Seeing Through the Fumes: Technology and Asymmetry in the Anthropocene

Jochem Zwier & 

Vincent Blok 


This paper offers a twofold ontological conceptualization of technology in the Anthropocene. On the one hand, we aim to show how the Anthropocene occasions an experience of our inescapable inclusion in the technological structuring of reality that Martin Heidegger associates with cybernetics. On the other hand, by confronting Heidegger’s thought on technology with Georges Bataille’s consideration of technological existence as economic and averted existence, we will criticize Heidegger’s account by arguing that notwithstanding its inescapable inclusion in cybernetics, technology in the Anthropocene itself fosters an experience of what remains excluded. We conclude by indicating how such an experience is relevant for contemporary philosophical investigation of technology.

And Earth, our bloodwarm Earth, a shuddering prey

To that frigidity of brainless ray – George Meredith


This paper offers a twofold ontological conceptualization of technology in the Anthropocene. On the one hand, we aim to show how the Anthropocene occasions an experience of our inescapable inclusion in the technological structuring of reality that Martin Heidegger associates with cybernetics. On the other hand, by confronting Heidegger’s thought on technology with Georges Bataille’s consideration of technological existence as economic and averted existence, we will argue that notwithstanding its inescapable inclusion in cybernetics, technology in the Anthropocene itself fosters an experience of what remains excluded. We conclude by indicating why such an experience is relevant for the contemporary philosophical investigation of technology.

To clarify what is at stake, we will address technology in terms of symmetry and asymmetry. In “The Anthropocene as Cybernetic Phenomenon” section, we begin by interpreting the Anthropocene as a cybernetic phenomenon in Heidegger’s sense. Technological existence is thereby rendered ontologically symmetric, meaning that our habitation of the Earth comes to be characterized by what we will discuss as a collective measure (symmetry) of technological regulation. In “The Anthropocene and the Intrusion of Asymmetry” section, we consider the Anthropocene from an ecological perspective to articulate an asymmetry on the part of the anthropocenic Earth. Subsequently, the “Phenomenon and Asymmetry” section shows how this asymmetry comes to unsettle Heidegger’s ontological interpretation of symmetric cybernetics. Put briefly, this means that even though the Anthropocene concretely corresponds to Heidegger’s portrayal of the “cybernetic age,” it does not entail the therewith associated oblivion of being. Instead, we will develop a critique of Heidegger’s consideration of cybernetics by arguing that the peculiar interplay of technology and the Earth gives rise to a concrete experience of being as concealing-unconcealing. To investigate this experience, the “Bataille: Asymmetry and Technology” section introduces a Bataillean reading of technology that flanks but finally strays from Heidegger’s interpretation. Situating technology in Bataille’s thought on economy and waste allows for an articulation of technological existence as forgetfully diverting from what ontologically constitutes it. While such an articulation of technology resonates with Heidegger’s association of cybernetic technology and the oblivion of being, we submit that technology in the Anthropocene comes to be reminded of this forgetful diversion, notably due to the way it relates to the Earth via abundance and waste. We therefore conclude that in the Anthropocene, technology must be understood as ontologically forgetful, but not wholly oblivious, as it fosters—through the fumes of the technological waste named CO2—a responsivity to what ontologically constitutes technological existence whilst remaining asymmetric to it. Finally, the “Conclusion: the Asymmetric Exposure” section indicates why such a twofold consideration of technology (as symmetric and asymmetric) is relevant for the philosophical questioning of technology in relation to our earthly ecology.

The Anthropocene as Cybernetic Phenomenon

In this section, we interpret the Anthropocene as a cybernetic phenomenon, thereby using Heidegger’s considerations of phenomenology and cybernetics as a guide.

The Anthropocene is commonly understood as the epoch in which the technological activity of industrialized humanity becomes the dominant factor shaping the Earth and its associated life-supporting systems (Steffen et al. 2007). Supplementing the Holocene, where the relatively warm climate was considered to be the critical geological factor (Crutzen 2002; Fagan 2004; Dumanoski 2009), the Anthropocene places anthropic technological activity in the center, thus marking the time in which “natural and human forces [are] intertwined, so that the fate of the one determines the fate of the other” (Zalasiewicz et al. 2010: 2231).

As Hamilton, Bonneuil, and Gemmene note, the concept of the Anthropocene is not isolated to the scientific fields of climate science, geology, and earth-system science, but moves beyond these fields insofar as it more generally “represents the ground-breaking attempt to think together earth processes, life, [and] human enterprise (…) into a totalizing framework” (Hamilton et al. 2015: 2). This convergence of human enterprise and other earthly processes is philosophically relevant because it renders them symmetric, meaning that both appear in the same register of geo-forces whose operation constitutes the earth-system. By implication, human rational thought is not merely considered to appear on Earth as a manifestation of something superlunary or transcendent, but primarily appears as Earth, which is to say as one of many earth-shaping geo-forces, albeit one of considerable magnitude (see Zwier and Blok 2017). The magnitude of the rational geo-force called humanity becomes particularly patent in its techno-industrial interlocking with other earthly processes, for instance the ones that engender fossil fuels (the residue of antecedent geo-forces such as organic life compressed via plate tectonics). By way of this interlocking of geo-forces, the human geo-force currently takes the stage as the dominant earth-shaping force amongst many (see Crutzen 2002; Steffen et al. 20072011ab).

The Anthropocenic symmetry between thought and other earthly processes is philosophically relevant because it suggests that theoretical thought can no longer assume an isolated perspective that merely observes the configuration of geo-forces as an object, but is itself always already implicated or included in this configuration. Such inclusivity prompts an interpretation of the Anthropocene as a phenomenon to be questioned phenomenologically.Footnote1 Following the work of Martin Heidegger, a phenomenon never stands over against us as thing or object, but concerns the relation that we always already enact in our encounter with things (see Heidegger 2004; see Zwier et al. 2016). Heidegger famously exemplifies this relationality when he shows how a theoretical perspective on a hammer (considered as material object with particular weight, strength etc.) already enacts a specific relation by means of which the hammer can appear as a theoretical, “present-at-hand” object (Heidegger 2008: 93, 95). Such a theorizing relation is not universal but specific: in using a hammer, one does not encounter it as a theoretical object, but rather enacts a kind of relation by which the hammer appears “ready-to-hand” (2008: 95–102), meaning that it withdraws in favor of the project that is to be hammered out. Although we can relate to things in various ways, the crucial phenomenological point is that we are always already and inescapably included in a relation. Such inclusion is inescapable because of the following reason: although our way of encountering a hammer can itself become the object of analysis (as the above example illustrates), this can only be done by enacting a relation in which this particular encounter itself appears as theoretical object to be analyzed. This then means that we are always already included in a relation between being and thinking, whether this concerns the ‘embodied’ kind of thinking enacted in praxis (using a hammer) or a more ‘abstract’ theoretical thinking (studying the hammer as object, or analyzing ways of encountering a hammer). The phenomenon concerns this inclusive relation between being and thinking. It is thereby not itself situated on the ontic level of beings or objects that we find in front of us, but must be understood ontologically, as an inescapable structuring of our encounter with things. Now, the Anthropocene attests to a similar inescapable inclusivity, given how human (practical and theoretical) activity is here considered to be inevitably implicated in a play of geo-forces. This suggests that the Anthropocene can be understood as phenomenon (see Zwier and Blok 2017).

Questioning the phenomenon of the Anthropocene accordingly means questioning the character of its inclusive relationality. We propose to call this relationality cybernetic. This follows Heidegger’s interpretation of cybernetics as a “foundational” or “fundamental science [Grundwissenschaft]” (Heidegger 1972: 58).Footnote2 For Heidegger, cybernetics is not one particular scientific discipline apropos a specific domain of objects at the ontic level of specific beings (technological, organic, social etc.), but is ontological in that it concerns the relation between being and thinking that already “defines and steers” (1972: 58, translation modified) the objective sciences, meaning that it structures the way in which objects are encountered and how propositions regarding such objects are made and evaluated. He calls this ontological relationality cybernetic because being and scientific thinking couple in an operative feedback-loop: in the same way that an anti-aircraft cannon constantly feeds-back information pertaining to the flightpath of an aircraft into its actuators (speed of rotation, angle of barrel etc.) to constitute an adaptive system, the sciences feed-back propositions, categories, hypotheses, and (experimental) results into a functioning whole, constantly adapting or discarding dysfunctional elements, for instance via a process of falsification (see Heidegger 2001: 91–92, 1972: 58–59). Our hypothesis is that the phenomenon of the Anthropocene involves such a cybernetic relation between being and thinking, whilst provoking a concrete experience of our inclusion in this cybernetic relationality. As such, we submit that the Anthropocene can be characterized as cybernetic phenomenon. To develop this hypothesis, we begin by analyzing both sides of the relation between being and thinking, which in turn sheds light on the phenomenological implications pertaining to this relation itself.

On the side of being, the anthropocenic objective sciences (most notably earth-system science) consider the being in question—the Earth—as earth-system. This system has a cybernetic character insofar as various functional elements (temperature, pH, chemical composition of the atmosphere, ecosystems, and notably human activity) couple in a feedback-loop which regulates the conditions of the planet understood as integral system. Steffen, Crutzen, and McNeill accordingly define the earth-system as

the suite of interacting physical, chemical and biological global-scale cycles (…) and energy fluxes that provide the life-support system for life at the surface of the planet. [A] critical feature is that forcings and feedbacks within the Earth System are as important as external drivers of change, such as the flux of energy from the sun. [The] Earth System includes humans, our societies, and our activities; thus, humans are not an outside force perturbing an otherwise natural system but rather an integral and interacting part of the Earth System itself. (Steffen et al. 2007: 615; see Hamilton 2016: 94)

The being called the earth system thus appears as a cybernetic system, which integrates human beings as one of its many regulatory elements. Be that as it may, this description of a particular cybernetic being does not yet lend credence to our hypothesis that the Anthropocene concerns a cybernetic relation between being and thinking in an ontological sense. We therefore turn to the side of thinking.

It is noteworthy that anthropocenic scientific thought is not merely about some cybernetic being called the earth-system and its dynamic configuration of geo-forces. Rather, scientific thought is itself already included in a cybernetic encounter with this cybernetic being, given how it is oriented towards regulation of the human habitat. Science has not only disclosed how the Anthropocene signals—most eminently and alarmingly via global warming—the advent of an earthly regime that may well be uninhabitable for humanity, but immediately responds to this by mobilizing scientific knowledge about the earth-system to ward off such a regime (see Hamilton et al. 2015: 4; Baskin 2015: 13; Clark 2011). Instances of this include Crutzen’s aim to “guide society towards environmentally sustainable management during the era of the Anthropocene” (2002: 23), the envisaged task to “steer nature’s course symbiotically” (Crutzen and Schwägerl 2011), or the general idea of “Planetary Stewardship” (Steffen et al. 2011ab), whether via radical geo-engineering or other (perhaps more conservative) ways of technologically regulating the planet (see Lorimer 2016; see Zwier and Blok 2017; Lynas 2011). As Jeremy Baskin sums up:

In almost all of the major accounts of the concept it is assumed that [the Anthropocene] requires a trinity of techniques: clear management of the Earth and Earth-systems, guided by experts (and scientists/engineers in particular), using the most advanced technology possible (including large-scale technology). (2015: 20)

This regulative response to global warming indicates how scientific thought is not merely about the cybernetic being called the earth-system, but itself immediately and cybernetically feeds back into this system to regulate thermal parameters that are presently witnessed to drift towards fatal levels. Such a focus on regulation is not limited to eco-modernist programs of planetary engineering. For instance, the socio-ecological approach of “Resilience Thinking” (Walker and Salt 2006) is critical of a “command-and-control approach” (11) that tends to place human management outside the ecological system. At the same time, whilst explicitly acknowledging and including itself in the interlinking of social and natural systems (8), resilience thinking expressly considers such interlinking in terms of cybernetic regulation and feedback. This is evidenced by its basic concepts, where, for example, resilience itself is understood as “the ability of a system to absorb disturbance and still retain its basic function” (1), or where “thresholds” take account of how systems have “more than one kind of stable state … with different feedbacks between its component parts” (11).Footnote3 Generally then, with regards to the relation between being and thinking, such emphasis on regulation and feedback makes clear that scientific thought not only encounters the earth-system as a cybernetic being or system at the ontic level, but that this encounter is itself already “defined and steered” by cybernetics at an ontological level.

Yet what is more, this cybernetic character is not limited to scientific thought vis-à-vis the earth-system, but equally envelops the mundane thinking that we enact in, for example, having a cup of coffee. Indeed, the phenomenon of the Anthropocene precisely and quite literally renders a cup of coffee mundane insofar as its earthly character becomes pronounced (ontologically, not aromatically). In the same way that we no longer can have routine conversations about the weather without having global warming intrude upon the conversation (Morton 2013: 99), neither can we have a cup of coffee that is not shadowed by its earthly trace, e.g., a carbon-footprint related to its production, shipping, brewing, etc., and which cannot be dissociated from a warming earth-system. Of course, this earthly character is not always obtrusive: we do not experience it when stopping by the coffee machine before rushing into a meeting. Yet when it does come to the fore—for instance when the emptied beaker made out of 100% biodegradable materials catches our eye during a tedious meetingFootnote4—it not only reveals our preceding activity of drinking coffee as feeding back into the earth-system, but further makes clear that this feedback is unavoidable: opting for ecologically certified coffee that includes emission compensation precisely takes account of such feedback. The takeaway here is not some normative vilification of coffee, but a phenomenological indication of how the cybernetic character of the Anthropocene does not merely concern the relation between being and scientific thinking, but likewise envelops the relation between being and the mundane, everyday thinking involved in brewing, ordering, or drinking a cup of coffee.

In this way, the Anthropocene can be said to render Heidegger’s arguably rather abstract ontological interpretation of cybernetics concrete, as it manifests how we are inescapably included in a relationality that can be phenomenologically characterized in terms of cybernetic, regulative steering.Footnote5 For Heidegger, cybernetics means that

The world-relations of humans and with them the collective societal existence of humans, are enclosed in the hegemonic domain of cybernetic science. (Heidegger 1983: 145)Footnote6

In the Anthropocene, we can experience this “enclosure” in a concrete way insofar as we find ourselves part and parcel of a warming globe that must be regulated if it is to remain habitable. If the abovementioned coffee merely offers an easily overlooked glimpse, more blatant examples include starting the ignition of a car after refuelling (where feed-back into a thermally drifting earth-system increasingly becomes a burning concern), or proudly studying the yields of one’s rooftop solar array to record the “kg’s of CO2-emissions saved”. The experience here is how, just as we cannot step outside our warming globe, neither can we escape relating to this globe as an earth-system needing to be regulated in one way or another. As such, we can say that the Anthropocene both concurs with Heidegger’s interpretation of cybernetics and concomitantly offers a concretisation of what he articulates as our being “enclosed” (Heidegger 1983: 145) in a cybernetic relationality.Footnote7

The Anthropocene and the Intrusion of Asymmetry

The previous section took notice of what we can call the symmetry of the Anthropocene. Understood according to its colloquial meaning, such symmetry denotes a qualitative similarity, where humanity registers as one of many similar geo-forces that make up and shape the earth-system. Yet further, understood phenomenologically, this symmetry not only betokens the ontic domain of beings (such as geo-forces) but the ontological relation between being and thinking as well: if, as argued, the phenomenon of the Anthropocene implies that earthly beings (including ourselves as scientists, coffee drinkers, car refuelers, etc.) appear included in a cybernetic relationality, then this relationality is itself symmetric inasmuch as it is characterized by an inexorable—paraphrasing Heidegger: “enclosing”—collective measure, a sym-metry of regulative steering. Now, by foregrounding the Earth, the present section contrasts the symmetry of the Anthropocene by introducing an Earthly asymmetry.

Whatever one makes of it, the Anthropocene always obviously concerns the Earth. We proffer, however, that the above interpretation of the Anthropocene as cybernetic phenomenon engenders a specific, twofold understanding of the Earth, namely as symmetric oikos and asymmetric intrusion.

As to the first, we have argued that our current encounter with things takes place as Earth inasmuch as the regulative steering enacted by the geo-force called humanity inheres in an Earthly interplay of many symmetric geo-forces (notably including the interplay of geo-forces such as plate tectonics and organic life that engender fossil fuels on the one hand, and their technological, exploitative regulation by the human geo-force and its combustion engines on the other). Be that as it may, such symmetric encounters evidently take place on Earth. The latter can thereby be understood as the habitat or oikos that, as it were, provides the stage upon which the interplay of geo-forces unfolds. This oikos is symmetric in the ontic sense of housing a vast variety of symmetric geo-forces, but is also symmetric in an ontological sense that concerns the character of our habitation of this Earthly oikos, where being and thinking (whether scientific or mundane, see “The Anthropocene as Cybernetic Phenomenon” section) couple in a regulative feedback-loop and thus adhere to the collective measure (sym-metry) of cybernetic regulation.

Besides the Earth as symmetric oikos, however, the Anthropocene also involves an asymmetry between oikos and Earth. This comes into view as the flipside of symmetrically understanding humanity as a geo-force: while the current dominance of the anthropic geo-force may validate its very own epochal nameplate, it becomes equally evident that this dominance is not its own Munchhausen-like doing, but is conditioned by the Earth. Not only does our geo-forcefulness hinge on the Earth granting us access to its vast depot of fossil fuels, but the very existence of our now planetary oikos turns out to be contingently premised on the earth-system going through a (Holocenic-Anthropocenic) period of relative climatic stability (see Szersynski 2012: 168). And at this juncture, global warming makes its dreaded entrance, not only as the consequence of the infernal coupling of the anthropic geo-force and fossil fuels (see Clark and Yusoff 2014), but primarily as compelling a concrete experience of what earth-system science and geology have long since known objectively, namely that the Earthly stability that supports our oikos and which we take for granted, is no longer self-evidently granted, and turns out to be an exception to the rule of a deeply unstable, constantly fluctuating and capricious Earth (see Clark 2011; McGuire 2013; Zwier and Blok 2017). This then demonstrates how in the Anthropocene, the cybernetic regulation of our habitat not only belongs to the Earth (here understood as the symmetric oikos upon which the interplay of geo-forces such as humans and fossil-fuels transpires), but is conjointly pitted against the Earth insofar as we find it withdrawing its stable support. In correspondingly experiencing the necessity to regulate against such withdrawal by way of some form of technological regulation, we both encounter and counter the intrusion of an Earthly regime that transcends, exceeds, i.e., remains asymmetric to our oikos. In short, in the Anthropocene, we do not merely inhabit the Earth (as symmetric oikos), but in so doing (en)counter the intrusion of the asymmetric Earth.Footnote8

This oiko-logical interpretation of the Anthropocene thus gives rise to a twofold consideration of the Earth as symmetric oikos and asymmetric intrusion. This consideration roots in what at first appears as a singularly ontic interpretation of a being called the Earth. It is open to question, however, whether the intrusion of the asymmetric Earth is limited to the ontic domain. The question that therefore follows concerns the implications of asymmetry for cybernetic symmetry.

Phenomenon and Asymmetry

In responding to the question raised at the end of the previous section, the hypothesis developed here is that the intrusion of asymmetry in the Anthropocene engenders a reorientation of Heidegger’s ontological interpretation of cybernetics. We submit that such a reorientation is significant for philosophy of technology, because it allows for a reconsideration of Heidegger’s identification of technology and the oblivion of being. To clarify this reorientation, it is fist necessary to elucidate two additional points of reference that orient Heidegger’s ontological interpretation of cybernetics (“Heidegger: Cybernetics and Oblivion” section), and subsequently confront these with the Anthropocene (“Cybernetics and the Anthropocene” section). Having already discussed the enclosure of cybernetics (“The Anthropocene as Cybernetic Phenomenon” section), we now turn to its unidirectionality and occlusion.

Heidegger: Cybernetics and Oblivion

In characterizing the relation between being and thinking, cybernetics structures the way in which beings are encountered, namely according to a collective measure, a sym-metry of regulation. For Heidegger, such structuring is unidirectional, meaning that our (technological) interactions with the world at the ontic level neither affect nor escape the ontological relationality in which they are always already included. We have heard Heidegger state that:

The world-relations of humans and with them the collective societal existence of humans, are enclosed in the hegemonic domain of cybernetic science. (Heidegger 1983: 145)

He further says of cybernetics that

[its] most expansive feedback-loop encompasses the interrelation of man and world (…) [and its] occlusion [Verschlossenheit] can never be disjointed by human beings (…) not by way and means of scientific-technical planning and making. (Heidegger 1983: 145–146)

On the one hand, these fragments indicate Heidegger’s unidirectional relating of being and beings. As a “foundational science” (Heidegger 1972: 58; see §1), cybernetics is not some generalization or categorisation that abstracts from the cybernetic beings encountered in the world (e.g., cybernetic systems, theories, or human operations), but is rather understood as the “hegemonic domain” that already “encloses” and “encompasses” every relation to the world and worldly beings. What is more, inasmuch as our encounter and interaction with the ontic world of beings, for instance our “scientific-technical planning and making,” is already “encompassed by” the ontological relation between being and thinking that structures this encounter, the ontic domain only responds to ontological cybernetics, whilst never reshaping or “disjointing” it. Put succinctly, ontological cybernetics structures the ontic world of beings, but never vice versa. We can refer to this the unidirectionality of Heidegger’s interpretation of cybernetics.Footnote9

On the other hand, the previous quotations not only make clear how cybernetics is ontologically unidirectional and enclosing, but further indicate that this entails an occlusion [Verschlossenheit]. This occlusion is considered as an “occlusion vis-à-vis the destining [Geschick]” (Heidegger 1983: 146). Explained in phenomenological terms, such destining can be understood as the characterization of the ontological relationality in which we are always already included, and which structures the way in which we encounter things. For Heidegger, such structuring takes on different configurations throughout the “history of being” (Heidegger 1999) of the Western philosophical tradition. Where, for example, antique philosophy encountered a tree as a sublunary, perishable instance of a superlunary, eternal idea, and where medieval philosophy encountered the same tree as ens creatum in a divinely instituted order of things, today, in light of global warming, we encounter this tree cybernetically, as a carbon-source or carbon-sink to be regulated (see Zwier and Blok 2017).Footnote10 Leaving aside further analysis of these “destinings” and their coherence, it presently suffices to emphasize how such destining belongs in what Heidegger calls the concealing-unconcealing of being (Heidegger 1998a). This means that in the emergence of a destining (unconcealment), the possibility for a different destining remains withdrawn (concealment).

Now, Heidegger considers cybernetics as an ontological destining in the above illustrated sense, but its “occlusion” entails that this destining itself is forgotten. This is to say that cybernetics is unquestioningly presupposed as status quo, and is not recognized as a particular structuring of reality or way of unconcealment belonging in the concealing-unconcealing of being. Accordingly, conveying both the meaning of “enclosed” as well as “being closed off from,” the cybernetic occlusion implies that while we are “enclosed” in the destining of cybernetics, we are concurrently “closed off from” perceiving cybernetics as a specific ontological destining.Footnote11 The reason for this is that insofar as the relation between being and thinking is “defined and steered” by cybernetics, thinking exclusively looks to beings as things to be regulated, but overlooks—and is “closed off” from noticing—that it thereby already enacts a relation between being and thinking. Due to this occlusion, Heidegger associates cybernetics with the “oblivion of being” (Heidegger 1998b: 259).

In brief then, enclosureunidirectionality, and occlusion surface as three points of reference that orient Heidegger’s ontological interpretation of cybernetics.

Cybernetics and the Anthropocene

Although the Anthropocene accords to Heidegger’s first reference point inasmuch as it offers a concrete experience of our being “enclosed” in cybernetics, it discords with the other two points concerning unidirectionality and occlusion. We therefore propose that the Anthropocene does not imply the ontological forgetfulness that Heidegger articulates as the oblivion of being. Rather, we will argue that the Earth in the Anthropocene engenders a reorientation of Heidegger’s interpretation, implying that instead of its oblivion, the Earth can be said to offer a concrete experience of the concealing-unconcealing of being.

To develop this claim, we confront the unidirectionality of cybernetics with the previously discussed twofold Earth (“The Anthropocene and the Intrusion of Asymmetry” section). When asked how the Earth relates to cybernetics, part of the answer is that it appears “enclosed” in the cybernetic “hegemonic domain”. As noted previously, this concerns the Earth as the symmetric oikos where things (e.g., coffee, empty fuel tanks, or the earth-system as such) are inescapably encountered in light of global warming and thus according to a collective measure of technological regulation (see “The Anthropocene as Cybernetic Phenomenon” section).

That, however, is only half the answer. The Earth in the Anthropocene is not only a being that is encountered according to a cybernetic relationality, but conjointly appears as the stage upon which the “hegemonic domain” of cybernetics concretely unfolds. This is to say that the Earth is conditioned by cybernetics insofar as it appears as a symmetric oikos that must be regulated, yet itself conversely conditions cybernetics insofar as our regulative encounter with things takes place on Earth as the oikos that ‘houses’ this encounter. As a first step, therefore, we can say that besides offering a concrete experience of our cybernetic enclosure (“The Anthropocene as Cybernetic Phenomenon” section), the Anthropocene further engenders a peculiar and literal concretion, i.e., a ‘growing together’ of cybernetics and the Earth.

Be that as it may, the mentioned con-cretion of cybernetics and the Earth remains trivial unless its ontological relevance can be brought out. In conditioning cybernetics by housing its “hegemonic domain,” the ontic Earth becomes ontologically relevant inasmuch as it engenders a reorientation of Heidegger’s unidirectional consideration of cybernetics. If cybernetics concerns an ontological relation between being and thinking, this relation is enacted by human existence inasmuch as it included in an ontological relationality (“The Anthropocene as Cybernetic Phenomenon” section). Human existence thus appears as a necessary condition for cybernetics. If, in turn, human existence requires an earthly oikos for its wherewithal, then by implication, the Earth surfaces as necessary condition for cybernetics (see Blok 2016). This outwardly trite observation is rendered pertinent by the Anthropocene, because the harrowing experience of the intrusion of the asymmetric Earth (“The Anthropocene and the Intrusion of Asymmetry” section) revokes our liberty of taking this condition for granted, and of ignoring how our cybernetic, symmetric oikos itself rests upon a transient Earthly support. If we thoughtfully pursue this experience, we can say that on the one hand, the Earth sustains the oikos upon which human existence can (with Heidegger: obliviously) enact a cybernetic, symmetric relation between being and thinking. On the other hand, in the Anthropocene, the intrusion of the asymmetric Earth renders explicit how the support that sustains this symmetric oikos is not at all unconditional. Instead, it is itself Earth-conditioned by way of a relatively stable exception to a deeply unstable and temperamental rule, where the short-lived chapter featuring humanity as protagonist is experienced to belong to the vast, turbulent, deep timely drama of volatile geo-dynamics that make up what D.T. Ansted once called “the great stone book” of the Earth (1863; see Szerzynski 2012). No longer just the tale of abstract geological science, today, the Earth’s asymmetry becomes distressingly tangible by the experience of global warming, foreboding that the brief anthropic chapter in this great stone book is approaching its final readable pages, since the Earth appears on the verge of withdrawing support for the transient, symmetric oikos that we inhabit. Three things follow from this diagnosis.

First, the concretion of cybernetics and the Earth occasions a reorientation of Heidegger’s unidirectional interpretation of the relation between the ontic and the ontological, since the Earth now attains a peculiar status. While the Earth as symmetric oikos concurs with Heidegger’s interpretation, this oikos itself appears only a minor moment in a major history of the Earth. As indicated, through the experience of the Anthropocene and the asymmetric Earth, today, the Earth appears in a novel wayFootnote12 that is incompatible with Heidegger’s unidirectional consideration of cybernetics. Since the being called the Earth is the condition of possibility for the oikos housing human existence, and since this oikos accordingly is the condition of possibility for ontological cybernetics inasmuch as it conditions the cybernetic relation between being and thinking, we can say that rather than being unidirectionally encountered as a being that merely accords to the ontological structuring of cybernetics, the Earth itself emerges as cybernetics’ ontic-ontological condition of possibility (see Zwier and Blok 2017; Blok 2016; Blok 2017).

Secondly, and further pursuing an interpretation of the first point, the concretion of cybernetics and the Earth suggests that cybernetics in the Anthropocene cannot be identified with the oblivion of concealing-unconcealing being. In contradistinction to Heidegger’s idea that the cybernetic “occlusion” and therewith associated “oblivion of being” can never be “disjointed” by occurrences at the ontic level (“Heidegger: Cybernetics and Oblivion” section), the twofold Earth of the Anthropocene in fact disjoints this occlusion. Rather than being fully enclosed in the collective measure of cybernetics, the ontic Earth qua symmetric oikos emerges (with Heidegger: is unconcealed) as condition and support for ontological cybernetics, whilst concurrently withdrawing from it (with Heidegger: concealing) inasmuch as the Earth is also alarmingly experienced to remain asymmetric to our cybernetic, symmetric oikos. In other words, although the Anthropocene engenders a concrete experience of our “enclosure” in cybernetics, this does not necessarily entail that we are “closed off” and oblivious to cybernetics as a destining. Instead, the peculiar con-cretion of cybernetics and the Earth in the Anthropocene offers an experience of how the symmetric, cybernetic structuring of reality in which we are inescapably included itself concerns a way of “unconcealment,” a way that is itself brought underway via a being named the Earth. This being is thereby not fully “enclosed” in the collective measure of symmetric cybernetics, but conceals itself inasmuch as it remains asymmetric to its unconcealed, briefly inhabitable oikos. In light of the abovementioned peculiar ontic-ontological status of the Earth, it must be stressed that such concealment does not merely pertain to a being that partly withdraws itself (like the dark side of the moon), but pertains to a being that conceals itself in conditioning the very possibility of concealment-unconcealment. As such, we can say that rather than oblivion, the ontic-ontological Earth of the Anthropocene fosters a concrete experience of the concealing-unconcealing of being.

Thirdly, the concretion of cybernetics and the Earth suggests that technology is more ontologically ambivalent and relevant than Heidegger allows for when he says that “scientific-technical planning and making” is always already included in the “most expansive feedback-loop” of cybernetics and can never “disjoint” its occlusion (Heidegger 1983: 145–146; see “Heidegger: Cybernetics and Oblivion” section). To elucidate this point, we note how the abovementioned experience of concealing-unconcealing being is deeply entangled with our technological activity. On the one hand, this experience is technologically mediated inasmuch as it is only through technologies like satellites and computers that we can encounter the Earth as warming globe and experience the associated intrusion of asymmetry (see Ihde 2016: 77–88; Zwier and Blok 2017). On the other hand, the experience of asymmetry emerges in concert with the necessity of responding to its intrusion, and countering it by technologically regulating our Earthly habitat. Now, while such technological regulation clearly adheres to the collective measure, i.e., the symmetry of cybernetics, it is significant that it consists in a counter-measure to something disturbingly asymmetric. And as a counter-measure, our “scientific-technical planning and making” is not only included in the “most expansive feedback-loop” of cybernetics governing our symmetric oikos, but explicitly involves a responsivity to what remains excluded, i.e., asymmetric to this oikos and the cybernetic “hegemonic domain” that it supports. This is to say that although technology appears “enclosed” in cybernetics, it is not necessarily ontologically “closed off” and oblivious. Rather, it involves a responsivity to what remains asymmetric to the collective measure, i.e., the symmetry to which technology adheres. In short, in light of the anthropocenic concretion of cybernetics and the Earth, technology comes under consideration as both symmetrically enclosed and as opening towards asymmetry.

Before turning to the question that follows from this, namely how we might understand this responsivity and technological opening towards asymmetry, we first summarize the above. In the Anthropocene, the Earth appears as ontic-ontological condition of possibility for ontological cybernetics. This concretion of cybernetics and the Earth implies that the Earth is not merely a being that is encountered from within a cybernetic relationality, since this only applies to the Earth qua oikos governed by cybernetic symmetry, but not to the Earth that withdraws from cybernetics in the sense of remaining asymmetric to it. Since the Anthropocene heralds the intrusion of such asymmetry, the Earth now offers a concrete experience of the concealing-unconcealing of being. Finally, given how this indication is deeply entangled with our technological activity, technology appears less enclosed, closed off, and ontologically oblivious than Heidegger’s interpretation of cybernetics has it. Rather than hermetically enclosed in the collective measure of symmetric cybernetics, technology qua counter-measure becomes responsive and therefore open to what remains asymmetric to it.

Now, while it is clear that an engagement with Heidegger’s thought on phenomenology and cybernetics gives rise to the idea of technology and asymmetry, its further investigation must part ways with Heidegger. The reason for this is that Heidegger neither considers the above elucidated ontic-ontological Earth nor the technological opening towards asymmetry that follows from it.Footnote13 Whilst Heidegger solely understands technological activity as included in cybernetics and thus as exclusively symmetric, the Anthropocene compels us to question technology beyond its cybernetic enclosure.

In what follows, we therefore part ways with Heidegger to encounter in Georges Bataille a thinker whose consideration of technology flanks Heidegger’s, yet diverges from it inasmuch as it articulates an asymmetry on the part of technology, thus allowing us to come to terms with technology in relation to both the symmetric and asymmetric Earth.Footnote14

Bataille: Asymmetry and Technology

Although Bataille does not systematically engage with the question of technology as such, the way in which it figures in his diagnosis of human existence is instructive for understanding the implications of the aforementioned technological rapport with the Earth, as well as the associated opening towards asymmetry. In what follows, we will see how contrary to Heidegger, Bataille allows for a consideration of an ontological asymmetry that is engendered by technology itself.

Aversive Technology

To see this, we begin by noting how Bataille takes technology to characterize the way in which human existence inhabits the Earth. This habitation is typified by a technically induced aversion from that which constitutes humanity in the first place, namely nature. Nature is understood in terms of what Bataille calls “the general economy” (1991), which is principally characterized by abundance, meaning that the energetic abundance of the sun constitutes natural organisms and propels life on the surface of the Earth. Bataille takes it as “a basic fact” that because the influx of solar energy is unremitting, natural organisms receive more energy than strictly required for maintaining life, resulting in excess energy (Bataille 1991: 21). He articulates this in terms of “pressure” (1991: 29–36), the first effect of which is expansion, as this reduces pressure via spatial distribution. If otherwise unhindered, growth eventually runs up against spatial limits, and since the sun remains impartial to such limits and continues to relentlessly bestow its energizing gift, surplus energy can eventually no longer be incorporated via growth, but must be dissipated or wasted. In nature, therefore, “the impossibility of continuing growth makes way for squander” (1991: 29) via “the production of increasingly burdensome forms of life” (1991: 33). Where, for instance, plants make relatively efficient use of the sun’s gift for growth,Footnote15 higher organisms eat plants and other animals without growing to the same extent, thus making self-preservation and growth a more ‘burdensome’ affair. Additionally, the extravagant, intricate, and painstakingly extensive sexual behaviours of higher organisms imply a relatively inefficient way of procreation: “the mammalian organism is a gulf that swallows vast quantities of energy” (Bataille 1986: 60; see Stoekl 2007b: 255). Bataille does thereby not deny that natural life occasionally faces shortages and accordingly engages in a struggle for survival, but he interprets such a struggle as constituted by, and partaking in the general movement of energy that is characterized by abundance and ultimately by squander. For example, a hungry lion faces a shortage of food, but its hunting and eating of a zebra (which itself ‘swallows vast quantities of energy’ by inefficiently feeding on grass) partakes in the carnivorous squander of the abundant energy that constitutes the grass, the zebra, and the lion. Were we to align Bataille’s ideas with the previous discussion of Heidegger, phenomenology, and cybernetics, we might say that while the ontic level of individually constituted beings may face scarcity and struggle, the ontological constitution as such is characterized by the abundance of the general economy.Footnote16

Now, for Bataille, natural organisms are fully immersed in nature “like water in water” (1989a: 19), implying that they blindly partake in both the struggle for survival and implicated squander of energy. Conversely, he interprets the human being as the natural organism that, by way of technology, averts from nature and from the general economy that constitutes it,Footnote17 meaning that humans enter into a specific, namely forgetful relation with the energy that (ontologically) constitutes them.

Bataille refers to this forgetful relation as the “restricted economy” (1991: 19–41). This means that human existence restricts its dealings to individual beings and goods, thereby forgetting about the abundance of the general economy that ontologically constitutes such beings. Analogous to our colloquial understanding of economy, the restricted economy is characterized by scarcity, necessity, and work. In averting from nature and the general economy, human existence abhors the re-submergence in nature called death (Bataille 2007: 73, 79–86), and the corresponding strife for self-maintenance evidently needs resources that do not come naturally, but are considered as scarce goods, thus demanding productive work to compensate for this deficit. One may think of agriculture as an example, where the constitutive abundance of the sun is forgotten inasmuch as its energy is ‘restrictively’ encountered as a scarce good that needs to be put to work in order to secure a good harvest, the crops of which are similarly considered as scarce goods to be traded in an economy where their value derives from supply and demand (see Zwier et al. 2015: 360–362).

Yet although human existence in the restricted economy seems similar to a hungry lion inasmuch as both strive towards self-maintenance, Bataille stresses that:

The purpose of a plow is alien to the reality that constitutes it; and (…) the same is true of a grain of wheat or a calf. (Bataille 1989a: 41).

This is to say that whereas a lion is immersed in the “reality that constitutes it” (like water in water), technology (e.g., the plow) induces human existence to engage in an ‘alienated’, i.e., averted relation to this reality. This differs from the lion’s natural immersion in two significant ways, both of which turn out to be relevant to the Anthropocene.

First, encountering things according to the restricted economy involves thinking, namely “the consciousness of a necessity, or an indigence” (Bataille 1991: 23), where we think that work is needed to meet our necessities. Aligning this with our discussion of phenomenology (“The Anthropocene as Cybernetic Phenomenon” section), we can interpret the restricted economy as a relation between being and thinking, where being (with Bataille: the constitutive “reality” in the above citation) is thought of in terms of beings that are scarce, needed, and thus require work. This is relevant to our discussion of the Anthropocene, because this ‘restricted’ relation between being and thinking resonates with Heidegger’s interpretation of cybernetics, given how both articulate an encounter with beings that is principally characterized by regulative, purposeful work. We can therefore say that due to a technologically induced aversion, humanity enters into the restricted economy and thus comes to inhabit the Earth as symmetric oikos, in which being and thinking become symmetric inasmuch as their relation is structured according to the collective measure, i.e., symmetry of scarcity, necessity, and (regulative) work.

Secondly, for Bataille, the aversion that gives rise to this symmetric, ‘restricted’ encounter with things is never definitive. Instead, human existence in the restricted economy remains exposed to what it averts from in two ways, which we will discuss as abundance and waste. Our hypothesis is that this twofold exposure is relevant for questioning technology in the Anthropocene, because it implies that the technologically induced aversion and associated forgetful habitation of the Earth as oikos in which being and thinking become symmetric, comes to be reminded of that what constitutes it whilst remaining asymmetric to it.Footnote18 Understanding technology in this way allows for addressing the question raised at the end of the “Phenomenon and Asymmetry” section, thus coming to terms with technology’s opening towards asymmetry.

Aversion and Abundance

Abundance implies that the symmetric, restricted way of encountering beings is not definitive, because the technologically induced aversion and associated habitation of a symmetric oikos does not disconnect this oikos from the abundance that constitutes it. Although forgetful of the constitutive abundance of the general economy, human existence remains subjected to its ceaseless influx of energy. Bataille’s twofold diagnosis of his own time is instructive here: first of all, in considering energy as a scarce good of which more is always needed, modern, industrial humanity accumulates and produces massive amounts of energy via large-scale extraction of fossil fuels and nuclear power (see Stoekl 2007a: 40–41). Secondly, forgetfulness of the general economy gives rise to equating a healthy economy with a growing economy, which celebrates employment whilst scowling at wastefulness.Footnote19 Bataille sees the pairing of the two as a recipe for catastrophe: because the large influx of energy is not allowed to be wasted, the human oikos can only expand under the pressure of abundance (which is welcomed as economic growth). However, when growth eventually runs out of space, pressure builds up, and as with any limited system that is subjected to increasing pressure, it ultimately explodes. Writing in the aftermath of two world wars which he understands as “the greatest orgies of wealth that history has recorded” (1991: 37), Bataille envisages—with Argus’ eyes—the eruption of another war as the explosive and catastrophic outcome of (or rather outlet for) uncontainable pressure. As with other constituents of the general economy, “the impossibility of continuing growth makes way for squander” (1991: 29), which in the case of forgetful human existence takes the catastrophic form of war. In this way, the restricted way of encountering things in terms of scarcity, necessity, and (regulative) work—i.e., habitation of a symmetric oikos—is not definitive and must ultimately come to terms with what remains asymmetric to it, as it postpones but cannot avoid the consequences of its abundance-driven constitution.

Still, because of their technologically induced aversion, humans are unlike other natural organisms, and do not blindly, but forgetfully partake in the growth and squander engendered by the abundance of the general economy. On the one hand, in light of its recipe for catastrophe, Bataille considers such forgetfulness “a failure of humanity” (2007: 15; see 1991: 21). On the other hand, because human existence is not blindly preordained to this failure, Bataille envisages an alternative.

In exploring this alternative, Bataille investigates cultural history for ways of “exhausting the surplus without war” (2007: 428), and finds a pressure exhaust in the ritual of potlatch, where the indigenous people in the American northwest wasted surplus energy by way of the destruction of accumulated and produced resources, for instance by killing one’s own slaves, wrecking one’s canoes, up to setting one’s own village on fire (Bataille 1991: 67–68). Other examples include pyramids as a rather inefficient burial method (1991: 119), Lamaist monks who avoided activity in contemplative life, thus dissipating the surplus generated by Tibetan workers (1991: 93–110), jewels, works of art (Bataille 1989b; see Wendlin 2007: 39), and eroticism (Bataille 19862007). All of these indicate a different relation to energy: rather than considering it a scarce good to be put to work, they acknowledge rather than forget its constitutive abundance, accordingly attesting to how “it is not necessity but its contrary, “luxury” that presents living matter and mankind with their fundamental problems” (Bataille 1991: 12).

While more must and will be said about such a way of confronting abundance and the Anthropocene, we first recapitulate how technology figures in all of this. On the one hand, technology induces an aversion from nature and the general economy, thus facilitating habitation of an oikos that is characterized by a symmetric relation between being and thinking, meaning that beings are encountered in terms of the restricted economy of scarcity, necessity, and (regulative) work. As aversive, technology engenders forgetfulness of the constitutive abundance of the general economy, leading the human symmetric oikos to expand. On the other hand, inasmuch as this forgetful aversion remains exposed to the general economy, technology also gives rise to a specific (catastrophic or other) confrontation with the abundance that remains asymmetric to it.

Translating all of this to the Anthropocene, we can see the Anthropocene as a concrete manifestation of the human symmetric oikos being exposed to the abundance of the general economy. If abundance engenders pressure which in turn effects expansion, the Anthropocene can be seen as its result. Whatever its exact starting point, it is clear that the Anthropocene involves an enormous increase of human beings on the planet since that point, paired with an equally tremendous accumulation, production, and transformation of natural and energetic resources. The following graphs depicting “the great acceleration” (Fig. 1) express this better than anything:

figure 1
Fig. 1

In light of this expansion, we can see the Anthropocene as an effect of humanity’s (technologically induced) aversion from the general economy and associated entrenchment in the restricted economy. If such entrenchment entails forgetfulness of the constitutive abundance of the general economy, and if such forgetfulness entails that the human, symmetric oikos must expand (given how energy appears a scarce good to be accumulated and not wasted), then the Anthropocene has this oikos expanding to a planetary scale, thereby rendering its anthropic inhabitant the dominant geological factor.

With Bataille, therefore, we can add an economic dimension to our previous discussion of cybernetics. We have seen how the Anthropocene offers a concretisation of our inclusion in a cybernetic, symmetric relationality (“The Anthropocene as Cybernetic Phenomenon” section). We can now interpret this relationality to belong to a technologically induced aversion from the general economy, by which humanity comes to inhabit the Earth as the oikos in which being and thinking become symmetric. As with Heidegger’s cybernetics, this symmetrical way of encountering things is ontologically forgetful (“Phenomenon and Asymmetry” section). Unlike Heidegger, however, it is not wholly “closed off,” since the aversion that engenders such forgetfulness is not definitive, as it postpones but cannot avoid the consequences of its abundance-driven constitution. What follows is that the forgetful, symmetric way of encountering things and goods eventually comes to be reminded of its forgetfulness and must therefore, whether catastrophically or other, come to terms with the constitutive abundance that remains asymmetric to it.

Be that as it may, in the Anthropocene, this reminder of forgetfulness occurs in another significant way as well. We therefore turn to waste as the second way by which human existence remains exposed to what is averts from.

Unceasing Departure: Aversion and Waste

As noted, human existence averts from nature, meaning that instead of being immersed ‘like water in water,’ humans depart from nature to enter into a specific, forgetful relation with it. This aversion is not definitively forgetful, because human existence remains exposed to the nature from which it averts “and from which man does not cease to have departed (Bataille 2007: 62).

For Bataille, this unceasing departure from nature is evidenced by “the horror of nature, which was the first movement of the process (…) that established humanity” (2007: 77). This horror becomes most eminently manifest in the form of our own abhorred natural waste: decaying corpses, vomit, faeces, urine, menstrual blood, the odour of sweat, etc. (Bataille 2007: 61–88). Whilst from the perspective of nature, there is nothing extraordinary about these dejecta (faeces are simply a resource for the continuation of organic life, as are rotting corpses),Footnote20 they invoke disgust and abhorrence in us, because they serve as a horrific reminder of a nature with which we no longer coincide inasmuch as we have averted from it.

If technology induces this aversion or departure from nature, it also serves to contain the horrors associated with not having ceased this depart from it. Think of sewer-systems, toilets, tampons, deodorant, cemeteries, etc. Such containment is rather successful, particularly in highly technological societies (see Scanlan 2005), but is never flawless and definitive, e.g., when we occasionally encounter an unflushed, rancid toilet, or are overwhelmed by the fetid stench of a passing garbage truck. In those cases, when technological containment momentarily hampers and we are confronted with our natural waste, we usually shudder, flush the toilet, avert ourselves once more, and go about our business. Technology then both induces the departure from nature, and serves to contain its consequent horrors, thus affording human existence to mostly forget about its unceasing departure.

What does this have to do with the Anthropocene? In the Anthropocene, we are confronted with the waste that technology itself dejects in its aversion from nature and the general economy. We have seen how it is due to this aversion that the Earth becomes inhabited as symmetric oikos, which the Anthropocene concretely demonstrates by the expansion of the human oikos via the large-scale exploitation of fossil fuels. Indeed, it is only because of the (symmetric and infernal) coupling of humans and fossil fuels that the Anthropos becomes the dominant geo-force (“The Anthropocene and the Intrusion of Asymmetry” section). Now, the waste of this combustive exploitation goes under the name of CO2.Footnote21 We propose that in the Anthropocene, it acquires a status once occupied by natural dejecta.

In order to see this, we must engage in a phenomenological exercise and investigate the experience of CO2. The first thing to note is that we neither directly see CO2, nor experience the horrific disgust as when confronted with vomit, faeces, or rotting corpses. We only have a remote experience of CO2—as data rendered in graphs. Be that as it may, in the Anthropocene, CO2 encroaches and becomes less and less remote. Consider the following graph on “Atmospheric CO2” (Fig. 2):

figure 2
Fig. 2

If we let this graph sink in, it becomes something other than just another graph depicting abstract and remote scientific data. Instead, put phenomenologically, it quite literally sinks in, namely into the very way in which we encounter the world, as it becomes concrete in the sense of growing together with everything we see, as if etched in our peripheral vision. The line above 400 ppm attaches itself to the trails of airplanes we see when looking at the sky, to the freight train carrying a batch of new cars to the harbour, to the warning light signalling an empty fuel tank, to the adverts for exotic holiday destinations, to the trees in the garden, the powerlines across the field, etc.

When pausing over what this (concrete, sunk in) graph actually says, one feels queasy to say the least—one dreads it and feels gutted. Why? Because in engendering global warming, CO2 stands as a stark reminder of how the symmetric, fossil-fueled, and now planetary oikos that we inhabit and usually take for granted, remains encompassed by the asymmetric Earth that constitutes it and momentarily grants it stable support. And through the fumes of CO2 that thicken the air, we behold the intrusion of the asymmetric Earth, the associated withdrawal of stable support, and catch a glimpse of how this stable support is but an exception to the rule of a deeply unstable and unsettled Earth (“The Anthropocene and the Intrusion of Asymmetry” section).

It is for this reason that in the Anthropocene, CO2 can be ascribed similar status as natural dejecta. As with natural dejecta, there is nothing extraordinary about CO2 from the perspective of the Earth as such, since it is but one of many parameters of the cybernetic earth-system, including natural life for which it is a resource. Yet for human existence, it emerges as a horrific souvenir of unceasing departure. Where natural dejecta remind of a constitutive nature from which human existence does not cease to depart, CO2 horrifically reminds of how our oikos on the symmetric Earth does not cease to depart from the Earth that constitutes it and remains asymmetric to it.

The response to the confrontation with the horrific waste of CO2 follows along this parallel, as it consists in once more averting oneself by way of technology. In the same way that technologies like toilets and cemeteries contain natural dejecta, we can buy carbon compensation when booking a flight, drink ecologically certified coffee from “100% biodegradable” cups, and put up solar panels to contain CO2. In contrast to natural waste however, the Anthropocene testifies to a clogged toilet, no longer able to contain the flurry of waste. This is to say that technologically containing and thus averting from the waste called CO2 becomes increasingly impossible as the fumes linger. One of the dreaded lessons that earth-system science teaches is that CO2 is not simply present or absent, and cannot simply be flushed, since it figures as a parameter in all kinds of intricate cybernetic feedback-loops of the earth-system, including positive loops. As a simple example, if CO2 engenders global warming and effects the melting of the arctic, less sunlight is reflected, thus fomenting further warming, more rapid melting, even less reflection, etc. (ad nauseam indeed). Hence, whereas with respect to the horrific reminder of natural dejecta, technological containment affords human existence to mostly forget about its departure from nature and go about its business, the dejecta of CO2—the very waste-trail of this technologically fuelled departure—cannot be contained in this way, and therefore do not allow for forgetting about our unceasing departure from the asymmetric Earth.

What follows, in sum, is that while technology induces an aversion that proceeds towards symmetry and habitation of the Earth as a symmetric oikos, the waste-trail of CO2 engendered by this technological aversion compels—through the fumes—an experience of how human existence does not cease to avert from that from which remains asymmetric to it.

Conclusion: Asymmetric Exposure

Compounding the previous sections, we can interpret the Anthropocene as the time in which we are inescapably reminded of asymmetry, since the Anthropocene concretely shows that the technological, restricted symmetry is not definitive, but is instead confronted with what remains asymmetric to it. On the one hand, the Anthropocene appears as an effect of our technologically induced, forgetful diversion from the abundance of the general economy, where continued exposure to this constitutive abundance entails that under pressure, our symmetric oikos expands to planetary dimensions, and continues to do so, even in (twi)light of horrific CO2. We can take this as another indication of the pressurizing general economy, i.e., the asymmetric constitutive abundance from which symmetric human existence continues to divert, with no foreseeable end in sight. On the other hand, the very waste-trail exhausted by this technological diversion binds our eyes to a foreseeable end, as it compels—through the fumes—attention to the intrusion of the asymmetric Earth. The technological waste of CO2 thereby comes to serve as a horrific reminder of how our symmetric oikos does not cease to depart from the asymmetric Earth, whilst alarmingly signalling how it stands on the verge of in fact ceasing from this departure and collapsing back into its earthly bedrock.

From this confrontation between Heidegger and Bataille in the Anthropocene, we conclude that technology in the Anthropocene is ontologically forgetful, but not wholly oblivious. Retracing our steps, we saw Heidegger associating technological activity with the oblivion of being, since he considers it to be both “enclosed” and “closed off” from the ontological destining of cybernetics and its collective measure or symmetry of regulation (“Phenomenon and Asymmetry” section). We refused Heidegger’s interpretation by arguing that the ontic-ontological Earth offers an experience of the concealing-unconcealing of being. Furthermore, since this experience is deeply entangled with technology, we intimated that technology involves an opening towards asymmetry, because its regulative symmetry appears as a counter-measure to the intrusion of the asymmetric Earth. At this stage, it should be stressed that such an opening towards asymmetry does not merely imply an awareness of something that technology cannot (yet) master and bring under its collective measure. Rather, due to its rapport with the ontic-ontological Earth as that what conditions our technological encounter with things, the stated opening towards asymmetry allows for an experience of our technological, regulative encounters as a mode of encounter that is itself ‘meted out’ by the process of concealing-unconcealing being. This then illustrates technology’s twofold ontological relevance insofar as it relates both to the (unconcealed) Earth understood as the symmetric oikos that conditions cybernetics which encloses technological activity, whilst concurrently relating to the Earth that withdraws (or conceals itself) from this enclosure by remaining asymmetric to it.

Bataille helps to further understand this technological opening towards asymmetry, since he articulates how technology induces a diversion that proceeds towards symmetry, but does not, due to abundance and waste, definitely accomplish a symmetric enclosure. On the one hand then, technology is forgetful, given how it induces human existence to divert from nature and the abundance of the general economy that constitutes it, engendering a forgetful entrenchment in the restricted economy and habitation of the Earth as the oikos in which being and thinking become symmetric. The Anthropocene concretely gives the reckoning of this, as the human oikos expands to planetary dimensions, rendering its forgetful inhabitant the dominant geo-force. Furthermore, inasmuch as it serves to contain the horrific natural dejecta that remind human existence of its departure from nature, technology affords forgetfulness of its own diversion.

On the other hand, in the Anthropocene, the uncontainable waste-trail of this technological diversion itself—CO2—emerges as the horrific souvenir that retaliates against forgetfulness. By way of its own dejecta, technology can then be said to come to terms with itself as it awakens a twofold memory, incriminating what technology diverts from (the asymmetric Earth and the general economy), and that it unceasingly does so.

We therefore conclude that the Anthropocene gives rise to a twofold conceptualization of technology according to which technology becomes ontologically significant. First, technology is conceptualized as always already and forgetfully “enclosed” in a symmetric relation between being and thinking. Secondly, technology offers a reminder of how its own symmetric enclosure results from an unceasing diversion from that which remains asymmetric to it. On the one hand, technology diverts from the asymmetric Earth as the ontic-ontological condition for the oikos that supports technology’s symmetric enclosure (“Phenomenon and Asymmetry” section). On the other hand, technology diverts from the general economy to which this oikos remains exposed (“Bataille: Asymmetry and Technology” section). This conceptualization is ontologically significant, because in coming to terms with its own forgetful diversion, technology fosters—through the fumes—responsivity to being, i.e., to what always already structures how we symmetrically encounter things, whilst remaining asymmetric to this encounter.

Such a conceptualization of technology is relevant for philosophy of technology in the Anthropocene, particularly in light of how various symptoms of the asymmetric Earth’s intrusion (e.g., global warming, atmospheric CO2, im-permafrost etc.) are now being met with technological responses. Examples include initiatives like ‘circular bio-based economy’ (see Zwier et al. 2015), ‘clean energy,’ up to ‘geo-engineering’ and the like (see Hamilton 2013). While acknowledging the asymmetry of the Earth, such initiatives are oriented towards symmetry inasmuch as they attempt to keep the asymmetric Earth at bay by (re)introducing runaway earth-system parameters into a regulative feedback loop, thus safeguarding habitability. We maintain that philosophy of technology cannot avoid acknowledging the need for such initiatives. Whereas the role of technology will increasingly consist in symmetric maintenance of our habitat by regulating the fumes exhausted by our technological modus vivendi, it is the vocation of the philosophy of technology to diagnose this modus, to see through the fumes and cultivate the question what today’s confrontation between technology and the Earth means for its forgetful yet responsive inhabitants.

  1. The concept of the Anthropocene has come to be interpreted in a vast variety of ways. Instead of exhaustively covering its many (critical and eulogistic) conceptualizations, we here limit ourselves to an interpretation of the Anthropocene as phenomenon. For a good overview of the discourse on the Anthropocene, see Lorimer (2016).
  2. Given the focus of this paper on phenomenology, technology, and the Anthropocene, our discussion of cybernetics will be limited to Heidegger’s interpretation of cybernetics as “foundational science”. The broader question regarding the relation between Heidegger’s cybernetics and other interpretations is therefore left open. For an instructive overview of such interpretations, see Hayles (1999).
  3. We thank one of the anonymous reviewers for bringing the approach of resilience thinking to our attention.
  4. We will return to the question of waste (here: the used-up coffee container) in the “Bataille: Asymmetry and Technology” and “Conclusion: Asymmetric Exposure” sections.
  5. Heidegger himself links cybernetics and phenomenology when he discusses cybernetic “steering” as “phenomenon” in the seminars on Heraclitus, fragment 64 (see Heidegger and Fink 1979: 10–14).
  6. As noted, “cybernetic science” must here be ontologically understood as “foundational science”.
  7. This also shows how Heidegger’s interpretation of cybernetics can be read as a different articulation of his questioning of technology (see Heidegger 1977). In “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking,” Heidegger writes: “[The] fundamental characteristic of [the] scientific attitude is its cybernetic, that is, technological character” (Heidegger 1972: 58). For an analysis of Heidegger’s questioning of technology in relation to the Anthropocene, see Zwier and Blok (2017); Williston (2017).
  8. What we here articulate as the intrusion of the asymmetric Earth resonates with what Isabelle Stengers has called “the intrusion of Gaia,” implying “the need to take into account a protagonist that will never recede into the background, and whose the [sic] stability ‘we’ will never again be able to take for granted (2015: 137). Given the complicated nature of the current discourse on Gaia (see Stengers 2009; Latour 2017; Crutzen 2004) further elaboration of this protagonist would exceed the scope of this paper.
  9. In literature on Heidegger, such unidirectionality is sometimes referred to as “onto-centrism” (see Blok 2016: 459).
  10. This is or course not to say that a tree no longer appears as impressive, beautiful, important etc., but rather means that such experience of beauty is inescapably bound up with the threat of global warming, thereby potentially inciting us to regulate the preservation or multiplication of trees.
  11. In his questioning of technology (see note 7), Heidegger articulates this as the “Danger of Technology” (1977: 27). For a discussion of this danger in relation to the Anthropocene, see Zwier and Blok 2017.
  12. As noted in “The Anthropocene and the Intrusion of Asymmetry” section, objective sciences such as geology and earth-system science have of course long since known about the fact of the asymmetric Earth (e.g., its being much older than human civilisation, more inhospitable than appears at first glance, etc.). However, whereas their propositions concern the Earth or earth-system as scientific object (and thus already unquestioningly enact a theorizing relation between being and thinking, see “The Anthropocene as Cybernetic Phenomenon” section), the experience of the Anthropocene wrests this knowledge from the objective, scientific domain. Phenomenologically speaking, the asymmetry of the Earth no longer merely concerns the ontic domain of a being called the Earth, but comes to pertain to the ontological, cybernetic relation between being and thinking as enacted in our contemporary encounter with the Earth and earthly beings.
  13. It may strike the reader that an explicit confrontation with Heidegger’s thematization of Earth remains absent here. On the one hand, this absence may be explained by the fact that although Heidegger speaks of the Earth on various occasions, it never comes under consideration in its Anthropocenic manifestation as the ontic-ontological condition for the destining of cybernetics—which is the central theme of this paper. On the other hand, we should note that the arguments presented here build on a more explicit analysis of Heidegger and the Earth as presented in Blok (2016). For a good discussion of Heidegger and the Earth, see Haar (1993).
  14. In what follows, we will interpret Bataille in light of the previous discussion of Heidegger, thereby aligning their often diverging vocabularies by casting them in the same mould. The idea behind such an alignment is that it allows us to address the issue of technology and asymmetry in relation to both Heidegger’s thought and the phenomenon of the Anthropocene. For a more generally oriented confrontation between Heidegger and Bataille, see Comay (1990), Lee Jr. (2007).
  15. Although relatively efficient (in comparison to higher organisms), plants also involve their own ‘burdensome’ ways, e.g. the fruitless sexuality of flowering plants (see Wendlin 2007: 39).
  16. Bataille of course does not put any of this in terms of ‘ontic’ and ‘ontological’ or in relation to Heidegger’s ontological difference. However, we maintain that Bataille’s differentiation of constituted beings and their constitution as such (the general economy) can—to a certain extent as we shall see—be aligned with Heidegger’s differentiation of being and beings. As will be argued, doing so is significant for understanding technology and asymmetry in the Anthropocene.
  17. With respect to this aversion, Bataille follows a Hegalian trajectory: “Man is the animal that negates nature: he negates it through labor, which destroys it and changes it into an artificial world; he negates it in the case of life-creating activity; he negates it in the case of death.” (2007: 61; see 52). For an elaborate discussion of Bataille’s Hegel interpretation, see Gemerchak (2003). For a discussion of Hegelian negation, the Anthropocene, and the Earth, see Zwart (2017).
  18. This is specific to humanity: immersed in nature like water in water, a lion neither forgets nor is reminded of the general economy.
  19. Elaborately analyzing Bataille’s (cultural) diagnosis of how this entrenchment and associated forgetfulness of the general economy came about—in which the rise of Protestantism, capitalism, and industrialism are central—is beyond the scope of this paper (see Bataille 1991: particularly 115–141).
  20. In this regard, Bataille also notes how “the [human] loathing of decay (…) is not shared by animals” (2007: 79).
  21. CO2 is obviously not the only form of waste exhausted by the anthropic geo-force, but it is arguably the most significant, as evidenced by the fact that the impact of other forms of waste are often expressed in CO2-equivalence (CO2-e).
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Authors and Affiliations
  1. Faculty of Science, Institute for Science in Society, Radboud University Nijmegen, Heyendaalseweg 135, 6525 AJ, Nijmegen, The NetherlandsJochem Zwier
  2. Department of Social Sciences; Subdivision Philosophy, Wageningen University and Research, Hollandseweg 1, Wageningen, 6706 KN, The NetherlandsVincent Blok
Cite this article

Zwier, J., Blok, V. Seeing Through the Fumes: Technology and Asymmetry in the Anthropocene. Hum Stud 42, 621–646 (2019).

Making Our Way in a World of Our Making: The Anthropocene, Debt-Money, and the Pre-emptive Production of Our Future

Matthew Tiessen 


The Anthropocene is a geological period defined by recent and ongoing human activities that invite decisive responses by humanity in order to grapple with contemporary and future ecological, biological, and social change. The Anthropocene can also be thought of as the era when it becomes clear that our desires, our ambitions, and our capacities for consumption exceed the capacities of our planet, our home. In response to this conundrum, we need a financial system and money form that reflects these new realities. In this chapter, I contend that these days the problem is not that money is necessarily limited or scarce (since it’s created out of nothing), it’s that it’s not usefully distributed and that those who control and allocate credit control the future. How, then, we might ask, will beneficial ecological change occur if private banks refuse to recognize that ecofriendly change can be economically profitable on a massive scale?

Anthropocenic Artifice and the New Natures of Control

The Anthropocene is a geological period defined by recent and ongoing human activities that invite decisive responses by humanity in order to grapple with contemporary and future ecological, biological, and social change. In this essay, I describe a variety of current “natural” and cultural scenarios and draw on some authors not typically associated with weather disturbances and atmospheric change (Deleuze, Shaviro, Marx) to argue that the concept of the Anthropocene is also one that has the potential to be mobilized in service of unanticipated and emerging forms of social, spatial, political, financial, and ecological control . Indeed, we can perhaps imagine a not too distant future wherein the apparent urgency of the Anthropocene era’s challenges may require global responses that bypass democratic deliberation and necessitate—or are said to necessitate—new expressions of global, regional, and local power . At the same time I want to emphasize that emerging modalities of control in the Anthropocene will likely be sold to the public as being in their interest (and in many instances that might in fact be the case). It is the potential proliferation of these emerging expressions of power in the name of the Anthropocene that, I want to suggest, we must approach with caution as we seek solutions to tomorrow’s social, ecological, and spatial challenges. Or as Simon Dalby puts it: “How the Anthropocene is interpreted, and who gets to invoke which framing of the new human age, matters greatly both for the planet and for particular parts of humanity” (2016, p. 33). Put differently, perhaps the question worth attending to as we hurtle into the future might not be whether humanity will experience a “good Anthropocene ” (Ellis 2011) or a “bad Anthropocene ,” but rather: What will the Anthropocene mean (prior to deciding whether it’s good or bad)? In other words, how will the Anthropocene be defined (not merely as a geological epoch but as a socio-cultural phenomenon or vector of control ) and, who will do the defining (and for whom)? So, although when faced with the problems posed by the Anthropocene , the temptation will be to find solutions and to solve problems, perhaps we’d be better served by asking questions, by reflecting on what agendas are afoot and on whose interests are being served.

Indeed, we could go so far as to suggest that emerging collective enunciations and mobilizations in the name of the Anthropocene have the potential to bring with them their own forms of what Deleuze would describe as “new fascisms.” For Deleuze, the old-style fascisms are no longer the threat they once were. Their tactics are too blunt, too obvious, too predictable. Like everything else, he observes, fascisms change and evolve with the times, and as we speak “new fascisms are being born … and prepared for us” (2006, pp. 137–138). These new fascisms are not only about the “politics and economy of war” but masquerade as seemingly progressive “global agreements on security, on the maintenance of a ‘peace’ just as terrifying as war” (p. 138). Deleuze warns us that “all our petty fears will be organized in concert, all our petty anxieties will be harnessed to make micro-fascists of us; we will be called upon to stifle every little thing, every suspicious face, every dissonant voice in our streets [and] our neighborhoods” (p. 138). It is the potential proliferation and emergence of these micro-fascisms—or some variant thereof—in the name of a phenomenon like the Anthropocene that, I want to suggest, we must be wary of.

Open for Business and the Perpetuation of the Same in the Anthropocene

Bloomberg recently announced to its plutocrat and wanna-be-plutocrat readers that “The World has Discovered a $1 Trillion Ocean!” This purported “discovery” is, of course, the “new” ocean that was once the ice-filled Arctic. The Arctic, Bloomberg writes, “is open for business, and everyone wants a piece” (Roston 2016). This is what the Anthropocene looks like through the eyes of the status quo, of those eager to extend our neo-fascistic present well into the future (with the support of our democratically elected and financially supported political elite). As Bloomberg explains:

there’s no doubting the melting of the Arctic ice cap, and the unveiling of resources below, presents mind-boggling opportunities for energy , shipping, fishing, science, and military exploitation. […] The financial measure of opportunities available […] is difficult to estimate, but $1 trillion may be a solid first-pass. […] The Arctic is warming faster than any other part of the globe, [and World Economic Forum member Jan-Gunnar Withner notes that:] “These changes are like nothing we have seen. We don’t have anything to compare with it in history .” (Roston 2016)

I suppose this is a good thing, isn’t it? A new market primed for profit thanks to the Anthropocene ! It certainly fulfills the need for more of the status quo: infinite extractive growth on our finite and fragile planet (Brown et al. 2011; Jackson 2011; Mueller and Passadakis 2009; Pretty 2013). We can all speculate, of course, about who will benefit from this Anthropocene -induced windfall (and that the beneficiaries will certainly not be donating funds to fight climate change ). But where, we might ask, is all this money—a new 1 trillion—going to come from? The answer is a strange one indeed, one I think is important when grappling with the Anthropocene, and one that even mainstream economists are only beginning to fully grasp: The 1 trillion dollars the melting arctic promises will simply be brought into existence out of nothing—ex nihilo—by private banks in the form of loans made out to private corporations and investors (with interest owing, of course).

See, in today’s financial ecologies (Haldane and May 2011), 97% of the money in existence, namely digitally generated credit (rather than the comparatively small amount of paper money and coins that are created by governments) is created out of nothing by the banks when, for example, we sign on the dotted line for a mortgage, a student loan, automotive financing, credit card purchases, or government spending (Aglietta 1979; Benes and Kumhof 2012; Moore 19891979; Nichols 1992; Rochon 1999; Seccareccia 2012; Terzi 1986). In other words, there is no “borrowing” going on at all, there is only money creation, and—most importantly—the decision to create money/credit —for whom? for what cause? in support of what agenda?—is decided by a global banking oligarchy in accordance with its very specific and all too often short-sighted profit-driven agendas and priorities. And because all of this credit comes into existence with interest owing, there is always more debt needing to be paid back than there is money in circulation ; and because of this the creation of money—that is, the perpetual borrowing of new money into existence—must continue ad infinitum so that debts will be able to be paid, inflation will be able to continue, and the current financial state of affairs will remain afloat. This is why, for example, interest rates have recently been so historically low—to encourage not “borrowing” for overpriced houses for you to flip or rent out on AirBnB, but to encourage the manufacturing of the money needed to keep the system of consumption, 2% inflation, and infinite growth going. Or as John Smithin explains in a recently edited volume by monetary reformers Louis-Philippe Rochon and Mario Seccareccia on the role of money in our global economies:

To “keep the show on the road” in the future […] it is clear that there is always going to have to be more borrowing activity [to keep inflating the economy], from one source or another, essentially ad infinitum. Given the structure of this financial system, and the specific nature of its money, the fact is that someone, somewhere, must always be willing to go into debt in order to generate profits for others. This statement is not an attempt to indicate that capitalist monetary production is nothing more than a “Ponzi scheme.” That is not the point at all. It is merely a logical statement about the arithmetic of this particular social technology . It is the way things are, given the assumed set of social relations, or social ontology. (Smithin 2013, p. 47)

Keeping the “show on the road” is what the status quo maintaining Bloomberg headline—which purports to be about new “discoveries”—is really about. So in the age of the Anthropocene let’s begin to take seriously, as Canadian economist Mario Seccareccia does, the fact that economic production itself is “a process of debt formation” (1988, p. 51) and that in today’s world the ex nihilo manufacturing of bank credit is the dominant mode of financing production and of ecological destruction (Seccareccia 1996). “The flow of investment spending in a monetary economy is primarily a process of debt formation,” he observes. “That is to say, in order for capital accumulation to proceed, firms must first become indebted to the financial sector, the purveyor of credit advances” (Seccareccia 1988, p. 51). And what better medium to encourage debt /credit creation than an all-new geological era—the Anthropocene !—with all its costs, expenses, emergent risks, security needs, and disciplinary imperatives?

I have written elsewhere about the significance and power of privately owned banks who have been granted the ability to create money out of nothing in potentially infinite quantities (Tiessen 20132014ab2015) and touch on this topic here because questions related to who gets to create money, and for what purpose, are critical if we are to pursue an ecological future —let alone an Anthropocene —that isn’t simply another, greener, or greenwashed, version of contemporary, extractive form of capitalism (Common and Perrings 1992; Spash 2012). In other words, when we begin to imagine what might be possible in, or what forces might shape, the Anthropocene , we must not lose sight of the fact that whoever is in control of bringing (i.e. loaning) money into existence with a few keystrokes on a computer gets to decide what that money is being created for (Nesvetailova 2014). Consider that all wars, all coal plants, all oil rigs, all nuclear weapons programmes, and all tar sands projects begin with a signature of a borrower willing to take on debt and risk and the deposit of newly created money into someone’s bank account by a bank in service of profit; consider too, that all the world’s solar panels, wind farms, hospitals, universities, organic farms, etc. get created the same way. Who is doing the choosing and for what purpose? The purpose of creating loans is, primarily, the pursuit of profit, preferably short-term profit. So, who is making today’s ecocidal loans? Who will make them tomorrow? What are their names? Who will profit most from the Anthropocene as a concept, rallying cry, public policy issue? Which banks? Loans for how much? What are the terms? When will the loans be created? Why do we allow such decisions to be made by purely financial interests in search of pecuniary gains and shareholder value? How is the public served when profit is the dominant paradigm? How does the environment benefit or lose? In sum, it’s worth pondering the fact that most of today’s institutionalized barbarism and eco-destruction—a vast majority of life’s most heinous crimes and catastrophes—were facilitated through bankers’ use of computers, privately and digitally created money, credit checks, and crediting international bank accounts. Even Marx understood the potential for the credit -creators to preemptively impose upon us the future ’s imperatives with their money-conjuring power. As he explains:

the banking system, by its organization and centralization, is the most artificial and elaborate product brought into existence by the capitalist mode of production […] Banking and credit , however, thereby also become the most powerful means for driving capitalist production beyond its own barriers and one of the most effective vehicles for crises and swindling. (Marx 1981, p. 742)

Contemporary financial orthodoxy —and power—is worthy of our attention because of the fact that when the control of credit creation is in private and for-profit hands (Eisen 2016; Schnurr 2016), our collective ability to design our Anthropocene —or any other geological era of our own making that we deem name-worthy—democratically or strategically is short-circuited and taken from us. Indeed, under the current global financial apparatus the public interest—if recent financial history is any indication—may not even exist. Indeed, the public’s role, it often seems, is simply to pay interest!

Perhaps most disturbingly, tomorrow’s Anthropocene may have, in a very real way, already been foreclosed in so far as the banks will be the ones who decide what it will look like by making financial decisions they are able to benefit from. The economist Richard Werner has done a lot of recent work explaining to mainstream economists—many of whom ignore the role of credit money—about the role of money in an economy, the role of debt, the ways money is actually created, and the relationship of these processes to power. Crazily, most mainstream economists do not actually consider the way money’s created or who gets to create it as being significant enough to be included in their financial models. This is a problem since, as Werner explains, “Recognition of the banks’ true role [in the economy] is the precondition for solving many of the world’s problems, including: the problem of recurring banking crises, unemployment, business cycles, underdevelopment, and depletion of finite resources” (Werner 20142015). Werner explains (at length) the current global money situation as follows:

The empirical facts are only consistent with the credit creation theory of banking . According to this theory, banks can individually create credit and money out of nothing, and they do this when they extend credit . When a loan is granted by a bank, it purchases the loan contract (legally considered a promissory note issued by the borrower), which is reflected by an increase in its assets by the amount of the loan. The borrower “receives” the “money” when the bank credits the borrower’s account at the bank with the amount of the loan. The balance sheet lengthens. Through the process of credit creation 97% of the money supply is created in the [world] today…. Not surprisingly, the use to which bank credit is put to determines its effect, namely whether bank credit is extended for productive, consumptive, or speculative purposes. One reason for the neglect of the institutional and operational details of banks in the research literature in the past decades is likely the fact that no law, statute or bank regulation explicitly grants banks the right (usually considered a sovereign prerogative) to create and allocate the money supply. As a result, many economists, finance researchers, lawyers, accountants, even bankers, let alone the general public, have not been aware of the role of banks as creators and allocators of the money supply. (Werner 2014, p. 71)

Remember too, that governments are also beholden to the whims of the financial gatekeepers in so far as the agendas the political classes put into motion require the borrowing of money which, in turn, requires those agendas being vetted—in one way or another—by those who have been given the right to create money for us (and their friends the credit -rating agencies). Perhaps a new era of public banking or government-issued money (as articulated, for example, in the “Chicago Plan” following the Great Depression) could allow for greater democratic governance and “people power ” to be expressed through financial means (Benes and Kumhof 2012; Dittmer 2015)? Regardless, private domination of money creation needs to change by incorporating public financing in the public interest for public purposes (such as responding to Anthropocene issues).

Criticisms of monetary orthodoxy are rarely outright or overarching criticisms of money and banking in and of themselves, but they do critique the often invisible mechanisms of power and control that preemptively allow those in control of credit (not to mention those capable of shaping rhetoric related to speculative futures, e.g. the Anthropocene ) to pull strings behind the scenes. Based on their decisions regarding investment capital, interest rates, profitability, return on investment, etc., the financial sector will decide what our world looks like tomorrow (and—unless real change occurs—the powerful mechanism they use will remain for the most part unknown to the public). The crucial question here is how do we live sustainably in a world of scarcity when money can be produced by for-profit entities infinitely (restricted only by banks’ ability to contain or off-load, risk). Indeed, it is money’s ability to be “automagically” created that is the real ecological risk. Moreover, the potentially destructive capacities of money and the infinite elasticity of credit creation are compounded by the fact that as resources get more scarce they also become more profitable (Baveye et al. 2013; Clark 1973).

My cautions about the potential uses and abuses of the concept of the Anthropocene are in light of the potential profits to be made off of multiple aspects of this ecological adventure. After all, the banks benefit by creating money for both oil exploration and oil spill cleanup. In response to this conundrum, we need a financial system that reflects these new realities. Moreover, as economist Mathew Forstater observes, the problem is not that today’s money is limited or scarce (since it’s created out of nothing), it’s that it’s not usefully distributed and that those who control and allocate credit control the future (Forstater 2003; see also, Wray 2015, p. 147).

Money is, among other things, simply an enabler of human desire, and the Anthropocene can be thought of as the era when it becomes clear that our desires, our ambitions, our capacities for consumption exceed the capacities of our planet, our home. How, then, we might ask, will beneficial ecological change occur if private banks continue struggling to recognize that ecofriendly change can be economically profitable on a massive scale? And how will any eco-initiative that threatens the status quo be able to survive the financial power and policy decision-making capacity of the banks, particularly if they continue pursuing profit at all (ecological) costs? Deleuze understood the power of money to be used by its creators to shape the future . He wrote: “[b]eyond the state it’s money that rules [and] money that communicates” (1995, p. 152). For Deleuze and co-author Guattari, the money form—whether commodity money, credit -money (which we use today), central bank money, digital money, etc.—determines the ways ideologies, politics , and culture get expressed and shapes the dispositions and desires of those who are beholden to money’s built-in demands (demands like profit, repayment, etc.). For them, money itself is a tool for initiating, modulating, and multiplying desire . They observe that “the productive essence of capitalism can itself function only in this necessarily monetary or commodity form that controls it.” They posit that money’s flows map onto and determine flows of desire —both collective and individual: “It is at the level of flows, the monetary flows included, and not at the level of ideology, that the integration of desire is achieved” (Deleuze and Guattari 1983, p. 239). In other words, money’s effects precede and even determine ideology (what we often call neoliberalism, e.g., then becomes an effect of, or a response to, monetary phenomena since privatization of public infrastructure, e.g., is necessary because it isn’t usually profitable, and ballooning government debts are owing). That is, it is the bankers who are the enablers and instigators of the proponents of neoliberalism, and it is the bankers who are the gatekeepers that separate us from our desires and their fulfillment—whether we’re living in the Anthropocene or not. Moreover, it is we and our governments who give them permission—whether wittingly or unwittingly—to do what, thanks to us, they are capable of doing to the best of their ability! Deleuze and Guattari note too that “in a sense” it’s the banking system that “controls the whole system and the investment of desire ” (1983, p. 230), and highlight that a primary contribution of Keynes was his having reintroduced desire “into the problem of money” (ibid.). Indeed, given the financial sector’s current credit generating capacities we might imagine that in a world of ecological collapse and resource scarcity, despite periodic debt -driven and speculative catastrophes, the last thing standing will be a banker ready to offer a loan in order to extract interest from that final purchase at the end of the line for the predatory Ponzi scheme (Minsky 2015; Nesvetailova 2008; Tiessen 2014a).

For Deleuze and Guattari, engaging the question of desire through money, and considering money through desire is what “must be subjected to the requirements of Marxist analysis” since, as they posit, Marxist economists unfortunately:

too often dwell on considerations concerning the mode of production, and on the theory of money as the general equivalent as found in the first section of Capital, without attaching enough importance to banking practice, to financial operations, and to the specific circulation of credit money which would be the meaning of a return to Marx, to the Marxist theory of money. (1983, p. 230)

The most salient passages by Marx on money to which Deleuze and Guattari may be referring speak powerfully to our current macro-economic moment insofar as they examine the libidinal and affective dimension of what Marx called “vulgar economics”—a type of monetarily based economics wherein capital—as privately created credit —generates a debt that becomes “an independent source of wealth”; this form of usurious capital is, in Marx’s view, “a godsend” for the money “lenders” and capital owners since its profits are “no longer recognizable” and since the capitalist production process obtains via the affordances of the money form “an autonomous existence” (Marx 1981, p. 517). In such a money system, capital—as virtual production capacity conjured from nothing as credit with debt owing—“becomes a commodity” with a “self-valorizing quality” and a “fixed price”—namely “the prevailing rate of interest” (ibid.).

Marx observes that as interest-bearing capital (credit -)money gains a sort of nonhuman urgency (if not agency ) all its own, appearing magically “as a mysterious and self-creating source of interest, of its own increase” (1981, p. 516). Money as autopoietic flow of credit and debt parasitically preys on human desire , guilt, and greed. As Marx explains:

In interest-bearing capital, therefore, this automatic fetish is elaborated into its pure form, self-valourizing value, money breeding money, and in this form it no longer bears any marks of its origin. The social relation is consummated in the relationship of a thing, money, to itself. Instead of the actual transformation of money into capital, we have here only the form of this devoid of content. As in the case of labourpower, here the usevalue of money is that of creating value, a greater value than is contained in itself. Money as such is already potentially self-valorizing value, and it is as such that it is lent, this being the form of sale for this particular commodity. Thus it becomes as completely the property of money to create value, to yield interest, as it is the property of a pear tree to bear pears. And it is as this interestbearing thing that the moneylender sells his money. (Marx 1981, p. 516, my italics)

This passage by Marx echoes Deleuze and Guattari’s thinking about the role of money as an autopoietic medium of power and control and anticipates the ecocidal economic logic of credit money in the Anthropocene . Of course, perpetual growth cannot keep pace with the exponentially compounding growth of debt . For Marx in the Third Critique, money’s demands (for debt repayment) infect all that it puts a price on and all desires that it promises to fulfill. Money’s surplus value, Marx observes, accrues to it “as such”: “Like the growth of trees, so the generation of money seems a property of capital in this form of money capital” (Marx 1981, p. 517). Marx’s biologically based monetary metaphors are especially striking and provide fertile ground for describing money’s capacity for growth and capacity to subsume reality according to its logic; he explains that “interest is the specific fruit of capital, the original thing,” while profit—from actually selling goods and services with some necessary use value—becomes “a mere accessory and trimming added in [capital’s] reproduction process. The fetish character of capital and the representation of this capital fetish is now complete” (1981, p. 516).

Worth emphasizing, however, is that Marx perhaps misinterprets “vulgar economics” as being an “irrational” form of capital, when in fact, the cold rationality of this logic—perpetrated by private interests on public borrowers and debtors—is the height of sound and profitable thinking (at least if power, accumulation, and control are your objectives). This rationality—“this ingrown existence of interest in money capital as a thing” (1981, p. 518) or capital as that which “reproduces itself and increases in reproduction, by virtue of its innate property as ever persisting and growing value” (1981, p. 519)—is one that depends on mythologies, illusions, hopes, and dreams and, although the true motives are concealed, manipulates desire with—literally—mathematical precision: “the ability of money as a commodity to valorize its own value independent of reproduction—the capital mystification in the most flagrant form” (1981, p. 516). Credit-money, as Marx observes, is not unlike a parasite for centralizing power and wealth by expropriating the wealth of those to whom it is extended. Crucially, this is not a mistake, nor is it irrational! Credit —according to this view—is extended like the fishing net of a deep-sea trawler, capturing everything in its path and laying waste to the fertile sea floor (or ground) from which wealth was generated in the first place. As Marx explains:

Where the means of production are fragmented, usury centralizes monetary wealth. It does not change the mode of production, but clings on to it like a parasite and impoverishes it. It sucks it dry, emasculates it and forces reproduction to proceed under ever more pitiable conditions. Hence the popular hatred of usury, at its peak in the ancient world, where the producer’s ownership of his conditions of production was at the same time the basis for political relations, for the independence of the citizen. (1981, p. 731)

Again, Marx’s analysis could not be more clear:

All wealth that can ever be produced belongs to capital in its capacity as interest-bearing capital, and everything that it has received up till now is only a first installment for its all-engrossing appetite. By its own inherent laws, all surplus labour that the human race can supply belongs to it. Moloch. (1981, p. 521)

Sometimes theorists predict or at least pine for the end of today’s rapacious form of capitalism , expecting it to collapse in on itself or self-destruct. But, again the banks win since self-destruction and collapse are the very lifeblood of money and credit creation since it clears the way for new, more intensive rounds of money production (i.e. borrowing). Steven Shaviro, in a recent blog post, anticipates the banker-built Anthropocene of the near future as follows:

Among all its other accomplishments, neoliberal capitalism has also robbed us of the future . It turns everything into an eternal present. The highest values are supposedly novelty, innovation, and creativity , and yet these always turn out to be more of the same. The future exists only in order to be colonized and made into an investment opportunity. In other words, we cannot hope to negate capitalism , because capitalism itself mobilizes a far greater negativity than anything we could hope to mount against it. The dirty little secret of capitalism is that it produces abundance, but also continually transforms this abundance into scarcity. It has to do so, because it cannot endure its own abundance. And yet, none of these contradictions have caused the system to collapse, or even remotely menaced its expanded reproduction. Instead, capitalism perpetuates itself through a continual series of readjustments. Nearly all of us, as individuals, have suffered from these blockages and degradations; but Capital itself has not. (Shaviro 2013)

Of course, the readjustments identified by Shaviro are not readjustments at all but merely the perpetuation of the same—that is, the issuing of more credit by finance capital following the inevitable saturation of the debt carrying capacity of the financial Ponzi scheme. After all, capitalism is a complex adaptive system and credit -driven capital survives by perpetuating, reconstituting, and manufacturing new desires, not satisfying or satiating them. Or as Naomi Klein puts it in her book This Changes Everything: “We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe—and would benefit the vast majority—are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets” (2014, p. 18).

Nature ’s Biological Benefits and the Cultivation of Future Eco-Desires

Recognition of the role of finance is critical if we are to move towards a more ecologically balanced Anthropocene . Dalby concurs, observing that the direction “we collectively push the planet in is shaped by human actions and decisions made mostly by the rich and powerful of our spacies” (2016, p. 35). But how might we begin, as Jedediah Purdy says, to become “different people ” (in Andersen 2015) in a way that puts us on course for a more ecologically friendly future ? Is it possible that the proverbial 99% could also play a part in steering or pushing our planet in an ecologically sustainable direction? Indeed, assuming a nonlinear and unpredictable future , today’s elite may not even be in position to “push” the planet of tomorrow. Regardless, one thing that will be important if we are to move towards a “good Anthropocene ” is for human beings to desire this future , whatever it may look like. These days, individuals in the West often gravitate towards material and physical experiences they believe to be pleasurable, holistic, healthy. Consider the explosion of consumer interest in such things as organic agriculture and animal products (Batte et al. 2007; Moser 2015), higher quality direct or fair trade coffees, and yoga (Askegaard and Eckhardt 2012). People are drawn to these things because they value what they perceive to be the mental and physical benefits they receive from paying a bit more for something a bit better and a bit more in tune with the environment that surrounds them. Sometimes people demand disruption, if the benefits are tangible enough and can be easily experienced. Consider, for example, such demanded or desired disruptions as the admittedly for-profit business models of Airbnb or UBER (both of which perpetuate contract labor and precarity). But how do we create parallel, desirable realities and societies appropriate to the Anthropocene ? This pursuit of quality, sensorially beneficial, and authentic experiences finds expression in emerging research on the physical benefits of being in natural environments, even urban natural environments. In Japan, for instance, doctors are prescribing “forest bathing” and researchers are increasingly finding that immersion in urban and/or rural greenspaces is biologically and psychologically beneficial to peoples’ health and wellbeing (Pietilä et al. 2015; Pröbstl-Haider 2015; Romagosa et al. 2015). Similarly, walking among trees has been shown to lower cortisol levels and feelings of stress (Thompson et al. 2012). Research in this area might inform our reflections upon the Anthropocene by providing us with scientific permission to engage with nature in ways we don’t normally do in our busy urban lives.

Again, it’s one thing for things to be good for us (like exercise), it’s another for things to be enjoyable or desirable. Perhaps in the future we will begin to address both our need of exercise and our “nature deficit disorder” (Louv 20082012) by getting outside and finding that we actually like it and that it feels good, and perhaps this engagement with natural environments and greenspaces could contribute to a desire for more conservation and less ecological destruction. If the public’s appetite for cage-free chickens can convince McDonalds to require that their chicken suppliers go 100% cage free within five years, perhaps similar consciousness raising in other areas can result from the intersection of scientific research and people ’s desire for more pleasure and less stress in their harried lives.

It strikes me also that a positive way forward is not so much to try to empathize with nonhuman agents and give voice to animal and plant agencies (as important as these may be), but rather to expand or enlarge our sense of what it could possibly mean to be a bit more anthropocentric: that is, to think of taking care of the earth as synonymous with taking care of ourselves. As the technophilic authors of, for example, the Ecomodernist Manifesto declare: “To say that the Earth is a human planet becomes truer every day” (Asafu-Adjaye et al. 2015, p. 6). This could mean trying to imagine a future for humanity that is, for example, not simply in service to capital. Or this could mean developing an increased recognition that we’re only harming ourselves when we destroy the ecosystems and environments that support us and give us life . Perhaps to think more anthropocentrically would mean developing a new appreciation for our integration with and interdependence on the world around us, to begin to imagine ourselves as biological beings composed of permeable membranes and flows, not to mention the nonhuman beings in our gut microbiome and beyond. How, in other words, can we as human beings better attune ourselves to earth’s flows? How do we create relationships with nonhuman others of mutual beneficence—the relationships that, as Spinoza might say, will begin to show us what we’re capable of doing. Or as Buckminster Fuller once famously observed: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

As Petra Hroch argues, one assumption about the Anthropocene , “as an account of the present moment,” is that it “forces us to confront […] the fact that further [conventionally] Anthropocentric thinking will not create a viable response to today’s eco-crises” (2014, p. 4). But is anthropocentrism capable of changing, becoming more expansive and integrative, becoming more open to the outside? Surely, if the great acceleration of ecological destruction we’re currently living through only began during the last century or two (speeding up post World War II), then our relationship to the natural world and to ourselves is one that can change drastically across times and spaces. This change will, of course, continue. As engineering and ethics professor Brad Allenby recently observed in the New York Times, the term Anthropocene “tends to reify humans as they are now” (2011). This, he observes:

may well require adjustment in the future , since the suite of emerging technologies – nanotechnology, biotechnology, robotics, information and communication technology , and applied cognitive science – is rapidly making the human a design space. […] And as humans increasingly integrate with the technology around them, and as the evolution of that technology continues to accelerate, it is questionable that what we will have in a couple of decades is still “Anthro” [as we currently understand it]. It is not just Earth systems, but the human itself, that are in the midst of radical and unpredictable change, and it is probably premature to evaluate what sort of system will come out of the process. (2011)

If anything, these unpredictable processes of change will result in the modification of ourselves, the modification of the environments that surround us, and the modification of our relationships to these environments and to our emerging identities. Whitehead once remarked that “Successful organisms modify their environment ”; moreover, he added, “Those organisms are successful which modify their environments so as to assist each other.” This law, he observes, “is exemplified in nature on a vast scale” (2011, p. 256). We can only hope that these modifications of ourselves and the worlds around us will be as mutually beneficial as possible by the time the next geological era—human created or not—makes the Anthropocene just a bad—or maybe good?—memory.

figure a
Image 4.1
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Corresponding author

Correspondence to Matthew Tiessen .

Tiessen, M. (2018). Making Our Way in a World of Our Making: The Anthropocene, Debt-Money, and the Pre-emptive Production of Our Future. In: jagodzinski, j. (eds) Interrogating the Anthropocene. Palgrave Studies in Educational Futures. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

It Is Not an Anthropocene; It Is Really the Technocene: Names Matter in Decision Making Under Planetary Crisis

Front. Ecol. Evol., 30 June 2020
Sec. Coevolution

Oliver López-Corona1,2* and Gustavo Magallanes-Guijón3*

  • 1Cátedras CONACyT, Comisión Nacional para el Conocimiento y Uso de la Biodiversidad (CONABIO), Mexico City, Mexico
  • 2Centro de Ciencias de la Complejidad (C3), Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico City, Mexico
  • 3Posgrado en Astrofísica, Instituto de Astronomía, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico City, Mexico

We do not understand what we see but see what we understand. Words shape the comprehension of our environment and set the space of possibilities we can access when decision making. In here we make the case for the use of Technocene instead of Anthropocene using well-grounded arguments in basic scientific principles. We already know that the Earth system has co-evolved with life phenomena (i.e., the evolution of atmosphere chemistry). What the Technocene idea makes clear is that as modern human societies exhibit an enormous coupling with technology and for the first time in human history that technology has the potential to modify the very core processes that drive Earth System dynamics, then Technology must be considered as a new dimension of analysis in the study of Earth system in its coevolution with life and particularly human beings.

Anthropocene, Capitalocene, or Technocene?

Ever since the seminal work of Crutzen (2002) where he proposed the Anthropocene concept as a new geological epoch, the concept has become very rapidly mainstream (Malm and Hornborg, 2014). Nonetheless, several critiques have been raised from different approaches. For once, Malm (2016) aims to develop a Marxist account of the planetary crisis, emphasizing the link with development (mainly carbon-centered) and capital accumulation. In the same line of thought, Moore (2016) has posed that beyond a technical geological focus of Anthropocene concept, there is a social reading of the idea developed in terms of the clear increases in scale, scope synchronicity, and rate/speed of environmental change, driven by capital accumulation. So, these scholars suggest that “Capitalocene” is a more historically appropriate term. Others as Haraway (2016ab) thinks that Anthropocene and Capitalocene are seen as lending themselves too readily to cynicism, defeatism, and self-certain and self-fulfilling predictions. In that sense, the Chthulucene (her proposal), alternatively considers “multispecies stories and practices of becoming-with in times that remain at stake, in precarious times, in which the world is not finished and the sky has not fallen – yet.” Then humans are no longer the only relevant actors.

In terms of capital accumulation as a driver of Anthropocene/Capitalocene, we consider that this is only possible by using technologies that allow orders of magnitude more energy extraction (primordially) and other natural resources than before Anthropocene/Capitalocene. In recent work, Burger et al. (2017) have shown that meanwhile, humans organized as hunter-gatherers exhibit an energy flux 102–103 watts/km2; energy flux in modern cities ranges from 105 to 108 watts/km2 and surpasses global primary productivity on land (105 watts/km2 global average). Without the underlying technology that allowed this energy flux increase, capital accumulation would not have been possible at all, even if wanted. Even more, seeing the environmental trajectory of non-capitalist countries such as China, one may wonder that if the predominant social system would be non-capitalist, does the same or equivalent planetary crisis would have been reached? With regard to Chthulucene, our version of Technocene is based on the Technobiont ontology (López-Corona et al., 2019) that incorporates a multi-species perspective (Holobiont) as well as both biological co-evolution and niche construction, considering genome, symbiont, social and environmental inheritance.

We consider then, that our Technocene construction includes, on the one hand, the main aspects of a historic perspective and some other fundamental concerns of social science, including even some elements relevant from culture and power theorization. On the other hand, it also covers a multi-species non-anthropocentric perspective relevant to the Chthulucene perspective. Nonetheless, it’s the greatest strength is the system dynamics perspective as we will develop below.

The concept of Thechnocene is not new as it has been used by anthropologist Alf Hornborg (Hamilton et al., 2015) and the sociologist Martins (2018) whose make a historical and critical review of the role of science in technological development, reviewing the relationship between nature and society from an interdisciplinary perspective. His analysis, which examines the need for political ecology, environmental anthropology and the relationship between science and society, is valuable for understanding different concepts such as the one proposed in this letter from the different disciplines: the Technocene.

We must not lose sight of the fact that this concept is built within the theoretical framework of anthropology. This implies that there is a strong political, social, sociolinguistic, and cultural burden. So approaching the Technocene implies implicitly considering a linguistic approach and therefore lexicon. In this sense, considering the notion of Tecnocene, from this perspective it is worth taking up the reflection of Sen (2019) who suggests reflecting on the appropriate words based on the direct consequences of human reality imposed on the natural and artificial order: “If the first nuclear detonation immediately called to mind the paucity of language to represent reality as awe-inspiring as the mushroom cloud, then the Anthropocene similarly asks us to fashion a new language and expand our vocabulary to bear the weight of our contemporary moment.” So it is appropriate to use words that reveal as closely as possible the ontology of the phenomenon.

Which is in accordance with the position of Esposito (2019), because just as an ecocentric approach offers epistemological changes to anthropocentrism, in the same way, a methodology that considers a technocentric approach also suggests to include concepts and notions that allow addressing phenomena of ecological order and social with ontological, epistemological and ethical-political changes.

In this Mini-Review paper, we use the notion of Technocene as an environmental concept, in which Environmental Sciences and Earth Sciences converge, and as Hamilton et al. (2015) had pointed out, the post-Cartesian Social Science too. At the same time that interdisciplinary science is intertwined to explain environmental phenomena such as global warming. In this sense, the discussion in the literature about the concept of the Anthropocene is important. For example, from the ecosystem sciences, Malhi (2017) explores the functioning of the biosphere and its interactions with global change; while from a cultural evolution perspective Boyd and Richerson (1996) have studied the development of this geological era. This, without neglecting Haff’s vision. Haff (2014) who also proposes six key rules that mediate human beings and technology in the Anthropocene. For us, it is clear that thinking about the concept of the Anthropocene is exceeded in the face of technological development and its environmental impact (Cera, 2017). So treating environmental problems and their research from an anthropocentric approach is not adequate. On the other hand, ethical and political problems must be treated in their right dimension (Hensel, 2017), and for this, it is necessary to take into account that we are technological subjects that develop economically on the transformation of nature.

Of particular interest is the work of Peter Haff about how different human technological systems such as communication, transportation, bureaucratic and other systems are interlinked and actually act to metabolize energy (mostly fossil fuels) in a sort of global emergent entity with similarities to the lithosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere. The author calls this the Technosphere, which he considers the defining system of the Anthropocene and most important in the context of the present work, he thinks it is influential and even model what we might consider most intimately and essentially human: our ideas, personal purposes, feelings, and dreams.

In the same sense, a direct antecedent of the importance of niche construction is the seminal work of Herrmann-Pillath who has pointed out how technology co-evolve with other components of human culture such as its institutions in parallel with behavioral and biological evolution, constituting a key element of niche construction. This recognition is incorporated in what we think is a novel ontology, the Ecobiont, discussed in our previous work (López-Corona et al., 2019) and that makes our understanding of Technocene somehow different to previous proposals because is not only about the dominium of technology that enhances the human capacity for niche construction; it is also about the dominium of a new Ecobion, the Technobiont.

A Systems Dynamics Approach to Technocene Concept

Our approach in this work is based on the recognition that Earth is a complex system, that is maintained in a unique state far from thermodynamic equilibrium through the co-evolution of its biotic and abiotic components by maximizing the entropy production, a process that might be a thermodynamic imperative (Kleidon, 2009Michaelian, 2012). The Evolution by natural selection considers one direction of this coupling but the other direction, Niche Construction, has been little studied. In previous work (López-Corona et al., 2019) we developed a new ontology, the Ecobiont, to take both directions into account.

The theoretical model for the Ecobiont ontology considers a set of interacting pools: genes (G), microbiome (g), and social (s); that co-evolve from some arbitrary time t to t’, through natural selection and niche construction. In contrast to how an abiotic component of the Earth system evolves from a pool of physicochemical components, biological and human systems do it with information stored not only in the genome (physiochemical component) but also in its culture, including technology. To make it clear, it is no longer only a matter of genome or even culture, now it is mainly a matter of how technology modify the evolutionary processes and even Earth System directly (i.e., Climate Change or Ozone Layer Depletion). Then, in order to fully understand the current planetary crisis and make good decisions about how to respond to it, we must be aware of this new extra and key dimension. In our framework, this will lead to a special kind of Ecobiont that captures the existence of human societies extreme coupled with technology. Considering that Burger et al. (2017) have shown that Homo Sapiens living in modern cities follow extra-metabolic energy scaling every other mammal do-follow, including hunter-gatherers that we called Classical Homo Sapiens (CHS), we proposed that those Homo Sapiens living in modern cities are in fact a different type of Ecobiont compared with CHS, we called them: Technobionts (López-Corona et al., 2019). This new (in geological time) Ecobiont type has turned itself into a dynamic driver for earth functioning that has overwhelmed the great forces of nature (Steffen et al., 2007).

Because of the above, here we propose that the Anthropocene new geological era, that is about to get formal recognition, is not the concept we need. For thousands of years, CHS co-existed with the rest of the Earth system’s components (biotic and abiotic), so the ongoing Climate or Biodiversity (Dirzo et al., 2014). Crisis are not caused by our human (Anthropic) nature but by an over coupling with some kinds of technologies that enhance unprecedented niche construction capacities. We consider that Technocene responds to the correct source of our current planetary crisis and point out to the proper path, not stop being humans or accepting the catastrophe as Anthropocene would imply, but to find configurations of technologies that take us back to the CHS track as possible, and away from tipping points that could transform the Earth System in an irreversible way (Steffen et al., 2018).

Precautionary Approaches to the Technocene

For example, in terms of Anthropocene that does not explicitly acknowledge the current key role of technology but only its human origin, a solution to Planetary Crisis may be searched into the technology itself in some sort of red queen process, as not identified as an important component of the problem. This would be similar to trying to resolve antibiotic bacteria resistance problems only by looking for better antibiotics (technological focus) without understanding that abuse in the use of antibiotics (technology) is a big part of the problem. Focusing too much on technological solutions may get us into a never-ending circle of problems made by abuse of technology that is meant to be fixed by using more technology that would lead to new problems (maybe even worst problems). In particular, there has been recent attention to the Big Solutions approach in terms of for example geoengineering, which is regarded by advocates as a creative and responsible technological option in the face of a Climate Crisis (Thiele, 2019). Nevertheless, these calls for emergency geoengineering need to be analyzed with extreme care in a full interdisciplinary or even transdisciplinary manner (Blackstock and Low, 2018) because this kind of re-coupling with new unproven technologies could carry out hidden systemic risk, so Precautionary Principle (PP) should prevail (Taleb et al., 2014). On the other hand, a Technocene perspective could certainly promote technology de-coupling or at least a higher level of technology selection, promoting less invasive ones. For example, in terms of Climate Crisis society could embrace voluntary resignation to certain types of energy use to match sustainable energy budgets like the one promoted by MacKay (2008).

Planetary changes have occurred several times on Earth System, modeling not only its dynamics but also life evolution. Consider the profound impact to Earth System dynamics that came from the emergence of the 3,700-mile planetary scar we know as the East African Rift Valley some eons ago, or how about some 4 million years ago, grasslands began to replace thick forests, and a dramatic pattern emerged in which our ancestors adapted to the unstable environment by the increasingly inventive use of technology and enhanced social cooperation (Dartnell, 2019). Because normally these changes take very long periods, we tend to ignore them from the human perspective, but when talking about planetary-scale technologies these changes could take only a few years.

So, should we be concerned about, for example, the results by Lei et al. (2019) who have shown a suggesting chain of evidence that both ML5.7 and ML5.3 earthquakes from 2018 in Sichuan Province China were induced by nearby Hydraulic Fracking activities? Nevertheless, although these new technologies as fracking should be considered under very high scrutiny, some “old” technologies such as hydraulic engineering, has already proved to have the potential of drive mayor ecosystemic changes. In fact, Williams et al. (2014) identify “Humans as the third evolutionary stage of biosphere engineering of rivers.” For the authors, the first two bio-engineering forces are oxygenic photosynthesis and the development of vascular plants with root systems. Then in third place comes human activities such as drainage, agriculture, the construction of artificial water bodies, the development of artificial water storage and flow regulation structures, and some second-order effects as changes in global-scale chemical and biogeochemical modification of terrestrial water bodies (Meybeck, 2003).

Sometimes even small and apparently innocuous technology can add up to produce huge effects, which is the case of human use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) often used in aerosol cans and cooling devices such as fridges, that was demonstrated was the driver of Ozone layer depletion. Discovered using 20 years of ozone levels measurements over the Antarctic stations of Halley and Faraday by Joe Farman, Brian Gardiner, and Jonathan Shanklin, it was published in a foundational paper of 1985 that transformed the fields of atmospheric science and chemical kinetics and led to global changes in environmental policy (Farman et al., 1985Solomon, 2019). Even “green” technologies could lead to important planetary changes if implemented massively (Kleidon, 2016) as could happen with Eolic energy production that at the end of the day extract kinetic energy out of climatic systems, “Large-scale exploitation of wind energy will inevitably leave an imprint in the atmosphere” (Buchanan, 2011, p. 9).


In that sense, potential awareness induced by recognizing over technological coupling in Technocene or Technobiont concepts could lead to a more precautionary use of some technologies. The Technocene concept is well-grounded into evolutionary and Earth System Dynamics theories, poses a better set mind for decision making and bottom line, we sure cannot stop being Anthropos but we may certainly stop being Technobionts. A word of warning here, by no means we are proposing to neglect scientific or technological progress, nor we are thinking we should live as hunter-gatherers. We are merely saying that we need to take technological coupling into account when trying to understand Earth System Dynamics and that some types and intensities of technological coupling should be treated with the maximum application of the non-naive (this is key for not falling into misunderstanding) Precautionary Principle.

As pointed out by Taleb et al. (2014, p. 2), “a non-naive view of the precautionary principle is one in which it is only invoked when necessary, and only to prevent a certain variety of very precisely defined risks based on distinctive probabilistic structures. But, also, in such a view, the PP should never be omitted when needed.” For example, in small quantities even controversial technologies as nuclear plants which we know may be prone to catastrophic accidents (Perrow, 1984) don’t require to invoke PP. What Charles Perrow notice after his analysis of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979 is that normal or systemic accidents, often catastrophic, are mainly inevitable in extremely complex systems like nuclear power plants. Nevertheless, even when terrible, the effects of one nuclear plant accident, don’t propagate to other nuclear plants and most of the worst damage is local.

In this sense, although it is known that the potential harm due to not only accidents as radiation release or core meltdowns but also by radioactive waste can be large. At the same time, the nature of these risks has been extensively studied, and the risks from local uses of nuclear energy have a scale that is much smaller than global (Taleb et al., 2014). On the other hand, we have geoengineering, an unproven new technology whose potential effects are clearly of a planetary scale and for which we don’t have any understanding of direct or indirect risks. Then, to make it very clear, our approach for the use of the Technocene term is not to limit, reject or demonize technology per se, but to promote awareness to only some type of technologies depending on their use, type of risk, scale and coupling with other Earth Systems compartments. Very similar to the idea of incorporating the defaunation concept and not only use the established loss of biodiversity. In addition, and maybe a more important perspective is that thinking of Technocene rather than Anthropocene, also opens debate and analysis of philosophical (ontological, ethical), political and social problems about Climate Change and other components of Planetary Crisis, enhancing a deeper integral understanding of it.

Finally, beyond this conclusion around Planetary Crisis and decision making, we consider that Technocene framework highlights the importance of co-evolutionary processes driven not only by natural selection but also niche construction, turning attention to a topic that has not received enough consideration, the great technological acceleration of the past 50 years, and how it has become an Earth System dynamics changer.

It also points to some very interesting theoretical possibilities because bottom line, it might be interpreted as a contextual statistical perspective of Earth System dynamics. Statistical contextually was developed mainly by Khrennikov (2009) as a modification of classical Kolmogorovian probability, that works as a formal framework for systems that are so context-dependent (coupled) that they should not be addressed separated but by an indivisible pair (system, context). In this sense, what we are suggesting is that because the potential planetary impacts modern human societies (over coupled with some technologies) have, any Earth System dynamics description is incomplete without the human technological context.

Author Contributions

Both authors contributed to the article and approved the submitted version.


This work was supported by the CONACyT fund M0037-2018-07, Number 296842, Cátedras CONACyT fellowship program (Project Number 30), and Sistema Nacional de Investigadores SNI, number 62929.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.


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Keywords: anthropocene, planetary crisis, decision making, precautionary principle, Technocene

Citation: López-Corona O and Magallanes-Guijón G (2020) It Is Not an Anthropocene; It Is Really the Technocene: Names Matter in Decision Making Under Planetary Crisis. Front. Ecol. Evol. 8:214. doi: 10.3389/fevo.2020.00214

Received: 12 March 2020; Accepted: 08 June 2020;
Published: 30 June 2020.

Edited by:Melissa Susan Roth, University of California, Berkeley, United States

Reviewed by:Jason Groves, University of Washington, United States
Hannah Fair, Brunel University London, United Kingdom

Copyright © 2020 López-Corona and Magallanes-Guijón. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Oliver López-Corona,; Gustavo Magallanes-Guijón,

Disclaimer: All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article or claim that may be made by its manufacturer is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

Restorative nodes of governance in the Anthropocene: Iran’s Kashaf River

John Braithwaite,Honeye Hojabrosadati,Miranda Forsyth


This article describes an environmental crisis in Iran that is actually a multidimensional crisis of law and policy. The article explores the restorative nodal governance response to such polycentric problems by weaving together five related ideas originating from criminologist and regulatory scholar Clifford Shearing: nodal governance; regulatory culture as a storybook (rather than a rulebook); justice as a better future; networked discovery of Awareness, Motivation, and Pathways for transformation; and a green ethic of care to guide transformation. We use an imaginary of a river to learn from a confluence of these ideas. They involve nodes of local governance organized by front-line workers who restoried intertwined problems with an ethic of care. The challenge uncovered is that restorative microstrategies proved promising when steering powerless actors, but frayed when faced with factory owners. More aggressive strategies of nodal governance may bring forth more responsive escalation in order to confront privilege. Yet such strategies might be more creatively escalated as nodes of conversational regulation that reconfigure Shearing’s five insights to transform landscapes of power. A coherence discovered inductively across these insights revolves around restorative nodal contestation of hegemony. Even lives as infused with domination as those found along the Kashaf River in Iran, where our case study is set, can be restored in counterhegemonic ways.


Desertification, climate change, and water pollution drive environmental collapse along Iran’s once mighty Kashaf River. The river’s boundaries contain a concentrated nest of intertwined crises, including urban squatting, drug abuse, crime, poor public health, marginalization, and ecological destruction. Coupled with constraints on state and urban planning and underfunded public health, these crises present growing threats to the legitimacy and survival of the state itself. We examine how this seemingly unpromising context offers insights into a better future, and how it achieves this by uncovering the restorative potential of restorying old ways of framing both problems and solutions.

This article is not a study of the global south as “primarily a place of parochial wisdom, of antiquarian traditions, of exotic ways and means” (Comaroff & Comaroff, 2016, p. 14). Instead, we argue that the more extreme environmental and geopolitical pressures from markets that Iran faces can help the West comprehend the nested crises of the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is the era of human domination/destruction of Earth systems. Nested ecological and economic threats to the legitimacy and survival of the state could provide insight, transposing the Comaroffs, on “How Euro-America is Evolving Toward Iran.” It remains to be seen how either Iran or Euro-America will evolve as threats shuttle between the everyday and the epic in future crisis management.

We bring together diverse strands of decades of scholarship by the South African criminologist and regulatory scholar Clifford Shearing. Some of Shearing’s influence on our article flows not directly from his academic pieces but from his character as a conversational colleague who seeds ideas into the work of others by posing both micro questions, such as on mediation of conflict, and macro questions, such as on species extinction in the Anthropocene. This article instantiates that influence. We show how in the confluence of his different streams of ideas, there lies a holistic vision of ways to understand and address complex problems. This new conceptualization of nodal environmental restoration arose through our case study of a polycentric restorative response to crisis in Mashad, a major city situated in North/Central Iran and through which the Kashaf River flows.

The case study reveals how the sheer scale and scope of the crisis has meant that the usual regulatory failures of risk-shifting, heavy-handed targeting of crisis victims, corruption, capture, regulatory ritualism, and legitimation crises did not signal an unsatisfying end to the story. Rather, what emerged was a restorative response, mobilized largely through one of Mashad’s prosecutor’s offices, that gradually expanded the variety and agency of those involved in their roles as victims, offenders, and regulators. We articulate the ways in which this restorative response is best understood through drawing upon five streams of Shearing’s scholarship, cohering the ongoing challenges of reconfiguring landscapes of inequality. These five streams are: nodal governance; regulatory culture as a storybook (rather than a rulebook); justice as a better future; networked discovery of Awareness, Motivation, and Pathways (AMP) for transformation; and a green ethic of care to guide transformation.

Critically, we show how addressing macroscale problems such as climate change and large-scale corporate pollution can be productively entangled with the restoried restorative approach used at a micro level to steer powerless actors away from harmful conduct. This potential points to an ecological restorative approach to environmental harm. This approach is able to illuminate the interconnections between justice at many scales and to evoke new imaginaries out of interconnected crises.

We offer the entire Kashaf River narrative as one that “walks” with non-Western scholars and thinkers (and practitioners and activists) from whom we can learn and “co-produce new responses to the Anthropocene challenge” (Harrington & Shearing, 2017, p. 138). The Kashaf River prosecutors set aside prosecutors’ usual construction of reality, namely that their job responds to illegality with proportionality of force under the rule of law. They restoried this script to instead display an ethic of care toward marginalized people trapped in an ecological vortex by aiming for “justice as a better future” (Froestad & Shearing, 2012).

We structure this article as follows. First, we outline five of Shearing’s contributions that serve as our analytical focus. Part 2 then narrates the unfolding layers of crisis that Shearing’s five insights help us to see. Third, we demonstrate how these five insights enable us to reframe different layers of regulatory failure across a span of several decades. The fourth section identifies particularly decisive moments of transformation of the regulatory storybook for the Kashaf River. This transformation grew significantly from the nodal leadership of a prosecutor’s office, which contributed to a new restorative narrative grounded in the enduring traditions of mediation in both Persian society and Islam.1 The limits of this transformation’s accomplishments are documented, as well as its restorative promise. In particular, we describe how restorative approaches adopted by less empowered members of society that appear to work in averting their acts of environmental harm can be resisted by elites. More optimistically, we point to how the momentum for transformation established through iterative restorative approaches can reach outwards and upwards to diverse sources of power. Drawing decision makers and impacted but less empowered parties into restorative circles can bolster the momentum needed to make headway against even powerful local actors.


By way of background, both the research findings and Shearing’s theoretical relevance were serendipitous. In 2016, Braithwaite went on a speaking tour of a dozen cities in Iran. After asking to visit places in which innovative justice work was being done, Braithwaite was introduced to the creative Kashaf River restorative work discussed herein. This was a centerpiece of the Mashad visit led by Hojabrosadati. There was no intent to target this site or test Shearing’s theories. Restorative nodal governance of this river just happened to surface as the most intellectually engaging of the diverse restorative innovations discovered across Iran. One reason it excited the authors lay in how it revealed the relevance of Shearing’s seemingly diverse insights and inductively revealed ways in which they were interconnected and coherent that were not made apparent in previous research (not even by Shearing himself, who commented that his insights were “implicit rather than explicit”2 in reference to previous sites of less complex intersections of crisis than the Kashaf River). Hojabrosadati and Braithwaite joined a second fieldwork trip to the Kashaf River in 2017. Forsyth joined Hojabrosadati for the third field visit in 2018. A fourth round of fieldwork was completed by Hojabrosadati alone in 2018–2019.

The data were derived from observations, as well as from opportunities to ask questions at stakeholder meetings, including one long meeting involving 20 Mashad judges and prosecutors, along with 38 other interviews with 51 respondents. Those interviewed included prosecutors, judges, mediators, volunteers, religious leaders, employees of environmental NGOs, managers and inspectors of regulatory agencies, businesspeople, and people of the Kashaf River. Selection for the first wave of interviewees was serendipitous; for the next three waves, selection was aimed at interviewing the most nodally significant or revelatory actors. In addition, 51 official media reports, 39 reports from underground media, several dozen Persian language publications, and confidential research reports on pollution levels, including government reports, were accessed, reviewed, and included in our document analysis.


This section explores the five insights from Clifford Shearing’s work that animate this article, showing how microdynamics might foster macrolevel transformation of interconnected crises.3 The five insights or ideas that we draw out from Shearing’s work are:

  1. Nodal governance;
  2. Regulatory culture as storybook;
  3. Justice as a better future;
  4. Awareness, Motivation, Pathways; and
  5. Security and entanglements in the Anthropocene.
3.1 Nodal governance

Nodal governance (Burris et al., 2005; Johnston & Shearing, 2003; Shearing, 2001; Shearing & Wood, 2003; Wood & Shearing, 2013) draws on Foucault’s (1990, 93) dictum that “power comes from everywhere.” Hence, power can be drawn from across networks that are pulled together at nodes of coordination. Nodes are simply points where flows of power intersect. A node is a site where knowledge, capacity, and resources are mobilized to steer the flow of events (Burris et al., 2005). Nodes of governance restory mentalities (ways of thinking) about governance. In the case study, we conceive of the prosecutor’s office in the Kashaf River case as a node that scaled up governance to address a multilevel problem. At the same time, it told the story of a response to crisis that took the form of care and engagement rather than punishment and domination.

3.2 Regulatory culture as a storybook

Nodal governance has the ability to restory mentalities of governance. This insight has its origins in Shearing and Ericson’s (1991) analysis of police culture not as a rulebook, but as a storybook. Somewhat akin to universities, police agencies, too, have volumes of policies and procedures for most problems their agents are likely to confront. While useful as guidance in difficult situations, it is likely that many busy police officers and academics rarely read these volumes in their entirety or have only a dim awareness of their contents as they perform their daily work. A fallacious belief often held by management is that the way to change such organizations is to change the rulebook. The Shearing and Ericson storybook insight reveals that to transform organizations in ways that gain traction, you must change their storybook—the stories they tell one another in the lunchroom, in the patrol car, or on the beat. Mentalities are formed through this storytelling. So are imaginaries for creative and lateral ways of solving practical work problems. In the case study, this storytelling insight is reflected in how Shari’a stories and principles allowed Prosecutor Mohebi’s office to replace bulldozers with a restorative legal imaginary.

3.3 Justice as a better future

Shearing and Braithwaite have long talked about the idea of “justice as a better future,” going back to at least the time of Braithwaite’s visit to Shearing’s Zwelathemba project in the late 1990s. Shearing, together with Jan Froestad, found empirically that what members of Zwelathemba’s South African “PeaceMaking Gatherings” wanted more than other forms of justice was justice that would “make for a better tomorrow” (Froestad & Shearing, 2007). This confirmed Braithwaite’s observations of Shearing’s South African fieldwork sites. This bottom-up Southern vision was an inspiring one. Froestad, along with Shearing, further contributed invaluable documentation and analysis of the Zwelethemba model of forward-looking justice through peace (Froestad & Shearing, 2012, following up on Froestad & Shearing, 2007). Each of these contributions has informed our conceptualization of this third insight.

The degree to which the Zwelethemba conception of justice should or should not be seen as having a family resemblance to restorative justice occupies the interest of many scholars, including Froestad and Shearing (2007). Resolving this is not so important to our analysis here, for reasons made evident in the following example. Prosecutors who were key catalysts of restorying the Kashaf River intervention strategy continued overwhelmingly to be practitioners of backward-looking punitive criminal prosecution with little resemblance to restorative justice. Yet, when it came to the Kashaf River, the problem was so deep, its layers so complex and challenging, that the prosecutors flipped to a forward-looking restorying of the kind of justice that was needed to make a better future. In the process, they happened to conceive of this shift to some degree in restorative terms, to some degree in Islamic terms, and to some degree in traditional Iranian terms (at least implicitly). What is fundamental to our analysis, however, is the overarching idea that for Security in the Anthropocene (Harrington & Shearing, 2017), fiddling with backward-looking justice while the planet burns is a poor choice compared to a choice made in favor of governance toward a better future. In this multiscale and multitemporal circumstance, as opposed to a more mundane legal circumstance like theft, “How do we make a better tomorrow?” (Froestad & Shearing, 2007) became a more inescapable question.

3.4 Awareness, Motivation, Pathways

Under this heading, we consider the Shearing idea of transformation as requiring wide circuits of conversation across civil society and multiple levels of governance to constitute AMP to transformation. Honig et al. (2015) developed the AMP framework from African cases of environmental threats. Their inductive empirical insight was that interventions aimed at protecting the environment commonly succeeded in building Awareness but then failed to improve environmental outcomes, because Motivation or Pathways were missing. Or, Awareness and Motivation were both accomplished, but actors could not imagine and lay down a workable Pathway to effect change. Awareness in Honig et al. (2015) is given a broad Shearingesque meaning to include altered mentalities and capacities to reframe. This is AMP’s link to Shearing’s restorying idea. Motivations could take the form of an intrinsic love of nature, or extrinsic payoffs. Pathways means courses to action. Opening up opportunity structures can require resources and unlocking the skill-sets of Aware and Motivated individuals.

3.5 Security and entanglements in the Anthropocene

Finally, we consider the idea of a reconfigured ethic of care for the Anthropocene. This ethic of care provides one overarching integration within which nestle the other four ideas. This line of thought is explicit in Harrington and Shearing (2017), but it evolves from earlier work (for example, Shearing et al., 2013). For Harrington and Shearing (2017, p. 115), Security in the Anthropocene requires acknowledgement of “our careless failures to recognize our entanglements.” This means reckless entanglements of humans with ecosystems and their human and non-human inhabitants. Harrington and Shearing see a green ethic of care—one that “emphasizes the relational practices that underpin the survival and flourishing of life” (2017, p. 117)—as the remedy.

As our discussion will show, such a recognition of carelessness with nature and with the marginalized people who suffer the most from its degradation, as well as engagement with an ethic of care, was evident in the restoried restorative approach of the Mashad prosecutors, mediators, and the network of support they mobilized. After decades of punitive responses toward the marginalized, combined with captured impunity for the well-connected, this restorative and responsive transformation began to realize the Harrington and Shearing (2017, p. 111) ideal that “[r]esponsibility entails an ongoing responsiveness to the entanglements of self and other” (see also Hong & You, 2018). The transformation was nodal, drawing sustenance from indigenous philosophies [of the imams, graybeards, and grayhairs discussed below] that “emphasize different relational ontologies and cosmologies” (Harrington & Shearing, 2017, p. 116). The volunteers working in the prosecutor’s office who put their own money toward victim support exemplified the supplanting of punitiveness with a spirit of empathy in order “to engage in gift-giving and to feel gratitude in the midst of ongoing, seemingly perpetual, social, and ecological crises” (Harrington & Shearing, 2017, p. 127). Volunteers were not the only gift-giving actors involved in this multiplex problem-solving endeavor. A recent example of this approach by one prosecutor is an initiative to deal with the problem of illegal alcohol and drug factories located far from the city hub. Recognizing that regular patrols of the area would be too costly, after knocking down the illegal buildings, the government planted barberries and other traditional plants used in Iranian cuisine. The intention was to revegetate the area, connect city dwellers with traditional Iranian harvesting rituals, and also ensure the regular passage of passersby in order to disrupt any attempted re-establishment of the illegal stills and meth factories.

In sum, what the Shearing insights are pointing us to is the importance and possibility of moving from the “business as usual” conceptions of governance and power as solid, homogenous and fixed, to a framing that is far more liquid and diffuse. Rather than seeing governance as bound within a state, we see it as existing everywhere. Rather than seeing rules as the only source of ruling, we recognize the regulatory power of stories and imagination to govern as well. Rather than conceiving of justice as producing a particular result, a concept of justice that is encompassed by striving for “a better tomorrow” is opened up to all. The concept of the Anthropocene points us toward the realization, long understood by Indigenous peoples around the globe, that complex problems, including those concerning the environment, require liquid governance responses. Liquid governance responses embody organic, living responsiveness to the complex patterning of power and the ways in which power produces both landscapes of inequality and equality. The AMP model shows us one way to move from a solid to a liquid approach that targets multi-level, multi-sited regulatory problems; we explore this transition in the extended case study of the Kashaf River below.

In the rest of this article, we use the term “restorative nodal governance” as a shorthand for this confluence of Shearing insights. Below, and especially in the last section, we draw out the theoretical insights and opportunities for the new forms of praxis they engender, and particularly for the way they can advance Mouffe’s (2013) approach to pluralist contestation of landscapes of inequality. While we focus primarily upon the coherence of restorative nodal governance for human survival in the Anthropocene, this all-encompassing survival pressure is rooted in tackling more tractable challenges nodally and restoratively by, for instance, finding homes for squatters, improving food safety, implementing less violent police practices, and finding alternative employment pathways for sex workers. We will show how marginalized people learned to take a restorative approach to managing problems of more immediate and practical concern to them, and how this catalyzed restorative nodal governance, which in turn helped teach factory owners (albeit with partial success) to be more restorative and responsive to ecological injustice.

In his comment on this article, Shearing conceived of its accomplishment as being to:

uncover an underlying unity that integrates [the five] themes. This unity arises from a recognition that these hitherto siloed themes arise out of, and reflect, a pervasive underlying theoretical agenda focused on understanding landscapes of power and the structural inequalities they produce.4


Here we document the pollution crisis of the Kashad River and its intersection with larger crises of regional water depletion and global warming. The river is drying up and suffering from catastrophic heavy metal pollution (Sheikh et al., 2013). This proves to be not only an environmental challenge, but also socially and politically complex. Its gradual demise has played out against the background of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, in an Iran that has been increasingly cut off from, and sanctioned by, the rest of the world as it has transformed into a messianic Shari’a law state.

Over time, Mashad city’s social “residuum” (Stedman-Jones, 1971)—superfluous people who received no benefit from any rising tide of economic development (particularly the homeless, but also drug addicts, sex workers, and desperate unemployed squatters)—was shifted away from the gaze of respectable citizens and pilgrims. They were forced to squat outside of town near the Kashad River’s edge. The Shearingesque storying of the river in our interviews reveals a narrative in which environmental pressure shifted marginal farmers who could no longer afford to buy arable land or pay for irrigation, leaving them with no other choice than to squat beside the Kashaf River alongside its other beleaguered squatters. In order to continue farming, they irrigate illegally, either from the river or from the effluent pipes and drains from factories that empty into it. At another level, this is also a story of shifting marginal, polluting factories, such as tanneries and carpet washing, out of the city to a river that shifts pollution downstream. These marginal factories provided marginal employment for the marginal residuum pushed riverside. Big business then awoke to the advantages of locating in a vicinity with low environmental expectations (at least initially). Each shift in use made the river’s problems more complex and more intractable. Later, state help to treat effluent after it left their plants amplified the attraction for big business; crisis attracted business subsidies. So this is a story of the interactions among an urban social residuum, a rural residuum, and industrial residue in a single dumping ground. Many intertwined problems thus came to be seen by elites as posing a social stability threat, even to the state itself.

In Part 3, we will identify recurring themes of the regulatory literature that appear as the story unfolds. Yet the problems remain; the wider dimensions of crisis get frighteningly worse, although some real progress is made in the interstices of state governance. Facing worsening environmental and underclass calamities, we find Mashad, Iran to be an unlikely locale for incipient progress toward confronting crises of the Anthropocene. Before we can examine this aspect, however, we first unpack the layers acting as the catalyst for crisis.

4.1 Layers of a multi-layered problem
4.1.1 Climate change

Global warming has gradually increased evaporation from an already-parched Iran. More water evaporates from Iran’s tributaries, with the resulting clouds producing rain elsewhere. Climate change has meant that less snowmelt feeds the flow into the Kashaf River (Qanbarzadeh & Jafarpour, 2004, p. 64). Less snow means reduced underground water inputs, causing wells to dry up—wells that were once 25 meters deep are now dug 200 meters to reach the water table (Interview 041710). Climate change is the structural context that exacerbates all the crises that follow.

4.1.2 Urban squatters

Urban planning policies in the late decades of the twentieth century effectively drove large numbers of squatters out of Iran’s second most populous city, Mashad, to the banks of the Kashaf River. Methods used to drive out squatters included cutting off municipal services and mobilizing police to dismantle their dwellings. Squatters were seen as a threat to urban amenity and to the lifestyle, safety, and property values of middle and upper class citizens. A tourism hub, Mashad attracts 20 million pilgrims annually to its immensely beautiful Holy Shrine (Saghaei & Javanbakht, 2013, p. 79). Elites are keen to keep the city clean and presentable for these tourists. Mashad’s massive slums have been proliferating for decades as sites of inequality (Hoad, 2018). An important early contributor to the Kashaf River crisis in the 1980s was the release of raw sewerage and household waste from squatter settlements into the river (ISNA, 2017). In part, this was what destroyed the livelihoods of those who once fished the river, in combination with global warming drying up its flow. The poverty of squatters was exacerbated by health impacts on their children, who played in polluted, sometimes malaria-infested ponds that had once been clean parts of the river. Some of these ponds were created by their forebears diverting water from the river (Alizadeh et al., 1990, pp. 93–97).

4.1.3 Marginal farmers

Simultaneously, rural families dispossessed by drought, population pressures on remaining arable land, and a plummeting water table headed to cities like Mashad in search of work. As squatting opportunities in the city dwindled, squatting outside on the banks of the Kashaf River, using its water and wells to grow fruit, vegetables, wheat, and livestock for the urban market, became attractive for displaced farmers (Eshqi & Servati, 2003, pp. 150–157).

4.1.4 Crime, drug addicts/dealers, sex workers

Urban police were attracted to reducing crime on their beat by using the same planning pressure applied to urban squatters to also drive out the drug addicts and street dealers who were not integrated into organized crime groups with which the police felt they could work. They applied these tactics to sex workers as well, especially those from the squatting class who plied their trade on the streets, as opposed to sex work tucked away inside more elegant premises under the wing of organized crime groups. These were the push factors; the pull factor was that for decades, criminals had become increasingly attracted to the Kashaf River squatter settlements because it remained a large, unregulated space, with no police station until 2014. For example, semi-organized car theft gangs in the city would often bring stolen vehicles back to their bases in riverbank areas.

These different layers of the problem—the urban squatter class layer, marginalized farmers, and the criminal class—were intertwined. Marginal factories would go on to form yet another layer that became interwined with these existing layers.

4.1.5 Marginal factories

Environmental regulation in Mashad increased the attraction of the initially unregulated space of the Kashaf River squatter settlements for economically marginal industries that craved the kind of cheap labor that the desperately under-employed poor of the Kashaf River settlement could supply, such as carpet washing and oppressive metallurgy work like plating. Tanneries built on the banks of the river created unhealthy working conditions, and the tanning process used chemical inputs (notably chromium) that for many years ran directly into the river. While more recent environmental reforms are now improving regulation of this problem, the Iranian leather industry is huge in terms of both output and footprint: few places have more gifted masters of leathercraft than Iran.

Environmental risk shifting to the Kashaf River is more global than simply a matter of how environmental regulation works in Iran. It is also a function of how it works across Europe, where tanneries have largely disappeared. European markets rely on leather imports from places like the Kashaf River because the costs of protecting workers and rivers from chromium and other risks make profitable EU production difficult. It was alleged in interviews with regulators that tanneries in “leather city” had sold water polluted with chromium to farmers alongside the Kashaf River. One theme in Shearing’s work on the geo-economics of the Anthropocene is how dominant metropoles shift crises to more marginal spaces, onto the backs of more marginalized people, and onto endangered species. We have seen that these strands of Shearing’s oeuvre are structurally conditioned by climate change, such that the river is initially attractive to the residuum, who then decimate it as they work for globally marginalized capital, only to experience over time the progressive evaporation of the river that originally attracted them.

Not all of the marginal industries that moved to the Kashaf River were heavy polluters through products like leather and cement. One environmentally friendly industry involved low-tech recycling and reprocessing plants that recycled products like plastic in a labor-intensive way, cashing in on the large supply of cheap labor by the river. One waste separation plant that has now moved inland from the river to the large, state-planned, industrial estate of Tous (see Figure 1) employs 1000 women as waste separators. Many are former sex workers who are given a path to an alternative livelihood through this work as part of a set of newer, more restorative strategies for tackling the locale’s intertwined crises (Interview 041707). While former sex workers get low-skilled recycling work here, they are also provided with vocational training, which is reflective of a transition to a “justice as a better future” vision of local capacity-building (Froestad & Shearing, 2007). Traditional weaving is a popular choice for these vocational transitions. It reconnects women to rich Persian, Turkmen, or Afghan craft traditions that are popular with tourists and locals alike.

Details are in the caption following the image
FIGURE 1 Map of Mashad
4.1.6 Big factories

Our research discovered that most of today’s pollution is not caused by high-impact small businesses but by the larger factories that came later to the district (Interviews 081703; 091701-8). The scale of the factory problem is huge, with the area containing 230 factories of almost every kind known to industrial capitalism, plus many smaller plants that make a contribution to pollution, all located along a 45-kilometer stretch of the river in the vicinity of Mashad. While most of the factories are small and marginal, a good many now are large: one has 12,000 workers, the kind of factory almost impossible to find in the West today. The scale of pollution can also be large, as in one recent case where it was alleged, thanks to the undercover monitoring of environmental NGOs, that 300–600 tanker loads of polluted waste had been dumped into the river in a single night (Interview 041709). Shocking photographic evidence of this dumping from trucks was shown to us.

Slightly back from the river, Tous has expanded to become the largest industrial area in the region. Cobalt, sodium, zinc, and lead are among the pollutants its factories spew into the river and the underground water supply. Forty different problem pollutants have been identified in the river. Well-connected factory owners have received state authorization for their polluting factories, and over time this has become the biggest part of the problem.

The scale of factory growth over the past 30 years has expanded the population in the vicinity of the river significantly, such that 300,000–400,000 people now reside in a marginalized city at the margins of the metropolis. Factories owned by economically weak operators struggle to comply with environmental laws and cannot obtain licenses from the state. Although these factories enjoy neither a state license nor a social license from a Mashad community incensed by the environmental crisis, the state is reluctant to close them for fear of rioting by their marginalized employees and fear that organized criminals might push out current owners, making the regulatory crisis even more intractable.


Early responses to the regulatory crises of the Kashaf River evoked classic pathologies repeatedly documented in the regulatory literature. The following sections address both these responses and relevant topics from the literature: the greater political appeal of risk shifting over risk management; regulatory ritualism; persistent resilience of vested interests in environmental harm; corruption; capture; a legitimation crisis; and the challenges of coordinating multilevel governance to make a response work.

5.1 Risk shifting with illegal wells

A prominent theme in the literature on the roots of the 2008 global financial crisis is the danger of moving from managing risks to risk shifting, as Western banks did in the 2000s by slicing and dicing high risk loans, then selling them as securities (Lewis, 2011). This was an alternative to managing the risks of their bad loans, as they had done in the past. We have seen already that the Kashaf River crisis was fundamentally about structures of inequality that shifted risks posed by marginalized people and marginal industries to the river’s edge rather than managing those risks in place. In the end, risks displaced to an unregulated space created even bigger risks, ones that ultimately threaten the Earth system and the legitimacy of the state.

We have not yet described, however, one of the most environmentally disastrous of these risks. In the under-regulated spaces along the river, countless poor farmers, as well as wealthy people and factories craving water, dug illegal wells. Iran has an environmental imperative to close these illegal wells; they use water wastefully, driving the water table ever deeper and widening domains of desertification. Iran’s courts have seen thousands of enforcement actions to seal illegal wells. These cases are a massive part of the workload of the national courts, and by 2015, the courts had enforced the closure of 2300 illegal wells. While this seems to be and is a huge enforcement workload, green NGOs argue that there are 500,000 illegal wells in Iran (Interview 041708). The NGOs that we interviewed—including Water Saviour Population, Sound of Water Association, Water Lovers, and Water Protectors—want a total ban on all new wells and the mass closure of existing wells, in order to facilitate the recycling of all water under public regulatory control.

In response to such court cases, farmers have been driven to move dozens of kilometers downriver in order to establish new farm settlements and dig new illegal wells. This, combined with failures to close most old wells because of enforcement overload and corruption, means that the risk-shifting dynamic has made Iran’s water crisis worse rather than better.

The Mashad reach of the Kashaf River is at the base of a large bowl, so water (and pollutants) that run into the river here find their way into the groundwater. At one level, there was progress when the massive newer industrial city of Tous drew factories away from the river. At another level, Tous became a new attractor of unsightly factories that the city did not want downtown; at the same time, it attracted them to a site that endangered the groundwater system because Tous is still close to Mashad and to the once-great river. This makes Tous far from an ideal location for an industrial estate. Hence, at a structural level, the creation of Tous as an industrial city was still an instance of risk-shifting, rather than one of optimal environmental risk management.

5.2 Heavy-handed targeting of crisis victims

Over time, the risk shifting that created concentrations of drug dealers and other semi-organized criminals outside the city created opportunity structures for new kinds of crime. Eventually, this clustering came back to bite respectable Mashad society, through, for example, the emergence of gangs that stole expensive cars. This aspect of the riverbank’s nest of problems worsened as the city limits expanded toward the squatter settlements. Also noticeable to respectable society was the fact that the beautiful Kashaf River, once attractive for boating and fishing, was now devastated.

At this point in the story, the very forces of urban planning law that had helped create the squatter settlements in 1992 again arrived on the scene to newly oppress the marginalized. Courts issued orders to move houses and farms back from the river. Police moved in to protect bulldozers executing the court orders. Squatters were bludgeoned and bulldozed away from riverbank areas. They resisted the police, trying to stay in their homes. When police shot a 12-year-old student, the dispossessed rioted. They marched on May 30, 1992, to the center of Mashad,burning down police headquarters and the city headquarters of at least two major banks, among other buildings. In total, perhaps 15 buildings in total were burned down during the rioting (Interview 041709), and six people were killed (Hashemi Rafsanjani, 2016, pp. 89–113; Orlando Sentinel, 1992). The Iranian state continues to fear that uprisings like this might spread popular discontent across the country (Interview 041706). Mashad has become one critical focus of that fear: a 2017 cascade of popular protests against the regime that spread across many cities began in Mashad (BBC, 2017). The “crowd in history” (Rudé, 1964), with its revolutionary sentiment on the streets, has been a major factor in recent and ancient Iranian political history. Below, we show how this fear of the crowd in history and of the residuum (Stedman-Jones, 1971) created space for the justice system to propose a creative alternative approach to the heavy-handed bulldozing of the marginalized.

5.3 Corruption and capture

There are some public—and many private—documentary sources showing that corruption and regulatory capture by business interests is widespread in the regulation of the multilevel problems of the Kashaf River (see Freedom Messenger, 2016; ISNA, 2016; Tasnim News Agency, 2018). Nearly all those we interviewed said that corruption and capture constituted a problem. Respondents differed only in whether they believed that corruption and capture were root causes of the crisis, or only an occasional problem for some agencies (albeit not their own!) (Interviews 091701, 111702). We were told of instances in which inspectors were diverted from filing negative reports on factory pollution through payments for their children’s weddings, gifts of LCD TVs, or even trips to Dubai.

5.4 Regulatory ritualism

Sealing some illegal wells and then looking the other way as farmers move downriver to dig more is an example of regulatory ritualism as well as risk shifting. Ritualism involves acceptance of institutionalized means for securing regulatory goals while losing all focus on achieving the goals or outcomes themselves (Merton, 1968). Theoretical work on regulatory ritualism owes a debt to Foucault (1977) because so many of the regulatory rituals identified in the empirical work that grounds the theory of regulatory ritualism are rituals of discipline that oppress vulnerable actors (Braithwaite et al., 2007). This ritualism was evident initially along the Kashaf River when the wells of the marginalized, but not the well-connected, were sealed.

The most common forms of ritualism along the river were modalities recurrently documented in the regulatory literature. Front stage, politicians make robust announcements about how they will stick with the problem until it is fixed; back stage, they settle for occasional dramatic legal actions against a few less well-connected law breakers, then walk away from the problem when the media and public attention cycle moves on. Levying slap-on-the-wrist monetary fines for factories has been, and still is, a routine form of ritualism along the Kashaf River. Years later, exactly the same kind of environmental offending by the same factory recurs, and the same kind of slap-on-the-wrist fine is applied again, without escalating regulatory pressure until the problem is fixed (Interview 041709). As discussed further below, in comparison to this ritualistic enforcement, there proved to be more promise in environmental activism for restorative engagement with business, backed by escalation to less ritualistic remedies than small fines, such as closing down factories or moving them away from rivers (Braithwaite et al., 2007).

5.5 Legitimation crisis

Climate change continues to put pressure on Iran’s water table, threatening future waves of drought and ultimately jeopardizing the security of the state. Far beyond Iran, such crises of entangled fragility create “the potential for global-scale political upheaval” (Harrington & Shearing, 2017, p. 141). For Habermas (1975), a legitimation crisis is an identity crisis for citizens that arises when confidence in government administration collapses as a result of interacting subsystems of the administrative apparatus failing to solve the problems for which they were designed. Resilient ritualism is one kind of administrative pathology that can foment a legitimation crisis. Merton’s (1968Social Theory and Social Structure laid one foundation for Habermas’s conception of a legitimation crisis by showing that the stability of states depends on citizens accepting that public administration uses legitimate means to achieve legitimated goals. For Merton, securing legitimate means but not goals can create a crisis of ritualism. Securing goals without legitimate means can create a crisis of illegitimate innovation. When neither are secured, Merton conceives of this as “rebellion” toward goals and means, with rebels rejecting goals, means, and legitimacy for the entire social order. Crises of confidence in the state arise, according to Habermas, because of contradictory imperatives pursued by different subsystems, such as subsystems for urban planning, industrial planning, banking, water management, policing, and the judiciary, as is happening along the Kashaf River.

The impending risks of a legitimation crisis were made palpable by farmers from the riverside burning banks and police headquarters in the metropolis, as well as by middle class angst about pollution and food safety. In May 2009 (Mehr News, 2009), many fell sick, including the Iranian author of this article, from eating melons irrigated with water polluted by Kashaf River factory effluent. In another incident, two people died after eating mutton from polluted farms along the river (ISNA, 2009).

For Habermas, a legitimation crisis is not one that necessarily brings down a regime, but one that signals a systemically driven state of jeopardy with respect to the capability of the regime to deliver for citizens. The incoherence among regulatory subsystems and the loss of political will created by risk shifting led to a crisis for the state along the Kashaf River. At least, this was true until a surprising node of governance came to the state’s rescue to accomplish coherence and restore political will.

6.1 Layers of governance

A longer SSRN version of this paper (Hojabrosadati et al., 2019) details the role of different levels of environmental governance involved in the Kashaf River: international, national, provincial, city, district, and NGO governance. The international level included help pursuant to the reconciliation of Iran with the European Union as a response to the Iran Nuclear Deal and the lifting of sanctions. The Europeans provided technical assistance to remedy the area’s history of drawing water into production systems, polluting it, then sending it back into the water table through effluent released into the river. Transforming the metabolism of cities, from linear degradation to circular renewal, is fundamental to water re-use assistance (World Future Council, 2010). We saw practical immediate benefits from restoring a river when European and Iranian actors sat around a table of help. This had laid a foundation for restorative integration of Iran into more distant global projects of environmental restoration. Iran signing the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement was the most important example of reintegration of Iran relevant to the root causes of the Kashaf River crisis.

Environmental NGOs played a somewhat truncated role because the state must approve the registration of NGOs. A certain degree of circumspection (in raising allegations of regulatory corruption, for example) is required to sustain registration. This means that most NGO applicants are shut down. Even so, environmental NGOs did play constructive roles in the governance of this crisis. It was green NGOs that took the Kashaf River crisis to the press for the first time (Interview 041709) and exposed some of the worst environmental abuses. The new criminal procedure law of 2015 allowed NGOs for the first time to launch criminal actions against corporate offenders. One recent NGO criminal suit alleged that criminal managers in two regulatory agencies failed to implement industrial waste water laws (Khabaronline, 2015; Interviews 111701–111703). Sometimes representatives of environmental NGOs are permitted to accompany state regulatory inspectors on site, although this is far from routine (Interview 041709). The most important environmental NGOs working to save the river are Saviour of Waters, Environmental Lovers of Iran, the Sound of Water Association, Water Lovers, and Water Protectors.

The Mayor of Mashad’s office, an organization it sponsored called Green Space, local branches of the Environment Agency and the Water Agency, urban planning and police agencies, industry associations, local banks who lent favorably to support relocation, and the national Ministry of Environmental Affairs all played nodal governance roles in bringing an end to earlier crude policies, which had simply bulldozed paths to non-solutions (for more on this kind of nodal governance function in the regulatory literature, see Shearing, 2001).

Most evocatively for our theoretical frame, the chief prosecutor’s office of the Judicial Agency in the relevant district played a surprisingly catalytic role as a strategic node of multilevel governance coordination. This role really began when the office responded restoratively to many Mashad firms that had cut corners with the law in order to stay afloat in the face of European sanctions during the early years of this century.

6.2 Paradoxes of restorative justice

Our interviews5 revealed that the prosecutors evolved a surprisingly restorative approach to confronting economic crisis and job losses. They approached some 1000 cases involving 270 factories with a posture of sympathy for executives who had been put in impossible positions after their markets dried up or supply chains were cut due to international sanctions. Mediators from the prosecutor’s office approached banks, for example, to help companies secure extended loans to save jobs while meeting minimum regulatory requirements. In interviews, it was made explicit that factories resuming production was seen as a restorative outcome (Interview 051627). The prosecutor, Bakhshi Mohebi, noted in 2016 that his Mediation Council had resolved 600 cases in a restorative way in 2015. His restorative approach to corporate crime enforcement (Parker, 2004), which made up the bulk of his office’s workload, opened the door to a restorative approach in the Kashaf River environmental cases. Here we conceive of Prosecutor Mohebi’s office not only as a decisively restorative node of governance in Shearing’s sense but also as a node that draws on structurally restorative background features of Shari’a law and Persian culture.

Certain features of Shari’a law are structurally restorative in general (Osanloo, 2020), but particularly in application to corporate law. One is that the needs of victims of crime are temporally privileged, and more privileged in emphasis, than is the case in Western law. Hence in the case of safety, health, and environmental crimes, the needs of a worker who has lost a leg or a fisher who has lost a livelihood as a result of the crime should be remedied first. It is a structurally egalitarian feature of this approach to law that the victim’s story gets the first opportunity to shape the narrative of the case. A corporate prosecution will not proceed until mediations and court hearings have first decided on what support and compensation will be delivered to those victimized by the corporation. This victim support function of the prosecutor is so important that the Mashad prosecutor’s office uses its considerable clout in the Iranian system of governance to call welfare offices, public housing offices, workers’ compensation insurers, state licensing offices, and other government offices to clear logjams that delay the provision of assistance to victims. Volunteer victim supporters at the Mediation Council were unpaid and sometimes provided victims with money out of their own pockets to help them meet desperate needs. These volunteers were widely recognized in our interviews as playing a helpful role in assuring that the criminal process was conducted with justice and dignity.

Islamic principles also infused the approach to bread and butter Kashaf River cases such as those involving farmers who dug illegal wells. Mediators and prosecutors frequently viewed such farmers as both offenders against environmental laws and victims with hungry families. This meant that the restorative doctrine of necessity in Shari’a law applied. This ancient doctrine states clearly that one is permitted to steal if one is starving (Al-Hilali & Khan, 2018; The Qur’an 5:3; The Qur’an 6:119). Using this approach, a single prosecutor’s office had mediated 300 water well cases, searching for creative helping solutions such as ensuring that treated water from factories was used for fruit trees while polluted water was used for non-fruit trees. Prosecutor Mohebi’s nodal restorying of the networked governance of the river is illustrated by the fact that he meets weekly with the concerned NGOs that form part of the social movement to save the river and its community (Interview 051627).

Up to a point, Iranian law empowers victims with a right to forgive that prosecutors cannot ignore or completely overrule, although this does not apply to all crimes (Osanloo, 2020). Hence, if the victims of a corporation choose to forgive its executives after receiving compensation, apology, and support, this reduces criminal sentences in proportion to those parts of the sentences that are allocated to private crimes against victims. In one Mashad prosecutor’s office, more emphasis is placed on a court order that secures corporate reforms that prevent reoffending than on proportionate punishment, although the latter is also important. Our interviews with staff at other Iranian Judicial Agency offices outside Mashad made it clear that a production line of punitive sentences was much more standard than the ethic of care and prevention evidenced in the approach taken by these Mashad prosecutorial reformers. Certain Shari’a principles of Iranian law create space for innovation, however, such as compassion, mercy, azadi (freedom), and forgiveness, as does the general Islamic principle of the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”). The Golden Rule can trump the specificity of Iranian contract rules, for example, in a way not dissimilar to the way the principles of equity trump common law rules in the English legal tradition (Samet, 2018).

A prominent jurist and religious leader explained that responsiveness was also a fundamental principle of Shari’a law in the sense that rules must be interpreted in such a way that they are responsive to the times and the people (Interview 051608). We could have been interviewing Philip Selznick (1992) about his conception of the imperative for evolution toward responsive law (Hong & You, 2018). For our interviewee jurist, this was about the general direction in which the law should head; it was not about absolutes, because absolute attainment of responsiveness is impossible. The principle of Istihsan (Jamaludin & Buang, 2013; Kayadibi, 2007) means adaptation of law to the changing needs of society for justice and equity, as well as adaptation in terms of the way in which responsiveness secures a merciful Islamic spirit within the law.

One consequence of the politicized closure of secular courts and their replacement with shariat (Islamic) courts after the 1979 revolution was the revival of mediation and ancient shora (consultation) traditions. Traditional mediation helped to manage complaints that were beyond the capacity of a disintegrating post-revolution judiciary. The regime noticed that mediation’s ability to resolve cases more cheaply and quickly than the courts made it popular, especially in rural areas where people wanted to reconnect to tribal and Shari’a traditions. This return to mediation traditions was therefore legitimating for the revolutionary legal system. At all stages of Iranian history, traditional mediation fits many of the definitional features of what is today called restorative justice; it even allows for the participation of women as mediators, whereas women are formally and universally excluded as judges in the court system. Local grayhairs (respected elder women, many of whom were interviewed, e.g., Interview 051615) collaborating with graybeards also galvanized networks of women toward engagement with environmental reform.

Mohebi’s pitch to his superiors when his office became overwhelmed by cases from the Kashaf River crisis was: “Why not try a more caring, ‘restorative’ approach?” At first, his superiors pushed back against such unconventional thinking. They said that his job as a prosecutor was to enforce the law, and thus he was obligated to clear the river area of illegal activities. Mohebi persisted, however, arguing that the last time the full force of the law had been used to bulldoze through this complex of problems in 1992, the blowback for the state was hugely politically destabilizing when the immiserated rioted. This persuaded Tehran to allow him to try restorative justice and multiparty problem-solving (Interview 041707).

From this prosecutorial node of governance, a “Saviour of the Kashaf River Committee” was convened to engage civil society and business. The committee was a node of governance in the Shearing sense, one that embraced all of the relevant regulatory, industrial, and civil society organizations. However, it and the prosecutor’s office that convened it were less than “superstructural nodes,” insofar as such nodes are “command centre[s] of networked governance” (Burris et al., 2005). Being in the judicial as opposed to the executive branch of governance, the prosecutor’s office could hardly be allowed by the state to become superstructural. But perhaps the nodes that matter most are not superstructural—perhaps the critical nodes are nodes of multidimensional problem-solving by frontline workers who “proceed until they are apprehended”; they are not significantly empowered in any top-down sense, but they cobble together power that can be found everywhere (Foucault, 1990). It would be a pity if nodal governance were to replicate the tendency of Weberian bureaucracy toward managerialism by placing emphasis on a different kind of “head office” mentality. Our data reveal that nodes of local people working at the frontlines of particular problems—in this case, the nodes of those working on the frontline of action concerning the Kashaf River area—are what matter most.

More than 84 representatives were selected by the Saviour of the Kashaf River Committee and sent to many different hamlets along the river to convene regulatory conversations that ran for as long as five hours. The leaders of the NGOs involved saw their role as trying to build trust with the people. One way they did this was to discover the peoples’ demands and communicate these to the government and the judicial branch. They also gathered relevant scientific information about the impacts of polluted water on health and communicated this to target groups (such as mothers). They used a variety of processes, including night meetings, mutual dialogs, circles, debates, and even the screening of a documentary about underground water. Social networks and social media were used to inform people and network them.

One widespread response involved planting large numbers of (non-fruiting) trees to be harvested at a later date for timber; the space these trees occupied would prevent fruit and vegetables from being grown using polluted water. Prosecutor Bakshi commented that at first no one was confident that this action would stop illegal farming, but it has. Moreover, the police were not involved—instead, people in the Mayor’s office and those who had originally engaged in illegal planting contributed their labor. These farmers remain engaged in ongoing volunteer work as water quality monitors, working closely with the relevant government offices. According to Bakshi, their main motivation is to keep the area free from criminals.

Restorative justice cases did not only involve farmers and the factories that produced the pollution. We learned of one restorative justice case for the foreman of a large farm who had accepted a bribe from a factory to take irrigation water tainted with pollutants. The foreman lacked awareness of why this was a serious crime; he felt remorse, and he is now a champion for environmental citizenship within the Kashaf River community. This was one of a number of restorative cases that motivated the production of a video to educate farmers about why it is so wrong to become part of the “water mafia.”

During negotiations, farmers were given options rather than edicts; the farmers themselves were able to propose options. In Shearing’s terms, the process attempted to frame a caring path to “justice as a better future” (Froestad & Shearing, 2012), as opposed to the previous approach of brutally legalistic bulldozing. In addition, in Shearing’s terms, this was an AMP process that moved from Awareness to Motivation to a Pathway to a less bleak future (Honig et al., 2015). We were told of one example in which government officers were trying to encourage people living in the unauthorized buildings along the river to move into the new accommodations that had been repurposed for them. One man refused to budge, concerned about his pregnant wife and his opportunities to make a living. The prosecutor called a prosecutor in the man’s original city and asked if he could help to find him some work. Once arranged, the man returned to his hometown; some months later, he called the prosecutor and told him that he had named his son after him in gratitude.

Awareness was built in both Persian and Muslim ways. Many meetings occurred in the prayerful setting of the mosque, with appeals from locally respected religious leaders for polluters to respond with an Islamic spirit to the suffering of fellow citizens who were falling sick from consuming polluted food and to their obligations to ensure the health of their own children. The “good Muslim” and “good citizen of Iran” scripts were much discussed by all sides in a kind of motivational interviewing (Lundahl et al., 2010). The motivational interviewing “rolled with the resistance,” to move from Awareness to farmers finding their own Motivation. New resources often had to be brought into the circle in order for farmers to be able to see a Pathway that would really be helping them to have a better future. For example, farmers were assisted in installing water treatment systems. Appeals in the restorative circles to citizenship obligations also helped to mobilize large numbers of local volunteers as “Guardians of the River” to patrol for incidents and engage in consciousness-raising conversations with farmers and others about pollution. This strategy instantiated the World Future Council’s (2010, p. 12) vision of restorative cities that encourage “all citizens to take a stake in restorative development.”

At the more macro level of participatory restorative and responsive deliberation (Hong & You, 2018), farmer and industry associations, factory managers, and green NGOs were represented in the mediation process created to come up with a new river management plan.

The mosque used for restorative circles is sometimes the mosque located in the Judicial Agency office in Mashad city. This site melds a spiritual attitude of calm and care with the aura of judicial authority. Whether they are local or associated with the Judicial Agency, mosques’ association with ancient graybeard traditions of mediation imparts a dynamic escalation quality to meetings that can run for weeks. The traditional path of escalation is to bring into the meeting progressively more senior and more respected religious leaders or graybeards. While this does involve an escalation pyramid to greater authority to demand action and repair harm, it also involves an increased ability to mobilize resources for problem-solving purposes, as well as wider circles of care.

Graybeards and religious leader mediators sometimes attended the ritual occasions of families entangled in conflicts, such as weddings and funerals, to escalate the empathic engagement with the family by the most admired members of their community, even if the families were humble farmers or lowly members of that community. Such rituals of everyday life magnify compassion. Sometimes mediators organize a community work party in order to help a farmer get some large work project done on the farm or to overcome some setback.

Graybeard traditions are not as alive in their traditional form in Mashad as they are in some of the provinces visited during the research, such as Lorestan. Our argument here, following Harrington and Shearing (2017), is that these ancient traditions are in the background in Mashad, waiting to be appropriated by contemporary innovation in an ethic of care that will help farmers and factories to adapt to the Anthropocene, to love their fellow citizens, and to love their river.

None of this is to deny that many farmers, as well as some factory owners, were left worse off (particularly when required to relocate). Even then, they could sometimes see that the devastation to their futures was less than it would have been had the full force of the law been used to simply bulldoze through those futures. How much worse or better off people were depended on how rich were the resources of care and support brought into the circle, particularly the funding support and the state-leveraged bank loans to treat waste and shift productive activity to less ecologically destructive locations. In many cases, however, the risk-shifting path of creating the same problems by farming and digging new wells downstream was the path to a temporarily better, yet ultimately unsustainable, future.

The effort to persuade factories to destroy their polluting machines and practices and to retool with in-plant waste treatment, even after many days of multiparty restorative negotiations, was less successful than the effort to persuade farmers to destroy their dangerous vegetables and rise to the creative challenge of modifying their farms and wells (Interview 041709). However, with state help, there has been a willingness to link to state-funded treatment plants that serve multiple factories. Many small factories were persuaded to move away from the river by offers of relocation assistance and access to government-funded wastewater treatment by the same kinds of discussion circles the farmers experienced in the mosque to shape up Awareness, Motivation, and Pathways. Although regulatory agencies claim that these plants meet international standards, all of the NGO staff whom we interviewed expressed doubts as to whether this was true. Relocated factories were provided assistance to connect their effluent to five water purification and recycling plants funded by the state. Farmers and factories alike have been persuaded to move back 45 kilometers from the riverbanks, which are now becoming covered with trees.


On the one hand, this is a redemptive story of genuine movement from the brutal bulldozing tactics of 1992 to motivating restorative pathways for the poor away from poverty. On the other, part of the story is bribes by the rich for pathways to their interests. Unfortunately, pathways to elite interests have more path-dependence than pathways in resilient service of the poor. Interviews with factory managers revealed that they had maintained large wells that been long protected by bribed inspectors, who were in turn protected by politicians. These factory managers continue to ignore the appeals of environmental NGOs and regulators. While much polluted water has been diverted to irrigation for tree planting, many factories continue to sell their polluted waste water illegally to farmers for food irrigation. At the same time, small illegal wells owned by poor farmers are sealed by enforcement action. Networks and nodes of governance need to be intensified rather than abandoned, because, as one leader (Dr Yazadi) in the fight to save the river explained:

The main thing is there is a very big mafia in almost everything, including the water problem, and unless we destroy that mafia, we cannot do anything useful. That mafia is so powerful that if we want to understand it, we have to go to the centre of it. Like a bird flying in the sky cannot see what is in the sea, you have to be a fish to see there (Yazdi, 2016).

This corruption destroys the river and undermines the trust and relationships built up between state and citizens through repeated restorative processes. Given the extent of corruption, disenchantment about the use of restorative justice would be expected for problems with such a deeply structural character. Yet, we were astonished when one of the most active leaders in the movement argued completely the contrary. Rather like Dr Yazadi quoted above, this leader argued that restorative justice was the only way forward given the imbalance of power involved. She noted that restorative justice had been important in allowing the movement’s leaders to get to where they are now in their understanding of the issues and the parties. Had they not done all that talking and relationship building, they could not have found “the unseen helping hands behind the scenes.”

In other words, there are people within government and private organizations who are opposed to the corruption and are looking for ways to support a better approach; reformers were able to find each other through the long restorative dialog. In addition, in our interviewee’s opinion, if the usual penal approach had been followed, it would not have identified the roots of the problem—there would not have been discussion about the different layers of pollution, and it would just have dealt with some specific illegality apparent on the surface. Citizens had not been aware of the deep sources of the problem; they thought it was one of seasonal workers and small-scale farmers. Today they see these as only making up roughly 20% of the problem, with 80% of the problem being factories and other large-scale polluters. Our conclusion is therefore that restorative nodal governance is less effective with crimes of the powerful, although it is still helpful for agonistic (Mouffe, 2013) contestation of hegemony that leads to prosecutions and popular protests, while in other moments it also leads to restorative settlements.

More strands may be needed to reinforce those networks. As one weak reed after another in a network of governance is snapped by corporate power, more strands in the web of governance can be woven into place to strengthen the fabric. Some of those strands must be made of tougher stuff. As regulatory scholars have long shown (Braithwaite, 2008; Gunningham et al., 1998), complex problems require a complex regulatory mix. That mix must be innovatively and responsively applied when the powerful continue to dominate. When restorative justice repeatedly fails, escalation to more punitive forms of justice to protect the environment is imperative. Our discussion here is intended to show how rather than seeing restorative justice and punitive justice as either/or, we should see them as with/and. Restorative justice can be made more effective when it is woven together with punitive justice, and, in turn punitive justice can be made more effective in the presence of restorative justice options.

In relation to the Kashaf River, it seems necessary for some corporate executives to be put in prison and for their companies to suffer large penalties or even be taken over by the state. Regulatory officials who take bribes must feel they are at risk of criminal prosecution. The entrenched capture and corruption we have described makes this easier said than done. However, the Iranian criminal procedure law of 2015, which now allows NGOs to launch criminal actions against corporate offenders, already shows promise, as does a recent NGO criminal suit that alleged criminality against managers in regulatory agencies regarding industrial wastewater enforcement. An even stronger strand to add to such networked regulation of pollution would be to give NGOs and whistleblowers access to a percentage of the fines imposed in such cases.

Another way to weave together stronger strands is to widen the restorative circle, reaching out not only horizontally into state departments and institutions where there are hidden allies, but also vertically into the international realm. Hence, there has been an effort to strategically strengthen linkages with international NGOs and the United Nations in order to bring about some kind of accountability on the part of government actors and the powerful business interests they protect from the ongoing struggles to clean the Kashaf River.

We have argued that a complex nest of problems requires constant elaboration and the development of a multilevel response that comes from many nodes of governance. While we do see that fabric being repeatedly torn by corporate power, the most realistic remedy may be to keep sewing it back together with new threads that have the strength to repair the weaker fabric that was so readily torn. It is unlikely that adding more horizontal restorative strands will ever be sufficient for that purpose. Without the specter of vertical escalation to tougher enforcement, it is hard to imagine factory owners who lack an environmental conscience sitting up to take notice. By the same token, vertical state enforcement may remain illusory without pressure being brought to bear by broader international engagement or bottom-up pressure coming from restorative and other locally driven processes. This need for diverse input provides one more reason to resist any geopolitics that excludes and polarizes by stigmatizing Iran and closing off spaces for widening restorative circles in the international domain.

Turning back again to Shearing, one main agenda of his scholarship has been exploration of how landscapes of inequality are produced and reproduced and how they might be reconfigured as landscapes of equality. Shearing’s own reflections on the insights about power arising from the restorative approach to the Kashaf River crisis that we detailed here are as follows:

  • The nodal governance perspective directs attention to assemblages of power and contests between these assemblages;
  • The storybook focus identifies the narrative structures that maintain power differentials and considers how these might be challenged and refigured;
  • The justice as a better future theme directs attention to a normative focus on shifting power architectures that moves away from backward-looking accountability;
  • The AMP focus explores how shifts in architectures of AMP to empowerment of the poor might challenge path-dependencies that favor entrenched power;
  • The ethic of care theme recognizes human entanglements with other earthlings and the importance of appreciating the broader power structures inherent in these relationships, which can either trap the powerless or be harnessed for liberation along the riverbanks.

Coherence forged by the integration of concepts shared between normative and explanatory theory is likewise central to Pettit’s (1999) republican theory of freedom as non-domination. Braithwaite et al. (2007) argues that through empirical studies of landscapes of the denizenship of places, he learned from Pettit that regulation remains misunderstood and dangerous unless moored to a normative commitment to domination reduction. We can therefore integrate Shearing’s five insights as nodally restoried non-domination.


In the Kashaf River corridor, we discovered, somewhat surprisingly, a coherence in five strands of Shearing’s thought that has not been apparent in previous research. Nodal governance of the river tackles nests of problems as diverse as homelessness, ill-health, crime, employment, state tyranny, and ecological crisis. To deliver on these multiplex fronts, nodal governance needed to do more than create Awareness and Motivation for reform; it also needed to uncover Pathways to a transformative geopolitics of place that involved a restorative ethic of care. That could not be accomplished without patient, participatory restorying of the river by its peoples, a restorying that connected to Shari’a and to the Persian traditions of these particular peoples in counterhegemonic ways. The power of the people was feeble relative to the power of the factory owners and police bulldozers until it mobilized the muscle of the mosque, the prosecutor, NGOs, and the mayor at other nodes that were locally strategic. Justice as a better future was an imaginary that opened glimmers of possibility for river people who wanted homes, jobs, and freedom from fear of crime; for middle-class city-dwellers who feared food contaminated by the river; for a mayor, a police force, and a state for whom rioting citizens burning banks and police headquarters was not the destablilized future they wanted; and for religious leaders who wanted a better future of justice with a merciful Shari’a face. Surprisingly, European diplomats also play a part in our story. Their justice as a better future for the Anthropocene involves an Iran that commits to the Paris agreement on climate change and that receives a caring ethic of practical help from Europe to keep its rivers clean and flowing. This is in the hope that crisis in Iran will not push it over a cliff into threatening a regional nuclear conflagration, which would represent a desolute future for Europe, as well as for the people of Iran.

Fuller (1964, p. 33) argued that the full judicial process is only good for two types of questions: yes/no (“Did she do it?”) and more/less (“How much should be paid?”) questions. Polanyi (1951, pp. 174–84) distinguished these from polycentric problems that require multidimensional negotiation of interacting complexity. While the Fuller/Polanyi insight remains a rich one, we have seen that it does not preclude a judicial agency from becoming a node of governance that helps to solve polycentric problems with polycentric (nodal) governance. It does not preclude a judicial agency from hiring mediators, recruiting victim support volunteers, and networking multiple layers of governance and civil society using a restorative and responsive strategy that is also capable of escalating up to imprisonment of factory owners. It does not preclude a totally patriarchal male judicial branch from catalyzing women mediators to participate in restorative nodal governance. Critics could argue that perhaps the catalytic node of governance here was not the office of Bakhshi Mohebi but the Saviour of Kashaf River Committee, or even the mayor’s office. These are not unreasonable ways of seeing the Kashaf River community’s history.

Our reflections on this narrative attract us to the hypothesis that institutional structures do not prevent new nodes of governance of polycentric problems from being energized almost anywhere and under almost any circumstance of democratization. New nodes can emerge in the most authoritarian region of an authoritarian society. This is possible because of Shearing and Ericson’s (1991) insight that restorying a problem-solving imaginary can occur in the most implausible of authoritarian locales, including the lunchrooms of local police stations where police share stories of how they worked with others to stick with a problem and fix it. Rewriting institutional rulebooks is important intellectual work and rightly attracts scholarly attention. Rewriting storybooks at local nodes of governance that happen to be populated by reformers with a transformative imagination attracts less interest—but it too deserves similar attention.

Decades from now, the Kashaf River may be seen as a site of deep desertification. Fear of that does not mean that wealthy city-dwellers should be content to nestle with their grandchildren in the temporary comfort of their city while failing to engage with experiments in new modalities of governance that attempt to hold back the desert from rolling over the grandchildren of the river. Mashad citizens can and are attempting to keep some clean water flowing for future generations. The survival threats of the Anthropocene demand learning from experimentation. These threats present the meager public policy treatments of the Holocene with what amounts to multiple-drug resistance. Proximate human extinction is likely without experiments in restorying our future. It is plausible that accidental cascading of a nuclear weapons exchange from Pakistan or Israel (Braithwaite & D’Costa, 2018) could wipe out the people of the Kashaf River long before the desert rolls over them. We must not be nihilistic about their struggle, even if that struggle makes life better only temporarily. Due to the complexity of polycentric crises, there is an imperative to pursue new ideas for seeding disparate problem-solving imaginaries on many fronts at once. The plural assemblage of thought proposed by Clifford Shearing is just one such possible method of experimental bricolage. A method of searching out other spaces of extreme depth and complexity with respect to polycentric problems could uncover other multidimensional solutions that prove theoretically coherent in least-likely cases and at least-likely sites (Eckstein, 2000).


1 Western definitions of restorative justice should perhaps not be of central relevance given that the restorative narrative here is grounded in Persian and Islamic traditions. Nevertheless, these practices fit a definition of restorative justice as a relational process in which all stakeholders in an injustice have an opportunity to come together to discuss who has been harmed and what should be done to repair the harm and meet their needs. 2 We first sent our article to Shearing for comment during its revision phase. We are grateful for his feedback. 3 Each involved collaborations with nodes of Shearing co-authors—more than a dozen—who were critical to their development. We mean no disrespect to them. It is just that our work forges links across all five “Shearing insights”; Shearing is the only author of all five, and none of his co-authors recur across the different insights. 4 Refer to Endnote 3. 5 Relevant interviews were with a dozen Mediation Council mediators, prosecutors, and judges operating through that office (Interview 051627), businesses affected by court enforcement actions (Interview 091707), and environmental and other NGOs involved in some of the cases.

  • John Braithwaite (PhD Queensland) is Emeritus and founder at the School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet), Australian National University. He is best known for work on restorative justice, peacebuilding and responsive regulation (
  • Honeye Hojabrosadati has a PhD in Criminal Law and Criminology, Tarbiat Modares University of Tehran. Her research and publications in Farsi are mainly focused on Social Justice and Access to justice. She was Assistant professor at Islamic Azad University for last ten years, but currently is undertaking research into Narratives and Gender Inequalities in Iran.
  • Miranda Forsyth (PhD Australian National University) is an Associate Professor in the School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet) in the College of Asia and Pacific at ANU. She is a socio-legal scholar with a focus on restorative justice and law, justice and violence in Melanesia.

Archaeology in the age of the Anthropocene: A critical assessment of its scope and societal contributions

Paul J. Lane


Recent decades have witnessed heightened public and governmental awareness of the nature and scale of environmental challenges likely to face the planet over the course of the next fifty to one hundred years. Scholars from across a broad range of disciplines have been drawn into these debates and have begun to reorient their research towards finding solutions to some of the most pressing problems and to devising more sustainable and resilient livelihoods. Archaeologists, with their conventional orientation toward past events and processes have been rather slower to engage with these issues. Recently, however, there has been a steady shift within the discipline so as to incorporate more future-oriented perspectives, and ‘the use of the past to plan for a better future’ is rapidly becoming a common theme within archaeological research projects and publications. While welcoming some of these developments, this paper offers a critical assessment of the various claims that are now being made of archaeology’s potential to help overcome current environmental challenges and its contributions to defining and understanding ‘the Anthropocene.’



“The Anthropocene is not just an era of anthropogenic change” (Ogden et al. 2013: 345).

We live in an era of heightened environmental awareness. Terms such as ‘global warming,’ ‘greenhouse gasses,’ ‘carbon foot-prints’ and ‘climate change’ have entered the public sphere and our everyday lexicons; their effects and causes are debated by our politicians and hotly contested in the blogosphere. Anxieties over environmental catastrophe have displaced the fear of a nuclear winter that circulated during the years of the Cold War. Dystopian visions increasingly dominate the entertainment industry’s imaginings of the future, and we are all encouraged on a daily basis to recycle, down-scale, be green and think globally while acting locally. That this last notion was first popularized over four decades ago has inevitably prompted many to argue that all this hand wringing is too little too late—the future of our species on this planet is bleak.

Recent extreme weather events serve to heighten such concerns—such as those that in early 2014 left one side of the United States coping with Arctic temperatures and paralyzed under feet of snow, while the farming industry on the other side of the continent was struggling to deal with an acute shortage of water for livestock and irrigation. Or those, also in early 2014, that left up to a quarter of England and Wales inundated by flood waters for weeks, and in some areas months, at a time. In response to such events, our political leaders are often blamed for their lack of foresight and environmental planning while they are simultaneously exhorted to act as if they, unlike King Canute, have the power to control the elements. Individual members of the public are likewise on the one hand castigated for their environmental foolishness, as evinced by their apparent addiction to unbridled consumerism, while they are also praised for their fortitude, public minded actions and ‘natural’ instinct toward selfless acts of generosity following major ‘environmental disasters,’ especially those that impact parts of the Global South—such as the typhoons that flattened parts of the Philippines in 2013, or the extended drought across eastern and north-eastern Africa during 2010–11 that devastated livestock herds and pastoralist communities.

Taking a broader view, the heightened environmental concerns of our age, and the cumulative events that triggered them, are seen by many in the scientific community as attributable to, or at least symptomatic of, the commencement of a new geological epoch—the Anthropocene (Dryzek 2013; Ellis and Trachtenberg 2014; Wapner 2014), identifiable through distinct stratigraphic indicators including marked increases in percentages of atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane as recorded in polar ice cores alongside broadly coeval changes in biological assemblages. More recent work (e.g., Waters et al. 2014), has expanded the number of additional potential stratigraphic markers to include, among others, certain types of anthropogenic soils, the intensification of processes of anthroturbation, changes in reef system ecological functioning and signals, the globalization of biological transfers, and the radiogenic fallout from testing nuclear weapons. As awareness of the concept has grown, and as public and political concern over the future of our planet has stimulated an upscaling in the amount of research funding available for studying the causes, drivers and consequences of climate change, archaeologists have been increasingly drawn into debates over the concept of an Anthropocene and wider human-nature interactions (e.g., Solli 2011; Edgeworth 2014). Of course, climate change research in archaeology is not a new field—there is a long tradition of archaeologists exploring human-environment relationships from different theoretical perspectives and through the study and analysis of a broad range of material, biological and geochemical proxies (for reviews of this intellectual history, see e.g., Sandweiss and Kelley 2012; Davies and M’Mbogori 2013Van de Noort 2013: 19–43). However, what has changed over the last decade is that this tradition of research is now frequently mobilized in support of the argument that archaeologists have a central role to play in addressing the challenges posed by future climate change (see e.g., Hudson et al. 2012), rather than solely offering backward-looking perspectives on past climate cycles and human responses and contributions to earlier phases of environmental change. Thus, Marcy Rockman (2012: 194), while acknowledging that “archaeology cannot provide all the answers,” has argued:

“Without the data, information, ideas and interpretations that the field of archaeology can provide, there is much less of a chance of developing appropriate, workable, and durable means of addressing mitigation and adaptation issues.”

Robert van der Noort (2011: 1046) has put this more explicitly:

“By offering long-term perspectives on human interrelationships with climate change, archaeology is well placed to enhance an understanding of the socio-ecological resilience of communities and their adaptive capacity. This would appear to be archaeology’s chief contribution to the climate change debate.”

The logical extension of such arguments is that archaeological data, as repository of adaptive pathways, when set within long-term perspectives, offer insights into how past societies responded to earlier phases of climate change, and so have the potential to help build the social resilience of contemporary communities in the face of rapid climate change (e.g., Guttmann-Bond 2010; Brown et al. 2011; Van der Noort 2013). The growing use of archaeological data as environmental proxies by climate change researchers also signals this increased prominence of archaeology in current climate change discourse (for discussions of this trend see Sandweiss and Kelley 2012; Brooke 2014).

Welcome though such developments are, there remain several underpinning assumptions and unexamined philosophical questions that need to be addressed before archaeologists can claim that their research on past human-environment interactions, the historical ecology of ancient landscapes, and the resilience of past societies can provide actual solutions to the environmental challenges of our time. In what follows I explore these with reference to the concept of the Anthropocene and especially debates over its origins. My perspective is that of someone specializing in the later Holocene archaeology of Africa and with interests in landscape historical ecology and the production of useable pasts aimed at addressing contemporary societal challenges (Lane 2010, 2011). I argue in particular, that while it is important that archaeologists explore the potential contributions their knowledge and data sets may have toward addressing current and predicted future environmental challenges, it remains reasonable to ask: “Just how much contemporary public good can such a deep-time perspective provide?” Put another way, some of the claims that some archaeologists have made in recent years that our discipline can help us navigate the hazards of the Anthropocene—whether this is in terms of providing evidence of the resilience of many non-Western societies or on past responses to climate change, need to be substantiated rather than simply asserted.

The Anthropocene

The notion of ‘the Anthropocene’ was introduced to the scholarly community in its current guise in 2000, by the Nobel-prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and the ecologist Eugene Stoermer (Crutzen and Stoermer 2000; Crutzen 2002). Their coining of this term was intended to convey the idea that the environmental impacts of human activities since the Industrial Revolution no longer have consequences solely at the local or regional scale, but do so at a global scale. In this sense, human activities, collectively, are now equivalent to those of geological processes, and for proponents of the concept of an Anthropocene, the term suggests that the Earth is moving, or has already moved, out of the current geological epoch, the Holocene, into a new one. Critically, advocates in favor of this argument also believe that unlike any other point in Earth’s history, it is the cumulative effects of human activity that is triggering this exit from the Holocene. In other words, humanity has become a global geological force in its own right (Steffen et al. 2007: 614).

Crutzen and Stoermer (2000) acknowledged that humans have long shaped their environments and that their activities have had environmental consequences. They noted that over the entire course of the Holocene there is evidence indicating increasing levels of human influence, including diverse biotic and sedimentary signals, such as pollen of weeds and cultivars following land clearance for agriculture, and sediment pulses from deforested regions. They also recognized that atmospheric lead pollution arising from human activities begins to be registered in polar ice cores and in sediments around the world from Greco-Roman times onward. Nonetheless, they saw the commencement of the Industrial Revolution around a.d. 1750 as initiating a step change in terms of the scale of such impacts. Subsequently, with Will Steffen and John McNeill, Crutzen extended these arguments with reference to a larger body of indices and proxies (Steffen et al. 2007), to argue that since a.d. 1800 there had been two broad stages to the Anthropocene. These comprised an initial stage, which they termed ‘The Industrial era,’ lasting to ca. a.d. 1945, characterized by a dramatic and increasingly global rise in the burning of fossil fuels and associated production of greenhouse gases compared with all pre-Industrial Revolution epochs, and a more recent ongoing phase, which they termed ‘The Great Acceleration,’ commencing after the end of World War II up to the present day characterized by the almost exponential acceleration of ‘the human enterprise’ across the globe.

As evidence for these stages, they cited a wide selection of different proxies, of which changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations were considered to be the most significant benchmark. Based on available data, global carbon dioxide atmospheric concentrations are over a third higher than in pre-industrial times, and higher than they have ever been at any time in the past 0.8 million years, as are those of methane and nitrous oxide (IPCC 2014: SYR-9). In 1850, CO2 concentrations were still within the range recorded for interglacial periods during the late Quaternary at around 285 ppm. By the end of the ‘Industrial Era’ stage they had risen by around 25 ppm, beyond any recorded upper limits of ‘natural variation,’ and by 2005 had reached 379 ppm (Steffen et al. 2007: 616). If human population growth, agriculture and industrial activities continue to accelerate at more or less the same pace as witnessed since 1945, the concentration of global greenhouse gases (GHGs) are predicted to double by the end of the twenty-first century (IPCC 2014: SYR-9-11).

Compared with GHGs, the rise in global temperature has been slower, possibly as a result of the effects of industrially derived sulphate aerosols—the so-called “global dimming” effect. Nonetheless, owing to anthropogenic carbon emissions, temperatures in the past 120 years rose by an estimated average of 0.85° C and the rate of increase has accelerated in the past two decades. In some predictions, mean average temperatures are expected to rise by around between 3.0° and 4.0° C by the end of this century (Sherwood et al. 2014). Even modest temperature rises are expected to accelerate ice loss in the Arctic and Antarctic and increase ocean heat content, leading to sea-level rise, accentuating the documented rise in global mean sea level (GMSL) since the 1860s of around 250 mm (Church and White 2006), with some scholars suggesting that this could result in an overall rise in GMSL in excess of one meter by 2100, potentially resulting in forced displacement of over 185 million people (Nicholls et al. 2011). Additionally, relative to pre-Industrial Revolution oceans, surface ocean waters are now more acidic by a factor of 0.1 pH units, due to anthropogenic carbon release, and the projected effects of future acidification will be both physical and biological, thereby hindering carbonate-secreting organisms in building their skeletons, with potentially severe effects in both benthic (especially coral reef) and planktonic settings.

For proponents of the Anthropocene, it is recent changes in the scale and intensity of a host of human activities that have been the likely drivers of these changes, which in turn have triggered a wide range of environmental consequences from depletion of fisheries to falling aquifers, increased soil erosion, ecosystem fragmentation and biodiversity loss (e.g., Steffen et al. 2007; Rockström et al. 2009; Ellis et al. 2010; Hughes et al. 2013). Where debate remains is often over which sedimentary marker, or markers, provide the best “isochronous datum” indicative of “a critical change in the sedimentary sequence (golden spike)” that is also sufficiently universal that it “can be considered the boundary between two epochs (i.e., the Holocene and the Anthropocene)” (Rull 2013: 1198). As Rull (2013) notes, while agreement on this point is likely essential for formal recognition of the Anthropocene by the International Commission of Stratigraphy (ICS) and its Anthropocene Working Group, the work done by more informal manifestations of the concept is likely to be far more important.

In this regard, it is important to note that concepts similar to that of the Anthropocene have been proposed by previous generations of scholars at times when public concerns over the future of the planet and our species were much less heightened than they are today. In 1778, for example, the French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), observed in his book Époques de la nature, that “the entire face of the Earth now bears the imprint of man’s power” (cited in Locher and Fressoz 2012: 579). A century later, the Italian Roman Catholic priest and geologist Antonio Stoppani similarly acknowledged the increasing influence of humanity on Earth systems when he used the term ‘Anthropozoic’ in his 1873 Corso di Geologia (Crutzen 2000). In the 1920s and 1930s, the French philosopher, geologist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chadrin and the Russian mineralogist and naturalist Vladimir I. Vernadsky favoured the term ‘Noosphere.’ Later in the twentieth century, E.O. Wilson used the ‘Eremozoic’ and Andrew Revkin that of the ‘Anthrocene’—both proposed in 1992—to convey many of the same ideas encapsulated by Crutzen’s notion of an Anthropocene (Steffen et al. 2011: 843–5). As a scientific idea, the concept of an age when humanity, through collective and cumulative actions, has the power to drive Earth system processes is thus far less revolutionary than the coining of the term ‘Anthropocene’ might suggest (see also Sayre 2012; Castree 2014).

Likewise, some of the philosophical debates that have been prompted by the popularization of the concept of the Anthropocene also have a distinguished ancestry. John Stuart Mill, for example, in his 1874 essay ‘On Nature’ was particularly critical of the doctrine ‘follow nature’ on the grounds that:

“If nature encompasses everything that exists in the natural world and all the laws that govern it, then “follow nature” is vacuous because it tells us to do something we have no way of not doing … On the other hand, if “follow nature” … means something akin to … “let nature take its course” independent of our intervention, then … we have a moral injunction utterly unworthy of our support” (Hourdequin 2013: 116).

Mill’s position finds its modern-day expression in, on the one hand, the public’s exhortations for their politicians to do something about the floods, the drought, the snowstorms, coastal erosion and the like, while on the other hand being equally vociferous about the need to protect ‘nature’ where it is believed to still survive in a ‘pristine’ state and to restore habitats to their ‘natural’ state where it is believed they have been damaged by humanity. Concerned as we may be about the consequences of climate change, few of us would feel comfortable if we did let ‘nature’ completely overwhelm our dwelling spaces, yet we also mourn ‘nature’s loss’ each time news reaches us that yet that another species facing extinction has been placed on the IUCN’s Red List. Being in the Anthropocene, in other words, raises some profound moral and ethical questions for us as citizens. It also requires scholars who claim that their research activities can help address today’s global environmental challenges also engage with these more philosophical dimensions of the Anthropocene discourse. As Hourdequin (2013: 116) notes:

“Debate over the Anthropocene can be separated into two distinct questions. First, is it true that humans are the key drivers of biological, geological, and chemical processes on Earth? And second, if the answer to the first question is affirmative, [and the weight of scientific evidence suggests that this is so] then what should we do about it?”

Hourdequin argues that the second question is more salient from an ethical perspective, although determining a suitable response depends to a considerable extent on how the first is answered. Put another way, as “an emergent narrative in global environmental politics,” the Anthropocene concept requires us to “reimagine how humans make connections between planetary and everyday life in ethical, sustainable, and ecologically just ways” (Houston 2013: 440).

Anthropocene Archaeology

Of the various recent archaeological considerations of archaeology in the age of the Anthropocene, most critical engagements with the concept have concerned themselves with Hourdequin’s (2013) first question, rather than the second. In this, they have largely been following the lead of the environmental scientist William Ruddiman (2003), who was among the first group of scholars to propose a counter-thesis to that of Crutzen and Stoermer, citing evidence that important anthropogenic effects on the environment and on global climate began thousands of years ago and were already extensive well before the start of the industrial era. Among other arguments, Ruddiman has pointed out that the observational records and related data sets on which Crutzen and Stoermer developed their case, were spatially incomplete and do not reflect the actual distribution or extent of human activities even at the start of the Industrial Revolution. More recently, Ruddiman (2013) has questioned whether the size of population is a good proxy indicator of the amount of cultivated land and deforestation (both implicated in the increase in GHGs), and that linked increases in population and land-use change have grown in an exponential unidirectional manner. Neither assumption, he argues, is consistent with available historical evidence. Drawing on historical studies of dynastic administrative records concerning land-use trends during the past 2,000 years across the entire agricultural area of east-central China, for example, Ruddiman (2013: 51) notes that whereas the per-capita area cultivated nearly 2,000 years ago was 0.6–0.7 hectares per person it had fallen to 0.15–0.2 hectares by the 1800s. Similarly, in contrast to the claims made by those in favor of a relatively recent origin of the Anthropocene, once evidence from historical, palaeoecological and archaeological is taken into account it is quite possible that as much as three-quarters of the world’s forest had been felled by the start of the industrial era (Ruddiman 2013: 52–4).

Historical data from Europe, in particular, reveal more extensive early clearance than reconstructed by Crutzen and Stoermer. Specifically, here, forest clearance seems to have been widespread at a relatively early date when population densities were still quite low, and well before even the Medieval era. Consequently, even though there have been marked increases in population across Europe over the last few thousand years, these had limited effects on deforestation, and the available evidence even suggests that, as in China, per-capita clearance may well have fallen over the last 2,000 years by a factor of three to four (Kaplan et al. 2009). In a similar vein, Dorian Fuller and colleagues (2011) have argued that the rapid expansion of irrigated rice agriculture in Asia between 5,000 and 1,000 years ago, as with the spread of herding regimes and domestic livestock across Asia and Africa, led to a significant increase in global methane emissions globally.

Other recent archaeological contributions to this debate make rather similar points concerning the long history of global-scale human impacts on the environment. Leaving aside the question as to whether the ICS, who actually determine how and whether geological epochs can be named by scientists agree to formally recognize the Anthropocene as a new geological epoch (something they will not decide upon until 2016), opinion also seems to be shifting toward a two-phase definition of the Anthropocene. Namely, an early phase that began several thousands of years ago, although opinion differs on exactly how long ago (compare, for instance, Olofsson and Hickler 2008; Certini and Scalenghe 2011; Ellis et al. 2013; Smith and Zeder 2013), initially at a fairly small scale but with impacts becoming far more significant by the start of the industrial era; and, a later, very rapid phase of accelerating and widespread impacts from ca. a.d. 1750 (Ruddiman 2013).

To date, archaeology’s contribution, while valuable, has been largely constrained to the task of better defining when humans began influencing their environments, the nature of these changes (which may not always have had negative impacts), their spatial and temporal scale and their socio-ecological legacies. This is certainly important and much needed work—we know little about these issues for many parts of the globe and for numerous time periods (Kintigh et al. 2014; Seddon et al. 2014). However, a common thread in such arguments is the emphasis they place on the need to disentangle natural from human processes. While certainly valuable from a heuristic perspective so as to determine the relative weight of different factors as drivers of change and stability at particular moments in the past, the conceptual prioritizing of this need ultimately reinforces a tacit epistemological commitment to evaluating ecological relationships explicitly with regard to an a priori baseline. As Nathan Sayre (2012: 61) notes, this belief in “a pristine, original nature untouched by humans” verges on the ideological among many environmentalists and ecologists, since without such a baseline “how is one to define the environment to be protected or preserved?” From such a perspective the challenge becomes, as so aptly illustrated by the divergent opinions on when, if at all, the Anthropocene began, determining which point in time can be said to qualify as a ‘pre-human impact’ baseline.

To circumvent such dualistic thinking it is important that greater intellectual space is created for a consideration of the mutual, co-construction and production of the world through the ever accumulating processes of human-thing entanglement (Hodder 2011). Likewise, there needs to be more overt recognition that ‘environment’ must be understood partly as a social and political category that emerges from intimate engagements with its physical realities (Tvedt 2010; Angelo 2013); consideration of the materiality of things in and of the world and the manner in which these shape such intimate relationships (Olsen 2010); and acknowledgement of the agency of non-human entities (Strang 2014), and the ‘more-than-human’ dimensions of human-animal encounters (Cassidy 2012; Wilkie 2015). In short, what much of the science-driven debates on the Anthropocene lack is recognition of the potential contributions of the post-humanism turn across the social sciences and humanities of the last few decades, which has challenged the privileged place of the modern human subject and sought to animate these disciplines by including those affects, emotions and sensibilities previously excluded from the narrow remit of Enlightenment rationality.

Archaeology of the Anthropocene

Aside from pointing to evidence in support of a deep history to the Anthropocence, the potential threats to livelihoods, food security, and patterns of human settlement posed by accelerating climate change and the anticipated disruption to current social, economic and political orders this may trigger, have encouraged scrutiny of the implications that commencement of the Anthropocene may have for humanity’s tangible and intangible heritage. For some (e.g., Murphy et al. 2009; Sabbioni et al. 2010; Barthel-Bouchier 2012), the issues of concern are how best to protect archaeological sites, monuments, deposits, material remains and other components of the built environment from the threats climate change may pose to their long-term future. For others, the impacts of climate change may manifest themselves in a far “more fundamental, almost existential” manner by changing how heritage is conceptualized and how “scientific narratives about the past” are produced (Solli 2011: 42).

Aspects of these ideas have also been explored in a recent set of short essays (Edgeworth 2014) outlining alternative archaeological approaches to the Anthropocene. Adopting a more critical perspective on the value of creating a new age to add to all the other ‘ages’ that impose boundaries on archaeological interpretation and compartmentalize the way our discipline approaches its study of the past, most of the contributors still accept the underlying premise that humanity now lives in the Anthropocene. However, unlike those archaeologists who have sought to illustrate the deep-time history of human environmental impacts on Earth systems, several of these authors explore in different ways the ‘archaeology’ (in the Foucauldian sense, although with a greater emphasis on materiality) of the Anthropocene as a concept. Others are more concerned with ‘Anthropocene archaeology,’ i.e. the distinctive material traces of this epoch and their referents at both a planetary (e.g., Benjamin 2014; Zarankin and Salerno 2014) and extra-planetary (Gorman 2014) scale. Most of these contributors associate ‘the Anthropocene’ with modernity, although some view the concept as little more than an over-determined slogan (Clarke 2014: 101). Individually and collectively, these papers work to complicate the idea of the/an Anthropocene. In particular, they underscore the fact that whether we live in a new geological epoch or not, and however we choose to define such a time, humans have always been entangled with their material environments. In this sense, the concept of the Anthropocene, precisely because it subverts older nature/culture binaries, could be said to be ideally suited to describing the entire course of human history and our evolution as a species.

Nonetheless, as already alluded to, discussions in the wider Anthropocene discourse of human manipulations of the environment still tend to reproduce the Enlightenment idea that human action inherently acts against nature and so degrades it (see Escobar 1999). This is particularly clear from the emerging conceptualization of fire as “the essential evolutionary trigger for the Anthropocene” (Malm and Hornborg 2014: 63). Thus, according to Michael Raupach and Josep Canadell (2010: 210–211), “long before the industrial era, a particular primate species learned how to tap the energy reserves stored in detrital carbon,” while for Steffen and colleagues (2007: 614), “the mastery of fire by our ancestors provided humankind with a powerful monopolistic tool unavailable to other species, that put us firmly on the long path towards the Anthropocene.” In their commentary on such observations Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg (2014) note that there is more than a hint of inevitability in such statements, as if the growth of a fossil-fuel economy was determined in the Early Stone Age in Africa when Homo Erectus learned to make and control fire—determined no doubt by their ‘natural’ human curiosity and propinquity for invention driven in turn by external evolutionary pressures. Yet, as they point out, our reliance on the fossil fuels which have driven the increase in GHGs and the climate changes that have accompanied this, has a specific history allied to the activities of a very narrow social and economic class of British, other European and North American industrialists and entrepreneurs in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, whose control over the means of production and economic power owed much to the profits reaped from participation in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and the exploitation of Europe’s urban and rural poor. Zoe Crossland (2014: 125) similarly recognizes this, remarking that:

“The Anthropocene is a political project as much as a scientific one, and to embed its origins in the long history of the Holocene is to spread genesis, and the responsibility for it, across many different human societies.”

Indeed, as anthropologists and political ecologists have long pointed out, resource management is based on diverse social, political and cultural features, differing societal and individual perceptions of and physical engagements with the bio-physical world, the choices made by different interest groups and individuals, and their differential power to do so. However, many of the processes of environmental change that are summarized by the concept “The Anthropocene” are not readily observable by the human senses. They act at spatial and temporal scales that are too big or too minute to fall within the range of human perception. Other than for specialists in earth system processes and atmospheric chemistry, the concept accomplishes little more than an epistemic distancing—as global processes they lose the very properties the concept is intended to emphasize, namely their association with human actions. Erik Swyngedouw (2011) is likewise critical of the manner in which the discourse surrounding climate change works to de-politicize the issues involved, despite all of the political rhetoric and grandstanding that claims otherwise (Wynne 2010). He argues, in particular, that as “the concept of Nature [and the need to protect or restore it] becomes ideology par excellence and functions ideologically … it forecloses thought, disavows the inherent slippery [aspects] of the concept and ignores the multiplicities, inconsistencies, and incoherencies inscribed in its symbolization” (Swyngedouw 2011: 258). Thus, whereas humanity’s responsibility for triggering increases in GHGs, species loss, the homogenization of biodiversity and a host of other ‘environmental ills,’ may well be recognized, by pushing the origins of these human impacts increasingly further back in time we effectively distance ourselves, i.e. Western society and modernity, from culpability. Once we recognize this, Malm and Hornborg (2014: 65) suggest:

“the main paradox of the narrative, if not of the concept as such, becomes visible: Climate change is denaturalised in one moment – relocated from the sphere of natural causes to that of human activities – only to be re-naturalised in the next, when derived from an innate human trait, such as the ability to control fire. Not nature, but human nature – this … is the Anthropocene displacement.”

Not Nature, but Human Practice

The visibility of the environmental costs that the accumulated consequences of human activities have left as a legacy for all of humanity today is, in itself, a resource which is not evenly spread over the human population of the Earth. Archaeology has an important role in mapping the history of these costs, to increase the visibility of such distributional injustice and draw attention to the need for possible interventions. It is noteworthy, therefore, that an interesting contrast can be drawn between the kinds of globalizing discourse concerning the origins of the Anthropocene discussed above, and more regional scale studies of long-term historical ecologies of specific landscapes. Many of the more effective studies have been those conducted in so-called Lesser Developed Countries in the Global South, where the need to demonstrate the social or public good of academic research is often pronounced—and certainly reinforced by the prevailing conditions of poverty and environmental vulnerability encountered by researchers while in the field and the often limited political power of the local communities with whom they work. Thus, for example, several archaeological projects in different parts of Latin America have had a long tradition of applying archaeological knowledge so as to help create, or recreate, environmentally sustainable farming practices in a manner that also improves local livelihoods (e.g., Erickson 1985; Beach and Dunning 1995; Kendall 1997, 2005; Renard et al. 2011; Isendahl et al. 2012), although some of these efforts have not been without their critics (e.g., Swartley 2002). In both Latin America and elsewhere, other projects have drawn on archaeological results so as to inform the restoration of particular habitats and to guide wildlife conservation efforts (see Hayashida 2005, and Wolverton and Lyman 2012, respectively, for indicative examples).

To date, nothing precisely comparable to the kind of rehabilitation of former agricultural practices explicitly using archaeological datasets, as undertaken in Bolivia and the Andes, has been attempted in sub-Saharan Africa. This is despite several decades of widespread positive valuation of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and ‘traditional’ farming practices within the community of ‘development’ specialists (Stigter et al. 1995), and numerous efforts to integrate such knowledge in the planning for sustainable futures (e.g., Reij et al. 1996; Hart and Vorster 2008; Pretty et al. 2011). Several recent and ongoing projects, nonetheless, have sought to employ a ‘deep time’ perspective on farming and risk management strategies so as to help identify the antecedents and possible drivers of current environmental challenges. These tend to be more place- and problem-focused, and are often oriented toward deconstructing prevailing policy narratives that have directed (some might argue misdirected) environmental interventions at a local level for decades (e.g., French et al. 2009; Lane 2009; Sulas 2010). Other projects have sought to better delineate which aspects of contemporary practices can be said to genuinely contribute to socio-ecological and cultural resilience (e.g., Sulas et al. 2009; Davies 2012), while also offering critical perspectives on concepts such as ‘Indigenous Knowledge’ and TEK, and especially the ahistorical manner in which these concepts are currently deployed in rural development projects across the region (Stump 2010, 2013). Although their specific focus has varied, a unifying aspect to all of these studies has been their concern as much with the limits of archaeological contributions to the task of devising sustainable and resilient agricultural practices today, as on what can be learned by adopting a deep-time perspective and how this knowledge might be applied at a local, community level.

Precisely how these archaeologically oriented projects will enhance livelihoods, reduce vulnerability, and contribute to more resilient societies is uncertain as in all the above cases the research and accompanying community engagement are ongoing. Nonetheless, a specific example can help identify what might accrue as benefits. This research is being undertaken as part of a European Union Framework Programme 7 Marie Curie Innovative Training Network, entitled Resilience in East African Landscapes (REAL – The overall project focus is on the temporal, spatial and social dynamics of human-landscape interaction in East Africa over the last millennium, with particular reference to Kenya and Tanzania. A core consideration is on how societies, landscapes and ecosystems have responded to climate change both currently and in the past under different conditions, so as to better understand how they may respond to future climate change. It is intended that knowledge generated by REAL can be used to support decision makers working in East Africa when they face critical issues of rural and urban food production and food security. Specifically, REAL aims to illustrate the interplay between past human activity and natural climate variability at different temporal and spatial scales, while demonstrating the importance of considering local perceptions, narratives, and experiences of climate change in the formulation of policy responses. The key value of such data is that they can inform us about how past human societies responded under conditions of intensifying climate change to (a) increased frequency and intensity of extreme climatic change and (b) occurrence and spread of hazards. They can also help determine whether socio-economic vulnerability increased in response to heightened, climate-induced risk, while also offering insights into why particular strategies, and not others, were adopted.

One particular case concerns the historical ecology of the Lake Baringo basin, Kenya (fig. 1). Perhaps best known among the wider archaeological community as the locus of Ian Hodder’s (1982) early post-processual ethnoarchaeological studies, and possibly also as an emerging research landscape for the study of hominin evolution (e.g., Kingston et al. 2007), the Lake Baringo basin is considered today as being severely degraded owing to a combination of climatic, environmental, governance, and socio-economic factors. The apparent ‘malaise’ of this environment has prompted numerous scientific studies from across the environmental and social sciences since the colonial era, and an almost equal number of recommended solutions at both practical and policy levels. Historical perspectives on these suggest that their implementation, whether during the colonial period or since independence, has only rarely enhanced overall sustainability (Little 1992; Anderson 2002).

Figure 1. Location of the Baringo Basin and sites, places and ethnic groups mentioned in the text. Figure prepared by Nik Petek, with data provided by Aynalem Degefa, based on Aster DEMs. ASTER GDEM is a product of METI and NASA.

Particular concern is currently voiced regarding the accelerating rate of deforestation and accompanying soil erosion as inferred from changes documented on satellite imagery taken since the 1980s (Kiage et al. 2007); changes in the sediment load of rivers discharging into the lake and reduction in overall lake depth over the last several decades (Lwenya and Yongo 2010); sub-catchment studies of soil erosion processes and their spatial extent (e.g., Sutherland and Bryan 1990); and palaeoecological signals recovered from lake-bed sediments and adjacent swamp cores recording catchment vegetation and precipitation regimes since ca. a.d. 1650 (Kiage and Liu 2009Degefa et al. in press). Among the consequences of these land cover changes have been the loss of good quality land for crop cultivation and livestock herding, the deterioration of water quality, and the creation of conditions favoring outbreaks of toxic cyanobacteria (algal) blooms, all with obvious knock-on impacts for local populations in terms of public health, food security, quality of nutrition, and household economies. Efforts to mitigate some of these detrimental environmental problems have created new challenges, especially the widespread planting of Prosopis juliflora (a quick growing but alien species) to combat soil erosion (Mwangi and Swallow 2008). Coalescing around these ‘environmental problems’ are a set of related social, economic and political issues, including recurrent inter-ethnic violence, disputes over access to land and resources, conflicting land uses, constraints on income and livelihood diversification, power imbalances, and gendered labour relations (e.g., Little 1985; Greiner et al. 2011; Greiner 2013; Caretta and Börjeson 2014).

What makes this current state of affairs particularly poignant is that at the end of the nineteenth century the Lake Baringo basin had abundant wildlife populations, including sizeable herds of elephants (Von Höhnel 1894) and supported a mosaic of pastoralists, farmers and hunter-gatherers (Little 1992Anderson 2002: 23–47). These included relatively large, sedentary, populations in the Il Chamus-dominated settlements of Leabori and Lekeper at the southern end of the lake associated with a productive system of intensive irrigated agriculture (Anderson 1989). The surplus generated by this system helped feed sizeable visiting trade caravans, at times numbering over one thousand individuals, drawn to the area because of its important sources of ivory (Håkansson 2004). Pokot dominated the northern and eastern sections of the basin, as they do today, but from at least a.d. 1750 different sections had developed dual economic specialisations, with those occupying the western boundaries along the Cherangani escarpment practicing intensive irrigated agriculture (Davies 2008, 2014) alongside their Marakwet neighbours (Adams et al. 1997; Davies, Kipruto and Moore 2014), whereas those occupying territories to the east and north of Lake Baringo engaged in specialised pastoralism (Bollig and Österle 2013). As argued by Davies (2008), this dual specialisation may well have enhanced the resilience of Pokot communities by offering alternative sources of livelihood and subsistence that could be drawn upon, through the mobilisation of kin relations and the bonds created by livestock loans, especially at times of environmental or political stress, such as during the severe regional droughts that occurred during the late eighteenth century (Bessems et al. 2008). Looked at more broadly, enabling social flux seems to have been a common mechanism for coping with disaster among Baringo’s different communities during the late eighteenth century through to the early twentieth century (e.g., Little 1988; Bollig 1990), and in some settings, as among the Marakwet, remains a key aspect of their social and cultural resilience (Östberg 2014: 210) (figs. 2, 3).

Figure 2. Marakwet Irrigation: A) A typical Marakwet irrigation channel; B) Marakwet irrigated fields of maize, sorghum, millet and other crops at the foot of the Cherangani escarpment, Kenya. Photographs by Paul Lane, 2011
Figure 3. Lowland Marakwet irrigation channel running through wooded farmland near Tot, Kenya. Photograph by Matthew Davies in 2011, reproduced with permission.

As noted above, detailed historical studies have identified many of the drivers of change over the course of the twentieth century that have contributed to the current state of affairs. However, there is still great uncertainty regarding how different food production systems in the previous centuries were organized, the foodstuffs they produced, and why they were capable of generating surpluses without detrimental effects on the basin’s ecosystem services. Exchange networks likely provided one means to reduce or at least offset ecological risk, but details concerning these and the range of products that circulated within and between systems are also poorly documented. Equally uncertain is whether the kind of material signalling of ethnic boundaries between Tugen, Pokot and Il Chamus (Njemps) which in the late twentieth century was related to economic competition (Hodder 1982), was also a feature of these earlier periods, or instead arose in response to widespread landscape degradation. These and comparable questions are all amenable to being answered through archaeological research of the kind being conducted under the auspices of the REAL project (Petek in press) (fig. 4). The results will not directly benefit local inhabitants. However, by identifying the key components that moderated climate change vulnerability and sustained food production in the past, and by documenting how their earlier integration has been steadily disaggregated by different drivers, it should at least be possible to establish which components might be viably revived or enhanced with beneficial effects under different socio-ecological scenarios. As critically, the very act of drawing attention to past accomplishments and successful human-environment interactions necessarily becomes a political act in a landscape that has been characterized for so long as degraded. The tangible heritage of successful adaptations and the knowledge systems associated with it, however modest this might be in comparison to those of ‘grand civilizations’, are in themselves importance resources worth protecting, and, increasing public awareness of them such as through innovative uses of social media (see Davies et al. 2014a) can contribute to a greater sense of ontological wellbeing and cultural resilience. Alongside more ‘practical’ measures, these social values have a critical role to play in any society at a time of intensifying environmental pressure of the kind the world is now facing (Adger et al. 2013).

Figure 4. Traces of Il Chamus pastoralist biocultural heritage. Abandoned pastoralist settlements such as these have been shown to enhance local biodiversity and survive for decades, perhaps longer, in the landscape. A) Settlement as occupied in 1950 and visible on an aerial photograph; B) The same settlement after abandonment, as visible on Google Earth ™ in 2014; C) As seen when photographed using a camera attached to a drone, November 2014; D) Surviving traces of house walls and hearth on the ground, November 2014. Figure 4a based on DOS Aerial Photos KENYA 82D / 138 / 2 photo no. 5230, reproduced with permission of the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, all other images provided by Nik Petek and reproduced with permission.

Writing from the perspective of their own experiences, Rockman (2012) and Van der Noort (2013) have argued that archaeologists may always have to struggle with the perception that their work is largely irrelevant, at a policy level, for dealing with future climate change. Both also argue that, nonetheless, archaeology has much to contribute if directed more modestly at addressing specific practical challenges. In line with these sentiments, in this paper I have argued that archaeologists hoping their work will help mitigate some of the hazards of the Anthropocene need to engage more fully with the insights offered not just by climate science but also those of political and historical ecology. A logical extension of this argument is the question of environmental justice, of how the results of environmental and climatic change became differently distributed over the human populations of the world and which communities have carried the burden of the “ecological footprints” of commodity consumption. Archaeologists are well versed in exploring how social and economic differences articulate with power, and how these influence control over and access to economic resources. Yet, in most of the recent archaeological discussions of the Anthropocene as both concept and reality, such issues are almost entirely absent. Curiously, there seems to be little interest in whose subsistence opportunities were most at risk in the past when temperatures or sea-levels rose and rainfall declined, whose livelihoods became most vulnerable or were most affected by increased pollution triggered by changes to agricultural and industrial production, patterns of waste disposal or the spread of different disease-bearing vectors in response to the changing contours of local and regional climatic conditions.

To my mind, a climate change archaeology devoid of such considerations, that examines changes in pollen concentrations and the nature of the sedimentary record without a consideration of whose lives these changes impacted; that evokes climatic stress without considering differential patterns of consumption or access to resources; that identifies resilience cycles, and phases of exploitation, collapse and re-structuring without a consideration of relations of social power and authority in these processes, however valuable towards enhancing understanding of the past, does little to advance our understanding of how archaeological studies might make the lives of ordinary people today any better, or help safeguard the future of the planet.

I firmly believe that archaeology has an essential role to play in climate change research in the 21st century—and that it has already made very valuable contributions to scholarly understanding of past climatic sequences, their social-ecological effects, and the differential human contributions and responses that entailed. I am not, therefore, trying to single out the work of particular scholars as examples of bad science, but simply wish to caution against making exaggerated claims that our backward looking curiosity really can help us navigate the hazards of the Anthropocene. A little less hubris seems called for, and in conducting our research we need to remind ourselves that people die when their crops fail for yet another year running and when their emaciated livestock can no longer find pasture; when their houses are struck by tidal waves, cyclones and mudslides. They die from air-borne and water-borne pollutants, and when poisonous fertilizers enter the food chain. They also die unnecessarily when resources which should have been made available to assist them during a period of environmental catastrophe or public health crisis are slow in coming or are redirected elsewhere to line someone’s pocket. No archaeological study on its own, however elegant, can change that.


A previous version of this paper was presented at the Stanford Archaeology Center, Stanford University in March 2014, as part of its Distinguished Lecture Series. I am especially grateful to Professor Lynn Meskell for the invitation and to The Morgan Family Foundation for enabling my visit. I would also like to thank members of the audience on that occasion for their comments and questions, and Christian Isendahl, Kevin Walsh and three anonymous referees for their comments on a previous draft. Thanks are also due to Nik Petek for sharing Figure 4, and for his work, with Aynalem Degefa on preparing Figure 1, and Matt Davies for permission to reproduce Figure 2. Aspects of the work reported here have been funded under the European Union FP7 programme, as part of the Resilience in East African Landscapes Marie Curie ITN (FP7-PEOPLE-2013-ITN project no. 606879). I accept full responsibility for any remaining shortcomings.

Paul Lane (Ph.D. 1986, University of Cambridge) is Professor of Global Archaeology at Uppsala University. An archaeologist with over twenty-five years’ research experience in Africa, his main interests are in the historical ecology of African landscapes, the archaeology of colonial encounters, the materialization of memory, the organization and use of space and time in pre-industrial societies, maritime archaeology and the transition to farming in Africa. A former Director of the British Institute in Eastern Africa (1998-2006) and President of the Society of Africanist Archaeologists (2008-10), he currently coordinates the Marie Curie-Skłodowska Resilience in East African Landscapes Innovative Training Network, and is an Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies, Witwatersrand University, South Africa.

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