A Doughnut for the Anthropocene: humanity’s compass in the 21st century


A new model of human wellbeing is emerging to guide humanity in the Anthropocene. In essence, it recognises that wellbeing depends on enabling every person to lead a life of dignity and opportunity, while safeguarding the integrity of Earth’s life-supporting systems. The conceptual framework of social and planetary boundaries—which has come to be known as the Doughnut—contributes to this paradigm by concisely visualising its ambition (appendix), and so providing a compass for humanity’s 21st century progress.

Since I created the Doughnut at Oxfam in 2012,1

 it has been widely applied within academia, policymaking, progressive business, urban planning, and civil society as a tool for reconceptualising sustainable development.2 3 4 5 6

Here I present a renewed and strengthened framework, based on recent advances in both internationally agreed social standards and in Earth-system science, which respectively provide the basis for establishing the Doughnut’s social and ecological boundaries.

The Doughnut combines two concentric radar charts to depict the two boundaries—social and ecological—that together encompass human wellbeing (figure). The inner boundary is a social foundation, below which lie shortfalls in wellbeing, such as hunger, ill health, illiteracy, and energy poverty. Its twelve dimensions and their illustrative indicators are derived from internationally agreed minimum standards for human wellbeing, as established in 2015 by the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by all member states of the United Nations. 7

Figure thumbnail gr1
Figure Shortfalls and overshoot in the Doughnut Show full caption View Large Image Figure ViewerDownload (PPT)

The Doughnut’s outer boundary is an ecological ceiling, beyond which lies an overshoot of pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, such as climate change, ocean acidification, and biodiversity loss. Its nine dimensions and their indicators are defined by the planetary boundaries framework, which seeks to identify and safeguard critical processes that regulate Earth’s ability to sustain Holocene-like conditions, and this framework was likewise revised in 2015. 8

Between these two sets of boundaries lies an ecologically safe and socially just space in which all of humanity has the chance to thrive (appendix).

By quantifying and visualising the global scale of shortfalls and overshoot, the Doughnut acts as a concise compass for assessment of the current state of human wellbeing (the appendix contains the full data and methods).

Millions of people currently lead lives that fall far short of the social foundation’s internationally agreed minimum standards, ranging from nutrition and health care to housing, income, and energy. At the same time, human activity has led to overshoot for at least four planetary boundaries: climate change, biodiversity loss, nitrogen and phosphorus loading, and land conversion. Improving humanity’s wellbeing this century depends on eliminating this social shortfall and ecological overshoot simultaneously (figure).

The Doughnut raises four key implications for the pursuit of human wellbeing in the Anthropocene. First, it highlights the dependence of human wellbeing on planetary health. The Holocene is the only epoch in Earth’s history in which it is known that humanity can thrive. 9

The best chance of enabling a life of dignity and opportunity for more than 10 billion people over the coming century therefore depends on sustaining Holocene-like conditions, such as a stable climate, clean air, a protective ozone layer, thriving biodiversity, and healthy oceans. Second, the concurrent extent of social shortfall and ecological overshoot reflects deep inequalities—of income and wealth, of exposure to risk, of gender and race, and of political power—both within and between countries. The Doughnut helps to focus attention on addressing such inequalities when both theorising and pursuing human wellbeing. Third, the Doughnut implies the need for a deep renewal of economic theory and policymaking so that the continued widespread political prioritisation of gross domestic product growth is replaced by an economic vision that seeks to transform economies, from local to global, so that they become regenerative and distributive by design, and thus help to bring humanity into the Doughnut.10

Last, the Doughnut might act as a 21st century compass, but the greater task is to create an effective map of the terrain ahead. Thanks to ongoing socioecological systems research, this century is likely to be the first in which humanity begins more fully to understand and appreciate the complex interdependence of human wellbeing and planetary health.

I received a grant from The Kendeda Fund to write and promote my book, Doughnut Economics: seven ways to think like a 21st century economist, on which this comment is based. I thank Richard King (Chatham House, London, UK) for data assistance, Christian Guthier (All is Possible, Oxford, UK) for graphic design, and Sarah Cornell (Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm, Sweden), Ingo Fetzer(Stockholm Resilience Centre), Katherine Trebeck (Oxfam GB, Glasgow, UK), and Guido Schmidt-Traub (UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, Paris, France) for valuable comments.

Supplementary Material
    • Raworth K
    A safe and just space for humanity: can we live within the doughnut?. Date: 2012(accessed Feb 20, 2017).View in Article 
    • Dearing J Wang R Zhang K et al.
    Safe and just operating spaces for regional social-ecological systems.Glob Environ Change. 2014; 28: 227-238 View in Article 
    • Costanza R Alperovitz A Daly HE et al.
    Building a sustainable and desirable economy-in-society-in-nature, United Nations Division for Sustainable Development. Date: 2012(accessed Feb 20, 2017).View in Article 
  1. Article 13. Planetary boundaries and social thresholds: how do companies measure up? A practitioner’s perspective. Date: 2016 (accessed Feb 20, 2017).View in Article 
    • City Think Space
    Kokstad and Franklin integrated sustainable development plan. Date: 2012(accessed Feb 20, 2017).View in Article 
    • Sayers M Trebeck K
    The UK doughnut: a framework for environmental sustainability and social justice. Date: 2015(accessed Feb 20, 2017).View in Article 
    • UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs
    Sustainable development goals. (accessed Feb 20, 2017).View in Article 
    • Steffen W Richardson K Rockström J et al.
    Planetary boundaries: guiding human development on a changing planet.Science. 2015; 347: 736 View in Article 
    • Rockström J Steffen W Noone K et al.
    Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity.Nature. 2009; 461: 472-475 View in Article 
    • Raworth K
    Doughnut economics: seven ways to think like a 21st century economist.Penguin Random House, London 2017 View in Article 



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  • Figure thumbnail gr1Figure Shortfalls and overs

Gender and Pan-Species Democracy in the Anthropocene

Veronica Strang 1,2

Department of Anthropology, Durham University, Durham DH1 3RL, UK

School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, Oxford University, Oxford OX2 6PE, UK

Religions 202112(12), 1078;


There are diverse historical trajectories in human societies’ relationships with the non-human world. While many small place-based groups have tried to retain egalitarian partnerships with other species and ecosystems, larger societies have made major transitions. In religious terms, they have moved from worshipping female, male or androgynous non-human deities, to valorising pantheons of deities that, over time, became semi-human and then human in form. Reflecting Durkheimian changes in social and political arrangements, movements towards patriarchy led to declining importance in female deities, and the eventual primacy of single male Gods. With these changes came dualistic beliefs separating Culture from Nature, gendering these as male and female, and asserting male dominion over both Nature and women. These beliefs supported activities that have led to the current environmental crisis: unrestrained growth; hegemonic expansion; colonialism, and unsustainable exploitation of the non-human world. These are essentially issues of inequality: between genders, between human groups, and between human societies and other living kinds. This paper draws on a series of ethnographic research projects (since 1992) exploring human-environmental relationships, primarily in Australia, the UK, and New Zealand, and on a larger comparative study, over many years, of a range of ethnographic, archaeological, theological, and historical material from around the world. It considers contemporary debates challenging Nature-Culture dualism and promoting ‘rights for Nature’ or—rejecting anthropocentricity to recognize an indivisible world—for the non-human communities with whom we co-inhabit ecosystems. Proposing new ways to configure ethical debates, it suggests that non-human rights are, like women’s rights, fundamentally concerned with power relations, social status, and access to material resources, to the extent that the achievement of ‘pan-species democracy’ and greater equality between living kinds goes hand-in-hand with social, political and religious equality between genders.

Keywords: human-non-human relationsgenderwaternon-human rightspan-species democracyinequality

1. Introduction

The world we now inhabit is the consequence of interspecies relationships that have evolved over time. We usually think about this in terms of the scientific evolution of interactions between species and environments, shaping concomitant development. However, within this much larger evolutionary context, in which homo sapiens only emerged very recently, there is a crucial sub-category of evolving relationships: between human groups, the material environments in which they live, and the non-human beings that also inhabit these. These relationships contain diverse trajectories of development, in which changes in societal modes of engagement with the non-human world are simultaneously social, political, technical, and cosmological. Each societal trajectory is unique, and by no means as simple or linear as might be suggested by any reductive summary, but there are discernible recurrent patterns that a ‘big picture’ comparative analysis can reveal. Although this paper recognizes the limitations of larger cross-cultural comparisons, it seeks to make visible the recurrent factors that set societies on such different trajectories.

This calls for a methodological caveat. While such ‘big picture’ comparative analyses can reveal recurrent patterns in human development that are otherwise obscured by historical and ethnographic specificities, such an ambitious scope cannot realistically provide much substantiating detail within the length of a journal article. Even the related book (in press), which also rests on my long-term studies of this topic, is at best a hugely reductive summary. As an anthropologist, I am highly cognizant of the costs of sacrificing the ethnographic depth on which our theories generally rely, and the anxieties about generalizing theories that comparative analyses generate. However, a lifetime of studying human-non-human relations in multiple historical and cultural contexts has persuaded me that there are benefits in being able to discern and make visible the surprisingly consistent ways in which changes in social scales, technologies, and practices act upon religious and political ideas, and vice versa. I think that the larger patterns revealed are not only intriguing but can also contribute to our understanding of how we might compose more sustainable human-non-human relationships.

Some societies, particularly those safely ensconced in relatively remote areas, and thus only recently subjected to colonial invasions, have retained many of the features of early human societies illustrated in archaeological records. Despite the multiple and often highly disruptive effects of colonialism, and the increasing influence of being drawn into larger societies and their lifeways, they have remained small in scale, and reliant upon low-key economic practices such as hunting and gathering, horticulture, and subsistence farming. They have continued to uphold relatively non-hierarchical political structures, with cosmological beliefs that tend to be focused wholly, or at least substantially, on the worship of non-human deities. They have retained—for the most part—sustainable traditional practices, and a philosophical commitment to perpetuating sustainable environmental relations in the future.

Other societies, meanwhile, have embarked upon rapid developmental trajectories. In broad terms this has most often entailed transitioning first to larger-scale agriculture, enabling population growth, and moving on to urban developments and industry. They have exhibited increasingly hierarchical political arrangements and, having outgrown the places they inhabited originally, have often embarked upon hegemonic expansion. Their cosmological beliefs have changed radically along the way, most critically in shifting the focus of religious worship towards humanized rather than non-human ‘nature beings’, with similarly major shifts in the gender relations that religious beliefs express. In the process, they have adopted far less sustainable ideas and practices.

This paper, therefore, seeks to elucidate what these diverse trajectories have meant for human-non-human relationships, and for gender relations. Based on my own and others’ ethnographic research, and on historical and archaeological studies, it is fundamentally Durkheimian in its approach, taking as a foundational precept that societies’ cosmological beliefs and practices mirror their social and political arrangements (Durkheim 1961). It adds to Durkheim’s tenets an additional hypothesis: that cosmological beliefs are also deeply influenced by people’s engagements with the material world, and the extent to which their technological developments are aimed at imposing instrumental control over it (Strang, fothcoming). This provides us with a way to consider how, in many cases, societies have shifted from sustainable lifeways working in relatively egalitarian partnerships with the non-human world to highly unequal relationships seeking to achieve dominion over the material world and non-human species, to the extent that these modes of engagement have become exploitative and destructive.

As my use of the term ‘cosmological’ implies, I am not drawing a distinction between religious and other cosmological explanations of the creation of the world and its living kinds, or between religious and secular aims to promote particular lifeways guided by particular beliefs and practices. I would rather suggest that in all cases religion is highly political in defining and locating power and authority, and politics are permeated by religious assumptions about what constitutes proper social and material arrangements.

2. Sustainable Trajectories

It is helpful to consider the (loosely) shared characteristics of the early and remaining societies that practice what has popularly been described as ‘nature worship’, although this terminology erroneously implies a dualistic vision of culture and nature that has been imposed on them by others, and which does not reflect the holism of their own beliefs. Indeed, one of the most important aspects of the human-non-human relationships within such societies is that they make no conceptual division between human and non-human living kinds, or between human cultural life and the material world. What they envisage, instead, are relational cultural landscapes animated by both male and female totemic ancestors and non-human deities, and living kinds who, in many belief systems, shift readily between human and non-human forms. In such historical and cultural contexts, the non-human world is framed as a sentient, agentive partner in events, and non-human deities authoritatively manifest its powers. This traditional recognition of the agency of non-human beings, and their ‘democratic’ participation in the co-production of land and waterscapes, naturally inculcates respect for non-human needs and interests and encourages sustainable practices (Lucero 2018, p. 327).

There are some important variations even within societies that have retained key elements of nature worship. Smaller-scale groups, such as hunter-gatherers in Australia, Africa, the Amazon Basin, and the Arctic regions, are often the most conservative, demonstrating circular economies, low-key resource use, and—along with careful population control—little impetus for expansion. An ethnographic example of just such a small-scale society is provided by my own fieldwork examining indigenous lifeworlds in Australia, where, although there are variations between the many language groups across the continent, traditional cosmological beliefs share common ground in valorising a great Rainbow Serpent, a supernatural being that manifests the powers of water (Strang 19972002Taçon et al. 1996).

This major ancestral figure is the primeval source of all of the other totemic beings that emerged from the land and water in the Dreamtime to form the world and its living kinds. Although this nomenclature suggests a long-ago creative era, Aboriginal concepts of space and time are more cyclical than linear, and the Dreamtime is generally referred to by Aboriginal elders as ‘where’ rather than ‘when’. Conceptually, therefore, it is a non-material domain that co-exists with the visible, material world of the present (Morphy 1999, p. 256). Representing both genders, the Rainbow Serpent continues to generate human and non-human life in a continuous creative hydro-theological cycle, as well as providing The Law, a body of traditional knowledge providing a template for all aspects of life. Other totemic beings are similarly non-human in form and represent both genders. Beliefs in non-human ancestral beings, and adherence to the Law, have allowed Australian indigenous people to maintain highly conservative lifeways for millennia (Flood 2010Mulvaney and Kamminga 1999Strang 1997).

I do not wish to romanticise early or contemporary hunter-gatherer and other small-scale societies as enjoying ideal gender equality. They typically ascribe different roles to men and women, and archaeological records and historical ethnographies suggest that, even prior to the influence of more patriarchal societies, men tended to dominate public interactions, most particularly those involving interactions with other groups. However, there are some important indicators of relative gender parity. In Aboriginal Australia, for example, property—the ownership of land and resources—is held in common by men and women alike, and all members of local clans have equal rights of access to these. Kinship lineages might be matrilineal or patrilineal, and formal marriage rules, such as a requirement for cross-cousin exchanges, entail a variety of marital arrangements in which a person of either gender might relocate to their spouse’s clan estate and kin. Aboriginal communities are gerontocratic in their political structures, being led by both male and female elders. Political status and power are conferred over time by the acquisition of secret sacred knowledge, often through key stages of initiation. Ritual practices, although also differentiated by gender roles, are carried out by both men and women to the extent that key ceremonies are typically categorized as ‘men’s business’ or ‘women’s business’.

The key point here is that in traditional place-based societies, such as those in Aboriginal Australia, substantial indicators of gender equality, including the rights of women to co-own land and resources, and to participate directly in democratic and equal decision-making, simultaneously promote egalitarian assumptions about the rights, and indeed the authority, of both male and female deities personifying aspects of the non-human world (Strang 2005). Similar indicators of equality can be seen in other societies maintaining links with longstanding hunter-gatherer lifeways, such as Inuit communities in arctic regions (Fienup-Riordan 2017), and the !Kung San in the Kalahari Desert areas of Africa (Lee 1979), whose deities are similarly composed of both genders with complementary powers.

Critically, these societies compose convivial human-non-human relationships, to the extent of assuming that there is a human obligation to ensure the ongoing well-being of all living kinds, and a commensurate responsibility for the non-human world to care for humankind. Thus, many of the rituals I have recorded with indigenous groups in Cape York have focused both on expressing respect for local ancestral beings and soliciting their generosity in the provision of resources (Figure 1).

Religions 12 01078 g001 550

Figure 1. Mural in the community of Kowanyama, Cape York Peninsula, Queensland Australia. Photo Veronica Strang.

Some societies, even as they settled and enlarged, retained a focus on nature religions. For example, cultural groups in Central America supported agriculture and increasing population levels with the introduction of irrigation (Scarborough et al. 2011) but continued to worship deities of either (or combined) genders in the form of feathered serpents, water lily beings, jaguars, and so forth (Ferguson 2000Walker and Lucero 2000). In the Pacific region, Māori groups settled into horticultural production, formed larger and more hierarchical tribes, but continued to valorise serpentine taniwhas, forest beings, sky beings, and other non-human male and female supernatural deities (Barlow 1991). In parts of Asia indigenous communities also settled into agriculture, introduced increasingly sophisticated technologies, and enlarged but retained a keen sense of an animated and sentient non-human domain, as expressed, for example, in Japanese Shintoism (Lee et al. 2018), in which water beings (in the form of dragons) traditionally appear as powerful supernatural beings. However, in such cases, the processes of transition described at the outset are visible. Following societal expansions, the Mayan cosmos shifted its focus to human or semi-human deities (Diemel and Ruhnau 2000Schele and Miller 1986); Māori blended human and semi-human gods with their forest and water beings (Barlow 1991); and across Asia, powerful dragon gods were displaced by deified human emperors (Schafer 1980Strang, fothcomingZhu 2014).

3. Expansive Trajectories

Other societies demonstrated more radical transformation in the trajectories of their relationships with the non-human world. Rather than maintaining sustainable lifeways, they embarked on modes of production that led to major increases in their populations and intensification in resource use. Jared Diamond describes agriculture as humankind’s worst mistake (Diamond 1987), precisely because it sparked both of these trends, while also making increasingly instrumental changes to local environments involving land clearance, the drainage of wetlands, and the domestication and thus the prioritization of just a few plant and animal species. Enlarging societies produced more hierarchical social and political arrangements. Agriculture notably introduced greater gender inequality, both in gender roles (which became more closely aligned with public and private spaces) and through the more bounded enclosures of property that settlement required, which increasingly located land and resource ownership in male hands and lineages. Greater intensification and competition often led to appropriations and enclosures by more powerful groups, creating class structures dividing those holding land and resources from those who worked for them. Communities led by ‘big men’, ‘chiefs’ or privileged families transitioned, as their scale increased, to leadership by—most often male—religious leaders or monarchs whose primacy, along with technological developments requiring centralized governance, enabled the emergence of the nation state (Engels [1984] 1972Hocart [1936] 1970).

Technological progression from agriculture to urbanization, along with the population increases permitted by these developments, sometimes led to societal ‘collapse’ as local environments ceased to be able to sustain commensurately high levels of resource use (Diamond 2005). Societies that depended on irrigation to support such growth were particularly vulnerable: for example, in the Indus Valley, and in Central America, rapid expansions of early irrigation societies were brought to a juddering halt by long periods of drought (Marris 2014Scarborough 1998, p. 135).

