The Bio-Evolutionary Anthropocene Hypothesis: Rethinking the Role of Human-Induced Novel Organisms in Evolution

Biological Theory volume 14, pages141–150(2019) Cite this article

  • Abstract

Anthropogenic changes in the biosphere, driven mainly by human cultural habits and technological advances, are altering the direction of evolution on Earth, with ongoing and permanent changes modifying uncountable interactions between organisms, the environment, and humankind itself. While numerous species may go extinct, others will be favored due to strong human influences. The Bio-Evolutionary Anthropocene hypothesizes that directly or indirectly human-driven organisms, including alien species, hybrids, and genetically modified organisms, will have major roles in the evolution of life on Earth, shifting the evolutionary pathways of all organisms through novel biological interactions in all habitats. We anticipate that, in future scenarios, novel organisms will be continuously created, and contemporary native organisms with no obvious economic use will decline—while anthropogenic-favored and novel organisms will spread. The Bio-Evolutionary Anthropocene hypothesis therefore predicts that humankind and novel organisms will interact within a strong evolutionary bias that will lead to unexpected, and probably irreversible, outcomes for the evolution of life on our planet.

Human Hyper-Dominance Leading to Changes

Human beings have drastically impacted the Earth’s surface and promoted striking ecosystem and biodiversity alterations (Ehrlich and Holdren 1971; Vitousek 1997; Chapin et al. 2000; Butchart et al. 2010; Steffen et al. 2011). Habitat destruction and pollution, species extinctions, biotic homogenization (McKinney and Lockwood 1999), and gene exchange between species (Bawa and Anilakumar 2013) are some of the many ways the biosphere is changing. On the other hand, despite the apparent biological impoverishment of Earth’s ecosystems, humans could actually be directly increasing biodiversity (McClure 2013; Thomas 2013; Fuentes 2018), as anthropogenic ecosystems, such as cities, may drive evolution and create new organisms (Johnson and Munshi-South 2017)—thus establishing new evolutionary pathways created by human hyper-dominance as a “hyper-keystone” species (Worm and Paine 2016).

These contradictory views of anthropogenic influences divide scientific opinion about whether human-induced changes are positive, as many organisms are favored by artificial selection, or if Earth is nearing its sixth mass extinction (Dalby 2016). The Anthropocene is surely a time of mass disruptive processes on a planet that has already been fundamentally altered by humans (Hamilton 2016), while population pressures on Earth’s ecosystems are exponentially increasing (Deb et al. 2018). It is therefore irrefutable that species distributions, species richness, and novel organisms will diverge enormously from contemporary biodiversity in the Anthropocene. Human cultural values and other social structures lead to behavioral patterns (of both individuals and social groups) that will result in drastic environmental changes (Ellis and Trachtenberg 2014). Some anthropogenic effects are now easily visible, such as habitat extinction (Ghosh et al. 2013) and the production of ~ 30 trillion tons (Tt) of technosphere materials and artifacts (Zalasiewicz et al. 2017). There are, however, numerous less-noticeable environmental impacts, including the high production of pesticides (Chagnon et al. 2015), fertilizers (Vitousek et al. 2009), acidic effluents (Akcil and Koldas 2006), radioactive wastes (Geraskin et al. 2003), antimicrobial compounds (Gillings and Stokes 2012), the spread of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) (Bawa and Anilakumar 2013), and the spread of alien species (Lodge 1993; Simberloff et al. 2013)—especially within or near cities (McKinney 2006; Toussaint et al. 2016).

Those modifications greatly disturb natural ecosystems, although certain organisms will be favored based on their capacity to adapt to the new anthropogenic conditions, resulting in the emergence of novel and better-adapted organisms that will become established and persist in modified areas or habitats. Some of the areas altered by humans are considered new ecosystems—known as anthropogenic biomes (e.g., anthromes; Ellis 2011).

The Anthropocene is modulated by human culture and technology, and extinctions and habitat changes are occurring at uncontrolled and accelerated rates with unexpected consequences (Barnosky et al. 2012; Steffen et al. 2015). This trend can be confused with the “tipping point” hypothesis, which argues that evolutionary patterns are permanently changed by anthropogenic pressures and biological thresholds are definitely crossed (Hodgson et al. 2015; van Nes et al. 2016). The Bio-Evolutionary Anthropocene hypothesis, as explained here, however, recognizes novel organisms and humankind as the new driving forces of biodiversity. The future of biodiversity is hardly predictable with any precision, of course, as many global characteristics such as functional diversity, novel organisms, and atmospheric pollution cannot yet be fully factored into a future vision (Steffen et al. 20072015).

We anticipate that novel organisms, such as alien and hybrid species and GMOs will play key roles in biological interactions—leading to what we call the Bio-Evolutionary Anthropocene. Those organisms will have divergent evolutionary capacities or create different pressures on both natural and anthropized ecosystems and alter the distribution, richness, and ecological patterns of local and global biodiversity—and lead to novel and unexpected evolutionary pathways. We will discuss here the roles of those novel organisms on biodiversity and evolution and the resulting consequences for the biosphere from the perspective of the Bio-Evolutionary Anthropocene hypothesis.

The Bio-Evolutionary Anthropocene Hypothesis

The Bio-Evolutionary Anthropocene hypothesis is largely based on the emergence and establishment of novel organisms and their new biological interactions in natural or modified habitats. The creation, spread, and transformation of new life forms are mainly induced and favored by human activities, and therefore represent the most important human imprints on evolution.

Evolution is a modifying, transforming, and changeable force that reflects the interactions of species (Thompson 1999). Evolutionary pathways are not static, but constantly changing due to direct or indirect human interference (Otto 2018; Pelletier and Coltman 2018) and impacts on biological interactions. Those changes, either driven by, or the random results of human actions, are immediately imprinted on all living organisms through habitat modifications, novel or lost functions, and new interactions (Morse et al. 2014; Pigeon et al. 2016; Rudman et al. 2017)—eventually leading to a “point of no return” when those changes become permanent (sensu Corlett 2015).

According to the Modern Synthesis, while natural selection, genetic drift, gene flow, and mutation have been considered the principal evolutionary forces (Charlesworth et al. 2017), other processes, such as developmental bias, plasticity, inclusive inheritance, and niche construction can also contribute to species evolution (Laland et al. 2015). That perspective incorporates both natural processes and those modulated by humans, thus consolidating the role of humans in biological evolution.

The evolutionary shifts that are occurring now in the biosphere are harsher and faster than previously expected (Otto 2018)—especially if we consider the emergence and spread of novel organisms (mainly alien species, hybrids, and GMOs) that will continue to be produced and spread by humans (either purposely or accidentally). The consequences of the interactions of those novel organisms with contemporary ones, added to constantly changing environments in the Anthropocene, are not fully predictable. In many ways and intensities, humans are modulating and pushing new evolutionary outcomes towards the Bio-Evolutionary Anthropocene in uncountable ways and directions.

The Bio-Evolutionary Anthropocene hypothesis therefore incorporates multi-scaled and fractal changes in additive biodiversity patterns, inevitably shifting local and global evolutionary pathways. Future biodiversity scenarios (modified ecosystems derived from the Biological Anthropocene hypothesis) will likely demand that organisms adapt more and more rapidly (than they would normally) in response to rapid ecosystem changes. Some examples of current modified ecosystems created and modulated by humans are: semi-natural habitats (e.g., Kalusová et al. 2017), agricultural fields (Vanwalleghem et al. 2017), anthropogenic biomes (Ellis 2011), and urban (Alberti 2015) and novel ecosystems (Morse et al. 2014).

Because of current and future human evolutionary pressures, the Bio-Evolutionary Anthropocene hypothesis predicts that organisms capable of fast adaptation to new or modified habitats, such as alien species, hybrids, GMOs, and economically and anthropogenically favored organisms (e.g., crops and livestock) will prevail. Indeed, those organisms will not only persist, but be favored in increasingly modified environments because of their resilience and high capacity for adaptation.

The strong influence of humans over new or transformed biological entities (now, and in the future) in the Bio-Evolutionary Anthropocene hypothesis is mainly driven by human-related processes including: induced or produced hybridizations (e.g., botanical gardens and ornamental flowers), artificial selection (e.g., crop domestication and improvement), positive selection (e.g., plagues and parasites), environmental transformations, alien species establishment, and the spread and exchange of modified genes through biotechnology. In our hypothesis, these and other related processes will modulate the Anthropocene in feedback loops—with uncountable new interactions between organisms, humans themselves, and human cultures and technologies.

In the Bio-Evolutionary Anthropocene hypothesis, we understand that humans are the main driving force—not only creating but also linking human-driven processes with modified habitats, and novel and contemporary organisms. Therefore, humans not only induce changes, but will be one of the main species affected by anthropogenic changes—transforming and simultaneously being transformed. Those interactive loops are definitely reshaping and shifting evolutionary pathways and Earth’s biodiversity in unprecedented ways (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1

The Anthropocene: Facts and Mechanisms

Human hyper-dominance is the main driving force of the Anthropocene. Humans, even as a single species, have completely changed the environment and evolutionary outcomes through hyper-dominance, technological development, and diverse cultural habits (Worm and Paine 2016). Human–environment interactions are not just local anymore, but have spread to ever widening spatial scales (Steffen et al. 2015; Sullivan et al. 2017), largely due to human technological advances, and social and cultural values (Alberti 2015).

This new concept of the human–environment relationship, incorporating mankind’s advances throughout the world, can be easily perceived, but general awareness of that situation is still incipient. It is currently difficult to identify environmental modifications and species interactions that are not driven, intentionally or not, by human culture and technology (Lewis and Maslin 2015). Humans occupy almost the entire planet, without any special habitat distinctions, so that essentially all areas have in some way been impacted by humans (Clark 1996).

Human interventions in the environment have lead to many uncertainties and risks, whose consequences are sometimes negative and sometimes positive. The Bio-Evolutionary Anthropocene hypothesis incorporates the concept that human-influenced organisms can permanently modify biological evolution. While still unpredictable, there are strong signs that the new patterns predicted by the new Bio-Evolutionary Anthropocene hypothesis are already becoming established.

Even conservation efforts as we know them today, for example, could result in unexpected outcomes that alter natural evolutionary processes. Intentional conservation actions favoring a few selected organisms (such as flagship species) change population patterns within an ecosystem (Liu et al. 2007), consequently even cosmopolitan species are similarly experiencing habitat losses and modifications (Simmonds et al. 2019). Future outcomes predicted by modeling studies may never come about because of the constant and unpredictable interactions between living organisms and their environments, especially in the Anthropocene.

The patterns and processes predicted by the Bio-Evolutionary Anthropocene hypothesis can be viewed as having started thousands of years ago as, from the times of our ancestors (from Neanderthals to modern Homo sapiens), all anthropogenic actions, decisions, necessities, and even ideas have altered the outcome of evolution (see the “Early Anthropogenic hypothesis”; Rudman et al. 2017). Some examples of current anthropogenic impacts leading to biodiversity instability and unexpected outcomes are: species exploitation (hunting or collecting) (Otto 2018), trophic cascades and predator–prey interactions (Allan et al. 2013; Dorresteijn et al. 2015), pollinator population declines (Potts et al. 2010), and the spread of parasite vectors (Civitello et al. 2015).

Population declines, species extinctions, and habitat losses have already caused irreversible changes in the dynamics of most ecosystems and entire assemblages of both common and threatened species (Simmonds et al. 2019). Those human-driven changes will eventually affect species all over the globe. Our current scientific knowledge is much too underdeveloped to fully understand or predict the spectrum of changes in species interactions that will occur due to our social and cultural habits and long-term technological progress.

In addition to changes and environmental shifts caused by human actions, the Bio-Evolutionary Anthropocene hypothesis considers novel organisms created directly or indirectly by human-driven processes such as: artificial selection (Allendorf and Hard 2009; Driscoll et al. 2009; Otto 2018), hybridization (Mallet 2005), ploidy changes in animals (Otto 2007) and plants (De Storme and Mason 2014), as well as transgenic organisms (Bawa and Anilakumar 2013). Additionally, many changes in species compositions (biotic) (Stephens et al. 2009) and environmental conditions (abiotic) have been influenced by human actions (Bull and Maron 2016; Hendry et al. 2017; Nadeau et al. 2017).

In the Bio-Evolutionary Anthropocene hypothesis, although biotic and abiotic alterations of habitat are usually pitfalls for contemporary organisms, they could favor the establishment of novel organisms in modified habitats. The main novelties we considered here are alien species, hybrids, and genetically modified organisms that are currently integrating new webs of interactions in semi-natural or highly modified habitats.

Alien organisms first began to spread due to different human processes: the domestication of plants and animals, farming and animal husbandry, urban planning and landscaping, and many others. Those organisms were, and still are, being modified from ancestral species or similar varieties, transported to different and modified environments, and established or cultivated by humans based on biological necessities, cultural and social traditions, and technological advances.

Nowadays, alien organisms interfere with and redefine biotic and abiotic conditions in many anthropogenic-influenced habitats, especially due to their invasiveness, resilience, and high capacity for adaptation and rapid evolutionary alterations (see Cox 2004). Many efforts focusing on the eradication of alien species are inefficient because of their high fitness and resilience (Pimentel et al. 2001). Alien organisms will therefore definitely be present—even abundant—in many human-modified ecosystems according to the Bio-Evolutionary Anthropocene hypothesis.

Human-induced hybrids are another form of novel organisms condemned by many conservationists as a threat to parental species integrity (Rhymer and Simberloff 1996), but we predict that some of them will thrive in the Anthropocene. The propagation of hybrids in modified ecosystems could cause the decline of parental species, and those processes are therefore considered unnatural and in need of ecosystem management (Muhlfeld et al. 2014). On the other hand, there are many examples of human-induced hybrids that are positive and successful (Grant and Grant 1992; Huxel 1999), and they may change future evolutionary outcomes.

The third novelty addressed here concerns genetically modified organisms. International debates concerning GMOs take two opposite perspectives, although both have anthropocentric points of view in common. While supporters believe that humanity needs these organisms for food security, critics maintain that there are many uncertainties about environmental and health risks (Wolfenbarger and Phifer 2000; Ellstrand et al. 2013). Even now, genetic modifications are present in almost all food crops (Zhang et al. 2016), with the annual cultivation of billions of transgenic organisms in permeable anthropogenic ecosystems that frequently allow interactions with contemporary organisms. Besides traditional transgenic organisms, other GMOs are emerging through technological and scientific advances such as cisgenic plants and epicrops. Those organisms will also likely influence evolutionary pathways in the future and confirm the strong influence of humans’ biotechnology and the creation and establishment of novel organisms in all habitats.

In addition to the novel organisms cited here, the Bio-Evolutionary Anthropocene hypothesis predicts that others could unexpectedly emerge due to interactions between organisms, human influences, environment modifications, new technological advances, and novel human cultural and social habits. The processes and mechanisms incorporated into the Bio-Evolutionary Anthropocene hypothesis could favor either contemporary or novel organisms, and all of the possible consequences of those already shifting evolutionary pathways cannot be anticipated. Interactive feedback loops are additive, according to the Bio-Evolutionary Anthropocene hypothesis, and mostly unexpected, leading to an uncertain future biota.

Alien Organisms

It is common sense that alien organisms (non-native to a given habitat or ecosystem) represent real threats to local biodiversity once they become established and widespread, usually due to (intentional or unintentional) human actions (Walther et al. 2009). In highly anthropized and changing ecosystems, however, alien species can become “survivors” if they are directly favored by human activities such as artificial selection and domestication (e.g., Milla et al. 2015). In that sense, even crop plants and livestock are alien organisms that are intentionally farmed and raised in non-native areas. Many studies have shown that alien species not only colonize new habitats but also modify them (e.g., Elton 1958; Pimentel et al. 2001; Cox 2004) and can reduce local biodiversity (Lodge 1993; Simberloff et al. 2013). Alien organisms generally spread easily as a result of human activities (Richardson et al. 2000; Pimentel et al. 2001), and as humans are widespread on Earth, alien species have reached essentially every corner of the planet, affecting and modifying the environment as intensely as past mass extinctions (Barnosky et al. 2011)—resulting in severe biotic homogenization that may lead to pools of species similar to those within anthropized habitats (Lodge 1993; McKinney and Lockwood 1999).

The fact that alien organisms survive and spread in invaded habitats, provoking the decimation of native organisms, shows that those novel organisms are more suitable to, and apparently favored by, their new habitat—usually due to their high adaptability and reproductive capacities. Many newly invaded habitats show large alien populations, mostly in highly anthropized sites, which are difficult to manage. Although pristine areas seems to be less vulnerable to biotic invasions (e.g., Foxcroft et al. 2011), alien organisms thrive even in legally protected areas. In the Bio-Evolutionary Anthropocene hypothesis, alien organisms represent not only a disruption of natural processes, but also a new way to resist and even benefit from human-driven changes. Those organisms can take on key roles in biotic and abiotic interactions, especially in already modified habitats.

Hybrid Organisms

Hybridization is an important evolutionary force for species diversification (Mallet 2005), but it can be driven by humans, whether intentionally or not, in the Anthropocene. The creation of hybrid organisms can be positive when it results in species diversification or domestication, or negative when fostering or diversifying disease agents and vectors or pests (Arnold 2004; Ellstrand et al. 2013). The process of hybrid speciation has been found to be much more common in nature than previously thought, in terms of both plants and animals, so that hybridization may also catalyze major evolutionary innovations (Mallet 2007). Hybridization among species has been boosted by human technology and altered habits that open new possibilities for speciation. Horizontal gene transfer, for example, a mechanism by which unrelated species share genetic material, is a potential asexual mechanism for plant evolution and speciation through the commonly used technique of grafting (Fuentes et al. 2014). Since successful horizontal transfer of genetic material between unrelated species usually favors the development of novel traits, it may increase the adaptive capacities of those hybrid organisms and thus shape evolution (Soucy et al. 2015).

Hybrid speciation also occurs through genetic admixtures (sexual mechanisms). Those events are common in plants but thought to be rare in vertebrates. Accumulating evidence, however, indicates the contrary, with numerous examples of successfully adapted hybrid animal species that highlight the importance of hybridization as a source of genetic variation for speciation processes and as a source of evolutionary novelties (Barrera-Guzmán et al. 2017). Most successfully established hybrids have higher fitnesses than their parental organisms (Crispo et al. 2011). Even if their fitness is not high, models have shown that hybrids can naturally and rapidly evolve into new species through reproductive isolation driven by genetic incompatibilities (Schumer et al. 2015). Additionally, hybrids may evolve differently in anthropogenic-related or natural hybrid zones, as seen with monkey hybrids (Callithrix) in Brazil. Those hybrids are genetically differentiated in anthropogenically impacted areas (such as urban ecosystems), and scientists cannot accurately anticipate the futures of either the hybrids or their parental species (Malukiewicz et al. 2015).

Briefly, hybridization is a strong evolutionary force adding diversity and adaptive capacities to both old and new species, and it has a much greater role in evolution than previously recognized—as hybrids usually outperform parental species in altered habitats (Chunco 2014). Hybrids induced by anthropogenic actions seem to be strongly altering the current balance of biodiversity and successfully adapting to both novel and altered ecosystems. As such, hybrid organisms will likely become common in anthropized areas where their parent species have gone extinct. Silent hybridization mechanisms, such as horizontal gene transfer and introgression, may also generate new traits in changing environments, quickly transforming current species richness and distributions.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

Human-induced gene exchanges between organisms may be one of the strongest life-changing mechanisms on Earth. The broad definition of GMO includes transgenic organisms (where part of the genetic material of one species is transferred to another) (Zhang et al. 2016); cisgenic organisms (that have introduced genes originally from the same or a sexually compatible species) (Kost et al. 2015); and, more recently, epicrops (which have undergone epigenetic alterations involving agronomically important traits) (Song et al. 2017). We will focus here on the most studied type of GMO, transgenic organisms which are possibly the most controversial organisms yet directly created to satisfy human needs.

Transgenic organisms favor humans directly by providing, for example, vaccines and drugs (Ma et al. 2005), but they may herald unexpected or undesirable outcomes—such as the spread of new pests (Cheke 2018) and increased mortality in non-target species (Losey et al. 1999). GMO crops are largely produced in developed countries (and some developing countries, such as Argentina, Brazil, China, and India), due to their high yields and low labor requirements as compared to organic farming—in spite of their high potential for environmental and health risks (Azadi and Ho 2010).

Although there are many uncertainties about the risks of transgene spread that could be caused by hybridization and introgression events in areas bordering agrosystems (Ellstrand et al. 2013), transgenic hybrids could have higher fitnesses than their parental organisms (Dong et al. 2017). Although many believe that biotechnological advances are essential to rapidly creating new strains of GMO crops to achieve sustainable global food security (Zhang et al. 2016), GMO crops may also alter natural processes and functions in the ecosystems around them (Catarino et al. 2015).

Similarly, the success of gene-edited animals (to correct genetic defects or increase disease resistance) (Van Eenennaam 2017) and scientific advances in terms of genetically modified livestock and fish (for food or feed production) (Forabosco et al. 2013), will likely result in the creation and emergence of more novel organisms in the near future. As such, even in light of the uncertain consequences of the global spread of crop and animal GMOs, there is enormous pressure to create and produce novel, better-adapted genetically modified crops and livestock strains through modern biotechnological techniques to supply human needs.

The constant development and improvements of technologies to genetically modify organisms will generate even more uncertainties as GMOs spread. There will certainly be more novel organisms in the future linked to anthropogenic changes—transforming evolution along unexpected and unforeseen paths.

Theoretical Scenarios

Changes in the landscape, organisms, humans, and habits will result in new and unexpected scenarios due to novel organisms and their interactions. So, in spite of the obvious stochasticity and unpredictability of biodiversity in the Anthropocene, evolution will certainly be reshaped by human actions. In order to represent the Bio-Evolutionary Anthropocene hypothesis schematically, we present here general hypothetical scenarios concerning novel organisms for the near present as well as three possible future scenarios.

In this approach, we grouped living organisms as native, alien, or anthropogenically favored organisms. Native organisms are the contemporary wild organism in natural ecosystems; aliens represent all non-native organisms in natural or semi-natural ecosystems; anthropogenic-favored organisms are urban, crop plants, livestock, or other organisms favored by human actions. Two variables based on human-driven changes on Earth were used for scenario constructions to determine the expansion or retraction of organism distributions based on the likelihood of their success and establishment, versus population reduction and extinction, according to the Bio-Evolutionary Anthropocene hypothesis. The variables considered were: environmental degradation and climate change (indirect human-driven changes), and human expansion and the use of natural resources (direct human-driven changes).

Considering those hypothetical scenarios, the more intense indirect human-driven changes on global climate and environments are (x-axis, Fig. 2), the more alien organisms will spread; while anthropogenic-favored organisms will spread more with increasing direct influence of humans on environments and organisms (y-axis, Fig. 2). Based on the Bio-Evolutionary Anthropocene hypothesis, alien organisms (which have high adaptive capacities), will likely advance into modified habitats, while contemporary native organism populations will become reduced due to competition or their poor adaptive capacities.

Fig. 2

Anthropogenic-favored organisms, i.e., organisms not only adapted to urban or anthropized habitats but also created and/or positively favored by human actions—such as plagues, disease-vectors and agents, plants used for landscaping, economically favored species, hybrids, transgenics, and other associated organisms—will mostly expand when there is high direct human interference on the environment, whereas native organisms will suffer due to habitat and population reductions and possibly go extinct.

In all three predicted scenarios, native organisms will suffer reductions due to competition, habitat degradation or modification, and other reasons. This outcome for native organisms, although apparently very drastic, is very plausible in the near future. The Bio-Evolutionary Anthropocene hypothesis anticipates that fate for native organisms due to the view that alien, hybrid, genetically modified organisms, and all anthropogenically favored organisms will reshape evolution on this planet, shifting pathways by direct and indirect human actions without the possibility of mitigation.

The proposed scenarios are simplifications of complex cause-and-effect relationships and show possible outcomes based on the increase or mitigation of human-driven modifications, according to the Bio-Evolutionary Anthropocene hypothesis. Interestingly, the three hypothetical scenarios can be related to alternative ecological scenarios: #1 (top left) relates to anthropogenic ecosystem theory; #2 (top right) relates to the Bio-Evolutionary Anthropocene hypothesis; and, #3 (bottom right) depicts a novel ecosystem concept (Fig. 2).

The Bio-Evolutionary Anthropocene hypothesis is represented as alternative scenario #2, where both variables reach high levels. Since human-driven changes on Earth are possibly irreparable, unexpected outcomes of the Anthropocene are imminent. In that scenario, environmental degradation and climate modifications are very high and beyond repair, and direct human-driven modifications, such as the use of natural resources through human hyper-dominance and expansion, are immeasurable and astonishingly high, so that evolutionary pathways will be shifted permanently, with emerging novel organisms and novel interactions among them, humans, and the modified environment.

Briefly, future ecosystems and environments will have little space for contemporary native organisms with no economic use, and they may become extinct due to human-driven changes. Alien organisms and anthropogenic-favored organisms, on the other hand, will emerge and spread in disorderly ways, creating novel interactions and future novel organisms along unexpected evolutionary pathways. Although the Bio-Evolutionary Anthropocene hypothesis might seem negative and unwanted, it is quite plausible and has unavoidable outcomes. Global awareness must increase, with the realization that humans now represent the most important evolutionary force, and all future predictions must incorporate the processes and mechanisms inherent in every human action.


Humans are altering the path of evolution and the surface of the earth in unprecedented ways. Technological advances and the hyper-dominance of humans have created new habitats and novel evolutionary pressures on all organisms, and will lead to huge biodiversity losses. Some anthropogenic changes, however, including the emergence of novel organisms (constantly introduced and established in natural and semi-natural ecosystems), can be interpreted as a type of new adaptable biodiversity that will reshape evolution on Earth. According to the Bio-Evolutionary Anthropocene hypothesis, those novel organisms are alien and hybrid species, GMOs, and other organisms either created or induced by humans based on our habits, cultures, and technologies. Interactions between all organisms constantly change and adapt by additive and fractal patterns, leading to unexpected ecological outcomes. This new hypothesis therefore considers humans and novel organisms as key components of evolution and, even in controlled environments, unforeseen interactions will likely occur resulting in unexpected future scenarios and outcomes.


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Financial support was provided by the Ministério do Meio Ambiente/PROBIO II. We thank Professor Stuart A. Newman, Deborah Klosky, and one anonymous reviewer for comments on the manuscript, and Mr. Roy Funch for linguistic advice.

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  1. Instituto de Pesquisas Jardim Botânico do Rio de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro, BrazilPablo José Francisco Pena Rodrigues & Catarina Fonseca Lira

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Pablo José Francisco Pena Rodrigues.

The Anthropocene-Fallacy: Learning from Wrong Ideas

Mr. Rows Namoura Coffee

The Anthropocene is a proposed geological epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, anthropogenic climate change. While it is not an academically established definition, as of yet, it is proposed to have begun in the 1950s. This article posits that the concept is erroneous in at least two ways. First, it relies on a normative, activist, appropriation of science. Second, it disregards the system-property of the ecosystem, which is marked by the continuous interaction between the system and its parts, or agents. But more than this, the idea of the Anthropocene is a case study for how activist agendas appropriate science and academia depriving it from an important academic feature, its skeptical method.

Science or Activism?

“Anthropocene Syndrome: a complex of environmental degradation, biological annihilation in the form of species losses, non-communicable disease epidemics, climate change, and increasing…

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Feeling for the Anthropocene: Placestories of living justice

Peter Renshaw

The Australian Educational Researcher (2021) 48:1–21


In this written version of the 2019 Radford Lecture, I address the challenges of teaching and learning about ourselves and others—human and more-than-human others—at this moment of global precarity. In Part 1, I analyse emotions in the Anthropocene through the lens of carnivalesque placestories. I conclude that we need to shift to a relational ontology and aesthetic sensibility based on kinship with the more-than-human. Part 2 explores pedagogies of love and enchantment and presents specific cases suggesting that children can shift to a relational ontology and aesthetic sensibility based on kinship. Part 3 takes up the troubles inherent in our current education system related to quiet citizenship. It asks how teachers might engage with students as activists on issues that matter to them in these precarious times.

Keywords: Anthropocene · Activism · Pedagogies of love and enchantment


This paper was presented as the Radford Lecture in 2019, a year of grief and loss as fires consumed vast swathes of Australia’s forests, and urgent action on reducing carbon emissions was again delayed by the “dithering” (Hornborg 2017) of political leaders even in the face of global climate protests led by high school students. Personally, it was an emotionally poignant year as I reflected on my generation’s legacy and witnessed the activism of young students whose voices were raised to hold us to account. I participated in the March and September climate protests with the students and these experiences became central to the Radford Lecture. It was also a year of intensive research with Dr Ron Tooth and his colleagues at Pullenvale Environmental Education Centre (PEEC).Footnote1 We focussed on capturing children’s emotional engagement with the “more-than-human” (Abram 1997) and we recorded numerous instances of enchantment and fascination. Just prior to the Radford Lecture I asked Reshma and Lucie, Year 4 students at a local State School, to present an account of their enchantment. Their presentation, reproduced in Part 2, was a highlight of the Radford and prompted Debra Hayes (President of AARE) to wonder when we might see them back presenting their research at future conferences.

Part 1: Placestories in the Anthropocene

Doreen Massey’s (2005) notion of place as unfolding stories was central to adopting the term placestories as the anchoring concept for this paper. Placestories foreground the materiality of place, its “grounded physical reality” (Somerville 2010, p. 330), along with the agency of human and more-than-human entities (Abram 1997) and the entangled stories that they have co-authored in place over time (Massey 2005; Tuan 1979). Massey (2005, p. 9) wrote that place is “a simultaneity of stories so far”. This phrase captures the relational and open-ended nature of place per se, and the sense that any place has many possible stories—some celebrated and retold, some hidden or repressed, some repurposed and most importantly, emerging placestories that are being co-authored in the present. Figure 1 presents one recent placestory to contemplate. Thinking with Bakhtin, we can reflect on the multiple entangled authors of the event on the beach, acknowledge our answerability for this unfolding placestory, and remember that there are no alibis (Bakhtin 1993) in the process of becoming-with—we are participants and co-responsible in some measure for the placestories of our time.

Fig. 1. A beach vista on the east coast of Australia in 2019 after the bushfires (This is a painting by Natalie Renshaw of a beach scene at Nambucca Heads on the Mid-North coast of NSW. The original photo that inspired the painting was published online by the ABC on 15 November 2019. [https ://​ires make-port-macquarie-most-polluted-place /11708 612] Many beaches along the whole coastline of NSW, including Sydney beaches, were covered in ash from the 2019 bushfires.)

Some thoughts on the scene in Fig. 1. What’s the black stuff strewn along the beach into the distance? Not seaweed. Not oil. Yes, ashes. They seem out of place. How did the ashes get here? What are the man and dog thinking and feeling as they encounter this unusual substance on the beach? What might the dog smell in the ashes? Perhaps the remains of other animals consumed by the fires that ravaged vast areas of Australia in 2019. There is melancholy and loss in the ashes, materially present in the remains of the living creatures and the complex ecological systems that had sustained them—reduced to ashes. As Massey (2005) noted, every place is interconnected to other places—the ashes on the beach are a poignant testament to this. This beach is being continuously remade in interaction with other places, in this case in interaction with the fires that had consumed the nearby forests. The fires were so intense and destroyed so much of Australia’s forests that the resultant ash and smoke eventually circled the Earth (Keane 2020, January 13). The grief does not end here on this beach. It is mirrored in other catastrophic fires that occurred during 2019 in the Amazon, in California, in Siberia, in Indonesia, and in Lebanon. Pyne (2015) coined the term Pyrocene to describe the current state of the Earth on fire.

In addition to the interconnection of each place to other places, Massey (2005) notes that our encounters in the present are interconnected across time. Consider the Indigenous peoples who walked on this beach for 60,000 years and left traces of their everyday lives in the middens that can be found in the dunes beyond the beach. Consider the journey of the grains of sand through deep time and the multiple times each grain might have been part of a coral or other living entity. But here they are right now on this beach in between the paws and toes of these local residents entering into a new relationship. We are in constant motion with place, dancing place, place is dancing us, creating the placestories of our becoming—“becoming-with” and “entangled” rather than becoming an individual (Haraway 2016). Where is this mutual spinning taking us?

What sense will future generations make of the placestories we are spinning now? In Fig. 2, a young student stands with her sign at the Climate Strike on the Gold Coast on 15 March 2019. The activism of students has heightened awareness across the globe of the urgency to act now, to interrupt the placestories being spun by burning fossil fuels to feed consumer culture, thereby increasing temperatures on the land and in the sea, and accelerating extinction of species primarily due to habitat loss. Her sign tells exactly where we are and where are we going in terms of global warming. She has named the future in terms of loss, death and catastrophe (see also Charlson 2019), and she seeks an alternative. She seems to know that some placestories maintain hegemonic relationships that preserve the interests of those in power. In this case, she is calling out our government and its local representative, whose office is in the building behind her, regarding their failure to adequately address climate change and carbon emissions. She is advocating a different placestory where governments are made to feel uncomfortable when their policies are revealed to have catastrophic local and global consequences. She seems to know and feel something crucial. She is asking, whose interests are being served by the placestories that are forming the Anthropocene?

Fig. 2
Fig. 2. A sign designed by a high school student at the March 2019 climate protest

The Anthropocene is “the not-yet of time” (Somerville 2018, p. 265) signalled by humanity’s dramatic on-going impact on planetary systems that has accelerated species extinctions across the globe and threatened the survival of humanity itself. Although Crutzen and Stoermer (2000) are credited with first using the term, Anthropocene, Steffen et al. (2011) provide a detailed account of the emergence of the idea of the Anthropocene across the twentieth century. It was Crutzen and Stoermer’s (2000) article, however, that provided the impetus for scholars from the humanities and social sciences to begin critiquing the concept of the Anthropocene and revealing its roots in the economics of capitalism (Moore 20172018), in the colonial dispossession of the lands of First Nations peoples across the world (Demos 2015), and in the structures and processes of patriarchy (Haraway et al. 2016; Haraway 2015). In the field of educational research, Marie Brennan (2017) provided a critique of teacher education in the Anthropocene, but it has been early childhood scholars, in particular, who have embraced the notion of the Anthropocene (Somerville and Powell 2019ab) in trying to reimagine the education of children yet to be born, children who will live in an increasingly precarious “world entirely different to the one we know and understand” (Somerville and Powell 2019a, p. 15).

The placestories of the Anthropocene are not inevitable or produced by a generalised human author operating as if from anywhere/nowhere. That is a deterministic take on the Anthropocene. It posits a form of detached and objective authorship of the current epoch designed to deflect responsibility and answerability. The Anthropocene needs to be read, as the young student above is advocating, as a set of accountable placestories. These stories have been authored overwhelmingly by specific groups of men, beginning arguably in the eighteenth century enlightenment—predominantly men from the global north with particular vested interests and ambitions to exploit the resources and peoples of other places in order to accumulate power and wealth. As Donna Haraway (2015) reminds us, the Anthropocene is not a species act of homo sapiens—it is a set of interconnected placestories that emerged from colonialism and patriarchy and capitalism, placestories formed through exploiting “cheap nature and cheap labour” (Moore 20172018) and the forced acquisition of First Nations peoples’ land in many parts of the world, including Australia.

Haraway (2016) also speculates about an alternative present and future, the Chthulucene,Footnote2 where placestories are created from a new imaginary, a creative space where there is capacity to make kin in assemblages with strange others that include the more-than-human, other-than-human, and human-as-humus. I know my grand-children enjoy the idea of humans as humus. Like other children they enjoy crossing boundaries and may be more ready than we think, to make kin with other composting beings and the intricacies of this living world (see also Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles et al. 2019; Somerville and Powell 2019ab). I return to this kin-making theme in Part 2 of the lecture.

The climate strikes in March and September 2019 were organised and led by high school students in Australia and across the world. One of the student leaders came to The University of Queensland just prior to the September march to address a National Tertiary Education Union forum. She was a Year 10 student from a local State High School. She was articulate and well informed about the science of climate change, she cared about her community and wanted to express her convictions in a public way with other like-minded students and community members. Her talk motivated me to organise a group of staff and students from the School of Education to join the march and carry a banner proclaiming, Educate for Climate Action. The march was a site of solidarity and public pedagogy. It was also calling older generations to account—there’s no alibi in our placestories, in the mess we’ve helped to make. In Brisbane, people in high-rise offices and at public transport hubs stopped to watch and listen. The march was led by Indigenous students and members of their communities who asserted their sovereignty over the land as we walked—we chanted with them—“Always was always will be—Aboriginal land”. This reassertion of the Aboriginal placestory of MeanjinFootnote3 felt wonderfully transgressive in the very heart of the CBD. Then—“What do we want? CLIMATE JUSTICE. When do we want it? NOW”.

The co-authored placestories of the march produced a carnivalesque space in the Brisbane CBD. As Bell (1994) proposed, in addressing Bakhtin’s relevance to environmental issues, carnivalesque events are about turning the tables on those in power and sustaining oneself in public through collaborative action, a form of renewing solidarity and reinvention. It mocks the status quo and offers the opportunity to recreate a new world. Bell writes, “This possible new world is the people’s world. Carnival points out the egalitarian oneness of material life, an openness to life that connects us all” (Bell 1994, p. 70). On the climate march in September we experienced aspects of this egalitarian openness and renewal. We took over the streets where cars had recently breathed, exhaled and sped by; we ignored blinking traffic lights and we shouted at and with other; police guarded our passage and chatted with bystanders; it was strange to see some of our more radical colleagues don high-vis vests to act as crowd control wardens—even this visual absurdity added to the liberating carnivalesque tone of the whole march; we very openly expressed our feeling in the public square; we mocked our leaders and paraded their paper-mâché heads to heap scorn; we wanted our shared collective emotions at that moment (anger; disbelief; frustration) to mobilise action from other citizens and put pressure on the government. This was our liberating carnivalesque placestory.

Many students carried signs during the march that expressed their foreboding about the future—see, for example, The message on the students’ sign, “we are terrified”, is backed-up by extensive evidence about the effects of climate change summarised in red lettering in the background. The evidence provided the warrant for their terror but it has had little effect on policy, thereby adding to the sense of urgency, because one of the fundamental assumptions of our democracy has been, and continues to be flouted—overwhelming evidence has been denied or ignored in order to maintain the interests of particular groups (mainly the fossil fuel industries—see Brett 2020) and thereby jeopardise the welfare of the planetary systems that sustain life. Not only is evidence flouted, but the Australian parliament has been turned into a festival of denial and inaction on meaningful policy initiatives regarding climate change. They have turned the mockery onto those who want urgent action. As Richard Flanagan wrote (Flanagan 2019, February, 4) “The climate disaster future has arrived while those in power laugh at us….they hold up lumps of coal in front of their throne, and laugh and laugh and gloat, won’t hurt you, won’t hurt you”. Flanagan is referencing that incredible moment in February 2017 when Scott Morrison (then the Treasurer of Australia) brought a lump of coal into the House of Representatives. Photos of the event captured a chortling Barnaby Joyce admiring the coal as other Ministers in the Government laughed along with Morrison’s mocking pantomime. They are having fun—mocking citizens who want action.

We are caught between conflicting emotions as expressed so powerfully by Richard Flanagan in the following line, “Laugh and laugh as the ash falls soft as silent despair” (Flanagan 2019, February, 4). That poetic line could be the caption for this image of the kookaburra perched on a burnt branch. What is the kookaburra experiencing as it surveys the burnt landscape? What does the image evoke for us? Perhaps the lines from the children’s song, “Laugh kookaburra laugh, gay your life must be”.Footnote4 Our emotions in the Anthropocene hover in this tragic-comic zone of laughter and despair. Lesley Head (2016, p. 187) notes that grief and other distressing emotions such fear, anxiety, trauma, will be our companions in the Anthropocene. Political leaders seek to re-assure anxious citizens of all ages that they are managing climate change through balanced policies, smart technologies and innovation thereby ensuring a positive future. This message was conveyed by Prime Minister Morrison at the time of the September 2019 climate march when he responded to Greta Thunberg’s speech to the United Nations. He regretted the “needless anxiety” that Greta’s speech conveyed. He wanted to re-assure children about their future living in “a wonderful country and pristine environment” (Murphy 2019, September 25). The pristine environment of Morrison’s imaginary future is an absurdity when juxtaposed with the actual environment surveyed by the kookaburra in Fig. 3, a landscape transformed by drought and fire. How did the young marchers respond to these words of reassurance? A common sign seen during the climate marches in 2019 had an IKEA logo with the words, “I’ve seen smarter cabinets in IKEA”. Groups of smiling and laughing students were photographed with this sign mocking the empty reassurances of political leaders ( When politicians are absurd, when we are terrified, when the evidence is overwhelming, when policies are lacking, we’ve no option—we have to laugh. There is hope in this laughter because it unmasks the delusional utopian placestories of those in power. But laughter is temporary and the challenges remain. What must be done? How can we face the future with hope, not empty hopefulness that things will work out, but with an informed and practical hope based on transforming our ways of understanding and being in the present?

Fig. 3
Fig. 3. Kookaburra surveys the burnt ground during the 2019 bushfires (This is a painting by Natalie Renshaw of a Kookaburra surveying the burnt landscape. The original photo that inspired the painting was published online by the ABC:

We need to change. The complex challenges of addressing climate change (“a wicked problem”, Rittel and Webber 1973) are not going away so as educators and researchers we have a clear responsibility to re-think our theories and our practices and critically re-examine the assumptions that have produced the placestories of the Anthropocene. At a theoretical level we are challenged to decentre from the humanist assumptions that have positioned humans at the “centre” and assigned value to other living entities and materials based solely on their relevance to a narrow understanding of human well-being (Davies and Renshaw 2019). Along with decentring from the humanist perspective we need to embrace a relational ontology, or as Head (2016) has suggested, “we need theories that enable a deep understanding of the many ways we are embedded—materially, ontologically, historically, biogeochemically—in the processes of the earth…” (pp. 190–191).

If we listen to the Indigenous peoples of this land, to their placestories, we might begin to relate in/with place in new ways. There are gifts in their placestories if we are willing to listen. There is the practical gift of knowing how to live sustainably, as described recently by Bruce Pascoe (Dark Emu2018) and Bill Gammage (The Biggest Estate on Earth2011). They reveal the everyday practices of Aboriginal peoples that shaped the landscape and enabled them to live sustainably. There is so much to learn there—and until recently these stories were deliberately written out of our history (Pascoe 2018). There is also the gift offered by Aboriginal story-tellers and poets such as Bill Neidjie, who provide insight about how to relate differently to place—with an aesthetic based on feeling and kinship. Neidjie et al. (1985, p. 51) writes,

I feel it with my body,

with my blood.

Feeling all these trees,

all this country.

When this wind blow you can feel it.

Same for country….

You feel it.

You can look,

but feeling….

that make you.

Likewise, Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann, from the Daly River in the Northern Territory, shares the practice of dadirri with non-Indigenous Australians (Ungunmerr-Baumann 19882002). She speaks of deep listening and quiet, still awareness as the way to relate to country. It is this worldview, relational ontology, sustainable practices and aesthetic sensibilities that could provide a way forward to co-authoring placestories that will sustain us—human and more-than-human entities—as we face-up to the complex challenges of our becoming, that is, “our becoming-with” as Haraway proposes in writing about a future “of multispecies flourishing on earth” (Haraway 2016, p. 40).

Part 2: Pedagogies of love and enchantment

How might we educate children to inhabit the Anthropocene with an open sensibility to the systems that sustain life on Earth. How might we shift from a process of knowing based on categorising and subduing “nature” to a process of knowing based on caring for, and appreciating the beauty and complexity of the more-than-human. In this second part of the paper, I address these questions by proposing pedagogies of love and enchantment. To clarify the meaning of these emotive words I provide a brief description of the theoretical grounding of pedagogies of love and enchantment, and then explore specific examples by elaborating how the teachers at Pullenvale Environmental Education Centre have engaged children in an excursion to Karawatha Forest Reserve.

The notion of “love” deployed here draws on the framework of love, care and solidarity proposed by Kathleen Lynch (2007) to theorise affective justice and especially the labour of women. Lynch (20072009) focussed on affective justice in human–human relationships rather than considering relationships with the more-than-human world. Nonetheless, her notion of humans as “relational beings within a matrix of social and emotional relations that give meaning and purpose to life” (Lynch and Baker 2009, p. 227) resonates with the ontological stance proposed in Part 1 of the paper. I have begun to consider affective justice in relation to the more-than-human world (Renshaw 2017; Davies and Renshaw 2019). Indeed, Lynch (2017, personal communication 2019Footnote5) has acknowledged that love, care and solidarity should encompass the way we ethically relate to each other as well as how we relate to all living creatures and the environment. In the Karawatha placestories described below, I show how place can become the object of love, care and solidarity, and how this ethical stance creates memorable placestories for children to inhabit and co-author.

With regard to the notion of enchantment, over many years at Pullenvale Environmental Education Centre, teaching staff have documented numerous emotional moments and incidents as children participated in the Karawatha Forest excursion. Such moments could centre on the sudden movement of wind through the trees, rain collecting in crystal-clear puddles on the track, the insistent call of birds or frogs, or imagining the presence of Indigenous children (like them) who walked this forest for millennia. When I began researching the Karawatha pedagogy with Dr Ron Tooth, I realised that the Vygotskian notion of perezhivanie could be deployed to analyse these moments (see Ramos and Renshaw, 2017; Renshaw and Tooth 2016). Perezhivanie is understood to be an emotional experience that is revisited and reflected upon over time. Vygotsky wrote sparingly about perezhivanie (Vygotsky 1934/1994), but he situated emotional experiences as central to the trajectory and direction of a person’s life (Blunden 2016). What is crucial in perezhivanie is the sense that children make of these emotional experiences, and how they revisit and reflect on the experiences across time (Ng and Renshaw 2019). In this paper, I use the term enchantment as a particular type of perezhivanie. I have chosen specific examples of children’s perezhivanya that convey the sense of delight and fascination that they experience in co-authoring placestories in/with Karawatha.

Karawatha placestories

Karawatha continues to be sacred country for local Aboriginal people and they continue to walk country and tell the stories embedded there. But in the last 200 years it has been used for timber-getting and farming, quarried for sandstone, and in the 1980s it was slated to become a housing estate on the edge of Brisbane to accommodate the growing population. At that time on the boundary of what is now Karawatha Forest reserve lived Bernice Volz, a local resident and self-educated naturalist.Footnote6 When Bernice moved in, she met her neighbour Trish, who had developed a deep knowledge of Karawatha. Trish took Bernice for walks through the forest. Bernice was overwhelmed by its beauty and uniqueness and began to catalogue the flora and fauna, much of it endangered and at risk. Bernice and Trish came to understand its complexity and fragility, they loved Karawatha. During heavy rain the lagoons filled and dozens of frog species began to call; fungi spread underground and across fallen logs; glossy black cockatoos could be heard (though they are much less common at the moment). Spending time in the many ecological niches of Karawatha strengthened Bernice’s love for Karawatha and this led to action. She formed a committee with Trish and others and they began lobbying Logan and Brisbane councils and the State government to set aside the remnants of the once expansive forest system for future generations. The timing was right—a range of political and social forces intersected so that money was set aside from a Brisbane City Council bushland levy and from the State Government to buy back portions of the forest already in private ownership. Even the Gateway Motorway was redirected to become the western boundary of the Karawatha Forest Reserve of just less than 1000 hectares.

Bernice’s activist placestory based on her love of Karawatha required persistent hard work such as building relationships with community members and stakeholders, and regularly engaging decision-makers about Karawatha. Today, Bernice provides on-going care to Karawatha, noting which invasive weeds have got to come out, and advocating for the removal of bitumen tracks mistakenly laid by contractors unaware that run-off from the bitumen would slowly poison the lagoons and their endangered frogs. It is Bernice’s placestory of love and advocacy that forms the basis of the Karawatha program designed by Ron Tooth and his staff from PEEC (Renshaw and Tooth, 2018).

The children’s experience of the Karawatha Forest includes recognition of Aboriginal on-going custodianship and the practice of silent still awareness, dadirri, gifted by Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann to Ron and his colleagues at PEEC. They want children to relate to the more-than-human world in loving and caring ways and, like Bill Neidjie and Miriam-Rose, see themselves in solidarity with the living systems of Karawatha—as kin—rather than as separate entities. Through this pedagogy of love and enchantment, children are emotionally drawn into a new relationship with Karawatha—a new dance.

How have children made sense of the Karawatha excursion? At the conclusion of the excursion, children routinely write a short letter to Bernice where they give an account of what they learned. In analysing these accounts (see Tooth and Renshaw 2019), it seems that children experienced Karawatha as an active, relational and emotional partner. They had begun to see themselves as related to the forest, connected through emotions, thoughts and a shared future. These changes are summarised in four key themes: (i) Changing sense of kinship with Karawatha and becoming part of it (I feel as if I’m a part of the environment); (ii) Changing agentic view of “the more-than-human world” (Nature talks to me and it has so many stories to tell); (iii) Changing sense of solidarity with the more-than-human world (I learnt that a group of people can save a whole forest and it is truly stunning); (iv) Changing sense of sharing life with other living things (I think the most important discovery I made today was we’re not the only living things that live on the earth.)

They sense a relationship to Karawatha based on the ontological and aesthetic stance expressed by Bill Neidjie, “I feel it with my body, with my blood. Feeling all these trees, all this country”. There is also a changing understanding of hope, not as a vague abstract feeling, but as embodied practice—“I learned a group of people can save a forest”.

David’s placestory

For some children the Karawatha placestory becomes a turning point. David is such a case. He was described by his teacher as capable but very disengaged at school. But something changed at Karawatha, as illustrated in Fig. 4, that shows David’s sketch of his love for the forest.

Fig. 4
Fig. 4. David’s text and drawing representing his relationship to Karawatha

In the text associated with the sketch, David positions himself as a member of present and future generations, and he reports that he has adopted the practice of dadirri. He seems to have learned something significant about the world and himself at Karawatha. In talking to Merryl Simpson (PEEC teacher) he said,

Karawatha inspired me… like I’m going to try and work in Karawatha Forest to, like, inspire other children or work at a different kind of forest that’s like sacred. (David, Year 5, 2013)

David’s experience in/with Karawatha created a heightened appreciation of his relationship to the forest and the possibility for a shared future where he would “work at a different kind of forest that’s like sacred”.

Leon’s placestory

Another example of enchantment or perezhivanie was documented in 2019 when Leon (Year 4) participated in a program focussed on insects, the BUGS program at PEEC. Figure 5 summarises the incident beginning with Harriet Mortlock’s (PEEC teacher) observation of the native bee landing on Leon’s arm, and culminating in Leon laughing about the bee “liking” him.

Fig. 5
Fig. 5. An account of the bee landing on Leon’s arm during the Bugs program at PEEC

This moment was remembered vividly by Leon when I interviewed him a week later. It was the first thing he recalled about the PEEC excursion—“a bee landed on me”. Initially he was a very reluctant participant in the BUGS program because he had been bitten by mosquitos just after arriving, and he did not want to go to the garden. But after the encounter with the native bee he became enthusiastic and wanted to linger in the bug garden and observe them. A week later he assured me that he was “80% not scared of insects” (see also Weldemariam 2020).

Reshma and Lucie’s placestory

Reshma and Lucie (Year 4 students) presented their own placestory related to the BUGS program at PEEC. Theirs is a story of both enchantment, as captured in Lucie’s face as she observes the “ghost spider” (Fig. 6), and activism arising from their experiences on the excursion. They are continuing this year (2020) to develop the Bug Club at their school and they remain committed EITs—entomologists in training. They were supported by Harriet Mortlock from PEEC in preparing the presentation, but Harriet attested to their authentic authorship of the presentation. Below is the text of their presentation.

Hi my name is Reshma and I am an Entomologist in Training. Hi my name is Lucie and I also am an Entomologist in Training with Reshma. We are also co-researchers on an ARC project with Peter and Ron and Harriet. Our journey as EITs and co-researchers led us to the idea of creating a Bug Garden and Club at our school. We are really excited to be here today to share our project with you.

Our journey as EITs began back at school when we started learning about insects and entomology. We started to feel intrigued, fascinated and our brains were growing with knowledge. Before I went to PEEC for the excursion, I was careless about bugs because I didn’t know how important they are. Finally, it was time to visit PEEC where we did fieldwork as EIT’s such as Reading a Tree, Leaf Detectives and Capture and Release. This fieldwork helped us to grow knowledge about how important bugs are and how to care for these beautiful little creatures. In Capture and Release I (Lucie) caught a ghost spider, and the second I looked at it I was so intrigued because I had never seen a spider in this way. I wouldn’t have ever thought about the idea of catching a spider before I actually did at PEEC. I released the spider because, as we learnt, we always release the bug so it can keep living.

Fig. 6
Fig. 6. Lucie observes the ‘ghost spider’ during the Bugs program at PEEC

On the bus back to school from PEEC, we were thinking about all of these experiences and what we could do for the bugs. I (Reshma) felt like my brain was going to explode with information and ideas. A few days later, we came up with this brilliant idea of making a Bug Garden and a Bug Club so we could teach the younger students about how important bugs are to Mother Nature. Most people think about how bugs are bad but you have to look on the good side. We thought it was important for not just young students but all students to remember this. This plan for our Bug Club was based on the activities we did at PEEC, where our fascination about bugs became real. So it all started with an idea and now it has evolved to a real project.

We knew it was important to ask a teacher for help, to help us manage and organise the club. At our school, Chappie Niki has been building a veggie garden and runs the gardening club. The veggie garden needed a bit of a makeover and Chappie has started to recreate the patch where we will put more effort in and try to make it healthy again, not only for insects but for everyone. We asked Chappie for permission to use the garden for the club, and she was happy to support us. May we ask if Chappie Niki can stand up and give a wave to the audience.

We are aiming to start the Bug Club next year where there will be activities such as Reading a Tree, Capture and Release, Leaf Detectives and Plant observations. Some of these activities came from our journey as EITs at PEEC. When we are ready to start the club, we are going to ask our Principal for permission to present at school assembly to share our ideas and get children involved. The children can come for a test day to the club to see if they like it. We have already started planning the equipment we need and we are starting to collect second-hand jars as bug catchers. We are trying to find second hand resources as equipment for the club.

Where to from here? The bug club planning is all working out at the moment but we know there will be certain problems we have to try and fix. It is our responsibility to do this as we don’t want to put the adults helping us under too much pressure. We also know if we don’t take care of the plants and soil, the bugs will not come. We aim to increase the population of bugs in our local area. For the two years we are running our bug club, we want to try and find trustworthy and loyal students who we can hand the bug club over to when we leave for high school. We want to keep this plan going on and on because if more students decide to join then we can expand the club. When the students go to our club and learn information about bugs they will be prepared for PEEC when they go on their EIT journey too. I have changed my feelings towards bugs and I feel that this club will help others to decrease their fear of insects and increase their care for bugs like it did with me.

Knowledge leads to care that leads to love for bugs. We thank Peter for inviting us here today to this lecture, we think it’s a big opportunity and a proud moment for us in our life. Now with all of this knowledge we have shared with you about EIT’s and what they do, would you like to be an EIT too? Thank you!

Delegates at the Radford lecture were moved by Reshma and Lucie’s placestory. They had not only presented so well, but also addressed issues of knowledge, care and activism, as well as the local politics at school and planning for the future. They are “the children of the Anthropocene” (Somerville 2017; Somerville and Powell 2019a2019b) and it is their future that is at stake when, as educators and researchers, we are considering how to redesign pedagogy and curriculum. A clear message from their presentation was the need to hear directly from children and youth more often at our conferences.

Part 3: Activism and education

Incorporating the voice of students in their own education is crucial, as Susan Groundwater-Smith and Nicole Mockler have advocated and researched for a number of years (Groundwater-Smith and Mockler 2016; Mockler and Groundwater-Smith 2015). In the field of environmental education, David Orr (1994) made the relevant point two decades ago that environmental crises reveal the problems of conventional education, problems centred on producing compliant students who can be effective operators in the global market economy premised on growth. For many decades, feminist scholars (McLeod et al. 1994; hooks 1994; Lather 2007) have critiqued conventional education as complicit in the reproduction of patriarchy and for instilling in students an acceptance of the status quo. To address the crises of the Anthropocene, students and teachers need to move beyond complacency towards an engaged and activist civic stance. But, as the recent climate strikes and marches have revealed, politicians and educators are quite conflicted about supporting students to be active and engaged citizens. The unexpected election result in May 2019 was explained by Prime Minister Morrison as due to “quiet Australians” (Tingle 2019, November 13) and this echoes his dream about children being allowed to enjoy their childhood in a “pristine environment” detached from the concern of adults. He called for more learning in schools and less activism, as did Resources Minister, Matt Canavan, who criticised students who participated in climate strikes as “not taking charge of your life’ and merely “learning how to join the dole queue” (Sydney Morning Herald 2018, November 30). These messages about quiet citizens and business-as-usual learning at school stand in stark contrast to the current waves of student activism. High school students have led protests related to gun violence in the USA (Watts 2019), political reform in Chile (Bartlett 2019, October 19), protests about violence against women (Mayers and Lewis 2019, 28 October), as well as the climate strikes and protests. In fact, Greta Thunberg’s climate campaign was initially inspired by the students from Florida, who walked out of class to protest gun violence, after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018 (Marcovitz 2020).

Greta’s climate strike (1 person in August 2018) and its spread worldwide (6 million in September 2019) has challenged educators and systems of education in unprecedented ways, and the responses have been largely disappointing. One school leader in Brisbane, when asked what the school’s policy was regarding staff or students participating in the strike, said in a shocked tone—“what has this to do with us?” It clearly seemed absurd to him. Education Ministers (Liberal and Labor) across all the States opposed students participating in the climate protests in 2019, and principals typically warned teachers not to encourage their students to participate. But there are teachers who resist the messages “to be quiet”. They find ways within the system to support students’ activism. One of these teachers was completing a Masters unit with me in 2019 and responded to a discussion thread about whether or not to join a climate march with the following post.

When the first “student strike for change” occurred a few months back, I received a firm warning from my school leadership team that I was not to encourage students to leave school for this strike. I was caught between my responsibilities as an employee and my values. In the end, I quietly encouraged my students to become educated on the politics of the issue.… I also think we shouldn’t dismiss the social and political awareness of our younger generation….Every form of advertising and social media is manipulating these kids, every day. By helping them to engage in these social and political agendas using their feet, we can help them to authentically engage in society …. A number of my students have said that after their first march, they were motivated to be more active in social change (some have changed their uni preferences, some are planning to travel and volunteer, some have gone more grass roots and hike their suburbs picking up rubbish from water ways). If that’s not authentic learning experiences, I don’t know what is! (Reproduced with permission).

Figure 7 presents another example of a teacher encouraging her students to participate in the climate march. She found a justification, a professional practice rationale, in the Australian curriculum to challenge the neutral-chair type of education that is compliance driven and oriented to maintaining the status quo. I don’t know what conversation occurred at school but the title on her sign (My students are here today…) is testament to her determination to re-story the Australian Curriculum by appropriating it to pursue a more activist form pedagogy. Her students are experiencing rich learning with her, complex and multifaceted learning. No doubt her students had to convince their parents to be allowed to march—how did that go down? What influence are they having on their family? Activism is a site for difficult but generative dialogue about shared emotions and shared voice concerning issues that matter. They are learning what Haraway (2016) has called a way of thinking that is not hopeful about the future, but rather heartful in the present, experiencing the present as a thick, complex tangle of places and emotions in which cultivating response-abilities matters (Mitman 2019; Paulson 2019). This type of life-responsive pedagogy resonates with Berlant’s (2016) notion of glitches being revealed at times of crisis, requiring a reassessment of the status quo and opening up possibilities for collective action. As Brennan (2017) has noted, local glitches offer sites for new educational praxis and collective action. The teacher with her students at the climate march (Fig. 7) shows how the glitch related to the climate crisis has open-up the possibility for a new form of praxis where she acts with her students to urge political action. With her students, she is re-storying the Australian curriculum to support a more activist and participatory form of learning and citizenship.

Fig. 7. Teacher with students at the September 2019 climate march and an extract from the Australian curriculum

Drawing upon the placestories that I have analysed above and that Reshma and Lucie have shared, I want to conclude by proposing that for living justice in the Anthropocene we need different forms of activism. As educators we need to support young people to be politically involved by writing to Ministers, developing petitions and proposals for change, and actually protesting when necessary to expose complacency and challenge vested interests. This may require taking advantage of the loopholes and generative spaces for action that can be found within the curriculum even as it stands now. We need to support student initiatives such as the Bug club described by Reshma and Lucie, student-led action and voice to change local practices and plan for longer-term change. We need a pedagogy of enchantment that values moments of love and connection, where students can experience kinship—as Bill Neidjie has taught us. What if we shifted as a research community from a preoccupation with evidence-based practice, which looks backward to pedagogies that have produced the status quo, to enchantment-based practice looking forward to an Anthropocene based on kinship. We need to stay with the trouble guided by love care solidarity as embodied by Bernice Holz in her Karawatha placestory. We’ve got to ‘love the local’ as Bernice exemplified, and as experienced by Leon, David and Reshma and Lucie, knowing it will draw us in, entangle us and sustain us. Donna Haraway said recently (see Mitman 2019), “It’s actually not all that hard to sustain joy if we let ourselves. Joy is not innocence; it is openness to caring. If we let pleasure in, if we let the light in, if we let it seep in, there’s a kind of leaking of bling. Really, we live on an astonishing planet, and we may as well just let the astonishment in”. In the same vein, a Year 7 student gifted Ron Tooth and I the following account of her experience of Karawatha. This young student has felt the “bling”, the vibrancy of life, and I invite you to enjoy her vision of her insides as twirling with green leaves.

Well, this is a bit weird but … inside of my body used to be dark and focused on one thing at a time. When I used to write, like, for English and stuff it would just be so boring and I wouldn’t use the same sort of expression and passion that I do now because – but now inside where it used to be all dark and nothing special about it, it’s sort of got these green leaves and it’s just twirling around and I think that if people keep on doing this that’s what will happen to them. And so I think that I’ve grown more exciting and passionate and not so dull and blank that I was before …

May your own composting and thinking and feeling be so vibrant. What do we want? CLIMATE JUSTICE. When do we want it? NOW.

  1. This research is supported by an ARC Discovery Grant (DP190102067), Renshaw Tooth & Kumpulainen, Digital Mediation of children’s interaction with the more-than-human-world.
  2. See also Alexandra Pirici and Raluca Voinea, “Manifesto for the Gynecene—Sketch for a New Geological Era”,, January 2015,
  3. Meanjin is the Aboriginal name for the area where Brisbane CBD is now located.
  4. Marion Sinclair wrote the words to the Kookaburra song in 1932. The publishing rights are held by Larrikin Music.
  5. 27th March 2019—Kathleen Lynch wrote to me, “I am deeply interested in extending my writing about love, care and solidarity to nature, and all living creatures, but I have not done so as yet. Your email reminds me of how important it is to widen my lens.”.
  6. Bernice was able to attend the Radford lecture and was acknowledged for her love and activism related to Karawatha. Bernice has not ever sought accolades and this was obvious on this occasion as she reluctantly accepted acknowledgement from the AARE delegates.
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The research reported in this paper was partly supported by Australian Research Council (LP100100761), Renshaw & Tooth (2010–2012), Storythread pedagogy: Transforming teachers’ and students’ knowledge and values regarding environmental sustainability. Australian Research Council (DP190102067), Renshaw Tooth & Kumpulainen (2019–2021), Digital mediation of children’s interaction with the more-than-human-world.

  1. School of Education, The University of Queensland, St Lucia, QLD, Australia Peter D. Renshaw

Correspondence to Peter D. Renshaw

Cite this article

Renshaw, P.D. Feeling for the Anthropocene: Placestories of living justice. Aust. Educ. Res. 48, 1–21 (2021).

Apocalypse Memes for the Anthropocene God: Mediating Crisis and the Memetic Body Politic

Bogna M. Konior

When the ax came into the forest, the trees said:
‘The handle is one of us.’
——Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy

Book chapter from Post Memes (Punctum books)

Human thought, whether in word or meme, has long been molded by the fact that the Homo sapiens are a species of ape, living on a rock surrounded by a deafening void, circling around a slowly dying star. Philosophy trades in re-articulating this matter, from Nietzsche’s poetic vision of humans as “clever animals,” whose knowledge cannot save them from the universe’s relentless entropy, to Ray Brassier’s recent attempt at unbinding philosophy from the paralysis of unthought solar extinction. “A refounder of future ruins, if you like,” writes François Laruelle, “that’s the best definition of philosophy.” This ostensibly cosmological problem casts its shadow over human affairs. It is historically ubiquitous to believe that things are not
only worse now than they had been before but that, despite our cosmic insignificance, our times are the most significant of all: the end times. Who would not want to witness the end of the world, to feel that one dies without regret, leaving nothing behind?
In 1995, Jean Baudrillard wrote:

Imagine the amazing good fortune of the generation that gets to see the end of the world. This is as marvellous as being there at the beginning […]. Let us therefore apply ourselves to seeing things — values, concepts, institutions — perish, seeing them disappear. This is the only issue worth fighting for.

The desire for destruction, apocalypse, and disintegration takes different forms, from eschatological to bloodthirsty. “There are no breaks on this train!” proclaims a popular meme series that pictures the President of the United States as the alt-right mascot Pepe the Frog, helming what can be identified as “the rapetrain,” which in this memeplex functions as a symbol of joyful, unstoppable victory through destruction. The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages outlines how medieval Christendom abounded in apocalyptic movements, where the book of Revelations was considered indispensable to political comprehension. The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State shows how the cataclysmic vision of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi echoes violent Christian millenarian movements in the 16th century; and in Divine Destruction, journalist Stephanie Hendricks studies contemporary Christian Dominionists, who believe that climate change should not be stalled but accelerated in order to bring about the Second Coming of Jesus and the beginning of God’s Kingdom on Earth. No breaks on the planetary train! Physicist Stephen Hawking and engineer Elon Musk present us with an atheist version of the Final Judgment, warning that accelerated technological progress will bring about an artificial intelligence singularity and a de facto end of the human species once the ai realizes how immoral or inefficient humans are. In the Greco-Christian narrative, ever since Apollo spat in the mouth of the oracle Cassandra, history has been filled with prophets of doom to the extent that, as Justin Clemens perceptively writes, “a certain apocalypticism is perhaps a condition for […] thinking as such.”

If, as we can read in a quoted passage in Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, “memes should be regarded as living structures […] when you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain,” then a prominent subspecies of these brain parasites that we call “memes” — units of digital culture with substantial cultural and now also political capital gained through circulation — feeds on various strains of apocalypticism. While eschatology remains indispensable to diverse cultures, these days it is especially visible in English-language memes, also for the fact that they are the most visible on the Western Internet, whose social media interfaces are provided largely by American corporations. An early sign was the first wave of disaster memes that rose just after the dust of the World Trade Center fell. Analyzing 398 of these “collage jokes,” as she labels them, Giselinde Kuipers suggested that they were a coping mechanism for dealing with an exceedingly “unreal and fiction-like” world by deploying humor. These images were, for example, of King Kong fending off terrorist planes on top of the World Trade Center, with a caption: “Where was King Kong when we needed him?” or of Osama Bin Laden in an advertisement for “Taliban Airlines: Exploring New Destinations!” Similarly, one of the first viral videos was about the end of the world, uploaded to YouTube shortly after the website’s launch, the light-hearted “End of Ze World” (2003) by Fluid, which generated millions of views and has since warranted a sequel,
“End of Ze World… Probably For Real This Time” (2018), which laments neo-Nazism, Donald Trump, the refugee crisis, terrorism, nuclear danger, climate change, and Twitter as possible signs of doom. While the original is hardly political, dealing rather in harmless humor based in national stereotypes, the sequel addresses global news headlines through the lens of crisis clothed in campy digital aesthetics.

Nowadays, in the meme-heaven that is Reddit, users chart “end-of-world scenarios that frighten you the most,” which include solar flares, sex comets from Neptune, overpopulation, nanotechnology, famine, nuclear war, super viruses, infertility and, of course, “that we run out of memes.” The anxiety-ridden, left-leaning in its focus on ecological overshoot subreddit r/collapse, with around 60,000 members, includes a monthly metathread in which users note down the signs of downfall around them, from crumbling infrastructure to rising unemployment. On some days, they discuss Ted Kaczynski’s neo-Luddite books, on others, they pick at major headlines, such as “Doomsday Prep for the Super Rich” (New Yorker) or “Silicon Valley Billionaires are Preparing for the Apocalypse with Motorcycles, Guns, and Private Hideaways” (Business Insider). A corresponding r/ LateStageCapitalism channel, with 260,000 members, is devoted to “zesty memes […] that critique [and mock] the decay of western capitalist culture” as it is “digging its own grave.” The subreddit also links to dozens of other channels, from apocalyptic fiction to survival guides. Lagging well behind is a young channel r/Cowwapse, which describes itself as “an antidote to the fear-mongering and doom porn of these subreddits” and focuses mainly on climate change denial (“Snow in Sahara Desert for third time in 40 years”) as well as on celebrating free markets and “the unprecedented equality of the 21st century.” The infamous r/The_Donald has in excess of half a million members, and labels itself a “national suicide prevention lifeline,” celebrating how Donald Trump’s election stalled the disaster toward which his supporters believed America had been heading. The alt-right alike relies on a reactionary civilizational decline narrative, as Angela Nagle writes, a testament to a long line of collapse thought that ties decadence to doom.

As Matt Goerzen writes in “Notes Towards the Memes of Production,” for years “memes were perceived as a negligible artefact until meme magic elected Trump.” Memes are now the focal point of an increasingly visible debate about the state of contemporary political divisions and the online cultural identity war. Circulated mainly within the sphere of American politics that is simultaneously a forum of global digital pop culture, they are associated with the alt-right’s strategy of trolling while “bypassing the dying mainstream media and creating an Internet- culture and alternative media of their own.” Yet, while Nagle writes that the alt-right successfully built its “transgressive” aesthetics by arguing that “we are not ‘five minutes to midnight’ as the anti-immigration right had long claimed but well past midnight,” the desire to grapple with or inhabit apocalypticism is present across the political spectrum. From Afro-pessimism to queer negativity, there is a rising conviction that, as an anonymous graffiti in France proclaimed to the world a few years ago, “another end of the world is possible.” One meme, for example, contrasts neo-reactionary philosopher Nick Land with Afro-pessimist philosopher Frank Wilderson III, denouncing the first as a “techno-commercialist” who advocates a “thirst for annihilation but [is] scared of Islam [and] not at all ready for meltdown,” while praising the latter’s work as a “total apocalyptic epistemic World negation […] unflinching paradigmatic dissatisfaction with humanity,” calling him a “doomsday scion who brings about Afrofuturist singularity.” Marxist scholar and science-fiction writer China Miéville alike advocates that progressives should embrace “a strategy for ruination […] a state of an undefeated despair because it’s done, this is a dystopia, a worsening one, and dreams of interceding don’t just miss the point but are actively unhelpful.”

Next to this apocalyptic cultural capital on both sides of the political spectrum are memes that do not connect easily with the existing political options. An interest in annihilation, at least on the surface, might be the attractor between diffuse political factions, which often share very little apart from their collapse drive. This interrogation happens alongside the debates around posthumanism, transhumanism, automation, extinction, and climate nihilism that have been drawing increased academic, political, cultural, and scientific attention over the last two decades. Pondering abstraction, dehumanization, and disintegration, they play out against the recent Euro-American history of “a not merely ‘non-political’ but a ‘post-political’ generation grappling with its own politicisation under the aegis of austerity, neoliberalism, and financial managerial political corruption,” and — we should add — the growing realization of geological peril on top of that. Questions about humanity, agency, and the very scale at which “politics” must be thought emerge as the main problem of this apocalyptic inquiry. Twitter’s meme culture, for example, is created by humans and bots alike and thus circulating memes on Twitter is a different form of meme commentary than if we were doing so on predominately “human” social media like Snapchat. A recent joint study at the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research at the University of Indiana and the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California estimates that up to 15% (around 50 million) of Twitter accounts are not human. Outsourcing human agency to machines and experimenting with a nonhuman vision of politics informs this variant of apocalyptic meme culture. Anonymous account @dogsdoingthings, for example, generates dismissive commentaries of human affairs: “Dogs exiting political discourse, preferring instead to lie prone forever in puddle of ooze,” or “Dogs asserting there is no such thing as history and citing the preceding eons of nothingness as evidence.” Add to that the general reputation of Twitter as a grim, soul-crushing place. Musician Mikel Jollett described it as such: “Instagram: My life is a party. Snapchat: My life is a quirky tv show. Facebook: My life turned out great! Twitter: We’re all going to die.” Aside from Twitter, many loosely distributed memes cultivate an appetite for void and a desire to relinquish human agency. Take two of the most popular memes featuring r/surrealmemes’s emblematic “Meme Man,” a bad 3D model of a human face. The first one introduces him as an open source figure for an unknown transformation: “meme man is a conduit through which tortured souls may channel their rage and misery into something more […] an entity which resides in the unspace between this world and the next.” Another portrays him opening a gift, inside which is an all encompassing obliteration that splits his face into pieces. “Thank you,” he responds.

How can we understand this proliferation of apocalypticism in contemporary meme cultures? Slavoj Žižek writes that we indeed live in the end times, marked by the ecological crisis, the biogenetic revolution, accelerating social inequality, and struggles over resources. All of this is happening against the background of sweeping technological changes, which, as Alvin Toffler wrote, provoke a cultural “future shock […] the dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future […] a product of the greatly accelerated rate of change in society.” While apocalyptic memes can be explained by the medium’s inherent — often ironic — humor, they are also the evidence of grappling with the insufficiency of politics at this moment of perceived crisis. Some express panic about civilizational decline, some joke about doom becoming our status quo. Others still wrestle with abstraction and, perhaps unwillingly informed by the possibility of actual extinction in the era that has been called the Anthropocene, challenge the idea of sufficient human agency. Dehumanization, anonymity, and doom are symptomatic not only of what the current (Western) political sphere on the Internet styles itself to be, but also of a larger shift in experiencing the inefficiency of human politics. Various theories of film and media already predicted this moment; tending toward posthumanism, they informed proto-meme theories of technologically mediated forms of anonymous or virtual political subjectivity. This legacy could explain online collapse cultures, and account for the rise of a specific strand of dehumanized apocalypticism, which can only be understood alongside a larger reconsideration of human agency in the age of socio-geological crisis that is the Anthropocene.

The Medium Is the Apocalypse

There is no other world, but it can’t be this one.”
——@mckenziewark, January, 17, 2018

Barry Vacker, director of the Center for Media and Destiny affiliated with Temple University, writes that “media technologies can be divided into cosmic media and social media, while the media content itself can be understood in terms of memes.” For him, all media within this duplet, from telescopes to television screens, can loop apocalyptic messages because they contribute to revising prevalent forms of human subjectivity, placing it either within the context of the cosmos or the perpetually expanding and contracting network society. The Internet features prominently in his argument, as it represents both the destruction of stable meaning due to its multiple information flows, and a foreshadowing of the biological end of the human species, where the predictions about the singularity to come true. The link between the beginning of the “dehumanizing” industrial revolution and the ascent of moving image technologies, which prefigured digital images, is evident in cinema studies through the linkage of the train and the film projector. Both symbolize not only the onset of the age of technological innovation and environmental pollution, but a change in perception itself: to be able to perceive the world in movement while ourselves remaining stable and still, whether from the window of a moving train or on the cinema screen, changed the very speed at which people viewed reality. No longer, as it was in Renaissance painting, was the human eye the holy perceiver and meaning-maker for which the whole universe arranged itself geometrically and purposefully. Early cinema theorists, such as Jean Epstein and Dziga Vertov, wrote that alongside the telescope and the microscope lens, the inhuman cinema lenses participated in decentralizing the human ego, displacing it from its position at the center of the universe. As Jacques Aumont writes, these technological changes were not only reconfiguring how people experienced spatio-temporality but morality itself, producing new desires such as “the desire for acceleration or the wish to sever roots.” It is within this genealogy that we understand media as a crucial component in posthumanist debates. If, following Marshall McLuhan, we agree that the medium is the message and that every medium destroys some form of subjectivity to introduce another, we can also repeat after Vacker: “the medium is the apocalypse.”

While this linear story bypasses alternate options both within and outside of the “West,” it could partially account for why apocalyptic memes express both a sense of aggrandizement and a desire to relinquish control at the same time. It would be a way for humans to deal with what Vacker describes as the paradoxical effect of the media: a sense of insignificance that they produce by exposing the negligibility of humans within the world, as the telescope and the microscope did, and a sense of importance within a networked system that we experience as centering on us, as social media are purported to do. The train, the symbol of this accelerating, schizophrenic industrial modernity appears in one popular meme. Already mentioned, the “Rape Train” is a reference to a tactic used in Call of Duty, when the player creates a string of zombies following him and eventually stacking up to be easily defeated. When it became apparent that Donald Trump had a legitimate chance of winning the election, it mutated into a “Trump Train,” which celebrated the supposed accelerating destruction of “the elites,” often represented by the Democratic Party, or the “fake news” media. This genre is decisively about asserting control rather than relinquishing the centrality of human agency, yet its interest in destruction and its unintended connection to accelerated media modernity, where humans exist as mere carriers of an unstoppable force, make it a part of a larger apocalyptic tendency in memes, or, as some would argue, in the Internet at large.

Digging into the decentralized, leaky archive of viral digital culture, we might uncover a pervasive sense of crisis and anxiety around new forms of political subjectivity that informs early investigations into the politics of the Internet. In 2002, the Institute for New Culture Technologies in Austria, led by Konrad Becker, hosted a tactical workshop, “Dark Markets: Infopolitics, Electronic Media and Democracy in Times of Crisis”, with guiding questions like “has the Internet still its digital potential to foster a ‘network democracy from below’” or “can the Internet be reclaimed as a digital commons”? The conference marked a rapid decline of trust in the ideals of global democracy once ecstatically arisen with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and then quickly put to rest as the project of the free market guided by the EU, NATO, and the IMF was already turning into a “disaster,” signaled by, among others, “the rise of Europe’s populist and ‘culturalist’ right,” “global warming and the Kyoto treaty drama” and “the astonishing roller coaster ride from dotcom mania to plummeting stock markets.” The conference already questioned whether anything like an “electronic democracy” can exist but, nevertheless, in a then-popular spirit of Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy, advocated for a “rhizomatic” decentralization of digital networks and “a rigorous involvement and implementation of social movements into technology.” The becoming-networked of the human species was only about to begin, and while many watched with uneasiness the decentralization of markets, the idea of a decentralized, subversive, anarchic digital politics held sway in the early 2000s. Crisis in consequence of technological advancement could model forms of political subjectivity that were considered productive precisely because of their deindividualizing form.

This decentralized political subjectivity is connected to the ideals of anonymity and cyber utopian virtual realities that were prominent in early Internet scholarship. Throughout the 1990s, the promise of these ostensibly non-hierarchical spaces was their ability to erase any physical manifestation of identity and central control — where, under strings of avatars, we would be able to escape the scanning gaze of repressive social structures, which befall us because our bodies appear to others in terms of ethnicity or sex. In “The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic,” Thomas Foster outlines how the idea of posthuman or machine body appears in tandem with a machinic desire: desire for machines or desire to be like one. Anonymity, mutability, and invisibility that online spaces afforded were the revolutionary horizon for feminist critiques, such as in the novels of Melissa Scott, which saw emancipatory potential in the diffused world of alternative and virtual realities, where utopias could be constructed anew, and identity would no longer be defined by what we cannot control: the racialized and sexed ideologies projected onto our bodies. As Donna Haraway noted, “social subjects who are already [used] to thinking about their bodies as constructed, usually by others, and therefore available to reconstruction” would be most incited by the freedom from bodily determinism that living in the meatspace forces on us. It was the left-leaning, posthumanist space of socially transgressive and technologically inclined science fiction that advocated for a maximum subtraction of physical markers of identity by engaging the medium of the Internet.

In the early 2010s, it was still argued that politics could be projected into an endlessly mutable digital space, where basic social and political terms would have to be remodeled. Heather Brooke’s The Revolution Will be Digitised: Dispatches from the Information War argues that technology will break down social divisions by creating an even playing field. Yet, as Nagle noticed, this kind of anti-establishment, DIY online culture “that cyberutopian true believers have evangelized for many years” has taken a specific political form in the meme magic of the alt-right, who embrace “the freewheeling world of anonymity and tech” but reinforce a reactionary order of things, rather than creating a mutable space for a new social order. In their Kickstarted book, Neoreaction: A Basilisk, Elizabeth Sandifer also notices that the “neoreactionary” (by their own designation), racist-libertarian movements connected to the alt right aped the cultural techniques of the left to portray themselves as rebels, while evoking the aesthetics of “Basilisks, Cthulhu, and shuddering voids of inescapable reality.”

Memes, as is common knowledge by now, became a tool of choice in this new cultural war. Despite the resulting claims that “the left can’t meme,” discussed also in this collection, the political potential of memes themselves was first celebrated by leftleaning scholars, and not so long ago. Considering contemporary digital culture in times of austerity and in a post-financial crisis Europe, which they describe as “the Pandora’s box of disastrous consequences,” in Can Jokes Bring Down Governments?, the Metahaven collective believe that jokes, including memes, can operate outside of state power because they disrupt what counts as political reality management, that is, what counts as reasonable within public political discourse. Discussing Anonymous, the Arab Spring, the Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism, and 4chan’s trolling of the Church of Scientology in 2008, they go as far as to suggest that memes can be an alternative to representative democracy: an idea previously advocated by scholars who saw the Internet as a permissive space where those who could not access real political representation could nevertheless claim it. In this vision, memes could have been the realization of Jürgen Habermas’s ideal of the public sphere, a non-legislative space of communication for the people, which Habermas dates back to the eighteenth century and the ideals of the Enlightenment in Europe.

Before the alt-right became the most visible dealer of memes, there were at least three noticeable traditions of proto-memepolitics on the left: one in the 1990s, which celebrated the anonymous, mutable spaces of the Internet as a way of erasing oppressive identities; the other two in the early 2000s, when the Internet was portrayed both as a disruptive space of nonsensical humor, and an accessible public sphere. And yet, Goerzen writes that it was the neo-Luddite thinking on the left, which forgot its own roots in political techno experimentations, that led to the right reappropriating the techniques of the avantgarde, such as provocation, anonymity, and irony to advocate for a return to a paleo-libertarian value system. This is true enough — equally visible in Internet scholarship are works that lament its ascent as the end-all of politics. Hubert Dreyfus’s On the Internet builds on Søren Kierkegaard’s impressive hatred of the daily press — “Europe will come to a standstill at the Press and remain at a standstill as a reminder that the human race has invented something which will eventually overpower it” — to argue that a disembodied experience characteristic of the online sphere is in itself a political catastrophe. For Dreyfus, anonymity and information overload turn everyone into a dilettante and a nihilist. Kierkegaard despised the principle of equivalence that the daily press introduced into information flows. He found the idea that God was “equally concerned with the salvation of humanity and the fall of one sparrow” the expression of utmost nihilism, an annihilation of political relevance and concern. We can only imagine his outrage at Mark Zuckerberg’s famous claim that “a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa,” a comment that prefigured the trouble he was about to get in after Trump’s victory, when Facebook had to withstand a lot of criticism pertaining to its information bubbles. Dreyfus alike tells us that because of the Internet, there is nothing worth dying for — everything matters equally, invading your attention span with equal force. Stands are to be taken no more! Flow of information postpones action indefinitely, memes drown us in their self-replicating digital flood, rabbit holes down subreddits tear you away from practice and insert you into an information-producing machine, until you are nothing but an ever-sharpening set of refined “views on issues.” You have become an epistemological halo, trapped in the apparatus of the Internet, which produces knowledge but stalls action. This process, as Dreyfus tells us, rests in the fact of the Internet’s “deindividualized” and “abstract” nature, detached from local practices. Kierkegaard predicted that this abstract, mediated public sphere will proliferate apocalyptic prophecies, proposing that humans, overwhelmed by the nihilism brought on by the media, will refuse ethical thought entirely, prioritizing instead involvements in the aesthetic sphere, where the goal is to “make enjoyment of all possibilities the center of their lives.” He would probably say tha it is not the content that makes memes apocalyptic but rather that all aesthetic production that the media sphere necessitates is hopelessly rooted in the annihilation of ethical concern. The medium is the apocalypse.

These traditions — one pro-Internet, the other anti — disagree primarily on the points of abstraction and dehumanization. Starting from the same point — the Internet is abstracting and disrupting politics — they arrive either at a utopian vision, in which digital spaces become materials out of which a new politics can be borne, or generate a dystopian disengagement with politics as humanity is increasingly trapped in aesthetics. Habermas was immediately critical of how the public sphere worked, complaining that it deteriorated into mediocrity and conformism, but he still believed in rescuing it. Kierkegaard, however, predicted that for media nihilism to occur, “a phantom must first be provided, its spirit, a monstrous abstraction, an all encompassing something that is a nothing, a mirage — this phantom is the public.” Of course, for him, this was an entirely deplorable fact, a monstrous, occult uprising of unethical and perversely aesthetic nihilism. Any type of harm can be waged in the name of “the people” as they are but a phantom, delighted by aesthetic speculation and detached from localized practices. A faceless online army, we could say, spewing apocalyptic prophecies, entertaining themselves with unethical, aesthetic nihilism, is precisely what Kierkegaard feared that the media would produce.

Given the failed utopianism of techno-anarchism on the one side, and the dystopian relativism of the memetic public sphere on the other, could a different opening still be created within this phantom politics? Rather than demonizing the phantom nature of meme politics, Tiziana Terranova suggests that “meme theory” is an appropriate way of understanding all technological mediation, precisely because “what Dawkins’ theory allows is the replacement of the individual by the unit” and if we should stick with the biological undertones of the original term, it is because of its “immense productivity of the multitude, its absolute capacity to […] mutate.” Putting forth the possibility of collapse as productive, she believes that such technologies enable “an acceleration of history and an annihilation of distance within an information milieu, it is a creative destruction” which allows for social reconstruction. Perhaps the desire to erase oneself, to anonymize the Internet, to thrust ourselves — as a phantom public — into destruction is not an entirely aesthetic project but, as any legitimately nihilist drive, speaks to a deeper impulse toward a revaluation of what counts as political in the first place. Could this phantom subjectivity that the media called into existence be also a specter of reformation?

Memes of the Anthropocene

“the question that once seemed to be: are
you happy? has been replaced with: can you
breathe? neither can be answered”

——@atlajala, August 2, 2017

Konrad Becker notices that “disorganization creates crisis cults or projective systems resulting from culture strains.” The Global Financial Crisis in 2008, which was, in fact, a doom event with disastrous consequences, surprisingly did not provoke a surge in meme production. In the same year, however, there were dozens of apocalyptic memes related to the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator and the possibility of creating a black hole that could swallow our universe. A status-indicator single site, active until today, titled “Has The Large Hadron Collider Destroyed The World Yet?” was launched. In 2012, there was a flood of catastrophic memes, this time devoted to the Mayan calendar, including images depicting the Nibiru Cataclysm, a theory of planetary collision first proposed in 1995 by Nancy Lieder who claimed to have received the prophecy from aliens. The theory was so popular that it compelled NASA to inform the Internet that Nibiru actually did not exist. Like the memes commenting on a doomsday scenario from just a year before fabricated by Christian preacher Harold Camping (The May 21, 2011 Rapture), the overall tone was mockery — as if we were going to die! Grumpy Cat, the Internet’s favourite cynical retort at the height of the mid-2010s obsession with animal reaction memes, provided a subtle celebratory tone: “The world is ending in December? Good.” In 2016, when Donald Trump ran for President, the “This is Fine” meme brought another brand of ironic defeatism to the table. Sourced from K.C. Green’s Gunshow comics, this continually popular meme portrays a dog sitting at a table amidst burning flames, assuring himself that everything is fine — “this is fine, I’m okay with the events that are unfolding currently” — as the fire engulfs his house and eventually melts his face off. Elite Daily collected several end of the world memes to honor the end of 2017, which joke about Hurricane Ophelia in London and the possibility of a nuclear war. Donald Trump’s inauguration inspired many memes which equated it with no less than the coming of the beast. The unintentionally ominous picture of Trump, Saudi king Salman, and Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi touching a mysterious glowing orb, originally posted by @SaudiEmbassyUSA, was widely circulated and drew comparisons to Lord of the Rings and Marvel universe villains. The Church of Satan retweeted the photo, clarifying that it was not a Satanic ritual. John Hodgman tagged conspiracy theorist Alex Jones in his retweet, asking him to “pay attention” as — it was implied — the orb was clearly about to jumpstart a communist-reptilian reckoning. It is not only the alt-right that trades in the aesthetics of civilizational decline.

In 1922, shortly after the October revolution, Russian historian Yevgeny Tarle wrote that “revolution is foremost a death, then a life; we risk forgetting that not far under the elegant carpet of our cabin there is a dark and fathomless abyss.” Based in his conviction that crisis was temporary, his strategy was to advocate for a calm resistance to the sway of the unknown, for asserting, rather than overthrowing the persuasions of the olden days. Or, the Internet would say, keep calm and carry on. Yet, what if crisis is not a transitory stage but the rhythm to which society marches without break? What if crisis is perpetually but unequally distributed? Mark Fisher uses the term “capitalist realism” to describe how capitalism manages to ostensibly unhinge itself from economy, where Karl Marx defined it chiefly through the production of surplus value, to encompass the past and the future, as if it was the only thing that ever existed and the only one that ever will. To sustain this tautology, capitalism trades in producing and maintaining crisis as its main cultural currency, thus naturalizing itself as the only alternative. Achille Mbembe describes a similar mechanism underlying necro-political states, which must maintain a sense of danger — you have no idea of the threat that is underway! — to justify large-scale physical violence toward (typically racialized) populations. Necro-political nation-states must then maintain both the sense of crisis and the fantasy of protection at their hands to stay in power. The difference now is that instead of analyzing how capitalism manages culture and crisis within the nation state, we should be charting a far more encompassing, planetary necropolitics parallel to what is called the Anthropocene. The power fantasy that it produces is not security but inevitability.

First coined by the Dutch chemist Paul J. Crutzen in 2000, the term “Anthropocene” gained currency in 2007, when paleobiologist and stratigrapher Jan Zalasiewicz requested that the Geological Society of London’s Stratigraphy Commission review the case for a new geological epoch to replace the currently prevailing Holocene. While climate change and the Anthropocene are often conflated, in 2009 Nature published an article in which a team of scientists led by Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre list several different factors that, if accelerated by humans, would lead to the 6th global extinction. Climate change is only one of them, alongside ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, global freshwater depletion, biodiversity loss, changes in nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, industrial agriculture, chemical pollution, and atmospheric aerosol loading. Although these phenomena are environmental, the Anthropocene denotes their civilizational origin: industrial capitalism and fossil fuel extraction, the global slave trade, the Great Acceleration, and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have all been suggested as the starting points of this geosociological, or socio-geological era. This prophecy of doom, however, grounded as it is in the scientific consensus, does not inspire apocalypticism in memes in the same way that everyday political headlines do. Climate change memes are popular but are rather didactic tools for educating the masses about the prescience of the subject, or deceiving them into climate change denialism.

If the Anthropocene informs apocalyptic memes, it does so in a less direct way. Precisely because the points of contestation discussed here are abstraction, phantom politics, and posthumanism, the Anthropocene as an organizing principle must tell us something about the vectors of dehumanization and doom that we currently inhabit. This extends beyond portraying current events as apocalyptic into a symptomatic denouncing of the importance of humanity as such. As a counterpart to Reddit’s collapse channels mentioned in the introduction, r/antinatalism and r/vhemt are devoted to antinatalism and voluntary human extinction movements, where human hubris is harshly criticized. Discussions there are resentful, defeatist, and often angry. Annihilation, some users argue, is what humans deserve, exhibiting a sentiment similar to the many millenarian movements throughout history. However, they advocate rather for a definite death of the whole human species as a moral duty — the Earth is already overpopulated and full of suffering — rather than a political purge of unworthy groups. In an indirect parallel to these are r/surrealmemes memes, where humans are often portrayed as a funnily insignificant element of a much more interesting and alien universe. A popular meme titled “Compared to him, they are nothing” portrays humans devoured by a presumably alien octagon, with a caption “They run, for he consumes their entire existence.” Another, “Sentient beings be like,” pictures a gigantic humanoid face in a meditative-hallucinatory state, with a caption “Yes, we observe the memes, but do we even fucking exist?” An “exploding brain” meme, in which each panel describes a more mind-blowing revelation than the last, begins with “confused screaming,” moves through “revolution and reform are two sides of the same utopian coin” and “awaiting ‘the collapse’ as if it were a singular event […] is merely a crude inversion of utopia” to end again at “confused screaming.” Neither of these memes are didactic about geo-social problems. Yet, the Anthropocene is “a social imaginary that has exceeded its intended categorization and whose parameters delimit ways of thinking about the world well beyond the confines of geoscientific debate.” On the level of politics and culture, this catastrophic narrative marks the moment when we are collectively redefining our idea of the “human” and the types of social agency that this figure might have in the times when our species seems both powerful enough to bring about our own destruction through technological expansion, and at the same time not powerful enough to save itself, or to even at a minimum provide a model of industrial society that would not be based in rapidly accelerating social inequality and political polarization.

Alexander Galloway writes that the Anthropocene narrative is a contemporary form of amor fati to which the allegedly rational moderns have surprisingly succumbed. Karl Marx wrote about the strange “ghost dance” of capitalism, where material conditions are reduced to an abstraction, while the intangible is made into something concrete — subjects become objects and objects become subjects, commodities seem more alive than the workers whose labor creates them. Marx described how the ruling classes mask the actual ways in which they organize labor, thus giving the impression of the market itself as a sentient being, separate from human agency. Galloway’s concept of the “warm pride” can be understood as an extension of this condition in the context of the Anthropocene and the climate, where humanity’s global geological agency is masked by a theoretical and aesthetic scaling down of humans to just one being among many others:

Like the “landfill” trashcan, the concept of the Anthropocene teeters with postmodern vertigo. It indicts mankind for its fiduciary failings, only to promulgate a new historical narrative with mankind at the center. Tell me I failed, then put me in the spotlight. Remove agency, then assign it again. Which is it? Are we special or aren’t we? Are we special enough to go toe to toe with the planet? Or are we merely another desiring machine, no different from the lowly mouse, or the deoxyribonucleic acid? […] [Contemporary theory would often tell us that] we’re impactful in matters of existence, but peripheral in matters of ontology, [it says,] I may display hubris toward the natural world, provided I subscribe to annihilation at the level of being; [it is the] pride of place in geological history within a declension narrative that only ends one way [— in collapse].

This thought spells out a paradox, an asymmetry in line with Vacker’s diagnosis that it is the combination of both decentralising and narcissistic effects of cosmic and social media that makes all media forms prone to apocalypticism. In this context, it is hardly surprising that apocalyptic memes are plentiful on the Western Internet — through colonialism, Western European culture was “the first memetic global pandemic.” The Anglo- Saxon colonial empire at the center of the Industrial Revolution that led us to the Anthropocene is now generating apocalyptic signifiers, because it is — perhaps — witnessing its own end. If everyday events in the West provoke apocalyptic panic, it is because the empire cannot picture itself as peripheral to history and so it embraces apocalypticism to turn inevitability into a comforting thought, removing unknowns by predicting the end. This could account for many of the doom memes that relate quite visibly to current political events. However, if the Anthropocene maps both a recognition of the power of colonial industrial societies and an embarrassment at any suggestions that this power could be used to erase its own ill effects, political agency in itself becomes one of the most important questions. The ways in which less obviously political memes inhabit the aesthetics of collapse could signal a shift in how (post)human agency is experienced against the background of a looming extinction event, which — despite its specific historical origins — interpellates humanity at large as the subject.

Such warm pride turns the Western Internet into an apocalyptic space of dank dystopia, where anonymously sharing doom memes becomes a commodified version of cyberpunk utopia and its failed promise of equalising facelessness. If for Deborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro the Anthropocene announces that for the first time in known history that a dominant geological form — humans — is self-aware, the proliferation of apocalyptic memes signifies the desire of that force for its own dissolution achieved by memetic automation and dehumanization of political subjectivity. Within this submissive fantasy, the scale of current and coming geo-social damage is experienced as far too great to comprehend, much less to act on. Humans are insignificant and anonymous in the face of planetary collapse. Abandoning themselves to anonymous, ever-replicating networks of doom memes provides the solace of discarding the idea of a sufficient human agency, alongside any values that this species-being may confer, including what is coded as political or ethical. Humans, newly clothed in a self chastizing impulse and perceiving themselves as just one element of the ever-expanding planetary cyberspace, are but survival bunkers for memes, who spread their power both across the biological space of the human organism, planting and replicating ideas, and the digital space of the Internet, where they travel as image. Becker already diagnosed this desire to renounce human agency by filtering it through media networks, writing that memes “[live] off humans, eating brain when they do not battle themselves in memetic cannibalism, preying on each other like flip-flop cellular automatons.” In his dystopian novel World War Z, only one of hundreds of literary and visual dystopias that have flooded popular culture over the last two decades, Max Brooks describes how, in order to survive a zombie apocalypse, some humans started impersonating zombies, convincing themselves that if they could become like those who want to eat them, they will not be eaten. (They all died.) Relinquishing the idea of a sufficient individual, human presence within the global crisis narrative could function in a similar way — withdrawing humanity into these surreal, fatalistic, apocalyptic memes corresponds to the general experience of human politics as either heading toward grotesque failure or being insufficient as a rule.

Yet, this does not necessarily mean that apocalyptic memes translate into passivity or that they want no part in constructing the future. They map — at times with pleasure and curiosity rather than fear — both the decline of the Western empire and the global reckoning with the crisis of the Anthropocene. Crisis cults function as a way of identification with a set of values, even if this value is the mutual agreement on the impossibility of the present and coming world. In this world that is “increasingly unthinkable,” to use Eugene Thacker’s term, either on the level of perceived political catastrophe and civilizational decline or on the planetary scale of the Anthropocene, the way that these memes grapple with the insufficiency of human politics is valid. How is it at all possible to think about politics unless they are scaled up to a planetary level, where the dehumanizing abstractions of capitalism, the laments about civilization decline, and the extractions of what used to be called “natural” converge? Apocalyptic memes do not provide an answer but they do express a crisis in the conventional experience of human agency in an orderly world, and as such a willingness to pose the question.


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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Borders in the Anthropocene

Robert Horsfield

Horsfield Exchanges 2021 8(2), pp. 84 98

This article performs a close reading of the Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? While developing the argument for an ‘ironic’ usage of the concept of the Anthropocene. This ironised conception is one that intends to countenance both the Anthropocene’s strength as a designation of human impact on the non-human and the important, valid critiques responding to the Anthropocene. Philip K Dick’s work, in particular Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a superb illustration of such an ironic dynamic because of the dual narrative structure present. For example, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? raises questions about human identity that, while metaphysical, have great significance materially for the characters in the novel, and can be understood as a form of structural discrimination. To demonstrate this ironic duality that should be brought to the Anthropocene, the article draws on Nick Land’s essay Kant, Capital, and the Prohibition of Incest: A Polemical Introduction to the Configuration of Philosophy and Modernity.

Man is the pie that bakes and eats itself, and the recipe is separation.

Alasdair Gray, Lanark

Introduction: Why Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

When thinking of Philip K Dick in relation to climate change, the obvious place to start is his novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Temperatures of 180°C in formerly temperate zones such as New York make emigration from Earth necessary, while the high capitalist society (ever present in Dick’s works) seeks to profit from the immiserating circumstances in which the colonists find themselves via the Perky P Layouts (miniature recreations of 20th century life) and the communal hallucinogenic CAN-D. The anguish of living apart from a dying Earth is a central component of the narrative in The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. However, while global warming underpins the novel, and although one can discover motifs of ecological disaster in almost any major Dick story (e.g., references to synthetic leather and fake food), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (hereafter referred to as DADES?) is the novel most thoroughly saturated by questions pertaining to the Anthropocene and late capitalist society, and, more specifically, the question of borders.

DADES? presents anxieties about the human as a citizen against a scenario of economic scarcity, migration, and enhanced borders. In the novel, Earth is not devastated by climate change but by a nuclear war known as World War Terminus. The first and most visible consequence of this devastation is the death of almost all animal life. The second is the fallout that is always at work degrading the human faculties of the remaining human inhabitants, most importantly mental and reproductive. Combined, these comprise the stick part of the deal motivating the human population to leave earth for off-world colonies in hope of a better future. Earth is heavily depopulated and clung onto by those who cannot bring themselves—or are not allowed—to leave.

Like many of Dick’s other novels, it is characterized by a ‘deep ontological doubt [and] profound questioning of every reality claim’ (Miller, 2017: 18). Another Dick hallmark DADES exhibits is its ‘double marking’ or the complex relationship of ‘two narrative levels, so that each of the elements in a Dick novel has two antithetical uses which can be exercised simultaneously, the one corresponding to a socio-political, the other to an ontological-metaphysical reading of the novel’ (Ibid: 23). In other words, the explorations of what it means to be a living creature in Do Androids are not separate from their social or political implications. What distinguishes Do Androids from other novels in Dick’s oeuvre is the anxiety the novel’s interior world has about separating the two.

An Ironic Anthropocene

The epigraph chosen for this article reflects the multi-faceted nature of the diagnosis implied in the Anthropocene, of division. A powerful criticism of the employment of the term Anthropocene is that it is far too broad and all-encompassing in its implications to properly delineate a historical period in which humans have played a significant role in shaping the earth’s geological structure. It is also potentially problematic in that it arguably obscures the specific historical, political, social, and economic forces behind the actual changes. In their persuasive chapter, titled ‘Who is the Anthropos?’ from their book The Shock of the Anthropocene, Bonneuil and Fressoz cite the example of the Yanomami Indians, ‘who hunt, fish, and garden in the Amazonian forest, working three hours a day with no fossil fuel’ to ask the question: ‘should [they] feel responsible for the climate change of the Anthropocene?’ (Bonneuil & Fressoz, 2014: 70). In ‘On the poverty of our nomenclature’, Eileen Crist argues that: As a cohesive discourse, [the Anthropocene] blocks alternative forms of human life on Earth from vying for attention. By upholding history’s forward thrust, it also submits to its totalizing (and, in that sense, spurious) ideology of delivering “continuous improvement”… By affirming the centrality of man—as both causal force and subject of concern—the Anthropocene shrinks the discursive space for challenging the domination of the biosphere, offering instead a techno-scientific pitch for its rationalization and a pragmatic plea for resigning ourselves to its actuality. (Crist, E. 2016: 25)

Simultaneously, given the scale and complexity of the trends we are confronted with when attempting to comprehend the trends latent in a term such as the Anthropocene, and given the problem of determining exactly which force is responsible for the current ecological crisis – in the words of Donna Haraway, ‘[all] the thousand names are too big and too small; all the stories are too big and too small’ (Haraway, 2015: 160) – this article will employ an ironic use of the term Anthropocene, as unstable as it is in its unfolding. This is also intended to reflect the unstable categories in DADES and what Quentin Samuel Miller describes as ‘a complex and porous narrative about shifting environmental paradigms’ (Miller, 2017: 4). This narrative duality, or doubling of the metaphysical and the material, is a dynamic I wish to bring to bear on the Anthropocene discourse. The very fact that the term or discourse of the Anthropocene is contentious and viewed as an ideological palimpsest by some critics can be employed as a useful shorthand for indicating both the conventional, original usage and the significant critical response.

To help guide me through this doubling I will refer to Nick Land. Land drew on Blade Runner, the film adaptation of DADES? for some of his most notable work in Machinic Desire and Meltdown. However, I will draw from Land’s first short essay Kant, Capital, and the Prohibition of Incest: A Polemical Introduction to the Configuration of Philosophy and Modernity, in order to illustrate the doubled, ironic Anthropocene in Dick’s novel. The reason for this decision comes from the startling correspondence between this essay’s formulation of a metaphysics of capitalist modernity via its reading of racist technologies, and the political economy in DADES?. A further reason is that Kant, Capital, and the Prohibition of Incest makes its argument on philosophical and political levels, a duality appropriate for reading a Philip K. Dick novel.

Inhibited Synthesis of the Anthropocene

Land’s thesis in Kant, Capital, and the Prohibition of Incest stems from the premise that the Bantustans of Apartheid South Africa are a microcosm of capitalism’s fundamental structure. As Bantustans served to keep the black population at arm’s length from the wealthy white population, they established a political distance between both whilst maintaining geographical proximity for black economic exploitation. Land argues that the same relationship exists between the global metropolises and the colonial periphery. Colonised peoples yield their resources and labour to capital but are excluded from the nations acquiring this wealth. Land argues for this relationship by explicating the relationship between Kant’s conception of synthetic a priori and the theory of trade conceived by Claude Levi-Strauss.

Kant’s theory of synthetic a priori knowledge is for Land the philosophical reflection of capital’s accumulation of wealth, the signature of ‘an enlightenment society’ that ‘wants both to learn and legislate for all time’ (Land, 2011: 63). This is because synthetic a priori is a form of knowledge that ‘is both given in advance by ourselves [a priori], and yet adds to what we know [synthetic]’ (Ibid: 64). This conceptual framework is inherently inhibitive for Land, because it is a theory of knowledge that attempts to explain difference in advance, and therefore to capture that difference through anticipation.

This reading of Kant is then applied to Levi-Strauss’ account of ‘rich food’, food ‘given to another to consume, and received from another’, which is food that derives its quality of richness not from its relation to class, but ‘upon a differentiation between tribes’ (Ibid: 68). The rich food is an external object given to another tribe; it comes from outside (Ibid: 68). The rich food exchanged, ‘the primordial element of trade’ (Ibid: 69) alongside women for marriage, develops a new bond of kinship, one of alliance instead of filiation (Ibid: 68).

Land concludes that Kant’s conception of synthetic a priori knowledge is the philosophical culmination and base for the commodity. By producing a synthetic a priori model for experience, what is novel in the other finds itself contained. Ensconced as such, what is exterior to a conceptual system is anticipated, processed by that anticipation, and thus primed for commodification; the rich food can be taken without the risk of marriage.
This, per capitalism’s function, includes people with their labour, and gives formal structure to the conception of a ‘Bantustan’ relationship between the metropolis and the periphery. A person’s labour as a commodity is taken in the ‘trade’ – economic proximity – but the accompanying marriage, or cultural exchange, is kept at a political distance. In this tensile relationship which Land terms ‘inhibited synthesis […] which can be awkwardly described as patriarchal neo-colonial capital accumulation’ (Land, 2011: 63), capitalist modernity is caught in an intractable contradiction, wherein its need for profit fuels an infinite requirement for the other, which it is politically unable to imbibe. What generates the contradiction in inhibited synthesis is what Land calls ‘exogamic dissipation’ – extending Strauss’ inter-tribal exchange via marriage to the cultural exchange – or the dissolution of patriarchal cultural and ethnic identities through the continuous engagement people must have with those outside their traditional ties of kinship, such as those inculcated by a nationality. A limited example of this occurred with the emergence of the urban proletariat in the wake of the industrial revolution, when those who were forced into the cities for work encountered each other, became conscious of their commonality and began to agitate for their own interests. Land proposes something larger and more radical, a global explosion in the potentiality of exogamic ‘marriages’ alongside the ‘trade’ as conceptualized by Levi-Strauss. Such a global dissipation of identities and traditional bonds of kinship would also dissolve capitalism. This global dissipation of the old patriarchal and provincial structures would generate a universal, fraternal, and horizontal kinship that could not tolerate exploitation. On this basis, capitalist modernity exhibits proto-fascist traits, Land argues, because it is constantly flirting with its own extinction. Capitalist modernity enacts policies and builds infrastructures, such as the Bantustan, in order to keep ‘kinship and trade… systematically isolated from each other.’ (Ibid: 62).

Borders in the Anthropocene

Neocolonialist capitalism has consistently employed brutal immigration policies and racist practices both within and outside of western countries in order to perpetuate the synthetic inhibition, but it has done so with zones permitting the free movement of labour – the most prominent and formal of these being the European Union’s Schengen Area, bounded by ‘Fortress Europe’, a concept used to describe the complex of securitised immigration policies towards those who seek to cross the European Union’s external borders, especially its southern one (Pinos, 2009: 3). This system has been described as ‘a means to filter out and exclude the discomforting other… that is to say, the outsiders who challenge the EU’s borders of comfort’ (italicised for emphasis, Ibid: 4).

Additionally, the nationalist renaissance across Europe and North America, especially with its emphasis on border control, presents an intensification of the inhibitive process, as those countries attempt to reverse the forces that are eroding the privileges of their bourgeois classes at both the geopolitical and socioeconomic levels. In his 2016 review of Martin Heidegger’s black notebooks, Malcolm Bull introduces Branko Milanović’s concept of citizenship rent—‘the increased income you get from doing the same job in one country rather than the other’—in order to make the following comments:

At a time when the long-heralded decline of the West is finally becoming an objective reality, the ‘lower middle class of the rich world’ stands in an ambiguous position. Geography still counts for almost everything… But if these trends continue, citizenship rents will decline further, and citizenship itself will be devalued as an asset… What makes the current moment unique is that the ontological decline of the West has fallen into step with the decline in income differentials, and attachment to place isn’t just a matter of becoming indigenous and making yourself at home in the world, but of stubborn attachment to a particular position in the global economic order (Bull, 2016). i

Bull gives an account for a neocolonial order that is attempting to reassert itself through a reaffirmation of xenophobic identity in order to maintain economic pre-eminence. Without recourse to reorganizing the world’s resources for a more equitable distribution of wealth, capitalism and populations turn to a state of vicious retreat behind border walls. The forces behind the inhibition of synthesis reassert themselves through strengthened technologies of racism.

What makes for a bleaker future is that there is every indication that the climatic and ecological deprivations associated with the Anthropocene will exacerbate this fundamental situation. As many parts of the world follow a trajectory towards the uninhabitable, as farming yields decline, and as land and nations shrink or even disappear, the far right nationalist rhetoric of blood and soil becomes very literal, ‘because climate change isn’t just about things getting hotter and wetter: under our current economic and political model, it’s about things getting meaner and uglier’ (Klein, 2016). At the time of writing this article, the UN does not legally recognise climate change as a qualifying criterion for refugee status, and there is therefore ‘no formal, legal protection for these affected people.’ (Beeler, 2018). The arguments specifically put forward against offering legal protection include the fears of aggravating pre-existing chauvinist sentiments, ‘[making] things worse for the very people the refugee convention aims to protect.’ (Ibid).

This reluctance to afford the climate migrant refugee status contains a tacit acknowledgement by the system of nation-states manifested in the UN of the political potential of mass migration, especially when considering the numbers of people who will be dislodged by the climate crisis; a billion per degree of temperature increase (Seaton, 2020: 48). The disruption those fleeing pose to the infrastructure of synthetic inhibition – of borders, formal nationalities, and the accompanying security systems – has the potential to overwhelm it, rending apart the international infrastructure of borders capital still depends upon, effectively dissolving them, by making encounters between peoples and their others unavoidable. Fleeing the Bantustan destroys it.

This synthesis must be resisted at any cost for capitalist modernity to survive. Anti-immigrant policies and the refusal to coordinate a comprehensive rescue policy between European countries, for example, has meant that the chance of death for a person crossing the Mediterranean between January and July 2018 was 1 in 18 (Crisp, 2018). A list compiled by UNITED recorded the death toll of people trying to cross the Mediterranean and enter Europe between the 1st January 1993 and the 5th May 2018 at 34,361 (UNITED, 2018). Simultaneously, such a large and systematic human cost requires a hierarchy of racial worth. A hierarchy that, I argue, inhabits DADES?

Reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

When looking to understand the ideology within DADES?, the passage most useful to gain an insight into its world’s political economy is the brief, explosive portion of an advertisement the character J. R. Isidore listens to as he shaves:
The TV set shouted, ‘- duplicates the halcyon days of the pre-Civil War Southern states! Either as body servants or tireless field hands, the custom tailored humanoid robot – designed specifically for YOUR UNIQUE NEEDS, FOR YOU AND YOU ALONE – given to you on your arrival absolutely free, equipped fully, as specified by you before your departure from Earth; this loyal, trouble-free companion in the greatest, boldest adventure contrived by man in history will provide-‘ it continued on and on. (Dick, 1997: 18)
This, Isidore informs the reader, is part of a propaganda push from the Washington-run space colonisation program, the chief economic drive in World War Terminus’ nuclear wake. It is the promise of an organic android to fulfil ‘YOUR UNIQUE NEEDS’, the you being a human, a citizen of earth meeting the novel’s UN’s criteria for humanity; your unique needs, which encompasses not just physical needs but emotional and symbolic. A few lines down the government propaganda features an interview with a recent immigrant to Mars, and she is asked, '"Mrs Klugman, how would you contrast your life back on contaminated earth with your new life here in a world rich with every imaginable possibility?”’ (Dick, 1997: 18), Klugman answers:
I think what I and my family of three noticed most was the dignity.’ ‘The dignity, Mrs Klugman?’ the announcer asked. ‘Yes’ Mrs Klugman, now of New New York, Mars, said. ‘It’s a hard thing to explain. Having a servant you can depend on in these troubled times… I find it reassuring.
(Dick, 1997: 18-19)

Mrs Krugman’s soft, short sentences (Krugman has three sentences compared to the direct advertisement’s two), her hesitation, and the vagueness in her answer, of reassurance, complements the first part of the hysterical, shouted propaganda. Whereas the official pronouncement is explicit in its hyperbolic description of the android’s utility, Mrs Krugman’s vagueness makes a sentimental appeal and gestures to the fantastical dimension of owning sentient labour. The kernel of the propaganda and advertising for the driver of the ‘greatest, boldest adventure contrived by man’—the android—includes a self-comparison to the chattel slavery of nineteenth century America.What raises the passage from a crude comparison between sentient mechanical labour and slavery, however, is Dick’s apparently heavy-handed allusions to the latter, which on first reading can be dismissed as crude commentary. The propaganda is at pains to make an explicit comparison between the organic androids and slaves of the Antebellum South. Because the comparison is diegetic, an extra dimension comes into play. The android’s physical labour is not the sole source of the android’s appeal as a commodity. The experience of slave-owning itself is commoditised and standardised, sold as an essential aspect of human individuality. The white supremacist pastoral of the Antebellum (‘pre-war’) cathects the memory of a pre-war earth. The individual is re-centered (‘YOU’) as the focal point of economic expansion and activity in the wake of the destruction caused by the capitalist civilization that generated the same project of hyper-individuality. This recentering is a buttressing of a specific identity, of an anthropocentric identity, that merges totally with a bourgeois identity. Dick’s material grounding of DADES in relation to a specific period of American history enables an interpretation of the novel in the context of the Anthropocene and a distinctly self-conscious Eurocentric anthropocentrism. This anthropocentrism derives from a desire to preserve and strictly regulate a human identity in order to maintain social cohesion for a new economic project that intends to recapture that Eurocentrism.

There are two discrete geographical zones in Do Androids Dream: Earth and the colonies, each of distinct significance. Despite Earth’s devastation, and despite the economic momentum being with the colonies, organic androids are restricted by law from leaving the colonies. Because androids are built exclusively for their labour power—even Rachael Rosen is a salesperson for her ‘uncle’, Eldon Rosen—any extra-instrumentality can pose a risk to the anthropocentric economic order. For this reason, illegal immigration—both geographical and ontological—requires lethal policing.

Bounty hunters are disavowed agents of Earth-based law enforcement, employed on a low salary and a commission-based ‘retirement’ bonus. Earth’s remaining civilian population is unaware of the extent to which androids are pursued and murdered on earth, because, says Pris Stratton, ‘[y]ou people aren’t supposed to know’ (Dick, 1997: 113) ‘I think,’ Isidore said, ‘you’re mistaken.’ Never in his life had he heard of such a thing. Buster Friendly, for instance, had never mentioned it. ‘t’s not in accord with present-day Mercerian ethics,’ he pointed out. (Dick, 1997: 113)

Isidore lives in a civilization formally recognising, after World War Terminus, all conventional terrestrial life as sacred. However, this does not constitute a bulwark against destructive economic or capitalist tendencies. As he does with the Anthropocene, avant la letter, Philip K. Dick depicts an Eremocene, the age of human loneliness in a time of mass extinction, coined by E.O. Wilson (Wilson, E. O., 2013), in DADES. It does not present the spectre of ecological loneliness as a catalyst for the discontinuation of capitalism or domination, but as a vehicle for a penetrating, fetishising commodification. Its apogee is the monthly Sidney’s Catalogue, pricing every animal according to its scarcity, and the integration of this pricing into social relations. Deckard is motivated in his work by the hope of owning a ‘living’ organic animal, like his peers. In the Freudian sense of the word fetish, animal life becomes a substitute mediating the affirmation of anthropocentrism and bourgeois, patriarchal values. Abortion is an offence punishable by death, and there exists a class of people officially known as ‘special’, within which there are subcategories of intellectual disability pejoratively referred to as ‘chickenheads’ and ‘antheads’, (Isidore himself is a chickenhead). Those who are ‘special’ are the most affected by the environmental effects of radiation, and forbidden to leave, much like those who are most affected by the policies of capitalist imperialist countries are those who face the largest obstacles to their escape. Subjected to the hierarchy of human identity, they are unsuitable for the novel’s UN colonization project.

While the crumbs of surviving nature are transformed into fetishised objects, Dick imagines the remains of abandoned human habitations assuming nature’s role as the source of the negative and uncanny. Isidore senses this energy, named Kipple, keenly throughout the novel:
From the useless pole lamp in the living room it oozed out, meshing with the empty and wordless descent of itself from the fly-specked ceiling. It managed in fact to emerge from every object within his range of vision, as if it – the silence – meant to supplant all things tangible. (Dick, 1997: 20)

Kipple is the name for the cumulative, entropic presence of consumer goods abandoned after the mass migration from Earth, presenting an oppressive weight and stripped of their utility, unmoored by human depopulation. It complements the destabilization of anthropocentrism brought about by the increasingly sophisticated androids, in a manner eluding the techniques of android policing. It is telling that this most acute description of Kipple’s effect comes from Isidore immediately after he turns off the TV screaming the advertisement for androids. Kipple is, in fact, the reason Isidore turns on the TV in the first place. The collective experience of Mercerism seems to have come from a move to counter that destabilization, although the Mercerian hoax is of unknown origin (Ibid: 158):
‘I didn’t think it was true,’ he said full of relief. ‘Why didn’t you?’ She swivelled to stare intently at him… ‘B-b-because things like that don’t happen. The g-g-government never kills anyone, for any crime. And Mercerism –’ ‘But you see,’ Pris said, ‘if you’re not human, then it’s all different.’ (Dick, 1997: 122)

Mercerian ethics, by which empathy becomes an official institution and bulwark of the human species, correspond with corporate and UN intentions to perpetuate the political economy of slavery by operating across both socio-political and metaphysical-ontological narratives. Mercer’s appearance outside of the empathy boxes to Deckard late in the novel do seem to contradict Buster Friendly’s debunking. However, the appearance presents itself as an ideological validation of his bounty hunting job and social role:
‘Am I outside Mercerism, now?’ Rick said. ‘As the chickenhead said? Because of what I’m going to do in the next few minutes?’ Mercer said, ‘Mr Isidore spoke for himself, not for me. What you are doing has to be done.’ (Dick, 1997: 166)

Mercer offers no explanation for why the retirements must take place beyond tautology, but if Mercer’s conversation with Isidore is any indication, Mercer’s position is fatalistic and permissive. The only positive action Mercer takes in his appearance to Deckard is to warn him of Pris (Dick, 1997: 166). It is here that Mercerian ethics and the accompanying empathy industry aligns most explicitly with their counterpart, the Voigt-Kampff test, as technologies of racism. Further, Mercer’s empathy box experience is not only the prime example of doubling in the novel, but also comes closest to the double rendition of Kantian subjectivity Land describes. The Mercerian phenomenon as illustrated above allows for an experience of alterity that is circumscribed through ritual and its predetermined end. However, when Deckard and Isidore encounter the androids personally, they must confront the ambiguity of the other themselves.

Deckard as Race Scientist

Regardless of his personal doubts as to the business of retiring androids, Deckard in his professional capacity is only troubled, not compromised, when it concerns his sexual interest (Rachael Rosen) and his aesthetic tastes (Luba Luft’s singing), not because he considers androids beings who warrant care. Like bourgeois ideation concerning immigrants, Deckard’s valuation of androids is predicated on their use-value or their capacity to disrupt. Nevertheless, Deckard is disturbed by his encounters with the other. His relationships with the androids, especially with Rachael, chime with Land’s assessment of modernity’s appropriative movements: ‘a profound but uneasy relation to an outside that both attracts and repels it.’ (Land, 2011: 64)

Consider Deckard’s perspective on android retirement. As violent and graphic as the following passages are, and despite the deliberately inconsistent deployment of pronouns, they contain no details about each android’s viscera or tissue:

…the .38 magnum slug struck the android in the head and its brain box burst. The Nexus-6 unit which operated it blew into pieces, a raging, mad wind which carried throughout the car. (Dick, 1997: 73)

The laser beam, aimed with skill… bifurcated Inspector Garland’s head. He slumped forward… the corpse teetered on its chair and then, like a sack of eggs, it slid to one side and crashed to the floor. (Ibid: 96)

The beam missed its mark but, as Resch lowered it, burrowed a narrow hole, silently, into her stomach. She began to scream…. Like the picture, Rick thought to himself, and, with his own laser tube, killed her. Luba Luft’s body fell forward, face down, in a heap. It did not even tremble. (Ibid: 103)

He fired at her as, imploringly, she dashed toward him. The android burst and parts of it flew…‘I’m sorry, Mrs Baty,’ Rick said, and shot her. (Ibid, 168)
He shot Roy Baty; the big man’s corpse lashed about, toppled like an over-stacked collection of separate, brittle entities.
(Ibid: 168)

Aside from the mentions of reflex circuits and brain ‘boxes’, Deckard fails to describe the entrails, and the reader only receives Isidore’s perspective of the corpses second-hand, through Deckard. This is strange; although the android’s physiognomy differs from a human’s, it is not simply the case that androids are composed of materials corresponding to real-life robotics. The alternative to the Voigt-Kampf test is the Boneli test, consisting of ‘a bone marrow analysis’ by which a person’s humanity ‘can be organically determined,’ (Ibid: 43) suggesting that the android’s tissue is near identical to a human’s. This is before the other utility of an android – sex – is considered. Phil Resch and Deckard both have sex with androids, and Resch reports the commonplace practice of illegal android mistresses on the colonies, telling Deckard ‘[sure] it’s illegal, but people do it anyhow.’ (Ibid: 110). Androids are, for the most part, physiologically human. Deckard’s perception and self-narrativising of his social function as a bounty hunter reflects his troubled disavowal.

Nevertheless, the androids do differ from humans. For Isidore, the androids Pris, Irmgard, and Roy seem ‘strange… As if a peculiar and malign abstractness pervaded their mental processes’ (Ibid: 119). However, the novel leaves open the question of whether this malignity is innate to the androids or relational. The Voigt-Kampf test demonstrates uncanny accuracy in distinguishing androids from humans by measuring empathy. By measuring physical responses to questions, othering becomes a technological practice, even when the questions themselves are explicitly absurd and steeped in the civilization’s social mores. Humans are sufficiently standardized in their fetishization of pre-android life that the Voigt-Kampf test can be applied to anyone with the same decisive result. Garland’s observation to Rick, that:
It’s a chance anyway, breaking free and coming here to Earth, where we’re not even considered animals. Where every worm and wood louse is considered more desirable than us put together. (Dick, 1997: 94) …does not go far enough; animal life as a commodity literally constitutes the metric that determines whether extra-instrumental androids are executed. Empathy is just ‘a way of proving something that humans can do… based on the human’s word.’ (Ibid: 158)

Fetishised as such, empathy becomes a form of scientific racism repurposed to deny the androids sovereignty as citizens and denies their right to free movement. The androids have no option but violence to escape their slavery:
‘He doesn’t understand yet,’ Pris said in a sharp, brittle stentorian voice, ‘how we got off Mars. What we did there.’ ‘What we couldn’t help doing,’ Roy Baty grunted. (Ibid: 124)
The political economy of Dick’s world bears striking similarities to the current climate-accelerated political economy of ours. In addition to the simple fact that the androids, like migrants, are valued significantly less than charismatic megafauna, the android, when escaping their enslavement and entering Earth, much like a person escaping to a country of the global North, dissolves their clear identity as an unperson. They are visible as a sapient, feeling being. They enter the liminal space, on the lip of Land’s synthesis. Insofar as they impersonate a recognizable role (Garland or Luft for example), the android assumes citizenship of Earth, plausible to their fellow person. This, to recapitulate, is why I argue that people migrating to the global North are resisted most violently at the point of crossing the border. Equally, Land himself argued in his conclusion to Kant, Capital, and the Prohibition of Incest that ‘[a] revolutionary war can only be fought in hell,’ as ‘[the] state apparatus of an advanced industrial society can certainly not be defeated without a willingness to escalate the cycle of violence without limit,’ (Land, 2011: 79) for this very reason. Land envisages the ascension of feminine (i.e. non-patriarchal) amazons to overthrow the capitalist reality and destroy the inhibition. The android neatly assumes this role, as its figure presents the ‘uncontrollable eruption of feminine (i.e. migrant) alterity into the father’s heartland’ (Ibid: 62).


As is true in many of Philip K. Dick’s stories, what happens to how the characters think about the world in DADES (as opposed to the changes in the world itself) assumes more importance to the narrative. Despite the arrival of android amazons, no revolution arrives at the end of the novel; an exhausted Deckard returns to his wife after a long day of work. Isidore shrinks miserably away under the shadow of Kipple. Isidore’s lack of understanding and his distress as he watches the androids torture the spider spring from his strict adherence to Mercerian and UN orthodoxy, allows him to appreciate the androids as people a priori. Because he honestly believes the anthropocentric dogma, he can move beyond its ideological entrapment, into a new modernity. The androids would kill the spider, and Deckard would disdain it because of its low status in the animal hierarchy. Isidore wishes to care for it and keep it. The Anthropocene as a term and discursive project, instead of being discarded, should be retained also, with the intention that its universalizing project develops a new ecological and human kinship, a new synthesis. The nurturing societies are tasked with ensuring the Anthropocene’s continuation, whether they move to a post-capitalist future or not.


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Robert is a graduate of the University of Warwick, the University of Leeds, and the University of Westminster. When not writing he divides time between his full-time job in the NHS and his other full-time job with his cat. A version of this paper was presented at the 2019 Utopian Studies Society Conference in Prato.


To cite this article:
Horsfield, R., 2021. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Borders in the Anthropocene. Exchanges: The Interdisciplinary Research Journal, 8(2), 84-98. Available at: