Democracy and environment: from ‘yellow vests’ to ‘extinction rebellion’

Helen Kopnina  

• Haagse Hogeschool blog

extinction rebellion london-uk-november-17-2018


Optimists see democracy as a panacea for ecological evils, a vehicle for positive change. Pessimists are not so sure. Can democratic governments solve environmental problems, ranging form climate change to biodiversity loss? Will citizens all agree on what the “good” is? Will they elect governments that will be able to stop climate change and halt biodiversity loss?


Let’s look at recent events. From November 2018, in France, the Gilets Jaunes (yellow vests), the protestors wearing the yellow vests were blocking the roads. From October 2018 in England, Extinction Rebellion members were also blocking the roads. These road blockers have very different messages.

Yellow vests

Gilets Jaunes movement started with the decision of the French President Macron to introduce a tax on fossil fuel. Initially, the protest was associated with a group of lower middle-class car owners protesting against what they felt would push their budgets over the edge. A few charters have been put out by Gilets Jaunes, eliding with social justice questions about who pays “sustainability bills”. There is a deeper mistrust and dissatisfaction with the government, with some contradictory demands. While they are diverse, when interviewed, many protestors gave their identity as “drivers” who demand the government to take the hands off their cars.

Extinction rebellion

Extinction Rebellion, on the other hand, is engaged in civil disobedience intended to force action by the British government on climate as well biodiversity loss and extinction of species. Extinction Rebellion attempts to make action on climate change the forefront of the political agenda. Using the strategy of non-violent direct action, Extinction Rebellion demands that both the government and the public take responsibility for the expansion of industry and agriculture that harms the environment.

Shifting membership

Like with the yellow vests, Extinction Rebellion’s “membership” shifts, they have no formal leaders, yet the movement members is spreading beyond the UK to the US, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, and even Australia. Both movements have few concrete goals and genuinely practicable policies for attaining them. However, the ‘vests’ outnumber the ‘rebellion’ by thousands in all countries. What makes both groups angry is the fact that industrial groups (industrial lobbies, oil, transport, mining etc.) remain hidden but influential. The difference is that the ‘rebellion’ group recognizes that these corporate giants are fed by consumer demands and the ‘vests’ are angry that they grab most of the profits.

Consumerist life-style

Some have argued that any politician wanting to start subtracting carbon costs from the national economy is still influenced by lobbies and funded by industries. What is perhaps most disturbing is not just the fact that democracies in real life are influenced by powerful industrial lobbies, but that even the most environmentally-conscious politician (if (s)he ever gets elected in the first place) may fail to push through reforms if they mean compromise to consumerist life-style.

Caring citizens

Individual lifestyle change is part of the story but, on its own, it is too small to make a meaningful difference in sufficient time. Also, population growth and industrialization, which are the root cause of climate change, water depletion, soil erosion, habitat destruction and species extinctions, requires transnational multi-level governance that draws legitimacy from global ecologically informed and caring citizens.

What’s good?

We have just considered two European cities, not the world. It is unlikely that we can all agree on what the “good” is. For some, it is having a personal freedom to drive a car, for others it is a commitment to future generations of humans and nonhumans. For some (perhaps a majority?) the choice of “good” might be determined not as much by the images of melting ice but of bread and circus.

Fair treatment

Underprivileged classes have a right to demand fair treatment. But, for even less privileged nonhumans, plants, animals and others, no vote determining the future of this planet will be held. Even if these billions of beings could speak our language, it is not likely that 7.5 billion people will ever consider their vote.

Keep trying

Having said that, the saying attributed to Churchill goes “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried before”.  Maybe we should try again – and keep on trying.

Helen Kopnina is currently employed at The Hague University of Applied Science, coordinating Sustainable Business program and conducting research within three main areas: sustainability, environmental education and biological conservation.




For a World beyond Pigs and Dogs: Transversal Utopias— Guattari, Le Guin, Bookchin


Joff P. N. Bradley

My intent is not reactionary, nor even conservative, but simply subversive. It seems that the Utopian imagination is trapped, like capitalism and industrialism and the human population, in a one-way future consisting only of growth. All I’m trying to do is figure how to put a pig on the tracks.

(Le Guin, Dancing at the Edge of the World 85)


As a transversal thought experiment akin to the Guattarian practice of metamodelization examined in Schizoanalytic Cartographies, this paper aspires to engineer a philo-fiction, which is to say, a sense of utopos or absolute re(de)territorialization of world, territory, Nature, and earth. Operating in-between the social ecologies of Bookchin and Guattari, and deploying Gough’s “rhizosemiotic” thought experiment methodology throughout the paper—the whole text is itself a narrative experiment aiming at the “generativity of intertextual readings” (“Rhizosemiotic Play” 119), a kind of pataphysical exercise à la Alfred Jarry—I shall think the worlds imagined by Le Guin with and alongside Deleuze and Guattari’s geophilosophical principles as found in What is Philosophy?. This is to consider the other possible worlds constructed in Le Guin’s oeuvre as changeable planes of immanence and, following Gough, a means to “generate productive and disruptive transnational agendas” (“Changing Planes” 279). This is ventured to blur the distinction between the fabulations of philosophy and the enterprise of science fiction. This view takes inspiration from Difference and Repetition in which Deleuze writes: “A book of philosophy should be in part a very particular sort of detective novel, in part a kind of science fiction” (xx). The overall direction of this paper performs a transversal reading of Guattari, Le Guin, and Bookchin, to map out the possibility of a third space of utopia thought. It intends to differentiate orthodox and heterodox forms of Marxism and their interconnections with ecology and ecosophical thinking as a prolegomenon to thinking the fabulation of a third revolution.


Preliminary Observations

A thought emerges from reading the many articles on the environment in the Guardian newspaper in the UK over the years. Every day it seems we have in-depth, committed articles by George Monbiot and others on the climate crisis. The newspaper has an active readership concerned with the question of the Anthropocene— a “little industry” as philosopher Claire Colebrook calls it in her lecture “We Have Always Been Post-Anthropocene.” Many words have been spilled by Alex Blasdel trying to make sense of Timothy Morton’s theory of object-oriented ontology (OOO) and hyperobjects. There is also much time devoted to a purified, apolitical form of fashionable accelerationism, that ultimate paean to capitalist dynamics.

Whatever accelerationism is, one thing is clear, the human (men and women and their mutual becomings)—that fragile, vulnerable, imperfect mass of flesh and bones—is no longer worth the bother as Nick Land consistently writes about in Fanged Noumena. Better to think of abstract, glistening, metallic, global processes, unfathomable algorithms, Kondratieff K-waves, autopoietic cybernetics and impersonal forces rather than the material plight of hundreds of millions of people and all living beings across the planet. A further observation comes from reading David Adam’s 2006 list of the “Earthshakers: The Top 100 Green Campaigners of All Time”—again in the Guardian. In this top 10 list of ecologists and campaigners, we find deserving inclusions such as Rachel Carson, E. F. Schumacher, James Lovelock and William Morris. Outside the top 10 we find Aldo Leopold, Thomas Malthus, David Suzuki, Gandhi, and the like. Yet, conspicuously absent is Murray Bookchin—the American social anarchist who was writing on ecology around, if not before, the time Rachel Carson first published the seminal Silent Spring in 1962. When I read this list in 2006, I was perplexed by Bookchin’s conspicuous omission and continue to think it odd. Why is this important? Because I believe a dialogue remains possible between the social ecology of Guattari and the social anarchism of Bookchin. This is long overdue and needs to be recontextualized in terms of contemporary, Anthropocene debates. While Bookchin’s political philosophy roots itself in the humanist tradition of the Enlightenment, and Guattari is situated in a more cybernetic-influenced perspective, I am of the view that an argument can be made for the construction of a transversal model, a metamodelization exercise, between such seemingly contrary and irreconcilable paradigms.


Le Guin on Bookchin

Bookchin is no grim puritan. I first read him as an anarchist, probably the most eloquent and thoughtful one of his generation, and in moving away from anarchism he hasn’t lost his sense of the joy of freedom. He doesn’t want to see that joy, that freedom, come crashing down, yet again, among the ruins of its own euphoric irresponsibility. (Le Guin, Foreword 8)

In her celebratory foreword to Bookchin’s The Next Revolution Le Guin writes that Bookchin is a thinker resolute in his conviction that changes in the care of the environment can only emerge through transformations in social relations. As we know from Bookchin’s social ecology, contemporary environmental problems are exacerbated by deeply entrenched social problems—the domination of man by man or “it’s capitalism stupid” as Benjamin Fong might say in his New York Times article. In The Next Revolution Le Guin claims that there are no “dreams of happy endings” in Bookchin’s work (Foreword 8). She writes that Bookchin was staunchly opposed to succumbing to the “ruins” of “euphoric irresponsibility.” In Re-enchanting Humanity we find a similar skepticism to the postmodern and poststructural language games of Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida, and so on. For Bookchin the joy and freedom of resistance are practices worthy of preserving. In his extensive corpus he argues consistently that it is right to contest the organization, control, and domination of life. In the nightmare of Anthropocene reality which humanity currently countenances, one imagines that Bookchin would find, as Le Guin says in the foreword, “a moment of true choice—a chance to transcend the paralyzing hierarchies of gender, race, class, nation, a chance to find a radical cure for the radical evil of our social system” (Foreword 8). Indeed, Bookchin cites utopian thinkers and futurists precisely because they invoke a sense of freedom, play, joy, and creativity. He writes in Ecology of Freedom: “[T]he utopian tradition seeks to permeate necessity with freedom, work with play, even toil with artfulness and festiveness. My contrast between utopianism and futurism forms the basis for a creative, liberatory reconstruction of an ecological society, for a sense of human mission and meaning as nature rendered selfconscious” (11).