An alternative to collapse was to rely on resources traded from elsewhere or to seize the land and resources of others. Thus, for many centuries societies were able to maintain unsustainable lifeways by importing goods or by making hegemonic forays into other territories. Colonizing explorations and appropriations were largely led by men: they created multiple inequalities between conquerors and the conquered (the latter often being dispossessed of their homelands and/or enslaved) and, with the importation of more patriarchal ideologies, often encouraged more hierarchical relations between men and women. Thus, in African colonial history, for example, indigenous women previously holding relative gerontocratic parity in terms of property and political leadership (as queen mothers, chiefs, traders), found themselves doubly disempowered, losing their economic roles and being pushed into the structural social inequalities more familiar to the colonizers (Meier zu Selhausen and Weisdorf 2016).

While acknowledging that this subsumes the real complexities of gender roles in earlier societies, it is fair to say that men more generally dominated the emergent spheres of engineering and infrastructure, and thus the process of exerting instrumental forms of control over the non-human world. Just as early technological advancements such as irrigation had permitted more intensive agricultural practices, so too did the invention of farming machinery, fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, new industries, and new forms of energy and resource use. Just as colonial appropriation had introduced intercultural and gender inequalities, technological impositions enabling intensification in human resource use led to greater inequalities between humankind and the other species. Like indigenous human communities, non-human beings were either enslaved (by domestication) or displaced by the loss of their habitats, by the introduction of domestic crops and cattle, and by the environmental degradation caused by ‘infrastructural violence’ and exploitative practices (Rodgers and O’Neill 2012).

Changes in religious beliefs and practices came hand in hand with all of these social, political, and economic transitions, most particularly with the preponderance of male religious leadership. The form ascribed to deities was therefore transformed over time. Early societies had worshipped and propitiated multiple deities representing the powers of the non-human world—serpentine water deities, storm gods, forest beings, totemic animal beings, and so forth (Batto 1992Jastrow 1910, pp. 71–72). However, the gods of societies bent on growth-based trajectories underwent a process of humanization, first becoming semi-human (creating, for example, the serpent-tailed nāgas of Indian religions; the sea-serpent bodied, goat-footed or horned deities of early Greco-Roman and Celtic traditions) and then wholly human in form (as, for example, with the emergent Hindu gods (Bolon 1992); and the later Greco-Roman pantheons (Spretnak 1992). Within these religious pantheons, as societies became more patriarchal, formerly powerful goddesses were increasingly portrayed as either problematically unruly, or subservient to powerful male gods. The logical destination of this trajectory was reached when each of the major monotheisms placed all power in the hands of male/father deities (Day 1985Reeves 2004Stavrokopoulou 2021).

4. The Emergence of the Other

The pattern of change in religious forms that asserted the rule of single male deities was, in accord with Durkheim’s thesis, concurrent with the establishment of patriarchal societies. This entailed some parallel processes of ‘othering’. Most obviously, it affected the status of women, who were recast as ‘Adam’s rib’ and infantilized by an overriding assumption of male authority (Campbell 2001). The prevailing narrative tropes for women were disapproving of independence, self-expression, or failure to be socially (or sexually) compliant. Thus, an early Judeo-Christian figure of Lilith, who proved to be insufficiently biddable, came to be portrayed in a negative (jealous, vengeful) and sometimes serpentine form (Riches 2005, p. 156), while—epitomized by the Virgin Mary—religious teaching valorised virginity, motherhood, nurturing, and obedience. The othering of women intensified in a medieval religious world that contained deep anxieties about ‘the flesh’. Women (if not virginal and virtuous) represented the temptations of the flesh and the potential corruption of the spirit, constituting a threat to social order that required authoritative containment (Galatians 5. 19–20). Misogyny was normalized to the extent that between 1580 and 1630 over 50,000 people, 80% of whom were older women, were tried and found guilty of witchcraft and burned at the stake (Macfarlane 1999Pócs 1999).

A more subtle othering took place in relation to the non-human world. There was a critical process of spatio-temporal distancing: the non-human male and female deities who had previously lived in nearby rivers, wells, groves, and trees, rocks, and lakes, were simultaneously humanized and dislocated. Cosmological geographies began to place them elsewhere, for example in the lofty heights of Olympus. Thus, historians note the shifts from pre-Hellenic Bronze Age nature religions to the humanized Olympian pantheons of the Classical era (Bonney 2011Henderson and Oakes [1963] 2020), with a related shift in the distributions of power in gender relations (Gimbutas 2011Goettner-Abendroth 2009Spretnak 1992).

As concepts of time became more linear in form, deities also became more temporally distant, with their creative world-making seen as a long-ago era, and salvation located in a distant future (Lippincott 1999). This spatio-temporal separation was further increased by transformations that absorbed all supernatural powers into an omniscient male God who shifted further upwards and outwards to dwell in a far-off celestial Heaven. Such spatialized relocation represented an important kind of ‘social distancing’, as it was accompanied by a sharper and more hierarchical conceptual division between humankind and the non-human ‘beasts of the field’ or ‘beasts of the forest’ (Isaiah 56:9).

Ancient religious texts present a particular view of historical contexts, offering a distillation of their dominant narratives and political arrangements. Like any system of law, they are reductive, obscuring historical and cultural variations and the contemporaneous complexities of gender and environmental relations (Stavrokopoulou and Barton 2010). However, they do serve to highlight the dominant beliefs and practices that shaped the authoritative texts of the time. Thus, in ancient Biblical texts, monotheistic origin stories, Genesis being the most obvious example, describe Man as having been created separately, in the image of God, with a clear gender division thrown in for good measure.

So, God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)

In such accounts, only humankind receives the ‘breath of God’, i.e., the spirit, which confers immortality in that it returns to God upon death: ‘… and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it’ (Ecclesiastes 12:7). Only humankind is seen to have consciousness and the capacity for creative thought and communication with God through prayer. Although women might be permitted to pray, religious leadership became an exclusively male domain. Being located closer to the angels than to earthly life forms, ‘man’ (with the use of the masculine pronoun throughout) is given dominion over other living kinds:

Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour.

You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;

You have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,

the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

(Psalm 8.5)

Even the materiality of non-human beings is differentiated: ‘For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish’ (Corinthians 15:39).

It is through these authoritative religious narratives that the division between human and non-human, culture and nature became firmly established. There was an implicit continuum in which those humans, purportedly driven more by instinct and emotion and lacking rationality—i.e., women, ‘other’ races, or lower/uneducated classes—were deemed to be closer to nature. This further enabled racist divisions in which human ‘others’ could be seen as less than human and created the conditions for a dominant worldview in which all ‘others’ required elite, white male direction and control.

As dualistic visions of rational (male) culture, and irrational (female) nature took hold, there was a feminisation of nature that replicated expectations of gender (Griffin [1978] 2015Plumwood 1993). In multiple impositions of the beliefs of major religions over those of conquered ‘pagans’, the non-human serpent beings that had manifested the elemental powers of water were demonised and slain (Charlesworth 2010Riches 2005). Nature came to represent both the Holy Mother in all of her virtue or Lilith and Eve, the fallen women of the Bible. She might offer gendered compliance, with reliable and moderate water flows, rich soils to support crops, forests to supply timber, and valuable rocks and minerals to extract. Or she might be recalcitrant and unruly, withholding rain or sending it in overwhelming amounts, delivering hostile weather, offering impenetrable jungles and untraversable deserts, dangerous predators, and stinging or poisonous species. Such an ambivalent view of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Nature implies that if there is more recalcitrance than compliance, ‘the other’ must be subjugated (Condren 1989Merchant 19802010).

5. Unequal Relations

This vision, therefore, reproduced several related forms of inequality. It lent itself to colonial endeavours that dispossessed many place-based communities of their homelands and led to the enslavement of perceptually ‘other’ and ‘lesser’ humans and their labour to serve white, male masters. It led to a broader subjugation of women, whose time and labour were similarly directed into service. It established a form of anthropocentric power relations in which the world was recast as being there to provide ‘environmental services’ for humankind, thus justifying the exploitation of the non-human world via the extractive and unsustainable modes of engagement that have led to the mass extinction of species that we are currently witnessing.

A modern vision of the non-human world as something to be ‘acted upon’ was not merely religious in its form. The scientific thinking that emerged in different times and places was also influential. Even as the major monotheisms became dominant, ancient Chinese, Greek, and Roman natural philosophers were seeking to understand the material properties of the world, asking questions about the elements, what they were, and why they behaved in certain ways; how human bodies worked, and how medicines might assist them; how celestial bodies related to each other and to human lives. This deconstructive thinking foreshadowed the disenchantment of Cartesian science, in which, rather than manifesting the powers of the non-human world in the form of colourful water serpent beings, water became H2O and—along with everything else in the non-human domain—a ‘material resource’ (Linton 20102013). A vision of the world as being purely material intrinsically challenges ideas about animism and sentience in the non-human world, reserving consciousness and agency for dominant human elites. Such objectification is, of course, a prerequisite for exploitation, whether of women, non-human beings, or a disenchanted material world recast as a passive subject.

There are ample historical examples of how these beliefs and values are manifested in practice, but Australia, where a mere two centuries of colonial settlement has had such extreme social and ecological impacts, offers perhaps the most dramatic illustration of how quickly inter-human and inter-species inequalities can be established. Even the most preliminary colonial encounters, as European ships reached Australian shores, resulted in the killing and kidnapping of indigenous people (Flannery 1999). In the subsequent waves of exploration and settlement, such practices were expanded to constitute genocide. Indigenous Australians could remain on their traditional lands by providing free labour to the cattle industry but were only legally provided with wages in the early 1960s. With the influence of civil rights movements around the world, they finally gained Australian citizenship in 1967. Since then, indigenous efforts to regain traditional lands and resources, and greater social and political parity, have been a long and uphill struggle.

As indigenous communities in Australia absorbed the patriarchal assumptions of European settlers, along with pressure to adopt Christian religious impositions, the colonial encounter was particularly degrading for women. Since colonising efforts were largely male-led, and there were few European women in the outback, settlement was accompanied by the ‘concubinage’ of Aboriginal women, which continued well into the 20th century. Gender inequality was entrenched by State policies ensuring women’s ‘statutory subjugation’, which enabled the removal of their children fathered by settlers. There was further political disenfranchisement as settlers, assuming that indigenous communities echoed the political arrangements of their own society, engaged in negotiations exclusively with Aboriginal men (McGrath and Stevenson 1996, p. 37).

Australia similarly provides one of the starkest examples of how beliefs about anthropocentric dominion encourage exploitative environmental engagements. The introduction of hard-hoofed cattle to a continent with a delicate soil ecology; widespread land clearance, and the introduction of crop farming, was accompanied by violently asserted gold rushes and the development of extractive industries that established a heavily ‘resource based’ economy. All of these colonially introduced practices have had major ecological impacts, including widespread soil degradation and salination, and the severe pollution of waterways and marine areas. The introduction of multiple invasive species of non-native plants and animals has also been devastating to indigenous species, as has the rapid urban growth that, concentrated around river deltas, has removed many key wetland areas. Australia’s rapidly expanding coastal cities contain most of its national population, currently numbering about 25.5 million people. They also contain sizeable ports, enabling the movement of cattle and produce to nearby Asian trading partners, but involving dredging and construction that has been hugely disruptive to delta areas and to vital marine habitats.

Australia’s rapidly enlarged population also requires domestic water supplies and food. As its climate was characterised by highly volatile patterns of rainfall even before climate change exacerbated these, the response of governments and farming sectors has been to impose intensely directive water infrastructures. With a religious zeal for ‘greening the desert’, the early to mid-1900s saw the building of major dams and irrigation schemes (Hill [1937] 1958), and this trend continued as the population increased further, and global markets exerted increasing pressure for more intensive farming practices. Thousands of bores were drilled to extract water from the Great Artesian Basin to provide for sheep and cattle, to the extent that its levels have fallen dramatically, and many people living around its periphery (particularly indigenous communities in the north) have found it increasingly difficult to access potable freshwater.

Food producers also invested in on-farm water retention schemes (small dams and bunds to ‘harvest’ water), and abstracted water from rivers to the extent that flows have regularly dropped to non-viable levels (Connell 2007). In the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia’s major farming area, key wetlands have vanished, and millions of fish have died because low flows have led to eutrophication.1 Additionally, located in the Murray-Darling Basin are vast irrigation corporations, such as the notorious Cubbie Station which, having bought over 50 abstraction licences with the acquiescence of the Queensland Government, built a series of dams large enough to be seen from space (Figure 2). To grow thirsty and soil damaging (but highly profitable) crops such as cotton, the station annually abstracts from the river about a quarter of the water that would otherwise flow southwards into the Murray-Darling Basin (Strang 2013).

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Figure 2. Aerial view of Cubbie Station. Google Earth.

6. Infrastructural Relations

The imposition of water bores, dams, irrigation channels, pipes, and related material interventions provides a perfect illustration of how societies choose to prioritize human needs and interests above those of non-human beings. All such concrete infrastructural arrangements are intended to direct water into serving human aims and activities, and thus away from its normal flows supporting ecosystems and their non-human inhabitants. As Ballestero observes, infrastructures also have a non-material dimension, in bureaucratic ‘devices’ such as indices linking water charges to consumption. (Ballestero 2019).

In Australia, an important device of this kind has been the introduction of volumetric water allocations to commercial water users. Initially, these were aligned with riparian access and designed to set some limits, aiming to ensure the fair distribution of water to farmers along the course of each river. Efforts by conservation organizations to push for allocations ‘for the environment’, for example, to maintain wetlands and prevent fish kills, were largely met with debates about what constituted a ‘minimum flow’ sufficient to sustain aquatic ecosystems. However, Australia’s politics are more Conservative than conservative, and ecosystems such as the Murray-Darling Basin have continued to suffer. The situation was made more extreme in the 2000s, by the introduction of water trading. This new ‘device’ severed the tie between land and water, first by effectively privatizing water allocations that had previously merely constituted licenses to abstract specific amounts, and second by detaching them from the land so that they could be traded in a virtual water market, potentially leaving ‘dry blocks’ without any access to water.

In such a market, non-commercial organizations, such as conservation groups, can rarely compete financially with commercial players aiming to gain major profits by irrigating high-value crops. Nor can they compete politically in a system where powerful commercial interests dominate government agencies at every level. Wealthy landowners in Australia formed a ‘squattocracy’ in the colonial era, and these social networks remain powerfully influential. This firm hold on power is maintained, according to informants belonging to this group, because farming dynasties have established a tradition of ensuring that family members are elected to federal and state governments and that they also take a leading role in bodies focused on water management. A similar influence is exerted by the mining industry, as the ‘backbone of the economy’, and commercial fishers and the tourist industry are also important players. It is difficult for any non-commercial groups to challenge those able to stand on their contributions to the economy, and although conservation groups and indigenous communities strive to be heard, they are persistently marginalized, not least because they cannot afford to commit similar time and resources to being directly involved in governance.

The result is material and non-material infrastructures enabling highly exploitative practices that deprive non-human beings and ecosystems of the water that they need to sustain and reproduce themselves over time. There is now talk about ‘natural water infrastructures’ referring to aquifers, forests, or wetlands that capture and store water or regulate its flows. More often than not, these are seen as an opportunity to extend human control and access to resources by utilizing the material capacities of aquatic ecosystems, for example in storing water for irrigation, or ameliorating the effects of floods and droughts on human populations and urban areas (Figure 3).

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Figure 3. Floods in Brisbane. Wikimedia Commons.

In this realm of thinking nature is still castas ‘the other’. This usefully brings home a realization that, while science has been conventionally represented as being opposed to religion, they share important common ground in a determination to separate culture and nature. Some efforts have been made to rejoin these domains. Studies of ecology have necessarily been concerned with anthropogenic pressures, and in recent decades there has been increasing recognition that cultural diversity and biodiversity depend upon each other. Efforts to establish Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) have sought to reconcile social and environmental concerns and to encourage interdisciplinary perspectives. But the emphasis has been on making connections between domains, rather than dissolving their boundaries.

This dualism also underpins environmental legislation that, echoing the disciplinary divides between the social and natural sciences, presents the non-human domain as a separate sphere of responsibility. It could be argued that environmental legislation does seek to promote and protect non-human interests and that its enactment, through bureaucratic processes, has some representational capacity to support non-human rights. However, because it remains largely dominated by visions of ‘natural resources’ as the passive subject of human decisions, it falls a long way short of providing the non-human domain with the kind of explicit rights and democratic equality that might genuinely challenge anthropocentric priorities.

In reality, most environmental legislation to date has done little more than ameliorate the most extreme effects of exploitative practices, and this is not enough to create a more sustainable trajectory for all living kinds. This is plainly illustrated in Australia, where multiple efforts to regulate water use have failed to protect the Murray-Darling Basin or indeed any of the continent’s ecosystems. The performative superficiality of much legislation purporting to uphold environmental well-being is reflected in the failure of almost all nations to achieve social and ecological sustainability, and in humankind’s collective failure to halt anthropogenically-caused climate change.

All such efforts are flawed in that they not only retain assumptions about separate natural and cultural domains, but also continue to employ the language of ownership (saving ‘our’ world), and concepts of guardianship that cast humankind hierarchically in a senior (male) parental role. In these terms, nature continues to be cast as a feminized, infantilized other, and non-human rights are only those doled out by Daddy.

7. Nature-Based Solutions

The newly fashionable notion of ‘nature-based solutions’ reaffirms dualistic visions of culture and nature and remains located within an anthropocentric view that the major objective is to utilize the material properties of the non-human world to maintain or improve its service to humankind. However, it also gives more room to an understanding that ecosystems have their own methods of regulating water flows, and that these constitute major agentive capacities. It is therefore a potentially useful point of connection between conventionally dualistic ideas about water and land management and critiques aiming to encourage a less anthropocentric stance, in which humankind seeks to understand and respect not just the powers of the non-human world, but also its needs and interests. In seeking a more egalitarian relationship, attempts to make a paradigmatic shift away from anthropocentricity challenge deeply embedded notions of human and male hierarchy and priority, as well as the dualism of a foundational concept that divides human and non-human beings into separate worlds.

As noted earlier, such dualism has long been challenged by alternate worldviews in which human and non-human beings inhabit a single world where their lifeways are not conceptually detached from one another but depend instead on a shared responsibility for collective human and non-human well-being. As indigenous communities have promoted their own beliefs and values with increasing vigour, often assisted by anthropological cultural translation, they have had a profound influence upon those groups in larger societies who seek both social and ecological justice. The close ties between early feminism and early environmentalism are often forgotten, but these movements have been hand-in-hand since the outset, underlining a reality that both are concerned with equality and critical of exploitative power relations. While civil rights movements seeking racial equality have emerged more independently, and there are multiple complex issues in their intersections with feminism and environmentalism, there is some conceptual common ground between all countermovements addressing inequality and injustice.

This coherence is most obviously the case with indigenous communities who seek not only to gain greater social equality but also to restore their traditional, more egalitarian relationships with the non-human world. In Australia, these aims are inseparable, with political enfranchisement providing the starting point for the long struggle towards regaining Native Title and an increasingly vocal critique of the exploitative practices that have devastated Aboriginal homelands (Toussaint 2004). Similar endeavours can be seen around the world, for example in the USA where, at Standing Rock, Sioux tribes have protested against the imposition of oil pipelines on their land while also—like many other First Nation groups—seeking greater self-determination and a more influential role in protecting the environment.

