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.

We Need an Ecological Civilization Before It’s Too Late

Jeremy Lent 

In the face of climate breakdown and ecological overshoot, alluring promises of “green growth” are no more than magical thinking. We need to restructure the fundamentals of our global cultural/economic system to cultivate an “ecological civilization”: one that prioritizes the health of living systems over short-term wealth production. 

[Originally published in Patterns of Meaning]

We’ve now been warned by the world’s leading climate scientists that we have just twelve years to limit climate catastrophe. The UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has put the world on notice that going from a 1.5° to 2.0° C rise in temperature above preindustrial levels would have disastrous consequences across the board, with unprecedented flooding, drought, ocean devastation, and famine.

A global crisis of famine and mass starvation looms unless we can turn around the trajectory of our civilization

Meanwhile, the world’s current policies have us on track for more than 3° increase by the end of this century, and climate scientists publish dire warnings that amplifying feedbacks could make things far worse than even these projections, and thus place at risk the very continuation of our civilization. We need, according to the IPCC, “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” But what exactly does that mean?

Last month, at the Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS) in San Francisco, luminaries such as Governor Jerry Brown, Michael Bloomberg, and Al Gore gave their version of what’s needed with an ambitious report entitled “Unlocking the Inclusive Growth Story of the 21st Century by the New Climate Economy.” It trumpets a New Growth Agenda: through enlightened strategic initiatives, they claim, it’s possible to transition to a low-carbon economy that could generate millions more jobs, raise trillions of dollars for green investment, and lead to higher global GDP growth.

But these buoyant projections by mainstream leaders, while overwhelmingly preferable to the Republican Party’s malfeasance, are utterly insufficient to respond to the crisis facing our civilization. In promising that the current system can fix itself with a few adjustments, they are turning a blind eye to the fundamental drivers propelling civilization toward collapse. By offering false hope, they deflect attention from the profound structural changes that our global economic system must make if we hope to bequeath a flourishing society to future generations.

Ecological overshoot

That’s because even the climate emergency is merely a harbinger of other existential threats looming over humanity as a result of ecological overshoot—the fact that we’re depleting the earth’s natural resources at a faster rate than they can be replenished. As long as government policies emphasize growing GDP as a national priority, and as long as transnational corporations relentlessly pursue greater shareholder returns by ransacking the earth, we will continue accelerating toward global catastrophe.

Currently, our civilization is running at 40% above its sustainable capacity. We’re rapidly depleting the earth’s forestsanimalsinsectsfishfreshwater, even the topsoil we require to grow our crops. We’ve already transgressed three of the nine planetary boundaries that define humanity’s safe operating space, and yet global GDP is expected to more than double by mid-century, with potentially irreversible and devastating consequences. By 2050, it’s estimated, there will be more plastic in the world’s oceans than fish. Last year, over fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issued an ominous warning to humanity that time is running out: “Soon it will be too late,” they wrote, “to shift course away from our failing trajectory.”

plastic in the ocean
By 2050, there is projected to be more plastic than fish in the ocean.

Techno-optimists, including many of the GCAS dignitaries, like to dismiss these warnings with talk of “green growth”—essentially decoupling GDP growth from increased use of resources. While that would be a laudable goal, a number of studies have shown that it’s simply not feasible. Even the most wildly aggressive assumptions for greater efficiency would still result in consuming global resources at double the sustainable capacity by mid-century.

A desperate situation indeed, but one that need not lead to despair. In fact, there is a scenario where we can turn around this rush to the precipice and redirect humanity to a thriving future on a regenerated earth. It would, however, require us to rethink some of the sacrosanct beliefs of our modern world, beginning with the unquestioning reliance on perpetual economic growth within a global capitalist system directed by transnational corporations driven exclusively by the need to increase shareholder value for their investors.

In short, we need to change the basis of our global civilization. We must move from a civilization based on wealth production to one based on the health of living systems: an ecological civilization.

An ecological civilization

The crucial idea behind an ecological civilization is that our society needs to change at a level far deeper than most people realize. It’s not just a matter of investing in renewables, eating less meat, and driving an electric car. The intrinsic framework of our global social and economic organization needs to be transformed. And this will only happen when enough people recognize the destructive nature of our current mainstream culture and reject it for one that is life-affirming—embracing values that emphasize growth in the quality of life rather than in the consumption of goods and services.

A change of such magnitude would be an epochal event. There have been only two occasions in history when radical dislocations led to a transformation of virtually every aspect of the human experience: the Agricultural Revolution that began about twelve thousand years ago, and the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. If our civilization is to survive and prosper through the looming crises of this century, we will need a transformation of our values, goals, and collective behavior on a similar scale.

An ecological civilization would be based on the core principles that sustain living systems coexisting stably in natural ecologies. Insights into how ecologies self-organize offer a model for how we could organize human society in ways that could permit sustainable abundance. Organisms prosper when they develop multiple symbiotic relationships, wherein each party to a relationship both takes and gives reciprocally. In an ecology, energy flows are balanced and one species’ waste matter becomes nourishment for another. Entities within an ecology scale fractally, with microsystems existing as integral parts of larger systems to form a coherent whole. In a well-functioning ecosystem, each organism thrives by optimizing for its own existence within a network of relationships that enhances the common good. The inherent resilience caused by these dynamics means that—without human disruption—ecosystems can maintain their integrity for many thousands, and sometimes millions, of years.

An ecological civilization would be based on the principles that sustain all living systems

In practice, transitioning to an ecological civilization would mean restructuring some of the fundamental institutions driving our current civilization to destruction. In place of an economy based on perpetual growth in GDP, it would institute one that emphasized quality of life, using alternative measures such as a Genuine Progress Indicator to gauge success. Economic systems would be based on respect for individual dignity and fairly rewarding each person’s contribution to the greater good, while ensuring that nutritional, housing, healthcare, and educational needs were fully met for everyone. Transnational corporations would be fundamentally reorganized and made accountable to the communities they purportedly serve, to optimize human and environmental wellbeing rather than shareholder profits. Locally owned cooperatives would become the default organizational structure. Food systems would be designed to emphasize local production using state-of-the-art agroecology practices in place of fossil fuel-based fertilizer and pesticides, while manufacturing would prioritize circular flows where efficient re-use of waste products is built into the process from the outset.

In an ecological civilization, the local community would be the basic building block of society. Face-to-face interaction would regain ascendance as a crucial part of human flourishing, and each community’s relationship with others would be based on principles of mutual respect, learning, and reciprocity. Technological innovation would still be encouraged, but would be prized for its effectiveness in enhancing the vitality of living systems rather than minting billionaires. The driving principle of enterprise would be that we are all interconnected in the web of life—and long-term human prosperity is therefore founded on a healthy Earth.

Cultivating a flourishing future

While this vision may seem a distant dream to those who are transfixed by the daily frenzy of current events, innumerable pioneering organizations around the world are already planting the seeds for this cultural metamorphosis.

In China, President Xi Jinping has declared an ecological civilization to be a central part of his long-term vision for the country. In Bolivia and Ecuador, the related values of buen vivir and sumak kawsay (“good living’) are written into the constitution, and in Africa the concept of ubuntu (“I am because we are”) is a widely-discussed principle of human relations. In Europe, hundreds of scientists, politicians, and policy-makers recently co-authored a call for the EU to plan for a sustainable future in which human and ecological wellbeing is prioritized over GDP.

Examples of large-scale thriving cooperatives, such as Mondragon in Spain, demonstrate that it’s possible for companies to provide effectively for human needs without utilizing a shareholder-based profit model. Think tanks such as The Next System ProjectThe Global Citizens Initiative, and the P2P Foundation are laying down parameters for the political, economic, and social organization of an ecological civilization. Meanwhile, visionary authors such as Kate Raworth and David Korten have written extensively on how to reframe the way we think about our economic and political path forward.

As the mainstream juggernaut drives our current civilization inexorably toward breaking point, it’s easy to dismiss these steps toward a new form of civilization as too insignificant to make a difference. However, as the current system begins to break down in the coming years, increasing numbers of people around the world will come to realize that a fundamentally different alternative is needed. Whether they turn to movements based on prejudice and fear or join in a vision for a better future for humanity depends, to a large extent, on the ideas available to them.

One way or another, humanity is headed for the third great transformation in its history: either in the form of global collapse or a metamorphosis to a new foundation for sustainable flourishing. An ecological civilization offers a path forward that may be the only true hope for our descendants to thrive on Earth into the distant future.

Jeremy Lent is author of The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, which investigates how different cultures have made sense of the universe and how their underlying values have changed the course of history. He is founder of the nonprofit Liology Institute, dedicated to fostering a sustainable worldview. For more information visit

Creating Learning Cultures in Village Sri Lanka


Jerry A. Moles[2]


ABSTRACT: Facing unprecedented changes in global climate patterns, major drainage basins, stable human communities, the distribution of capital resources, and the threat of thermonuclear war; we must acknowledge that the Anthropocene is upon us. In a world of centralized authorities and powerful corporations, the “unintended consequences” of political and financial decisions occur as a consequence of ignoring the diversity across natural resource endowments and human settlements.  To address this challenge, the NeoSynthesis Research Centre (NSRC) was created in Sri Lanka to engage with villagers in establishing more productive and resilient landscapes and financially beneficial practices.  Recognizing that only the managers of the land could effect the needed changes, the NSRC collaborated with villagers in establishing adaptive management schemes, the continual evaluation of farming and forestry practices.  By synthesizing the knowledge of villagers with the analytical perspectives of contemporary sciences, learning cultures were created attuned to household needs and environmental health and stability.  Over a 30-year period, water supplies have been made safe, incomes and food security improved, recovery from a devastating tsunami effected, and a handbook guiding farmer decisions into the future produced in Singalese, Tamil, and English, the three languages of the Island.

Key words: Sustainable agriculture, learning organizations, forest gardens, project design, Sri Lanka.

Vast your calling: Serve everyone.

Small your power: One voice.

Clear your path: Honest words.

Certain your days: Struggle.

Vast your purpose: Make history.

Focused your goal: A mere footnote

                                    that sings.

–Kim Stafford


With the growth of human population; relationships with land, water, food supplies, and the creation and movements of capital are changing at unprecedented rates. An evaluation is required with attention given to circumstances in households, communities, landscapes, and watersheds.   To increase food production and availability while maintaining resource bases resilient to human and natural disturbances is the challenge. Humans determine flows of materials, energy, capital, and information.  To survive and avoid unprecedented turmoil and danger, we must learn to live as part of a rapidly changing planet in the Anthropocene.  The question is can such change be inspired?

The NeoSynthesis Research Centre (NSRC) was established in Sri Lanka in 1982 to integrate farmers’ knowledge in Sri Lanka villages with contemporary biological, environmental, and social sciences including economics. In a sense, the goal was the creation of a new culture that blended the wisdom of past centuries with recent discoveries and interpretations.  The Centre was designed as a catalyst engaging the people who influence the production and distribution of food and other agriculture and forestry products.  The mission was described as establishing self-perpetuating sustainable and resilient environmental and social relationships linked to natural and market forces that did not degrade resources while achieving financial independence for participants. Without solutions in hand, the only answer available was to learn by doing, becoming a learning organization and developing a learning culture with those engaged.

In 1981, I was invited to Sri Lanka by Upali Senanayake and his son Ranil to explore how the people of the island nation could maintain their cultural heritages and traditional wisdom based in over two thousand years of written history. Confronting a dominate global economy based on extracting goods and services in exchange for modern science and technology, there was little questioning of systematic consequences environmentally, socially, or culturally.  Sri Lanka experienced European colonialism, first by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, and finally the British.  The country gained independence in 1949 with a parliamentary system of governance guided by Dutch-Roman law.  First coffee and later tea, coconut, and rubber plantations were established providing income for the colonial masters and, after independence, those governing the island.  Once food self-sufficient, the island imported small grains to bolster diets and national leadership was increasingly serving the export sector often at a cost to villagers and an urban labor force.  Trade offs between continued investment in the welfare of the people and investment in economic growth were questioned (Edirisinge, 1979).  As population expanded, the landless moved onto once forested landscapes and the plantation sector went into decline as a consequence of poor management with loss of soils and degradation of water supplies.[3]

Planning agriculture and forestry projects from a distance had proven difficult often resulting in unintended consequences for villagers.[4]   In adopting adaptive management suggested by the resiliency theorists,[5] each management proscription became a testable hypothesis providing feedback separating the permissible from the harmful and destructive.   Recognizing nonlinear dynamics of complex systems with different scales in time and space, and the possibility of multiple causality; on-the-ground study of real consequences in real time is required (Walters, 1986).  Rather than concentrating on controlling natural variability to maintain human en situ circumstances in some perceived optimal state, a wiser option is to focus on alternate system regimes and to avoid thresholds beyond which no return to a stable or resilient state is possible.  Exchanges in dynamic social and ecosystems must be monitored and addressed (Walker and Salt: 122, 1986).  Attention to daily, monthly, seasonal and longer-term outcomes determine successful adaptation.[6] Adaptive management is a fundamental tool in learning cultures.

Bateson (Bateson and Bateson:161,181, 1987) reminds that living systems (learning cultures) are recursive. Reflecting back on what is known as they continually “learn”  through time.  He then separates the realm of the “hard sciences,” that discriminate between parts and wholes from the biology, ecology and other disciplines concerned with living systems en situ. In the latter, there is consideration of parts and wholes and how they compose the environment of wholes (Harries-Jones:182-3, 1995).  In other words, it isn’t sufficient to attend to the things that can be influenced directly but rather to think more broadly in terms of systemic exchanges.  Senge (269, 2006) quotes Bateson as saying, “The source of all our problems today comes from the gap between how we think and how nature works.”  The relationships between mind and nature are fraught with unseen challenges and, in designing the NSRC as a learning organization, we remained cognizant of the systems of which we were a part.

Even with this added sophistication, the understanding of the dynamics that produce observable consequences may not be apparent. It is far easier to separate beneficial from the harmful than to design a guidance system (decision support) to enjoy the former while avoiding the latter.  This requires knowing what to attend to and what can be safely ignored.  This knowing is formed in real time, relying on multiple perspectives and feedback from key systemic indicators amenable to management adjustments.

As a starting point, the NSRC vision was defined as “being realistic in where we are headed with an understanding of the forces that maintain the present as experienced.”

Setting Contexts

The first thing required in creating NSRC was a description of present circumstances. Once interpretative frameworks were agreed upon, the positions of villagers and others influencing the practices of agriculture and forestry could be intergraded.  Following Bateson and citing Korzybski, Harries-Jones (69, 1995) commented that “All order has context and the temporal context in which ordering takes place is expressed as ‘antecedent’ or ‘consequent.’”   For applied scientists, listening to and observing the people engaged make possible the elaboration of contexts.  Blending in understandings of the dynamics of social and environmental systems, descriptions are created. What are the causes and effects of ongoing activities, and how may we best understand our respective plights as we attempt to make a difference beneficial to all involved?

In a sense, this is about the creative and dynamic nature of what we have called “culture” throughout the history of our discipline. The existence of culture is moment to moment; it’s what’s on our minds and the minds of others as we make sense of the past, present, and future.[7]  This does not mean that people agree or even, based upon past experiences, share similar interpretations of the present.  Rather, the search in Sri Lanka was for complementary interests sufficient for joining together to advance the mission.  I’m reminded of a quote by Amos Tversky (Lewis:230, 2017).  “It is sometimes easier to make the world a better place than to prove you have made the world a better place.”  We can never see inside the minds[8] of others.  We only know of their presence, and, if they join with us or we with them, we share the same fate.

Finding Place

All I have to share is what I have learned from personal experience attempting to make a difference at ground level engaging diverse communities to maintain themselves through the use of surrounding natural resources and exchanges through existing enterprises. As cultural practices change, the surrounding social and environmental milieu change and new challenges emerge that require continual evaluation and adjustment.  From an ecological perspective, the engagement is multifaceted and requires attentiveness to changes in both resource endowments and social relations.  As we enter the field with certain perspectives, the hope is that we learn enough along the way to make sound decisions through time.  Bateson (505) suggested that “. . . the ecological ideas implicit in our plans are more important than the plans themselves, and it would be foolish to sacrifice these ideas on the altar of pragmatism.  It will not in the long run pay to ‘sell’ the plans by superficial ad hominem arguments which will conceal or contradict the deeper insight.”

As an initial step, the literature on the state of Sri Lanka agriculture was reviewed and, through extensive interviews with Upali, three position papers were written. From the perspective of the National Heritage Trust founded by Upali, government policies were changing traditional cultural values and a threat to the stability and sustainability of agriculture.   The support for greater export of agriculture commodities and increasing farmer indebtedness to adopt green revolution technologies required a reevaluation of priorities.  Taking Upali’s argument that all people have the right to live, the right to use the basic natural and physical resources of Sri Lanka “in ways that protect the rights of all others and provide adequately for themselves,” the focus of the NSRC as the research arm of the National Heritage Trust was set.  The papers were published in the Lanka Guardian[9], a nationally distributed news magazine (Moles and Riker, 1982) and considered “very controversial” by government ministries and university faculty and students.  Having made our intentions public, we proceeded to refine the focus to guide activities into the future.

Starting with Singalese Buddhist villages that Upali knew best, the focus was on the temple, the tank (earthen reservoir for irrigation) and the villagers as a composite whole. The priests (bikkhues) in village temples were responsible for declaring auspicious days for community endeavors including irrigation of the paddy-fields, ceremonies, and other public works.  Further, through their daily rounds with their begging bowls, the bhikkues were current with the state of the larder of each household and, in times of need, organized appropriate assistance.  Each village had a gramaseveka, chief cultivator, who coordinated with the temple the needs of the cultivators and represented the villagers to the outside world.

Within this context, we positioned ourselves as the NSRC. Over the years, there were many discussions about both the principles that guided our actions and what was required to benefit the villagers.  Exploration was constant; on-going experiments on the research station and activities in surrounding villages were monitored as we tried to make sense of what we were learning and how well the needs of villagers were being addressed.

What parts of our formal training in the sciences were relevant to our activities?

Ranil who had experience as an estate owner and manager with a doctorate in systems ecology from the University of California, Davis, offered an overarching perspective attending to environmental circumstances as follows:

  1. Systemics. Capture of solar energy through photosynthesis and its consequences in native, disturbed, and anthropogenic communities and landscapes. All life is dependent upon photosynthesis and the village cultivators make choices of what plants to produce for their own uses and surrounding markets.
  2. Energetics. Exchange of energy, materials, and information among and between species, groups, and individuals. Here the focus was upon the interdependencies of the living entities in landscapes and the cultivators and the choices possible given available capital, labor, and technology. How are livelihoods gained from the local resources?   Answers included the uses of composts, chemical fertilizers, water buffalos, powered equipment, family and hired labor, market information, etc., the list is very long but the emphasis was on the mechanisms (relationships) that held in place the present.
  3. Cycles, The great cycles — hydrological, nitrogen, moon, tides, seasons, etc., — plus the landforms including geological histories that define the basics including soils and slopes that must be respected if what was offered was to endure.

As the social scientist and given that we were thinking in systemic and dynamic terms based upon relationships and exchanges, I defined capital as the capacity to command goods and services.  Conceptually, capital can be viewed as another form of energy.  Looking at the flows of capital, it is possible to evaluate costs and benefits and how wealth is distributed.[10]  At the same time, aware that any description devised is not the territory described, it was essential to engage the targeted beneficiaries to guide us as created descriptions.  Also, we focused upon our experiences in interacting with the villagers, their lives, and their surroundings.  The notion that the people could teach us how we could help them seemed especially relevant.  To reasonably expect any changes in practices, the people effected must realize definite benefits to their livelihoods.  Finally, it was clear that the complexity of the effort was daunting.  Analysis without engagement is one thing, but to actually enter the fray, careful observation of people’s reactions to our efforts was necessary.  The NSRC was and remains a learning organization.

We were engaging with an ancient agriculture representing a culture and landscape evolutionary history of many centuries (Sri Lanka has a written history of over 2,400 years (Geiger, 1912)), it was important to understand the inbuilt wisdom that made food self-sufficiency prior to the colonial era possible (Moles, 1989). The existing intensive hill and paddy agriculture became a reference point upon which to develop strategies and guide experimentation.  The traditional system employed earthen reservoirs (tanks), wirwas (river diversions), and pumps, to spread water perpendicular to stream flows as far as gravity and available energy allowed.  Recognized as monument to ancient understandings of hydrology, engineering, and construction plus administrative skills to organize thousands of workers and animal power, the irrigation systems of Sri Lanka supported major populations and many still function to the present day (Brohier, 1934).  Two rice crops are possible and are often rotated with temperate zone vegetables with high market value.  Steeper slopes that were not possible to irrigate were in forest gardens with multiple canopies, species, and tropic levels providing food, medicine, fiber, and fodder serving village household needs and markets (Everett, 1995).  Requiring few external inputs and labor intensive, the intact hill and paddy systems were environmentally stable and recovered from perturbations quickly whether caused by drought, pests attacks, harvest of trees to meet financial needs, or market fluctuations.  Producing a wide variety of products used by village households, there is little wonder why these systems have endured for centuries.

While there were viable examples of the hill and paddy agriculture and ancient irrigation systems still functioning, a tragedy occurred during the colonial period with effects that endure to the present day; the removal of the montane forests. First came the great Ceylon “coffee rush” often compared to the gold rush of California. Europeans rushed to the mountains removing forests and planting coffee to meet the British and European demand for morning caffeine.  In the mid-1800s there were more than 90,000 acres in coffee plantations.  Then a blight destroyed the industry.  By 1890 most of the coffee had been replaced by tea, as the British adapted to a different morning beverage.  But all was not well.  There followed a period when much of the tea land wasn’t well cared for with erosion removing much of the A horizon of the soils and, in many cases, estates were abandoned.  Depleted soils couldn’t hold moisture and streams perished.  With the growth of a landless population, people occupied many of these lands, moving periodically due to soil exhaustion and the inability to purchase fertilizers to maintain fertility.  To the impoverish population, standing trees represented ready cash; even in the towns and cities, trees were often removed piece by piece to serve as fuelwood.

To rectify these dire circumstances in many locations and with the assistance of foreign aid agencies, the mountains were replanted with exotic species from North America and Australia, primarily Pinus and Eucalyptus. With no native decomposers to reduce litter and no food sources for native fauna, fires frequently swept through these forests making colonization by native species impossible.  Further, food and medical resources that were traditionally harvested from the montane forests were no longer available to villagers and the remaining landscapes could correctly be called ecological deserts.  Top-down planning without considering environmental consequences or the experiences and needs of the villagers created an ongoing disaster.

Water was the lynchpin to anything that might be done to stabilize landscapes and improve livelihoods. Thus, watershed restoration became a key challenge.  Even within established villages, there were needs for secure food supplies, greater financial benefits, erosion control, and protection for the remaining biodiversity.

Aided by a grant from USAID in 1988, research was initiated to explore in greater detail specific locations in mountainous areas of the country. Along with identifying land use patterns, the conditions of landscapes within villages were evaluated.  Inventories of all fauna and flora were mapped for specific villages and estates and ecological functions identified.[11]

A primary interest was to identify keystone species required in maintaining the various tropic levels and structure of the forest gardens. In cooperation with villagers, species used for food, fiber, fuel, fodder, medicines, oils, etc., were identified promoting understanding of how any changes would effect households and forest collectors.  In many localities, there were more than 70 plant species used by the villagers for various purposes.[12]

Concrete Measures of Success

In order to become a learning organization, NSRC selected measures of success against which to judge progress. We asked what were the indicators demonstrating movement in the direction of resilient and self-perpetuating environmental and social relationships linked to natural and market forces that did not degrade the resources while achieving financial independence for participants?  The demonstrable answers were:

  1. Stopping soil erosion. As noted, in many circumstances the A horizon of soils were depleted or missing, with streams and rivers running brown after rains. Planting up riparian zones with perennials plus terracing and channeling would slow and eventually minimized erosion. Rebuilding soils through composting to increase organic content was also an immediate need in many locations.
  2. Clean water and increased availability. With the removal of the forests, soils were less protected from rainfall and less moisture was absorbed into the soils. Many streams dried up and runoff from rainfall was immediate. By revegetating the land, especially with perennials, soils would gain greater water-holding capacity and streams could be reclaimed.
  3. Healthy food supply. Mindful of the dependence of the people on what they produced, the focus was on both households and villages. To what degree were they self-sufficient with adequate nutrition?
  4. Improved incomes for cultivators. This required an understanding of existing marketing opportunities and of activities that could be undertaken to generate greater benefits.
  5. Protecting indigenous biodiversity. In dealing with an ancient system of human-environmental interactions, it was important to understand the threats to the present mix of plants and animals and how this flora and fauna could be protected into the future. With inventories, baselines were set.

With limited staff[13] charged with engaging the people in evaluating their resources and discovering alternatives to meet these measures of success, cultivators’ lands were mapped noting soil quality, water availability, vegetation, management styles, etc.  We remained aware of the specific parcels as parts of larger landscapes.  The mapping process gave both staff and cultivators opportunities to share understandings of the resources and to build rapport.  We were aware that changes in agriculture and forestry are long-term ventures and progress should be judged not only on seasonal and annual bases but also over the longer-term.  In some cases, farmers were persuaded to keep financial records to determine the benefits gained from their various enterprises.

Design Features

We knew that the most solar efficient systems in terms of total biomass production are natural forests. Struck by the efficiency of the forest gardens and the range of products generated, we realized that these gardens exhibited the characteristics of natural forests in terms of structure and environmental services.  Erosion was minimal, soil improvements continued through accumulation of leaf litter, water absorption maintained perennial streams, and, with multiple tropic levels, the gardens were biologically diverse.  Using the surrounding natural forests and village forest gardens as models, we focused on utility and marketable species to create tree-dominated ecosystems and called this form of silviculture “analog forestry” in that it was analogous in structure and function to the surrounding native forests.  Later, as we grew to appreciate the complexities of the positions of villagers in serving both household needs and meeting market demands, we began calling the approach “restoration agriculture” because there was often a need to produce annual crops along with rice in the paddy fields that required a more complex mosaic of land-use.  Evenso, the goal was to move to a tree-dominated ecosystem as much as feasible and, as recent research has shown, the forest gardens produce more for household consumption and greater financial returns than other land use alternatives (Melvani,2018).

In our contacts with farmers, we avoided any criticism of traditional practices but rather offered positive alternatives, giving realistic hope for improvements in livelihoods. Program costs had to be modest given the limited resources of the cultivators plus the numbers of people to be served.  Finally, the rewards to be gained were to be based upon the energies expended by the beneficiaries.  In some cases in order to create examples in villages, we leased the lands of particular cultivators paying significantly more than what could be expected from continuing current practices.  We also paid for the labor expended in transforming their gardens.  The before-and-after benefits were there for all to see as the land was returned to the owner after the demonstration period.

Getting On With the Job

Ultimately, finding solutions to the cultivators’ problems must be in terms of their perspectives. It is their decision to ignore or join in.  Within and across villages, cultivators had different resource endowments, access to capital, labor availability, and household needs, so solutions had to be found to fit their particular circumstances. As noted, in the targeted villages, cultivators’ parcels were mapped and designs created to introduce new cropping systems.  The NSRC staff was faced with synthesizing information at ground level with our understanding of possibilities and opportunities that included improving current practices, adopting new crops, and responding to market demands.

An initial challenge was finding the planting materials required to implement the designs agreed upon by the cultivators and staff. The solution was creating village nurseries with a mix of utility trees and other perennials plus annuals that could generate quick income.  With funding from a variety of sources, many nurseries contained more than 70,000 plants and, after demonstrations, were turned over to villagers.  In addition, because of the demand for organic tea and other products, NSRC created and implemented management programs that meet the requirements of international certification agencies on behalf of large tea estates encompassing several thousands of acres (including Thomas Lipton’s first estate).

There are numerous examples of success where households stabilized landscapes while increasing incomes, in some cases by over 700 percent, and became more food secure; two examples demonstrate the utility of meeting major challenges from a learning perspective. The first concerns the infiltration of nitrites and nitrates into wells from the application of chemical fertilizers that resulted in spontaneous abortions and methaemoglobinaemia (blue baby syndrome) in infants.  The second is the recovery from the impact of the 2004 tsunami on the coastal town of Kalmunai, where 3,000 of 30,000 lives were lost. As noted with the creation of nurseries, the means of addressing challenges whether concerning the environment, finance, or personal health, was through vegetation management using specific plant species to address human needs while stabilizing landscapes and watersheds.

Clean Drinking Water for All

Along the Kalpitiya Peninsula, a sandy abutment into the Indian Ocean on the northwest coast of Sri Lanka, agriculture is practiced with large applications of inorganic fertilizers and chemical pesticides. With concentrations of nitrate, nitrite, chloride and potassium in the ground water, 77 of the 171 wells tested failed to meet World Health Organization (WHO) safety standards. When people have a high nitrate intake, the oxygen carrying capacity of blood is reduced resulting in methaemoglobinaemia. This condition impacts infants more frequently than adults because the higher pH of the gastrointestinal tract in newborns favors the growth of bacteria that convert nitrates to nitrites, cause of the disease.  In a study of infants on the peninsula, 64 percent had methaemeglobin levels above the normal range (Melvani and Moles).

In 2001, the Sri Lanka National Water Supply and Drainage Board (NWSDB), with the support of the Asian Development Bank, initiated 12 community-based drinking water supply schemes. Many were soon abandoned because of the contamination of water with nitrates and nitrites. The drinking water well tested in the village of Nawakkaduwa was the most effected.

In 2003, the NSRC proposed to the NWSDB that bioremediation around the wells could possibly remove contaminates and a contract was signed to start a research and demonstration project in Nawakkaduwa. A tree-dominated landscape design was created that included the cultivation of annual crops using strictly organic regimes as a means of producing immediate food and cash returns. The efficacy of the experiment in bioremediation was assessed periodically by measuring the levels of the contaminants in the water.

Concurrent with the increase in maturity of the vegetation was a decrease in contaminant levels, specifically nitrates. The WHO standard for nitrate nitrogen in water is 10 milligram (mg) per liter. When testing began in early 2004, the level in the Nawakkaduwa well exceeded 58.5 mg per liter, but by February 2008, levels had dropped to 12.1 mg per liter.  Through bioremediation, nitrate contamination was reduced in four years to safe levels providing safe water for the surrounding community.

Once the demonstration proved successful, the program was extended to 85 wells in the region along with the introduction of improved home garden management that included trees and annual crops. Calling the approach “Total Ecosystem Management,” the program was extended to the wells and lands of 20 schools on the peninsula and included the training of an “environmental cadet corps” to further extend the management techniques.  Based on census figures, water was made safe for 1,511,612 people.

Tsunami Recovery in Kalmunai (Melvani, 2011)

In December of 2004, a tsunami struck Kalmunai, a town on the east coast of Sri Lanka, with heavy loss of life, catastrophic damage to property, and contamination of land with seawater. In January 2005, with the assistance of a number of international aid agencies, the NSRC began the relief work distributing food and drinking water, cleaning wells, constructing toilets, and providing school supplies and livelihood assistance to craftspeople. This effort benefited 8,616 adults and 8,009 children. Equally important was reclaiming land through revegetation and restoring farmlands to arability.  In communities protected from the tsunami by forests, damages were minimal compared to the unprotected communities.  Thus, a three kilometre conservation forest was planted along the coast to buffer any future tsunamis and protect against predicted sea level rises.

Based upon the experiences with bioremediation along the Kalpitiya Peninsula, microwatershed surrounding 1,001 wells were planted with perennial and annual species. Given the results of demonstrations in reclaiming land into village gardens, regenerative farming models were established for 250 households.

Five years later, farmers in this area were food-secure and generated income despite a severe drought. Soils regained arability, and the coastline was protected by a wall of native vegetation.  The NWSDB Laboratory random sampled 26 of the 1001 wells and found safe potable water with decreased amounts of nitrate and chloride.  Twenty-eight thousand two hundred and ninety-two plants and shrubs of 74 species were established in the home gardens between 2005 and 2010.  Organic methods were used to create secure food supplies for families in a region severely challenged by 21 years of ethnic conflict and provided for local markets.

Based upon successful demonstrations in other places, raised beds were constructed and compost of water hyacinth, paddy straw and cow dung was covered by the existing sandy soil, creating ideal conditions for vegetable cultivation. This soil was found to be rich in organic matter and its capacity to retain moisture in times of drought.  Paddy straw plus coconut and Palmyrah leaves were used as sheet mulch to further retain soil moisture.  This released large quantities of carbon increasing soil moisture and creating habitat for soil fauna.  To further improve soils, green manures were combined with other raw materials, (e.g., cow/goat dung, rock phosphate, dolomite and granite dust).  Liquid fertilizer made from tree species, Azadirachta indica, Gliricidia maculatum, Pavetta indica and cow dung proved effective and mixtures of Sida spinosa, Andrographis paniculata, Garlic, Ginger, Chile, Castor Oil and cow urine were used to control pests and fungal diseases. Vermicompost and vermiwash made in farmer’s gardens also facilitated plant growth. With improved habitat, apiculture was introduced to 29 gardens which supplied honey for home consumption and the local market. At the end of five years, farmers were harvesting over 30 vegetable and 5 fruit crops.

The farmers in Kalmunai formed 21 participatory rural appraisal groups to continue monitoring the organic farming activities, waste management, and maintenance of the coastal forests. In addition, microfinance schemes were established and funds were collected from the farmers for loans to members, eliminating the dependence on commercial banks.

Handbook for Regenerative Agriculture 

As can be seen in these two examples, the NSRC staff engaged both people at ground level and international aid organizations, local government agencies, elected officials, craftspeople, marketers, religious leaders, other NGOs, etc., to address challenges at ground level. The learning process not only involved determining what to do, but also who was willing to assist and in what ways.

Based on 30 years’ experience with NSSRC and with support from USAID, Kamal Melvani (2012) assembled a Handbook for Regenerative Agriculture, a synthesis of what had been learned and what was directly relevant to village farmers. The book was based upon the on-the-ground exchanges between staff and farmers in guiding farmer decisions.  Published in Singalese, Tamil, and English, the book was written from the farmer’s perspective.  It starts with the farmer identifying her/his economic, social and ecological needs and then moves to an assessment of resources including crops, soil, water, tree cover, vegetation and weeds, biodiversity, light, wind, waste, and manpower. At this point, the process of mapping the farm garden is underway.  The farmer is directed to consult with family members to discover their needs.  These additional perspectives help identify the diverse components of the land and expand the farmer’s awareness of the environmental function of each including how current uses contributes to household wellbeing.  Seasonal changes, access to water, slope, spaces used for non-agriculture purposes, plants to be used, available materials for composting, etc., become part of the garden plan.

Next comes the implementation of the plan, starting with land clearing, fencing, land preparation, and moving on through composting, seed propagation, laying out the design on the ground, locations of annuals and perennials, deciding what and how much to plant, thinking in advance of rotating crops, intercropping, companion planting, etc. As part of the process, maintenance of the garden with available labor must be considered.  In 88 pages (including photographs), the farmer proceeds putting into practice what is presented in the Handbook while guided by what carries forward as part of the farming tradition, the paramparawa passed down directly through ancestors from many generations past.

Often with less land available than for earlier generations, the Handbook guides a farmer through a transition, addressing new circumstances whether by cultivators on abandoned lands once in forests or tea and coffee estates, or on village land purchased or inherited. New market opportunities were found for speciality crops such as organic black pepper, vanilla, and syrups from the coconut and fishtail palms that require new interpretations of present circumstances to devise beneficial strategies.  The example of forming new groups to work together to gain benefits otherwise not possible in the tsunami recovery in Kalmunai demonstrates the shared learning by both staff and villagers.  Here, collaborative marketing bypassed the traditional mudulalies (middle people) and returned greater incomes to the cultivators.

The Handbook for Regenerative Agriculture is a synthesis by the NeoSynthesis Research Centre.  Through years of identifying and clarifying the results of our efforts and working tirelessly to help farmers understand, accept, and integrate those practices with their traditions, relevancies and irrelevances were separated and ways of understanding the context of agriculture accepted.  Changes can be seen in the practices of cultivators and in the crops grown, land and water resources protected, food available for families, and produce marketed.  The value of the Handbook is demonstrated when villagers turn out in numbers to receive their personal copies and when copies are requested by members of Parliament, government agencies, NGOs, mudulalies who purchase specialty crops from cultivators, and international aid agencies.  Kamal Melvani and her staff have demonstrated how they have established a learning culture relevant to the Anthroposcene.

Part of the success of the NSRC is the extension of its influence into the wider world. Beyond the focus on the village, there is continual exploration for markets for items that can be produced in an environmentally safe way and that return benefits equitable to the energies invested.  There is continuing experimentation in converting small watersheds to organic production and increasing financial returns.  Revegetation of an abandoned tea estate recently completed is a model of restoration agriculture that also serves as a tourist destination.  More recently, the NSRC has been asked to buffer the odors from an improperly place sewage treatment plant through vegetation management.

It’s a Matter of Paying Attention

In addressing complex problems, success comes from paying attention to what matters, what makes a difference as we change and adapt to those changes over the coming decades and centuries. It’s about the definition of contexts out of which we function as people in each and every location around the Earth.  It’s about appreciating our ignorance — how little we do know– and a willingness to learn as members of communities finding our ways.

Rather than continuing as a traditional ethnographer recording and ordering my observations, in NSRC I became a mediator, facilitating exchanges of information in learning about present circumstances in order to discover next steps in problem resolution.

Science is a logic of justification, of answering the question of how we know what we claim to know. We make assumptions, make assertions about the nature of the world, and create and answer questions demonstrating whether or not our assertions are valid in an experiential world.  We then report our findings in various formats to students, colleagues, and others who might find what we have discovered useful.

In Sri Lanka as part of the NSRC, the justification of what I knew took on a different sense. Bateson (Harries-Jones:53-55, 1995) thought in terms of gestalts as related to “wholes” as opposed to “units of information” derived from empirical inquiry.  Here we’re beyond theories of data where the concern is the relationship between the concept and the item observed and are focused on “aggregates of information which appear to be grasped in shifts from static to temporal sequences (Ibid:54).”

From a hypothesis-testing perspective where tests of significance are expected, the reflecting back to the people what was learned falls short of acceptable. On the other hand, the NSRC test of significance is the consequence of the reflecting back and the continual adaptations that have resulted in cleaning nitrates out of wells, recovering from the tsunami, and other successes.  Keep in mind that we’re dealing with nonlinear dynamics of complex systems with different scales in time and space and the possibility of multiple causality so understanding exact cause and effect is difficult if not impossible.  People respond for many reasons and we can only “see” their behavior on the ground in three-dimensioned spaces.

At first I took copious notes but it was soon apparent that there was more to learn than could be recorded. Making sense of things became an all-encompassing challenge.  Understanding how things fit together in some comprehensible form was beyond what I was capable of doing alone.  The “reality” was generated by those involved through ongoing experiences and conversations including visits to villages, chats with members of Parliament and the brother of the President, and meetings with bikkhus and Swami Siva Kalki who, as Mike Wilson, had been the partner of Arthur C. Clarke.  International aid agencies had ideas of what should be done to relieve suffering, avoid environmental damages, and move Sri Lanka toward a “modern economy.”  Employees of the Ministry of Agriculture shared their understandings, and workers in urban slums reported on tragic consequences for villagers who moved into cities.  A representative of the National Water Supply and Drainage Board explained that no water of good quality remained on the Island.  Faculty from the Agriculture College of the University of Peradeniya shared their research, and representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture visited the research station.   Ultimately, it was up to the NSRC staff and the villagers to determine what was useful in deciding future courses of action.

Bateson (1978:277-78) explained that “The business of thinking, the business of learning, becomes very much like the business of evolution when you realize that it is all the time partly experimental – feeling, grasping, exploring (exploring is perhaps the word). It’s called trial and error (it should be called success and error, shouldn’t it?) among which you then find your way.”

I settled on understandings that worked for me, and contributed to the synthesis to catalyze and facilitate a movement towards resilient landscapes and sustainable natural resource care. I summarized what I was learning and shared this with others for their modifications, corrections and additions. Once accepted and integrated into operational plans, we proceeded open to future changes as we continued to learn.  And this takes us back to Bateson and his approach to anthropology as recursive epistemology.   “. . . if epistemology is the study of how people or systems of people know things, and how they think they know things, then in studying the relation between humanity and the biosphere ‘anthropology becomes a critical study of epistemology’ (Harris-Jones:11, 1995 also citing Bateson in Keeney, 1977).”


As we reflect on our work in Sri Lanka, the initial focus on the temple, tank, and villagers remained. Thinking in terms of systematics, energetics, and cycles placed us ecologically in each village and assisted in defining contexts on landscapes and in watersheds. Envisioning capital as the capacity to command goods and services required sensitivity to returns to both labor and agriculture and made possible the discovery of ways of reallocating resources to take advantage of new economic opportunities.  Beyond the villages were other contacts with members of Parliament and a number of bureaucracies, businesses, international aid agencies and local government agents and many contributed time, finances, and expertise.  All of these experiences served as a backdrop to Kamal Melvani as she created the Farmers Handbook.

A remaining issue is that of the time required for agriculture and forestry practices to change. What is to be done must benefit the people whose behavior must change on the ground in real time.  Funding organizations, agencies, NGOs, and others wishing to facilitate changes often don’t appreciate the time required for sustainable implementation and promising starts are too frequently abandoned.  Projects planned for only one, two or even several years often end before the contexts of circumstances can be understood and communities mobilized.   Realizing that adaptation is a never-ending process, the practices developed must be designed to endure, and this requires never-ending learning.


Abeyesundare, A.N.A. 1980    Administrative Report of the Anti-Malaria Campaign. Ministry of Agriculture. Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.

Bateson, G. 1972    Steps to An Ecology of Mind. New York: Chandler Publishing Co.

1978    Intelligence, Experience, and Evolution. Re-vision 1 (2) Spring, 50-55.  Adapted from a lecture delivered March 24, 1975 at Naropa Institute, Boulder, Colorado.  Readapted from the original tape recording for publication in A Sacred Unity, Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind (Donaldson:271-281).

Bateson, G. and M.C. Bateson 1987    Angles Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Brohier, R.L. 1934    Ancient Irrigation Works in Ceylon.  Colombo: Ceylon Government Press.

Carr, M.N. 1975    Tractors in Sri Lanka: A Case of Inappropriate Technology. Seminar Paper, Institute for International Development Studies, University of Sussex.

Churchman, C.W. 1968    The Systems Approach. New York: Dell.

1971    The Design of Inquiring Systems: Basic Concepts of Systems and Organizations. New York: Basic Books.

Donaldson, R. E. (ed.) 1991    Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Gregory Bateson. New York: A Cornelia & Michael Bessie Book, HarperCollins.

Edirisinghe, N. 1979    Welfare or Growth?  Sri Lanka’s Problem in Peasant Agriculture.  Cornell Agricultural Economics Staff Paper N. 79-18.  Ithaca: Cornell University, Department of Agricultural Economics.

Everett, Y. 1991    Homegardens in Sri Lanka: Patterns and Change in the Highland Landscape.  Paper presented at conference on integrated land-use and biodiversity in tropical China. Jinghong, Xishuangbanna, China.

1995     Forest Gardens of Highland Sri Lanka- An indigenous system for reclaiming deforested land. In D. Michael Warren, L. Jan Slikkerveer and David Brokensha (edss) The Cultural Dimension of Development – Indigenous Knowledge Systems. Intermediate Technology Publications Ltd.

Geiger, W. (translator) 1912    The Mahávamsa or The Great Chronicle of Ceylon.  New Delhi: Asian Educational Services.

Harrison-Jones, P. 1995    A Recursive Vision: Ecological Understanding and Gregory Bateson. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Keeney, B.P. 1979    Glimpses of Gregory Bateson. Pilgrimages 7 (1), 17-44.

Korzybski, A. 1949    An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics. Lakeville, Conn.: The International Non-Aristotelian Library Publishing Co.

Lewis, M. 2017    The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

McChrystal, S., T. Collins, D. Silverman, and C. Fussell 2015    Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World. New York: Penguin.

Melvani, K. 2011    Restoration to Build Resilience – The Experience in Kalmunai, Sri Lanka.  Archives of the NeoSynthesis Research Centre.  Available upon request.

2012    Handbook for Regenerative Agriculture. Polgasowita, Sri Lanka: NeoSynthesis Research Centre, (ISBN 978-955-0939-00-8).  Available at

2018    Forest Gardens and Farmer Livelihoods in the Intermediate Zone of Sri Lanka. Doctoral dissertation. Darwin: Research Institute for Environment and Livelihood, Charles Darwin University.

Melvani, K. and J. Moles 2011    Clean Drinking Water for All: Community Based Bioremediation of Drinking Water Wells. Archives of the NeoSynthesis Research Centre. Available upon request.

Merrill, R. 1976    “Towards a Self-Sustaining Agriculture.” in R. Merrill (ed.), Radical Agriculture. New York: Harper Colophon.

Moles, J. 1989    Agriculture Sustainability and Traditional Agriculture: Learning from the Past and its Relevance to Sri Lanka. Human Organization 48(1):70-78.

Moles, J. and J. Riker 1982    “Hope, Ideas, and Our Only Alternative–Ourselves and Our Values: National Heritage and the Future of Sri Lanka Agriculture.” Lanka Guardian 5(7-14). also in G. K. Douglass, (ed.), Agricultural Sustainability in a Changing World Order.   Boulder: West View Press.

Panabokke, C.R. 1967    Soils of Ceylon and Fertilizer Use. Colombo: Association for the Advancement of Sciences.

Senanayake, R.S. 1982    “The Ecological, Energetic, and Agronomic Systems of Ancient and Modern Sri Lanka.” in  G. K. Douglass, (ed.), Agricultural Sustainability in a Changing World Order.  Boulder: West View Press.

Senge, P.M. 2006    The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday.

Stafford, K. 2017    The Flavor of Unity: Post-Election Poems.  Portland, Oregon: Little Infinities.

Walker, B. and D. Salt 2006    Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World. Covelo, California: Island Press.

Walters, C.J. 1986    Adaptive Management of Renewable Resources. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Waterfield, R. 1987    René Guénon and the Future of the West. Great Britain: Crucible of The Aquarian Press.



[1] An earlier version was presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology on March 31, 2017 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Courtland Smith, Roberto Alvarez, Ted Downing, Yvonne Everett, and Deborah Tilson Clark have given beneficial advice improving this manuscript immeasurably.

[2] Chair of the Board, NeoSynthesis Research Centre, Sri Lanka; Secretary, Blue Ridge Plateau Initiative, Central Appalachia, USA; Facilitator, Grayson LandCare, Virginia USA.

[3] A description of circumstances at the time can be found in Moles and Riker, 1982.

[4] At the time, the consequences were documented including the settling of soils and breaking of the hard pan by tractors reducing the effectiveness of irrigation (Carr,1975), reduction of soil quality through the application of pesticides (Abeyesundare, 1980), changes in the carbon-nitrogen ratios due to loss of organic materials (Penabokke, 1967) and the loss of aquatic fauna (Merrill, 1976). Further, the environmental disruptions and indebtedness of both farmers and the nation caused additional hardships (Senananake, 1984).

[5] A useful introduction to resiliency theory can be found in Walker and Salt. For additional information see the Resilience Alliance Website

[6] In the late 1960s, C. West Churchman (1968, 1971) was writing on the importance of learning systems for improving management and planning in government, business, and industry. Since then the ideas have been further elaborated.  Peter Senge’s popular The Fifth Discipline and Stanley McChrystal, et. al., in Team of Teams, New Rules for Engagement for a Complex World. demonstrate the use of learning systems in both business and warfare.

[7] Of course it is we anthropologists who have created and elaborated upon the notion of culture as useful in describing and explaining the differences we see within and across different groups of people. Yet, as Jung has pointed out, history is made by individuals, not vice versa (Waterfield:102, 1987).  We are the creators of the cultures we report upon.  As Einstein noted, physics isn’t the science of the physical world.  Rather physics is the science of measurement because humans, with the apparatus used, create the results found.

[8] Following Bateson (Harries-Jones:74-75), mind is not inside the head but rather “. . . a synonym for a systemic combination of pattern, information, communication, and ideas.” While the complexities are beyond our understanding, we can detect bits and pieces to the point where meaningful exchanges are possible.

[9] Because of the critical stances taken by the Lanka Guardian, pressure from both government and financial interests eventually forced its closure.

[10] Very interesting in a cash starved county, when paying local vendors returned checks would have signatures from top to bottom on the back with the check serving as the currency it represented paying outstanding debts.

[11] While there have been calls to publish the information, the size and complexity of the datasets are great and remain in NSRC offices. Our concern has been the synthesis of this information and, throughout, our objective has been the training of an informed and capable staff. Action takes precedent over publishing.  The data is available for interested scholars.

[12] In 1983, Kamal (Kamy) Melvani joined the NSRC and has directed the on-ground activities since that time. Much of the success is due to her insightful leadership and practical mind.  Ranil Senanayake, a co-founder, left the organization in 2004 to set up another NGO, Rainforest Rescue.

[13] Staff size varied from 6 to more than 30 and was determined by funding for specific projects.

Envenoment, an excavation: Towards a feminism-without-example in ten parts

bogna m konior & yvette granata

@bognamk and @EvieYv 

transcript of a talk delivered at university of western sydney, july 2017 video first premiered at tuning speculation IV, toronto, november 2016

A small part of the human brain is devoted to snakes, the first and most persistent predators of the early mammals. Primate vision, these eyes that perceive the light of reason, evolved in order to see snakes better. Snakes were such a critical threat that they shaped the emergence of some of our most pertinent evolutionary traits. Philosophy and theology, here understood as engines of knowledge, the regimes that outline what there is to know and the methods of knowing, likewise use the serpent as the anchor for thought. The female and the serpent have been framed as toxic to knowledge, their very presence a threat to the purity of humanity and reason. From Plato to Spinoza and throughout Judeo-Christian narratives, we have been told that femininity can only possess a feral reason, a thought contaminated externally by the very receptacle in which it is nested: the female body. This knowledge is forbidden and worthless, because – take it from God himself –serpent knowledge took immortality from us. We are thus born dead into the world and dead we depart.

Feminist theory dispelled these precautions against women and serpents by putting them in their place, or rather in their cultural context. The ancient cult of the Mother Goddess as manifest in Canaan in the Baal/Asherah cult, with the serpent as its totem, was one that the tribes that authored the Old Testament wanted to politically and culturally annihilate. The transformation in the book of Genesis of the Goddess’s wise serpent into a creature feared and despised has been described as one of the most successful political campaigns perpetrated against the older cult. Yet, this renunciation is caught in a double-bind.

On the one hand, this cultural defanging, or an unmasking of context, remains intertwined in the affirmations of that, which is considered epistemologically credible. It sacrifices reason on the altar of relativism. But thought is not relative.

On the other hand, embracing the figure of the snake in a subversive manner, as post-humanist theory has done, seems a planet-wide version of the Stockholm syndrome. Feminist epistemology shows us that the construction of women as the tabula rasa has little to do with defining them, and is rather interested in seizing them in their supposed mystery, as a foil against which thought can form. They have to remain unknown so that they can be used. Thought can be rooted in the black hole of speculation, oscillating around the unknown on the event horizon, re -charging itself by what it constructs as a mystery. Philosophy drinks from the fountain of rejuvenating speculation that it has installed in this vacuous cage.

All of this is still thinking from the position of theology or even theodicy. It is not enough to defang philosophy, alongside its patriarchal fidelity, but to think through the fangs themselves. It is only then that we cease to play by the rules, bouncing philosophical categories back and forth until nothing but philosophy is seen. Neither the acceptance nor the denial of humanity understands what humanity is. It is only humanity, in its ancestral and futurist serpent form, that is able to melt away the philosophical libido.

Asked to comment on police brutality, Frank Wilderson III said: “I am not against police brutality. I am against the police.” Asked about philosophy’s debasement and dismissal of women, we should respond: I do not reject patriarchal philosophy. I reject philosophy itself. Rejecting anything less than the whole of philosophy, or the whole of the police, would do nothing to reveal how some of us are philosophized all the time, but never allowed to be philosophers; while others of us are policed all the time, while never allowed to return this structural violence. If blackness must wholly destroy humanity to speak itself, it is because it recognizes its captivity not in the event of police brutality but in the construction of the human. If feminism must wholly destroy philosophy to think, it is because philosophy’s epistemological kernel remains rooted in theological idea of light.

To say “let there be light” is not the path to knowledge, it is only path to theological blindness.

What does it mean to root knowledge and humanity in this connection to light, as if seeing was a prerequisite for knowing? What kind of knowledge does light allow if not one that sees itself as already external to the world, as if watching it from the outside? A God who resides outside of the world can say, “let there be light.” But we want to speak from the Earth’s core.

We care little for expounding upon darkness and light. To oppose darkness to light can too easily fall into an aesthetic trap, as if we were speaking about color, the visual sensation or the lack of it.

We talk about venom as darkness, because what we mean is the immanence of the material to itself.

“There is a paradox at the heart of aesthetic sentiment,” Laruelle remarks. “The paradox is the following: on the one hand light remains to a certain degree in itself. It does not lose its identity in an object…but on the other hand, light ‘radiates.’”

This paradox is the starting point for an intervention. The only way to get out of the trap of philosophy, which promises knowledge from the outside, appealing to theological reason, is to subtract the qualities of light from itself. This is how we strip light off its traits and understand it in its radical identity.

And so Laruelle speaks about “radiation-without-rays” or “light-without-reflection.” Alexander Galloway writes that “such a move defangs the transcendental tendencies added to light by philosophy and reveals a purely immanent light.” A light in its radical identity that cannot be used philosophically anymore because it remains non-representational, it becomes the only reference point onto itself. It becomes its own medium and its own content.

One cannot just defang philosophical notions of light.

You need to think through the fangs.

Philosophy has never seen the light because it is unable to see the vector of its own thought. It can only move in three spaces.

The first one is the Garden of Eden, where light creates life. The second is Plato’s cave, where fire and light open the gates to knowledge. The third is the red light district, where in the neon glow philosophy bathes its own consummation of itself, its narcissistic orgy of vision.

But [philosophy] cannot fathom a vision-without-seeing. A darkness that is not defined by the absence of light but through the forbidden hiss of the serpent.

In Philosophy-in-the-wild, we address this theological kernel of the light and the innate Idea of philosophy by performing an inventive archaeological excavation of venom thought. This invention is not speculative. When philosophy holds both the living of your life and the manner of your dying, the rhythm of your reason and the outline of your world in its hands, fabulation is not enough. If we refer to the existing venom thought rather than fabulating it, it is because we think alongside the Real. We do not make anything new. We do not make anything up. This is a revealing of the venom that pulsates in the veins of philosophy, so that it radiates from within, and without warning.

All that philosophy does is create concepts. It assumed a sufficiency of its own speculation on the nature of the real, or of women, of or humanity. We are not native to this defense mechanisms of philosophy. We are pragmatic and realist. We operate within a speculative insufficiency.

Our aim is not to make a feminist comment from a peripheral place, nor to enter into an amended space within the current philosophical regime. We argue that it is the very place of philosophy, the garden, the cave, and the red light district, that has been contaminated by patriarchal fidelities that debase philosophy itself and reproduce toxic peripheries.

There is no periphery in our wild, only a platform for seeing eye to eye with the serpent again.

Philosophers said “let there be light,” but non-philosophers met the snake instead. Thus, we begin in the dark. On the island with snakes. When the Portuguese arrived on the Lamma island in Hong Kong, they named it after the word mud. The Portuguese notation also reflected the activity of holding, a certain consistency in itself. It was the consistency of the seabed from the point of view of anchoring there.

It is an island that holds itself. The older Chinese notation 博 寮 洲 has a similar meaning – it refers both to parking or holding and over the time it was changed to denote knowledge. We were interested in that, in the correlation of holding and knowledge, rather than of the fall – the fall from the Garden of Eden – and knowledge. We went to several places on the island.

There is a place with stone circles, which date back to prehistoric China, three or four thousand years before Christ. No one knows their purpose; however, there used to be an ancient cult of the Goddess Mazu on Lamma, the “mother ancestor.” She wore red garments while standing on the shore to guide fishing boats home, even in the most dangerous and harsh weather.

There is a place called Cave Kamikaze, where the Japanese kamikaze speedboat pilots hid their boats while they waited for ships in order to zoom out into the ocean to blow themselves up. We recorded the sounds of this cave.

And there are three kinds of venomous snakes on the island, including a deadly mamba and a cobra, centipedes, giant spiders, and packs of feral dogs. We are thinking with our snake-sense heightened, because we are walking where we know there were venomous snakes. Our dialog is therefore not just about darkness or philosophy, but about thinking with our snake-sense turned up.

This philosophy of venom is a radical identity that is corollary to (i.e., necessarily outside of) enlightenment thought. We want to insurrect a woman, but not a woman with any traits, not a woman defined by philosophy, or by any thought that has been contaminated by philosophy. Following François Laruelle and Anne-Françoise Schmid, we seek a feminism-without-example, just like Laruelle sought a light-without-reflection. This woman is not defined, but she is axiomatic.

This woman is the underdetermined ‘x’ that underlies all rational operations. The ‘x’ must remain underdetermined precisely because the result has to be specific.

The woman-in-person, a generic anti-Christ of the dark, the venom of the last instance of philosophy. She determines all thought and yet she herself cannot be thought.

Both philosophy and theology have been using women as the foil for their own formation. Without the denial of women, neither can exist. What is philosophy or theology if its engine – the woman – cannot be thought? It becomes apophatic, that is, it becomes definable only by what it is not. A non-philosophy or a non-theology: an apocrypha.

This is our Envenoment, seeing without eyeballs and thinking through the fangs, subtracting thought by sliding on our legless belly.

This apocrypha is distinct from what we understand feminism to be historically, which is a conflation of feminism as activism and feminism as philosophy. This is why feminism is called feminism and not simply philosophy, by containing both progressive political aims and philosophical stagnations. Institutional frameworks recreate this distinction, continually producing the feminine as peripheral to philosophy while also putting forth feminist thought as a politically progressive institutional theme. The two necessarily progress together in the dim light of worn out conceptual ideals.

Preference is given to theory that names itself as ‘feminism’ only in order for the institution to ‘make good’ on its historical exclusions. Such ambiguous logic should be considered a paradox to feminist thought. How can feminist philosophy, deemed to be minor or peripheral to philosophy, be at the same time considered to be a progressive politics?

This paradox produces an inverse relation of production, where ‘political progress’ only further marks out those on the ‘outside’ of thought. It is a trap.

Thus an apocrypha is necessary for the contemporary moment as well as the historical one of the ancient past.

As an apocrypha, envenoment remains “without example,” it is a non-feminism. On the other hand, we evade the tendency of thought to continually erase its own roots and proclaim its death in order to rejuvenate itself. This is also the way that philosophy operates – it keeps proclaiming its own death, but what it really does is taking sleeping pills and calling all of her friends. When asked to comment on the significance of Standing Rock protests to the future of our children and our planet, the elders responded: Our water is already poisoned. We are here to protect the spirits of our ancestors, not some kind of a global future for the next generations. Only from the inside of a graveyard can we speak about death, and only with eyes closed can we unfold the future. We thus respect our ancestors and look to our roots. The future is dead to us already, but we speak fully aware of the dead women buried under our feet, killed for thinking.

Envenoment is then a double-move: our ancestor politics looks to: ‘Snake & Woman” and “Darkness & Venom” for a philosophical apocrypha. On the other hand, we lay out the foundations for a philosophy that begins through thinking the non-standard relation of darkness and venom and opposed to darkness and light. We speak their voices because we are the Same Dead that Does Not Repeat, rather than the Eternal Return. The serpent too disguises herself, when darkness falls down onto her skin and slides along the watery eels of the river. We identify with the Same-Dead that Do Not Repeat. This is the genocide we speak.


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Original presentation here: click

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Escaping the Anthropocene

Bernard Stiegler

Durham University, January 2015

1. Automatization and negentropy

The propositions at the heart of this paper are founded on the conclusions of my recent work entitled La société automatique, a book concerned with the issues of complete and generalized automatization that have accompanied the advent of the digital age. In it I argue that algorithmic automatization has led to the decline of wage labour and employment, and hence to the imminent disappearance of the Keynesian model of redistributing productivity gains, a model that has until now been the basis of the macroeconomic system’s ability to remain solvent.

After the ‘great transformation’ that Karl Polanyi described in 1944, which gave rise to what we now call the ‘Anthropocene’, an immense transformation is now taking place, a transformation that presents us with an alternative:

  • either we continue being led in the direction of hyperproletarianization and a generalized form of automatic piloting that will engender both structural insolvency and a vertiginous increase in entropy;
  • or we lead ourselves out of the process of generalized proletarianization into which we have been placed by 250 years of industrial capitalism.

This second alternative requires negentropic capabilities to be widely developed on a massive scale, through a noetic politics of reticulation that places automata, automation systems of every kind, into the service of individual and collective capacities for dis-automatization – that is, it places them in the service of the production of negentropic bifurcations.

The immensity of the transformation currently underway is due both to the speed of its effects and to the fact that these effects operate on a global scale. So-called ‘big data’ is a key example of this immense transformation that is leading globalized consumerism to liquidate all forms of knowledge (savoir vivre, savoir faire and savoir conceptualiser, knowledge of how to live, do and think).

The Anthropocene is an ‘Entropocene’, that is, a period in which entropy is produced on a massive scale, thanks precisely to the fact that what has been liquidated and automatized is knowledge, so that in fact it is no longer knowledge at all, but rather a matter of closed systems, that is, entropic systems. Knowledge is an open system: it always includes a capacity for dis-automatization that produces negentropy. When Chris Anderson announced the end of theory in the era of big data, that he calls here data deluge, he made a serious mistake, given that he ignored the fact that to close an open system leads in a systemic way to its disappearance.

Given that it is founded on proletarianization and the destruction of knowledge, the model of redistributing productivity gains through employment is itself doomed. Another model of redistribution must be conceived and implemented if we are to ensure macro-economic solvency in the age of digital automation. The criteria for redistribution that must now be adopted can no longer be founded on the productivity of labour. Productivity is today a question of machines, and today’s digital machine no longer has any need for either work or employment.

Manual work that produces negentropy and knowledge – which Hegel discussed in terms of Knecht – was replaced in the nineteenth century by proletarianized employment, that is, by a proletariat forced to submit to a machinery that was entropic not just because of its consumption of fossil fuels, but because of its standardization of operating sequences and the resultant loss of knowledge on the side of the employee. This loss of knowledge has today become so widespread that it has reached as far as Alan Greenspan, as I have shown in La société automatique and as he himself stated on October 23, 2008.

The Anthropocene is unsustainable: it is a massive and high-speed process of destruction operating on a planetary scale, and its current direction must be reversed. The question and the challenge of the Anthropocene is therefore the ‘Neganthropocene’, that is, to find a pathway that will enable us to escape from this impasse of cosmic dimensions – which requires a new speculative cosmology in the wake of Whitehead.

New criteria, as I said, must be implemented in order to organize redistribution in the economy of the Neganthropocene, and these new criteria must be founded on the capacity for dis-automatization that it is up to us to resuscitate. This necessarily involves a resurrection of what Amartya Sen calls capabilities, which he places at the foundation of human development – that is, of the individuation of humankind.

2. Knowledge, freedom and agency

Amartya Sen relates ‘capability’ to the development of freedom, which he defines as always being both individual and collective:

 we have to see individual freedom as a social commitment.1

In this way, Sen remains faithful to both Kantian and Socratic perspectives. Capability constitutes the basis of economic dynamism and development, and it does so as freedom:

Expansion of freedom is viewed, in this approach, both as the primary end and as the principal means of development.2

Freedom, in Sen’s definition, is therefore a form of agency: the power to act. Sen’s comparative example of the incapacitating effects of consumerism (that is, in his terms, of the indicators of affluence) is well-known:

… the black residents of Harlem have a lower life expectancy than the people of Bangladesh, and this is precisely a question of their ‘agency’.

Freedom is here a question of knowledge insofar as it is a capability that is always both individual and collective – and this means: individuated both psychically and collectively. It was on this basis that Sen devised the human development index in order to form a contrast with the economic growth index. I would like to extend Sen’s propositions by means of a different analysis, one that leads to other questions. In particular, consideration must be given to the question of what relations psychic and collective individuals can forge with automata, in order to achieve individual and collective bifurcations within an industrial and economic system that, having become massively automatized, tends also to become closed.

The Anthropocene, insofar as it is an ‘Entropocene’, amounts to accomplished nihilism: it produces an unsustainable levelling of all values that requires a leap into a ‘transvaluation’ capable of giving rise to a ‘general economy’ in Georges Bataille’s sense, whose work I have elsewhere tried to show involves a reconsideration of libidinal economy. The movement I am describing here is no doubt not a transvaluation in a strict Nietzschean sense. Rather, it is an invitation to re-read Nietzsche with respect to questions of disorder and order that in the following will be understood in terms of becoming and future.

3. Becoming and future

If there is to be a future, and not just a becoming, the value of tomorrow will lie in the constitutive negentropy of the economy-to-come of the Neganthropocene. For such an economy, the practical and functional differentiation between becoming and future must form its criteria of evaluation – only in so doing will it be possible to overcome the systemic entropy in which the Anthropocene consists. This economy requires a shift from anthropology to neganthropology, where the latter is founded on what I call general organology and on a pharmacology: the pharmakon is the artefact and as such the condition of hominization, that is, an organogenesis of artefactual organs and organizations, but it always produces both entropy and negentropy, and hence it is always also a threat to hominization.

The problem raised by such a perspective on the future is to know how to evaluate or measure negentropy. Referred to as negative entropy by Erwin Schrödinger and as anti-entropy by Francis Bailly and Giuseppe Longo, negentropy is always defined in relation to an observer (see the work of Henri Atlan3 and of Edgar Morin4) – that is, it is always described in relation to a locality that it as such produces, and that it differentiates within a more or less homogeneous space (and this is why a neganthropology is always also a geography). What appears entropic from one angle is negentropic from another angle.

Knowledge – as savoir faire (that is, knowledge of what to do so that I do not myself collapse and am not led into chaos), as savoir vivre (that is, knowledge that enriches and individuates the social organization in which I live without destroying it), and as conceptual knowledge (that is, knowledge the inheritance of which occurs only by passing through its transformation, and which is transformed only by being reactivated through a process of what Socrates called anamnesis, a process that, in the West, structurally exceeds its locality) – knowledge, in all these forms, is always a way of collectively defining what is negentropic in this or that field of human existence.

What we call the inhuman is a denial of the negentropic possibilities of the human, that is, a denial of its noetic freedom and, as a result, its agency. What Sen describes as freedom and capability must be conceived from this cosmic perspective, and related to Whitehead’s ‘speculative cosmology’, as constituting a negentropic potentiality – as the potential for openness of a localized system that, for that being we refer to as ‘human’, may always once again become closed. Or, in Whitehead’s terms, human beings may always relapse, decay into simpler forms, that is, become inhuman.5

This is so only because the anthropological is both hyperentropic and negentropic to the second degree: the anthropos is organological, that is, pharmacological, or, as Jean-Pierre Vernant put it, constitutively ambiguous.

4. Anthropology as entropology according to Lévi-Strauss and beyond

In addition to being fundamentally local, an open, negentropic system is characterized by its relative sustainability – or in other words, by its finitude. What is negentropic – whether idiom, tool, institution, market, desire and so on – is always in the course of its inevitable decay. What I call an idiotext, as I attempted to define it in the final part of my thesis (which has not yet been published), is an open locality taken up within another, greater locality, or within what I describe as nested spirals as they co-produce a process of collective individuation by psychically individuating themselves. This is not without an echo in the questions posed by Edgar Morin in The Nature of Nature.6 But Morin, like Atlan, overlooks the essential, namely, the organological dimension (that is, the technical and artificial dimension) of the negentropy characteristic of anthropos, which means that it is also pharmacological, that is, both entropic and negentropic, and hence requires continual arbitration – negotiations that are operations of knowledge as therapies and therapeutics. In an idiotext tendencies compose, tendencies that are highly pharmacological, that is, both entropic and negentropic, and in this way they constitute a dynamic wherein figures or motives emerge that are protentions, that is, differences that separate future from becoming and thereby allow this separation to be perpetuated. These are the motives and figures through which knowledge is woven as the circuits of transindividuation that form both within a generation and between the generations.

Since the beginning of the 2000s, at IRCAM, that is, as a result of my journey through musicology, I have presented this composition of tendencies as what results from negotiation between psychosomatic organisms (psychic individuals), artificial organs (technical individuals) and social organizations (collective individuations). It is through the complexity of this negotiation that the principles of general organology are formalized, as a kind of pharmacological drama, that is, as the constantly renewed and reposed problem of the decay of negentropic conquests into entropic waste. This point of view is the complete opposite of the conclusion reached by Claude Lévi-Strauss at the end of Tristes Tropiques when, having recalled that ‘the world began without man and will end without him’ and that man works towards ‘the disintegration of the original order of things and precipitates a powerful organization of matter towards ever greater inertia, an inertia that one day will be final’ 7, he adds that:

From the time when he first began to breathe and eat, up to the invention of atomic and thermonuclear devices, by way of the discovery of fire – and except when he has been engaged in self-reproduction – man has done nothing other than blithely break down billions of structures and reduce them to a state in which they are no longer capable of integration.8

Hence Lévi-Strauss poses with rare radicality the question of becoming without being, that is, of the inevitably ephemeral character of the cosmos in totality, as well as of the localities that form therein through negentropic processes themselves always factors of entropic accelerations.

If we were to take literally this profoundly nihilistic statement by Lévi-Strauss (when, for example, he writes that ‘man has done nothing other than blithely break down billions of structures and reduce them to a state in which they are no longer capable of integration’), we would be forced to assume that very little time separates us from the ‘end times’. We would be forced to reduce this time to nothing, to annihilate it, and to discount negentropy on the grounds of being ephemeral: we would have to dissolve the future into becoming, to assess it as null and void [non avenu], as never coming, that is, as having ultimately never happened, the outcome of having no future – as becoming without future. And we would be forced to conclude that what is ephemeral, because it is ephemeral, is merely nothing. This is literally what the anthropologist says. I define myself as a neganthropologist. And I have two objections to Lévi-Strauss:

  • on the one hand, that the question of reason, understood as a quasi-causal power (in the Deleuzian sense) to bifurcate, that is, to produce, in the jumble of facts, a necessary order forming a law, is always the question of being ‘worthy of what happens to us’9 , which is another way of describing the function of reason as defined by Whitehead, namely as what makes a life a good life, and what makes a good life a better life10, that is, a struggle against static survival, which is nothing other than the entropic tendency of all life;
  • on the other hand, that Lévi-Strauss’s bitter and disillusioned sophistry seriously neglects two points:
  1. first, life in general, as ‘negative entropy’, that is, as negentropy, is always produced from entropy, and invariably leads back there: it is a detour – as was said by Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle and by Blanchot in The Infinite Conversation;
  2. second, technical life is an amplified and hyperbolic form of negentropy, that is, of an organization that is not just organic but organological, but which produces an entropy that is equally hyperbolic, and which, like living things, returns to it, but does so by accelerating the speed of the differentiations and indifferentiations in which this detour consists, speed here constituting, then, a locally cosmic factor.

This detour in which technical life consists is desire as the power to infinitize. It is misleading to give the impression, as Lévi-Strauss does here, that man has an entropic essence and that he destroys some ‘creation’, some ‘nature’ that would on the contrary have a negentropic essence – alive, profuse and fecund, animal and vegetable. Plants and animals are indeed organic orderings of highly improbable inert matter (as is all negentropy), yet all life unfurls and succeeds only by itself intensifying entropic processes: plants and animals are themselves only an all too temporary and in the end futile detour in becoming.

By consuming and thereby disassociating what Lévi-Strauss calls ‘structures’, all living things participate in a local increase of entropy while at the same time locally producing a negentropic order. What Derrida called différance, if we may indeed relate negentropy to this concept, is first and foremost a matter of economy and detour. And if it is also true that différance is an arrangement of retentions and protentions, as Derrida indicates in Of Grammatology, and if it is true that for those beings we call human, that is, technical and noetic beings, arrangements of retentions and protentions are trans-formed by tertiary retentions, then we should be able, on the basis of this concept of différance, to redefine economy and desire (as configurations of circuits that form through these detours like turns and spirals).

Unlike purely organic beings, those beings called human are organological, that is, negentropic (and entropic) on two levels: both as living beings, that is, organic beings, which through reproduction bring about those ‘minor differences’ that lie at the origin of evolution, and hence at the origin of what Schrödinger called negative entropy 11 , and as artificial beings, that is, organological beings, which produce differentiations that are no longer those of what we refer to as a species but of a ‘kind’ that is here the humankind – which is what Simondon called the process of psychic and collective individuation.

Artifices are always detours, detours that are always more or less ephemeral, like the genus of insects named ephemera, neither more nor less ‘without why’ than those roses that are much prized in Great Britain, and that are themselves essentially artificial.12 But these artifices, inasmuch as they give rise to the arts and to works and artworks of all kinds, as well as to science, can infinitize themselves and infinitize their recipients beyond themselves, that is, beyond their own end, projecting them into an infinite protention of a promise always yet to come, which alone is able to pierce the horizon of undifferentiated becoming.

One might offer the retort that my own objection to Lévi-Strauss, that organological negentropy is not just organic, and constitutes what I thus describe as neganthropos, can only mean that the organological is nothing but an accelerator of entropization that precipitates the end and from this perspective shortens what is ultimately essential, namely, the time of this différance. But this would be to precisely misunderstand what I am trying to say.

There is no doubt that the question of speed in relation to thermodynamic physics, as well as biology and zoology, is a crucial issue. But the question here is of a politics of speed in which there are opposing possibilities, and where it is a matter of knowing in what way, where, on what plane and for how long what, in order to define the dynamic of human evolution, Leroi-Gourhan called the ‘conquest of space and time’, increases or reduces entropy. The concept of idiotext with which I have been working is conceived precisely in order to understand something not just as a question but rather, as Deleuze said, as a problem.

In a situation as exceptional and unsustainable as the Anthropocene, only a resolute assumption of the organological condition, that is, an adoption of the organological condition, directed towards an increase in negentropy, can transform the speed of technological vectors currently at work – in a world where today the digital reaches speeds of two hundred thousand kilometres per second, or two thirds of the speed of light, which is some four million times faster than the speed of nerve impulses. Only such a resolute adoption or assumption of the organological condition will allow us, in a literal sense, to save time, that is, differentiation, insofar as, precisely, a transvaluation of the industrial economy can commit us to and engage us with the Neganthropocene, and disengage us from the Anthropocene.

If the hyperbolic negentropy in which the organological becoming of the organic consists installs a neganthropology that accelerates (entropic and anthropic) becoming, it can nevertheless also transform this acceleration into a future that differs and defers this becoming, according to the two senses of the verb différer mobilized by Derrida in his term différance. Hence a (negentropic and neganthropic) future can be established from this infinitizing form of protention that is the object of desire as a factor of (psychic, social and technical) individuation and integration – failing which, différance will remain merely formal. It is in the light of these questions – effaced by Lévi-Strauss’s triste statement, his sad and gloomy words erasing the indetermination of the future under the probabilistic weight of becoming – that today we must reinterpret Spinoza.

5. Noetic intermittence and cosmic potlatch

Organological beings are capable of purposefully organizing the negentropic and organo-logical works that we are referring to as neganthropic. Depending on how they undertake this organization that is both psychic and social, depending on the way that they take or do not take care of the anthropic and neganthropic power in which their behaviour consists, they can either indifferently precipitate a release of entropy, or on the contrary differ and defer it – thereby constituting a différance that Simondon called individuation and that he thinks as a process, as does Whitehead.13

We ourselves are in favour of a neganthropological project conceived as care and as an economy in this sense. This economy of care is not simply a power to anthropologically transform the world (as ‘master and possessor of nature’). It is a pharmacological knowledge constituting a neganthropology in the service of the Neganthropocene, in a way that resembles Canguilhem’s conception of the function of biology as knowledge of life in technical life, and Whitehead’s conception of the function of reason in speculative cosmology.

It goes without saying that we must identify and describe those ‘negative externalities’ that the ‘neganthropy’ generated by anthropization propagates in ‘anthropized’ milieus. But this is not a question of nullifying neganthropy. It is rather, on the contrary, a matter of passing from anthropization to neganthropization by cultivating a positive pharmacology no more nor less ephemeral than life that is carried along in becoming just as is everything that ‘is’ in the universe – this care being that in which this neganthropology consists, and that Lévi-Strauss always ignored, by ignoring and deliberately censoring the thought of Leroi-Gourhan.

This situation stems from the fact that Lévi-Straussian anthropology is founded on the repression of the organological fact to which Leroi-Gourhan drew attention, and from ignoring the neganthropological question that prevails beyond all anthropology. This repression of the organological can be related to the notion of dépense, of expenditure as conceived by Georges Bataille:

Every time the meaning of a discussion depends on the fundamental value of the word useful – in other words, every time the essential question touching on the life of human societies is raised, […] it is possible to affirm that the debate is necessarily warped and that the fundamental question is eluded. In fact […], there is nothing that permits one to define what is useful to man.14

At stake here are those ‘so-called unproductive expenditures’ 15 that are always related to sacrifice, that is, to ‘the production of sacred things […] constituted by an operation of loss’.16 Every loss sacrifices, sacralizes and sanctifies a default of being older than any being (and this is how I read Levinas). In this tenor of primordial default, noetic intermittence is constituted, and it can project itself speculatively only in and as a neganthropo-logically conceived cosmic totality – that is, as the knowledge and power to create bifurcations within entropy.

All noetic bifurcation, that is, quasi-causal bifurcation, derives from a cosmic potlatch that indeed destroys very large quantities of differences and orders but does so by projecting a very great difference on another plane, constituting another ‘order of magnitude’ against the disorder of a kosmos in becoming, a kosmos that, without this projection of a yet-to-come from the unknown, would be reduced to a universe without singularity.17

Thus expenditure, even though it might be a social function, immediately leads to an agonistic and apparently antisocial act of separation. The rich man consumes the poor man’s losses, creating for him a category of degradation and abjection that leads to slavery. Now it is evident that, from the endlessly transmitted heritage of the sumptuary world, the modern world has received slavery, and has reserved it for the proletariat.18

In this proletarianized world, the expenditure of the ‘rich man’ nevertheless becomes sterile:

The expenditures taken on by the capitalists in order to aid the proletarians and give them a chance to pull themselves up on the social ladder only bear witness to their inability (due to exhaustion) to carry out thoroughly a sumptuary process.Once the loss of the poor man is accomplished, little by little the pleasure of the rich man is emptied and neutralized; it gives way to a kind of apathetic indifference.19

At a time when the becoming-automatic of knowledge forms the heart of the economy, and does so at the risk of denying itself as knowledge by taking the form of a-theoretical computation, I will return to this project from an epistemic and epistemological perspective in a new book, entitled L’avenir du savoir. It will there be shown that

  • the question of the future of knowledge is inseparable from that of the future of work;
  • it must be translated into an alternative industrial politics that gives to France and Europe their place in becoming – and as trans-formations of this becoming into futures.

6. Becoming, future and neganthropology

Our question is the future – of work, of knowledge and of everything this entails and generates, that is, everything – insofar as it is not soluble into becoming. That it is not soluble means nothing other than the fact that it cannot be dissolved and (re-)solved without this dissolution being also its disappearance, that is, ours. This possible dissolution in fact is what is not possible in law: we do not have the right to just accept this and submit to it.

Lévi-Strauss cannot conceive this distinction between, on the one hand, that which remains radically undetermined because it is strictly and constitutively improbable and remains to come, and, on the other hand, that which is most probable, and which is as such statistically determinable.

If Lévi-Strauss is obviously not unaware of the many discourses emerging from philosophy that affirm the supra-causality of freedom – and therefore of will – in and before nature, he ultimately sees in this only an entropic power that accelerates the decay of the world, far removed from any differing and deferring that could give rise to new difference. In so doing, Lévi-Strauss adopts that nihilistic perspective the advent of which was announced by Nietzsche seventy years beforehand.

We cannot accept the Lévi-Straussian perspective. We cannot and we need not resolve to dissolve ourselves into becoming. We cannot, because to do so would consist in no longer promising to our descendants any possible future, a future to come, and we need not because Lévi-Strauss’s reasoning is based on what in philosophy since its inception has consisted in repressing the neganthropological dimension of the noetic soul and of what we call ‘human being’, namely, the passage from the organic to the organological in which this soul and being consists.

Lévi-Strauss proposes that anthropology be understood as entropology. But he takes no account of the negentropy generated by the technical form of life as described by Canguilhem, that type that characterizes the noetic soul – whose very noesis (producing what Lévi-Strauss called the ‘works’ of man) is its intermittent fruit.

Any noetic work, as the intermittent fruit of noesis, produces a bifurcation and a singular difference in becoming, irreducible to its laws (improbable, quasi-causal and in this sense free – as freedom of thought, ethical freedom and aesthetic freedom). It would here be necessary to read Schelling. But such a noetic work thereby engenders a pharmakon that can turn against its own gesture – and this is why the Aufklärung can give rise to its contrary, namely, to what Adorno, Horkheimer and Habermas follow Weber in describing as rationalization.

Prior to Lévi-Strauss, Valéry, Freud and Husserl all drew attention to this duplicity of spirit that was for the Greeks of the tragic age their Promethean, Epimethean and hermeneutic lot. But unlike Lévi-Strauss, neither the Tragics, nor Valéry, nor Freud, nor Husserl denied the neganthropological fecundity of noesis and of its organo-logical condition.

This denial is characteristic as well of the nihilism suffered by those who cannot conceive the nihilism enacted by absolutely computational capitalism, that is, by a capitalism that has lost its mind and spirit – and has done so thanks not just to its rupture with its religious origin and the dissolution of belief into fiduciary and calculable trust, but to the destruction it has wrought upon all theory through the correlationist ideology founded on the application of supercomputing to ‘big data’.

Capitalism’s loss of spirit results in the total proletarianization of the mind itself. To fight against this state of fact in order to restore a state of law is to prescribe, for the digital pharmakon that makes this state of fact possible, a new state of law that recognizes this pharmacological situation and that prescribes therapies and therapeutics so as to form a new age of knowledge.

The discourse of Lévi-Strauss is profoundly nihilistic, literally desperate and fundamentally despairing – and as such it is neither lucid (enlightening) nor rational. Rationality does not submit to becoming, and in this lies the unity of the diverse dimensions of freedom, that is, of the improbable as constituting the undetermined horizon of all ends worthy of the name, within that ‘kingdom of ends’ that is the plane of interpretation of what we refer to as ‘consistences’. The latter do not exist, in the sense that, as Whitehead indicates:

Reason is a factor in experience which directs and criticizes the urge towards the attainment of an end realized in imagination but not in fact.20

Reason is an organ, as Whitehead says, and this organ organizes the passage from fact to law, that is, the realization of law in facts, law being the new, that is, negentropy:

Reason is the organ of emphasis upon novelty. It provides the judgment by which realization in idea obtains the emphasis by which it passes into realization in purpose, and thence its realization in fact.21

Consistences are promises – they are inherently improbable, and it is as such that they make desirable a neganthropos that remains always to come,22 that is, improbable.23 This improbability is a spring that returns again in the winter of univrsal decay, the universe localized on this inhabited Earth being the site of

two main tendencies […] the slow decay of physical nature [whereby,] with stealthy inevitableness, there is degradation of energy [whereas] the other tendency is exemplified by the yearly renewal of nature in the spring, and by the upward course of biological evolution. […] Reason is the self-discipline of the originative element in history.24

It is this discipline that is lacking in Lévi-Strauss, and in his entropology.

Translated by Daniel Ross.

1 Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), p. xii.
2 Ibid.
3 Henri Atlan, Entre le cristal et la fumée (Paris: Le Seuil, 1979).
4 Edgar Morin, The Nature of Nature (New York: Peter Lang, 1992).
5 Whitehead, The Function of Reason (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1929), pp. 18–19.
6 Morin, The Nature of Nature.
7 Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (Harmondsworth: London, 1976), p. 542, translation modified.
8 Ibid., pp. 542–3, translation modified.
9 Gilles Deleuze, Logic of Sense (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), p. 149.
10 Whitehead, The Function of Reason, p. 5.
11 This is why Lévi-Strauss says that man is not entropic only ‘when he has been engaged in self reproduction’.
12 It is with this organological disruption of the organic that Bertrand Bonello opens his film, Tiresia
13 It is this issue that the chorus of monkeys and parrots sung by little Derridians ten years after the death of Jacques Derrida ignores, in the belief they can simply accuse me of having lost sight of différance within an anthropocentric perspective.
14 Georges Bataille, ‘The Notion of Expenditure’, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927–1939 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), p. 116.
15 Ibid., p. 118.
16 Ibid., p. 119.
17 On the unknown, see Pierre Sauvanet, L’insu : une pensée en suspens (Paris: Arléa, 2011).
18 Bataille, ‘The Notion of Expenditure’, p. 125.
19 Ibid., p. 126.
20 Whitehead, The Function of Reason, p. 5.
21 Ibid., p. 15.
22 This is a project initiated by Gerald Moore.
23 The object of desire is literally improbable because incomparable – and it is also on the basis of desire that Maurice Blanchot revisits and discusses the improbable of Yves Bonnefoy.
24 Whitehead, The Function of Reason, Introductory Summary.

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