On this reading, for proponents of social ecology or ecosophy it is imperative to rethink the human. Human societies should get their collective house in order—ridding ourselves of hierarchies and structures of domination. In this respect, for Le Guin, Bookchin’s political philosophy remains an “honest, uncompromising search for a realistic hope” (Foreword 9) because he is a thinker and ecologist willing to throw down the gauntlet to imagine the impossible—that is to say, to envisage an alternative to the runaway system of capitalism intent on ecological destruction, exhaustion, and collapse. In this way, Bookchin writes a trenchant form of ecosophy, one not premised on the pacifism and univocity of being of Arne Naess’s or Aldo Leopold’s deep ecology thinking. Indeed, it is conceptually distinct from both transcendental, liberation theology and integral ecology, the latter of which is explored in Leonardo Boff ’s Essential Care: An Ethics of Human Nature. As Le Guin acknowledges, it was Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism that inspired the anarcho-syndicalist world of Anarres in The Dispossessed. In this novel, we find a self-reflexive critique of both the concepts of anarchism and utopianism. This is expressed in the protagonist’s “ruthlessly anarchistic critique of Anarres itself,” as John Clark argues (Clark 143). In The Dispossessed we find “an anarchist critique of anarchism and a utopian critique of the dangers of utopia” (Clark 143). Indeed, while approving of much of Le Guin’s work, Bookchin describes the society in The Dispossessed as a limited form of anarcho-syndicalism and as such it is opposed to his vision of anarcho- or libertarian communism. This is because he is reluctant to embrace an economy-centric model of society and instead entertains a society in which social and human life takes primacy—in other words, which places community before economics. Le Guin, for her part, argues that science-fiction fantasy is not so much pivotally concerned with future worlds per se; it is not predictive in that sense, but rather descriptive of the ways of the contemporary world. While we may view utopia as a critique of the present in the name of the future in some forms of literature, in utopian science fiction we can discern a critique of the future articulated in the name of the present. One suspects that Bookchin would also echo this view. Indeed, as he argues in Post-Scarcity Anarchism: “What justifies my utopian emphasis is the near total lack of material on the potentialities of our time” (30). There is however another way to think about this. This is to write against the intolerable and the image of the “shame of being human” which Deleuze invokes. In the essay “May ’68 Did Not Take Place” Deleuze describes the inhering of the possible in the event itself: “The possible does not pre-exist, it is created by the event. It is a question of life. The event creates a new existence, it produces a new subjectivity (new relations with the body, with time, sexuality, the immediate surroundings, with culture, work)” (Two Regimes 234). In the exhaustion of the present, utopia is a response and an antidote. Utopian thought, which we find expressed in Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of absolute re-(de)territorialization, examines the present and extrapolates the possibility of new libertarian and immanent utopias.

This is entirely consistent with Deleuze and Guattari, who consider utopia as the absolute Other, that is to say, an expression of possible worlds. Thus, the utopian constitutes more than a mere pipe dream. Indeed, for Deleuze and Guattari in What is Philosophy?, this is because it “designates that conjunction of philosophy, or of the concept, with the present milieu—political philosophy” (100). For them, it is through absolute re-(de)territorialization and the embrace of the forces of the Outside (of thought, apeiron) that one may begin to detail the contours of this absolute uncanny that is contrary to the stasis of the present. Their immanent sense of utopia is therefore at odds with the transcendent forms of utopia which merely react to the depressing list of twentiethcentury horrors—“world war, totalitarian rule, genocide, economic depression, nuclear destruction, massive famine, and disease” (Moylan 7). Here we arrive at a theoretical aporia because, if the remit of utopian writers is to fabulate social systems contrary to capitalist dynamics on the one hand, and for science-fiction writers like Le Guin to undermine the illusory nature of utopias on the other, the question is which path to proceed upon because there appears no discernible path at present. One way out of this petrification of thought is through Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of absolute re-(de)territorialization, as it seems to formulate a different position. This is to view science-fiction figures such as Le Guin as writing a kind of deterritorialized science-fiction space, a third space. This is a kind of metamodelization principled in accordance with the logic of Guattari’s schizoanalysis found in The Machinic Unconscious in which a dystopian discourse and utopia might be brought into transversal communication with one another. This is to afford and explore the reconceptualization of the human. My interest is how one must struggle to speak across different political philosophies or traditions even though both share a common set of assumptions, goals, and concepts. A clear example of this is between different ecological and philosophical visions. How can a dialogue be made between the philosophies of deep ecology on the one hand and the distinct social ecologies of Bookchin and Guattari on the other? One answer is to develop transversal concepts to communicate across these philosophies. This is found in Transversal Rationality and Intercultural Texts, the work of Korean-American philosopher Hwa Yol Jung, a philosopher who melds Asian and Western philosophical traditions and concepts to create an inspiring ecosophy and phenomenology. In addition to this, my goal is to further complicate this model by insinuating utopia and indeed science fiction in-between social and deep ecologies. This is why I am designating a third space, a vantage point to eke out the possibility of thinking a third revolution.


Degrowth: Bookchin, Gorz, Le Guin

At this stage, let me develop this a little further through analysis of a troika of thinkers—Bookchin, André Gorz and Le Guin—with regard to Gorz’s concepts of degrowth and Bookchin’s post-scarcity anarchism. First of all, I must make a brief comment about Gorz and his consideration of Le Guin’s work. Le Guin’s work is criticized by Gorz because it constructs Anarres as a model society impossibly free of commodity relations. As we know, on Anarres all the means of production and consumption are held in common: there is no property of any sort (hence no crime as such), nor are there traditional state structures. There is order though, as Anarres has a communal-based economy and is organized into syndicates. This society clearly resembles ideas derived from Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid and Fields, Factories and Workshops and indeed Paul Goodman’s Communitas. As the social division and labor is a necessary prerequisite for a workable community, Gorz in his Capitalism, Socialism, Ecology describes The Dispossessed as “the most striking description . . . of the seductions—and snares—of self-managed . . . anarchist society” (81). Similarly, in the doctoral thesis Anarchism and Political Theory: Contemporary Problems, Uri Gordon claims that Le Guin’s Dispossessed is perhaps “the most honest” attempt to portray, in literature at least, a functioning, anarchist society—warts and all (123). On this view, Le Guin’s manifestation thinks anarchist society as resistant to closure and as such it is rigorously animated, yet neither bound to ultimate telos nor final deathly stasis. The project is never done. From Gorz’s perspective on décroissance or degrowth, the capitalist desire for production for the sake of production is incompatible with the earth’s atmosphere and ecosystem. According to Gorz, the degrowth of material production is a necessary precondition for ecological sustainability. As such, Gorz is arguing for a form of socialism distinct from the continuation of capitalism by other means (this is similar to the critique of Scandinavian social democracies in Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s work). For Gorz in his Ecology as Politics, socialism cannot be a mere “extension of middleclass values, lifestyles and social patterns” (14). Indeed, Gorz notes that the industrial capitalism of the 1970s was confronting numerous concrete ecological limits.

To practice “ecological realism” then was not to refrain from consuming more and more, but to consume less and less. As Gorz says, there was no other way of conserving the “available reserves for future generations” (13). This is to argue for a break with the “economic rationality” of the 1970s and 1980s. In keeping with her unflinching stance on ecological care for the planet, Le Guin would agree with the need to counteract such rampant egotism. For Bookchin, the central criticism of Gorz is that scarcity is a social problem, not only a natural one. In his Toward an Ecological Society Bookchin draws on Marx’s “compelling demonstration” that we have come to know that the law of capitalist competition is based on the maxim, “grow or die” (294). Translated into ecological terms, and by necessity, a fully developed market economy will unrelentingly exploit nature. As Bookchin writes in The Next Revolution: “For capitalism to desist from its mindless expansion would be for it to commit social suicide” (146). As we have found, social ecologists like Bookchin envision utopia as a non-repressive or libertarian milieu. As such, anarcho-communism would be a stateless and classless utopia. Society would be decentralized and, with its citizens free of alienated relationships, Man would return to Man as Marx forecasts in the Paris Manuscripts of 1844. The ecological principles undergirding such an organic society and its social principles would affirm this utopian dimension. This is not a return to some primitive habitat or nature. We are not talking about primitive communism or prehistoric society as such because human relationships with nature are necessarily mediated by science, technology, and knowledge; philosophy is thus technics as first philosophy. Clarifying this point, Bookchin writes in Post-Scarcity Anarchism: “Either revolution will create an ecological society, with new ecotechnologies and ecocommunities, or humanity and the natural world as we know it today will perish” (23-24). Critical of the forms of “environmentalism” (“technocratic stratagems for manipulating nature”) which do little more than tinker with existing institutions, social relations, technologies, and values, Bookchin in Post-Scarcity Anarchism writes of the need for the root-and-branch transformation of everyday life: “It is plain that the goal of revolution today must be the liberation of daily life. Any revolution that fails to achieve this goal is counter-revolution. Above all, it is we who have to be liberated, our daily lives, with all their moments, hours and days” (66).


Bookchin contra Deleuze

In a similar vein to Bookchin’s view above, it is the protagonist Shevek in Le Guin’s The Dispossessed who remarks that “[y]ou cannot buy the Revolution. You cannot make the Revolution. You can only be the Revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere” (393). This statement regarding the nature of revolution echoes comments by Bookchin on the revolution of the everyday. It is here we find a clear difference of emphasis between Bookchin’s social ecology and Deleuze’s so-called “lifestyle anarchism.” In the introduction to the first edition of Post-Scarcity Anarchism, Bookchin notes that anarchism “has always been preoccupied with lifestyle, sexuality, community, women’s liberation and human relationships” (21). Later in his work, Bookchin unites ecology with anarchism to create an ecoanarchism or social ecology which would give fullest expression to the above. Again, this is why Le Guin finds much of relevance in his work. For Bookchin in Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm, the ecological world is impossible without radical democracy and social revolution. In his reading of Deleuze, Bookchin stands radically at odds with the perceived egocentric demand for “desire armed” found in Deleuze’s work or with Taoist contemplation and Buddhist nirvanas. As Bookchin says: “Where social anarchism called upon people to rise in revolution and seek the reconstruction of society, the irate petty bourgeois who populate the subcultural world of lifestyle anarchism call for episodic rebellion and the satisfaction of their desiring machines” (52). He has little time for the language of desiring machines, lines of flight, cracks, or becomings which one finds in abundance in Deleuze’s thought. Bookchin writes in Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: “[L]ifestyle anarchism today is finding its principal expression in spray-can graffiti, post-modernist nihilism, antirationalism, neoprimitivism, anti-technologist, neo-Situationist ‘cultural terrorism’, mysticism, and a ‘practice’ of staging Foucauldian ‘personal insurrections’” (15). In “Libertarian Municipalism” he continues the critique, writing with Deleuze, Foucault, and others in mind: “To leave that red button untouched and slip back into the worst habits of the post-1968 New Left, when the notion of ‘power’ was divested of utopian or imaginative qualities, is to reduce radicalism to yet another subculture that will probably live more on heroic memories than on the hopes of a rational future” (86). And, writing in Re-enchanting Humanity, Bookchin lambasts those philosophies which fail to challenge root and branch the radical reorganization of society: “Having attained the conscious level of ‘desiring production’, however, it remains unclear how a revolutionary ‘machine’ is to advance beyond a naive ‘lifestyle’ anarchism, raging with desire and a libidinal sexual politics, and try to change society as a whole” (199).