Indigenous activism has also taken more reciprocal visions of partnership with the non-human world into the political arena. There has been a productive exchange of ideas between culturally diverse worldviews and academic debates similarly questioning the logic of dualistic visions of nature and culture. This has also brought into question the categories of ‘natural’ and ‘social’ science that reify a foundational worldview that these are separate domains. Academic critiques of the dualistic ‘othering’ of culture and nature have therefore come from several directions. ‘Scientific’ visions of the interdependence of all organic beings and ecosystems include Vernadsky’s notion of a holistic ‘biosphere’, conceived in the 1920s (Vernadsky [1929] 1986), which provided a starting point for the notion of Gaia promoted by James Lovelock (2000), although in presenting humankind as the brains of the planet, this failed to reject the established hierarchical arrangements.

Indigenous ontologies, fully acknowledging the participation of the non-human domain in co-creating shared lifeways with humankind, have inspired many of the ideas underpinning social science theories concerned with relationality. For example, a more egalitarian vision of a single human-non-human world, conceptualized in fluid relational terms, is provided by Socio-Technical Systems thinking (STS) (Harvey et al. 2019), and other work on complex systems (Marres 2012Savaget et al. 2019), and by Actor Network Theory (ANT), in which Latour promotes a notion of governing without mastery (Latour 20042005). New materialism has brought with it a keen sense of the agentive capacities of non-human beings and things (Coole and Frost 2010), and the communicative capacities of ecosystems (Tsing 2004), as well as the ways in which non-human elements act upon the world through their material properties and behaviours (Edgeworth 2011Strang 2014).

Greater appreciation of non-human powers has also revived a lively debate about animism and agency (Harvey 2005). These terms have excited some controversy, partly because they raise both religious and scientific hackles about definitions of consciousness and intentionality, and where and how these might be located. Acknowledging forms of agency and consciousness in non-human beings constitutes a direct challenge to the most dominant religious beliefs: that spiritual consciousness is what differentiates humankind from ‘the beasts of the field’. Similarly, ideas about ‘vital’ materialism (Bennett 2009) unsettle the certainties of a disenchanted Cartesian view of a materially passive world.

Animism has traditionally been defined as a belief that plants, animals, places, and things are enlivened by a spiritual essence or soul (Bird-David 1999). This sits readily with belief systems in which non-human beings, water, and places can be personified as non-human deities, such as the Rainbow Serpent, which generates life and imparts spiritual ‘aliveness’ to other beings and to sentient living land and waterscapes. However, metaphorical narratives of spiritual being and presence are not so far removed from more secular ideas about what is ‘alive’. While Cartesian visions of materiality fail to encompass ideas that specific places, rocks, waterways, and so forth might also be ‘alive’, and may categorize both indigenous beliefs and neo-paganism as ‘animism’, when such concepts are expressed through more abstract ecological views of ecosystems as ‘living systems’ they are not really so controversial.

This takes us into some wider questions about personhood, and the extent to which this is understood as depending on some kind of soul or spiritual essence. While monotheistic religions generally take the view that only humans have souls, this is leavened, to some degree, by their retention of a more generalized notion of spiritual consciousness (albeit located in a male father deity) that is ‘omnipresent’. The concept of ‘presence’ is helpful. It highlights the metaphorical similarity between Judeo-Christian ideas about an ever-present God watching and judging human lives, and more definitively ‘animistic’ beliefs, such as Aboriginal visions of a sentient cultural landscape imbued with ancestral beings that are similarly watching over its inhabitants and generating the laws and moral order by which they are meant to live. Another conceptual link might readily be made with emerging ideas from the cognitive sciences, about notions of extended mind (Clark 2008).

Without wishing to revisit lengthy and impassioned arguments about agency, it may be that these can be defused, to some extent, by an acceptance that there are multiple forms of consciousness and intentionality, most of which do not match the extreme reflexivity that human cognitive capacities allow. Other species demonstrably share some aspects of consciousness, such as complex social interactions and emotive responses to stimuli, and even plants seeking the light, or viruses colonizing other bodies, demonstrate forms of intentionality. Thus, consciousness might be best conceived as a continuum of diverse possibilities. Our closest primate relatives hint at some shared capacities for reflexive understanding, but humans—the cleverest monkeys—are still the extreme outliers. However, while perhaps located at the other end of the continuum, even material things, such as water, have considerable capacity to act upon the world and all of its living kinds, and to ‘behave’ in predictable ways as a result of their particular material properties (Strang 2014).

Anthropological studies of human-animal relations (Serpell 1996) have shown that most societies acknowledge non-human beings as persons, with domestic pets being most readily included as kin within families. Recent multi-species ethnographies have also considered the complex social and material interactions between other species and between human and non-human beings (Haraway 2008Kirksey and Helmreich 2010). Material culture specialists have shown how objects can be imbued with notions of personhood (Knappett and Malafouris 2008) and the idea that sacred objects, places, rivers, and so forth can personify supernatural deities is unproblematic in many cultural contexts.

Societies that see non-human species and elements as totemic ancestral beings are naturally more comfortable with wider concepts of personhood. A useful example is provided by recent Māori activism in New Zealand, which has succeeded in persuading the courts to define forests and rivers as ‘living ancestors’ (Muru-Lanning 2016). This has led to a decision to confer legal personhood on, for example, the Whanganui River, providing it with the rights and responsibilities of persons equivalent to that offered to bodies such as corporations. Similar efforts have been made to declare rivers as persons with the Ganges, and with the Atrato River in Colombia. Such rulings have been controversial internationally precisely because they transgress both Christian beliefs and established scientific beliefs, about spiritual being, or consciousness, being confined to human persons. In doing so, they open the door to an assertion of non-human rights.

8. Conclusions

Activists around the world have called for the UN to issue a declaration of the ‘rights for nature’. As with the universal UN Human Rights established in 1948, this would confer upon non-human species some basic rights to survive and be protected from extinction; to reproduce; to live safely and without mistreatment. In a complementary effort, legal activists have been pushing the International Court of Criminal Justice to include ecocide—the destruction of ecosystems, and the driving of non-human species to extinction—as an international crime (Higgins 2019).

Although these endeavours retain some problematic vestigial assumptions about a separate domain of ‘nature’, they are symbolically important, opening the door to the new thinking that, in envisaging a dynamic interrelated world, challenges anthropocentric assumptions that separate humankind from ‘nature’. Relational models, like those of more holistically integrated cultural contexts, foreground the agentive capacities of non-human beings and things and strengthen their active ‘presence’ in events. This vision of collective participation provides more promising conceptual foundations for sustainable human-non-human relations. However, the achievement of sustainability surely depends upon some form of pan-species democracy that, unlike more conventional notions of ‘stewardship’ or ‘guardianship’, advocates more equal relationships between human and non-human beings (Grusin 2015Hinchliffe et al. 2005).

It is usual to assume that democracy requires a capacity to participate explicitly in decision-making processes. Although animal behaviouralists and certainly many pet owners might argue that ‘dumb animals’ have considerable communicative ability, there are obvious limits to the capacities of most species to represent their own needs and interests. Humans also vary radically in their abilities to articulate their needs and interests, and a parallel problem is presented by the lack of capacities of small children to speak for themselves. Models for upholding children’s rights assume that they do have human rights and that we have a collective social responsibility for protecting these rights by speaking on their behalf. In deliberative ecological democracy, non-human democratic rights are similarly upheld by the provision of effective representation of ‘those who can’t speak’ (Eckersley 2000, p. 119).

Speaking for ‘the other’ has some practical application in discursive fora (Meijer 2019), but it is not a complete solution. As Barad has observed (Barad 2007), it is difficult to maintain ontological equality between those who cannot speak and those representing their interests. Pan-species democracy requires a paradigmatic shift: an understanding that democratic participation is not merely about being ‘spoken for’. Non-human beings and the material world—and water is a prime example—are intimately involved in flows of material exchange with human beings, and with each other (Alaimo 2010Dobson 2010). Thus, they are not passive subjects awaiting human voices to speak for them and represent their interests: they are social and material agents in themselves—co-participants in the production of land and waterscapes, and in the making of human and non-human lifeworlds (Hinchliffe 2015Neimanis 2017). Recognizing this active co-production is a vital step towards accepting the case for non-human rights and democratic inclusion.

Once non-human rights are agreed, the question then is how to ensure that they are democratically upheld and carried into everyday practices. For interspecies political relationships that respect non-human agency, we can return to indigenous exemplars demonstrating more reciprocal ways of engaging with the non-human world. As described above, in Aboriginal Australia, non-human beings, and the non-human domain are readily acknowledged as having agency and power (Muecke 2007). The immediate presence of authoritative non-human ancestral beings permeates all decision-making processes, such that conserving resources and protecting future generations (human and non-human) is integral to indigenous models of ‘caring for country’.

In larger societies, we need more explicit mechanisms that ensure that non-human needs and interests are voiced in the composing and enactment of laws, and in decision-making processes. How, in practical terms, can non-human beings and ecosystems be included in pan-species democratic processes to the extent that their rights are properly represented and balanced in relation to the fulfilment of human needs and interests? How is it possible to achieve an ethical and sustainable balance in the distribution of costs and benefits?

A useful representational model is provided by New Zealand’s bi-cultural decision to extend rights to forests and rivers. The case of the Whanganui River led to the formal establishment of a role in which members of the local iwi (tribe), who regard the river as their living ancestor (Te Awa Tupua) are elected to represent and ‘speak for’ the river in all decision-making and legal fora. An appropriate gender balance in this role was also achieved, in the first instance, by the election of a woman and a man with appropriate expertise and experience to carry a joint responsibility for representing the rights of the river (Strang 2020).

Building on this model, I have proposed elsewhere a concept of ‘re-imagined communities’ in which the idea of imagined communities (Anderson 1991) is extended to include the non-human domain (Strang 2017). This wider inclusive vision provides a non-anthropocentric starting point that relocates humankind within the world and extends notions of equality and democracy to all living kinds. Thus, in river catchment management, rather than decisions being dominated by commercial or political interests, both human and non-human rights and interests would be democratically represented by a diverse group of people with appropriate expertise (social scientists, biologists, geologists, botanists, etc.) who would not have a direct conflict of interest in the outcomes.

There is no single formula as to how this might be arranged: various permutations—councils of elders, catchment expert groups—could be appropriate in different social and cultural contexts. However, there are some key ingredients. These representatives would have a clear appreciation of the role and agency of the non-human domain in co-creating a shared lifeworld. They would provide diverse expertise about a strong cross-section of non-human species, and about the material world—the soils, the hydrology, and the geology—within the river catchment area. They would have a remit to articulate non-human needs and interests in decision-making processes, and they would seek outcomes achieving a sustainable balance of human and non-human rights and interests. This suggests that all representatives—speaking for human and non-human participants—should have some parity in the process and that the composition of such groups should also be founded on principles of equality and diversity, most particularly with a remit to strengthen the inclusion of women in leadership and decision-making.

An approach underpinned by principles of parity and partnership has implications both for gender relations and for human-non-human relations. It has Durkheimian implications for the religious and secular belief systems underpinning social action. It must be hoped that, with gender parity, with a non-anthropocentric worldview, and with robust pan-species democratic representation of ‘other’ living kinds, it will be possible to achieve more sustainable modes of human-non-human engagement.

1Lack of sufficient oxygen in the water, due to algal growth.
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The chronopolitics of the Anthropocene: The pandemic and our sense of time

Dipesh Chakrabarty


By drawing on the phenomena of anthropogenic climate change and the pandemic as two examples of the geologists’ idea of the Anthropocene, this article seeks to explain how the Anthropocene leads to a plurality of overlapping but conflicting temporalities for humans. This problem of time makes it difficult to imagine any globally concerted effort to deal with the Anthropocene or climate change as such.


The Anthropocenebio-politicsCOVID-19the humanthe non-human

I Introduction

The pandemic and the climate crisis are connected phenomena. One could say that they both speak of Anthropocene times. The story of rapid global economic growth—the history of capitalism in all its different varieties, imperial, liberal and neoliberal—is common to narratives that underpin discussions on both crises. They both arise from what has been called the period of Great Acceleration in Global History when the human realm expanded over the 20th and the 21st centuries and especially from the 1950s. In an increasingly extractive relationship to the earth, this expansion claimed more and more of the products of the biosphere of the planet, from what Bruno Latour and others, following scientists like Timothy Lenton, have called ‘the critical zone’ of the earth, the part of this planet that immediately sustains life (Latour and Weibel 2020). The key to this expansion, as we all know now, was electricity that flowed from cheap and plentiful energy extracted from coal and then oil and gas, all of them different kinds of fossil fuel. More than 87 per cent of the total consumption of fossil fuel by humans and their institutions has taken place in the period from reconstruction of the industrialised economies after the Second World War to the present. This is why the Great Acceleration is dated by historians and Earth System scientists from 1950 (Zalasiewicz 2020: 16; see also, McNeill and Engelke 2015).

The 20th century became ‘a time of extraordinary change’ in human history. ‘The human population increased from 1.5 to 6 billion [nearly four times], the world’s economy increased fifteenfold, energy use increased from thirteenfold to fourteenfold, freshwater use increased ninefold, and the irrigated areas by fivefold’ (Goudie and Viles 2016: 28). To add some more dramatic figures, the world’s urban population increased in the same century by 12.8 times, industrial output by 35 times, energy use by 12.5 times, oil production by 300 times, water use by 9 times, fertiliser use by 342 times, fish catch by 65 times, organic chemical production by 1,000 times, car ownership by 7,750 times and the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose by 30 per cent (Ponting 2007: 412). The very well-known ‘Great Acceleration’ graphs produced by Will Steffen and others show that for most of these figures, the growth became exponential from around 1950, rising even more steeply from the 1980s when China and India liberalised their economies and joined the race for industrialisation and modern consumption with greater efforts (Ripple et al. 2021Steffen et al. 2015).

There is, in addition, a telling recent (2017) survey from the Brookings Institution which reports that there has been an acceleration of the human consumption of resources as well. It was ‘only around 1985 that the [global] middle class reached 1 billion people, about 150 years after the start of the Industrial Revolution in Europe’, but it only took ‘21 years, until 2006, for the middle class to add a second billion’, much of this reflecting the extraordinary growth of China. ‘The third billion was added to the global middle class in nine years. Today we are on pace to add another billion in seven years and a fifth billion in six more years, by 2028’ (Bergthaller 2020: 78). No wonder that humans also emerged in this period as the biggest geomorphological agent on earth, shaping its landscape and the continental shelves in the oceans, and as a geological force changing the climate system of the whole planet, ushering in, as some scientists suggest, the new geological epoch of the Anthropocene.1

The German scholar Hannes Bergthaller (2020) in an essay on Asia and the Anthropocene writes the following:

The principal reason why all the curves of the ‘Great Acceleration’ are still pointing relentlessly upwards (with the notable exception of that for population…) is the spread of middle class consumption patterns around the world, if by middle class we understand people with a household income sufficient to purchase consumer durables (such as refrigerators, washing machines or motorcycles), to spend money on entertainment and on the occasional vacation. (ibid.: 78)

As recently as 2000, Bergthaller (ibid.) adds, ‘about 80% of this “global middle class” was living in Europe and North America…’. But by 2015, ‘their share had dropped to about 35%, due largely to the rapid expansion of the middle class in Asia’. Bergthaller reports that by 2030, ‘the Asian middle class’ is expected to be ‘at least three times larger than that of the old “West,” and will account ‘for two thirds of the world’s total…’ (ibid.).

The Anthropocene thus produces a peculiar sense of historical time, something I have referred to here as its ‘chronopolitics’. I owe this word to the use of it by three younger scholars—Tobias Becker, Christina Brauner and Fernando Esposito—who organised an online conference by this title on 16–18 September 2021 and glossed it to mean ‘[the] time of politics, politics of time, politicized time’.2 I, however, mean something slightly different. Because of the multiple ways in which the planetary environmental crisis we call the Anthropocene plays out on different scales of time and space, both human and non-human, the Anthropocene, it seems to me, fragments human futures in unprecedented ways. One could, for instance, tell the story of the Anthropocene as that of a crisis of neoliberal capitalism, a crisis of the industrial and consumption-oriented ways of human life, as a crisis of biodiversity leading to a sixth Great Extinction of species, or as a story of how humans fended off the next ice age by many, many thousands of years. These futures do not all happen on the same scales of time and space. The Anthropocene itself, being a geological epoch, may last much longer than humans—a point that raises a question about whether it could at all be used as periodising device for human history. But the Anthropocene also produces very short-term futures for humans—so short-term that one could think of them as ‘the present’. Our sense of the time of the pandemic contains particular and entwined figures of the historical present and the historical future. Much talk about post-pandemic futures is in nature nostalgic, expressing a desire to return to the ease and comfort of the pre-pandemic times; but the politics of and the demand for ‘equal access to vaccination’ convert this time into a present that we want to fully—and equally—inhabit (leaving aside those who voluntarily resist vaccination). What I explore in this article is the figure of the pandemic as a time of the present, one that makes the future hard to imagine.3

II The pandemic and the great acceleration of human history

We are now being told by infectious diseases specialists that we live in an ‘era of pandemics’. Pandemics and epidemics have accompanied humans ever since the invention of agriculture and the domestication of animals. Hunter-gatherer communities also suffered infectious diseases but, as some virologists put it, ‘like the sparse populations of our primate relatives, they suffered infectious diseases with characteristics permitting them to persist in small populations, unlike crowd epidemic diseases’ (Wolfe et al. 2007: 281). Agriculture with the concomitant domestication of animals played ‘multiple roles in the evolution of animal pathogens into human pathogens’ (ibid.). It took humans thousands of years to strike equilibrium with these zoonotic diseases. But the difference today is this. These crises of the past ‘were once separated by centuries, or at least many decades’, write the infectious diseases specialist David Morens and his co-authors in a recent paper (Morens et al. 2020a), but the emergence of these diseases is now becoming a more frequent phenomenon.

Starting to count from the year 2003, Morens and his colleagues tell of the outbreak in 17 years of at least five pandemics or potential pandemics in the world: severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS, 2003), ‘a near pandemic’; an influenza pandemic (H1N1 pdm, 2009), a chikungunya pandemic (2014), a Zika pandemic (2015) and over 2014–15, a ‘pandemic-like extension of Ebola over five African countries’. They grant that ‘the meaning of the word “pandemic” has recently been reinterpreted according to differing agendas’, and yet conclude with a sentence that sums up the risks of our times: ‘It [isclear that we now live in an era of pandemics [emphasis added], newly emerging infectious diseases, and the return of old contagious foes’ (Morens et al. 2020a: 1). A more recent paper by David Morens and his colleague Anthony Fauci, Director of the Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the United Sates, come to the same conclusion:

Newly emerging (and re-emerging) infectious diseases [emphasis removed] have been threatening humans since the [N]eolithic [R]evolution, 12,000 years ago, when human hunter-gatherers settled into villages to domesticate animals and cultivate crops…. Ancient…diseases with deadly consequences include smallpox, falciparum malaria, measles, and bubonic/pneumonic plague. … [But] the past decade has witnessed unprecedented pandemic explosions: H1N1 ‘swine’ influenza (2009), chikungunya (2014), and Zika (2015), as well as pandemic-like emergence of Ebola fever over large parts of Africa (2014 to the present…. One can conclude from this recent experience that we have entered a pandemic era [emphasis added] ….

