Dimitriadis, and headed north to the closest point to Turkey.

It took Tasos two hours to drive the winding and mountainous roads to Skala Sikamineas, a fishing settlement at the coast. By then night had fallen.

‘It was a ghost village,’ he recalled.

Across the sea, mountains rose from the horizon, dark against the sky. The twinkling lights at the foothills belonged to Turkey. The wind blew hard and Tasos thought he could hear voices on the sea. It was only the waves. He was about to head for a guesthouse when he looked down and saw traces of arrivals on the beach and rocks. Shoes, passports, backpacks, T-shirts, plastic water bottles and lifejackets. Hundreds of lifejackets.

‘I realised this was not just rubbish,’ said Tasos. ‘Each jacket meant a human life, a story of a crossing.’

The next morning, Tasos drove the rough roads along the northern coast and into the mountains. He saw people emerge from parks, fields and roadsides. Refugees and migrants had to walk sixty kilometres south to the port of Mytilene, where they could be assessed and issued with papers before boarding a ferry to mainland Greece and, from there, into northern Europe. Some journalists and Lesvos locals were offering rides to the walkers. Tasos asked if he could help. Drivers were supposed to call the police and register their name, car make, licence plate, car-hire company, pick-up point and destination – a procedure designed to prevent smugglers exploiting refugees.

‘My car was filled with people, against the roof, out the windows,’ said Tasos.

The little Dimitriadis crawled up the hills. By the time he made it to Mytilene it was 36 degrees. There were queues of men in their underwear at the public shower. Families sat under trees or statues or beside walls. Some tourists wound down their car windows, took a snap and drove on. Others handed food and water to exhausted people. Tasos followed the example. He spent the next three days buying water, interviewing and taking photos across Lesvos. Most of the refugees were from Syria; many were from Iraq and Afghanistan.

After three days Tasos’s money was gone. This was something you couldn’t understand in a single news article, thought Tasos. He was determined to follow the story.

THE FIFTEEN-YEAR DROUGHT in the Levant that preceded the Syrian civil war was likely the worst in nine hundred years, according to NASA. Since the beginning of the conflict, some scientists and media have overstated the link. ‘Drought helped cause Syria’s war,’ declared a 2013 Washington Post headline. This has led to misguided conclusions about people, climate and migration.

In March 2017, ABC’s Four Corners aired an American documentary titled The Age of Consequences, which was billed as The Hurt Locker meets An Inconvenient Truth. It posed climate change and migration as risks to United States national security. The film warned of more terrorism and hordes of climate change refugees overwhelming countries and causing the collapse of states. It interviewed military generals who treated population displacement as a security threat that requires militarised solutions.

Refugees and migrants have often been represented as dangerous for wealthy nations and as ‘agents of chaos in the Middle East’, wrote Alex Randall of the UK Climate Change and Migration Coalition. The standard narrative for Syria is that the drought forced farmers off the land, food prices rose and competition for resources among rival groups led to violence. Some campaigners on climate change have used populist fears over refugees as a tactic to try to build support for action on emissions.

Randall pointed out that drought and social grievances in Syria didn’t cause people to turn on each other – it united them. Different groups began mingling in urban centres in a way that Assad’s regime had tried to prevent. This led to protests and co-operation, which Assad’s authoritarian government responded to with violence.

To avoid ‘reducing our future to climate’, in the words of Mike Hulme, professor of climate and culture at King’s College London, the concept of the Anthropocene could serve as a shorthand way for introducing broader ecological changes and historical timescales. The idea has been reported enthusiastically in The EconomistThe New York Times and The Guardian. Scholars say the collapse of the Enlightenment distinction between human and nature, and the convergence of geological and biological time, forces us to reconsider our place on the planet and the very foundation of what ‘human’ means.

The problem with the Anthropocene narrative is that it strips the social causes from ecological disruption. Not everyone is responsible for the Anthropocene and not everyone will experience it equally. Paul Crutzen, the Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist who popularised the term, suggested the invention of the steam engine during the Industrial Revolution should be considered the start of the new epoch: the switch to fossil fuels ‘shattered’ an energy bottleneck. Humanities scholars approach this from a different angle: human ecologists Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg asked what the motivations were for investment in steam. Only the very wealthy could afford steam engines, and they ‘pointed steam power as a weapon’ at colonies in Africa and the New World, extracting material resources and labour in plantations, mines and factories, completely reorganising ecological and social relationships. The Anthropocene was founded on global inequity. Some have suggested ‘Capitalocene’ as a more accurate moniker.

ON 20 AUGUST 2015, Tasos drove to Idomeni, a Greek town near the border with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and a gateway to the ‘Balkans route’. It’s from here that refugees and migrants followed train tracks into Macedonia, northwards across the Balkan countries, and finally into Germany. Tasos saw hundreds of people gathered on the rail lines. The Macedonian government had called a state of emergency and rolled barbed wire across the border. It wanted to slow the flow of people. Military and anti-terror troops stood at the border next to armoured vehicles. Tasos said they aimed guns and yelled, ‘Go back to Greece.’

One woman told an Amnesty International worker: ‘This reminds me of Syria. I never expected to find that in Europe. Before the war, life in Syria was paradise…then both sides started taking our children to fight and bombs started falling on our heads.’

