What coronavirus reveals about the Anthropocene

March 14th, 2020

David R. Cole

The global pandemic spurned by coronavirus (COVID-19) is well under way. I have no desire to spread further false or misleading information about the disease, as I am not an epidemiologist. However, as I have been thinking quite deeply about the Anthropocene for several years now, I feel well-equipped to relate this outbreak and its spread to the Anthropocene. What is interesting for me as a social commentator, educationalist and philosopher, is what the outbreak is revealing about the state of our global society, how we relate to it, and our thinking about pan-international-social-health-issues:

  1. The virus started in China. This should be no surprise, as China still encourages and allows for live animal markets, borne out of a continuing faith in traditional Chinese medicine. It has been said that the new virus may have been transmitted to humans from bat guano and pangolin meat in a live animal market in Wuhan. The markets are densely populated with humans and wild animals, making transmission of novel viruses such as COVID-19 more likely via bodily excretion and fluid interchanges. From the initial identification of the novel virus in Wuhan, it has now spread to 123 territories or countries as of March 14th, 2020. Clearly, it is an extremely transmissible disease from humans to humans, similar to colds and the flu.
  2. The global reaction to the origination of the disease in China and the wild animal markets is complex. Many countries are now putting local and international quarantine measures and travel bans in place, though many have still not, and many have been slow to act. To an extent, the disease still comes across as being something exotic, unusual, and unlikely to affect us, or with limited effects, despite the evidence to the contrary, suggesting the high transmissibility of the disease, and the relatively high death rate (1-3%), especially amongst older people, and those with underlying health problems. In effect, the first two points are directly related to the Anthropocene: it is something out there, not directly related to us, or connected in a complicated, rather exotic way; it is something that is hard to understand, and that we can really do nothing about, so we may as well go on as before (why should I change my life anyhow?).
  3. The high transmissibility and global spread of the disease points to the international transport options open to us via planes. COVID-19 has been primarily spread internationally out of China via planes, and latterly through local routes of human transport, and human to human contact in situ. All transport routes via planes emit carbon dioxide via the burning of jet fuel, so one of the inverted effects of the COVID-19 outbreak will be to slow the emission of CO2 via a diminished number of international flights, at least until the pandemic subsides. This amounts to a potentially positive result for the Anthropocene. Of course, this reduction in international travel will be reported globally in terms of the loss of jobs and revenue in the airline and tourism industries. This point leads to the connection between the pandemic outbreak and integrated world capitalism (IWC).
  4. World trade is entirely interconnected in the Anthropocene. The outbreak started in China, where much of the world’s manufacturing has been relocated due to low labour costs and the ability of the Chinese to effectively run and control factories. The quarantine and social isolation effects of the virus will lead to a slowing in manufacturing in China and elsewhere as work ceases. As such, and as all industrial processes are presently connected to CO2 release in some way; this will, in addition to the slowing of world travel due to air travel restrictions, lead to a lowering of CO2 emissions, at least for the course of the pandemic. Moreover, the translation of this inevitable slowing in the world economy, will be to directly hit the world stock exchanges and flows of money, as investors and traders have to guess where, when and what the specific effects of the pandemic will be on trade. Hence, one of the most noticeable effects of the COVID-19 virus is to increase the imagined connections between the world economy, global speculation and health, as investors try and read what will happen at these levels. This important aspect of the Anthropocene is mirrored and connected to local effects of the pandemic.
  5. At a local level, every jurisdiction in the world can be seen as a case study of action in the Anthropocene. Governments have already started to announce intertwined health and economic measures to counter the threat of the virus on their populations. Some of these measures will be successful, other will not, because, for example, the injection of large amounts of cash into the economy, will be seen by some as a reason for financial weakness, and could encourage the panic selling of stocks. However, what these actions show is what governments are capable of in times of crises, and, in particular, in times of human health crises, and the accompanying economic effects, as industries struggle to function under changed social conditions of isolation and quarantine. One could say that climate change only receives similar governmental attention when there are direct effects on human populations, such as bush fires and floods.
  6. Concurrently, many ecologists, social activists, and environmentalists have been encouraging action at the local and personal levels to combat the effects of climate change for many years. The COVID-19 crisis shows us, that, however well-meaning, earnest and correct these local efforts might be to combat climate change, and despite the rhetoric of right-wing politicians, saying that we do not live in a globalised world (i.e.: make your country great again), the global interconnections of the Anthropocene, as proved by COVID-19, is unassailable. This interconnection is augmented and morphed through the internet, and the instantaneous transmission of information around the world (however inaccurate and/or ill-informed this might be). As such, local and personal action, and agency as such in the face of threats such as COVID-19, must be backed up by coordinated and extensive action on the global level. This is exactly what has proven to be so hard to mobilise and achieve internationally in terms of climate change in the Anthropocene.
  7. Finally, in many places, a type of panic response to COVID-19 has begun to set in, akin to a science fiction novel. In the anonymity of the suburbs no-one knows what you’re really thinking, so bulk buying toilet paper, pasta, rice and canned goods, might appear to be acceptable because no-one cares. In the end, the pandemic becomes another spectacle to watch on TV whilst self-isolating and quarantined, and like the unfolding of the Anthropocene, we can distance ourselves from it in the position of the spectator, now banned from organized sporting events, but allowed to stockpile food and toilet paper and letting the madness roll on unabated…                                                                                                                                                                         

More-than-humanizing the Anthropocene

Original publication in The Trumpeter, 2016

Ramsey Affifi. University of Edinburgh


The concept ‘human’ has to be more-than-humanized, a project Abram initiated but left incomplete in his study of language. Doing so is a powerful antidote to some of the more anthropocentric consequences of Anthropocenic thinking. Crucial to this project is uncovering the ways in which human agency is permeated by and circulates within vast causal relationships. Shifting from ecologically destructive patterns suggests completing this phenomenological project by uncovering the sense that the ‘human’ is in no simple sense, ‘steering this vessel.’ Not even the pervasive and perpetual arrogance about our own powers is incontrovertibly ‘our own.’ Humility and awe before these wild and undomesticatable processes cycling through us and carrying us in their currents can correct hubristic assumptions about our power for good or evil, and thereby also perhaps these destructive patterns.

Nature in the Anthropocene: A threat to more-than-human experience

A recent trend, at least within various earth sciences, has been to de-naturalize the Earth entirely, seeing the tainted print of the human blotched across even the most remote ecosystems and peaking portentously with the proposition that we inaugurate a geological epoch in our (dis)honour. While gaining steam in the eco-humanities, in this paper I hold that the work performed by this neologism is not what environmental education needs right now. While such a move shrewdly challenges the human / nature binary, it does so by reifying one side of the relation. And in so doing, it risks smothering alterity, otherness, and difference with a smear of anthropocentrizing concepts and percepts. We shall see that this move is neither accurate nor advisable. New materialist philosopher James LeCain (2015) highlighted the arbitrary nature of the term in a recent essay where he pointed out that “civilization,” for better and for worse would never have been possible without the innate powers of coal and oil, and that we are in the midst of the Carbocene, if anything. His point, as I take it, is not necessarily to ascribe “the cause” of the ecological crisis to some other nonhuman thing (as seems suggested), but rather to highlight the post-postmodernist pullback against logocentrism and insistence that human culture and its transformations are always constituted by their material relations. The move explicitly seeks to open up a type of experience that does not reproduce the sense that humans are unique and causally separate from the rest of the world, be it as agents of praise or blame. Unlike these de-centering moves, as a concept ‘The Anthropocene’ weakens the availability of a phenomenological encounter with something outside of the human domain, and presents instead an ontology where humans only ever see themselves diffracted through the various lenses of whatever they choose to lay their eyes upon.

Perhaps. But who could really doubt we are ‘the cause’ of the crisis? How is this not some new form of fancy-pants intellectual climate change denial or the like? According to Abram, this vanity, this mirror-gazing and inflationary hubris, short-circuits what are really the most beautiful and graceful possibilities for our species. It is when we turn outwards, with awe and wonder (and perhaps also fear), that we foster an inquisitive appreciation and reverence for the processes and products of the world. And so, if it is the case that we really “are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human” (Abram, 1996, ix), the converse to Anthropocenic thinking is now required: we can recover our humanity through realizing that the more-than-human seeps through and carries us at all times -even in that apparently most blotched with our print.  The task here is to take up Abram’s invitation and to advance his project. The challenge is to more-than-humanize the Anthopocene.

What if the most cherished but also the most despised human attributes are suffused with the mysterious alterity of beings and processes that elude our control, wild and inhuman? What if ‘I’ am not ‘I’ nor you ‘you’? If even the sunshine of consciousness only glitters through the intervention of countless others, without our will, without our creativity? We shall see that from the cells in our body to the flow of thought, all allegedly human acts and products are indissolubly saturated with otherness. Central to this reconceptualization/reperceptualization is the replacement of the concept of a fragmented linear causality (an epistemological construct that creates dichotomies by putting different things in oppositional relationship with one another) with an ecological conception which sees causality as circular, co-constitutive, temporal and contingent, and occurring simultaneously on multiple levels and scales. Such a view has been depicted beautifully and bountifully: within classical pragmatism, cybernetics, ecology, and evolutionary and developmental theory (without claiming too strong an identity between their various positions, see for example, Dewey, 1929; Bateson, 1979; Lewontin, 1983; Oyama, 2000; Noble, 2013; Laland, 2015). An ecological conception of causality views naive conceptions of human agency as problematic and is therefore equally suspect of educational and policy decisions premised on such a view. Ecological causality sees the penetration of nonhuman elements as necessary of all activity, casting doubt on any pretence we might have about our capacity to control the systems that we are not simply in but of. In what follows, and by way of invitation more than comprehensive exposition, I briefly discuss some of the many varied ways in which we are immersed in ecological relationships. What Abram calls the more-than-human can be seen to permeate all our endeavours, even when we think our agency most unshakeable. These can be grouped into categories, at least for the purpose of illustration, according to both first and third-person, or phenomenological and empirical approaches respectively. A preliminary overview will assist in breaking up the notion that there is a category of exclusively ‘human’ things, replacing it with an alternate view that sees a deep causal interpenetration and mutual implicatedness in all phenomena. Besides being a more coherent understanding of both phenomenological and empirical evidence, we shall see that an ecological conception of causality also offers us a more feasible path of retreat from the ecological chaos that is currently unfolding, and so is ripe with educational implications.

I will not be suggesting that it is never important to employ the categories human and nonhuman in mutually exclusive ways. Whether or not a particular way of slicing up the world is advisable eventually comes to depend upon the effects of what such punctuations do rather than their alleged correspondence with some world ‘in itself.’ But by and large, our efforts to police the division between these categories is not leading to ecologically or socially sustainable culture, making it at once metaphysically and pragmatically dubious. Accelerating environmental destruction is usually met with a strengthened call to action, imploring that “you can be the change” required to evade the impending doom that is the consequence of the human hand. But these calls re-inforce the already bloated beliefs about human power and uniqueness that propel the crisis. I realize that for those who hold dualistic interpretations of the ecological crisis, my attempts to more-than-humanize human activity lock-stock-and-barrel will be met with great suspicion. It will be seen as undermining the sense of agency we supposedly need in order to pull ourselves out of this deepening rut. I will argue, that holding onto such a concept of agency is part of the cycle of destructive habit that is exacerbating the crisis and that overcoming it is an important first step in reconstructing a more ecological epistemology. Arguing that all allegedly human activities are in fact ‘more-than-human’ does not lead to laissez faire fatalism (i.e., that wretched rebut environmentalists fear to their core: “well, the world is destroying itself through us so there is nothing we can do!”), as some would insist. In fact, naive determinism is born of the same troubling logic as naive agency. Each approaches causality as something linear, with a distinct beginning and a distinct end. It is because we are immersed in networks of circular causal relationships that the naive causal conceptions of both freedom and determinism are so destructive. It is because these circular relationships always enfold something more than an isolatable causal ‘I’ that a new more-than-humanized concept of agency awaits uncovering.

More-than-humanizing the human

So, for David Abram, what is ‘more-than-human’ anyway? In dealing with a sleight-of-hand magician we should not be surprised to find that, after appealing to the index to find a definition of the term, we are redirected instead to a much less used term, the “sensuous world,” which is itself not defined either. However, as the text progresses, meanings of ‘more-than-human’ gradually emerge. Many meanings, suggestive and rich, but not always consistent. While this ambiguity has lent it some attractiveness—many people can see their own projects pressed in his own—it invariably means that the term is adopted in truncated ways. Here I hope to restore and extend what I think is the most important sense of the term and show some of its continued relevance for environmental theory and education.

Before moving on, it is worth highlighting some of the varied aspects the term evokes in the book. First, in some sense, the perceptual experience of the lived world as a whole is conceived as a domain or “field of animate presences” (p. 56, italics added) that is bigger than us but with which we are continuously in reciprocal engagement. Perception is in this way the “constant thwarting of such closure” (p. 49) that is presupposed by various forms of idealism. Here, perception can be spoken of as the perpetual reciprocal ‘dance’ between a body and those various things in the world that that body inhabits, between perceiver and perceived, between the subject and the sensible (p. 53-55). In this sense, Abram describes “the sensible world” generically as “active, animate, and in some curious manner, alive” (55). In a second sense, this reciprocity is discussed in specific rather than general terms: the particular sensory engagement with this rock or raven at this moment reveals the more-than-humanness of the particular beings in this experience. This sense is different because here he seeks to get at the phenomenological experience of a specific encounter, while with the former sense he strove to describe the more-than-human structure of experience in general. A third sense has Abram evoke the body itself as more-than-human, insofar as it is a thing of this animate world and is itself capable of being denigrated through the mechanistic interpretations of a divorced consciousness. A fourth sense has thisbody itself also now generalized as “the flesh” of the world (p. 66). While these four senses follow the progressive development of Merleau-Ponty’s thought, Abram does not settle on “the flesh” as the most ontologically appropriate or phenomenologically accurate description of the more-than-human. He re-employs the various phases of Merleau-Ponty’s thought at different points during the book, sliding back and forth in ways that often go unannounced. He also adds additional eco-phenomenological dimensions to these. For example, in a fifth sense Abram identifies the sensible more-than-human world with “the earth” and “the biosphere” as “experienced and lived from within” (p. 65). In a sixth sense, he contrasts the more-than-human with the human and the artificial. And in a seventh sense, he acknowledges that the more-than-human pervades everything including what is artificial. For example, he writes that “[t]o the sensing body … artifacts are, like all phenomena, animate and even alive” (p. 64), even while these artifacts’ animateness is “profoundly constrained by the specific “functions” for which they were built” (p. 64). And beyond these seven uses, Abram also sometimes employ the term third-person empirically rather than first-person phenomenologically, as when he laments about how “Western industrial society … with its massive scale and hugely centralized economy, can hardly be seen in relation to any particular landscape or ecosystem; the more-than-human ecology with which it is directly engaged is the biosphere itself” (p. 22).         

Throughout the book, Abram’s use of the term often seems to skip between these sometimes contrasting meanings. It is sometimes used to refer to specific other beings (like the squirrel, the nuthatch, or a particular experience) but other times to a general other (like “the sensorial world” or “the perceptual field” or “the flesh”). He also jumps between including and excluding humans from “more-than-human”, as he does between having it serve as a phenomenological and as a third-person category. Within the dichotomy of concrete and abstract, Abram seems to accept the value of certain abstract conceptions of more-than-human (such as “the perceptual field” or “the flesh”), while cautioning against others. His rationale for valuing these generalizations seems to be based on the degree to which he believes they emplace people back into their sensory world. This explains why he seems to avoid the dichotomy between human and more-than-human when the experience is sensorial. Something like “a hint of diesel fume” is not a dangerous imposition of humanness when part of a broader sensory field that one is immersed in with full attention. Rather, it is precisely a part of the flood of rich more-than-humanness that one encounters with the directness of one’s eyes and ears and nose. On the other hand, Abram is disturbed by that which is divorced from direct sensory engagement, as when he maligns studies of subatomic particles and vast galaxies for leading to a sense that reality is not accessible without much theory and instrumentation and a distrust of the senses (in Cataldi and Hamrick, 2007). We are therefore faced with a strange situation where the smell of diesel fuel is to be considered more more-than-human that the atoms that preceded our arrival on earth by many billions of years.

Part of the problem, I suspect, resides in Abram’s overambitious equating of the phenomenal sensory experience of more-than-human with the sensory body. It seems at times that Abram has two separate projects that have been partially conflated: calling us back to our sensing body and disclosing the more-than-human as an essential phenomenological experience. His call to pay attention to the senses is obviously welcome advice; our direct sensory engagement with the world around us can provide a deeply responsive understanding and engagement. And indeed, it also connects us viscerally and vitally to that which appears as ‘bigger’ than us. But this does not mean that the more-than-human and the sensory are isomorphic –empirically or phenomenologically. Unfortunately, his enthusiastic call back to the sensory body led him to devalue the work we needed in deconstructing conceptual aspects of our phenomenological experience to reveal their more-than-humanness as well. When discussing concepts and their material progeny, Abram often wavers back into dualism. For example, he writes that “our organic attunement to the local earth is thwarted by our ever-increasing intercourse with our own signs. Transfixed by our technologies, we short-circuit the sensorial reciprocity between our breathing bodies and the bodily terrain” (p. 267), and

[o]nly when we slip beneath the exclusively human logic continually imposed upon the earth do we catch sight of this other, older logic at work in the world. Only as we come close to our senses, and begin to trust, once again, the nuanced intelligence of our sensing bodies, do we begin to notice and respond to the subtle logos of the land (p. 268).

I argue here that humans can experience forms of more-than-humanness everywhere, from the human body itself to the most seemingly detached realms of consciousness, of thought, and of technology. That we (and a multitude of other inhabitants of the planet) would benefit from catching sight of the nuanced intelligence of our bodies and subtle logos of the land is likely. Educators certainly need to enable more sensitive and responsive manners of engaging with the varied beings around us. It will remain essential that educators focus on experiential encounters with things that strongly reveal themselves as self-originating and self-developing such that we can feel the power of the creative processes that persist without us. But we can devote ourselves to that sort of phenomenological work and the complementary work of more-than-humanizing the allegedly exclusively human sphere that Abram sometimes sets it against. In other words, the task is now to see that these same processes are creative within us, too. I believe this carries Abram’s project forward. Indeed, Abram devoted several chapters of the book to the Herderian vision of articulating how oral and written languages were inflected by the presence of influences and agencies that are not our own, in effect de-privileging our role in our most prized possession and that which we constantly employ as a justification for reifying a discontinuity between us and ‘the rest’ of the world. He disclosed language as a more-than-human process in the hopes that we may experience it as such.  But Abram’s methodology can be applied further to uncover what may additionally be revealed as more-than-human. It is not our experience with what is ‘merely-human’ (as an ontologically stable or robust category) crowding out the more-than-human (as a diminishing set of actual beings or processes) that leads us to the dull and destructive lives that Abram resists. It is our experience with what we believe is human, and the hubris and inattention that arise from this, that is really at issue, affecting and distorting the quality and relational potential of our interactions with the many denizens that compose our environment.

The term ‘more-than-human’ is primarily a phenomenological category, referring to the way things are presented in experience. But it is not a stable phenomenological category because the same thing can appear as ‘human’ or ‘more-than-human’ at different times or in different contexts. This instability is a part of the reason why Abram’s use of the word sometimes appears contradictory. This instability is also why the term is phenomenologically and pedagogically so important for environmentalism. Many factors currently reduce our felt experience of the more-than-human. Cities, reduced biodiversity, a rise in enthralling and absorbing technologies, and certain ways of framing ‘nature’ (such as those wrapped into Anthropocen(tr)ic thinking) have meant that increasingly many things are now disclosed to us as ‘human.’ This paper represents an attempt to push against this trend. We see image of our species now nearly ubiquitously knotted into the things around us, from the plastic bags that float past us to the winds that guide them along, which have now become almost inconceivable without thinking of “human-induced” climate change. In light of this trend, it is increasingly imperative to develop counter-strategies that can protect the wild and wondrous more-than-humanness in our field of experience. Environmentalists and educators can assist people in developing skills for uncovering the more-than-human all around them, not merely in the hills or the forest, but in the various dimensions of humanity that we cherish as unique and that we use to erect the categorical distinction between us and others. In other words, the concept ‘human’ can be more-than-humanized. This paper will nudge toward such an uncovering, focusing in particular on breaking open the notion of causal agency that seems so critical in establishing a separate ontological status for humans in an otherwise mechanical universe. Linear causality, the idea that a cause begins at a point in space and time and leads to an effect at some other spatiotemporal point, is a crucial yet problematic foundation upon which we come to consider the human as such a unique agent. It is this sense that provides for a notion of ‘free will’ that contrasts so strongly with an otherwise physicochemical order. The world, void of teleology through the efforts of the scientific revolution, is seen as increasingly different from humans, whose capacity to direct and control simultaneously appears all the more powerful. But it is possible to uncover causal circularity within experience and to see how, in various ways, such pure and unidirectional concepts of agency are not as compelling as they may seem. Such circularity reveals that wildly other processes breathe into and circulate our thoughts and actions, and that more-than-human dimensions animate all our endeavours and not merely our “sensory field.”

The most promising dimension of the term “more-than-human” is not then that it is a more generous or respectful way of considering other beings, contrasted against the belittling negation performed by the word ‘non-human.’ The term acknowledges and positions humans as within, as of, something bigger than is generally apparent, as it invites us to further the incomplete (perhaps incompletable), though ever-necessary phenomenological project of disclosing more-than-humanness in experience. No matter how we try and circumscribe and bulwark the boundary between us and the rest of nature, the closer we look, we find opportunities to see something challenging our sense of agency and independence. In the following sections, I briefly describe some of the ways in which the more-than-human is available experientially through 1) the structure of first-person experience, 2) the way in which humans appear third-person biologically, and 3) through the technologies and artefacts we produce. I follow this survey with a discussion about some of the challenges we face in more-than-humanizing experience and the need to do so in order to foster an attitude of humility which seems key to shifting in to more generative directions.

The more-than-human in first-person experience

The strategy in the sections that follow is to first tackle epistemological approaches that follow or reproduce Kant’s famous “Copernican revolution” in philosophy. The reason for this is that these various epistemologies (which include not only transcendental idealism, but also much of phenomenology, constructivism and social constructivism, linguistic relativity, critical theory, and poststructuralism) anthropocentrize ‘knowing’ in a broadly similar way. Unlike empirical or correspondence theories of knowledge, these epistemologies (which I will call “Kantian” despite the alarm bells this will set off) all claim that we preformat our experience of the world in such a way that our attempts to know the world really only reveal the manner in which we preformat it. In some way, each of these epistemologies is suspicious of notions that we have access to the world itself. The effect is that ontology (general claims about the world) is largely reduced to human epistemology (general claims about knowing).

Many of the observations and analyses made by scholars within this thread of thought are important. For example, it is important to be aware that the way people in modern industrialized societies see the world may be preformatted in ways we are not immediately aware of, such as by the logic and demands of capitalist economies. Nevertheless, this thread of thinking also reproduce an extreme form of anthropocentrism that may turn out as dangerous as the naïve epistemologies of early correspondence theorists who saw no link between power and knowledge claims. The dying oak tree outside my window right now with its shadow cast northward, is preformatted by my perceptual machinery, or my language, my culture, my “faculties,” my social class, or my economic circumstances. According to these epistemologies, I do not see the tree itself nor can I ever see it. What I see is an image of myself because I am only allowed to make claims about the elements I import or impose on the tree. Otherwise, the tree is forever slips beyond my reach. As we shall see, getting past this impasse involves thinking about the knowing process as a circular, unfolding process, not as a linear one where either the thing is unproblematically intuited or preformatted. This will also point the way toward more-than-humanizing our understanding of knowledge in experience.

Autopoietic theory initiates a circular reframing of Kantian epistemology. I choose this as the theory to scaffold out of these various subjectivisms because autopoiesis is rooted in Kantian idealism, but pushes beyond it. According to autopoietic theory, all organisms down to the cellular level constitute an organism/environment relationship by constructing their identity and a domain of possible interactions (Maturana and Varela, 1979). While this “domain” seems like just another subjective bubble, the domain is itself continually shaped by the “external world,” which perturbs the organism constantly, impinging upon the organism’s meaning making activities and forcing it to adjust its semiotic interpretations of what is disclosed. As a history of interactions unfold, it becomes increasingly arbitrary to hold that the perceptual or conceptual formatting of the experience is the part played ‘by’ the organism or ‘by’ the external world, given that the organism’s formatting is the product of prior organism/environment transactions (Affifi, 2016). Given this circularity, it is simply an epistemological distinction to assert that the organism is acting towards the environment rather than responding to it. Causality is operative in each direction, and although each causal arrow can be considered in isolation, linear thinking is only possible because of an original circular unity in the living process and the conditions of this possibility afforded by the organism/environment dialectic. In other words, while each organism is perhaps confined to encountering a certain version of the world as its ‘reality,’ these versions are not constructed unilaterally. ‘Experience’ is better thought of as the joint developmental product of the interpreter and the interpretant (who may also be an interpreter), co-emerging and co-informing each other through time. And crucially: instead of ‘nature’ being the ‘in itself’ on the other side of some impassable divide, the interaction itself, including all the processes that brought it into being and which sustain it, and also all the ‘phenomenal’ qualities that emerge along the way, all of it is ‘nature’—as much as anything is.

Already in the basic organization of any living organism, the boundary between the organism and what is ‘not it’ is therefore fundamentally in question (Affifi, 2016). While organisms constitute an environment to which they can relate and interact with, this separation between self and other is a performance that brings increased intimacy and intercourse between nature’s varied parts rather than isolation and atomism (Jonas, 1966). Without autopoiesis, the world mainly engages in purely physicochemical interactions. With autopoiesis, in addition to physicochemistry, a new realm of interactivity opens up, probabilities are redistributed, and novel forms and activity emerges.

In this paper, I will examine two dimensions of the autopoietic process: how it appears from within and how it appears when observed externally. The former is a ‘phenomenological’ stance, the sort we take when examining the structure, processes, events, and qualia of lived experience, such as thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and intentions. The latter is an ‘empirical’ stance, and is concerned with describing living beings through how they interact with other beings and things and what consequences result. I do not claim that either stance is ‘better’ than the other or that they are separable in living systems (because the way we experience the world does influence the interactions that occur between us and others). Rather, I believe that both need to be more-than-humanized and that the conceptual work needed in each case is different, though partly complementary. For the sake of exposition, I will treat them separately in this paper. However, as will be made clear, the empirical and phenomenological stances interact with one another and it will be necessary to examine the phenomenological consequences of results from the empirical stance.

Even in common language we often acknowledge the fact that ‘we’ are not the directors of our own experience: we are gripped by a story, distracted by someone gossiping, moved by a piece of music, we fall in love. Although such descriptions are pervasive, we are still haunted by the subject-verb-object structure of many grammar systems, which tends to give a false simplicity to the way we experience our own motivations and activities and what sort of power we command with respect to these. Through the guidance of such grammars, it seems like I am the agent, the verb is the thing I do, and the object is the thing that receives my verb-activity. For example, I ‘decide’ to do something. What is clear, however, is that even in subject-oriented languages, any sentence that can be stated in the ‘active tense’ can be rephrased in a way that dethrones the subject as causal agent. Nietzsche (2000), in criticizing Descartes, pointed out that the latter’s “I think” (which was the beginning of his proposition, cogito ergo sum) already contained up to six dubious assumptions, and that more precisely the evidence points to the fact that a thought comes when “it wishes.” People struggling to meditate learn this fact the hard way, a fact which is resolved not through combatting these pesky thoughts but by accepting the reality of their occurrence within the stream of the world. When meditators do develop ‘self-control,’ looked at more closely, what they have acquired is a set of habits for thinking about thinking, which funnel thought in specific directions, and they are just now as susceptible to these new thinking patterns as they were to those that are now being controlled.

Even those who claim that the most fundamental thing about being human is the fact that we are born free acknowledge a paradox. Sartre (1947) insisted that our freedom is primary and absolute, a part of the structure of our experience before we try to make sense of it, and that we should be suspicious of any framing that dislodges this fundamental aspect of our being. But he also observed that we did not choose to choose, that we are “condemned to be free.”[1] So even if he is right (which I question because it seems to again reify a notion of linear causality and human exceptionalism), the problem is only deferred to a meta level. Even for Sartre, by virtue of the fact that we are “thrown into the world,” (27) human existence is more-than-human.

Phenomenologists have long recognized that the basic structure of consciousness is that it is ‘intentional’ (Husserl, 1990). Intentionality has a specific meaning here rooted in its etymology, where in Latin it originally referred to “an arrow directed at a target” (Thompson, 2007, p. 364). Consciousness is intentional not because we ‘intend’ to do things but because it has a basic directionality. Consciousness is towards something, or better still it is ‘about’ something. Regardless of one’s commitments to Kantian epistemologies, there is already something of the ‘transcendent’ or ‘other’ appearing within the structure of experience itself. Consciousness is always consciousness of something other than it itself. Even when consciousness takes aim and intends itself, it can only do so by conceiving an abstraction: a memory of itself, a future projection, a conceptualization, etc. It seems to put itself into relation with itself only by making itself an object, and thereby opening up the possibility of being informed by what is ‘other.’ It would therefore seem unable to grasp itself except through conceiving of itself as something more than the immediate conscious subject. But the continual objectification of the subject is also what brings a sensed relationality back into subjectivity. This is because one’s subject as object appears within concrete spatiotemporal developments, ongoing cultural and linguistic flows, social circumstances, and the like, all of which continually remind us that the unanalyzable conscious subject that exists in the immediate present is itself entangled in these very same processes.

Of course, to say that something is ‘other’ than us is a different statement than to say that it is ‘more-than-human.’ One might accept that thought, consciousness, and freedom are all not properties of some free-willing homuncular entity residing somewhere in our brain (or soul) while still maintaining that they can be disproportionately influenced by things that can be called ‘human.’ For example, when I ‘use’ my computer it may well be that I am being controlled by it but that I generally misapprehend the causal relationship between me and this technology. But because the technology is created by and for humans, I am nevertheless being controlled by something essentially ‘human,’ and this would justify our continuing to maintain a split between experienced objects. Shortly, I shall argue that there are no technologies that have not been infected by that which is not human, such as through biomimicry, or through some direct engagement with a nonhuman. But here I want to clarify an ontological claim. The categorical distinction between ‘human’ and ‘nonhuman’ depends upon a more primary distinction between self and other that is the basic structure of consciousness, so if the primary distinction is unwarranted ontologically then so are subsequent distinctions dependent upon it. Further, if the organism and environment are already and always interpenetrated, then there is no possible product (including ideas, language, goals, technologies, etc.) that can come out of the organism that will not already also have the environment as co-conspirator in its elaboration. When a phenomenological examination of consciousness problematizes the agent, it provides further experiential evidence to the assertion that our being is grounded in a process that is bigger than it. This process may seem to include apparently ‘human’ thoughts but even when it does so, it is only because that is the way the process as a whole is constituting the experience at that time. And that process as a whole cannot itself be human. As we shall now see, the category ‘human’ is not self-generating but rather emerges out of particular physicochemical and biological properties of the world that have enabled the very possibility of ‘human’ existence and semiosis.

More-than-human from an empirical stance

From a third-person empirical perspective, the category “human” is also problematic for many reasons. First of all, the concept of a species with distinct and well-defined traits has become suspect. Not only is it unlikely that there are certain universal qualities that all so-called humans share (Hailwood, 2016), it is also uncertain whether or not many of those aspects we think define human existence are in fact exclusive to our species (such as syntactical communication (Gentner et al, 2006; Zuberbühler, 2002), tool-use (Seed and Byrne, 2010; Shumaker et al, 2011), empathy and sociality (de Waal, 2009; Beckoff, 2002), and inherited traditions (Avital and Jablonka 2000)). However, even if we do come across universal traits that are exclusive to humans, there are still a number of reciprocally determining ecological interactions, which challenge the notion that these traits are ‘our own.’ These go back to examining the nature of circular causality, now from an empirical point of view. Doing so reveals a number of different ways in which the human organism is interpenetrated by other biological systems that co-inform and collaborate in ‘human behaviour.’ Each of these are special cases of the general organism/environment developmental co-emergence described in the section on autopoiesis, above. I will sketch out some of these now.

From an empirical third-person perspective, organisms are influenced by their environments, which include various biotic and abiotic elements. Multicellular organisms have inner environments made up of such biotic and abiotic elements as well, and the individual cells in their bodies have their own inner and outer environments. On each of these scales, the organism is simultaneously constrained and enabled to behave in certain ways and not others by the particular dynamics that such interactants afford. It is possible to punctuate the interaction and to say that the organism is ‘the actor’ or ‘the responder’ depending on at what point we treat the beginning of the interaction and what point we consider its end, but interaction is an ongoing recursion which primarily does not differentiate between action and reaction. With abiotic objects, the object elicits behaviour or is acted upon (depending on the epistemological distinction made), but in any case, it changes and in turn alters subsequent elicitations/acts on the part of the organism. Sometimes this can lead to mutually interlocking recursions, positive feedback loops that create grooves or habits, and addictions. Instead of actors or reactors, we have interactors developing and breaking patterns of interaction.

First, by being open to an environment in general, human organisms are also open to particular other species. They are able to engage in ecological relationships where their behaviour is calibrated and choreographed through the ongoing co-evolutionary dynamic between their own and other species. Humans may either be interacting with other species directly or with the products of other species. According to niche construction theory (Odling-Smee et al, 2003), organisms construct niches by modifying their abiotic environments, which are in turn inherited by their own and other species (Odling-Smee, 2011). From a third-person perspective, the ecological worlds we live in are therefore composed by the present and past activities of nonhuman organisms. Not only the decisions, but also the nature of human languages and communicational systems, is informed by and inseparable from this larger sphere of more-than-human interactivities. According to Abram (1996), this influence has not disappeared, as it still imprints upon the melodies of the spoken word, which he believes often correspond with the regional soundscapes of the language-speakers’ surrounding ecological communities. According to Abram, such an attunement is “imperative for any culture still dependent upon foraging for its subsistence” (p. 140) because it helps people engage emotionally, empathetically, and perceptually in the environment of other species with whom they depend. Most words in modern usage, he argues, are direct descendants of concepts derived through encounters with the more-than-human and are still imbued (if perhaps now subdued) with their presence even if this is not generally recognized. In fact, in general, while thought and language are also involved in a causally circular relationship, each is also recursively interacting with the world itself, which is constantly updating and adjusting the use and meaning of words, offering new possibilities for metaphorical relation (Affifi, 2015).

Second, consider symbiosis, a phenomenon ubiquitous across the biosphere. An organism is often composed of countless other organisms within itself as it is also co-dependent on those around it. Humans are estimated to have ten times as many microbial cells as those with their own somatic DNA lines (Luckey, 1972)[2]. The form and behaviour of an organism is falsely reified when considered in isolation from the contributory influences circulating throughout by these collaborating organisms. From the mitochondria powering eukaryotic cells (Margulis, 1981) to the gut microbes turning on and off intestinal genes affecting their hosts’ moods and dispositions (Mayer et al, 2014; Dinan and Cryan, 2013), from emotion altering Toxoplasmosis (Pearce et al, 2012) to carbohydrate cravings induced by Prevotella (Alcock et al., 2014), we see the pervasive contribution of otherness in our humanness. The physiological point of view, just like the phenomenological one, reveals that human agency is entwined in perplexing symbiotic assemblages with causality distributed throughout and circulating in ongoing transactions between the wholes and their varied parts. Once this is realized, physiology provides yet another way to access thinking and perceiving that disrupt notions of linear human agency and enfold our felt experience back into the larger ecological webs of interaction that sustain it.

Technology as more-than-human

We also know intimately that our mental and emotional states are closely connected with our bodily states, which are themselves in ongoing intercourse with the world that the body is a part of. We cannot concentrate when we feel tired, we feel inebriated when we drink. We feel heavy when stratus clouds set low and imposingly overhead, but uplifted on crisp blue days. When Abram (1996) points out that the more-than-human makes us human, he is often referring to these sorts of experiences, which reveal the ongoing intercourse between ‘our’ emotional worlds and the dynamics of the ‘outer’ world. But now my iPhone squawks. I pull it out and do what it asks. It is set up according to a ‘human’ logic, its programs presenting options that succumb precisely to a seemingly unique cognition and fulfilling human goals by design. Its form and function appears as entirely ‘for’ us, in stark contrast to the grainy edges of granite or the white oak tree’s long, slow reach for the sky. Experiencing these diverse textures and sentiences that are concretely revealed phenomenologically as self-generating is important for a felt understanding that humans are not the sole sources of order on the planet. But do we really gain what we hope to through introducing a coarse binary by asserting that seemingly human technologies are devoid of alterity? Here again we must avoid concluding that more-than-humanizing our experience of technology would somehow flatten our perceptual worlds so much that there would be no reason to seek out, to admire and revere, to love and protect that places and things that are so obviously filled with nonhumanity.

The jagged granite remains an irreplaceable encounter at least in part because of the grace and ease at which it can pull us into visual and textual patterns so clearly not our own, and time scales vast enough to shrink anthropocentric pretensions. And yet, the iPhone has its more-than-humanness too, and the struggle with it is to uncover this dimension from beneath the thick sheen of apparent humanness. ‘Whose’ logic is the iPhone really designed for? And who, the designer? Who designed the logic that humans engage in and that the iPhone manifests? And who, the purposes that guide these designs? Surely both were not imported into the world but rather developed from within it. Does it really matter whether creative processes operate according to an imposed teleology, that the intricate patterns of ice freezing on a stream are not dictated from without, that intelligence in all its varied forms across the biosphere are the process and product of a giant complex system without ‘purpose?’ Instead of this insight diminishing our spellbound admiration of the products of intelligence, in a post-theological world we instead become stilled and inspired by the awesome power of the processes that created these intelligences in the first place. And these processes, though not themselves ‘intelligent’ are clearly able to produce more complex things than ‘intelligence’ itself can, evidenced by the fact that they have created, well… intelligence itself. Beneath the appearance of an iPhone’s human bling lies the fact that it, like everything else, is of a more-than-human process. Environmental education must seek to uncover the more than humanness residing in technology.

Further, as soon as the technology is created and deployed, it enters into circuits of processes, acting in unexpected ways that continuously defy our control (Latour, 2004; Bennett, 2010), with side effects becoming only imperfectly understood through use, stoking desires we hardly had or creating new ones entirely, seeding self-validating cascades that are neither human nor technological but the joint product of both along with all other processes involved. That we may be increasingly habituated to technologies that destroy meaningful life, of great suffering and carnage, is independent of the fact that the sheer power of these vast processes is awe-inspiring. The giant avalanche of technology driven capitalism is creating radically new forms of complexity while effacing others, a storm swept into, and now sweeping, existence. While Abram might ask us to stand before the awesome power of the giant spinning hurricane in the skies above, what other hurricanes are now spiralling away? An understanding of feedback only adds to the felt sense of their mystery and power. We can appreciate their immensity while fearing or hating its outcomes, and can recognize our powerlessness while still being a part of its future waning.

An abiding humility for anthropoholics?

One reviewer suggested I omit reference to addiction in this paper as it seemed to introduce an additional theme that would be difficult to substantiate within an article of this length. That may be the case. But I will risk doing so anyway as I see important parallels between the discussion of more-than-human that I have been developing and the alternative epistemology/ontology suggested by Gregory Bateson (1972) (and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)). First, there are similarities in the types of situations that AA and the more-than-humanizing project seek to remedy. In both cases, various interlocking historical, material, conceptual and emotional factors conspire to show the impossibility of simple willpower to be a sufficient catalyst for change. And yet, both alcoholics and environment-destroyers are often rallied by those around them to be strong in the face of these forces. When environmentalists and environmental educators call upon people to “be the change” they are invoking a similar belief in linear causal agency that leads the alcoholic to believe that he or she can control the addiction. Friends and family cheer on the alcoholic in much the same way as David Suzuki’s Blue Dot campaign calls on individuals to take action.’ As this paper suggests, admitting that one is not strong enough is not necessarily to admit defeat. For Alcoholics Anonymous, recognizing that one is part of a field of processes that one cannot control is seen as the beginning of health. It marks the beginning of a correction of a pathological epistemology, pathological because the very belief in one’s own ‘power’ fed into a broader positive feedback loop that exacerbated the very conditions one was attempting to resist. The destructiveness of some more-than-human things are often partially the result of the fact that we mistake them as ‘human,’ and do not approach them with the circumspection required in the face of any wild and powerful process. If causality is circular in the way that is becoming clear in the ecological sciences, then there is no way out of it. We are trapped in the belly of the Chthulucene (Haraway, 2015), a massive many-faced creature with countless tentacles reaching across and transforming the planet, sucking us up into itself, and spiralling in its frenzy towards some seemingly abominable end.

We need to replace a concept of linear causality with one that recognizes feedback. This can initiate the positive feedback of accelerating destruction into the negative feedback characterized by balance and regulation. Further steps in the AA program are directly aimed at creating and maintaining such negative feedback, by establishing a community, a discourse, and a set of practices that continually remind the alcoholic that she has very little causal potency within these broader dynamics. Whether or not psychologists will agree that we legitimately have another addiction here, whether or not we are anthropoholics addicted to a certain conception of unique and linear agency in the universe, is a moot point. I personally think that being locked in positive feedback such that solutions only re-enforce the problem invites such a diagnosis but it is not necessary to argue over the use of terminology. There are obviously unanswered questions and it is not clear when the metaphor will break down: will we, or should we ‘hit bottom’ as AA demands occur? Are there withdrawal effects from not being anthropocentric? Can one really be addicted to a set of concepts or mental habits? And so on. In any case, what is apparent is that completing Abram’s task of more-than-humanizing things in our experiential field that appear as dearly human is a move consonant with the epistemological remedies that AA proposes.

In an online essay, Abram articulates a mood underlying all his work: “An abiding humility in the face of the Earth’s exuberant multiplicity, wildness, and weirdness is, I believe, a necessary quality of our kind and the best possible medicine for what ails us” (2013). His call for humility insists that humans are most beautiful and wise when they are receptive to the beauty and wisdom around them and that they suffer and decay when they become enthralled in the seeming glitter and majesty of their own making. In what seems fitting coincidence, Abram is clearly speaking within the bounds of his namesake, the Abrahamic tradition (“Humble yourself before the Lord, and He will lift you up” (James 4:10), but is calling for this same orientation towards the immanent instead of the transcendent. I call for this too. For Abram, this humility is generated through contact with the more-than-human which is immanent within experience but increasingly difficult to encounter.

I agree with Abram that humility is essential for a rich human experience and for the ongoing sustenance of our species and those of the planet. It should be a key concern for education at all levels. As we have explored, the question becomes: well, what is human, anyway? What does it mean to focus on the human instead of the more-than-human? As we have seen, when we try to answer this question, it becomes apparent that much of what we thought was human was already more-than-human, and much more more-than-human than we might suppose. This is true of thought, of technologies, of our bodies, and of all our alleged ingenuities. We praise our brains for their cognition but the praise is misdirected because without certain gut bacteria we would never have sufficient and appropriate neurotransmitters to think well in the first place (Reardon, 2014; indeed Sagan (2011) has called our symbiotic bodies “more-than-human”). We praise our capacity to think but cognition is only possible through the organization of countless cells, each one alive and responsive to its environment, co-evolving for millions of years and orchestrating a wondrous feedback loop that marries the body and the environment. Phenomenologically, it has been pointed out, at least since Nietzsche, that a “thought comes when ‘it wishes’” (2000, p. 214) and as we’ve seen, thinking does not conform to a subject-object structure. We seem immersed in the cascades and ebbs of a cognitive process circulating between our self and our world, and not as ‘captains’ of the vessel. Wherever we look, whatever we think ‘we’ have done collapses into countless circulating causes and factors responsible for producing outcomes that we did not invent and cannot control.

Growing numbers of geologists, ecologists, and now social scientists and humanities scholars, point out that there are few, if any, ‘natural’ places left on Earth. We are continually reminded that even the most remote ecosystems have been affected in countless ways by our species. I’ve tried to suggest here that extending what we label ‘human’ outward is arbitrary, hubristic, and ultimately counterproductive. While it is possible to see our print in all that catches our eye, it is just as easy to pull apart apparently human things and expose the colossal number of interactions, conditions, and processes that bear the print of a wild otherness, of unexpectedness, of causal relationships that are not of our own origin. If the issue is a need for humility and the consequent shift in attitude and behaviour it entails, then we ought to acknowledge that in all phenomena, both those protective and destructive of the intricate community of life around us, it is difficult, even paradoxical, to establish how and where the human is intervening.

Consequently, neither Abram’s dichotomy between human things and more-than-humans nor that between sensorial and abstract experiences hold as tightly as he suggests. And his holding these dichotomies strongly are what impede the full realization of the project he initiated. The challenge for educators is to assist learners in understanding how current ways of understanding confuse by falsely separating the abstract and the human from the sensory and the more-than-human, and how these understandings can be shifted to foster acknowledgement of the varied creative capacities that gave—and give—birth to all things. Perhaps we are all anthropoholics through and through. In any case, it is a suggestive warning. We must abandon our assumption of having untenable causal potency and uniqueness as agents (of greatness or destruction) in the biosphere. Educators seeking to restore sensitivity, appreciation, and responsiveness to the secular—albeit reverence-worthy—forces that flow across the planet need to be ever vigilant at exposing conceptual frameworks that desiccate such experiences even while offering potential solutions to the problems at hand.


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Abram, David. 2007. Earth in eclipse. In Merleau-Ponty and environmental philosophy, edited by Suzanne L. Cataldi & William S. Hamrick, 149-176.

Abram, David. 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. New York: Random House.

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Bateson, Gregory. 1972. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

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Hailwood, Simon. 2016. Anthropocene: Delusion, celebration and concern. In Environmental politics and governance in the Anthropocene: Institutions and legitimacy in a complex world, edited by Philipp Pattberg & Fariborz Zelli, 47-61. New York, NY: Routledge.

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[1] “Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does” (1947 [2007], p. 27).

[2] Some more recent estimates are more conservative. For example, Sender, Milo and Fuchs (2016) think it is closer to 3.9 to 3 (in favour of bacteria). But the point is much the same: ‘we’ are a superorganism and it is baffling to figure out what role the human ‘I’ subject plays in it.

Goodbye Anthropocene – Hello Symbiocene

Cathy Fitzgerald

eco-social art practices for a new world

Article: Revised 24 Oct. 2019

Dawn of the Symbiocene, Photo: Cathy Fitzgerald, 2019

Dawn of the Symbiocene, Photo: Cathy Fitzgerald, 2019


In 2013, after giving up her professorship to rally the world about the moral imperative to save life on Earth, environmental philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore asked

“If you house is on fire what should you do? […] Of course, you put out the fire – there are children in that house, there are billions of children in that house…”[1]

In 2019, Greta Thunberg embodies Kathleen’s concerns:

“I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”[2]
Dara and his mother in Hollywood Forest (2016) Photo: Cathy Fitzgerald

Dara and his mother in Hollywood Forest (2016) Photo: Cathy Fitzgerald

This article is for a young boy I know who is called Dara. His name is the Irish word for Ireland’s great Oak tree, trees that signalled Ireland’s once rich ecological past and former beautiful lands. Dara has long loved my Hollywood Forest Story work[3]. He says ‘It’s epic!’ and loved our late dog Holly dearly, who was the namesake and co-founder of my forest-art work. I heard recently his biggest wish is that his grandfather, a farmer, might give him 2 acres to plant as a permanent forest with many, many Oak trees.

The planetary emergency we are facing is a crisis of Western civilization

The planetary emergency is specifically a crisis of dominant Western civilization that has over millennia viewed itself separate from and superior to the natural world.[4] In Strangely Like War: The Global Assault on Forests (2004), US writer Derrick Jensen recounts that the earliest written records of Western civilization tell of King Gilgamesh in Mesopotamia felling great cedar forests for glory and power.[5]

Today human activities affect planetary processes.[6] Geologists describe this unprecedented epoch where one species is affecting the viability of life on Earth as the Anthropocene – the age of man.  While some geologists debate that the Anthropocene age begins with the Great Acceleration of industrialization after World War II, the story of Gilgamesh reveals Western civilization’s pattern of ecocide probably arose thousands of years ago.

Welcome to the Anthropocene

In 2012, climate scientists were trying valiantly to convey the planetary crisis and some began to use the Anthropocene to frame the planetary emergency. Some commissioned audio-visual communicators and one video produced and shown at the 2012 Planet under Pressure summit[7] went viral – it was called ‘Welcome to the Anthropocene’. Given this global platform, the idea of the Anthropocene entered the humanities and some contemporary art discourse.

In the short ‘Welcome to the Anthropocene’ video[8] I initially admired the Earthrise-type imagery. The animations graphically depicted the effects of man on Earth thousands of years ago. And, it collated masses of recent scientific data to visualise ‘the great acceleration’ of destruction occurring by man’s activities in recent decades.[9] But instead of declaring alarm, a narrator comfortingly conveyed admiration for our Anthropocene and suggested that we had the ability, the science, the technology to overcome difficulties. I wrote an essay soon after as I felt that this Anthropocene story was problematic.[10]

The Age of the Sociopath

For the developing story of the Anthropocene, I more identify with Jensen’s arguments against it.[11] Jensen argues this Anthropocene story is ‘grossly misleading and narcissistic’. He argues that ‘[m]ankind aren’t the ones “transforming” – read, killing – the planet. Civilized humans are!’  He identifies that the Anthropocene story all too easily obscures the fact that indigenous people, as in his area, existed for thousands of years without destroying their environments.

Jensen argues the Age of the Anthropocene has been an era of gross ecocide and violence against more Earth-aligned cultures and that it should instead be called ‘The Age of the Sociopath’.[12]  The US sociologist Charles Derber’s extensive thesis confirms modern industrial civilization is a sociopathic society[13] and the late Native American writer Jack D Forbes’ insists that Columbus’ conquest of North America is a form of cannibalism against life, ‘wetiko’ in his language, that extends to modern times.[14] More recently, I feel the story of the Anthropocene exemplifies a globalising identity of white privilege that overlooks the other.

The Capitalocene, or the Plantationocene, or the Chthulucene

Others have offered alternatives to the Anthropocene, Jason Moore offers the Capitalocene which identifies unrestrained capital accumulation as the main culprit of the recent Great Acceleration.[15] Donna Harraway argues the Capitalocene is useful, and she also introduces the related term Plantationocene.[16] Coined in 2014, the Plantationocene resonates strongly with my focus that significant harm to the Earth has been inflicted by industrial culture’s anti-ecological monoculture plantation practices. Naming any violence, like domestic violence or ecocide, is an important first step to overcome cultures of harm.[17]

But when we know our Earth is on fire and that monoculture madness is causing Earth’s life support systems to collapse, ideas to help us move away from our erroneous ecocidal world-view are urgently needed. When today’s climate scientists are pronouncing an endgame in a decade unless we radically change our ways, Harraway’s next move to depart from pinpointing the causes of the Anthropocene, to formulate the Chthulucene, her concept of a living, thriving interconnected Earth composed of man and other species, is relevant. She argues this more encompassing term might more fully acknowledge humanity’s ecological past and envision its slim possibility of restorative relations with the Earth and its inhabitants.

The Symbiocene

However, in 2016, I was immediately impressed with an essay entitled ‘Exiting the Anthropocene and Entering the Symbiocene’[18] from Australian Philosopher and former Professor of Sustainability, Glenn Albrecht. Albrecht’s Symbiocene follows his significant work to develop new words and concepts, like solastalgia,[19] now used internationally by eco-psychologists and legal experts to identify and argue the validity of severe emotional distress and mental health conditions experienced by people living next to destroyed environments.

The Symbiocene is where humanity has to go if it wishes to survive. Albrecht’s term Symbiocene offers a similar vision to Harraway’s Chthulucene as they both refer to revelations of new symbiotic science. Albrecht offers an extensive philosophical and psycho-social framework and new terminology for the Symbiocene age in his book Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World.[20]

Symbiotic science helps envision an ecological era

Having previously worked in science research, and with my interest in ecological forestry, I had been following the new science of symbiosis. As I already viewed my eco-social art practice in advocating ecological forestry, as fundamentally restoring symbiotic biodiversity, I recognised the importance of Albrecht’s work for the planetary emergency.

Albrecht’s Symbiocene directly connects with symbiotic science that confirms that life survives and thrives through interrelated mutuality between many species. As Albrecht writes, ‘symbiosis has now emerged as a primary determinant of the conditions of life’(Ibid.) Supporting this argument, Professor of Forest Ecology, Suzanne Simard has particularly popularised advances in symbiotic science through her public TED talks on ‘Mother Trees’[21] and forests. Her and others’ research confirms different tree species in forests signal and send nutrients via vast networks of fungi – the wood-wide web. Importantly her symbiotic studies reveal that forests, the most complex and adaptable systems ever to evolve, do well because ‘forests are super-cooperators’.[22] Simard’s and others’ symbiotic science is revolutionising the still dominant story of evolution as competition toward a radical understanding that life exists from a cooperation between all species.

Simard also recognises, like Jensen, that indigenous people’s cultural activities helped ensure their forests flourished. Correspondingly, as most of the Earth’s biodiversity remains in areas where indigenous people live, there is much to learn from other nonWestern cultures. Albrecht also makes an important observation for young women when he highlights the considerable pushback against Simard’s peer-reviewed forest science and other early champions of ecological and symbiotic thinking who were female is evidence of the ‘threat to the patriarchy, reductionism, and mechanism that have long ruled in academia, science, commerce, and industry’.[23]

Evolution as competition, expressed in Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’, emboldened The Enlightenment Age to view mankind as independent from and superior to the rest of life. With Christian religion more concerned with the hereafter, modern Western society was given permission to view other life on Earth as a resource for progress. Albrecht reflects the other deadly delusions promoted by the Enlightenment; individualism, dualism and human exceptionalism underline today’s prevalent and now globalized anti-ecological worldview, adding today’s neoliberal ideology hasn’t helped.[24]

‘New Words for a New World’ – ‘Soliphilia’

Albrecht’s new book is important and I can only touch on some of his key Psychoterratic concepts and terms that he uses to construct a vision of the Symbiocene. Importantly, he visualises the Earth’s next-generation, Generation S (shortened as ‘Gen S’) having an increased awareness of how life is dependent on symbiotic wellbeing. He believes that this will foster specific emotional states to protect life locally. This promotes what he calls ‘soliphilia’, a deep love of place that inspires communities toward a newfound ecological yet secular spirituality, and critically, toward embracing life-sustaining politics.

Soliphilia expands my perception to understand the agency, the social power to protect ecosystems, that regularly arises from situated eco-social art practices (my term for ecological art practice[25]). My ongoing eco-social art practice in which I have explored ecological forestry to transform the monoculture plantation I live in, fosters strong soliphilia[26] in me. As this small 2.5 acre forest, that we call Hollywood, provides me with air, occasional fuel to keep me warm, much solace and birdsong, it only took a few years after I began my practice to notice a keen sense to protect this forest’s thriving permanently.

After consulting a lawyer colleague, I knew I could not legally prevent Hollywood being clear-felled once I wasn’t on the land. But with dialogue with leading Irish foresters who were beginning to explore European continuous cover forestry and with my connections to the Irish Green Party, I found my self advancing national ecological forest policy[27] and then successfully lobbying support for the late Polly Higgins’ ecocide law[28].Hollywood, ‘the little wood that could’ is a small 2-acre Close-to-Nature continuous cover forest growing under the Blackstairs Mountains, in South County Carlow, Ireland. Photo: Martin Lyttle

Hollywood, ‘the little wood that could’ is a small 2-acre Close-to-Nature continuous cover forest growing under the Blackstairs Mountains, in South County Carlow, Ireland. Photo: Martin Lyttle

In this way, I was surprised but proud of how my practice had enabled Hollywood forest to become the story of ‘the little wood that could’.

‘Sumbioregionalism’ – fostered through eco-social art practices

My creative practice is very modest in scale. I am observing with interest, others’ like Northern Ireland artist-researcher Dr Anita McKeown’s more extensive situated eco-social art practice that is unfolding over several years with the support of the Irish Environmental Protection Agency. In her co-designed, resilience project, ‘Co-Des-Res’, she has established a multidisciplinary ecology and art team that is building localised ecoliteracy for and with the community who live in the Iveragh Peninsula, Co. Kerry (see the newsletters on this site to gain an overview of all the community engagement).[29] At the moment, McKeown is framing the work through extensive knowledge of creative permaculture and place-making and employing the colourful, and increasingly understood symbols of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. However, I can see such work is contributing to what Albrecht sees as an inevitable ‘sumbioregionalism’ and that this is a contribution to the Symbiocene.[30]

Albrecht defines a ‘sumbioregion’ as an ‘identifiable biophysical and cultural geographical space where humans live together and engage in a common pursuit of the reestablishment and creation of new symbiotic interrelationships between humans, nonhuman organisms, and landscapes’.[31] The cultural and environmental programmes of the West of Ireland’s Burrenbeo Trust is another great example.[32]

Importantly, as a past Professor of Sustainability, Albrecht is well versed to understand that the UN’s sustainable development concept has failed to halt ecosystem collapse. In his new work he shares that in the development of a jurisprudence system for Earth Justice, the United Nations has endorsed his Symbiocene framework when it confirmed that ‘current approaches to the Anthropocene epoch needs to be expanded.’ He quotes the  UN (2016) which states:

concepts such as the Symbiocene, an era when human action, culture and enterprise would nurture the mutual interdependence of the greater community and promote the health of all ecosystems, are more promising and solution-oriented.’[33]

However, perhaps we might ask is the Symbiocene is an overly optimistic framework? Yet Albrecht doesn’t shy away from troubling transitional and possibly violent periods ahead. These realities are unfolding as UK Professor Jem Bendell’s (2018) paper on confirmed nonlinear climate breakdown and how to navigate the ensuing societal collapse affirms. Bendell’s paper, downloaded over 300,000 times in recent months, calls for truth, emotional support, activism and much work for what he is framing as a necessary deep adaptation to collapse.[34] Here I argue that Albrecht’s detailed preview of the emotional, moral, generational, cultural, spiritual, technological and political aspects of the Symbiocene, covers how we might deeply envision and honourably adapt to an uncertain future. As the Earth’s children are rising, a clear detailed framework on how to achieve a better, more beautiful world with other extraordinary lifeforms is surely of immense value.

In 2014, the late Dr Chris Seeley, an artist, action researcher and sustainability educator nominated me to attend a global New Story Summit at Findhorn, Scotland. Over 300 attendees: young people, indigenous people, scientists, environmental lawyers, game developers, storytellers, educators, group workers and a few eco-artists came together for a week in Findhorn’s Universal Hall. The theme of the Summit took inspiration from the great geo-theologian Thomas Berry’s seminal essay ‘The New Story’ in which he emphasised that the World desperately needs a new story that conveys an ecological worldview.[35] To me, the Symbiocene is the New Story.

IMG_6376Cathy Fitzgerald, PhD, is a New Zealander, eco-social artist, researcher and educator now living in Ireland. She completed her PhD by Practice The Ecological Turn: Living Well with Forests to articulate eco-social art practice using Guattari’s ecosophy and action research, in 2018, at the National College of Art and Design in Ireland. She continues her ongoing Hollywood Forest Story adventures with new rescue dog Willow. She is currently sharing her ecoliteracy learning to other creative workers through online courses at www.haumea.ie


This paper was supported by Dr. Nessa Cronin, Irish Studies, National University of Galway and Professors Karen Till and Gerry Kearns, Maynooth University, Ireland for the Art & Geography: Art, Activism and Social Engagement in the Age of the Capitalocene panel at the 7th EUGeo Congress in Galway, Ireland, 16 May, 2019. I also wish to acknowledge Dr Frances Fahy and Dr. Kathy Reilly (EUGEO Conference Co-Chairs and organisers) for the bursary that enabled me to attend the Congress. This paper was also presented at the Trinity College Dublin ‘Art in the Anthropocene‘ 3-day International Conference’, on 7th June,2019, through the invitation of  Professor Steve Wilmer and Dr. Yvonne Scott.

This article is re-published in the book “Plasticity for the Planet: On Environmental Challenge for Arts and its Institutions” by editor Magdalena Ziolkowska,Centre for Contemporary Art U-jazdowski Castle, Warsaw. Milan: Mousse Publishing. This book accompanies the international exhibition Human-Free Earth (2019) curated by Jaroslaw Lubiak.


  1. Dean Moore, ‘If Your House is on Fire’, 23 September 2013, https://youtu.be/6IRbqKYOcrY
  2. G. Thunberg, ‘“Our House is on Fire:”: Greta Thunberg, 16, urges leaders to act on climate’, The Guardian, 25 January, 2019.
  3. https://hollywoodforest.com/
  4.  D. Jensen  The Myth of Human Supremacy. New York: Seven Stories Press, (2016).
  5. Jensen &  G. Draffan, Strangely Like War: The Global Assault on Forests. New York: Green Books, Totnes, UK. (2004)
  6. IPCC , Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty. [V. Masson-Delmotte, P. Zhai, H. O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P.R. Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J. B. R. Matthews, Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M. I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, T. Maycock, M. Tignor, T. Waterfield (eds.)]. 2018.
  7. http://www.igbp.net/events/event/planetunderpressurenewknowledgetowardssolutions.5.1b8ae20512db692f2a6800015489.html
  8. https://youtu.be/fvgG-pxlobk
  9. Steffen, Wendy Broadgate, Lisa Deutsch, Owen Gaffney, Cornelia Ludwig ‘The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration’, The Anthropocene Review, Volume: 2 issue: 1, 2015: 81-98.
  10. See: C. Fitzgerald, The Anthropocene: 10 000 years of ecocidehttps://hollywoodforest.com/2012/05/12/the-anthropocene-10-000-years-of-ecocide/
  11.  D. Jensen, ‘Age of the Sociopath’. Spring. Earth Island Institute, 2013, http://www.earthisland.org/journal/index.php/magazine/entry/age_of_the_sociopath/
  12.  Ibid.
  13.  C. Derber, Sociopathic Society: A People’s Sociology of the United States. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2013.
  14. J.D. Forbes, Columbus and Other Cannibals: The Wetiko Disease of Exploitation, Imperialism, and Terrorism. Seven Stories Press; 1978, revised edition, November 4, 2008. See also http://artforclimatechange.org/geo-engineering-is-wetikoism-at-its-worst/?fbclid=IwAR3fuDc6XllWxuOoCXYO_7a2vjOS2dDlQuKB3X3nDIa9jGGaN-0ypgvI-GM
  15. J. Moore, ed., Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism. Oakland: PM Press, 2016.
  16. D. Harraway,  ‘Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin’. Environmental Humanities, Vol. 6, 2015: 159-165.
  17. C. Fitzgerald, The Hollywood Forest Story: Living Well with a Forest to Explain Eco-Social Art Practice, free-to-download audio-visual eBook, Apple iBook Store, 2018: 77, https://books.apple.com/ie/book/the-hollywood-forest-story/id1441958722
  18. Glenn Albrecht, ‘Exiting the Anthropocene and Entering the Symbiocene’, https://www.humansandnature.org/exiting-the-anthropocene-and-entering-the-symbiocene
  19. Glenn Albrecht, ‘The Age of Solastalgia’, http://theconversation.com/the-age-of-solastalgia-8337
  20. Glenn Albrecht, Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World, Cornell University Press, 2019. Kindle edition.
  21. Cathy Fitzgerald, ‘Mother Trees – the Earth’s network for Resilience’, https://hollywoodforest.com/2013/03/10/mother-trees-the-earthss-networks-for-resilience/
  22. Suzanne Simard, How trees talk to each otherhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Un2yBgIAxYs&feature=youtu.be
  23. See 20.
  24. Ibid.
  25. https://hollywoodforest.com/portfolio/what-is-eco-social-art-practice/
  26. Glenn Albrecht, ‘Solastalgia, Soliphilia, Eutierria and Art’, https://glennaalbrecht.com/2016/06/27/solastalgia-soliphilia-eutierria-and-art/
  27. C. Fitzgerald, ‘Continuous Cover Forests Key in [Irish] Green Party’s New Forest Policy’, 2013, https://www.greenparty.ie/continuous-cover-forests-key-in-green-party/
  28. C. Fitzgerald, [Irish] ‘Greens unanimously adopt motion to end ecocide; a new legal framework to prevent fracking and other pollution’, 2013, ‘https://www.greenparty.ie/greens-unanimously-adopt-motion-to-end-ecocide-a-new-legal-framework-to-prevent-fracking-and-other-pollution/ See also http://www.stopecocide.earth
  29. http://www.codesres.ie
  30. G, Albrecht, Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World, Cornell University Press, 2019. Kindle edition.
  31. Ibid.
  32. https://burrenbeo.com/
  33. See 30.
  34. J, Bendell, Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy. IFLAS Occasional Paper 2. 2018. https://www.lifeworth.com/deepadaptation.pdf
  35. T, Berry ‘The New Story’, Teilhard Studies, 1978, no. 1 (winter). [A video excerpt of Thomas Berry discussing his 1978 Teilhard Studies monograph entitled “The New Story” at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia in 1984. This is one in a series of Thomas Berry videos which were recorded by Lou Niznik and re-mastered by Wes Pascoe. Lou’s video library was donated by Jane Blewett to the Thomas Berry Foundation in 2012. The re-mastered video series was produced by Don Smith of Calgary, Alberta with executive supervision by Mary Evelyn Tucker. https://youtu.be/rS5byHRScVY

Galway, Ireland

The Climate-Migration-Industrial Complex

First published here on the Public Seminar web site: January 10, 2020

Thomas Nail

Associate professor of Philosophy at the University of Denver

Thirty years ago there were fifteen border walls around the world. Now there are seventy walls and over one billion national and international migrants. International migrants alone may even double in the next forty years due to global warming. It is not surprising that over the past two decades, we have also seen the rise of an increasingly powerful global climate-security market designed to profit from (and help sustain) these crises. The construction of walls and fences to block rising sea levels and incoming people has become one of the world’s fastest growing industries, alongside the detention and deportation of migrants, and is projected to reach $742 billion by 2023. I believe we are witnessing the emergence of what we might call a “climate-migration-industrial complex.”

This complex is composed of private companies who profit by securitizing nation-states from the effects of climate-related events, including migration. This includes private detention centers, border construction companies, surveillance technology consultants and developers, deportation and transportation contractors, and a growing army of other subcontractors profiting from insecurity more broadly. Every feature of this crisis complex is an opportunity for profit. For example, even when security measures “fail” and migrants cross borders illegally, or remain beyond their visas to live without status as “criminals,” there is an entire wing of private companies paid to hunt them down, detain them, and deport them just across the border, where they can return and begin the market cycle all over again. Each step in the “crimmigration” process now has its own cottage industry and dedicated army of lobbyists to perpetuate the laws that support it.

Here is the incredible double paradox that forms the backbone of the climate-migration-industrial complex: right-wing nationalists and their politicians claim they want to deport all undocumented migrants, but if they did, they would destroy their own economy. Capitalists, on the other hand, want to grow the economy with migrant labor (any honest economist will tell you that immigration almost always leads to growth in GDP), but if that labor is too expensive, then it’s not nearly as profitable.

Trump is the Janus-faced embodiment of this anti-immigrant, pro-economy dilemma and the solution to it — not that he necessarily knows it. With one hand, migrant labor is strategically criminalized and devalorized by a xenophobic state, and with the other, it is securitized and hyper-exploited by the economy. It is a win-win situation for right-wing capitalists but a crucial element is still missing: what will continue to compel migrants to leave their homes and work as exploited criminals in an increasingly xenophobic country?

This is where the figure of the climate migrant comes in. What we call “climate migrants” or “climate refugees” are not the victims of merely “natural disasters,” because climate change is not a strictly natural process — it is also highly political. The causes of climate-related migration are disproportionately produced by rich Western countries and the effects are disproportionately suffered by poorer countries. The circumstances that determine who is forced to migrate are also influenced by the history of colonialism, global inequality, and the same conditions that have propelled economic migration for decades. In short, the fact that climate change benefits the perpetrators of climate destruction by producing an increasing supply of desperate, criminalized, physically and economically displaced laborers is no coincidence. In fact, it is the key to the Trump “solution.”

Another key is the use of climate change to acquire new land. When people are forced to migrate out of a territory, or when frozen territories thaw, new lands, waters, and forests become open to extractive industries like mining, drilling, fishing, and logging. Trump’s recent (and ridiculous) bid to buy the thawing territory of Greenland for its oil and gas reserves is one example of this. Climate-stricken urban areas open up new real estate markets, as the gentrification of New Orleans after hurricane Katrina illustrated. In other words, climate change might not mean the end of capitalism, but rather could actually signal its resurgence from current falling rates of ecological profit. During colonialism, everything and everyone that could be easily appropriated (oil, slaves, old-growth forests, etc.), was gobbled up. The workers who are left today under post-colonialism demand more money and more rights. The minerals left are more expensive to extract. This is why capitalists have increasingly retreated to financial speculation, and now to monetizing their own crises.

If only there were new ways, the capitalist dreams, to kick start the economy and cheaply dislodge huge numbers of people from their land, devalorize their labor, and then appropriate that labor extremely cheaply. In other words, if climate change did not exist, capitalism would have to create it. Luckily for the capitalists, it does exist, because they did create it. Climate migrants now form what we might call a “disposable climate labor army,” conscripted out of a standing reserve of global poverty from wherever the next climate-related disaster strikes, and deployed wherever capitalism demands precarious, securitized, and criminalized labor to be exploited.

We need to rethink the whole framing of the climate migration “crisis.” Among other things, we need a more movement-oriented political theory to grapple better with the highly mobile events of our time — what I call a “kinopolitics.” The advent of the Capitalocene/Kinocene makes possible today the insight that nature, humans, and society have always been in motion. Humans are and have always been fundamentally migratory, just as the climate and the earth are. These twin insights might sound obvious today, but if taken seriously, they offer a complete inversion of the dominant interpretive paradigms of the climate and migration crises.

Humans and Earth have always been in motion, but not all patterns of motion are the same. There is no natural, normal, or default state of the earth or of human society. Therefore, we have to study the patterns of circulation that make possible these metastable states and not take them as given. This is what I have tried to work out in The Figure of the Migrant (2015) and Theory of the Border (2016). Unfortunately, the dominant framework for thinking about the climate and migrant crises is currently upside down. It starts from the perspective of a triple stasis: 1) that the earth and human society are in some sense separable and static, or at least stable, structures; 2) that the future should continue to be stable as well; and 3) that if there is not stability, then there is a “crisis.” Mobility, then, is a crisis only if we assume that there was or should be stasis in the first place. For example, migrants are said to destabilize society, and climate change is said to destabilize the earth.

From a kinopolitical perspective, we can see that the opposite is, in fact, true: Humans were first migratory, and only later settled into more metastable patterns of social-circulation (made historically possible by the social expulsion and dispossession of others). Migrants are not outside society but have played a productive and reproductive role throughout history. Migrant movements are constitutive and even transformative elements of society, rather than exceptional or marginal phenomena. The real question is how we ever came to act and think as if societies were not processes of social circulation that relied on migration as their conditions of reproduction. The earth, too, was first migratory, and only later did it settle into metastable patterns of geological and atmospheric circulation (e.g. the Holocene). Why did we ever think of the earth as a stable surface, immune from human activity in the first place?

The problem with the prevailing interpretation of climate change and migration is that the flawed paradigm that has defined the “crisis,” the notion of stasis, is also proposed as the solution “Let’s just get things back to normal stability again.” In short, I think a new paradigm is needed that does not use the same tools that generated the “crisis” to solve it — i.e. capitalism, colonialism, and the nation-state.

Today’s migrant “crisis” is a product of the paradox at the heart of the capitalist, territorial nation-state form, just as the climate crisis is an expression of the paradox at the heart of anthropocentrism. The solutions, therefore, will not come from the forms in crisis but only from the birth of new forms-in-motion that begin with the theoretical primacy of the very characteristic that is dissolving the old forms: the inherent mobility of the migrant climate and the climate migrant.

Thomas Nail is associate professor of philosophy at the University of Denver, working on a series of books on the philosophy of movement. His most recent book is Theory of the Image (Oxford University Press, 2018).

Keywords: CapitalismClimateClimate CrisisEconomicsForced migrationMigrationPolitics

Destroyer of Worlds

George Monbiot

New research suggests there was no state of grace: for two million years humankind has been the natural world’s nemesis.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 25th March 2014

You want to know who we are? Really? You think you do, but you will regret it. This article, if you have any love for the world, will inject you with a venom – a soul-scraping sadness – without an obvious antidote.

The Anthropocene, now a popular term among scientists, is the epoch in which we live: one dominated by human impacts on the living world. Most date it from the beginning of the industrial revolution. But it might have begun much earlier, with a killing spree that commenced two million years ago. What rose onto its hindlegs on the African savannahs was, from the outset, death: the destroyer of worlds.

Before Homo erectus, perhaps our first recognisably-human ancestor, emerged in Africa, the continent abounded with monsters. There were several species of elephants. There were sabretooths and false sabretooths, giant hyaenas and creatures like those released in The Hunger Games: amphicyonids, or bear dogs, vast predators with an enormous bite.

Amphicyonid ("bear dog") skeleton

Amphicyonid (“bear dog”) skeleton

Professor Blaire van Valkenburgh has developed a means by which we could roughly determine how many of these animals there were(1). When there are few predators and plenty of prey, the predators eat only the best parts of the carcass. When competition is intense, they eat everything, including the bones. The more bones a carnivore eats, the more likely its teeth are to be worn or broken. The breakages in carnivores’ teeth were massively greater in the pre-human era(2).

Blaire van Valkenburgh's tooth breakage graph

Blaire van Valkenburgh’s tooth breakage graph

Not only were there more species of predators, including species much larger than any found on earth today, but they appear to have been much more abundant – and desperate. We evolved in a terrible, wonderful world – that was no match for us.

Homo erectus possessed several traits that appear to have made it invincible: intelligence, cooperation; an ability to switch to almost any food when times were tough; and a throwing arm that allowed it to do something no other species has ever managed – to fight from a distance. (The increasing distance from which we fight is both a benchmark and a determinant of human history). It could have driven giant predators off their prey and harried monstrous herbivores to exhaustion and death.

As the paleontologists Lars Werdelin and Margaret Lewis show, the disappearance of much of the African megafauna appears to have coincided with the switch towards meat eating by human ancestors(3). The great extent and strange pattern of extinction (concentrated among huge, specialist animals at the top of the food chain) is not easy to explain by other means.

At the Oxford megafauna conference last week, I listened as many of the world’s leading scientists in this field mapped out a new understanding of the human impact on the planet(4). Almost everywhere we went, humankind erased a world of wonders, changing the way the biosphere functions. For example, modern humans arrived in Europe and Australia at about the same time – between 40 and 50,000 years ago – with similar consequences. In Europe, where animals had learnt to fear previous versions of the bipedal ape, the extinctions happened slowly. Within some 10 or 15,000 years, the continent had lost its straight-tusked elephants, forest rhinos, hippos, hyaenas and monstrous scimitar cats.

Straight tusked elephants once dominated the British ecosystem

Straight tusked elephants once dominated the British ecosystem

In Australia, where no hominim had set foot before modern humans arrived, the collapse was  almost instant. The rhinoceros-sized wombat(5), the ten-foot kangaroo, the marsupial lion, the monitor lizard larger than a Nile crocodile(6), the giant marsupial tapir, the horned tortoise as big as a car(7) – all went, in ecological terms, overnight.

Giant monitor lizard skeleton

Giant monitor lizard skeleton

A few months ago, a well-publicised paper claimed that the great beasts of the Americas – mammoths and mastodons, giant ground sloths, lions and sabretooths, eight-foot beavers(8), a bird with a 26-foot wingspan(9) – could not have been exterminated by humans, because the fossil evidence for their extinction marginally pre-dates the evidence for human arrival(10).

I have never seen a paper demolished as elegantly and decisively as this was at last week’s conference. The archaeologist Todd Surovell demonstrated that the mismatch is just what you would expect if humans were responsible(11). Mass destruction is easy to detect in the fossil record: in one layer bones are everywhere, in the next they are nowhere. But people living at low densities with basic technologies leave almost no traces. With the human growth rates and kill rates you’d expect in the first pulse of settlement (about 14,000 years ago), the great beasts would have lasted only 1,000 years. His work suggests that the most reliable indicator of human arrival in the fossil record is a wave of large mammal extinctions.

These species were not just ornaments of the natural world. The new work presented at the conference suggests that they shaped the rest of the ecosystem. In Britain during the last interglacial period, elephants, rhinos and other great beasts maintained a mosaic of habitats: a mixture of closed canopy forest, open forest, glade and sward(12). In Australia, the sudden flush of vegetation that followed the loss of large herbivores caused stacks of leaf litter to build up, which became the rainforests’ pyre: fires (natural or manmade) soon transformed these lush places into dry forest and scrub(13).

In the Amazon and other regions, large herbivores moved nutrients from rich soils to poor ones, radically altering plant growth(14,15). One controversial paper suggests that the eradication of the monsters of the Americas caused such a sharp loss of atmospheric methane (generated in their guts) that it could have triggered the short ice age which began 12,800 years ago, called the Younger Dryas(16).

And still we have not stopped. Poaching has reduced the population of African forest elephants by 65% since 2002(17). The range of the Asian elephant – which once lived from Turkey to the coast of China – has contracted by 97%; the ranges of the Asian rhinos by over 99%(18). Elephants distribute the seeds of hundreds of rainforest tree species; without them these trees are functionally extinct(19,20).

Is this all we are? A diminutive monster that can leave no door closed, no hiding place intact, that is now doing to the great beasts of the sea what we did so long ago to the great beasts of the land? Or can we stop? Can we use our ingenuity, which for two million years has turned so inventively to destruction, to defy our evolutionary history?



1. eg Wendy J. Binder and Blaire Van Valkenburgh, 2010. A comparison of tooth wear and breakage in Rancho La Brea sabertooth cats and dire wolves across time. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02724630903413016#.UzBUcM40uQk

2. http://www.eci.ox.ac.uk/news/events/2014/megafauna/valkenburgh.pdf

3. Lars Werdelin, 2013. King of Beasts. Scientific American. http://www.scientificamerican.com/magazine/sa/2013/11-01/

4. http://oxfordmegafauna.weebly.com/

5. Diprotodon.

6. Megalania.

7. http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/08/last-giant-land-turtle/

8. Castoroides ohioensis

9. The Argentine roc (Argentavis magnificens).

10. Matthew T. Boulanger and R. Lee Lyman, 2014. Northeastern North American Pleistocene megafauna chronologically overlapped minimally with Paleoindians. Quaternary Science Reviews 85, pp35-46. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.quascirev.2013.11.024

11. http://www.eci.ox.ac.uk/news/events/2014/megafauna/surovell.pdf

12. Christopher J. Sandom et al, 2014. High herbivore density associated with vegetation diversity in interglacial ecosystems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 111, no. 11, pp4162–4167. http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1311014111

13. Susan Rule et al, 23rd March 2012. The Aftermath of Megafaunal Extinction: Ecosystem Transformation in Pleistocene Australia. Science Vol. 335, pp 1483-1486. doi: 10.1126/science.1214261. https://www.sciencemag.org/content/335/6075/1483.full

14. Christopher E. Doughty, AdamWolf and Yadvinder Malhi, 11 August 2013. The legacy of the Pleistocene megafauna extinctions on nutrient availability in Amazonia. Nature Geoscience vol. 6, pp761–764. doi: 10.1038/ngeo1895. http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v6/n9/full/ngeo1895.html

15. Adam Wolf, Christopher E. Doughty, Yadvinder Malhi, Lateral Diffusion of Nutrients by Mammalian Herbivores in Terrestrial Ecosystems. PLOS One, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0071352. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0071352

16. Felisa A. Smith, 2010. Methane emissions from extinct megafauna. Nature Geoscience 3, 374 – 375. doi:10.1038/ngeo877. http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v3/n6/full/ngeo877.html

17. Fiona Maisels, pers comm. This is an update of the figures published here: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0059469

18. http://www.eci.ox.ac.uk/news/events/2014/megafauna/campos.pdf

19. http://www.eci.ox.ac.uk/news/events/2014/megafauna/campos.pdf

20. http://www.eci.ox.ac.uk/news/events/2014/megafauna/galetti.pdf