(Morens and Fauci 2020: 1077)

All of the pandemics named here—and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) that entered into humans from dromedary camels in 2012 that is not named—are zoonotic in origin, that is, they are infections that have resulted from viruses and bacteria switching hosts from wild animals to humans, sometimes via other animals, in recent times. A 2005 inquiry found that ‘zoonotic bugs accounted for 58 percent’ of 1,407 ‘recognized species of human pathogen’ (Quammen 2012: 44). A 2012 review of the 6th International Conference on Emerging Zoonoses, held in Cancun, Mexico, on 24–27 February 2011 with 84 participants from 18 countries noted that ‘some 75 percent of emerging zoonoses worldwide’ were of ‘wildlife origins’. Global trade in wildlife and the continuous destruction of animal habitats contributed to the problem (Kahn et al. 2012: 7).

‘Human beings are the ultimate causes of pandemics’, assert Morens and his colleagues. They point out that it is ‘deforestation, agricultural intensification, urbanization, and ecosystem disruption’ that ‘bring people into contact with wildlife and their potentially zoonotic pathogens’ (Morens et al. 2020a: 4). ‘To put the matter in its starkest form’, says David Quammen (2012), the science-writer, ‘Human-caused ecological pressures and disruptions are bringing animal pathogens ever more into contact with human populations, while human technology and behavior are spreading those pathogens ever more widely and quickly’ (Quammen 2012: 40). He mentions the critical factors at work here. Humans are

[causing] the disintegration…of natural ecosystems at a cataclysmic rate. Logging, road building, slash-and-burn agriculture, hunting and eating of wild animals,…clearing forest to create cattle pasture, mineral extraction, urban settlement, suburban sprawl, chemical pollution, nutrient runoff to the oceans, mining the oceans unsustainably for seafood, climate change,…and other ‘civilizing’ incursions upon natural landscape—by all such means, we are tearing ecosystems apart. (ibid.)

Second, ‘millions of unknown creatures’ that inhabit such ecosystems—including viruses, bacteria, fungi, protists constituting what virologists call ‘the “virosphere”,—are affected by these developments that increasingly unloose such microbes into the wider world’ (ibid.: 40–41). ‘Spillover’ is the term used by ‘disease ecologists…to denote the moment when a pathogen passes from members of one species, as host, into members of another’ (ibid.: 43).

The United Nation’s Environment Program’s Preventing the Next Pandemic: Zoonotic diseases and how to break the chain of transmission (UNEP and ILRI 2020) and The Loss of Nature and the Rise of Pandemics (Jeffries 2020) published by World Wide Fund for Nature support these conclusions. They see the following ‘major anthropogenic drivers of zoonotic disease emergence’: (1) increasing demand for animal protein particularly in Asia and in Sub-Saharan Africa; (2) unsustainable agricultural intensification, in particular of domestic livestock farming that ‘results in large numbers of genetically similar animals’ that are more vulnerable to infection (swine flu being a case in point); (3) increased use and exploitation of wildlife; (4) unsustainable use of natural resources accelerated by urbanisation, land use change and extractive industries that include mining, oil and gas extraction, logging etc. encouraging ‘new or expanded interactions between people and wildlife’; (5) the increasing amount of human travel and trade; (6) changes in food supply chains driven by ‘increased demand for animal source food, new markets [including “wet” markets] for wildlife food, and poorly regulated agricultural intensification’; and (7) climate change as ‘many zoonoses are climate sensitive and a number of them will thrive in a warmer, wetter, and more disaster-prone world foreseen in future scenarios’ (UNEP and ILRI 2020: 15–17). The conclusions drawn in the World Wide Fund report are very similar:

Human activities are causing cataclysmic changes to our planet. The growing human population and rapid increases in consumption have led to profound changes in land cover, rivers and oceans, the climate system, biogeochemical cycles and the way ecosystems function—with major implications for our own health and well-being…. Land-use change, including deforestation and the modification of natural habitats, are responsible for nearly half of emerging zoonoses. (Jeffries 2020: 14)

That we did not have this tragic global pandemic a decade or so ago now appears to have been purely a matter of human luck. A team of scientists in Hong Kong warned the scientific community some 13 years ago, in 2007, that since Coronaviruses were ‘well known to undergo genetic recombination’ that could lead to the following:

[New] genotypes and outbreaks[, the] presence of a large reservoir of SARS-Co-V-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb. The possibility of the reemergence of SARS and other novel viruses from animals or laboratories and therefore the need for preparedness should not be ignored. (Cheng et al. 2020: 683)

The above warning was not heeded (Morens et al. 2020b: 955). Quammen reports scientists as guessing since 2012 or thereabouts as to when a pandemic, the ‘Next Big One’ with ‘high infectivity preceding notable symptoms’, would come (Quammen 2012: 207–8). For, as Quammen puts it, ‘If you are a thriving population, living at high density but exposed to new bugs, it’s just a matter of time until the Next Big One arrives’ (ibid.: 290). But nobody was listening in either 2007 or in 2012.

III The pandemic as presentism

One could say that the pandemic produces for us a present in which all talk of moving beyond the pandemic to a ‘normal’ future sounds like a desire for a backward movement, to go back to what we had before. This is not the presentism, then, that François Hartog (2003) wrote about in his celebrated book, Regimes of Historicity, where he describes a post-war Europe experiencing the collapse of all futures into its war-weary present. In the pandemic, the future arrives as nostalgia. A present without a future that is also not at the same time about moving back to the past. A present that is ever present in that sense, not the vanishing present one usually reads about in modern discussions of the past, present and future. It is also a present that all humans can fully inhabit—cognitively and affectively—as their ‘now’. When we ask for a just distribution of vaccines through the world—or even when we resist vaccines on secular or religious grounds—we inhabit that present. We look at the past pandemic of 1918 to ask how long this one might last. That expected duration—a few years, four years the last time—defines this present.

But the pandemic has also registered a profound shift in the constitution of the ‘everyday normal’ for the late-modern and urban humans of the post-antibiotic period in medicine,—the ‘heirs of the industrial and imperial impetus’, as Pierre Charbonnier describes us (Charbonnier 2020: 77). The simultaneous acknowledgement and forgetting of deep, geobiological histories of life and of the planet, of the ocean of microbes that is both inside and outside our bodies, were often contained in the phatic aspect of our everyday exchanges. When we greeted each other with a remark on the weather, we acknowledged, as it were, the work of the sun, clouds, wind, trees, plants, light and shade—the planetary, in short. But only for a brief moment before transitioning on to what Roman Jakobson called ‘informative communication’ that was much more closely tied, in our practices, to the more important business of advancing our individual and collective human ends, considered in separation from what we usually seek to contain in the phatic.4 I say ‘the late-modern and urban’ human, for, clearly, for someone in a rural or indigenous context, a deficit of sunshine or rain would have more immediate and palpable consequences.5 The phatic utterance in the case of the late-modern, urban, post-antibiotic person was a measure of the cultural distance or indifference they ‘normally’ experienced from the deep-historical work of all that sustains life on the planet.

A ‘normal’ moment for us, then, is one that allows us to forget or ignore the life-supporting work that microbes do even when we are not in a position, intellectually, to deny their presence. I owe this insight to some fascinating observations that historian Arvind Elangovan kindly shared with me on reading my book The Climate of History in a Planetary Age published earlier this year (Chakrabarty 2021). He recalled how common it was, in his experience, for letters written by 20th-century Indians to carry news about the physical illness of the writer or the recipient even if that did not constitute the main point of the letter (Elangovan is a historian of the Indian constitution; see Elangovan 2019). ‘[I]n many of the writings that I have seen of nationalist leaders, such as Ambedkar’s papers or letters written by B N Rau or Shiva Rao even’, he wrote, ‘a frequent… [part] of the letters was… [where] they would note how sick they were or how they were recovering or… [asked after] the health of the recipient of their letters’. ‘Indeed, in Tamil’, he added, ‘the first sentence that my mother would always write in those (good old!) Inland letters to me or to my relatives was “Nalam, nalam ariya aaval”—literally translated as “Fine, yearning to hear that the same is true of yours”’.

‘These moments’, Elangovan wrote,

[s]eem to me to register a cognition at the barest minimum…an acknowledgment of the microbial, bacterial, and/or the viral (but, of course without a conscious recognition of the same, mostly). But it was just that. Immediately, that polite enquiry was succeeded by the main intent of the letter. It is as though every letter began with a parenthetical acknowledgment of the species aspect of our lives, to be quickly swept away and transitioned to the human aspect of our lives! Unless, of course,…the person was seriously sick,…[when] the question immediately got translated in institutional terms—to questions such as ‘what did the Doctor say?’, or ‘what is the Hospital saying?’, etc.….6

We will not get involved here in debates on whether phatic speech—first commented on by the great anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski in 1920—signifies ‘communion’ between humans (an overcoming of a threatening silence) or merely a matter of communication.7 We will simply register that the pandemic connotes a time when our recognition of the microbial world we live amid cannot any longer be contained within the phatic and thus forgotten as we go about our everyday lives. The question, ‘How are you?’ cannot today, in the present situation, be a simple, conversation-starting statement. We often indicate this by making the phatic part of our communication routinely register the strangeness of our times. Almost every new email I receive these days begins with an expression of concern about the ‘strange’ or ‘disturbing’ times we are passing through. In fact, today, it would be considered impolite to begin a new email message without an expression of this concern.

The fact that the offending virus today can no longer be contained in the structure of the phatic has some ironical implications both for the history and the theory of bio-politics as it was enunciated by Michel Foucault in the 1970s. Let me remind you of a particular day in 1978— 8 February. Foucault was already engaged in giving a series of public lectures at the College de France elaborating on his idea of bio-power and the governmentalisation of the state. Everything apparently was going well until this day arrived when Foucault felt unwell as he stood—at the lectern or pulpit (as the French say), I imagine—to begin the fifth lecture of the series. He had a touch of the flu. He began with an apology: ‘I must apologize, because I will be more muddled than usual today. I’ve got the flu and don’t feel very well’. Yet he wanted to proceed with the lecture as he had ‘some misgivings’ about first letting his audience gather and then telling them to leave ‘at the last minute’. So, he decided to talk ‘for as long as [he could]’ and asked in advance for forgiveness for both ‘the quantity as well as the quality’ of what he had to say (Foucault 2007: 115).

Think, then, of what is happening to Foucault’s categories today. Bio-politics was about securing the biological life of a ‘population’, an extension of Montesquieu’s anticipation that ‘politics [was] really about making life last a little longer’ (Latour and Weibel 2020: 75). Foucault was clear that the category ‘population’ brought the question of ‘nature’ into politics. He began his 1978 lectures at the College de France on 11 January with this following statement:

This year I would like to begin by studying something that I have called, somewhat vaguely, bio-power. By this I mean a number of phenomena that seem to me to be quite significant, namely, the set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species became the object of political strategy, of a general strategy of power, or, in other words, how, starting from the eighteenth century, modern Western societies took on board the fundamental biological fact that human beings are a species.8 (Foucault 2007: 1)

Reading him today, I find his use of the word ‘species’ a little misleading, for he was not speaking of humanity constituting a biological species as such; nor was he writing a Darwinian version of evolutionary history of species in which something like natural selection would have been a determining factor (see the brief discussion in ibid.: 77–78). That deeply natural-historical dynamic was beyond what interested Foucault. He was thinking of humans individually carrying certain evolved needs and capacities—the need to eat, the propensity to sustain life, to procreate, to age, to suffer diseases—that they owed to the fact of their being members of a biological species. Yet it was through his observations on the political development of strategies for governing the health and lives of ‘populations’—managing demographics—that the deeply natural-cum-biological history of the human species entered Foucault’s meditations on power.

The growth of cities and problems of overcrowding leading to ‘more diseases’ and ‘more deaths’ were central to Foucault’s formulations. ‘It seems to me’, he wrote

[t]hat with this technical problem posed by the town…we see the sudden emergence of the problem of the “naturalness” of the human species within an artificial milieu. It seems to me that this sudden emergence within the artifice of a power relation is something fundamental… [to] what we would call biopolitics, bio-power. (ibid.: 22)

The concern with the governance of lives meant that states had to evolve strategies to deal with crop failures, climate, and the supply of grains for the management of epidemics, diseases, famines, and mortality, all of this making ‘population’ into a category that would never lose its ‘naturalness’ for Foucault. It would almost acquire an autonomous, ‘natural’, thing-like item in Foucault’s understanding of the state’s political calculus, something that had to be managed by a discursive-institutional regime stretching well beyond the issue of political sovereignty (ibid.: 36, 67–75, 96).

Foucault was very clear, though, that while the natural entered the political via the category ‘population’, his account of the bio-political was not a piece of natural history. After all, humans’ theories of nature, he argued (mistakenly, it seems, from today’s vantage point), did not affect nature: ‘It goes without saying that the fact that since a certain point of time we have known that the Earth is a planet has had no influence on the Earth’s position in the cosmos’ (ibid.: 276).9 But not so with ‘population’ as a ‘reflexive prism’ of the state. The ‘prism’ affects human-institutional practices and their object, ‘the population’. In that sense, ‘population’ is a category like ‘forests’, something to be managed by humans. Like ‘forests’, ‘population’ is a piece of nature refracted through strategies of power, it does not belong to the deep history of evolution. For Foucault, then, natural history remains, ultimately, separate from human history. As with the statement by Dr Elangovan’s mother in her letters, the virus that afflicted Foucault on the day of his fifth lecture comes to us only as a trace of something that registered its presence and yet remained unacknowledged in the phatic overtures of Foucault’s prose.

What we have with the pandemic, however, is the fact that the phatic cannot contain the 2019 novel coronavirus or SARS-CoV-2 anymore. As I have noted, we cannot at present ask anyone how they are with complete indifference to the virus. The intensification of bio-power or bio-politics—the unbridled, accelerated, and extractive mobilisation of the planet’s biosphere for use by a rapidly growing number of humans for their pleasure and profit alone—has now resulted in a crisis in the governance of human lives, a crisis of bio-power itself. More importantly, it has brought into view the connections or rather the entanglements that exist between our lives and the deep, evolutionary history of microbes.

The pandemic is thus not an event in our global history alone. It is not merely an example of the great acceleration of human flourishing. It is also an event that shows, in the form of the unfolding of a drama often tragic for humans, how our increasingly global existence reveals to us the deep-historical (or planetary) aspects of our lives. The novel coronavirus is evolving. What we hear about the Delta-variant or other variants of the virus is about its biological evolution. Everything we throw in the path of the virus to disrupt its journey has the potential to become an evolutionary pathway for the virus. The human body itself is now one such pathway.

Lynn Margulis and Dorian Sagan reminded their readers of the following some decades ago:

[Our] species [are] not…lords but…partners: we are in mute, incontrovertible partnership with photosynthetic organisms that feed us, the [microbial] gas producers that provide oxygen, and the heterotrophic bacteria and fungi that remove oxygen and convert our waste. No political will or technological advance can dissolve that partnership’. (Marglis and Sagan 1997: 16)

Researchers on infectious diseases have for long been aware of this aspect of the deep and always-present history of humans. David Morens, Gregory Folkers and Anthony Fauci opened a 2004 article examining the challenge of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases by remembering the warning that Richard M. Krause, the Director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases from 1975 to 1984, issued in his 1981 book, The Restless Tide, that ‘microbial diversity and evolutionary vigour were still dynamic forces threatening mankind’ (Morens et al. 2004: 242).10 They ended their article by referring to the role that the evolution of microbes played in the history of infectious diseases. ‘Underlying disease emergence are evolutionary conflicts between rapidly evolving and adapting infectious agents and their slowly evolving hosts’, they wrote. ‘These are fought out’, they added, ‘in the context of accelerating environmental and human behavioral alterations that provide new ecological niches into which evolving microbes can readily fit’. This is an ongoing, unending battle in which humans are forced constantly to improve and upgrade their medicines and technology while the microbes evolve and manage, often in situations precipitated by human actions, to switch hosts. In concluding their essay, Morens et al. observed the following:

The challenge presented by the ongoing conflict between pathogenic microorganisms and man has been well summarized by a noted champion of the war on EIs [emerging infections], [the Nobel laureate] Joshua Lederberg: ‘The future of microbes and mankind will probably unfold as episodes of a suspense thriller that could be entitled Our Wits Versus Their Genes’. (ibid.: 248)

Morens and Fauci returned to this theme in their recent reflections on the current pandemic in an article published in Cell in September 2020. ‘In the ancient ongoing struggle between microbes and man’, they write, ‘genetically adapted microbes have the upper hand in consistently surprising us and often catching us unprepared’ (Morens and Fauci 2020: 1078). Even the technologies we invent to fight microbes generally end up creating new pathways of infection and evolution. Invented in the 1930s, antibiotics did give rise to the feeling in the 1960s that, as Richard Krauss put it:

[there] seemed little left to do in the battle against infections other than begin a mopping-up operation. It appeared that only a few stubborn serious infections resisted the two-pronged attack of antibiotics and vaccines. No one anticipated the microbe guerilla actions that were to break out from enclaves in the rear. (Krause 1981: 11)

And there lies the story of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. ‘For example’, wrote Krause in early 1980s, ‘it takes 40 times as much penicillin to treat some infections today as it did to treat those same infections when penicillin was introduced during World War II’. ‘What of the future’, he asked wearily, ‘if bacteria can elude our best efforts in this fashion?’ (ibid.: 12).

Medical strategies for fighting microbes end up as stories of their evolution. ‘The emergence of novel pathogens’, write the virologist Nathan Wolfe and his colleagues, ‘is now being facilitated by modern developments exposing more potential human victims and/or making transmission between humans more efficient than before’. They mention how methods of blood transfusion have acted as avenues for the spread hepatitis C, the commercial bushmeat trade leading to the circulation of retroviruses, industrial food production to bovine spongiform encephalitis (BSE), international travel spreading cholera, intravenous drug spreading HIV, vaccine production leading to outbreaks of Simian virus 40,—all these and other similar developments creating ‘susceptible pools of elderly, antibiotic-treated, immunosuppressed patients’ (Wolfe et al. 2007: 282).

A particular evolutionary advantage that coronaviruses have over humans is the ‘genetic instability of microorganisms allowing rapid microbial evolution to adapt to ever-changing ecologic niches’ (Morens and Fauci 2020: 1080, emphasis removed). This, Morens and Fauci say,

[is] particularly true of RNA viruses such as the influenza virus, flaviviruses, enteroviruses, and coronaviruses, which have an inherently deficient or absent polymerase error-correction mechanisms [no proof-reading capacity, in other words, as they reproduce themselves] and are transmitted as quasi-species or swarms of many, often hundreds or thousands of, genetic variants’ [a fact that makes it difficult for humans to fight them]. (ibid.)