People jumped with every new explosion and burst of gunfire. It began pouring rain and some sheltered under cardboard while families climbed under thin summer tents and tarps. Tasos was afraid. He hadn’t seen the crowds angry and confused before. He was covered in mud and his lens was destroyed. Stun grenades cracked in the distance.

A young man from Kashmir took Tasos’s arm and offered him shelter under a concrete railway culvert. The men gave him biscuits, water and cigarettes.

‘The guys gave me everything they had,’ said Tasos.

The photos that agencies and newspapers wanted were of human drama in extreme moments: people falling from boats, pulling children from the sea, landing on the beach with tears of fear and joy. Tasos began to wonder if these images helped. He wondered how he could convey moments such as the hospitality under the culvert.

In October Tasos returned to Lesvos. The small island was now receiving two hundred thousand people per month. The cemetery in Mytilene was running out of space. Camps were over capacity.

‘People slept in boxes, old fridges, whatever they could find,’ said Tasos.

Remarkably, international and Greek volunteers, authorities, locals and refugees collaborated to hold it all together. Fishermen in the northern village of Skala Sikamineas spent every night in their boats, guiding refugees to the shore, diving into the water and rescuing people. Women handed out sandwiches and fruit. They washed clothes and looked after children. They hugged and kissed those who made the crossing.

Tasos drove volunteers from Skala Sikamineas to a cape at the northernmost point of the island. There, beneath the Korakas Lighthouse, the beach gave way to sharp rocks and cliffs. It was the most dangerous place to land on Lesvos from the sea. Many died in the attempt. Tasos worked with two American volunteers who wore wetsuits and dragged lifejackets from the ocean and shoreline. The older one, Jeff, had holidayed on Lesvos with his parents in the 1980s. When he saw reports about the crisis he came over to help. The other American, Max, was trekking in Nepal in 2015 when the earthquake struck. He helped in the aftermath and it changed his life.

‘We spent the days collecting lifejackets, and the nights helping people arriving on the beaches,’ said Tasos. He saw a man collapse with hypothermia. He saw a hand rise from the ocean, waving for help.

Jeff and Max told Tasos to stop feeding the daily news and follow his own path. Tasos began to question whether he could continue as a photojournalist. Previously, some papers had used his photos out of context. News stories appeared one day and were gone the next. He wanted to be able to provide more depth.

‘I decided it wasn’t enough to just be a good person. You have to act. Lesvos changed me. It would change anyone who comes here.’

Thinking about the different reception these refugees and migrants would have received in Australia or the UK, I asked Tasos why Greece, suffering as it is from austerity measures, was so generous. He said, ‘In Greece, we all have a story.’

Tasos’ great-grandfather was injured fighting the Germans in World War II. When a Nazi officer was killed, the Germans began massacring whole villages in the north. They burned the hospital where Tasos’ great-grandfather was being treated. Tasos’s grandfather was left an orphan; a family took him in, and when he was older he worked in Germany illegally, saving enough to build a house back in Greece – the house in which Tasos’ father was raised.

‘We know about displacement,’ said Tasos.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, populist nationalism tore Europe apart. National identities were imagined into being through the literature, arts and revolutionaries of loosely connected ethnic groups. Religious and aristocratic allegiances were in decline and the idea of the nation-state bounded to territory emerged. German states began to federate, Polish people sought independence and, in the south, Serbians, Greeks, Montenegrins, Bulgarians and others revolted against the Ottoman Empire.

Violence broke out as nationalists tried to overthrow the ruling elites, and as new nations sought to define who did and didn’t belong. This caused some of the largest mass migrations in history. European Muslims in the Caucasus, Crimea, the Balkans and the Mediterranean were massacred and millions were forced to flee to Anatolia. The Ottoman regime violently suppressed nationalist uprisings in the Balkans. At the start of World War I, the Ottoman Empire had lost most of its European territories. Turkish nationalists saw Armenians in Anatolia as a threat to their vision for an independent and homogenous Turkish nation. The Turkish armies began massacring Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians, and forcing the Armenians on death marches into the Syrian desert – actions we now call genocide.

In 1919, Greece launched an attack on the Turks to gain territory in Anatolia. The Turkish nationalists defeated the Greek army in 1922. Most of the Anatolian Greeks had fled to Greece and Russia. Those who remained were forced to migrate in a compulsory population exchange under the 1923 Lausanne Convention. Experts thought enforcing ethnic groupings into bounded territories would ensure peace. Around 1.2 million Christian refugees were sent across the Aegean to Greece, while four hundred and fifty thousand Greek Muslims were sent to the new nation of Turkey. No one who was expelled could return. British foreign secretary Lord Curzon described this period as the ‘unmixing of peoples’.

Many Greeks, including the villagers on Lesvos, say, ‘We are all refugees.’

IN MARCH 2016 the European Union, alarmed by rising popularism and right-wing nationalism, signed a controversial deal with Turkey to prevent further refugee and migrant crossings to Greece. Anyone who arrived after that date would be sent back to Turkey. In exchange, Turkey would receive more assistance for the nearly three million refugees it was hosting. The Balkan route was closed permanently.

Tasos was in Idomeni volunteering. ‘When we told the guys that the border was closed they didn’t believe it. They refused to leave.’

More people arrived at the bottleneck, swelling the makeshift camp to twelve thousand. Portable toilets overflowed. The Greek military delivered firewood but couldn’t meet demand. Refugees burned whatever was at hand to keep warm. They searched fields for food. Children shivered in the wet. A UN spokesperson described the situation as ‘misery beyond imagination’. Fences went up in Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, Hungary and Germany. Journalists dubbed it the ‘rise of the mesh curtain’.

‘We weren’t the European Union anymore,’ said Tasos.

Volunteers and NGOs set up a network of storage facilities in the area, paying cheap rent for empty farm buildings. Tasos packed boxes, distributed food and translated from Greek to English. Greek authorities began transferring people to better-equipped camps in the cities. Around fifty thousand displaced people were stranded in Greece after the EU–Turkey deal.

On Lesvos, people continued to take selfies to let loved ones know they’d made it to Europe.

‘They didn’t realise they hadn’t made it to Europe,’ said Tasos. ‘They made it to Greece.’ No one knew how long they would be stuck there.

The series of photos that Tasos did sell – the aerial shots of half a million lifejackets piled up on Lesvos – provided enough money for him to continue volunteering. He thought a photography workshop might help occupy people during the wait. French photographer Lois Simac had a similar idea, so they partnered to run a twelve-week course in Thessaloniki. The camp there was set up in an abandoned paper factory from which it derived its name, Softex. Petroleum fumes drifted from the nearby oil refinery.

Only Syrians could pitch their tents inside the Softex building while Moroccans, Algerians, Eritreans and others slept in nearby disused train carriages without power, water or heating. Just over a thousand people stayed at the site.

Twelve participants signed up to the photography workshop. They named it Crossroads and decided to develop an exhibition. One of the keenest students was twenty-year-old Mohammad from Syria. Tasos said that after each lesson Mohammad would be the first to email his assignments and results of experiments with the new techniques he’d learnt. Previously he’d spent a lot of time keeping to himself and drawing allegorical pictures about war. Now he was interacting. Tasos was impressed with his photographic work.

‘I draw it first in my heart, and then I take the photo,’ Mohammad told Tasos.

Mohammad was from a city in northern Syria that had expanded in the 1920s as a French military post. It was home to many Kurds, as well as Armenians who had fled the genocide, and Assyrians who fled Iraqi nationalists in the 1930s. Since the Syrian conflict began, the city had been the site of four major battles and control changed between Kurdish, ISIS and Assad-government fighters.

Tasos couldn’t help thinking about the people in Europe saying, ‘Why don’t they stay and fight?’

‘Fight for what?’ asked Tasos. ‘And for whom? There is no point dying for someone else’s war.’

THE DYNAMICS OF the Anthropocene can be traced in the context of the Syrian conflict. The Anthropocene was made possible by dispossession, extreme inequality and the extraordinarily rapid expansion of technological and political control over natural resources and labour. The Anthropocene can’t explain causes, but it is useful for establishing connections across multiple histories.

Before the end of World War I, when it was clear the Ottoman Empire would be defeated, the British and French Empires agreed to carve up most of the Ottoman’s territories between them. This became known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, named after the two lead negotiators. The French promised what would become Syria to the British after oil was discovered in Mosul, east of the Syrian provinces. After the war, with the Ottomans gone, Damascus declared itself an independent kingdom. The French feared this would threaten its deal with Britain, so it invaded Syria and made it a French mandate.

The ancient cities of Syria were home to people of diverse ethnicities, languages and religions. The French thought it would be easier to control these populations if they divided them, and when that didn’t work, it brought them together under two main administrative centres based around Damascus and Aleppo. The decades of French rule were violent. Former diplomat and historian William R Polk wrote in The Atlantic, ‘The French bombarded Damascus, which they had regime-changed in 1920, in 1925, 1926, and 1945, and they pacified the city with martial law during most of the “peaceful” intervals.’ The Syrians didn’t achieve independence until the British invaded the Middle East in World War II to secure oil supplies.

Animosity towards the French gave rise to Syrian nationalism, but the movement was left searching for a strong basis for a Syrian identity. The Syrians hadn’t carried out ethnic homogenisation like the Europeans. Polk described Syria as a ‘sanctuary’ for leftover peoples who were cast out of other territories. For years Syria struggled to recover from the legacy of colonialism. Political parties were militaristic and leaders overthrown in coups. In 1970, the Ba’ath Party’s Hafez al-Assad, a strongman and former air-force commander, took over as prime minister and then president, until he died in 2000.

Assad’s secular, socialist government tried to ensure authority and support by providing social services such as education and healthcare (but not democratic autonomy). Agriculture had been the largest sector of the economy in the mid-twentieth century, but by the time Assad came to power it was in decline. In the 1980s, with assistance from the Soviets, the government made massive investments in agriculture to intensify production. The result was overgrazing, soil erosion, groundwater depletion and vast irrigation projects that failed to fulfil expectations. Farmers flocked to the cities. Bashar al-Assad continued the agricultural intensification after he took over the presidency in 2000. His aim for agriculture was to feed a rapidly growing population. The number of groundwater wells jumped from around fifty thousand in the late 1980s to two hundred and thirty thousand in 2010. The water table plummeted. Syria had also built a hundred and sixty dams with a total storage capacity of fourteen million megalitres. Further stressing the region’s river systems, Turkey and Iraq pursued their own dam-building projects on the Euphrates, with tensions almost sending Syria to war with both at different times.

Drought exacerbated existing problems before the civil war began in 2011. The UN estimated that up to three million rural people were reduced to extreme poverty. Extra pressure was placed on farmers when Assad carried out neoliberal reforms to open the economy, which included cuts to diesel fuel subsidies. Irrigators depended on diesel to power their groundwater pumps. The reforms might have slowed water extraction, but they devastated livelihoods. The cities had already absorbed millions of migrants from rural areas and refugees from the war in Iraq. When protests broke out, Assad directed his security forces to crush dissent. In April 2011, the world saw a video depicting the mutilated body of thirteen-year-old Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb. Foreign fighters joined the conflict. Some based their philosophies on an ultraconservative reform movement that its detractors call Wahhabism. Its teachings emerged in the aftermath of European and Ottoman imperialism, and grew substantially with billions of dollars of Saudi oil money. ISIS was anti-colonial, anti-nationalist and anti-pluralist (including in its list of enemies, traditional schools and branches of Islam). In 2014, ISIS released a video titled ‘The End of Sykes-Picot’, which showed the destruction of the border between Syria and Iraq.

THE WINTER IN Thessaloniki in 2016–17 was the most severe in thirty years. The pipes at Tasos’s apartment froze and burst. The city had to provide carted water. At the Softex camp, people warmed their hands around the building’s exterior vents. In the months since the closure of the Balkan route most of the Syrians at Softex had been relocated within Europe. Authorities allowed the Algerians and Moroccans to move from the abandoned trains into the Softex building.

I’d asked Tasos to question his workshop participants about Australia.

‘First, I must ask you something,’ he said to me, his face grave. ‘They say you turn boats around in the sea. Is this true?’

Tasos couldn’t believe it. Maybe it was because Greece is a seafaring country of many islands that this came as a shattering moral violation.

‘They say Australia is a no-go zone,’ said Tasos. ‘That it’s worse than Trump’s America.’ Our political parties would be pleased this message made it to Syria.

Tasos said the refugees he spoke with have no intention of travelling to Australia. They want to stay closer to family in Europe. Most hope to return to Syria if the country still exists.

A month later Tasos said he had bad news. ‘Mohammad was beaten. He’s been in hospital for days.’

The uncertainty was weighing on the migrants and refugees. Money had run out and there was no way of making more in Greece. It was unlikely that anyone who was not Syrian would be granted permission to stay in Europe. Some in the camps preyed on the vulnerable. There were reports women had been sexually assaulted at the Softex camp and elsewhere in Greece. Mohammad was bashed with an iron bar.

‘He’s such a sensitive guy,’ said Tasos. ‘He would never fight back.’

There were tensions within the workshop group over the future of the Crossroads project. They didn’t have enough money to hire a translator so had to rely on volunteers and friends. Tasos and Lois were spending their time writing exhibition proposals and seeking legal advice. They argued more.

On Lesvos, members aligned with the Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn threw a Molotov cocktail at a café helping refugees. Unlike many parts of Europe, the Greek people hadn’t turned against the refugees and migrants yet, but they had started to ask how the government could manage. At a bar one night, a man told Tasos to ‘stick your camera up your arse’ because he was helping refugees. Golden Dawn was capitalising on these anxieties.

IN 2016, WRITER James Bradley gave a moving lecture, subsequently published in the Sydney Review of Books, on the role of the arts in an age of global ecological transformation. He said he is uncomfortable with the term Anthropocene because ‘its assertion of human primacy reiterates the blindness that got us here’. Whatever we call it, said Bradley, we must recognise that something is different and the world we are creating presents challenges to every aspect of our societies.

In recent years, when many around me were jaded, I kept my faith in politics. I kept handing out how-to-vote cards, I believed in public debate and that you could just talk things through. Now I worry like everyone else. I bond with colleagues at lunch critiquing the cynicism and destructiveness of neoliberalism, but then I return to my desk and I’m too anxious about keeping an income to do anything about it. I’ll be on my third contract this year for the same casual job and I’m grateful for the work.

In the news I see drone strikes and beheadings and refugees stopped at the gates. I see people blaming the most vulnerable for the state of the world. We feel like there’s nothing we can do because institutions have been eroded and the usual avenues of civic participation appear ineffective. Global forces kick on regardless. I read of our government’s plans for blackshirts demanding ID on the streets of Melbourne, stripping political enemies of citizenship, criminalising environmental protest and retaining and sharing our phone and internet data. I hear that our civil Department of Immigration and Border Protection spent hundreds of thousands on handguns and machine guns. They’ve used misery as an opportunity. Now, more than two hundred thousand Australians follow hate sites online. A friend said recently, if truth doesn’t matter, what’s the point? I think I’m slipping into the learnt helplessness that suits the status quo. I reckon there’s a heap of us who feel this ache in our chests.

I’m desperate for a label for our times around which people could recognise connections to a wider context and longer history than neoliberalism or climate change. I don’t know if we have a politics for this yet. Rather than fragmenting into tribalism, internet bubbles, polarisation and xenophobic nationalism, it might be possible to think about our grievances as part of the same set of problems and work towards a mutually beneficial future. Most of us are on the same side. We could seek solidarity with migrants and refugees instead of establishing elaborate exclusion zones for them.

I admire Tasos and his project. He hasn’t just supplied water and food and something to do. He has worked to humanise refugees in the eyes of others. He has brought companionship as a fellow person. He has provided some dignity.

By April this year, about half of the Crossroads participants had been relocated within Europe. Some of them met up with former Softex camp volunteers in France, Finland and the Netherlands. People have asked Tasos why he is helping twelve refugees when there are thousands stranded in Greece.

‘Ask those twelve people if their lives have changed,’ said Tasos. ‘If everyone helped one person we’d all be happy.’

In May 2017, the Crossroads exhibition began to tour major cities, including Barcelona, Copenhagen, Izmir and Dubai. The first showing outside of Greece was in Vienna. Mohammad and the other refugees weren’t permitted to travel for the opening night so they used Skype to participate in a forum with the gallery audience. I asked Tasos if the group was excited.

‘The guys had mixed feelings,’ said Tasos. ‘They saw their photos travelling to places they can’t.’ Their photos, they noted, moved faster than refugees.

BRIGHT-ORANGE LIFEJACKETS PROBABLY say more about our times than any other object of the twenty-first century. People making a few dollars an hour produce cheap knock-off safety vests and inflatable boats that are shipped around the world and resold at a mark-up to desperate refugees fleeing conflict, poverty and ecological disorder for the security of Europe, the US and Australia. The refugees come from places that the wealthy countries are bombing in wars that are, in part, a legacy of Europe’s late-imperialist carve-up of territory, of forced migrations, Cold War geopolitics, exploitation of fossil fuels and the rise of the privatised corporate war economy under the auspices of the ‘War on Terror.’

In the introduction to their book Environmental History of Modern Migrations (Routledge, 2017), Marco Armiero and Richard Tucker argue we are operating with ‘lifeboat’ ethics. In the affluent countries we pretend it’s possible to escape the social and environmental disruption of the Anthropocene in our lifeboats while the displaced clamour to get on board in their cheap lifejackets. Our nation states look like tools for controlling the movement of capital, commodities and labour for the advantage of a few. They appear incapable of solving cross-border challenges such as climate change, overfishing, over-extraction of water, wars, inequality and migration. Yet in response to these international problems, nationalist movements have increased in popularity.

Jane McAdam, professor of international human rights law at UNSW, reported that most displaced people remain within or close to their homeland borders. However, environmental and social pressures will continue forcing large numbers of people to move as a last resort. The Pacific nation of Kiribati has bought land in Fiji as backup for when the sea inundates its islands. The hundred thousand inhabitants don’t want to be environmental refugees, relegated to stateless people with inferior rights; they want to control the process of migration. If we saw the larger forces at play, it might be possible to treat migration as an adaptation to the challenges of the Anthropocene rather than as a security risk. Perhaps we are witnessing the beginning of the remixing of peoples.

POSTSCRIPT: THE DAY before I submitted this essay Tasos emailed with an update. Mohammad’s application had been decided, and he will be relocated to Norway.

Coming Back Down to Earth: Exploring Distress, Loss and Grief in the Anthropocene

By Matthew Adams

Original article published here

I am an academic psychologist interested in individual and collective forms of distress in relation to experiences of nature, the climate crisis and environmentalism. My intention here is to talk through what I see as some of the connections between critical approaches to psychology/psychiatry, experiences of emotional distress and the Anthropocene – a new(ish) name for the complex combination of climate and ecological crises we are living through.

The term was originally proposed by atmospheric scientist Paul Crutzen at the turn of this century and then taken up by geologists, advancing the idea that in the far future, proof of our planet-dominating existence will be noticeable in rock strata, to anyone or anything willing and able to pay attention. This is because, it is claimed, evidence of our existence will be condensed into a distinct layer, about a quarter-inch thick, made up of an anthropogenic cocktail including nitrogen and phosphates, carbon spheres, radioactive elements, chicken skeletons and plastic detritus.

The Anthropocene has quickly gained prominence more generally as a way of framing the current era in which, for the first time in its history, the Earth is being deeply transformed by one species – the human (Anthropos is Greek for human; the –cene suffix refers to a substantial geological time period within the current 65-million-year-old Cenozoic era). It has become shorthand for what anthropocene.info describe as the ‘overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes are now altered by humans’. What this signifies may already seem unsurprising, but it is absolutely remarkable that we are now talking about the impact of human activity as it has accumulated over the last 300 years, perhaps even the last 70, radically unsettling the Earth’s biodiversity, carbon cycles, climate, ocean chemistry and so on, on a scale equivalent to deep-time processes – millions of years of slow evolution in the making.

What has the Anthropocene got to do with experiences of emotional distress? Back in 2007, the environmental philosopher David Kidner asserted that ‘psychological distress is likely to arise within an ecological context that is becoming increasingly degraded’. At its simplest the Anthropocene is a way of deepening our understanding of this degradation and human responsibility for it.  Many more have followed Kidner in highlighting the manifestations of distress that emerge in response, including the Climate Psychology Alliance (which I am a member of), drawing on psychoanalysis amongst other perspectives. Fallout from ecological degradation, extinction and climate crisis can of course be direct and immediate – hunger, thirst, fear; experiencing precarious water supplies in a drought; fleeing for safety at a rapidly encroaching forest fire; the loss of home, familiar landscape; migration from places made incrementally or instantaneously uninhabitable by a changed climate, rising seas, pollution.

The individual and collective body can be marked in many more ways by the shock of the Anthropocene.  On a personal and social level, the Anthropocene threatens our taken for granted certainty in the ongoingness of our world, a point captured elegiacally by eco-philosopher Joanna Macy in her memoir Widening Circles:

“[U]ntil the late twentieth century, every generation throughout history lived with the tacit certainty that there would be generations to follow. Each assumed, without questioning, that its children and children’s children would walk the same Earth, under the same sky… that certainty is now lost to us… that loss, unmeasured and immeasurable, is the pivotal psychological reality of our time”

We are threatened with the loss of species, habitats, landscapes, but also a deeply engrained way of life, and the idea of an open-ended future, even if we rarely stopped to think about it.  A note of caution should be offered about the use of ‘we’ here.  Loss on this kind of scale is not novel for many communities. As Heather Davis and Zoe Todd point out, for Indigenous peoples, ‘the Anthropocene is not a new event, but only the continuation of practices of dispossession and genocide, coupled with a literal transformation of the environment, which have been under operation for the last five hundred years’.  The Anthropocene raises lots of questions about responsibility for the kinds of environmental impacts it refers to, and the ability to withstand them. These include the ongoing legacies of colonialism and imperialism.  Colonial power was and is about dispossession – a forced separation of people and place, the ‘environmental’ effects of which still reverberate deeply.

Yet even for those of us who have historically benefited from these practices, the Anthropocene arguably marks something profoundly unsettling. With the distress of loss comes a mixture of complex emotional responses – grief, mourning, denial, feelings of displacement and powerlessness. The fact that historical and ongoing human activity – our (some of our) actions – are responsible for these losses laces these experiences for many with guilt, anxiety and all the defensive reactions that tends to accompany them, conscious or otherwise. There are of course readily available models to frame these experiences, and related remedies which may provide some solace, a sense of control or certainty. These include psychiatric diagnoses and medication, but also consumerism, conspiracies, polarising worldviews, and the idealisation of ‘strong’ leaders. To say there is a mismatch between problem and solution here is something of an understatement – the root causes of these losses are still obscured by individualist and apolitical framings of ‘mental health’ that dominate the social, political and cultural landscape.

Related experiences of distress are being recognised in terms like eco-anxiety, environmental melancholia and ecological grief. The latter is defined by Ashlee Cunsolo and Neville Ellis as ‘The grief felt in relation to experienced or anticipated ecological losses, including the loss of species, ecosystems, and meaningful landscapes due to acute or chronic environmental change’.  Any shift towards a vocabulary in which these experiences of loss, grief and mourning are recognised is no doubt positive. However, there is a danger here of an error familiar to critics of psychology and psychiatry. This is the tendency to reframe understandable collective responses as medical and individualised “mental health” problems; and with it an extension of the absurd logic of the best response to a ‘mental illness epidemic’ being the rolling out more pharmaceutical or cognitive-behavioural oriented support.  This is already happening in and around applications of health psychology, whereby life in the Anthropocene is said to result in a ‘higher frequency of mental disorders’. The priority then becomes adaptation strategies, such as better access to healthcare systems, and better training for professionals. In other words, adapting the individual to the emotional impacts of the Anthropocene by extending the established infrastructure and language of a medicalised and individualised understanding of distress.

Things are changing. Recognition of the climate crisis as an existential as well as a material threat is increasingly public; and social justice asserted as a vitally important dimension of a meaningful collective response. An emerging wider movement emphasises the vital importance of establishing shared means of recognising loss, expressing grief and acceptance.  Acknowledging loss collectively and publicly is an important step in facing up to the reality of the Anthropocene and the impossibility of carrying on ‘as normal’.

Articulating loss, grief and fear as shared is also a starting point for developing forms of mutual support, as the psychotherapist Rosemary Randall eloquently argued some time ago. It is also a potentially powerful foundation for the collective demand for change. This is what political philosopher Judith Butler refers to as ‘the militant potential of mourning’. In the context of the Anthropocene we see evidence of the power of recognising loss not just in exclusively human terms; but in public memorial ceremonies and remembrance days dedicated to lost species and landscapes; and in broader demands to ‘tell the truth’ about ecological and degradation. A starting point for meaningful action, but also for recognising the shared experiences of distress.

The Anthropocene encourages us to think about a bigger picture too, in terms of who or what counts as worthy of attentiveness, care and compassion. In my understanding, there is no doubt that the Anthropocene characterises a time of great worry and fear, but it is also an invitation to reflect and think differently about the relationship between humans and ‘nature’. Whilst the idea of the Anthropocene might seem to consolidate the notion of human influence on the natural environment, it also encourages us to consider the countless interrelationships and interdependencies that shape the co-constitution of the human with other forms of life. These vital interactions stretch from the microbiome – the vast microcosmos of bacteria, fungi, protozoa and viruses interacting on and inside the human body – to the wider biosphere – ocean trenches, subterranean root systems, lush rain forests, arctic glaciers and sprawling cities – wherever life is reciprocally formed.

Many approaches in psychology have always been profoundly interested in the part encounters, interactions and relationships play in shaping our personal and social realities, and their role in the origins and alleviation of suffering and distress. For the most part, it has been an almost exclusively human emphasis. I am interested in what happens if we extend an emphasis on the fundamental importance of the state or condition of being in relationship, taking in cross-species conversations and human relations with more-than-human worlds.  Developments in psychology often depend on looking outside the discipline for invigoration and new ideas – drawing, for example, on feminism and postcolonialism. In recent years I have been drawn to a fascinating body of work emerging in human–animal studies, anthrozoology, transspecies psychology, multi-species ethnography and posthumanism – reflected in my book Anthropocene Psychology. This work invites us to pay attention to how other animals, species and natural entities are entangled in human societies, focussing on issues such as rights, responsibilities and justice. At the same time, it unsettles anthropocentrism, the ideology that human beings are the most important species, are in control, and that all problems can be solved by human technology and ingenuity.

At present, this might all appear indulgent or irrelevant in the context of the coronavirus, not least in terms of experiences of distress.  Perhaps, but as I understand it, COVID-19 is a feature of the Anthropocene, with the virus seeming to have emerged at the heart of that precarious interconnectedness and interdependence with nonhuman life forms – from a nexus of cross-species relations.  Numerous calls to revolutionise the ethical foundations of human-animal relations have followed, not just in halting the ‘wet markets’ of China, but in demands for the ‘end of meat’ – the radical reform and even abolition of the use of the factories and abattoirs of industrialised animal agriculture. Others begin to reimagine changes to underlying social systems and structures to reverse the ecological degradation so closely aligned with multiple forms of distress – working conditions, travel, pollution, access to wilder and more biodiverse places.

At the same time, COVID-19 reminds us that we, as a species, are not an exception, able to stand outside or above the ebb and flow of life on earth.  This is of course unsettling, but there might yet be healing power in recognising our shared vulnerability and interdependence, that our future is one where we learn to recognise how profound our interdependence and interconnectedness with each other, other species, nature, really is. In this vein, philosopher of science Cecilia Åsberg argues that the Anthropocene can highlight the many ways in which ‘humanity is intimately bound up with non-human co-travellers on our shared planet; and that ‘our survival may depend on understanding the company we keep, within our bodies, attached to our bodies and around the world’.

In her wonderful essay responding to attempts to pathologise distress in the face of COVID-19, Lucy Johnstone argues that now more than ever ‘we need a new narrative of shared distress to replace the failed one of individual disorders’. I wholeheartedly agree. The shared nature of that distress extends to what it means to live in, and comprehend living in, the Anthropocene – giving rise to experiences of fear, loss, grief and mourning. In inviting us to recognise both human and more-than-human losses, the Anthropocene deepens the need for such a narrative whilst reaching out across the species barrier. In doing so there is hope, that we are finally coming back down to Earth

Dr Matthew Adams is a Principal Lecturer in psychology at the University of Brighton. In both teaching and research, he is an advocate of psychological, cultural and social approaches to experiences of distress that challenge medical and individualist models and offer alternatives to psychiatric diagnosis. He has undertaken research and written extensively on human-nature relations in an era of unprecedented ecological crisis. His most recent book is Anthropocene Psychology: Being Human in a More-Than-Human World, published by Routledge in 2020. The book investigates the relations between human and more-than-human worlds against the backdrop of the Anthropocene by emphasising the significance of encounter, interaction and relationships.

Education in the Anthropocene

Annette Gough


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

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


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


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

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

Tensions around the “Anthropocene”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women troubling the Anthropocene

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

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

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

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

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

So what does the Anthropocene mean for education?

Changing roles for education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Changing priorities in concern for the environment and society

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

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

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

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

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

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

Re-thinking education in/for the Anthropocene

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Addressing the Anthropocene through education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gendered and global dimensions of educating in the Anthropocene

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

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

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

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

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


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


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General cleavage: The US Presidential election in the Anthropocene

David R. Cole

The 2020 US elections mark a breaking point in universal history, with two sides, and two paths defining different future realities for humans and their inhabitation on planet Earth, here called the Anthropocene. I argue that never before has this breaking apart been so clearly defined and presented. In this article, I would like to prise out the factors, influences, and themes associated with this breaking apart, not to reduce the event to an easily dismissed and ignored micro historical occasion, that will pass and be automatically overridden by normalised and continuous forces in time, but to unearth the real power that is at work here, as a mode of occultation, and that I am calling: a general cleavage.

  • The media. On one side of the general cleavage we have a call to return to the Obama years (2008-2016), wherein the media were routed and pummelled along neo-liberal lines, to reproduce and augment calls and images to live harmoniously, multi-culturally, and at peace, and hence not to question the general ruler and designator of what these terms mean: the market and superstructure that the market enables. On the other side of the ongoing equations established due to and as the media, are the forgotten and left behind, silent media users, observers, and those unable to project the necessary values and image that could be taken up and promulgated through the media in a market-driven situation. This specific US population were ruthlessly targeted and made to feel like heroes by the Trump campaign, and who were famously named as a ‘basket of deplorables’ by Hillary Clinton. Trump has spent years working the media, and, supported by likeminded, attack oriented media sharks, came up with a successful media strategy that mobilised discontented voters, who felt as if they had been scrubbed out of the years of Obama-media-domination. In 2020, the Trump camp is seeking out and is deploying similar strategies that gave it victory in 2016, yet to an extent, events have over-taken this strategy, and the media landscape has changed since 2016, especially with the traction and role that negative identity politics is able to play.
Since Russia’s expansive influence operation during the 2016 election, Americans’ usage of social media has only increased — and drastically so, as a result of the pandemic.
  • The pandemic. This fundamental reorientation of the media and the way it is able to project and mediate negative identity politics, as it was able to do pre-2020, has largely come about due to the pandemic. The pandemic has been extremely bad for the Trump re-election campaign, as ‘business-as-normal’ has been suspended, and many of the underlying assumptions that were built into the 2016 campaign have been necessarily undone. For example: large, noisy, raucous political rallies are now deemed to be unsafe to attend by the majority of the population, due to the danger of catching the virus. The words and facts of science, that have been ignored, exaggerated, or systematically incorporated into a political frame if they were useful (by either side), have now come to resound like a decree from God, as your very life could depend on them; e.g., maintaining social distancing, wearing a mask in public, not going out if you are sick, washing your hands. Now, the democratic side of this election battle will abide by and enforce the directives of science, to eradicate and diminish the spread of the virus, and will therefore simultaneously, denigrate the economic cost, such as been successful in other places, for example, by putting the country into lockdown. Contrarily, Trump advocates the continuing strategy of largely ignoring scientific advice for viral diminution, keeping the economy running as per normal, and of talking up the prospects of a successful vaccine.
The pandemic is a major factor in the 2020 election
  • Climate change: Joe Biden and his team have worked out an extensive policy platform to tackle climate change: https://joebiden.com/climate-plan/. In the Anthropocene, wherein human inhabitation of the planet Earth has been recognised as an existential threat, that will haunt many generations to come, these policies and stances may be seen to be very sensible, and could be effective in at least mitigating against many of the predicted horrors of future climate change, such as the increased occurrence of wildfires, drought, floods, hurricanes, and subsequent crop failures and food shortages. On the other side of the cleavage, we have a Trump campaign that has systematically avoided mention of climate change, and, for example, has addressed the recent catastrophic fires in California as a matter of ‘forest management’. Again, what is being displayed here is a wilful ignorance of science, that might play well to audiences not versed in research, but as has been suggested, anyone with a modicum of education would be able to appreciate the connections between the continued domination and economic power of the fossil fuels industries, and augmenting climate change. The danger for the democratic side here is that their plan for radical climate policy and change, deemed as the Green New Deal (GND), will not eventuate, but will fall back into greenwashing, or market-driven solutions to climate change, that do not deliver the desired reductions in CO2 emissions over the long term, but act as fronts and counterfeits for corporations and businesses looking to survive in a changed federal (tax) situation.
Climate change is a radical difference between the 2 candidates
  • Desire: Finally, it may be stated that this election presents a question of desire in the present situation, and, as ‘the general cleavage’. In the recently released Amazon Prime film, ‘Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’, the desire in and as the situation is cleverly subverted and held up for inspection against the backdrop of Borat’s adventures in the US. A Mike Pence rally is interrupted as Borat, who is dressed in a rubber Trump outfit, tries to present Pence with his daughter as a gift from his President. Later, Borat’s daughter, posing as a blonde, patriotic news reporter, ends up in a sexually compromising situation with Rudy Guiliani in a hotel bedroom. Trump’s recent COVID-19 infection (and subsequent miraculous recovery) has been portrayed by him as an attempt to weaken his masculinity, and his emergence from the diseased state has presented him as a strongman able to defeat the ‘China virus’ (i.e., as virile/not viral). Hence, on one side of the equation of the general cleavage, we have a horny, sexual election, largely dominated by the exaggerated libidos of old men (the Viagra generation). On the other side, it is a lot more boring. Even though Obama has been introduced into the equation at the last moment, and Kamala Harris introduces a different take on the sexuality emanating from the Trump side, it is clear that the democratic perspective is not driven by libido and sex to the extent that we encounter from the Trump camp.     
WASHINGTON, DC – MAY 07: U.S. first lady Melania Trump arrives in the Rose Garden to speak at the White House May 7, 2018 in Washington, DC. Trump outlined her new initiatives, known as the Be Best program, as first lady during the event. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

In sum, it may be surmised that the factors of the media, pandemic, climate change and desire are active influences and forces prevalent in the 2020 US presidential election, and as productive and part of ‘the general cleavage’. On one side, we have a call to return to the general rules and functioning of the market, a neoliberal rendering of capitalism as a force for prosperity and good in the world, but threatened by a rise in viral death (COVID-19) and civil chaos (Black Lives Matter) as has been seen in 2020; on the other, we have the mechanics of runaway, unfettered, individualised capitalism, looking to break free of regulations, and to unify flows of capital as power. Both sides work to extend the differences in space/time between them.