At the Level of Dogs

In his triadic ecology of the environmental, social, and mental life, it is clear that Guattari is writing to destabilize the dualisms of nature and culture, man and machine, organic and inorganic. The subject is decentralized and configured from an exteriority of components (the unconscious, the body, and so on) and Guattari names these components of subjectification. Guattari is principally interested in the possible emergence of new paradigms of ethico-aesthetic thinking and praxis. Such paradigms would transfigure the relationship between human subjectivity, the unconscious, and the context (environment) within which it engages. Subjectivity here implies the role of the unconscious in relation to the human and the natural environment. In comparison to this focus, what is conspicuously absent in Bookchin’s thought is a sustained analysis of the unconscious. With emphasis upon the creative potentiality of subjectivity or new ways of existing, Guattari is writing a different kind of utopian, futurist agenda. Such a project attempts to think the intersection of the human with cybernetics and more particularly with computer-aided subjectivity. Guattari is advancing a generalized ecology in his Three Ecologies which incorporates the “whole of subjectivity and capitalist power formations” (52). On this reading, a generalized ecology eschews a sole concern for the welfare of animals or trees and refuses to demarcate the three ecologies. Indeed, both he and Deleuze were aiming to write a kind of philosophy of Nature because they believed that the distinction between nature and artifice had become blurred. Nature is perceived more as a plurality of machinic assemblages—with Nature perpetually in-formation. Deleuze and Guattari write in Anti-Oedipus: “There is no such thing as either man or nature now, only a process that produces the one within the other and couples the machines together. Producing machines, desiring machines everywhere, schizophrenic machines, all of species of life: the self and the non-self, outside and inside, no longer have any meaning whatsoever” (2). In his individual work, Guattari is searching for a new kind of subjectivity and ecosophy, which can better comprehend the interactions between ecosystems, the mechanosphere, and the social and individual Universes of Reference. The problem for the reader is that there is no clear picture, as is always the case with speculative, utopian-inflected thought, of what a non-primitive communism shaped by schizoanalysis might look like in Guattari’s work. Given this problem, the folding of Guattari’s thought with utopian literature may be a path to reimagining another way of organizing society. This for Guattari demands a transversal form of conceptualization (metamodelization) and one which contains the possibility of new openings to the socius and the cosmos. What remains radical, singular, and distinct in Guattari’s work is the insistence that environmental ecology must also be machinic.

Although Bookchin cannot be easily aligned with the Luddite tradition as he is affirmative of the use of technology to liberate people from endless toil, it is equally true that a certain aspect of machinic ecology is conspicuously missing in his social anarchism. Faced with this lacuna, we are tasked with formulating a philo-fiction which can articulate a transversal struggle based on Guattari’s and Bookchin’s philosophies so as to speculatively intertwine them with the forecasting or anticipatory principles inherent in utopian, science-fiction thought. The utopian aspect of his thought emerges in the essay “To Have Done with the Massacre of the Body” in which Guattari contends that to think beyond capitalist formation (family, school, factories, army, codes, discourse, and so on) is to confront the subjugation of our desires in everyday life (Chaosophy 207). This is to write against exploitation, property, male power, profit, productivity, and so on. Guattari exhorts us to think beyond the castration of desire and the torture of the body and to unpick the mechanisms in our unconscious which reproduce enslavement—a position which Bookchin would presumably affirm. This is to unite desire, the unconscious, and the body in new arrangements beyond the status quo. This expresses a quintessential utopian impulse and one finds it aplenty in Le Guin’s work. This is to think beyond capital, exploitation, and the family as Guattari says; in other words, to redirect the nervous system to communication networks of growth, pleasure, and becoming. Simply put, it would be to return pleasures to ourselves. As Guattari says, such pleasures, “ruthlessly quashed by educational systems charged with manufacturing obedient worker-consumers” (Chaosophy 212), have the capacity to explode systems of oppression. Without explosions and cadences of a different order, we, stumbling forward into the future, remain, as Guattari says, at the “level of dogs” (Chaosophy 212).


Le Guin and Taoism

To demonstrate how deep ecologies (shaped by Chinese cosmologies) have informed utopian speculations, let me turn to Le Guin’s work in which we find an interesting amalgam of deep and social ecologies. I am arguing that this focus may contribute to the formation of a new philo-fiction or image of thought in response to dystopic representations of the Anthropocene and climate change. Extrapolating from Bookchin, Gorz, and the writings of Laozi and Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu), her utopias are mixed together to create a thought-provoking juxtaposition of social and deep ecologies, which one finds in The Dispossessed and Always Coming Home. Indeed, many writers, such as Samar Habib in Re-visiting Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, have insisted that there is a residual Taoism in Le Guin’s work. Indeed, as a contributor to a translation of Laozi, she admits this as much herself, saying that in The Dispossessed she combines early Taoist thought and Western political philosophy. Le Guin is arguing against a notion of utopia tied inextricably and exclusively to a particular Western worldview. She writes in Dancing at the Edge of the World: “Utopia has been Euclidean, it has been European, and it has been masculine” (88). And in the short story “The Day before the Revolution” in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters she reflects on this and writes: My novel The Dispossessed is about a small world full of people who call themselves Odonians. . . . Odonianism is anarchism . . . not the social-Darwinist economic “libertarianism” of the far right; but anarchism, as prefigured in early Taoist thought, and expounded by Shelley and Kropotkin, Goldman and Goodman. Anarchism’s principal target is the authoritarian state (capitalist or socialist). Its principal moral-practical theme is cooperation (solidarity, mutual aid). (285)

For Le Guin, Western forms of anarchism and those prefigured in Taoist thought are the most idealistic and interesting of all political theories. Indeed, Fredric Jameson in Archaeologies of the Future picks up on this interpretation too, claiming that Le Guin has a “Taoist agenda” (78) and that the Tao is the central reality of her metaphysics. For example, the ecologies of Urras and Anarres in The Dispossessed express ideological antagonisms between scarcity and abundance. In the novel, Keng compares the fate of her home, planet Earth, with the “paradise” of Anarres: My world, my Earth, is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species. We multiplied and gobbled and fought until there was nothing left, and then we died. We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt. We destroyed ourselves. But we destroyed the world first. There are no forests left on my Earth. The air is grey, the sky is grey, it is always hot. It is habitable, it is still habitable, but not as this world is. This is a living world, a harmony. Mine is a discord. You Odonians chose a desert; we Terrans made a desert. . . . We survive there as you do. People are tough! There are nearly a half billion of us now. Once there were nine billion. You can see the old cities still everywhere. We failed as a species, as a social species. . . . Well, we had saved what could be saved, and made a kind of life in the ruins, on Terra, in the only way it could be done: by total centralization. Total control over the use of every acre of land, every scrap of metal, every ounce of fuel. Total rationing, birth control, euthanasia, universal conscription into the labor force. The absolute regimentation of each life toward the goal of racial survival. (454-55)

In this book, Odo, the libertarian leader, inspires a revolt against the “propertarian” class system of her home planet of Urras. Her followers leave Urras for Anarres to create a nonhierarchical society based on Kropotkin’s notion of mutual aid and voluntary cooperation found in Goodman’s Communitas. On Anarres, the means of production are held in common and everyone has equal access to the necessities of life. Work is voluntary and organized into small, decentralized workers’ syndicates. There is no government as such, only administrators who coordinate the work of the syndicates and syndicate federations. There is strict equality in all relations—including sexual couplings. The Dispossessed then develops two parallel stories, one on the anarchist world of Anarres, the other on the capitalist world of Urras. The protagonist Shevek gradually becomes disillusioned with both the conformism of Anarres and the selfish individualism of Urras. Shevek eventually starts an anarchist revolution on Urras, and then leaves for Anarres to rejuvenate the dysfunctioning anarchism there. Why is this important? Faced with the daunting political and ecological issues of our time—chief among them the trauma of the Anthropocene and the almost homicidal forms of Integrated World Capitalism (globalization/neo-liberal capitalism)—this paper is committed to the question of how a transversal rethinking of Guattari’s triadic ecology, Bookchin’s social ecology, and utopian thought may help us respond, in whatever small fashion, to the challenges that await us. Put otherwise, science fiction can help us to explore chaos-worlds of becoming—between for example the dialectics of change found in Asian thought and the dialectic of Aufhebung in Western metaphysics. It may help us to fabulate as Deleuze and Guattari describe in What is Philosophy? as a “mass-people, worldpeople, brain-people, chaos-people” (218)—a different order of things. Science fiction contributes to imagining how things might be otherwise. This may well suggest an altogether inhuman and indifferent processual becoming, a mutual becoming inbetween porcine (Le Guin) and canine natures (Guattari), in-between immanent and transcendent utopias.


Third Space

From its onset this paper has applied a transversal methodology or metamodelization to map out the possibility of a third space. I am naming this space a third space of utopian thought. Utopian thought can act as literature in-between tenses—past, present, and future. It can form a philo-fiction that is able to fabulate the possibility of a third revolution. My point is that the social ecologies of Bookchin and Guattari share a common middle, inclusive ground and this fecund third space demands further research and exploration. This third space can help us to crisscross the sense of a third revolution in Bookchin and third reterritorialization in Deleuze and Guattari. For Bookchin, the third revolution is an emancipatory praxis, a communalism as he calls it. In The Next Revolution he describes the third revolution as emerging at the end of hostilities in 1917, when Russian society witnessed the surging up of a desire for a third revolution—one “not to restore the past, as the Bolsheviks claimed, but to realize the very goals of freedom, economic as well as political, that had rallied the masses around the Bolshevik program of 1917” (137). The third reterritorialization in Deleuze and Guattari is a form of absolute reordering of territories and temporalities—one tied to the immediate political milieu but also invoking a futural, virtual, or utopian dimension contrary to the current ordering of the socius. As Yoshiyuki Koizumi argues: “We are heading towards a third reterritorialization” (280). This would be to escape utopias of transcendence so as to embrace immanent, revolutionary, libertarian utopias or ecosophies. This would be to invoke the possibility of a new people, earth, and ecosophy to come. It would invoke utopia once again, to risk thinking beyond the lot of our days, “the turbulent passage of our times” (Guattari Reader 262). In “Remaking Social Practices” Guattari writes of the problem of thinking a utopian space beyond poisonous spaces “heavy with thick clouds and miasmas”: The routines of daily life, and the banality of the world represented to us by the media, surround us with a reassuring atmosphere in which nothing is any longer of real consequence. We cover our eyes; we forbid ourselves to think about the turbulent passage of our times, which swiftly thrusts far behind us our familiar past, which effaces ways of being and living that are still fresh in our minds, and which slaps our future onto an opaque horizon, heavy with thick clouds and miasmas. We depend all the more on the reassurance that nothing is assured. (Guattari Reader 262)

One can find in the social ecologies and anarchisms of writers like Le Guin, Bookchin, and Guattari a manifestly utopian impulse which is affirmative and immanently directed to the world. It is “a call to life” as Guattari and Negri insist in Communists Like Us, a willingness to break the “encirclement” of the world of work and reason, which is to say, that organization of life which continues to repress, exploit, and lead to “the extinction of the world and humanity with it” (11). Guattari, Le Guin, and indeed Bookchin share the determination to stall, if not derail, the runaway mechanism of capitalism. On this point, both the social ecologies of Bookchin and Guattari share a committed view that capitalism is intractably hostile to the ecosystem. Yet, in Guattari’s work there is an attempt to unearth capitalism’s tactic of intension, that is to say, the way capitalism nestles into unconscious levels of subjectivity. The choice is less between humanism and antihumanism, social and deep ecology, the dialectic and difference, and more toward the invocation of the utopian imagination. This is to question and disrupt the runaway machine of capitalism. The construction of a technological, anarchistic utopia or dystopia for example in Le Guin’s work is one such way to imagine a different order of things. Indeed, in The Ecology of Freedom, Bookchin brilliantly anticipates the direction and thrust of both Guattari’s and Le Guin’s enterprise: The continuing substitution of rationalism for reason, of scientism for science, and of technics for ethics threatens to remove our very sense of the problems that exist, not to speak of our ability to resolve them. A look at technics alone reveals that the car is racing at an increasing pace, with nobody in the driver’s seat. Accordingly, commitment and insight have never been more needed than they are today. Whether or not the time is too late I will not venture to say; neither pessimism nor optimism have any meaning in the face of the commanding imperatives that confront us. What must be understood is that the ambiguities of freedom are not intractable problems—that there are ways of resolving them. (302)

Confronted with the runaway processes of capitalism, it seems right to search for new models of thought such as anarchism and utopia. We can concur with science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, who in a recent interview acknowledges the shared inheritance of anarchism and utopia. In the interview “The Realism of Our Time” he tells Helena Feder: “I’ve read Bookchin and I admire his work. What’s good in anarchism is the idea of a complete horizontalization of power and prosperity. . . . It’s a great long-term horizon to aim for. It’s like utopia itself.” Indeed, writing 500 years after More’s Utopia, Robinson expresses the point succinctly when he writes that utopian thought is a vital tool to rethink the plight of the planet in the wake of the Anthropocene: We’re probably not going to be able to cap the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at less than 450 parts per million, and 560 parts per million is quite possible. At that point we will be living on a quite different planet, in a significantly damaged biosphere, with its life-support systems so harmed that human existence will be substantially threatened. It has become a case of utopia or catastrophe, and utopia has gone from being a somewhat minor literary problem to a necessary survival strategy. (Robinson 9)

In the wake of the “geotrauma” of the Anthropocene (Cole et al.), the reconsideration of utopia and anarchism therefore is a “necessary survival strategy,” which is to say, one which takes the real movement of thought—absolute re(de) territorialization—to its highest level, prompting a fresh analysis of the material conditions of life, a rethinking of both exhausted, ignoble utopias and the immonde or vile world. This form of thinking invokes the heterogenesis of values and a possible exodus strategy to contest the runaway processes of capitalism. In a dialogue with Elkaim, Jimenez, and Wigley, Guattari argues for a new aesthetic paradigm to understand the post-mass media and post-capitalistic age: “I continue, therefore, to affirm this Utopia, to affirm what I would call this choice of the value of values, this choice of the heterogenesis of values” (Schnitman and Schnitman 149). Such a paradigm or strategy is part of a transversal process to create new models of thought befitting our time and for times yet to come. This transversal model asks for a new mode of thought, a mode beyond disillusionment, depression, and sorrow, a mode beyond collusion and compromise, a mode beyond the pigs and dogs of Le Guin and Guattari.


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Original article published here:

For a World beyond Pigs and Dogs: Transversal Utopias — Guattari, Le Guin, Bookchin

Dec 2018

Tamkang Review 49.1:

DOI: 10.6184/TKR201812-4.

pp. 53-70 

Extinction Rebellion

Rupert Read

Reader in Philosophy, University of East Anglia

Article first published in the Conversation here: 

Not heard of the “Extinction Rebellion” before? Then you heard it here first. Because soon, everyone is going to have heard of it. The Extinction Rebellion is a non-violent direct action movement challenging inaction over dangerous climate change and the mass extinction of species which, ultimately, threatens our own species.

Saturday November 17 2018 is “Rebellion Day” – when people opposed to what they see as a government of “climate criminals” aim to gather together enough protesters to close down parts of the capital – by shutting down fossil-powered road traffic at key pinch-points in London.

I’m a Reader in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia and I have thrown myself headfirst into this movement. Our long-term aim is to create a situation where the government can no longer ignore the determination of an increasingly large number of people to shift the world from what appears to be a direct course towards climate calamity. Who knows, the government could even end up having to negotiate with the rebels.

As someone who is both a veteran of non-violent direct actions over the years and an academic seeking to make sense of these campaigns, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about what’s old and what’s new about the Extinction Rebellion. Here are my conclusions so far.

From world peace to climate justice

The Extinction Rebellion is rooted in longstanding traditions exemplified by the radical nuclear disarmament movement. The founders of the Extinction Rebellion have thought carefully about past precedents, and about what works and what doesn’t.

They’ve noted for instance that you don’t necessarily need active involvement from more than a tiny percentage of the population to win radical change, provided that you have a righteous cause that can elicit tacit backing from a much larger percentage.

The Extinction Rebellion is also quite different from its predecessors. True, the disarmament movement was about our very existence, but nuclear devastation was – and still is – only a risk. Extinction Rebellion’s aim is to prevent a devastation of our world that will come – and quite soon, unless we manage to do something unprecedented that will radically change our direction.

Climate activists often compare their struggle to victories from the past. But in my view comparisons which are often made – to Indian independence, the civil rights movement or the campaign for universal suffrage, for example – are over-optimistic, even fatuous. These historical movements were most often about oppressed classes of people rising up and empowering themselves, gaining access to what the privileged already had.

The Extinction Rebellion challenges oligarchy and neoliberal capitalism for their rank excess and the political class for its deep lack of seriousness. But the changes that will be needed to arrest the collapse of our climate and biodiversity are now so huge that this movement is concerned with changing our whole way of life. Changing our diet significantly. Changing our transport systems drastically. Changing the way our economies work to radically relocalise them. The list goes on.

This runs up against powerful vested interests – but also places considerable demands upon ordinary citizens, especially in “developed” countries such as the UK. It is therefore a much harder ask. This means that the chances of the Extinction Rebellion succeeding are relatively slim. But this doesn’t prove it’s a mistaken enterprise – on the contrary, it looks like our last chance.

Risking arrest is a small sacrifice when life itself is on the line. Andy Rain/EPA

From the lecture hall to the streets

This all leads into why I sat in the road blocking the entrance to Parliament Square on October 31, when the Extinction Rebellion was launched – and why I will be “manning the barricades” again on November 17. As a Quaker, I cherish the opening words of the famous Shaker hymn: Tis the gift to be simple. What does it mean to live simply at this moment in history? It means to do everything necessary so that others – most importantly our children (and their children) – can simply live. It isn’t enough to live a life of voluntary simplicity.

One needs also to take peaceful direct action to seek to stop the mega-machine of growth-obsessed corporate capitalism that is destroying our common future. That’s why it seems plain to me that we need peaceful rebellion now, so that we and countless other species don’t face devastation or indeed extinction.

The next line of that Shaker hymn goes: “Tis the gift to be free.” In our times, to be free means to not be bound by laws that are consigning our children to purgatory or worse. If one cares properly for one’s children, that must entail caring for their children, too. You don’t really care for your children if you damn their children. And that logic multiplies into the future indefinitely – we aren’t caring adequately for any generation if the generation to follow it is doomed.

As mammals whose primary calling is to care for our kids, it is therefore logical that an outright existential threat to their future, and to that of their children, must be resisted and rebelled against, no matter what the pitifully inadequate laws of our land say.

I’ve felt called upon to engage in conscientious civil disobedience before, at Faslane and Aldermaston against nuclear weapons and with EarthFirst in defence of the redwood foreststhreatened with destruction in the Pacific Northwest of the USA.

But the Extinction Rebellion seems to me the most compelling cause of them all. Unless we manage to do the near impossible, then after a period of a few decades at most there won’t be any other causes to engage with. It really now is as stark and as dark as that.

If you too feel the call, then I think you now know what to do


The Anthropocene: A different learning landscape for a different world

Lecture delivered at the Universitas Nusa Cendana in Kupang, Indonesia, on 10 October 2018, by Jan Visser, President, Learning Development Institute

Questions about who and what we are, where we come from, and where we are going have long fascinated human beings. They are perhaps the most profound questions we can ever ask. They are also questions to which we may never find definitive answers. This is exactly why they inspire both our art and science—our ways to come to grips with an only partially understood reality.

In art we express our deepest feelings and reflections on where we belong. In our scientific endeavor we seek to grasp where we stand amidst all that surrounds us. Earliest artistic expressions of this quest can be found in rock art that dates back tens of thousands of years. Science, as it evolved over thousands of years, has given us beautiful mathematical descriptions—such as Maxwell’s equations or Einstein’s field equations—to aid in contemplating our world.

It’s a pleasure to address an audience that understands physics. However, what I should like to discuss with you today surpasses the boundaries of our discipline. You may ask: Does physics have boundaries? I know—we physicists maintain that everything, even life itself, is ultimately physics. We can be forgiven to think that way as long as we look at the world from a reductionist point of view. However, we should not be forgiven if—despite the profound knowledge and deep insight we gather about the nature of things—we fail to recognize the larger picture of which things are part. Allow me to illustrate this with an example from my personal experience.

During the 1960s I had a strong interest in the question ‘What is life?’ The question was first brought into prominence, as a matter of serious scientific interest, in 1943 by Erwin Schrödinger, when he delivered a series of public lectures at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. A year later he published his thoughts in a book with that same title, while apologizing, eloquently, for deviating from the expectation that, as a scientist, one should “not…write on any topic of which…[one] is not a master.” He wanted to free himself of the obligation to stay within the norm while addressing this uncommon issue, trespassing in the domain of a different discipline.

This little book, of less than a hundred pages, had a profound, revolutionizing, impact, not in the least because it encouraged the participation of scientists from different disciplines in researching issues pertaining to the realm of the life sciences. Only a decade later the structure of DNA had been unraveled as—in a landmark publication in Nature—Watson and Crick suggested, based on X-ray crystallographic evidence gleaned from work by Franklin, that it should be double- helical. It motivated further work to be done to understand life from a molecular point of view. This, in turn, led to the development during the 1960s and beyond of a dynamic field of multidisciplinary research that brought biology, chemistry and physics together under one roof. Quantum biochemistry was born.

I was a young theoretical physicist at the time, inspired by the question originally raised by Schrödinger, and hopeful to reach greater wisdom and more profound insight in what life really is. I had the great privilege to be working in close proximity to some of the senior colleagues who were shaping the new field. It was fascinating. But did the study of molecular orbitals bring me any closer to a real understanding of life the way we, humans, experience it? Could we correctly assume that such work as my colleagues and I were involved in would eventually contribute to our knowledge of life itself? Few people I knew were troubled by that question. The one exception I am aware of was Christopher Longuet-Higgins, a theoretical chemist and a prominent as well as respected figure in the field.

I remember well reading, in the Spring of 1967, while working at the Technion in Haifa, Israel, a document written by Longuet-Higgins that, sadly, I have never been able to trace again. It is long ago now, but I believe that what I read was not an officially published paper, but rather something like an open letter to colleagues that went from hand to hand. It argued— convincingly to me—that our assumptions were naïve. The work we did would never reveal the fullness of life. I have occasionally asked colleagues from that same period if they recalled the article. The answer has always been ‘no.’ The paper must have been generally ignored; an accidental deviation from the norm by an otherwise brilliant scientist, one may have thought. I now read in the Wikipedia that in 1967, Longuet-Higgins “made a major change in his career,” turning his attention to the brain and artificial intelligence rather than the quantum chemistry of life. In retrospect I note that I made a similarly crucial move a year later.

My brief autobiographic interlude above, presented in the context of developments that took place over a couple of decades in one particular multidisciplinary branch of science, shows that important benefit can be derived from the collaboration between researchers from different disciplines who work on dissimilar aspects of a given problem, each from the perspective of their own discipline. While that is the case, not everyone is happy. Surely, we understand things more fully, but greater depth of understanding can be achieved. In fact, greater depth of understanding must be achieved for humanity to interact constructively with the ever more convoluted problem situations of our time.

Allow me to explain.

As we have seen, sharply enhanced insights into the riddle of life were obtained. We understand life much better.

However, our understanding of life is still restricted by what the methods and procedures that define our science allow us to explore. We have to step outside the boundaries of our discipline if we want to consider issues such as ‘the value of life’ or Albert Schweitzer’s ethical principle of ‘reverence for life.’ And it’s often exactly such considerations that matter most when it comes to confronting the vexing problems of our time. So, where do we really stand within the grand scheme of evolution of the universe and life on planet Earth?


The composite graphic shown above locates us in space-time. It may help us feel both happy and humble. Our conscious existence now is the result of evolutionary processes over billions of years on the crust of an ordinary planetary satellite, of an ordinary star, located in some insignificant corner of one particular galaxy among the more than 100 billion (1011) that are known to exist. It is unlikely that no other similarly (or more) complex life forms could have emerged elsewhere in the universe. Regarding the amazing fact of our own conscious existence on planet Earth, which for each of us lasts no longer than a brief period that can best be expressed in tens of years, we should consider that it required 13.82 billion years of evolution, starting with a singularity that we call the Big Bang, for us to appear. As said, it should make us feel happy, because we have this brief opportunity to consciously participate in the ongoing evolution. It should also make us feel humble, because it is so infinitesimally short.

In what I so far discussed, I have deliberately added the adjective ‘conscious’ to words such as existence and its derivatives. I have done so for a reason. We are not separate from nature. We are nature. As we see nature evolve we should also see us—the species ‘Homo sapiens’—co-evolve with everything else that evolves. According to the most recent findings, our species emerged, from earlier hominids, such as Homo heidelbergensis, more than 300,000 (3 x 105) years ago.

That’s of course an ephemeral event when looked upon against the backdrop of the 1.382 x 1010 years of evolution since the Big Bang. Yet, our impact has been enormous, particularly due to the agricultural revolution (dating back to circa 10,000 BCE) and more specifically since the industrial revolution (starting during the 18th century CE). Both developments have benefited us in the short run (short in evolutionary terms), but consequences may be disastrous from the longer-term perspective of human existence on earth.

What are some of those short-term benefits and long-term adverse consequences? Here are some examples. The list is far from exhaustive.

It is thanks to the agricultural revolution that members of our species could liberate time for doing other things than satisfying their basic needs to survive. Food could be produced in much greater quantities than what could have been obtained through hunting and gathering. After food storage technologies were invented, humans managed to cope with the stresses of food shortages over long periods of time. Freeing up time was an important precondition for cultural development. We owe to it the beauty of music, literature, the graphic and plastic arts, and the marvelous science-based insights into our world and ourselves.

The industrial revolution and the current technological revolution have further contributed to freeing up even more time and to changing conditions that determine how we live together. Without the latter revolution, the emancipation of women might not have happened to the extent that it has been successful so far. It has also made life much easier for most of us.

On the downside it should be noted that, as a consequence of the agricultural revolution, the human population on Earth ceased to be naturally kept in check in ways similar to what happens in the case of other animals. Moreover, agriculture, industrial practices and the possibilities offered through technological development, have led to attitudes of ‘taking it all.’ It is felt that everything we can do, we also must do. Consequently, we have increasingly started living in ways that are unhealthy for both our bodies and the environment.

Commercial interests promote a generalized sense that we should feel happy about the replacement of our physical and mental faculties by machines. As a result, many of us have foregone the pleasure of living in harmony with nature as determined by our biologically evolved features. ‘Assisted living by default’ has become the norm.

A much more elaborate and comprehensive analysis of benefits and adverse consequences of what we have done to our living conditions and ourselves would be justified if time were available to present it as part of this brief talk. But I hope you get the point.

Our actions since 12,000 years ago, but particularly and increasingly during the last two to three centuries, have made us our own enemies. In the face of extreme meteorological events and changing temperature patterns around the world we are being told that we must ‘fight climate change.’ Yes, me must, but, as I see it, the fight is in the first place against ourselves and our disastrous habits. Particularly, we must come to grips with our superior intelligence. It’s a great gift, but we seem to have seriously lagged behind in emotional development. A profound change in our entire ‘way of being in the world’ is imperative to guarantee that we can survive as a species under the conditions we have ourselves so carelessly made to evolve.

The title of my intervention mentions the term ‘Anthropocene.’ For those who are unfamiliar with it, here is a brief update. In Greek, the word ‘ἄνθρωπος’ (anthropos) stands for ‘man’ in the sense of ‘human being,’ including male and female members of our species. In May 2000, Paul Crutzen, an atmospheric chemist and 1995 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, and the biologist Eugene Stoermer proposed the term ‘Anthropocene’—the era of man—to refer to the epoch in the history of our planet when humans started to have a significant impact on the Earth’s geological and ecological systems. They emphasized that “to develop a world-wide accepted strategy leading to sustainability of ecosystems against human induced stresses will be one of the great future tasks of mankind, requiring intensive research efforts and wise application of the knowledge thus acquired…” (p. 18).

Of course, it’s just a word, but its increased use in our daily conversations may hopefully keep reminding us that we live in a different world. It is a world in which there is a real threat that our species, the humans, will disappear and many other species with it. It is not impossible that we will see first signs that we are, irreversibly, on the way out in our lifetime or that of our children or grandchildren. The impending possibility of a Sixth Mass Extinction is being noted increasingly in the scientific literature. Our species may well be among those that go extinct.

Being reminded of the vulnerability of our species may sound like a call to pessimism, but it isn’t. The prospect of species extinction has always been there, and there is no reason why Homo sapiens would be excluded. But note that the past five extinctions have all occurred due to non-human causes, often a combination of different factors. The last one took place 65.5 million years ago. As long as there is still time, we should consider reversing the current trend.

We live in a world that is strikingly different from where we started, tens of thousands of years ago, when members of our species kept themselves alive through hunting and by gathering whatever they could find that was edible. Their (ecological) footprint was small and so was their number. We have now populated the Earth to an extent to which, when we see other animals do so, we find it is time to cull the population. I am not advocating any such deliberate violent means to control the size of the world’s human population. Yet, I should like to merely point to the fact that we have acquired knowledge about sexual reproduction and developed medical and technological innovations that allow us to regulate growth of the world population.

Not only the sheer size of our population, but also the ways in which we live (particularly by standards of the Western world), have dramatically increased our footprint on this planet. To change all that, new ways of being in the world, new ways of interacting with it, new ways of thinking within and about it, and thus new ways of learning must be invented and implemented. Not doing so will seriously threaten our sustained existence and dramatically change the biosphere or extinguish life on Earth altogether. Action at the individual, community, national/societal, and global level is needed to avoid this from happening.

Earlier, I referred to consciousness as an important attribute that characterizes our existence. We exist consciously. More than any other participant in the process of planetary evolution, we have an enhanced ability to be aware, cognitively and emotionally, of what we are doing; to foresee likely consequences; to learn from what we have seen happening in the past; to think about it; to imagine alternative scenario’s; and to correct our behavior while inventing new futures.

Not thinking deeply enough has allowed us to screw up the world. Going to greater depth in our thinking should allow us to fix the world as long as there is time left for things to be fixed. We should feel hard pressed. Periods as short as three years may already count.

It is precisely these ‘enhanced abilities’ of humans I just referred to that allow us to interact constructively with a changing world—a changing world to whose change we contribute ourselves, collectively and individually.

The highlighted words are important and I shall explain why.

There are certain concepts about which people usually don’t ask questions. The question ‘What is life?’ with which I started my intervention was such a question until it was raised by Schrödinger in 1943. We all knew we were alive and how it felt to be alive, but what exactly it was, well, that would have been hard to explain. Thanks to research since 1943 we now know a little better, but still don’t fully understand.

In addition to physics, an important—if not my most important—mission in life has been devoted to the development of human learning, of helping people to learn. Doing so is the task of teachers as well as parents, but, if you think about it, we are all continually playing a role in helping other people learn while, at the same time, we ourselves learn our entire life. But what is learning?

Just like the ‘What is life?’ question, also the ‘What is learning?’ question is seldom asked. It seems unnecessary. It is taken for granted that everyone knows what it means. Besides, if the question was asked, most people would find it difficult to come up with a concise and satisfying answer. Try it out at a party and you’ll see.

Should you ask the average person, you would probably get an answer like: “Well, why would you ask a silly question. Isn’t that what we all do in school? Don’t you know that.” When asked of a professional who studies learning or is involved in designing and creating the conditions for learning, the likely answer would be that it is about acquiring knowledge and skills. But is that all? Is that really what matters most, or is it simply what matters to those who teach or who administer education?

The question has long been on my mind, until I thought: ‘Let me find out.’ Starting in the year 2000 and continuing for several years, I used every appropriate opportunity to ask people some simple questions: ‘What is the most meaningful thing your learned in life?’ ‘Why do you consider it meaningful?’ ‘What prompted it and in what circumstances did it happen?’

Colleagues joined me and together we collected and analyzed over the years hundreds of so-called ‘learning stories’ that respondents had written down, expressed in drawings or poetry, or delivered orally to be recorded by the researcher. The stories were collected at different places around the world. They represented a diverse spectrum of people, including well-established academics as well as illiterate farmers living in the Andean mountains in South America.

Analysis showed that hardly any of the reported meaningful learning experiences had anything to do with what happened in schools and other formal learning environments. The most profound, most transformative, learning occurred in informal settings. That is a good thing. Transformative learning is a key condition for sustained human existence in the Anthropocene. It is therefore also a good thing that we spend most of our time in diverse informal learning environments. Yet, educators, education experts, administrators, and policy and decision makers hardly ever think about or recognize the importance of informal settings. Considering the challenges posed by the Anthropocene it is imperative that this should change.

But I digress, and do so intentionally, because the issue is so important that I can’t help bringing it up time and again.

Now, let me return to the research I was referring to. The results of it, in combination with what I had learned from my prior experience as an educator and developer of learning systems, compelled me to rethink the meaning of learning, redefine it, and figure out why it is so difficult to change people’s perceptions about it. This led to a definition of learning which highlights the following four things:

  • Getting better at constructive interaction with change is the essence of what it means to learn
  • Learning is a lifelong disposition rather than something one engages in only from time to time
  • The disposition referred to in the previous item does not only apply to individual people. Social entities (such as families, organizations, corporations, ) also learn and thus get better at interacting with change
  • Learning results from dialogue. It should be noted that we develop such dialogue along the lifespan with the human, social, biological and physical environment that surrounds us.

As said—and I repeat it here for enhanced emphasis—there is, as we face the challenges of the Anthropocene, an urgent need to indeed get better at how we interact constructively with a changing world. And, please, be aware that we contribute ourselves to that change. We thus must learn in the sense of my enhanced definition of learning. It requires that we all broaden our vision of learning, giving it a much richer meaning. This is as such a tremendous task. Changing one’s perceptions about such things as learning is difficult and may take a long time. It may even take generations, but it must be done, however difficult it may be.

A key issue regarding life in the Anthropocene is that we must be fully aware of its complexity and thus be capable of dealing with complexity. Life is not complex simply because it is complicated or difficult. Surely, it is also complicated and difficult, but the more important issue is that the essential problems of life in the Anthropocene cannot be addressed in isolation from their context. Any attempted ‘solution’ of a problem in isolation will change the context of which the problem is part and thereby redefine the problem, often making the situation worse. Solutions to complex problems come from complex approaches in which all actors (human as well as non-human actors) participate. Such solutions recognize that complex systems are adaptive and can be made to adjust under the influence of, generally, gentle forces. Such forces are equally applied in a complex manner in which actors work together in harmony. On the part of human actors this means that humans must be capable of complex thinking, an issue that is well addressed in the work of Edgar Morin.

Let me conclude. I started off by referring to questions that are at the origin of humanity’s intellectual and spiritual development. They express all at once awe, fear, veneration, respect for the unknown, and recognition of ignorance. We marvel and tremble as we look into the void of not knowing. When asked, such questions can only be answered partially. The partial answers obtained reveal more ignorance at ever higher levels. It is the recognition of such ignorance that fuels our curiosity and that drives us forward.

We have long thought of ourselves as separate from the world, a message that one finds embedded quite strongly in some of the major world religions that situate humans between God and nature, giving humans the divine responsibility to care for the world and all that it contains while transforming the world to serve humans’ best interests. Humans are not seen as part of the world but rather as the apex of evolution, as the crown of the creation.

Everything else is in the service of humanity.

This worldview has made us feel dominant and has led to a sense of license to transform the world to our liking. After tens of thousands of years we have come full circle and look ourselves in the eye. Yes, we have transformed the world, our home in the universe, but we are suddenly discovering that the way we changed it is now threatening our very existence. We are finally becoming aware of the complexity of a world to which we belong, of which we are an integral part, a world that we cannot escape.

This notion is poorly represented in how we currently think about human learning, what we do to create propitious conditions to facilitate learning. Recognizing our shortcomings, we should feel compelled to reimagine the entire learning landscape. In conclusion, therefore, I suggest a comparative, non-exhaustive, even minimalist, listing of necessary changes.

Accumulative vs. Transformative
Linear vs. Complex
Focused on acquiring skills and static change vs. Focused on process and dynamics of change
Aimed at transforming the world vs. Aimed at constructive interaction with the world
Mainly formal vs. Across formal, non-formal and informal
Documented in quantifiable terms vs. Documented in quantifiable and qualitative terms
Disciplinary silos vs. Integral knowledge and visions
Mono- and multidisciplinarity vs. Inter- and transdisciplinarity
One design fits all vs. Following a self-designed learning path
Curriculum driven vs. Flexible curricula or curriculum free
Acquisition-memorization-retrieval vs. Creative participatory involvement
Expository and didactic vs. Exploratory, discovery and inquiry based, participatory
Focus on single organ: The brain vs. Focus on organism as a whole, including the brain
Rational (part of the brain) vs. Rational and emotive (entire brain)
Knowledge and skills in isolation vs. Knowledge, skills, attitudes, values
Learning bounded in space and time vs. Learning without frontiers
Learning about nature vs. Learning in and from nature

Thank you.

Find version with extra pictures and footnotes here

Learning to Think Like a Planet

Kenneth McLeod,

Anthropocene Transitions Program, October 2018

The first draft of this paper was prepared as a talk for Social Ecology students and staff at Western Sydney University in July 2018. Their comments and suggestions from other colleagues since have informed several iterations and are gratefully acknowledged.

The Anthropocene – literally, the Age of Humans.

The term entered popular usage as the proposed designation of a new geological epoch generally held to date from the 1950s. But over recent years it has been widely adopted across the social sciences and humanities to signify a transition in human affairs in response to changes in the Earth System triggered by humankind. The Anthropocene Transition is about what we do collectively to reshape the most fundamental of our relationships which has become deeply dysfunctional – our place in the Earth’s precious web of life. Ultimately it is about what it means to be human in the 21st century and beyond.

There has never been anything like 7.6 billion humans on planet Earth. There has never been another species able to invade and occupy almost every ecological niche in the biosphere from the equator to the poles. There has never been another species able to force so many of its planetary cohabitants into an unequal contest for habitat and critical environmental resources as to trigger a 6th planetary extinction spasm. And there has never been a single species capable of disrupting the life support systems of the planet.

From the very earliest chapters of our story humans have altered their immediate environment. But now, for the first time in the evolution of human cultures, our impacts on the Earth System have become inter-connected, systemic, and global.

This is in part a function of our sheer weight of numbers and of the even greater numbers of the animals we breed for our use, currently estimated as 70 billion each year. It’s also a function of our ever more powerful technologies and the capacity they give us to exploit and manipulate the environment. But most significantly it’s a function of a globalised system of hyper-production and consumption that depends on continuous growth and an unceasing flow of raw materials to maintain its stability.

We are a species in swarming mode consuming our host, with a technological hubris largely unrestrained by ecological or ethical limitations, driven by a globalised economic ponzi scheme.

Hence, the Anthropocene — the age of humans.

Humankind a geological force

The term “Anthropocene” arose from the physical sciences. It denotes the end of the relatively benign and stable environmental conditions of the Holocene, the very brief, in geological terms, 11-12,000-year period since the end of the Palaeolithic Ice Age in which most human civilisations past and present emerged. Only in this land, now called Australia, does there exist a culture that stretches back with uninterrupted continuity beyond the last Ice Age.

While the name and starting date have been vigorously debated, usually because of the supposed implication of the term “anthropocene” that humanity as a whole is equally responsible for this rupture in the Earth’s history, the focus of the Earth sciences is, in the words of leading geologist Jan Zalaisiewicz, “planet-centred rather than human-centred”(1). Their concern has been to establish if a planetary state change is in fact underway and, if so, when it began. At this point the empirical evidence from all the relevant disciplines is overwhelming. We can now say with a high degree of certainty that we are witnessing the start of a new biophysical epoch, one likely to be characterised by systemic planetary disruption and instability.

The Earth can be seen as a single Complex Adaptive System – an integrated whole, a nested system of systems, all dynamically interacting and continuously forming new structures and patterns of relationships that cannot be readily isolated or predicted with any certainty. It is a system that has evolved to its present state of emergent, life-sustaining complexity over 4.5 billion years — a number functionally incomprehensible to our human consciousness.

While humans came very late in the history of the Earth System, human societies have always been an embedded part of it. But, as Soviet geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky wrote, with great prescience, in 1926, “man [sic] is becoming a mighty and ever-growing geological force”(2).

The Anthropocene Paradox

While it has been the physical sciences that have progressively revealed the scale and nature of the Anthropocene, we must not forget that this research is describing the symptoms and the bio-geo-chemical dynamics of these changes. It does not necessarily address their origins in the human-technology complex.

Because these symptoms are most easily seen in physical systems like the climate, the water cycle, the carbon cycle, the phosphorus and nitrogen cycles, biodiversity loss, habitat destruction, ocean acidification, etc, much policy debate and informed public awareness is focused on disruption of physical environments as problems we need to address.  And, indeed we do.

But, at least in the public domain, we talk as if each symptom is a discrete problem with its own answer – banning CFCs to solve atmospheric ozone depletion, renewable energy to solve climate change – and by addressing them separately we can ignore the dynamic interconnections and unpredictable knock-on effects with the potential to cascade across the whole Earth System. Thus, our political responses have generally been conceived within dubious notions of simple linear causality and framed in terms of technological innovation and hard-systems interventions like geo-engineering.

This encourages a very dangerous disconnect, a belief that the answers are “out there” in the hands of scientists and technocrats and politicians. But the changes we have triggered just in the lifetimes of the post-World War II generation will endure for thousands of years.

There is no going back. We must, as a species, learn to live with what we have created however discomforting this may be. This clash of our power to wrought planetary change with our inability to control what we have done is the great paradox of the Anthropocene.

Understanding the Earth as a whole

The concept of the Anthropocene has propagated, and in many ways mutated, through the humanities, social sciences and, increasingly, in the popular imagination (even if in fragmentary and sometimes incoherent ways). As Jan Zalaisiewicz says, “There are many Anthropocenes out there, used for different purposes along different lines of logic in different disciplines”(3).

The uses of Anthropocene as a concept in the humanities and social sciences entails, in the words of historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, “a constant conceptual traffic between Earth history and world history”, that is, between geological time and human time. “[I]f we do not take into account Earth-history processes that out-scale our very human sense of time”, Chakrabarty writes, “we do not quite see the depth of the predicament that confronts humans today”(4).

‘Anthropocene’ is a powerfully integrative concept. It draws together our thinking about specific aspects of Earth System disruption — like climate change or biodiversity loss or ocean acidification — to focus on their interdependencies. It illuminates the ways in which economic, social and cultural malignancies at the core of the dominant globalised mono-culture are triggering major shifts in the Earth System which in turn rebound on human systems and practices. By directing our attention to whole system dynamics, it encourages us to see the Earth as a single socio-ecological system of which human societies are dynamically interactive parts, conditioned by the whole. This is not a new idea. Buddhist scholars, for example, speak of the dependent co-arising of phenomena. But for the dominant Western culture it demands a reset of our reductionist worldview for the Anthropocene cannot be adequately understood through any single disciplinary lens. It requires a holistic knowledge synthesis that aims to transcend closed discipline-based modes of inquiry, driving a shift towards a transdisciplinary, Earth-centric epistemology.

Holism is an epistemic principle that emphasises the intrinsic coherence of complex systems and their emergent properties that cannot be understood from a knowledge of their parts. It implies that the system as a whole conditions in important ways how the parts behave, even while interactions between the parts determine the nature of the whole. As an approach to inquiry and learning, holism does not displace other modes of knowing but transcends them and opens the door to a more creative engagement with change in complex systems at all levels from the micro-organic to the planetary. Both scholars and activists must set aside their fragmented disciplinary and historically-bound world views to consider the implications of humans unsettling the entire Earth System.

A crisis of culture

The Anthropocene is a concept that challenges many of our most deep-rooted taken-for-granted cultural assumptions.

Throughout recorded history humanity has regarded the continuity of Nature as a given — the reliable if episodically capricious backdrop against which the glories and tragedies of the human story are enacted. Now that backdrop is shifting rather rapidly. In the face of increasingly radical discontinuity, we must achieve feats of rapid adaptation beyond anything in our evolutionary experience. This will be a challenge for many generations to come.  As science and technology scholar, Sheila Jasanoff, warns, it could take “decades, even centuries to accommodate to … a revolutionary reframing of human-nature relationships.”(5)

For this reason, in the Anthropocene Transitions Program at UTS we chose to use the term “Anthropocene Transition” to designate a dawning historical period of indeterminate duration characterised by widespread and erratic disruption of human systems interacting with unpredictable changes in the Earth System. We can confidently say it will be an era that will profoundly challenge humanity’s collective resilience and creativity. We can’t know where this period of transition will take us over the generations to come but we can be assured it will result in a fundamental reframing of what it means to be human and of our relationship to life on Earth.

Anthropocene Transition is a cultural term that encompasses the ways in which changes in the planet’s bio-geo-chemical dynamics, triggered by the human-technology complex, interact with that complex. It spans the geo-political, economic, social, and even the personal. Look around. The symptoms are already everywhere apparent. They include resource wars, increasing competition for shrinking productive lands and fresh water, the eruption of violent extremisms, economic instability, trade wars, huge disparities of wealth and power, rising food shortages coexisting with massive waste, an ever-increasing risk of pandemics, large-scale population movements and societal trauma, political polarisation, and pervasive demoralisation and despair. These are soft-systems issues – driven by cultural understandings, aspirations, behaviours and values.

Culture is a civilisation’s shared way of making sense of the world: what is real, what is knowable, and what has value. It conditions our ways of being, seeing, doing and imagining. It determines what we consider appropriate action in and on the world. It defines the taken-for-granted limits of the possible and the acceptable. As Swedish scholar Steven Hartman has written: “The great environmental predicament of the early 21st century is not primarily an ecological crisis, though its ramifications are far-reaching within ecological systems. Rather it is a crisis of culture.”(6)

In the final analysis the Anthropocene Transition may prove to be either the apotheosis or the dénouement of humanity’s cultural evolution.

Out-scaling politics

Most of the public debate about specific aspects of the Anthropocene, like climate change, takes for granted the need to maintain the economic, social and political status quo, even as that status quo unravels around us. Unfortunately, our political, commercial and educational institutions show themselves to be stubbornly wedded to “business-as-usual”.

One of the most entrenched business-as-usual orthodoxies is belief in the primacy of economics and the equivalence of progress and growth. As we approach and exceed key planetary thresholds the words of evolutionary economist and cofounder of general systems theory, Kenneth Boulding, resound with ever greater force: “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”(7)

Conventional thinking across the political spectrum from right to left sees politics as the principal vehicle for social change. But what does it mean when the issues we face lay well beyond the remit of politics as we know it? British social theorist Nigel Clarke expresses this conundrum when he observes that the Anthropocene “confronts the political with forces and events that have the capacity to undo the political.”(8)

“Political thought”, says historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, “has so far been human-centric, holding constant the ‘world’ outside of human concerns or treating its eruptions into the time of human history as intrusions from the ‘outside’. This ‘outside’ no longer exists.”(9)

Around the world under virtually every form of government we see political processes and institutions floundering, paralysed, deeply polarised, and frequently mired in denial in the face existential threats. While often diagnosed as a failure of political will or leadership, this hiatus more likely reflects forms of governance that evolved in and for a fundamentally different world. Thus, our institutions lack the capacity to deal with complex, long-term, planetary-scale processes. They are intrinsically maladapted for the Anthropocene. Again, we see the clash been human time embodied in the political process, and geological time that is shifting the very ground on which we stand. As Chakrabarty says:

“What does it mean to dwell, to be political, to pursue justice when we live out the everyday with awareness that what seems ‘slow’ in human and world-historical terms may indeed be ‘instantaneous’ on the scale of Earth history, that living in the Anthropocene means inhabiting these two presents at the same time? I cannot fully or even satisfactorily answer the question yet, but surely we cannot even begin to answer it if ‘the political’ keeps acting as an anxious prohibition on thinking of that which leaves us feeling ‘out-scaled’.”(10)

Let’s consider one example of this mismatch been our legacy institutions and the needs of this moment of existential danger and creative challenge.

Sovereignty is a foundational concept for our systems of governance, jurisprudence and international relations. But its expressions in the sovereignty of the nation state since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 and the sovereignty of the individual according to some readings of the United States Constitution of 1787 have become inimical to the viability of our own species and many others as well. A new conception of sovereignty vested in the Earth and asserting the pre-eminence of respect for all life and the integrity of the biosphere has become a necessity. Such a definition of Earth sovereignty as prior to and more fundamental than human agency would provide a basis on which to reframe all our doctrines of authority, justice and responsible governance.

A new imaginary

The Anthropocene Transition challenges us to explore new ways of imagining ourselves and our relationship to the planet and the other complex life forms we share it with. To recap, this new imaginary entails:

  • First, a move beyond a modular view of the Earth System as an aggregation of its component “spheres” to a more holistic and participatory view of our place in this complex, dynamic, tightly coupled, evolving system of systems;
  • Second, abandoning the underpinning conceit of the human-technology complex — that humans stand outside of nature with first claim on environmental resources. The nature/culture divide has been at the core of Western civilisation for centuries. It is no longer a tenable worldview and the sooner we recover more intimate and empathetic ways of being present to the Earth the greater our chances of a successful Anthropocene Transition. Enduring indigenous cultures have much to teach us about the interdependence of all life, and about respect and responsibility for our relationship with the Earth.
  • And third, a new sense of scale, both spatial and temporal that locates human experience within the Earth System and deep time. To grasp the full implications of this transformation of our Western worldview requires us to scale-up our imagination of the human. The fact that we have reached the numbers and invented the technologies that can impact the planet itself implies that we have unleashed forces of similar intensity to those that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. We have reached “a time when the geological and the planetary press in on our everyday consciousness.”(11) This not only requires us to stretch our social imaginations. It also has far-reaching ethical implications that call us to accept an expanded collective responsibility for the consequences of our cultural choices at planetary and geological (or deep time) scales for generations yet unborn and for non-human others.

Perhaps the place from which to face the uncertainty and the unknowable we will encounter in our journey through the Anthropocene Transition is from an agnostic viewpoint, not in a theological sense but as a commitment to approaching the experience of living as an open question. Certainly, at this point framing the right questions about what it means to be human in this radically different reality should be a priority.

Mitigation, adaptation, transformation

Learning to frame our thinking in whole planet, deep time scales doesn’t mean resiling from urgently seeking every possible way to mitigate human impacts on the biosphere – like rapidly reducing and then eliminating our dependence on fossil fuels and stemming the tsunami of toxic and intractable wastes overwhelming many terrestrial and ocean eco-systems, habitats, communities and even whole regions. But there is one vitally important caveat: In framing these interventions we must remember that all human knowledge is incomplete and thus provisional and our actions must be tempered by the precautionary principle lest we make bad situations even worse — which is the danger of attempts at large-scale techno-fixes like geo-engineering.

At the same time as mitigation we need to develop comprehensive adaptation strategies to deal with the accelerating disruptions that cannot be avoided or reversed in a human timescale. Our priority in this respect must be to strengthen the resilience of our social and ecological systems, that is, to build their capacity to absorb and even utilise disturbances. A resilient ecosystem, human community, economy or society can withstand unexpected shocks by reorganising itself to preserve its sustaining structure and functions. Adaptation strategies are particularly important for the most vulnerable communities, populations and social infrastructures, fragile eco-systems and endangered species which typically bear the brunt of environmental dislocation. Thus, eco-social resilience must be a core organising principle for the Anthropocene Transition. It establishes eco-systemic integrity as a fundamental design criterion for human technologies, economies, habitats and systems of governance.

Eco-social resilience focusses attention on the critical relationship between human systems and the eco-systems in which they are embedded and on whose vitality they ultimately depend. Within this context it values the preservation, enhancement, and ultimate unity of both social and “natural” capital and favours distributed networked technologies with localised capability and control instead of centralised, capital intensive systems, even those labelled “renewable” or “sustainable”.

But mitigation and adaptation are palliatives, necessary palliatives for sure, but palliatives nonetheless. In the longer-term humanity’s future will depend on our success in creatively transforming the soft systems – the human systems – that are driving the disruption of the Earth System. Thus, along with mitigation and adaptation, the third dimension to our response to the predicament we have created: the transformation of human social, economic and political systems and core cultural values to align with the life support systems of the planet.

We can already see the often catastrophic effects of environmental, geo-political, economic, social and institutional breakdown in many areas of the world — in the Middle East, wide areas of Africa, parts of Asia and Latin America, and indeed in several “developed” countries. History teaches us that when social and political institutions fracture and collapse all too often conflict, displacement, famine and disease follow. If the probability of systemic breakdown in the Anthropocene is high in many places around the world, surely the sensible thing to do is to build our capacity to respond creatively rather than reactively. This offers the best chance of ensuring that the sites of such collapse do not become the settings for societal and political polarisation and conflict or, in worst case scenarios, the next killing fields.

In his 2006 book, The Upside of Down, Canadian political scientist Thomas Homer Dixon, discussing the likelihood of varying degrees of breakdown, coined the term “catagenesis” to denote: “The creative renewal of our technologies, institutions and societies in the aftermath of breakdown.”(12) He argued that complex systems go through a continuous adaptive cycle that includes stages of growth, decreasing adaptability, breakdown and then renewal. It could even be said that breakdown is a necessary condition for renewal. Wouldn’t it make sense, Homer Dixon argued, to prepare now to seize the opportunities for renewal inherent in breakdown?

Upending centuries of cultural orthodoxy in the industrial world will involve a shift from the crippling conceit that we are the exception, standing outside and above nature, to a story of eco-mutuality – a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship that restores our place as a co-creative partner within the planet’s community of life. Eco-mutuality is a core relational principle that incorporates the principle of equity but extends it beyond the sphere of social relations to embrace our inter-dependence with all living creatures and the eco-systems of which they are an integral part. It transcends the essentially anthropocentric and utilitarian concept of sustainability to recognise the intrinsic value of all life forms within the socio-ecological wholeness of the Earth System.

The virtual habitat of human culture has become the primary vehicle of our continuing evolution. We are both the subject and author of our part in a bigger evolutionary story. Now, the Earth calls us to mobilise this consciousness to creatively refashion the medium of our own evolution by restoring values of eco-mutuality at the core of our shared human culture. This means we must learn to think like a planet.

Reaching beyond the limits of sustainability

For decades our principal response to the looming existential threats of our own making has been a grab bag of policies, processes, practices and products bearing the label “sustainable”. But “sustainability” as both a concept and a practice all too often falls short of the mark. As Christopher Wright, co-author of Climate Change, Capitalism, and Corporations: Processes of Creative Self-Destruction, suggests, many of the policies and practices of sustainability are really about being less un-sustainable. As such they fail the test of proportionality — valuable but inadequate in the context of the challenges of cultural renewal and systemic redesign we face in the Anthropocene Transition.

Sustainability is a contemporary story that inspires many deeply committed people to worthwhile action. But it is a story being steadily leeched of relevance. Even fossil fuel corporations and their political camp followers proclaim their own version of the sustainability narrative, apparently without a skerrick of irony.

Within the fair dinkum sustainability community there is a perennial tension between the relative merits of “weak” sustainability, which aims for a pragmatic balance between the needs of the economy, society, and the environment using tools such as triple bottom line accounting; or “strong” sustainability which asserts the primacy of environmental values over the demands of both society and economy.

The 1987 Brundtland Report offered a now widely accepted definition of sustainability: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”(13). By making human needs the basis for judgement and action it reproduces the very problem that has brought us to the brink of catastrophe. Focusing on sustainability within the cultural and political envelope of the status quo means we maintain the convenient illusion that “we” (who?) are in control and can manage the transition to a viable planetary future by economic, technical and lifestyle tinkering. At the very least the continuing use of the term sustainability now requires a qualifying prefix such as “eco-systemic” to have any real meaning in the Anthropocene.

It’s not that honest efforts to advance sustainability are pointless. Many significant incremental gains can be achieved. Indeed, the true worth of many sustainability initiatives lies not so much in their outcomes as in the opportunities they open up for essential professional and social collaboration and co-learning, particularly when embedded in value networks which have the potential to become learning networks. It’s just that we’re attempting ad hoc workarounds when the problem is with the operating system — the dominant cultural values and economic and political orthodoxies they generate that shape the forms and functions of key social institutions.

How apt is Einstein’s oft cited warning about the futility of attempting to solve complex problems using the modes of thinking that created them. This is precisely what we are doing in response to the systemic issues of our times.

Regenerative transitions

For eco-systemic sustainability to address the Anthropocene paradox we need a fresh mode of thinking about our professional, social and cultural practices. The key to this fresh approach may well be the word “regenerative”.

“Regenerate” means to revive, to grow again. Instead of simply buying time by slowing the pace of destruction, a regenerative approach aims to restore and enhance the integrity of local and regional ecosystems with the human actors conceived as integral and creative partners in this process. The goal of regenerative transition strategies is to create conditions for more life, more diversity, more resilience, and antifragility. Earth-centric regenerative practices are an antidote to the maladapted extractive, growth-driven, human-technology complex that threatens to be an evolutionary dead end.

One example of this approach is regenerative design, the practice that best reflects the latest phase of ecological design thinking.  Regenerative design is based on process-oriented systems theory. A regenerative system makes no waste; its output is equal to or greater than its input; and part or all of this output goes toward creating further output — in other words, it uses as input what in conventional systems would become waste. This concept is being applied in areas as diverse as architecture, urban planning, agriculture, business enterprises and even civil engineering.

Another attempt at breakthrough in this key practice domain is Transition Design, developed by a team at the Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design in the USA.

“Transition Design acknowledges that we are living in ‘transitional times’. It takes as its central premise the need for societal transitions to more sustainable futures and argues that design has a key role to play in these transitions. Transition Design focuses on the need for ‘cosmopolitan localism’, (Manzini 2009; Sachs 1999) [an approach] that is place-based and regional, yet global in its awareness and exchange of information and technology.”(14)

Commons-based movements for societal and cultural change offer other examples of creative thinking about the transformation of human systems within the Anthropocene Transition. They are animated by, in the words of Patterns of Commoning authors David Bollier and Silke Helfrich, “the irrepressible desire of people to collaborate and share to meet everyday needs”(15). Versions of this can be seen in a flowering of experimentation and collective learning from the bottom up in countless communities around the world from the citizens of Bologna, Italy, who have declared their whole city a commons, to indigenous agriculture and community forests, Bolivian water committees, high-tech FabLabs, theatre commons like Latinx and HowlRound, arts festivals like Burning Man in the USA and Woodfordia here in Australia, innovation networks designing open-source farm equipment and reviving troubled neighbourhoods in Kenya, the Enspiral enterprise network in Aotearoa/New Zealand…  The list goes on.

One key institution in this loosely coupled global network is the P2P Foundation, the name of which is derived from the abbreviation of “peer to peer”, or sometimes “person to person”, or “people to people”. The essence of P2P is this direct relationship and its core characteristics include the creation of common goals and goods through open, participatory governance processes. These global trans-local networks include social change movements like Lock the Gate, experimenting with new modes of organising and mobilisation in defence of local eco-systems and communities threatened with devastation by rapacious fossil fuel corporations. Lock the Gate has utilised complex systems theory and network theory to develop an approach to community self-organising designed to avoid the polarisation of traditional environmental campaigning and unite whole communities across often deeply entrenched cultural and political divides.

Then there are initiatives like FlipLabs, Forum for the Future, Next System Project, Transition Network, New Weather Institute, Small Giants, New Economy Network Australia, Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, Australian Institute of Ecological Agriculture, Next Economy Australia… and an expanding and deepening dialogue across this diversity of practice labs.

Transition times require this kind of innovation and experimentation in the way we organise and govern ourselves at all levels. We must seek for more dynamic social forms with permeable boundaries that can respond rapidly and flexibly to emergent needs and opportunities. The plasticity of the human brain is a metaphor for the organisational forms we need to invent. As neurologist Elkhonon Goldberg has observed: “The evolution of the brain teaches us the lesson that a high degree of complexity cannot be handled by rigidly organised systems. It requires distributed responsibilities and local autonomy.”(16)

By and large it is not governments and corporations that are demonstrating the necessary creativity to meet the challenges of the Anthropocene Transition, despite their rhetoric of innovation and agility. Everywhere we can see how deeply compromised they are by the blinkers of short-termism, the greed of vested interests, the denial and obfuscation of ideologues, institutional inertia, political opportunism and, all too often, corruption. It’s grassroots organisations, local communities, collaborative and mutual enterprises, and civil society movements and networks that are nurturing the transformative changes we must embrace to remain a viable species on a planet conducive to life.

There are good reasons to believe that such open source experimentation and rapid prototyping is most likely to flourish in local communities, small workplaces, and networks of practice where institutional inertia is weakest, resistance by vested interests less, the risks of failure manageable, and the bonds of human solidarity strongest. It is in these settings that the seeds of a deeper and more authentic democracy are emerging.

A new story of co-creation

Ultimately humanity’s ability to survive and thrive in a period of radical uncertainty and profound change will depend on our capacity for wise collective action reflecting a new consciousness of our place in the Earth System. This requires a greatly enhanced capacity for adaptive social learning — groups of people sharing their experiences in action, experimenting with different ways of dealing with common challenges, reflecting together on the meaning of their experiences, and deciding on new forms of co-operative action.

At the very core of every civilisation lies a theory of human nature and a cosmology — the foundation stories of who we are and where we came from. These stories are the ultimate source of the unifying narratives of our societies. They are explicitly or implicitly manifest in the cultural practices of society; its public ceremonies, its performing and visual arts, its literature, its music, its popular culture. Contemporary science has unfolded for us an origin story of breath-taking magnificence. This story shows us that our human journey on planet Earth has seen the emergence of a uniquely reflexive consciousness, embedded in our many cultures, and complementing the great diversity of non-human adaptive intelligences with which it has co-evolved.

There is no blueprint to guide us through the Anthropocene Transition. This will be a learning journey along a path we must invent as we go. By its very nature, it is a collaborative undertaking. Finding ways to more fully manifest this collective creativity to serve the future of our species within planetary boundaries is the key challenge before us. Creativity is not a singular event, but an on-going universal process within which each one of us has a part to play. As the ancient stories tell us, we issued from a creative universe and can continue only as participants in its inexorable creativity.

To be worthy ancestors

Last year I received an email headed: “What’s your 1,000-year plan?” It referenced a TEDX talk by Canadian author Rick Antonson in which he spoke about what he called “cathedral thinking”. Antonson reminds us that when medieval architects, artisans and labourers began work on one of the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe many of them knew they would not live to see its completion. Such undertakings were the work of generations – each making a contribution to a collaborative venture that others would build on to bring to fruition in the future.

How different from our myopic contemporary mindset with its immersive focus on the 24-hour news cycle, 3 to 5 year electoral cycles, quarterly corporate reporting, and short-term business cycles. What a contrast to the competitive individualism embedded in the very labour process of so many industries and professions, including academia.

It struck me that cathedral thinking is closer to what we need to be doing now to prepare for the Anthropocene Transition. What should our generation be doing to lay the foundations for those to come who must face the task of transforming our institutions, our professions, our social structures and our core cultural values to restore a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship?

So the challenge for us is to climb out of our disciplinary and professional silos, take off our institutional blinkers, and start exploring genuinely transformative change; to ask ourselves how can we step into the “space between” disciplines and cultures where new thinking and ways of knowing and acting in the world are possible; where new ways of understanding and valuing the Earth can emerge?

In short, what must we do today to earn the title of worthy ancestors?

(1)Jan Zalaisiewicz, ‘The Extraordinary Strata of the Anthropocene,’ in Environmental Humanities: Voices from the Anthropocene, ed Oppermann and Iovino, London, Rowman and Littlefield International, 2017.

(2)Vladimir I. Vernadsky, ‘The Biosphere’, originally published in Russian 1926, republished in English: Springer Science & Business Media, 1998. Long unknown in the West, ‘The Biosphere’ established the field of biogeochemistry and is one of the classic founding documents of what later became known as Gaia theory. It is the first sustained expression of the idea that life is a geological force that can change Earth’s landforms, its climate, and even the contents of its atmosphere.

(3)Jan Zalaisiewicz, 2017

(4)Dipesh Chakrabarty, ‘Anthropocene Time’ History and Theory 57, no 1, March 2018

(5)Sheila Jasanoff, ‘A New Climate for Society’, Theory, Culture and Society 27, nos. 2-3, 2010

(6) Steven Hartman, ‘Unpacking the Black Box: the need for Integrated Environmental Humanities (IEH)’, Future Earth Blogg (online), June 3 2015, (

(7) Attributed to Kenneth Boulding in United States Congress, House (1973), Energy reorganization act of 1973: Hearings, Ninety-third Congress, first session, on H.R. 11510. p.248

(8)Nigel Clarke, ‘Geo-politics and the Disaster of the Anthropocene,’ Sociological Review 62, 2014

(9)Chakrabarty, 2018

(10) Chakrabarty, 2018

(11) Chakrabarty, 2018

(12) Thomas Homer Dixon, ‘The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization,’ Island Press, 2006

(13) Gro Harlem Brundtland (Chair), ‘Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development,’ United Nations General Assembly, 1987.

(14) About Transition Design, (

(15) David Bollier & Silke Helfrich (Editors), ‘Patterns of Commoning: The Commons Strategies Group,’ Levellers Press, 2015

(16) Elkhonon Goldberg, ‘The New Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes in a Complex World, Oxford University Press, 2009.