This is fundamentally an evolutionary struggle. It reminds us that humans, the species called Homo sapiens, for all their mastery of technology, are not outside of the Darwinian history of life and evolution that unfolds on this planet. Infectious diseases in humans are about microbial survival ‘by [their] co-opting certain of our genetic, cellular, and immune mechanisms to ensure their continuing transmission’ (ibid.: 1078). Morens and Fauci refer to Richard Dawkins on this point: ‘evolution occurs on the level of gene competition and we, phenotypic humans, are merely genetic “survival machines” in the competition between microbes and humans’ (ibid.). Human flourishing leads to the degradation of the environment. This creates opportunities for coronaviruses of various strains to switch hosts by moving from their reservoir hosts to various mammalian species, whereby they get pre-adapted to human cells by working inside other mammalian bodies. ‘…viruses have deep evolutionary roots in the cellular world’, Morens and Fauci write (ibid.: 1980). ‘Evidence suggests’, they add, ‘that there are many bat coronaviruses pre-adapted to emerge, and possibly to emerge pandemically’ (ibid.: 1981).

Infectious diseases are about the deep evolutionary connections that exist between our bodies and other bodily forms of life (one reason why we can develop vaccines by testing them first on other animals). Zoonotic pathogens, responsible for 60 per cent of human infections, are ‘those that presently and repeatedly pass between humans and other animals’. The other 40 per cent, including smallpox, measles, and polio, ‘are caused by pathogens descended from forms that must have made the leap to human ancestors sometime in the past’ (Quammen 2012: 137). David Quammen, from whose book Spillover I have cited these words, makes a telling point about the dotted-line relationships that connect human bodies to other mammalian bodies through which these microbes travel: ‘It might be going too far to say that all our diseases are ultimately zoonotic, but zoonoses do stand as evidence of the infernal, aboriginal connectedness between us and other kinds of host’ (ibid.).

Richard Krause’s rhetoric of a permanent war between humans and microbes seem outdated and wrong. But his other question, ‘What is the nature of this microbial sea, constantly lapping at the shores of man’s dominion?’ still resonates (Krause 1981: 17). ‘It may be a matter of perspective [as to] who is in the evolutionary driver’s seat’, remark Morens and Fauci,—microbes or humans. Microbial forms of life have persisted on this planet for 3.8 billion years. Homo sapiens have been around for 300,000 years. ‘This perspective’, say Morens and Fauci, ‘has implications for how we think about and react to emerging infectious disease threats’ (Morens and Fauci 2020: 1078).

IV Provincialising the political

Something of an unstated assumption in the constitution of the urban and global modern—to borrow the language of Bruno Latour—has broken down when we cannot any longer acknowledge and at the same time contain the microbial world in the domain of the phatic (Latour 1991).11 Our sense of the temporal quality of the everyday has changed. Microbes are the oldest and the most important inhabitants of the planet and they play a far more critical role in the maintenance of life on it than humans have ever done or ever will. (If anything, we have created the prospect of another great extinction of life.) ‘The overwhelming majority of life on Earth is microbial!’, writes Paul Falkowski in his book, Life’s Engine: How Microbes Made Earth Inhabitable. ‘In fact, there are far more species of microbes than there are of plants and animals combined’ (Falkowski 2015: 39). In her introductory book on viruses, Dorothy Crawford writes the following:

Microbes are by far the most abundant life form on Earth. Globally, there are about 5 × 1030 bacteria, and viruses are at least ten times more common—thus making viruses the most numerous microbes on Earth…. The oceans cover 65% of the globe’s surface and, as there are up to 10 billion viruses per litre of sea water, the whole ocean contains around 4 × 1030– enough, when laid side by side, to span 10 million light years. (Crawford 2011: 17–18)

In addition, they play a vital role in ‘maintaining life on earth’ (ibid.: 18). The oceans’ floating population of plankton is made up of viruses, bacteria, archaea and eukarya. One group of planktons, the phytoplankton (plants), consist of ‘organisms that use solar energy and carbon dioxide to generate energy by photosynthesis’. They produce almost half of the world’s oxygen (ibid.), the oxygen without which we struggle to survive when infected with SARS-CoV-2 virus or its variants.

This gives us a glimpse into the ironical nature of the crisis of the bio-political that we are living through. Bio-power, as Foucault formulated it, was about securitising human life. Health, food and housing are part of it. But a frenzied expansion of bio-power over the last several decades—the great acceleration of human history—has undone that security. The story of antibiotics encapsulates this irony. Indiscriminate overuse of these drugs has allowed antibiotic-resistant bacteria to evolve. As Ed Yong puts it in his book on the human microbiome: ‘Much of modern medicine is built upon the foundations that antibiotics provide, and those foundations are now crumbling’ (Yong 2016: 128). We may have entered an era of pandemics that we will have to match with newer and newer vaccines. Yet we debate only bio-power and sovereignty—as if the virus could still be contained within the phatic—when we debate the politics of pandemic management internal to and between nations. Did Donald Trump or Narendra Modi or Scott Morrison mismanage the pandemic? Is Biden better then Trump? Should those resisting vaccination on grounds of religious considerations be treated leniently? These questions are questions of bio-politics. From this perspective, the crisis is a failure of bio-power, and questions of income, racial, gender, sexual, nutritional, digital and other inequalities come up as legitimate issues. We also discuss questions of sovereignty (distinct analytically, as Foucault said, from bio-power) when issues of global versus national management of pandemics are raised and, by implication, the very question of global governance itself receives some attention.12

But a larger question from the history of life stares us in the face through this pandemic. Homo sapiens are a minority form of life while they, the microbes, comprise the majority forms of life. They have also been the architects of life on this planet and are central to its maintenance. Their presence inside our bodies makes us what we individually are. They and humans—and there is no ‘human’ without a functioning microbiome—constitute together a ‘whole living being’ that Lynn Margulis, combining three Greek words (hólos for ‘whole’, bíos for ‘life’ and óntos for ‘being’), referred to as a holobiont (Reitschuster 2020: 353; Yong 2016: 157).

To think of individual humans and their microbiome as constituting a ‘whole living being’ is to think about the limits of the received traditions of modern political thought. For that thought has defined the human as a political subject by bracketing—putting in the container of the phatic—the work of deep history, of the geo-biology of the planet including the work that microbes do. Our crisis leaves us exposed to a fact that biologists and infectious disease specialists have known for a long time: that we are a minority form of life that has behaved over the last hundred or so years as though the planet was created so that only humans would thrive. If all forms of life were human-like—and we sometimes do use our human imagination to think our way into the experiential-moral worlds of animals and birds (think of the imaginative, philosophical work of Vinciane Despret [2016])—then humans would be like the Whites in South Africa during the apartheid regime, a racist minority dominating the majority with utterly selfish ruthlessness and imperilling everybody in the end. We would wonder if it were possible for humanity as a whole to look on themselves as a ‘minor’ form of life and work towards minoritarian forms of political thought, of the kind that Arendt or Deleuze on Kafka have educated us in, thoughts that would want to avoid ‘majoritarian’—ironical, in the case of a minority—dreams of domination. If viruses and bacteria were human or human-like, our knowledge of them would look like ‘colonial knowledge’, knowledge of the other that we acquire with a view to—and in the process of—dominating them. Even Ed Yong’s otherwise informed and judicious discussion of the human microbiome ends with an all-too-human, a parochially and provincially human dream of ‘controlling’ them ‘for our benefit’:

We see how ubiquitous and vital microbes are…. They sculpt our organs, protect us from poisons and food, break down our food,…and bombard our genomes with their genes…. We see how we might start to control these multitudes for our benefit, transplanting entire communities from one individual to another, forging and breaking symbioses at will, or even engineering new kinds of microbes. (Yong 2016: 264)

Yong wrote these words before the pandemic broke. If there is anything the current moment of the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us, it is that such a Promethean understanding of what it means to be human is seriously misplaced. The pandemic speaks not only to the global history of capitalism and its destructive impact on human life, it also represents a moment in the history of biological life on this planet when humans are acting as the amplifiers of a virus whose host reservoir may have been some bats in China for millions of years. Bats are an old species, they have been around for about 50 million years; viruses for much, much longer. In the Darwinian history of life, all forms of life seek to increase their chances of survival. The novel coronavirus has, thanks precisely to the intensification of bio-power of the humans, jumped species. It has now found a very effective agent in humans that allows it spread worldwide. And that is because humans, very social creatures, now exist in very large numbers in big urban concentrations on a planet that is crowded with them, and most of them are extremely mobile in pursuit of their life-opportunities.

Our history in recent decades has been that of the Great Acceleration and the expansion of the global economy in the emancipatory hope that this will pull millions of humans out of poverty. Or at least that has been the moral justification behind the rapid economic growth in certain nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. From the point of view of the virus, however, the environmental disturbance this has caused, and the fact of human global mobility have been welcome developments. This is no doubt an episode in the Darwinian history of life. And the changes it causes will be momentous both in our global history and in the planetary history of biological life.

The pandemic thus speaks of our being embedded in deep history and of our entanglement with both animal and microbial lives. The virus mediates the latter two. There is, however, a tension between our human concerns with bio-political forms of power—concerns that are amenable to human politics—and our knowledge of our connections with microbiome, connections that unfortunately cannot create (at least not yet) an extra- or post- human collective political subject that would be both human and nonhuman at the same time. Yet if the argument that both planetary climate change and the pandemic are problems that arise out of unprecedented expansion of the human realm in the period of the Great Acceleration is accepted, then the question of ‘what is to be done?’ by humans to mitigate ‘the era of pandemics’ is one that naturally arises for us.

This is where it may be useful to recall a point that Latour has made in many places and in different versions, one of the most recent being a passage in his lectures titled Facing Gaia. Human pursuit of wealth and prosperity in the period of the Great Acceleration has amounted to an undeclared war—but on what? Latour writes with his tremendous gifts of imagination: ‘With the Anthropocene, the Humans are now at war not with Nature but with…in fact, with whom? I have had a lot of trouble settling on a name for them’. He finally decided, putting it ‘in the style of a geo-historical fiction’, that ‘the Humans living in the epoch of the Holocene are in conflict with the Earthbound of the Anthropocene’ (Latour 2015: 247, 248). ‘Humans’ refers to humans as they saw themselves in the Holocene as separate from Nature while ‘Earthbound’ are the entanglements of the human, the nonhuman, and the planetary that the Anthropocene revealed and of which the former ‘humans’ are an inextricable part. The war, however, cannot be won, for while the Earthbound and the Earth are powers that will not dominate, they cannot be dominated either (ibid.: 281). We, particularly the human subjects who still pursue modernisation and act as though we were still in the Holocene need, then, to practise what Latour has called diplomacy. Since humans and the Earthbound cannot meet as negotiating subjects, I suggest that what modernising and global humans need to practise is one-sided diplomacy—somewhat akin, in my memory, to the Chinese unilateral withdrawal in their war with India in 1962—by imagining and then implementing a process of scaling back the realm of the human-modern.

Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish lawyer whose family was destroyed in the Holocaust, coined the word, ‘genocide’ (Lemkin 2012). Humans are on the verge of committing what sociologist and writer Danielle Celermajer calls ‘omnicide’, the killing of everything. (The word was first coined during the anti-nuclear movement of the last century.) You may legitimately ask, which humans? Why not specify those responsible? Oftentimes, it is possible to do so. You can point to politicians, financial institutions, businesses, governmental failures, with reason. There are indeed times when it is easy to identify those who kill, destroy, and maim others intentionally. But, as Celemajer points out, responsibility or culpability is not always easy to assign. Five hundred million wild animals died just in the first month of the Australian firestorms of 2020. Nobody actively schemed it. Most people did not even desire it. But it happened because of the changes that follow from what we call ‘anthropogenic climate change’.13

Celemajer tells a story to explain the situation: ‘When I was growing up, my parents used to play a Bob Dylan song called “Who Killed Davey Moore?” [modeled on the children’s rhyme, “Who Killed Cock Robin?”]’. Davey Moore was a boxer who died in the ring when he was 30 years old. If you remember the song, you will know that the coach, the crowd, the manager, the gambling man, they all said, ‘Not I’. And then they explained, as Calermajer puts it, that ‘[they were] just doing what it is that [they] do’.14

We, the privileged humans of today, do what we do to keep the human realm expanding, behaving as though we believed—even if we did not—that the earth was created so that only humans would thrive. We all partake of the changes that the Great Acceleration induced in the human condition. Anthropogenic climate change and the pandemic are connected to that acceleration. It is up to us humans to find ways to scale the human realm back without losing sight of questions that speak either to issues of intra-human injustice or to those of the inextricable entanglement of the human with the nonhuman captured in Latour’s figure of the Earthbound.


An earlier version of this article was presented as the inaugural lecture of a series of annual lectures sponsored by SAGE Publications and the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi. I am grateful to the editors of the Contributions for the original invitation to give this lecture. I also acknowledge with pleasure and gratitude the comments made on the lecture by Professors Rita Brara and Awadhendra Saran and by members of the audience. This article draws on my short piece ‘An Era of Pandemics? What is Global and What is Planetary About COVID-19’, posted on the Critical Inquiry blog on 16 October 2020.15

Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship and/or publication of this article.

The author received no financial support for the research, authorship and/or publication of this article.


1.For more on this, see ‘Introduction’, in Chakrabarty (2021).

2.For more on this conference (online), see (accessed on 16 November 2021).

3.My thoughts here owe a recognisable intellectual debt to François Hartog’s discussion of presentism (Hartog 20032020).

4.See Jakobson (1960: 5). That Jakobson may not have read much Malinowski and may have taken the idea of the phatic function of language from the Egyptologist Alan Gardiner is discussed in Rebane (2021). The original Malinowski essay is titled ‘The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages’ (Malinowski 1923).

5.In recent email communication (8 October 2021), sociologist Amita Baviskar made the following illuminating comments to me (I am grateful to Professor Baviskar for permission to cite her email.):

I thought you might like to read this Facebook post that I wrote in early May [2021], when we were in the thick of the second wave here in Delhi: ‘वाच रया? Staying alive?’ In the early 1990s, living in the Narmada valley, I found that when Bhil and Bhilala adivasis met acquaintances at the weekly haat [market] or elsewhere, they greeted each other with the enquiry: वाच रया? It was a shortened form of ‘पुरिया वाच रया?’ Literally translated into Hindi, the phrase means ‘बच्चे बच रहे हैं? Are the kids alive?’ Not ‘How are you?’ But this much more basic concern: ‘Are your kids staying alive?’ Among people who lived with hunger and malnutrition, where health care was hardly there, where every mother I knew had watched her infants die, and everything from diarrhoea to snakebite added to the tiny graves dotting a hillside in each village, ‘वाच रया?’ was the right thing to ask. ‘Are they staying alive?’ Because untimely death sat at one’s shoulder, a constant companion to life. Little did I think that, 30 years later, I’d be asking this question in my circle of the urban elite. वाच रया?

6.Email from Arvind Elangovan, 24 May 2021. Thanks to Professor Elangovan for permission to cite his email.

7.See the discussion in Senft (2009).

8.The editors of this volume point out that Foucault (2007: 24, n.1) had used the expression ‘bio-power’ in his 1975–76 lectures on ‘society must be defended’.

9.But then it is true, as Latour remarks, that ‘when our idea of the position of the Earth in the cosmos is modified, a revolution in the social order may ensue. Remember Galileo: when astronomers declared that the Earth moves around the Sun, it felt as though the whole fabric of society was under attack’ (Latour and Weibel 2020: 13).

10.For biographical details on Richard Krause (1925–2015), see Morens (2016).

11.Bruno Latour famously speaks of ‘the constitution of the modern’ in his book We Have Never Been Modern (1991).

12.On these issues of sovereignty, see the discussion in Wolfe (2011: 212–15, and chapter 12). Wolfe writes on the assumption that while more viral storms may indeed be coming, the constitution and assemblage of the powerful institutions of the world will remain the same.

13.Celemajer, Danielle. 2020. ‘Omnicide: Who is responsible for the greatest of all crimes?’. ABC (Australia) Religion and Ethics blog, 3 January. Available at (accessed on 16 November 2021).

14.Ibid. Emphasis removed.

15.Available at (accessed on 16 November 2021).


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Time after Time: Narratives of the Longue Durée in the Anthropocene

Stephen W. Sawyer

1No doubt this time it’s different.

2This planetary crisis requires us to reconsider our relationship to narrative. A new sense of the scale and impact of human settlement has convinced humanists and social scientists that it is time to engage with the Anthropocene. What follows offers an attempt to sketch out some of the narrative ramifications of this engagement and our growing literary and historical interest in this novel age in which humans have become a global geophysical force. I hope to offer up some hypotheses situated at the crossroads between social scientific investigations of the Anthropocene and a dramatic shift in the scales of time and space that have been motivating both literary and social scientific investigations in recent years—toward deep time and global spatial contexts. Due to the tremendous scope and scientific implications of these fields, my ambition is reduced to providing some remarks about new potential areas of collaboration between historians and literary scholars around a nascent but galloping interest in scholarship on the Anthropocene and a resurgence in the interest of deep time as well as the longue durée. In particular, I would like to emphasize the potential for developing longue durée narratives in this moment of questioning around the agents and effects of geological change.

3What follows also builds on the new attention among literary and historical scholars to the legacy of the Annales school—the historical school that developed the most sustained theoretical reflection on thinking historical continuity and change across the longue durée. This resurgent interest is in part a push to overcome ostensibly damning disciplinary trends as well as transformations in higher education and the call for new engagement by intellectuals in public life. As David Armitage and Jo Guldi have noted, “in many realms of historical writing, big is back.”1 In their recent History Manifesto, Armitage and Guldi credit Fernand Braudel, leader of the second generation of the Annales School, with developing one of the most sustained reflections on the longue durée.2 However, in spite of the major contributions of Braudel and his colleagues in this area during the 1950s and 1960s, Armitage and Guldi argue that thinking across long time scales slowly disappeared from the historian’s radar in the 1970s-2000s. “The reasons for its retreat,” they suggest, “were sociological as much as intellectual”; “the motivations for its return are both political and technological.” (Armitage and Guldi, 2013, 9) Technologically, they argue, we have acquired new analytical tools that have contributed to creating a new “ecosystem” rooted in “the abounding sources of big data” that are of “ecological, governmental, economic, and cultural nature, much of it newly available to the lens of digital analysis.” (ibid., 9) The attempt to expand the breadth of temporal scale has also been part of a response to a political shift: the slow but steady breakdown of the nation as the dominant paradigm in literary and historical studies and an attempt to find new territorial scales of scientific inquiry more adapted to thinking across the long term. In short, a temporal solution has been provided to a spatial problem. “All the uses of the longue durée reflect efforts to stretch the concept of the time period, to get away from the rigidity of periodization thinking in units of decades and centuries,” writes Sandra Gilman in her “Oceans of Longue Durée” (330). Similarly, Wai Chee Dimock’s Through Other Continents: American Literature across Deep Time has suggested, “some historical phenomena need large-scale analysis. They need hundreds, thousands, or even billions of years to be recognized for what they are: phenomena constituted by their temporal extension with a genealogy much longer than the life span of any biological individual, and interesting for just that reason.” (5) Building on this perspective, Edward O. Wilson has attempted to restore the pertinence of categories of deep history by defining it as a study in which “human behavior is seen as the product not just of recorded history, ten thousand years recent, but of deep history, the combined genetic and cultural changes that created humanity over hundreds of [thousands of] years.” (In Search of Nature, ix-x) Writing across temporal and spatial boundaries, then, it has been argued, will fulfill a professional, political and even moral imperative for historians and literary scholars to finally undermine the stranglehold of methodological nationalism as well as get back in touch with a larger public audience by responding to some of the fundamental concerns of our day. Or, in the words of Armitage and Guldi, “the longue durée has an ethical purpose,” to the extent that “it proposes an engaged academia trying to come to terms with the knowledge production that characterizes our own moment of crisis, not just within the humanities but across the global system as a whole.” (Armitage and Guldi, 2013, 37)

4But for all of the rising tides of big history and literary studies of deep time, this renewed push toward the longue durée, and even “universal history,” has met with some rather tepid reactions among scholars.3 Social scientists in a forum around David Armitage and Jo Guldi’s article in the Annales such as Lynn Hunt have noted that for all its merits, merely clamoring for a return to the longue durée is insufficient for developing a critical perspective on some of the broader trends in higher education, particularly the impact of new university structures after the slow democratization of higher education that pushed historians toward greater specialization. Historians have also launched a stinging critique against Bill Gates’s overwhelming financial support for a high-school history curriculum rooted in “Big History.”4 Meanwhile, literary scholars like Sandra Gilman have also expressed concerns, noting

What are the limits of the longue durée ? The very ubiquity of the term, detached from the Braudel context, free-floating and multiplying, suggests that it has become something of an automatic response, by now a gesture half empty that formulaically extends conventional chronological divisions without asking new questions about them or their assumed primacy. In this context the language question is often approached by historians and literary critics alike as an add-on, relegated to footnotes on sources and editions, decoupled from space and time, whether the time is that of the longue durée or any other chronological unit. (Gilman, 331)

5In other words, while there appears to be a general consensus that it is time to move toward new forms of trans-national and trans-temporal history, the critical implications of this enterprise have remained highly unsatisfying. For the time being, clamoring through manifestos that “big is back” proves more descriptive than prescriptive to the extent that it is a promise that remains unrealizable within our current conceptions of the longue durée.

6Key, then, to any return to the longue durée is a more serious reconsideration of the social scientific foundations of the longue durée in its previous manifestations and an acknowledgement of the limitations of these earlier formulations for thinking about longer time scales and beyond national boundaries today. In short, the question remains: Given that there is a renewed interest in the longue durée among historians and literary scholars alike, especially through the category of deep time, how might this new concern be different from the one developed in the civilizational studies of a Toynbee or the Annales histories of Braudel? The answer, I would like to argue, resides in considering the temporal imperatives brought on by narrating in the Anthropocene.

The longue durée and geo-history

7In their call for the return of the longue durée, Armitage and Guldi pay only passing attention to the scientific foundations for investigating deep historical time. It is striking that for all of their insistence that we must move beyond studies of a few generations or even a few centuries, they show exceedingly little interest in the actual scientific arguments that grounded earlier theories of the longue durée, and Fernand Braudel’s in particular. As a result, instead of attempting to root the longue durée scientifically, they focus on long-term historians’ capacity to engage with a wider public on salient issues. From this perspective, the short-term histories that reigned throughout the 1960s-1990s, they suggest, broke with a longer tradition that had guided the birth of modern historical consciousness: “What we think of as modern western historical writing,” Guldi and Armitage argue, “began with the desire to shape the present and the future derived from classical models.”5 Our focus on a few decades, they insist, has left this engagement behind through a provincialization of temporal and territorial scales, reduced to the exceedingly petite.

8It is certainly true that previous generations of scholars before the 1960s drew upon longue durée perspectives in order to shape public opinion in the present and for the future. One has only to look so far as Toynbee’s postwar collection of essays, Civilization on Trial, to appreciate the potential of a longue-durée history for assessing the prospective problems of contemporary society. As one of his reviewers wrote in 1949: “Civilization on Trial is oriented toward the future as much as toward the past.” He continued, insisting on Toynbee’s attempt to root his work in the deep past: “Toynbee tries to hammer into the reader’s consciousness his conviction which no one will seriously dispute, that the five or six millennia of civilized history are but a small fraction of the 600,000 or more years ascribed by scientists to the human race, the 500 to 800 million years of the existence of life on earth and the 2,000 million years which seem to have passed since the appearance of our planet.” (Baron, 1949, 111) But for all of its ambition, it was not long before Toynbee’s approach came under fire in the famous critiques of Pieter Geyl and Hugh Trevor Roper in the 1950s.6 Of course, Toynbee did seek to provide a longue-durée perspective on the present and future—along the lines called for by Armitage and Guldi. But in so doing, his critics insisted, he also succumbed to a baroque messianism that was entirely unfit for the post-war social scientific approach to history. At the very least, such critics of Toynbee should serve to remind us that any call for a return to the longue durée must move beyond a simple nostalgia of historians who dug deep to look forward.

9Indeed, there were already voices in the 1950s who attempted to rescue long scales of history by responding to the criticisms leveled at historians like Toynbee. It was precisely in the context of the rebirth of post-war social science in Europe in the late 1950s—just as Geyl and Trevor-Roper were hastily burying Toynbee—that Fernand Braudel attempted to provide a more rigorous foundation for the longue durée. Instead of focusing on an idealist, quasi-hegelian ideal of civilizational progress as the key concept animating the human longue durée, Braudel attempted to root the longest time scale in a deeply revised conception of the relationship between history and human geography.7 Braudel launched his campaign against the standard uses of temporality in history by arguing that the longue durée required a different consideration of the relationship between human time and the more invariable rhythms of the natural world. His ambition, as he stated it, was to explore the imperceptible relationship between man and his environment: “a history in which all change is slow, a history of constant repetition, ever-recurring cycles.” (Braudel, The Mediterranean, 20) This emphasis on man’s relationship to nature therefore introduced “an almost timeless history,” he insisted. However, the key word to this approach was “almost”; for there was change over time, even if it was change that had been so slow as to be invisible to the previous historian’s gaze. Reintroducing this longer scale of temporality broke with the vacuous idea of geography as a mere unchanging backdrop upon which human activity took place.

10Braudel explained this approach more thoroughly in his 1958 article on “La longue durée.” He insisted that our histories had been so shortsighted as to focus on the high frequency and rapid shifts in politics at the expense of other time frames: “it is undeniable that, in general, historians of the last 100 years have concentrated almost entirely on politics, focusing on the dramas of ‘great events,’ and working in the shortest time scales.”8 He therefore established a sharp dichotomy between the short time frame of political decisions in the realm of policy and the longest-term geological time that structured those decisions. “Man has been prisoner for entire centuries of climates, vegetation, animal populations, cultures; in other words, a slowly constructed equilibrium that one cannot challenge without threatening everything.”9 As a result, he insisted, it was the semi-immobile structures of human existence that had yet to be explored by historians: “all of the levels, all of these thousands of levels and thousands of ruptures in historical time may be understood through this profound, semi-immobility. Everything gravitates around it.”10

11This attempt to demonstrate the interaction between human time and geological time had deep roots in Braudelian historical perspective. Braudel was of course aware of the tradition of the civilizational approach to history. He, however, would provide a renewed social scienticity by elaborating a more robust methodology. In a set of conferences given while he was a prisoner of war in Germany for his fellow soldiers, he provided the basic structure of his vision apropos of his native Lorraine:

In the eighteenth century, Lorraine experienced multiple transformations, almost an awakening. If we pay close attention to the villages, we see that almost all of them increased the size of their arable lands […] You know the traditional villages in the Lorraine […] Village, field, forests, three zones of life […] the soup, daily work and the exceptional occupation of woodcutting […] In the eighteenth century the boundaries of the forest that had remained unchanged since the thirteenth century were attacked at multiple points and large isolated farms were created.11

Introducing the impact of long-term environmental conditions on the immediate political events of the French Revolution, Braudel argued that this longue durée of soil occupation and agricultural activity had finally given birth to the tremendous growth in population enabled by the expansion of arable land in the eighteenth century. As a result, the region could play a central role in the French Revolution. He concluded: “I am not suggesting that this history of the East is to be entirely deduced from the increase of new arable land, from this small geographical sign…, of course not. But this example, chosen as an illustration, demonstrates rather a geographical aspect of the large movement of history.”12

13Braudel’s historical project gave birth to what he famously titled “geo-history.” Such an approach required paying particular attention to man’s immediate and more short-term political and cultural production through their interaction with the longue durée of nature. Employing this methodology, he opened his magisterial book on the Mediterranean with over 75 pages on the mountains, bodies of water, climate and trade routes on sea and land. Insisting on the hostility of its climate, soil, and natural rhythms, Braudel argued that the story of Mediterranean civilization was a story of conquest and suffering, in which man was pitted against the overwhelming force of this recalcitrant and stubborn natural world. “It was necessary to conquer hostile swamps, protect oneself from devastating floods augmented by unforgiving winters and expel malaria.”13 He concluded, “we are witness to a difficult, precarious life; any equilibrium often came at the expense of man.”14

14It was precisely this difficulty—the overwhelming challenge of the natural context of the Mediterranean—that revealed the peculiar alignment of the short-term political events and the long-term geological and geographical situation of historical actors. The peculiarities of this world were understood by examining how political possibilities took form based on natural constraints. This geo-history therefore required understanding the natural conditions with which a given society was in contact.15 As Braudel himself defined it in his programmatic article “Géohistoire : la société, l’espace et le temps,” it was “the study of a double liaison, from nature to man and man to nature, the study of an action and a reaction, combined, mixed, confounded, renewed endlessly in the reality of the everyday.”16 As Guilherme Ribeiro has noted (Ribeiro, 340), the relationship between man and nature in this conception went in two directions. On the one hand, there were the natural conditions that controlled or constrained human endeavors. On the other, there was the story of the human triumph over these same conditions, as in for example the construction of a boat that is stable enough to conquer the seas or break out of a given area in spite of seasonal difficulties (Braudel, “Géo-histoire,” 102-103). These facts belong to different categories and take place at different speeds, notes Ribiero: there is the “immobile, or almost immobile” history, “indefinitely repeated under the same conditions,” and on the other hand is a history that is “very, very slow in spite of the insistent push toward progress.” (Braudel, “Géo-histoire,” 107-109)

15It was this approach to the longue durée that pushed Braudel to claim that history could only be properly written by building bridges to the other social sciences. Braudel accepted that his vision of historical study had an imperialist relationship to other social sciences. As he made clear in his article on the longue durée, his approach included an attempt to bring them all under the great tent of history. But what is of particular interest for us is that this attempt to unite the contributions of other social sciences under the helm of history was rooted in history’s privileged position to combine multiple temporalities into one narrative.

16Lévi-Strauss’s structural anthropology held a special place in this push toward a united social science. In Braudel’s view, Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism provided a social scientific theory of the longest, almost unchanging reality of human existence. “Claude Lévi-Strauss is an excellent guide, let’s follow him,” Braudel argued persuasively. By breaking down myths into signs, Braudel insisted that Lévi-Strauss was able to provide a micro-sociology that opened up toward the ostensibly constant forms of everyday existence. Braudel recognized this important contribution; he suggested however that these long-term structures uncovered by Lévi-Strauss needed to be confronted with the “encounter between the infinitely small.” (Braudel, 1958, 747)

17To be clear, Braudel was not critiquing Lévi-Strauss’s use of history; he was not suggesting the replacement of one time scale for another. In fact, he was doing quite the opposite by arguing that Lévi-Strauss had provided an essential contribution to the social sciences by moving beyond an analysis of “events,” however great that might be. But in Braudel’s view, uncovering the extended and ostensible timelessness of the structures of myths was only a portion of the story. If historians had erred through an overwhelming emphasis on the short term, the anthropology of Lévi-Strauss fell on the opposite end of the spectrum. What was necessary within the social sciences was the ability to combine the two. Unlike Armitage and Guldi’s recent call for a return to the longue durée, Braudel did not mathematically replace a short-sighted history with a long-range one. The two were not locked in a zero-sum game. Instead, as Braudel argued: “the final effect then is to dissect history into various planes, or, to put it another way, to divide historical time into geographical time, social time, and individual time.” (Braudel, The Mediterranean, 21)

18Braudel’s breakthrough then was to develop a methodology that allowed for the intersection of multiple time scales in response to a specific historical problem. His argument that history could serve to unite the other social sciences was rooted not only in its relationship to time, but most importantly in its ability to weave natural time and cultural time together into one narrative. “Whether it is a question of the past or the present,” wrote Braudel, “an awareness of the plurality of social time is indispensable for a common methodology between the human sciences.”17 So instead of replacing the short with the long, or simply calling for a new commitment to the longue durée, he attempted to ameliorate working conceptions of time within history, anthropology, and geography to establish a more sustained dialogue between the human and the natural. Any given historical enterprise needed to investigate the clashing of the multiple time scales generated by the interaction between human time and natural time.

Multiple temporalities in the Anthropocene

19One of the major motivations for returning to the longue durée has been the methodological implications of climate change in humanities and social sciences and in particular the advent of the Anthropocene. Armitage and Guldi, for example, place climate change at the center of their manifesto, insisting that “we need long-term data on the climate and economy to tell us when someone notices that the earth is changing.” (History Manifesto, 64) And yet, for all of its political value, this call for a long-term attention to climate change seems to lack a larger scientific motivation in their manifesto beyond simply making historical study more relevant to a wider audience and other public problems. By these standards, climate change is just one among many types of problems that historians should explore to continue to make their works more relevant. As a result, their discussion of the importance of longue durée histories for coming to terms with climate change and their dissatisfactions with the current state of the art in this area sidestep a larger need to consider the impact that climate change and specifically the Anthropocene may have on the very relationship between culture and nature in our (historical) narratives.

20Armitage and Guldi argue that “history’s relationship with the public future lies in developing a longue-durée contextual background against which archival information, events, and sources can be interpreted.” (117) Their argument that the long time scale remains a “contextual background” upon which events can be analyzed or situated is fine as far as it goes. However, it does leave aside one of Braudel’s essential contributions for thinking about the relationship between the long and the short—the longue durée was more than a mere backdrop. It was a scale of history with its own rhythm that intermingled and combined with the short and medium term. The vast introduction to The Mediterranean was precisely an attempt to break down the idea that Mediterranean civilization sat on top of the natural world like oil on water.

21The relationship between natural time and human time has been given new salience in the age of the Anthropocene. In his “The Climate of History,” Dipesh Chakrabarty has noted for example that Braudel’s position “was no doubt a great advance for the nature-as-backdrop argument” to the extent that “nature played an active role in modeling human actions.” (205) And yet, Chakrabarty lamented, it remained insufficient for coming to terms with the new context of the Anthropocene because it did not understand humans as geological agents like other natural features surrounding them—humans interact with nature through culture, not as geological agents like volcanoes, rivers, or tectonic plates. In their recent work on the Anthropocene, Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz have highlighted a similar break from the Braudelian method, suggesting that Braudel wrote in a context of “the separation of domains and time between nature and society inherited from industrial modernity that left profound scars in history writing.”18 While these works are correct that Braudel did not rearrange the separation between nature and culture, by denouncing his apprehension of nature, they also ignore the broader methodological structure that supported his historical analysis. While his understanding of the relationship between nature and culture has become radically dated in the context of the Anthropocene, his attempt to use narrative to recombine multiple temporalities may still have much life left in it. In short, while considering Braudel’s attempt not merely to combine nature and culture into one narrative, but more importantly to use narrative to combine multiple temporalities, we should be careful of throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

22So right as these clarifications are, what needs attention is what our new human geological age means for the interaction of the multiple temporalities of the short, medium and the longue durée, or precisely how political and economic events and decisions interact with the climate and nature to generate a new kind of historical narrative. From this perspective what is needed is not simply a reconsideration of the role of man in climate change and the relationship between the natural and cultural, but a somewhat mind-bending reorientation of the temporal scales that makes up a sophisticated historical method. Indeed, in the Anthropocene, just as culture no longer sits upon a natural context or backdrop, the short term does not sit upon the long term, but quite the opposite: it is the short term that governs the long. This could have important consequences for how we construct historical and literary narrative.

23The temporal realignments of this new geological age provide an increasingly useful framework for taking into account, and integrating into our accounts, a new longue durée—one that does not ally the long and the short along the divide between nature and culture. In particular, it forces us to reconsider the relationship between the human and the natural that was at the heart of the Annales’ attempts to introduce thinking about long expanses of time. Historians and social scientists have launched both methodological and theoretical analyses based on the new recognition that humans may have become the most important geological force on the planet. What has emerged is a broader combination of scientific and moral conviction that the implications of this new geological age necessarily blur the boundary between the excruciatingly slow passage of geological time and the staccato pointillism of human history.

24We may then reconsider Chakrabarty’s thoughtful investigations of the implications of the Anthropocene where he suggests that “anthropogenic explanations of climate change spell the collapse of the age-old humanist distinction between natural history and human history.” (201) In a context where the distinction between human and natural histories has come undone,19 the question, however, remains: Do we have the proper methods and narrative tools to come to terms with the implications of this extraordinary transformation? Or, in other words, Chakrabarty’s assessment that the Anthropocene requires a reconsideration of “our capacity for historical understanding” (201) leaves us with what may be an equally important next step: How does the undoing of the distinction between the human and the natural realign the temporal categories for making sense of our past, present, and future?

25Inspired by Braudel’s attempts to rethink the historiographical relationship between human activity and the environment across the longue durée, it would seem that the advent (or rather the discovery of the advent) of the Anthropocene should transform the scholar’s conception of multiple historical time frames once again. In the age of the Anthropocene, human political and cultural decisions have not just been a short-term process structured by long-term trajectories. Instead, since the eighteenth century, the short-term political decisions as well as cultural transformations of human settlement have played an increasingly primary role in shaping the very environment that previously structured it. In other words, if humans have become the dominant geological force since the industrial revolution, it is insufficient to understand the multiple temporalities of this revolution as taking place on the backdrop of “almost timeless” temporal frames of nature. Rather, we must consider how the short-term decisions have set humans on a new environmental course that will no doubt last thousands of years.

26Steffen, Crutzen and McNeill have argued for the Anthropocene by suggesting that the industrial revolution has brought on “underlying global change [through] human-driven alterations of i) the biological fabric of the Earth; ii) the stocks and flows of major elements in the planetary machinery such as nitrogen, carbon, phosphorous, and silicon; and iii) the energy balance at the Earth’s surface.” These vast transformations are “pushing the Earth into planetary terra incognita.” (Steffen, Crutzen and McNeill, 614) From the perspective of writing narrative, the human impact on the very organizational structure of the planet in the Anthropocene means that we may need to attend to the inversion of temporalities that this new condition implies. Or, as Latour has recently argued: “through a surprising inversion of background and foreground, it is human history that has become frozen and natural history that is taking on a frenetic pace.” (“Agency,” 12)

27This disorienting circularity is precisely what needs to be considered in our return to the longue durée. Building on Braudel’s critique that he was unsatisfied “with the traditional geographical introduction to history that often figures to little purpose” including “descriptions of the mineral deposits, types of agriculture, and typical flora,” (Braudel, The Mediterranean, 20) the emergence of the Anthropocene would seem to suggest that we can no longer content ourselves with remarking that the human is now a geological force that potentially generates or permanently removes the very mineral deposits, types of agriculture or typical flora that shape it in return. The advent of the Anthropocene seems to have added a troubling element to the magisterial history of the climate introduced by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Braudel’s successor within the Annales: How might we write a history over the longue durée that integrates an understanding of the multiple temporalities resulting from the fact that humans are both victims and agents of (de)glacialization?

Narratives of the longue durée

28So, in at least one important sense, Braudel’s project remains relevant. This is hardly a question of saving soldier Braudel. It is however a question of recognizing that the return to the longue durée must move beyond a somewhat thin re-invocation that our histories should cover more than a few generations. Braudel built his conception of the longue durée on an attempt to combine the temporalities which each of the social sciences had specialized in—the synchronic approach of sociology, the longue-durée almost immobile structures of structural anthropology, the geological time of human geography and the short durée of traditional political history—into a common narrative. In so doing, he was breaking down the barriers between social sciences. Today, I would suggest, our contemporary attempt to reactivate longue-durée analysis in the context of the Anthropocene needs to pay more than passing attention to the Braudelian project and consider its relationship to other social sciences and humanities. It is all the more true as historians, cultural theorists, literary scholars and anthropologists have engaged in a radical questioning of the traditional limits between nature and culture.

29Recent anthropological investigations have both reaffirmed and recalibrated how the relationship between nature and culture might be understood. In fact, the radical reformulation of the culture/nature distinction in contemporary anthropology has, for the first time, opened the door to a history of continuity between the human and the natural. Such a history undermines the opposition between culture and nature as structural to social scientific investigation to the extent that it denies the a priori distinction between the two realms. As Philippe Descola has demonstrated, the very separation between nature and culture that Braudel’s longue durée relied upon is only one way (among the four that he charts) in which this relationship has been constructed across the globe.20 Par delà nature et culture offers a critical perspective on the nature-culture relationship as it has been developed in structural anthropology and the social sciences to present and argues that far from being a universal mode of investigation that is available for understanding all relationships between a given culture and its natural environment, it is one compromise among many, “the singular expressions of which must be examined, just as we must seek to discover the rules of their perpetuation and distribution.” (119) Although he never mentions Braudel, in this description of the traditional opposition between nature and culture in the social sciences, Descola captures the implicit understanding of Braudel’s notion of the two-way relationship between nature and human culture. Indeed, Braudel remained prisoner to the nature-culture distinction that Descola refers to as naturalism and that emerged out of Western European modernity. Braudel’s understanding of nature and culture as constraint (e.g. poor soil) on the one hand and the overcoming of natural limitations on the other (e.g. a solid boat for stormy seas) was indeed rooted in the same conception that Descola unmasks and questions: “either culture is shaped by nature—shaped by genes, instincts, neuronal networks or geographical constraints, or nature only takes form and relief as a potential reservoir of signs and symbols that culture draws upon.”21 Challenging this vision, Descola suggests that dependence on this dualist cosmology is increasingly problematic faced with the multiple other modes for considering the nature-culture relationship.

30More recently, Edouardo Kohn’s investigation into How Forests Think has taken up the challenge of exploring the continuity between the human and the natural world. In his explorations of “the challenges posed by learning to live with the proliferating array of other kinds of life-forms that increasingly surround us,” he pursues “a precise way to analyze how the human is both distinct from and continuous with that which lies beyond it.” (9) Kohn examines how the Runa of the Ecuadorian Amazon reveal and operate within the semiotics of forest life, uncovering a form of thought that, while distinct from the human, still shares fundamental elements with humans. It is the agentive capacity of the forest itself and not simply the forest as backdrop for human activity that Kohn targets. Such studies, he insists, are particularly important for our current age: “if we are to survive the Anthropocene,” Kohn concludes, “we will have to actively cultivate these ways of thinking with and like forests.” (227)

31Such a post-human anthropology opens the possibility that the Anthropocene is not just a recognition of the human role in contemporary climate change, but is more fundamentally part of a readjustment of the relationship between the human and the natural world that breaks down the traditional “European” paradigm of naturalism brought forward by Descola. From this perspective, one might redirect Braudel’s assessment of Lévi-Strauss toward the work of Descola and Kohn. For as far as they have gone in uncovering very different modes of conceptualizing the nature/culture relationship and demonstrating that the European or “Western” social science conception is not universally applicable (and even increasingly irrelevant, if not dangerous), like Lévi-Strauss, they remain tied to the immobility of these conceptions of the relationship between man and nature. In short, they do not emphasize the historical transformations in this relationship that our growing commitment to the Anthropocene logically demands. That is, they do not emphasize the change across time within a given culture/nature construction and how such change might actually transform the understanding of the relationship between the human and what surrounds it. I would contend that their work, however, as well as calls for the Anthropocene more broadly, demand precisely such a shift. In other words, instead of building our histories on a stable temporal relationship between man and nature, the Anthropocene invites us to consider the very possibility that the temporalities of such a relationship may also change over time, and indeed, even rather suddenly. To quote Braudel for our contemporary purposes, we might suggest that the Anthropocene situates man’s relationship to the natural world precisely at “the meeting point between the infinitely small and the very longue durée.” (Braudel, 1958, 747)

32As I have tried to make clear, this does not mean a simple return to Braudel. Rather it means building on his attempt to articulate the long and the short time scales in one common narrative. Bruno Latour has attempted to demonstrate the need to push beyond Braudel’s conception, while also recognizing its contribution through his term, “geo-story”. Building on Chakrabarty’s notion of the earth as agent, Latour argues that “this time we encounter, just as in the old prescientific and nonmodern myths, an agent which gains its name of ‘subject’ because he or she might be subjected to the vagaries, bad humor, emotions, reactions, and even revenge of another agent, who also gains its quality of ‘subject’ because it is also subjected to his or her action.” (“Agency”, 5) Such a perspective responds directly to the critical approach of Descola on the multiple modes of conceiving the relationship between man and nature. Not only must one have a critical perspective on the naturalist conception of the nature-culture distinction, one must also consider the capacity of the earth itself to become an agent, interacting with the human with its own agency. Far from a set of constraints to be dealt with or overcome in the Braudelian mode, geo-story requires a recognition that humans, river beds, earthquakes and tides all share the agentive capacities necessary for temporality and even historicity, let alone narrative.

33The increasing emphasis on the agentive capacity of nature suggests that the traditional conception of the nature/culture within our social sciences (growing as it did out of Western naturalism) is undergoing a fundamental transformation that may only become fully clear as we begin to reinvest the terrain of the longue durée. As Latour argues, “humans are no longer submitted to the diktats of objective nature, since what comes to them is also an intensively subjective form of action. To be a subject is not to act autonomously in front of an objective background, but to share agency with other subjects that have also lost their autonomy.” (“Agency”, 5) In this age of the Anthropocene, Latour states, we can no longer place the Earth at a distance, removing or repositioning human societies here and there on a bluish-white orb, as we would have, according to Descola’s definition of Western naturalism. Instead, we must reconsider our most basic social scientific assumptions about how human decisions have interacted with their natural environments over time. “One of the main puzzles of Western history,” Latour suggests, “is not that ‘there are people who still believe in animism,’ but the rather naive belief that many still have in a deanimated world of mere stuff; just at the moment when they themselves multiply the agencies with which they are more deeply entangled every day. The more we move in geo-story, the more this belief seems difficult to understand.” (“Agency” 7)

34Seen through the lens of Latour’s geo-story, not only is our relationship to nature a way of understanding the longue durée, but we might understand that the very relationship between nature and culture has a history with its own syncopation of multiple temporalities. Latour’s remark that “the great paradox of the ‘scientific world-view’ is to have succeeded in withdrawing historicity from the world, and with it, of course, the inner narrativity that is part and parcel of being in the world—or, as Donna Haraway prefers to say, ‘with the world,’” (“Agency”, 13)—suggests that we must recognize with Eduardo Kohn that forests, seas, animals and other elements beyond the human are also capable of action in the short durée just as humans are capable of setting the conditions for the longue durée of geological time.

35The natural agency implied by the Gaia hypothesis, for example, provides a perspective on how we might be forced to reconsider our traditional conceptions of a deep natural time in opposition to the short-term cultural adaptations of the human. According to the Gaia hypothesis, as presented by Peter Westbroek, life has evolved on earth for over three billion years without interruption. He draws the conclusion that this may mean that the biota itself seeks the establishment of the ideal conditions for perpetuating life that may or may not include the human.22 Such a hypothesis is not only intriguing for what it tells us about the Earth as agent (Gaia), it also suggests that the temporalities of Gaia are as variable as any other agent. There is no long and steady geo-stability which structures a longue durée, but rather regulatory mechanisms that may or may not counteract disturbances according to time frames beyond the human that unfortunately remain entirely unknown as of yet.


36Coming to terms with the reversals of agency and its attending temporalities means resisting the call to de-animate nature and therefore render its temporalities one-dimensional. We may then engage with Kohn’s ambition that thinking and knowing are not exclusively human affairs and begin to consider what impact this may have on narrating our understandings of society, culture, and our world across time. As he reminds us, seeing the “myriad ways in which people are connected to a broader world of life” necessarily changes “what it might mean to be human.” (6) The question of longue-durée narrative today is not simply to engage more directly with current public concerns but to consider: first, the fact that our social sciences and literary studies seem to be capable of overcoming the categorical distinctions between nature and culture that gave birth to them; and second, in order to do so, they must engage with a new multiplicity of temporalities that necessarily emerge within an attempt to challenge the delimitation of a socially constructed reality.

37Indeed, if the Anthropocene teaches us anything for our future narratives, it is that time and historicity itself are not specifically human. We may not build our interaction with nature by claiming a monopoly on the short term any more than we may hive off the long-term onto a world beyond the human without agency or “thought.” In short, our understanding of how humans relate to that which we previously defined as “non-human” requires a temporal analytic that situates “us” (that is the human as well as that which is beyond it) in time. As Latour has provocatively argued: “the problem for all of us in philosophy, science, or literature becomes: how do we tell such a story?” (“Agency,” 3)


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—, “The Return of the Longue Durée: An Anglo-American Perspective,” Annales. Histoire et Sciences Sociales, forthcoming.

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—, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, vol I, translated from French by Sian Reynolds, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995.

—, “Géohistoire : la société, l’espace et le temps,” in Fernand Braudel, Les ambitions de l’histoire, ed. Roselyne de Ayala and Paule Braduel, Paris, Éditions de Fallois, 1997, 68-114.

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1 David Armitage and Jo Guldi, “The Return of the Longue Durée: An Anglo-American Perspective,” Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales, forthcoming. In French, see the forum “La longue durée en débat,” Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales. See also David Armitage, “What’s the Big Idea? Intellectual History and the Longue Durée.”

2 So does Dimock in her Through Other Continents: “What would happen if we go beyond 1776 and 1620, if we trace threads of relation to the world that antedate these allegedly founding moments? What would American literature look like then, restored to a longue durée, a scale enlargement along the temporal axis that also enlarges its spatial compass? Scale enlargement is, of course, most eloquently proposed by Fernand Braudel and by historians of the Annales school, as an alternative to standard national histories, organized by dates and periodized by decades, if not by years.” (Dimock, 4)

3 On a return to universal history, see David Christian, “The Return of Universal History.”

4 See Andrew Ross Sorkin, “So Bill Gates Has This Idea for History Class…”

5 As they suggest, “Long-term visions of the past remained bound up with policy-making and public conversations about the future, and that was a motive to go long.” (History Manifesto, 20)

6 Pieter Geyl, Debates with Historians; Hugh Trevor-Roper, Encounter. On the current return of interest in Toynbee, see Kumar Krishan, “The Return of Arnold Toynbee?”

7 For a brief comparison of the longue-durée perspectives of Toynbee and Braudel, see Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Civilizations, Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature and Harold R. Alker, “Pour qui sont ces civilisations ? II”.

8 “C’est un fait que, dans son ensemble, l’histoire des cent dernières années, presque toujours politique, centrée sur le drame des ‘grands événements’, a travaillé dans et sur le temps court.” (Braudel, 1958, 729) (Author’s note: all translations are by the author unless otherwise specified.)

9 “L’homme est prisonnier, des siècles durant, de climats, de végétations, de populations animales, de cultures, d’un équilibre lentement construit, dont il ne peut s’écarter sans risquer de remettre tout en cause.” (Braudel, 1958, 731)

10 “Tous les étages, tous les milliers d’étages, tous les milliers d’éclatements du temps de l’histoire se comprennent à partir de cette profondeur, de cette semi-immobilité ; tout gravite autour d’elle.” (Braudel, 1958, 734)

11 “Au XVIIIe siècle, la Lorraine va connaître de multiples changements et presque un éveil. Si l’on est attentif à ses villages, on s’apercoit que tous ou presque tous ont alors augmenté la superficie de leurs terres labourables […] Vous connaissez les classiques villages de Lorraine […] Village, champ, bois, trois zones, trois genres de vie […], la soupe, le travail journalier, les occupations exceptionnelles du bûcheronnage […] Au XVIIIe siècle, la ligne des bois, demeurée inchangée depuis le XIIIe siècle, est attaquée en des points multiples et c’est alors que sont fondées ces grosses fermes isolées.” (Quoted in French in Gemelli, 35)

12 “Je ne dis pas que cette histoire de l’Est soit à déduire de l’augmentation de l’espace des terres labourées, de ce petit signe géographique…, non bien sûr. Mais cet exemple, choisi à dessein, nous montre assez bien un aspect géographique d’un large mouvement d’histoire.” (Quoted in French in Gemelli, 35)

13 “Il a fallu la conquérir sur les marais hostiles, la protéger des fleuves dévastateurs, grossis par l’hiver impitoyable, exorciser la malaria. Conquérir les plaines à l’agriculture, ce fut d’abord vaincre l’eau malsaine. Ensuite, il fallut amener l’eau à nouveau, mais vivante celle-ci, pour les irrigations nécessaires.” (Braudel, La Méditerrannée, 27)

14 “Nous sommes en présence d’une vie difficile, souvent précaire, dont l’équilibre se fait en définitive régulièrement contre l’homme.” (Ibid., 40)

15 “La vie d’une société est dans la dépendance de facteurs physiques et biologiques […] en symbiose avec eux, ils modèlent, aident ou gênent sa vie, donc son histoire…’” (Braudel, “Géohistoire : la société, l’espace et le temps,” quoted in Ribeiro, 339)

16 “ […] l’étude d’une double liaison, de la nature à l’homme et de l’homme à la nature, l’étude d’une action et d’une réaction, mêlées, confondues, recommencées sans fin, dans la réalité de chaque jour. C’est même la qualité, la puissance de cet effort qui nous oblige à renverser l’approche habituelle du géographe.” (Braudel, “Géohistoire,” 102)

17 “Qu’il s’agisse du passé ou de l’actualité […] une conscience nette de cette pluralité du temps social est indispensable à une méthodologie commune des sciences de l’homme.” Braudel continues : “Je parlerai donc longuement de l’histoire, du temps de l’histoire. Moins pour les lecteurs de cette revue, spécialistes de nos études, que pour nos voisins des sciences de l’homme : économistes, ethnographes, ethnologues (ou anthropologues), sociologues, psychologues, linguistes, démographes, géographes, voire mathématiciens sociaux ou statisticiens, – tous voisins que, depuis de longues années, nous avons suivis dans leurs expériences et recherches… Peut-être à notre tour, avons-nous quelque chose à leur rendre. Des expériences et tentatives récentes de l’histoire se dégage […] une notion de plus en plus précise de la multiplicité du temps et de la valeur exceptionnelle du temps long. Cette dernière notion, plus que l’histoire elle-même – l’histoire aux cent visages – devrait intéresser les sciences sociales, nos voisines.” (Braudel, 1958, 727)

18 “Cette séparation des domaines et des temps entre nature et société, héritée de la modernité industrielle, a laissé des séquelles profondes dans l’écriture de l’histoire.” (Bonneuil and Fressoz, [Kindle location] 541)

19 Frederik A. Jonsson has similarly highlighted the importance of reconsidering such fundamental historical transformations as the Industrial Revolution in the light of the Anthropocene: “the onset of the Anthropocene will probably also transform our understanding of the place of knowledge in the Industrial Revolution,” he writes. (695)

20 Descola identifies four different modes of thinking the nature/culture relationship: totemism, analogism, animism, and naturalism. He places western social sciences under the category of naturalism.

21 “[O]u bien la culture est façonnée par la nature, que celle-ci soit faite de gènes, d’instincts, de réseaux neuronaux ou de contraintes géographiques, ou bien la nature ne prend forme et relief que comme un réservoir potentiel de signes et de symboles où la culture vient puiser.” (Descola, 120)

22 “This means that the conditions in the biosphere cannot have changed very dramatically, because life can flourish only within a narrowly circumscribed range of physical and chemical states.” (Westbroek, 93) “passive regulation is very unlikely to produce conditions precisely adapted to the requirements of the biota. Instead, […] the environment in the biosphere is actively modulated by the biota itself. The earth would be homeostatic, with the biota seeking the establishment of optimum conditions for life. In the course of organic evolution an elaborate system of global biological regulatory mechanisms has emerged, capable of counteracting the adverse effects of major disturbances. The idea is known as the ‘Gaia hypothesis,’ after the Greek goddess of the earth.” (Westbroek, 93-94)Haut de page

Stephen W. Sawyer, « Time after Time: Narratives of the Longue Durée in the Anthropocene », Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2015, mis en ligne le 08 janvier 2016, consulté le 03 août 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Stephen W. Sawyer

American University of Paris

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An Islamic Approach to Environmental Protection and Ecologically Sustainable Peace in the Age of the Anthropocene


Islamic literature to date has focussed on the human role of vicegerent (caliph) on earth with the duty to look after the environment including other life forms. There is, however, a need to further develop this literature towards action and the broader concept of a just and ecologically sustainable peace. This chapter examines the three concepts of potential, value and interdependent purpose from an Islamic perspective to illustrate that the earth with all its inhabitants and its ecosystems is an intrinsic part of God’s plan. These three concepts apply to humans, animals and the broader environment from a theological perspective. This worldview generates affinity and empathy towards all of creation, whereby seeking its protection becomes a natural response. Creation displays the infinite creativity and beauty of God, and everything in the natural world worships God in a unique way. Furthermore, just like humankind, animal species along with the ecosystems they inhabit form communities and have a right to live peacefully within their communities. Hence, all forms of life on earth must be preserved and humans are charged with that responsibility. Ultimately, the Islamic concept of accountability in achieving justice and balance on earth charges human beings to establish a just and ecologically sustainable peace.


The need for positive change in the world is becoming more topical each day. While various global issues are often dealt with independently, it is time to stop compartmentalising the various issues and start seeing the strong common currents that run through them all. Not only will this lead to synergy as we seek to address growing global problems, but it will also facilitate the establishment of a worldview which benefits every inhabitant that calls this earth its home.

The number of wars and conflicts in the world in the last century is of grave concern, with 108 million people being killed due to war in the twentieth century.1 With the advancement in technology, the ease of killing a mass number of people in a short period of time becomes easier than ever before. Conflicts are emerging frequently in almost all parts of the world, leaving negative effects for years and even decades after they emerged.

However, peace in itself is not sufficient. Justice is also needed whereby every individual enjoys the rights they deserve. While human rights are often spoken about at the local and global level, many atrocities take place around the world. Out of many statistics, two will suffice to highlight the extensive problems and inequalities that exist globally: 66% of the world’s population lives in poverty and 12 million women, men and children are enslaved around the world with 600,000–800,000 being trafficked each year.2

The need to protect the environment is also pressing. The main stimulus for a call for action in this area is the findings of climate science on the alarming harm human activity is causing on the planet to such an extent that geologists have named the present era the Anthropocene, an epoch where human activity has reached the scale of affecting the very geology of the planet.3 The level of environmental awareness is at its peak: growing attention on environmental and climate science and its findings is widely covered in the media, and included in the educational curriculum.

When global issues are collectively analysed through an Islamic theological lens, the need to change one’s worldview becomes apparent. It is not sufficient to simply attempt to ‘fix’ problems that have been created over the years, but to change the way one views every part of creation that exists on this earth. This would lead to justice and an ecologically sustainable peace. In the light of this, this chapter will discuss the notion of a God-centric worldview which aims to connect all of creation to the Creator. In this way, the potential, the value and the purpose of creation become elevated since everything is seen in the name of the Creator.


The potential embedded in all of creation is an important element of Islamic theology and spirituality. Everything is perceived through what it can be, not only through what it is. This perspective not only applies to human beings, it also encompasses all living things including the natural environment.

According to the Qur’an, the potential for human development is far reaching, ‘Verily We have created humankind in the fairest form (ahsan altaqwim), then sent him down to the lowest of the low, except for those who believe and do good deeds.’4 The verse underscores the variable nature of human beings and the possibility of attaining the ‘the fairest form’ (ahsan altaqwim) suggesting that humans have the potential to grow and attain perfection. The natural human disposition (fitra) has been created in such a way that it can move its way up from the ‘lowest of the low’ to express ‘the fairest form.’

The description of the fairest form has been understood in different ways by exegetical scholars. According to Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Ṭabari (d. 923), humankind has been created as having the best character and a beautiful form.5 Fakhr alDin alRazi (d. 925), has a similar understanding, describing the fairest form to be inner and outer beauty.6 Both these explanations stress the beauty found within human beings. Ismail Haqqi Bursawi (d. 1725) focusses more on the value of human beings rather than their beauty when commenting on this verse. He upholds the value of human beings to such a level that he asserts human beings have the highest intrinsic worth of all creation on earth.7

The fact that Muslim scholars have used the tree analogy to discuss the human potential has multiple implications. This analogous comparison is significant as it is a connecting point between human beings and the natural environment. The tree analogy is used by the theologian and mystic Ibn Arabi (d. 1240), where the tree denotes the universe.8 This perspective resonates with Qurtubi’s (d. 1273) exegesis of the Qur’anic verse which describes human beings as created in the fairest form. Qurtubi describes human beings as like a small universe in order to highlight the potential inherent within them.9 Twentieth-century Muslim scholar Said Nursi (d. 1960) uses the tree analogy to describe the potential found within human beings: ‘Yes, however many degrees there are from a seed to a huge tree, the abilities lodged in human nature are more numerous.’10 The tree analogy is useful to express the tremendous potential in human nature as the reader can appreciate the vast range of development involved from a seed to a fully grown majestic tree. The analogy, at the same time, highlights the tremendous development within a natural object like a tree and by extension in all created forms.

This inherent potential is understood to apply to all human beings. That is, every single individual on this earth is viewed as a seed which has the potential to become a ‘tree.’ This approach to human beings creates a platform where every person should have the opportunities it needs to grow and realise their potential. This is only possible in a peaceful environment where their human rights are also protected. Just as a seed cannot grow unless it has the right environment, no human being can grow unless they live in a peaceful and just environment.

The shared potential between humans and other living beings also creates a genuine connection between human beings and the environment since one identifies with a tree or other plant life in a way that fosters a sense of empathy. Every person would be devastated if their freedom to unleash their potential were to be prevented or, worse, destroyed. Similarly, seeing a tree, which has a similar potential, not realise its potential and flourish would be equally painful, as though one were seeing their own potential being impeded. Such powerful analogies, where the environment is seen as overlapping with the needs and desires of human beings, are a crucial part of the conversation needed in acting to protect the environment. Highlighting the great potential of human beings may appear to have limited ecological benefits, but when that potential is so intimately connected to the environment, it changes the way the environment is perceived.

An appreciation for the environment is not just effected through these powerful analogies. Just like human beings, all living things are understood to have a potential yearning to be fulfilled. As Nursi points out, all of creation goes through the process of ‘expanding from the potential to the actual, through great effort and exertion.’11 This principle of realising potential is visible throughout the entire universe and is referred to as the ‘divine practice’ (sunnatullah) where everything is given an opportunity to experience eagerness and pleasure in fulfilling its natural duty.12 The pleasure experienced by all beings, animate and inanimate, is due to the ability to perform their duty through the potential that has been instilled within them. It resembles a ‘wage’ given to all beings that makes them eager and motivated to fulfil their duties .13

Nursi explains that even seeds have a natural urge to realise their duty by sprouting and germinating: ‘Like someone imprisoned in a constricted place longs to go out into a garden or open space, such a longing, such a joyful state, is also apparent in seeds, in their duty of sprouting.’14 The personification of a seed is exceedingly powerful as it instils feelings not only towards human beings, but also towards all living beings. This is an approach that does not normally appear in works of theology, but when it is done, it makes a compelling case. It makes it much more difficult to violate the rights of any person or thing as they are all seen as entities yearning to realise their potential.

Discussion of the potential that exists in all life forms naturally raises the notion of the value inherent in all beings.


In the Islamic tradition, attaining knowledge of God is seen as one of the most important aspects of faith. This is indicated by the Qur’anic verse: ‘I have not created the unseen beings and humankind but to (know and) worship Me (exclusively).’15 While worship is given as the prime purpose, the exegete Ali Unal (b. 1955) explains that knowledge of God and love of God is entailed in the bounds of worship.16 That is, quality worship of God is not truly possible if knowledge and love of God is not present preceding the act of worship. For this reason, there has been extensive literature written throughout Islamic history about how one can attain knowledge of God. In this goal, creation, particularly the natural environment, plays a critical role as it mirrors God’s names and attributes. All parts of the natural world have an instrumental value because they facilitate knowledge of God. This approach to creation, by which it is connected to the Creator , strongly influences, and perhaps completely changes, the way the environment is viewed.

In Islamic theology, God is not of the substance of this universe. He is unembodied and has an essence unlike any of His creation. In Qur’anic stipulation, ‘none is like Him.’17 A famous statement with regard to God’s nature has dominated Islamic theology for centuries: ‘Whatever comes to your mind about His nature, God is different to that.’18 A prominent Islamic theologian, Imam al-Tahawi (d. 935), states: ‘Imagination cannot attain Him, comprehensions cannot perceive Him, and creatures do not bear any similarity to Him.’19 The only aspect of God we are introduced to in the Qur’an is the names of God, ‘God – there is no deity save Him; His are the All-Beautiful Names (asma alhusna).’20 Thus, while it is God’s essence (dhat) that is unknowable, knowledge of God is possible through appreciating God’s names and attributes. ‘God’s relationship with the creation is mediated by “His beautiful names”…the pillars upon which the phenomenal world rests.’21

The names of God are an important means to conceive, conceptualise and understand an otherwise transcendent God, to garner an opportunity to relate to Him. Humankind is believed to have a particularly important role, as humankind was created in ‘God’s own image’ or, translated more literally, ‘upon His form.’22 Furthermore, the Qur’anic verse ‘Then He proportioned him, and He blew into him of His spirit’23 has been interpreted by exegetes to mean that the human being has the greatest potential to mirror the names of God. This concept of relating to God through divine names is also prevalent in the work of Ghazzali (d. 1111). Ghazzali states the path for conceptualising God is through understanding His names by their manifestation on humankind: ‘it is conceivable for man to be characterised (by these names) to the extent that they may be spoken of him.’24 Humans are given this great ability to perceive and understand the names of God by witnessing them but also by being the most comprehensive entity which can mirror the names of God.

This approach to humankind naturally leads to the idea that all human beings have utmost value since every single person was created ‘upon His form.’ Holding this worldview leads to a desire to fulfil the rights of all individuals and ensure social justice is implemented at its best.

Furthermore, the Qur’an conjoins the Beautiful Names of God as glorifications expressed in the cosmos and the earth: ‘He is God, the Creator, the All-Holy Maker, the All-Fashioning. To Him belong the All-Beautiful Names. Whatever is in the heavens and on the earth glorifies Him. He is the All-Glorious with irresistible might, the All-Wise.’25

The manifestations of God’s names occur in the form of detectable signs in the environment. Interestingly, the Qur’an uses the word ayat (signs) to refer to the actual verses of the Qur’an as well as the signs God has placed in the natural world for the reflecting human mind:

…And it is He who spread out the earth and set thereon mountains standing firm and (flowing) rivers: and fruit of every kind He made in pairs: He draws the night as a veil over the Day. Behold, verily in these things there are signs (ayāt) for those who think and reflect.26

The environment contains signs of God and the universe (particularly the natural environment), acts as the third element linking humanity and God. As stated by Ghazzali, God gave humankind an ‘abridged form that brings together every sort of thing found in the universe’27 so that the universe acts as a mirror, with all objects within it reflecting and manifesting God’s names and attributes.28 On this point, Nursi adds that a single living thing manifests or mirrors as many as twenty names of God.29 It is the natural world where the greatest creativity of God is displayed and witnessed by humans. This makes the earth, together with its inhabitants and ecological environment, the greatest mirror to God’s names and therefore is the most important source of attaining knowledge of God. This renders earth and its lifeforms extremely valuable within the divine plan of the universe and human capacity to relate to God .

In this context, life including the environment is an arena where God displays valuable works of art. By virtue of art being valuable, this theological perspective supports the protection of life as a show of respect towards the Artful Maker, God. In the words of Yunus Emre (d. 1321), a famous mystic and poet, ‘we love the created, for the Creator.’30 There is a natural human affinity towards all of creation as it has an intrinsic value as a result of being the creation of the Creator . This enhances the relationship between the Qur’an, the universe and humankind, making everything sacred because it is fulfilling the duty of mirroring31 or manifesting God’s names. When creation is viewed with this lens, what is witnessed is no longer an easily destroyable worthless thing so that peace becomes the natural state that one seeks to be in. A tree is no longer a ‘wooden skeleton but an artwork made by God,’32 and a flower is no longer a natural entity which can be destroyed but a beautiful creation reminding the observer of the Creator’s Beauty.

The value of all creation is further supported by the Qur’anic verse which states, ‘The seven heavens and the earth, and all beings, therein, declare His glory: there is not a thing but celebrates His praise….’33 In other words, everyone and everything is praising God within the bounds of its own natural disposition, making them all valuable creations of God. The Hadith ‘God is beautiful and He loves beauty’ further reinforces this point. God describes Himself as loving beauty and therefore loving the cosmos. ‘Hence, there is nothing more beautiful than the cosmos.’34 Knowing that God loves the universe leads to a natural inclination for humankind to also love the universe and therefore value it. Since the creation (humankind, animals and plants) displays the creativity of God and is a mirror to reflect God’s names and attributes, it needs to be protected. When people are killed, animals become extinct and the environment is harmed, we deprive future generations of the opportunity to get to know God at a deeper level.

The concepts of potential and value are intrinsically linked to the idea that all of creation has an interdependent purpose. This supports a call to action that moves from protecting the environment to ensuring a just and ecologically sustainable peace.

Interdependent Purpose

In the Qur’anic cosmology purpose plays a crucial part and is linked to the potential and value of creation. The Qur’an declares, ‘And We did not create the heavens and earth and that between them in play and fun. We only created them for a purpose….’35 Everything has a purpose which it yearns to fulfil, and serving that purpose renders it valuable. In Islamic theology, God’s plan for creation elicits an interdependent design of life by establishing ecosystems of flora and fauna, much in the way that humans develop interdependent communities.

In the wake of Hossein Nasr’s (b. 1933) earlier work, one of the most important steps taken in Islamic environmental thinking has indeed been in the area of its teaching and attitudes with regard to animals.36 The Qur’an clearly talks about living beings existing in ecological systems: ‘No living creature is there moving on the earth, no bird flying on its two wings, but they are communities like you.’37 The comparison of animal species with human communities is significant. Since human societies are complex systems made up of numerous interdependent individuals, this comparison points to the modern concept of ecosystems. The phrase ‘communities like you’ positions ecosystems in the same league as human societies. The existence of plural ‘communities’ leads to the conclusion that there are many concurrently existing and independent ecosystems. Responsible treatment of ecosystems and exerting an effort to prevent their damage or destruction can be seen as part of the general Qur’anic prohibition against causing corruption on earth .

While Islam treats the life of all creatures as valuable and recognises ecosystems as communities worthy of protection, it allocates status of a higher degree to human life. Human beings have been ‘honoured with goodness’38 in that men and women are created with the innate capability to recognise goodness and to respect virtue. Human beings are created with a sound ‘natural disposition (fitrah) of God upon which He has modelled the humans.’39 Ultimately, human beings are created as a ‘vicegerent (khalifah) on earth’40 with the power and privilege of exercising command over earth’s life forms and utilising its resources. Not only are they charged with the responsibility of protecting the rights of others through peace and social justice but they also have the responsibility of protecting the natural world so that corruption is not caused on earth41 by destroying either its order or its beauty. Whenever the Qur’an puts responsibility onto humans, it comes with an obligation to follow through with the responsibility and the resultant accountability before God. Hence, humans should expect to be judged on how they treat other living creatures and the environment .

Linked with the discussion on potential and value, there is an acknowledgement that all of creation has an interdependent purpose which needs to be maintained in order for there to be ongoing harmony on earth. This is only possible with peace. What unites all three concepts is the Islamic notion of harmony and balance which transcends any one creation or entity. Balance is important in the Islamic worldview and is a key to providing a just and ecologically sustainable peace.

Towards an Islamic Just and Ecologically Sustainable Peace

A key part of understanding a just and ecologically sustainable peace is to understand justice in the Islamic context which can be defined as ‘putting a thing in its proper place’ 42 or as ‘balance, equilibrium balance; harmony and equilibration.’43 A Qur’anic verse which emphasises the importance of balance and maintaining balance is as follows:

And the heaven – He has made it high (above the earth), and He has set up the balance. So that you may not go beyond (the limits with respect to) the balance. And establish weight in justice and do not make deficient the balance.44

This verse brings together four elements of justice and balance and underscores human responsibility in ensuring that balance and justice is achieved and maintained in all domains of life. Bursawi quotes Prophet Muhammad when explaining this verse: ‘The Prophet said justice is a pillar of the earth and heaven’45 thereby highlighting the strong link between balance and justice when dealing with earth and its inhabitants. Qushayri interprets this Qur’anic verse to mean that justice must be implemented in all acts of life. He also understands it to mean that one must be sincere, truthful, in that one must have equality outwardly and inwardly.46 This is particularly important in social justice where the rights of all are fulfilled whether it be for individuals within one’s community or outside one’s community. Therefore, it is necessary to have a sincere desire to maintain the balance that exists within the universe, striving towards a peaceful world which offers justice for all.

Justice is a very strong theme in the Qur’an, so much so that it became customary to repeat the verse: ‘Behold, God enjoins justice, and devotion to doing good, and generosity towards relatives, and He forbids you indecency, wickedness and vile conduct. He exhorts you (repeatedly) so that you may reflect and be mindful!’,47 an exhortation which is said at the end of every Friday sermon in all mosques in the Muslim world. It would suffice to note within the scope of this chapter that the way humankind and animals are fairly dealt with has been the topic of Muslim scholars for centuries. A large part of Islamic law and jurisprudence deals with human transactions known as muamalat (dealings).48 The legal and ethical discussion of human rights and animal rights is based on hadith (narrations of Prophet Muhammad). One such example of protecting animals is when the Prophet’s companions took baby birds from a nest, to which Prophet Muhammad said: ‘Who has hurt the feelings of this bird by taking its young? Return them to her.’49

Such examples emphasise the great importance of justice, equilibrium and balance that exist on earth through ecosystems and the need to maintain them. Nursi notes that justice ‘is the principle by which the whole universe and all beings act’ and therefore if humankind acts against this justice, they become the ‘object of anger and disgust’50 of the universe. This equilibrium and balance can be found on earth at the micro- and macro-level where everything is ‘ordered and weighed with so sensitive a balance, so fine a measure, that the human mind can nowhere see any waste or futility.’51 Such balance and order is seen as a manifestation of God’s name All-Just.52 Therefore, destroying peace and justice in the human domain and destroying the ecosystem could be seen as distorting the manifestation of God’s name, All-Just which would be a profound violation towards God.

Furthermore, humans, as the most comprehensive mirrors of God, need to be able to manifest God’s name All-Just by being just in their treatment of everything that surrounds them so that the equilibrium set out on earth is not irreversibly tampered with.

When creation is viewed with its intrinsic value and potential, the way it is treated is positively affected. No longer can a single human life be discarded so easily since it has such great value in the eye of the Creator, as well as creation. The Qur’an verse ‘whoever kills a soul…it is as if he had slain humankind entirely. And whoever saves one – it is as if he has saved humankind entirely’53 reinforces this notion. In a way, this Qur’anic verse is suggesting that a single soul is equal to all of humankind, without any mention of the faith or ethnicity of the individual. This makes justice an essential part of one’s worldview where all human life is sacred .

Human life is not the only end. All of creation is seen to have a purpose, a value and a potential to be realised. All life is a way of expressing this value and potential. Such a theological understanding will provide the foundation needed to establish a just and ecologically sustainable peace for humans and all other living beings on earth.


An Islamic theological assessment examining three concepts of potential, value and interdependent purpose illustrates that the earth, with all its inhabitants and its ecosystems, is an intrinsic part of God’s plan for humans in realising their potential, garnering their value and achieving their purpose. While seeing the potential in all humankind leads to a desire to establish peace and justice, seeing the potential in the environment generates affinity and empathy towards the environment, so that seeking its protection becomes a natural response. Creation displays the infinite creativity of God; everything in the natural world worships God in a unique way. Furthermore, not only humankind but also animal species along with their ecosystems form communities and have a right to live peacefully within their communities.

Humans are endowed with intelligence and ingenuity to exert power over the rest of the creation. With this power comes accountability in the treatment of all living creatures and the environment. Hence, all forms of life on earth must be preserved as extremely valuable and humans are charged with that responsibility. Ultimately, the Islamic concept of accountability in achieving justice and balance on earth charges human beings to establish a just and ecologically sustainable peace.

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  2. Social Justice Resource Centre (accessed 1 September 2019).
  3. Jan Zalasiewicz et al., ‘The Anthropocene: A New Epoch of Geological Time?’ Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A 369 (2011): 835–1111.
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Charles Sturt University, Melbourne, VIC, Australia

Zuleyha Keskin & Mehmet Ozalp

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Correspondence to Mehmet Ozalp .

Cite this chapter

Keskin, Z., Ozalp, M. (2020). An Islamic Approach to Environmental Protection and Ecologically Sustainable Peace in the Age of the Anthropocene. In: Camilleri, J., Guess, D. (eds) Towards a Just and Ecologically Sustainable Peace. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore.