(Human-Inflected) Evolution in an Age of (Human-Induced) Extinction: Synthetic Biology Meets the Anthropocene


Josh Wodak

Institute Culture and Society, Western Sydney University, Sydney 2150, Australia

Humanities 20209(4), 126;

(This article belongs to the Section Transdisciplinary Humanities)

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At the advent of the Anthropocene, life is being pushed to its limits the world over; we are currently living through the Sixth Mass Extinction to occur since multicellular life first emerged on the planet 570 million years ago. Evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson sums up this push in the opening gambit of his book The Future of Life: “the race is now on between the techno-scientific forces that are destroying the living environment and those that can be harnessed to save it”. Contra Wilson, this paper addresses the paradox arising from proposals to harness “techno-scientific forces … to save” the “living environment” while other forces continue to destroy it. By framing human-inflected evolution in an age of human-induced extinction, this article asks what could or should conservation become, if ‘conserving’ imperiled species might now require genetic interventions of the synthetic kind. Drawing upon recent key markers of “the race”, this paper presents a notional conservation for the Anthropocene—namely, that such a conservation proposes active intervention not only into ecosystems but into evolution itself. And yet, such interventions can only be considered in the context of the planetary scale that is the Anthropocene-writ-large, as per the desertification of the Amazon or the collapse of Antarctic ice sheets, the spatial scale of the microbial world, and on the temporal scale of evolution. Viewed within such a context, this paper presents technoscientific conservation as paradoxically being both vital and futile, as well as timely and too late.

Keywords: cultural imaginaryenvironmental humanitiesenvironmental ethicssynthetic biologyconservation biologymicrobiologyAnthropocene evolution

1. Trendsetting

The journal in question is called Trends in Ecology and Evolution. The article in question is called ‘Is It Time for Synthetic Biodiversity Conservation?’. Given the current trends in ecology and evolution—from the climate crisis to the unfolding Sixth Extinction Event and beyond—the answer would appear to be self-evident. Yes, it is time. Time for what though? And when, where, what, how, and by whom? But, most importantly: why? Why is it that ‘conserving’ imperilled species might now require genetic interventions of the synthetic kind?

Probing whether it is actually “Time for Synthetic Biodiversity Conservation” poses a question which begets the thoroughly inhuman, nonhuman, and more-than-human domains at play. Namely, that any such proposed conservation must be considered in context, not only on the planetary scale that is the Anthropocene-writ-large, as per the desertification of the Amazon or the collapse of Antarctic ice sheets, but on the spatial scale of the microbial world, on the temporal scale of evolution, as well as within the affective domain of the cultural imaginary that underpins technoscientific conservation. Because, if it is indeed time for measures such as Synthetic Biology Conservation, then any notional conservation not cognisant of the vastly different scales at play is as anachronistic as Holocene worldviews of both humanity and the humanities.

This article offers a framework for any such conservation, through recourse to key moments in the nascent field of technoscientific conservation. These key moments illuminate the paradoxes facing conservation, by which it appears to be both vital and futile, as well as timely and too late. This means that the real question within the question of whether it is indeed “Time for Synthetic Biodiversity Conservation” is actually whether it is too late for conservation by any means at all.

In an age of human-induced extinction on a global scale, synthetic biology is human-inflected evolution, albeit on the microbial scale, and predominantly used for perpetuating so-called human civilisation rather than benefiting the more-than-human living world. The field aims to synthesise microbial organisms into ‘biofactories’, whereby their metabolism is directed towards making medicines, bioplastics, or biofuels. This applies to microbes that have already been co-opted for human benefit since the proverbial dawn of civilisation, such as yeast for beer and bread, as well as microbes with much more recent human entanglements, through to currently non-existent but seriously proposed new-to-nature microbes notionally designed to fulfil specific desired outcomes. While the field is highly diverse, it is unified by a promissory zeal, which maintains that successful synthesis will allow for the prodigious productivity of the microbial world to be harnessed into biomanufacturing (such as swapping biofuels for fossil fuels, or bioplastic for petroleum-derived plastic), producing lower biophysical impacts.

The seismic potential of this endeavour drives both industrial and academic research, and, while synthetic biology pursues human-induced evolution of affected microbes, this paper is concerned with proposed conservation usage rather than normative applications. The potential efficacy for such usage throws the manifold objections to normative synthetic biology into a different light if, and only if, it is actually “Time for Synthetic Biodiversity Conservation”. This raises a seemingly irresolvable tension: what if the potential efficacy of synthetic biology for conservation in turn serves to justify and legitimise the field-in-general, including its normative applications? If the “mission-oriented crisis discipline” (Soulé 1985, p. 11) that is conservation biology leverages technologies that are overwhelmingly intended for sustaining so-called human civilisation, does this then obviate the ethical and moral objections to the field?

The ‘Is It Time?’ article, published in February 2017, did not have to wait long for an answer to its question. In September that year, 18 Australian scientists published what amounted to a reply in Nature Ecology and Evolution: ‘New Interventions are Needed to Save Coral Reefs’, declaring “that emerging interventions such as assisted gene flow, assisted evolution, synthetic biology and habitat engineering, operating at the appropriate organismal or ecosystem levels, are essential to build reef resilience” (Anthony et al. 2017, p. 1420). The three-page article does not explicitly propose such interventions for the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, but the co-authors’ specialised focus on this, the largest living organism on earth, left little doubt as to which reefs they had in mind.

A week before ‘New Interventions’ was published, 43 scientists held a workshop at Heron Island Research Station on the Great Barrier Reef, on the subject of ‘Engineering Resilience.’ The scientists, many of whom had co-authored ‘Is It Time?’ or ‘New Interventions’, were meeting to explore the application of synthetic biology out of the microbial scale, and into much larger organisms. While the principal aim of this workshop was to explore the efficacy of increasing the thermal tolerance of coral toward rising ocean temperatures, engineering such resilience goes beyond coral, to diverse kinds of flora and fauna. Similar proposals exist for specific flora and fauna that are arguably amenable to genetic intervention, in cases where all other options appear insufficient in terms of already precipitously vulnerable populations (Coleman and Goold 2019Redford et al. 20132019).

Such proposals offer a riposte to The Future of Life as per evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson in his book of this title. For Wilson, “the race is now on between the techno-scientific forces that are destroying the living environment and those that can be harnessed to save it” (Wilson 2003, p. xii). Wherein, scientists such as the authors of ‘Is it Time?’ or ‘New Interventions’ would counter: what if harnessing the techno-scientific forces of synthetic biology becomes part of the “race” between “destroying the living environment” and “forces … to save it”? This is because the ‘Is It Time?’ question mark heralds a larger endeavour across the sciences, one comprising radical proposed responses to the Anthropocene, all offered with seemingly innocuous question mark titles. Here, there are two articles of note: complex systems theorist Richard Solé’s ’Bioengineering the Biosphere?’, published in Ecological Complexity in 2015, and atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen’s ‘Albedo Enhancement by Stratospheric Sulfur Injections: A Contribution to Resolve a Policy Dilemma?’ published in Climatic Change in 2006 (Solé 2015Crutzen 2006).

While these two articles refer, respectively, to intervening in the biosphere and the atmosphere, they share the interventionist ethos that underpins synthetic biology usage in conservation. Indeed, this ethos is problematically implied by the notion of the Anthropocene itself, at least for scientists of the ‘Engineering Resilience’ and ‘Is It Time?’ schools of thought. The genealogy of this ethos can be traced back to Paul Crutzen, who first coined and popularised the term ‘Anthropocene’ in 2000. In a 2011 blog co-authored with Christian Schwägerl, Crutzen brought this ethos together with its multi-scale domains:

Albeit clumsily, we are taking control of Nature’s realm, from climate to DNA… What we do now already affects the planet of the year 3000 or even 50,000. Changing the climate for millennia to come is just one aspect. By cutting down rainforests, moving mountains to access coal deposits and acidifying coral reefs, we fundamentally change the biology and the geology of the planet. While driving uncountable numbers of species to extinction, we create new life forms through gene technology, and, soon, through synthetic biology.

(Crutzen and Schwägerl 2011)

In this sense, when the 13 co-authors of ‘Is It Time?’ asked their probing question, they were effectively asking whether it is time to wield the radical and risky tools of technoscience against the onslaught of the Anthropocene. It is not Wilson’s Future of Life that is at stake here, since even if all such technoscientific conservation were to be attempted wholesale, all such interventions are inextricably entangled with inhuman, nonhuman, and more-than-human forcings, from viral irruptions to volcanic eruptions. What is at stake is rather any potential future at all for those lifeforms currently caught in a world undergoing biophysical change too rapid for them to adapt to, save by means of human-induced evolution that closes the gap by ‘Engineering Resilience’.

Humanistic responses to the Anthropocene should offer a critical lens through which we can observe how the cultural imaginary configures support or objection to such proposals. The perennial questions of the human condition do not disappear into the Anthropocene, but are rather ever-present and ever-pertinent to proposals to move from “albeit clumsily … taking control of Nature’s realm” to intentionally taking control in the not-too-distant future. At stake here is an ontological condition that undermines any simplistic grounds for supporting or objecting to such proposed synthetic biology usage. Because, if it is actually time to use synthetic biology for conservation, then ‘Trends in [Anthropocene] Ecology and Evolution’ will bear the mark of human intention, as a counterpoint to the current unintentional desecration caused by those “techno-scientific forces that are destroying the living environment”.

Intentional marks would be registered in the genome of species modified through synthetic biology, alongside the existing unintentional marks of human-induced desecration of the more-than-human living word. Such marks in the evolutionary record are analogous to the Anthropocene’s boundary layer, which will persist through the earth’s strata over geological time scales. This is simply because species subject to any human intervention that successfully confers evolutionary benefits will carry discrete genotypic marks in their human-inflected phylogenesis. Not in the domain of synthetic yeast co-opted into doing the bidding of so-called civilisation, but in the plants and animals bearing synthesised genes that have increased their capacity to adapt to prevailing biophysical conditions. In the instance of coral subjected to synthetic biology, their evolution would be ontologically unique, no longer described in journals with titles such as Nature Ecology and Evolution, but rather titles such as Anthropocene Ecology and Evolution.

2. Life Is But a Dream

Underpinning such dreams of redemption lies the cultural imaginary where more-than-human nature is coupled to technoscience. Regardless of whether or not it was born from sheer necessity born of the fierce urgency of the climate crisis, if this dream is to avoid becoming yet another waking nightmare, then there is much to be unpacked in terms of the culture that is willing the dream into being. Probing this dream is timely because, at present, it is a promise without any demonstrable means of deliverance or guarantee, set against the context of recent historic failures to deliver on prior promises for salvation through biofuels, bioplastic, bioremediation or other bio-based technofixes. As environmental philosopher Christopher Preston argues in his 2018 book The Synthetic Age: Outdesigning Evolution, Resurrecting Species, and Reengineering Our World:

The changes we are facing are much more significant than the familiar litany of human impacts such as climate change, species extinction, and toxic pollution. Earth is entering a period in which some of its most fundamental processes are being co-opted and redesigned by engineers. Synthetic biologists, climate engineers, and nanotechnologists are reaching deeply enough into the workings of nature to alter the very metabolism of the planet we inhabit. In so doing, they promise to create an entirely new, synthetic world.

(Preston 2018, dust jacket)

For many, including the authors of strident humanities and social sciences critiques, the “promise” of “an entirely new, synthetic world” is one that will ideally never be fulfilled. These authors object to synthetic biology because, as a promissory technofix, even if it could provide material guarantees against material loss, it would still leave unaddressed the profound inequities of race, gender, and class that have disproportionately fuelled the ecological crisis, and by which the differentiated Anthropos of the Anthropocene suffers its fate. These critiques from the humanities and social sciences call instead for the curbing of capitalism, consumerism, and related hegemonic socio-cultural inequities, rather than continuing to dream of technofix substitutions (Latour 2004Williams 1980Wodak 2019).

Evidently, an unassailable chasm separates those in favour versus those against a Synthetic Age. While vehemently disagreeing about intentional interventions into evolution via technoscience, both sides acknowledge that the other’s stance is based on a philosophy, or rather a worldview, for how to inhabit earth in the face of impending extinction of incalculable multitudes, including our own species. Those in favour largely pivot their support on the fact that attempts to curb capitalism, consumerism and the like have been an abject failure, as has conventional conservation, which will prove even less effective in the face of biophysical change that is only going to increase in velocity and intensity. Therefore, in this line of argument, the efficacy of synthetic biology must be researched as a potential response.

Those who object do so largely on the grounds that the history of scientific and technological developments is rife with well-intended remedies for a societal or ecological ailment, that instead resulted in the ailment persisting and flourishing, alongside whatever deleterious side-effects of the technoscience used to ‘fix’ it. From atomic energy to the atomic bomb, or antibiotics to antibiotic resistance, even a cursory acknowledgment of recent technoscientific history shows a disconcerting pattern of undeliverable promises, which lead instead to multifarious and intractable novel calamities. For instance, in 1998 Nigel Clark presented a critique on ‘Nanoplanet: Molecular Engineering in the Time of Ecological Crisis’ that still applies today:

What is both heartening and horrifying about the speculative regime of molecular engineering is that it offers a technological response to these very issues [the ecological crisis]: heartening because its logic of maximal effects from a minimal intervention promises to bridge the temporal chasm between awareness of an environmental problem and effective action, [and] horrifying because a solution of this nature inevitably has so much in common with the problem it addresses.

(Clark 1998, p. 357)

It is both telling and profoundly troubling that this state of affairs describes the same chasm between those who find today’s dream of a Synthetic Age “heartening” and those who find it “horrifying”. For instance, some of the earliest research into oil spill bioremediation examined the possibility of genetically engineering bacteria that could break down the crude oil. This also provided the first patent of a lifeform, when the microbiologist Ananda Chakrabarty won his case in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1980 and gained the right to patent his genetically engineered Pseudomonas genus bacterium. Nonetheless, despite an intervening four decades of seismic research in this arena, harnessing lifeforms to ameliorate oil spills remains a dream, not least because, like all dreams, the vision is not shared; for oil companies, the prospect of a microorganism that can eat their reserves is a nightmare that they most definitely do not want realised.

For Clark, these “heartening” and “horrifying” spectres held particular relevance to genetic engineering and subsequently to its direct descendant, synthetic biology. The contemporary relevance of Clark’s (1998) critique of molecular engineering is also apparent in his 1997 critique of genetic engineering, which according to his arguments represented the culmination of the modern drive to master the natural world [through] the application of technical rationality to its most infinitesimal and intimate recesses. The attempt to assert control over bio-physical processes at this level courts disaster of a kind which is without precedent in the history of human interventions.

(Clark 1997, p. 77)

Clark drew upon Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park as a representation of the contemporaneous cultural imaginary of genetic engineering. Nowadays, the fictional de-extinction is pursued through another application of synthetic biology, which is to resurrect extinct species such as the woolly mammoth and the passenger pigeon. What was merely a fable about the folly of human hubris in 1997 is now pursued as real-world response to the Sixth Extinction Event.

The title of Clark’s (1997) article, ‘Panic Ecology: Nature in the Age of Superconductivity’ still haunts today’s dream of redemption, as does his ‘Nanoplanet’ article. Clark’s “heartening” receptivity toward molecular and genetic engineering soon came to reside firmly within those who found the prospect “horrifying”, even as we became “the victims of bio-tech ‘imagineering’” according to philosopher Eugene Thacker in 2003, due to a “blatant disparity between hyper-optimism and an overall lack of concrete results (Thacker 2003, p. 106)”. A decade later, in 2013, philosopher Bensaude-Vincent found the discrepancy had only worsened, due to how the futuristic visions of today technoscientists are strikingly amnesic, so detached from the past that they are totally abstract. In particular, Synthetic Biology is often promoted as a source of technological fixes… But the concern with the damages due to the previous generations of ‘new technologies’ does not invite reflections about the next new generations, i.e., the long-term unintended consequences of all technological innovations.

(Bensaude-Vincent 2013, p. 30)

Like Thacker, Bensaude-Vincent locates the cultural imaginary of technoscience as driving the dream of redemption, wherein “in Synthetic Biology and recent biotechnologies, imagination takes a more positive and important role, which is by no means in contradiction with the exercise of reason and reasoning. Imagination provides guidelines for action because it bridges the gap between the possible and the real” (Bensaude-Vincent 2013, p. 25). Notwithstanding the legitimacy of such critiques towards normative synthetic biology, Clark, Thacker, and Bensaude-Vincent do not consider conservation applications, which raises the question of whether their critiques need to be reconsidered in the context of this proposed domain.

Nowadays, for those who do not want the dream to ever be attempted in reality, or for those who see the dream as being a fantasy that could never manifest in the world of Thacker’s “concrete results”, there is increasingly widespread acknowledgment even amongst the caveat-burdened corridors of academia that the tenure of our species is nearly at its end. In any and all eventualities. Critical theorist McKenzie Wark puts it more frankly: “this civilisation is over, and everyone knows it” (Wark 2015). Though the prospects for extinction extent to whether this biosphere is over, and who will admit it?

Of course, if it were already so, then it would be fruitless to entertain proposals for a Synthetic Age. But, when Wark uses the word “over” he means it in terms of the vague timeframe of civilizational collapse—the time it has taken past civilisations to go from inevitably “over” to actually gone has ranged from a matter of months to decades (Diamond 2004Tainter 1990). Within this unknown temporal window, and operating out of the uncertainty and uncanniness that the spectre of the Anthropocene produces, there remain various competing worldviews that tell us how we should speak responsibly for endangered species and ecologies, and how to act accordingly. The complex ethics involved in formulating and propagating these worldviews and determining our ensuing actions will be discussed below.

Nowadays, those supporting the use of synthetic biology in conservation do so with an acute awareness of the centrality of different worldviews to such issues. For instance, just as Preston seeks a philosophical lens for examining the prospect of a Synthetic Age, there is also a philosophy underpinning the interventionist ethos advocated in ‘Is It Time?’, which argues that “the opportunity to resolve biodiversity issues may depend on a sea-change of philosophy in the conservation movement to incorporate the application of adapted genomes into the wild” (Piaggio et al. 2017, p. 98). This sea-change may be read both at face value and as metaphor, where the first reading prefigures the second. After all, if rising seas are lapping at your doorstep, would you not abandon outdated worldviews in favour of ‘anything goes’, given it is self-evident that everything is going under? This is not about pontificating in the armchair corridors of academia, but about making crucial decisions as to whether and how technoscience may be deployed as a life raft for imperilled species.

Taking Preston’s Synthetic Age as one framework for conservation in the Anthropocene, what then lies between his philosophy and that of the ‘Is It Time’ scientists? Or, to phrase it another way: what lies between the dream and the timeframe now available to turn it into reality? Once the rising seas are already lapping at our doorsteps, it is too little, too late to do anything but run away, given that there is a roughly five-decade lag between greenhouse gas emissions and discernible biophysical change. This is not to suggest that the temporal dimension is a mere half century. Rather, future climatic change, sea level rise, and so on, will continue across centuries into millennia, even if all emissions stop today (Archer 2009). Similarly, multitudes of species have already been labelled with the term ‘extinction debt’, meaning that their future extinction has been securely determined by events which have already transpired (Kuussaari et al. 2009). Such is “the race” that technoscientific conservation is up against. Such are the ecological and evolutionary trends that conservation needs to be considered against.

Dreaming and philosophy may not come to mind as central to considering human-inflected evolution in the context of human-induced extinction, but their underpinning of the entire ethos of technoscientific conservation cannot be so easily discounted. Even Alistair Elfick and Drew Endy, two synthetic biology advocates and practitioners since the field’s circa 2003 inception, readily concede that ushering in a Synthetic Age is presently still just a dream:

Scientists and engineers hold a responsibility to consider the impact of the knowledge and technology that they bring to the world. In our imagining, dreaming, and aspiring to create a set of future possibilities, it is clear that as a community, synthetic biologists need to engage in debate with wider stakeholders about the purposes of their work and whether or not these would best be achieved using synthetic biology.

(Elfick and Endy 2014, p. 24)

It is precisely this willingness to enter into debate (including debate with those opposed to the field) that arguably distinguishes synthetic biology from other contemporary forms of technoscience. Those proponents of the field who enter into dialogue often attribute their willingness to engage with debate to an open acknowledgement of the grave ethical and moral concerns about the field, and of the formidable imaginary of scientific hubris, from the Industrial Revolution-era of Frankenstein, to the post-apocalyptic-2019 of Blade Runner.

The dream is encapsulated on the cover of yet another synthetic biology event of 2017: the conference booklet to ‘SB7.0: The Seventh International Meeting of Synthetic Biology’, issued to the 900 delegates for their four-day conference at the National University of Singapore in June 2016, with Endy as one of the conveners. The cover is a drawing of a rainforest, populated by DNA, microbes, insects, amphibians, fish, birds, and mammals, in particular a lioness. Yet, while the booklet detailed dozens of presentations, the vast majority had no relation to the Anthropocene, or ecological issues in general. The disjuncture is not remarked upon anywhere in conference program itself: Singapore, which means “Lion City”, is no longer a jungle, but rather a concrete jungle. The absence of dialogue within the fields that have given birth to the technologies supporting interventionist conservation is particularly worrying given that conservation is no longer about single-issue or single-place preservation, but rather wholesale interventions into ecosystems and evolution itself.

3. Jungle City

In 1854, when Alfred Russel Wallace commenced his nine-year-long immersion in South East Asia, the first place he visited was Singapore. His daily fieldwork in jungles peripheral to the then nascent colonial settlement brought him into contact with tigers—not that he saw one, but that he heard them while working there. Even at that point Wallace foresaw the dire consequences of the jungle being cleared to make way for the colonial settlement that was Singapore, remarking that if such destruction was not halted, or at least surveyed and controlled, then:

future ages will certainly look back upon us as a people so immersed in the pursuit of wealth as to be blind to higher considerations. They will charge us with having culpably allowed the destruction of some of those records of Creation which we had it in our power to preserve.

(Wallace 1863, p. 210)

By the time he had travelled the globe and studied widely, Wallace had seen first-hand how such human-induced destruction was being repeated the world over, concluding in 1876 that “we live in a zoologically impoverished world, from which all the hugest, and fiercest, and strangest forms have recently disappeared” (Wallace 1876, p. 150). For Singapore, this had taken on another layer of irony by 1930, when tigers had become extirpated, save for domestically bred individuals imprisoned in the island’s zoo. Though vast rifts lie between the human-influenced Holocene megafauna extinction that Wallace presciently recognised in 1876, such as regional extirpations of Malayan tigers in Singapore, and the 2017 of ‘Is It Time?’, ‘New Interventions’, and ‘Engineering Resilience’ calls to embark upon technoscientific conservation. Such technoscience is not akin to replanting the rainforests, with a view to making a habitat for a tiger to return to, but rather with ’Bioengineering the Biosphere’, as per Richard Sole, or ‘Albedo Enhancement by Stratospheric Sulfur Injections’, as per Paul Crutzen.

Nowadays, the only place we can find a Singaporean jungle ecosystem and inhabitants as featured on the SB7.0 booklet cover is in the recreated natures of the island’s zoo. Just as dreams of restoring some actual jungle are made manifest inside the biotech laboratories of concrete jungles, the SB7.0 commercial, industrial, and academic sponsors show how the field imagines its normative applications extending from human-benefit to benefitting the more-than-human world.

While SB7.0 was no exception in having such aims, this organisation is notable well beyond its status as the key international lynchpin for the burgeoning field of synthetic biology. The 2017 conference was arguably also the first major public ‘outing’ of synthetic biology for conservation purposes. Day one entreated the delegates, the vast majority of whom were scientists, engineers or other such technical specialists, to a panel on the field’s socio-cultural dimensions entitled ‘Art, Critique, Design and Our World’. The familiar litany of humanities and social science critique of synthetic biology ensued, showing that Clark’s (1997), Thacker’s (2003) and Bensaude-Vincent’s (2013) concerns still reverberate and therefore remain relevant to the field today. However, there was a telling absence of critique of synthetic biology from non-scientists and the humanities that even remotely engaged with the then-current state of our ecological crisis.

For instance, one of the panel presenters, the artist Oron Catts, confronted the delegates with a particularly blunt and scathing critique, describing how the field forms part of what he terms the “Single Engineering Paradigm” (Catts and Zurr 2014, p. 28), alongside Crutzen’s climate engineering and Sole’s biosphere engineering, all of which will combine to manifest Preston’s dystopian Synthetic Age. Elsewhere, Catts and fellow artist Ionat Zurr ran through the same litany of objections to synthetic biology for the first five pages of their text on ‘Countering the Engineering Mindset: The Conflict of Art and Synthetic Biology’, only acknowledging at the bottom of the sixth page that “it is also a time of ecological crisis and its gloomy future predictions” (Catts and Zurr 2014, p. 33).

The fact is, if the humanities are to engage with conservation on its own terms, then it is not “also a time of ecological crisis”—it is only “a time of ecological crisis”. Regardless of the actual validity of humanities critique, this really only serves to perpetuate its seeming irrelevance when the existential threats posed to multitudes of species are relegated to page six of an aggressive riposte. To put it bluntly, the humanities and social science continue to engage with the field of conservation technoscience as if the “time of ecological crisis” was merely a background event to critique.

Conversely, for those asking ‘Is It Time For Synthetic Biodiversity Conservation’, it is truly only “a time of ecological crisis”, as they derive their answers to the question in full recognition of how conservation science is decades behind the velocity of biophysical change. For instance, the ‘Engineering Resilience’ workshop and ‘New Interventions’ publications occurred the year after the unprecedented global coral bleaching event of 2016–17, which was followed, for the first time in recorded history, by the first ever back-to-back bleaching event of 2017–18, then, yet another first, of the global bleaching event of 2019–20. Events of such frequency and ferocity were not anticipated to occur until the middle of this century, leaving us to ask whether it is not now irrelevant to ask “Is it Time”? Might the correct question be whether it is, in fact, already too late?

Given that such shattered records for ecological upheaval have become everyday affairs, the notion that the excesses of capitalism and consumerism can be reined in, inequality redressed and the tide of human-caused mass extinction stemmed is clearly completely anachronistic at this stage of the Anthropocene. The humanities are still arguing from the point of view of yesteryear conservation, when the situation may have still been salvageable, rather than engaging with the possibility that next to nothing can be saved, no matter what the potential efficacy of technoscientific conservation. As Christopher Preston argues in Climate Justice and Geoengineering: Ethics and Policy in the Atmospheric Anthropocene:

Many of the best options for dealing with the escalating climate problem are no longer on the table. The options that remain are increasingly far from ideal. What might have been a slow and orderly transition to a low-carbon economy will now have to be a rapid and lurching one. What might have been a timely and balanced research and development path away from fossil fuels and towards clean technologies will now have to be an almost impossibly quick one. Where climate engineering once looked outlandish or even repulsive, it is now becoming increasingly credible to growing numbers of observers.

(Preston 2016, p. xi)

Writing in 2016, Preston illustrates the sizeable replies that had amounted in the 10 years following Crutzen’s ‘Albedo Enhancement’ publication in 2006. In this vein, Catts and Zurr’s “gloomy future predictions” have already arrived, although, as William Gibson put it, “the future has already arrived, it is just not evenly distributed” (Gibson 2003). The future of technoscientific conservation will not be evenly distributed either, given how the economic and political disparities that fuelled the current crisis will inequitably impact on the attempted technofixes.

Day two of SB7.0 brought the focus back to those who seek to act upon these “options that remain [that] are increasingly far from ideal” for responding to human-caused extinction. In the panel session on ‘Biodiversity & Conservation’, eight scientists and conservation practitioners each delivered 12-min proposals for using synthetic biology in conservation. Their proposals pertained to endangered species, ranging from enhancing the resistance of the American chestnut tree to a fungal blight brought over a century ago in transplanted trees from Japan, enhancing the thermal tolerance of coral, synthesising the blood of the Horseshoe crab so that it is no longer harvested for its blood to be used for human vaccination manufacture, making malarial mosquitoes all male so that they cannot breed, to reduce malaria, and likewise making invasive rodents on secluded islands all male so that they cannot breed, to reduce island extinctions caused by the rodents. One of the presenters, Sonja Luz, Director of Conservation and Research at Wildlife Reserves Singapore, brought a local focus, talking about the pocket of recreated jungle in the zoo where the island’s sole tigers now live in captivity, and her receptivity to what synthetic biology could mean for zoo-based conservation. In the question-and-answer session following, the presenters were inundated with enthusiastic responses from delegates: it should be noted that, for most of the delegates, these new conservation applications represented an extreme departure from the normative applications which dominate the field. Through such outreach conferences, the dream gets extended beyond the fringe and into the mainstream, gaining currency via newfound interest from the commercial, industrial and academic stakeholders in attendance.

If 2017 was the year when synthetic biology and conservation biology left the margins and entered the mainstream of technoscientific conservation, 2018 was the year when these strange bedfellows began to be taken seriously, beyond the realm of TED talks and industry conferences. In April 2018, the Joint Task Force and Technical Working Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (hereafter IUCN) convened at Jesus College, Cambridge, for the first meeting of the Synthetic Biology and Biodiversity Conservation project. The peak international body for the “Conservation of Nature” is researching the efficacy of synthetic biology amidst the unfolding Sixth Extinction Event. The answer to the question ‘Is It Time?’ is quite simply that it has now come to this.

4. Intervention Is Better than Cure

If it is time for novel worldviews, as per the Anthropocene, and, arguably, for novel conservation practices, then it is also time to reconsider the role of language in framing a stance toward both. The Kafkaesque absurdity of the IUCN Task Force nomenclature throws the inadequacies of concepts of ‘natural’, ‘artificial’ and ’conservation’ into sharp relief: ‘natural’, for example, raises a self-contradiction inherent to the interventionist ethos. Humans are accustomed to perceiving themselves outside of, or opposed to, nature. But, given that the Anthropos is part of nature, including, therefore, all the products of our labours, how can our modes of inhabiting the earth, no matter how catastrophically irresponsible and disastrous, be an act of ‘intervening’ in that-which-we-are-always-inextricably-part-of? Surely we have only ever been working with and within nature, however unsuccessfully, and not merely ‘intervening’ in ‘nature’? Just as we have been worked on by ‘nature’ too, and just as we are composed of ‘nature.’ For we are ‘nature’, along with the entirety of the living and non-living world, as well as the cosmos to which this particular planet is hitched.

When Raymond Williams observed that nature is “perhaps the most complex word in the [English] language” he was not engaging in mere semantics, but rather pointing out the prevalence for different interpretations of ‘nature’ as a word, and how they manifest vastly different worldviews. And, further, since it is a word which carries, over a very long period, many of the major variations of human thought—often, in any particular use, only implicitly yet with powerful effect on the character of the argument—it is necessary to be especially aware of its difficulty.

(Williams 2014, p. 169)

Therein, we see that when the ‘Is It Time?’ co-authors nod to how “the opportunity to resolve biodiversity issues may depend on a sea-change of philosophy in the conservation movement” (Piaggio et al. 2017, p. 98), this sea-change pivots on highly contested worldviews about what is nature, and thus what is natural, more so than any other concept.

This pivot has further repercussions for an interventionist ethos, as Williams presciently observed in 1980, stating that “we have mixed our labour with the earth, our forces with its forces too deeply to be able to draw back and separate either out” (Williams 1980, p. 83). This means distinctions between what is natural versus what is cultural, social, synthetic or artificial—i.e., human—are increasingly indiscernible and arguably the product of false distinctions arising from Enlightenment rationality, so-called. While the word ‘conservation’ does not command the same level of “difficulty” as ‘nature’, it too fosters worldviews that are incommensurate with the more-than-human world itself. Put plainly, the meanings of the word were decidedly different for the half a millennium before it came to refer to conservation of ‘nature’ with the emergence of modern environmentalism in the 1950s. Then again, every word-at-stake warrants such scrutiny, as Eileen Crist points out with regard to the notion of the Anthropocene, in her treatise ‘On the Poverty of Our Nomenclature’ (Crist 2013).

With regard to conservation through synthetic biology, this means that the term ‘human-directed evolution’ cannot represent the endeavour, nor can analogous conjoined terms such as ‘-designed’, ‘-engineered’, or ‘-inflected’. The “poverty of our nomenclature” concerning human effects on evolution is palpably brought to light in the artist and biologist Angelo Vermeulen’s (2006) interactive installation Blue Shift. Here, Vermeulen demonstrates a human-influenced microevolution of water fleas housed in aquaria connected to custom electronics. In the absence of any humans, yellow lights illuminate the aquaria from above, attracting the fleas to the upper water register. In the presence of nearby humans, sensor beams within the installation are intercepted, triggering blue lights above the aquaria instead. For water fleas, blue light indicates open ocean, where they are subject to higher predation than shallow water, indicated by yellow light.

However, Blue Shift deliberately tricks the water fleas: those that instinctively swim away from the blue light pass through a false bottom, housing fish which eat them. Thus, only those water fleas who (counter-intuitively) do not swim away from the blue light go on to survive and reproduce, manifesting a form of microevolution by conferring genetic traits for not-swimming-away-from-blue-light onto their descendants. Setting aside the ethical issues raised by using non-human creatures for the purposes of art, as well as other variables, such as how many generations are bred within Blue Shift, and whether the fleas are released into an open ecosystem or not after a presentation of the installation concludes, the question of whether this is human ‘-directed’, ‘-designed’, ‘-engineered’, or ’-inflected’ evolution remains an open question. The agency appears to possess something from each category, and yet no category can remotely capture the complexity of the agency at play here, even in this seemingly simple example.

A corresponding “poverty of our nomenclature” pertains to evolution vis-à-vis synthetic biology for conservation, yet with inscrutably more complex agency and causality. This raises intractable challenges for the ethics of such conservation given that these ethics arise according to the efficacy of the conservation. If the endeavour is, after all, a dream with no efficacious transferral into reality, then the corresponding ethical debate remains academic, in the sense of privileged detachment from the ecological crisis unfolding. This is ultimately due to the fact that proposed conservation is conditional on five chronological stages of experimentation: in silico, in vitro, in vivo, ex situ, in situ. And, here, the stakes are all the more ultimate; genetic and microbial interventions can only be remotely assayed when considered in their respective evolutionary contexts. If a genetic intervention is not inherited by a sufficient number of the modified organism’s descendants, then it becomes as ephemeral as the life of that population of individuals.

Furthermore, there is no singular discrete ‘intervention’ taking place. The Anthropocene thesis holds that the entirety of the Earth System has been rendered into a planetary-scale Blue Shift, though, in the scaling up, any discrete chains of causality have become subsumed within the incalculable forcings of human progeny, coupled with those of inhuman, nonhuman, and more-than-human progeny. As Wallace Broecker declared in 1987, with regard to human-caused climate change:

The inhabitants of Earth are quietly conducting a gigantic experiment. So vast and sweeping will be the consequences that, were it brought before any reasonable council for approval, it would be firmly rejected. Yet it goes on with little interference from any jurisdiction or nation… We play Russian roulette with climate, hoping that the future will hold no unpleasant surprises. No one knows what lies in the active chamber of the gun.

(Broecker 1987, p. 124)

Ethics applied to the ‘intervening’ in this “gigantic experiment” must grapple with domains and dominions that not only eviscerate categorical distinctions between the inhuman, nonhuman, and more-than-human, but also with the pitfalls that result from privileging “matters of concern” over “matters of fact.” (Latour 2004).

5. Time’s up

Just as humanities scholarship all too often falls short in its attempts to engage with the science of biology (whether evolutionary, conservation, or synthetic), so too are scientists’ limitations revealed by their attempts to critically scrutinise the “matters of concern” raised by the humanities about their own work. This was exemplified in a 2000 National Academy of Sciences conference on The Future of Evolution, when only one of the papers presented mentioned ethics at all: Paul Ehrlich’s ’Intervening in Evolution: Ethics and Actions.’ Ehrlich opened with a framing that, while not uncommon in scientific literature at the time, is ubiquitous two decades later, and not just in the sciences but across the humanities and social sciences: “There is no question that Homo sapiens, in addition to causing the sixth major spasm of biotic extinction, is also altering the course of evolution for millions of years in the future” (Ehrlich 2002, p. 5476). Following this opening, Ehrlich devotes the four pages of his paper to “what ethical obligations might this impose on scientists to respond in various ways? And … what might scientists do to be more effective in informing society of its options in this area?” (Ehrlich 2002, p. 5477). Yet, like Wilson in The Future of Life, Ehrlich laments how “the speed at which society is changing the evolutionary prospect seems fated to remain much more rapid than the rate at which society is developing ethics to deal with the challenges that change may present” (Ehrlich 2002, p. 5478).

The divergent paths have only become all the more pronounced in the two decades since, including between synthetic biology proponents and opponents. In his impassioned Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene philosopher Clive Hamilton laments how the science that has evinced the Anthropocene has also unleashed “a paradigm shift in the earth sciences” which in turn “is prompting an ontological shift in self-understanding and the human-Earth relation, although it is tragically true that the science is decades ahead of the zeitgeist” (Hamilton 2017, p. 52). For instance, on the subject of ’Intervening in Evolution: Ethics and Actions’, Ehrlich simply declared that scientists could “be more effective in informing society of its options in this area” (Ehrlich 2002, p. 5479).

Such a notion of the relationship between science and society is premised on the information-deficit model, which holds that lay citizens would make informed (and, by implication, rational) decisions pending sufficient accessible information about a scientific subject. For instance, this model presumes that, if the lay citizenry understood climate science better, they would then make less selfish, short-term, and self-destructive decisions about what climate policy to support. However, such simplistic worldviews have shown themselves to be grossly inapplicable to the notional “options” at hand. Regarding The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Hamilton boils these “options” down to an overly simplistic framework, albeit one without any equivalent and no sense of the real impending peril:

Humankind is now confronted with a momentous decision: to attempt to exert more control so as to subdue the Earth with greater technological power—the express purpose of some forms of geoengineering—or to draw back and practice meekness, with all of the social consequences that would follow.

(Hamilton 2017, p. 17)

While he is not referring to synthetic biology specifically, the principles apply nonetheless, as per Catts and Zurr’s earlier summation of the Single Engineering Paradigm. In any case, it is patently obvious that today’s “zeitgeist” is anything but informed and rational, least of all when it comes to using technoscience for conservation. This is because stances toward conservation are deeply shaped by emotions, rather than the ideas of a sufficiently well-informed and verifiably rational actor. Ehrlich acknowledges this when he states that his preferred form of conservation practice, which would be to bolster networks of national parks as ‘wildlife corridors’ across continents, is “where I would come down emotionally if I could ignore the practical and ethical complexities”, whereas he declares the opposing extreme to be the “technological optimists who assume that genetic engineers will soon be able to produce any needed biodiversity” (Ehrlich 2002, p. 5480).

This blurring between “matters of fact” and “matters of concern” has telling expressions in the scientific framing of synthetic biology for conservation. Putting Ehrlich’s concerns into contemporary practice, biologist Kevin Esvelt researches gene drives for purposes such as making all structurally integrated populations of mosquitos or invasive rodents male, in order to eradicate them from a region or island, respectively. Sculpting Evolution, the name Esvelt gave to the group he founded at MIT Media Lab, speaks volumes about the categorical errors of our language, let alone our actions, in terms of recognising what is at stake. Whether a single scientist operating on the micro-scale of synthetic biology or a team operating on the macro-scale of climate engineering, there is no human agency for Sculpting Evolution, as if evolution itself were some innate matter that yields to our every whim.

Esvelt conducts public talks, op-eds, blogs and interviews where he candidly acknowledges the profound ethical dilemmas that his work raises. And yet, like relegating the discussion of ethics in relation to The Future of Evolution to a mere four pages in the eponymous edited volume, none of Esvelt’s academic publications or public engagement evidences any study of, or collaboration with, actual ethicists (Esvelt et al. 2014Esvelt and Gemmell 2017). This is not to suggest that Ehrlich, Esvelt, or any other scientist should perform the work of an ethicist, though the problem persists that scientists and ethicists are largely talking to one another exclusively in relation to “matters of concern” about multitudes of imperilled species. To scale up this Blue Shift-sized disjuncture to the planet: even if Esvelt or other such scientists collaborated with ethicists, no ethical framework genuinely commensurate with Hamilton’s “momentous decision” of whether or not to deploy technoscientific conservation could ever actually be formed. Hamilton thus concludes his book on The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene with a confession from a Professor of Public Ethics: “we have to confront the most difficult truth—in the Anthropocene we have no ethical resources to draw on. The cupboard is bare” (Hamilton 2017, p. 110).

Such is the challenge now facing not only scientists and philosophers of technoscientific conservation but the assembling policy makers, bureaucrats, legal scholars and others who mediate between dreams born of a cultural imaginary and their translation into reality. Of course, while this article focuses on societies embedded in developed-world democratic institutions and dynamics, we must also recognise the existence of societies where no consultation of either ethics or the population at large will be deemed necessary before in situ experimentation with these technologies commences, further undermining the idea that any worldview can remotely fathom the complexity, uncertainty and volatility of the state of play. Here, however, we focus on the disjuncture occurring in western democracies, and as Clark reminds, today’s disjuncture harks back to Ulrich Beck’s 1985 landmark Risk Society hypothesis about industrial modernity in the Global North (Beck [1985] 1992). Reflecting in 1998 on Beck’s hypothesis, Clark once again showed a telling prescience for the situation at hand:

As we seek to intervene in realms that we now understand to be composed of great numbers of parts undergoing a kaleidoscopic array of simultaneous interactions, a new set of demands is placed on the technological apparatus. Whatever the amount of intelligence we can program into our sub-micro or macro machine systems, the encounter with conditions of non-linearity is likely to call for responses which exceed our capacity to make sense of the situation.

(Clark 1998, p. 362)

In words that radically undermine claims toward definitive guidelines and principles, as per august bodies such as the IUCN Synthetic Biology and Biodiversity Conservation Task Force, Clark lamented back then how this disjuncture presents an enormous challenge to theory, which in relation to the frenetic feedback mechanisms of the new global networks appears as a lag-ridden and slow-replicating edifice…call[s] for public accountability of the scientific and economic apparatus seems to offer only the drag coefficient of a lost linear modernity—a world of processes ponderous enough to still allow for the fantasy of collective steering.

(Clark 1998, p. 366)

Thus, given the ends for which genetic and microbial interventions are intended, it is imperative to engage with these domains on something approximating their own terms. For, in these inhuman, nonhuman, and more-than-human domains lies the dream of human-inflected evolution as a counterpoint to human-induced extinction. In turn, the following presents an inconclusive conclusion, acknowledging that the questions asked here must largely remain both open-ended, and without definitive answers.

6. Closed Minded and Open-Ended

In the question-and-answer session following the ‘Biodiversity & Conservation’ panel at SB7.0, one of the presenters, Kent Redford, told the audience how the session’s origins went back to 2013, when the world’s first such meeting between synthetic and conservation biologists took place (Redford 2013). Held at Cambridge University, ‘How will Synthetic Biology and Conservation Shape the Future of Nature?’ brought these strange bedfellows together over three days of presentations and workshops. Redford, who convened this 2013 symposium, has since been instrumental in organising, facilitating, and convening a series of events that directly followed on from the original symposium, as well as in writing and publishing the working papers, reports, guidelines, and academic papers that emerged from these events. These events included ‘The New Genomic Solutions for Conservation Problems Workshop’ with the U.S. NGO Revive & Restore in 2015; ‘Biodiversity Conservation in the Context of Synthetic Biology’ workshop with the IUCN and the Rockefeller Foundation, also in 2015; ‘Advancing Genetic Rescue’ at the World Conservation Congress in 2016; convening the ‘Biodiversity & Conservation’ panel in 2017; forming the IUCN Task Force and a Technical Subgroup in 2018; and overseeing its policy outcomes for the World Conservation Congress in 2020.

Originally a conservation biologist, Redford is arguably emblematic of the shift from normative to experimental technoscientific conservation and also played a key role in recognising the relevance of the cultural imaginary underpinning the dream of implementing this shift. In his SB7.0 presentation, Redford not only included Raymond Williams’ aforementioned landmark interrogation of the concept of ‘nature’, and its relevance for technoscientific conservation, but also emphasised just how tenuous, uncertain, and hubristic the dream is. He did so by way of a lengthy quote from Sheila Jasanoff, Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Harvard Kennedy School, from her “call [for] the ‘technologies of humility’”, which she defines as:

Institutionalized habits of thought, that try to come to grips with the ragged fringes of human understanding—the unknown, the uncertain, the ambiguous, and the uncontrollable. Acknowledging the limits of prediction and control, technologies of humility confront ‘head-on’ the normative implications of our lack of perfect foresight. They call for different expert capabilities and different forms of engagement between experts, decision-makers, and the public than were considered needful in the governance structures of high modernity. They require not only the formal mechanisms of participation but also an intellectual environment in which citizens are encouraged to bring their knowledge and skills to bear on the resolution of common problems.

(Jasanoff 2005, p. 227)

Which is to say that, in the context of technoscientific conservation, even those extensively engaged in the field, and in possession of the relevant scientific and/or technical expertise, maintain that the dream requires humility, not hubris. Indeed, Bensaude-Vincent offers a cautionary note when she argues that “the novel forms of life will not escape the contingencies of evolution. Since all synthetic organisms will have to take place in the world, it is unrealistic to imagine that they will have a predictable behaviour. If they are capable of evolution they are not under human control” (Bensaude-Vincent 2013, p. 30). As always—there is a more extant history behind such dreams, with Clark remarking back in 1998 that “there is a price to be paid for this novel capacity to deal with multivariate and simultaneous interactions, which is a certain loss of control—a devolution of authority from a central programmer to the synthetic system itself” (Clark 1998, p. 362).

One of the other presenters at SB7.0, the British designer and academic Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, offered a complementary tone to Redford and Jasanoff, albeit from a design rather than a scientific point of view. Having attended the ‘How will Synthetic Biology and Conservation Shape the Future of Nature?’ symposium in 2013, Ginsberg viewed the nascent field through the lens of her critical design practice. In turn, she created ‘Designing for the Sixth Extinction’, a series of fictional new-to-nature creatures, created by companies to perform bioremediation and biodiversity offsetting. Like the SB7.0 booklet cover, her designs consisted of computer-generated creatures realistically placed into photographs of actual forests, accompanied by a patent statement for each that outlined the ownership of its intellectual property, as well as its commercial value, protected through measures such as kill-switches designed to terminate the creature after a programmed duration, so that the companies’ services will always be required to manufacture more of them.

Ginsberg’s work captures both the ongoing validity of the humanities’ critique of the field, including the need for humility, as well as a measured acknowledgement that it does indeed appear to be “Time for Synthetic Biodiversity Conservation”, albeit a version of that conservation that radically redefines core concepts, including the notion of humility itself:

Our greatest challenge may be to acknowledge that the design rules for biology are unlike those for any other material. Human intention may not be enough to overcome evolution. Synthetic biology’s designs on nature require us to adapt our understanding of design, the natural world, and life itself.

(Ginsberg 2014, p. 56)

Regrettably, Ginsberg’s practice is a typically isolated instance of cultural engagement with synthetic biology, meaning that the all-important cultural imaginary can too easily be conflated with the scant examples of such engagement. This imaginary is distributed across and between diverse stakeholders, though it is commonly reduced to whatever cultural artefacts exist, as a synecdoche for the intangible and inexpressible properties of a dream. Just as Jurassic Park was used as a short-hand description of the cultural imaginary of de-extinction in its time, so too is Ginsberg’s Design for the Sixth Extinction a short-hand for our time, although any such proxies are never the sole progeny of the cultural imaginary: this imaginary is also fashioned in the laboratory, the boardroom, the policy document, and other such ‘non-cultural’ spheres.

This issue was brought to the fore by Oliver Morton, another presenter at SB7.0. His paper was a highly unusual presentation in the context of a synthetic biology conference, replete with examples drawn from myths, paintings, poetry and other cultural artefacts. Morton began his presentation by talking about a key juncture in developing his book The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World. He recounted how his publisher advised him to include synthetic biology as well as climate engineering, given the former presents micro-scale, and the latter macro-scale, as proposals to mitigate the Anthropocene. Morton then explained how he resisted the advice, only to regret it later, having subsequently come to appreciate the manifold ways in which the two fields are two sides of the same coin. Essentially, Morton’s presentation encapsulated the rationale for The Planet Remade, which he described as an attempt to counter what happens when the possibilities of utopian imagination…are undercut, even betrayed, if the group doing the imagining is too small. That is currently the case, I think, for geoengineering. Listen to the discussion of the topic going on today and you will hear natural scientists who are cautiously curious about the ideas but have no real interest in trying to make them practical; you will hear social scientists and philosophers interested in providing critiques of the modes of thinking that shape the discourse; you will hear environmentalists who see in it, or project on to it, everything they dislike about centralized action, about capitalism, about mechanistic world views; you will hear the fantasies of the rich and powerful and the fears of the frightened and doctrinaire. It is too small a set of voices. The way a society imagines its future matters. And who gets to do the imagining matters.

(Morton 2017, p. 29)

During the conclusion to his presentation, the projected image above the stage changed from depicting the above-mentioned cultural artefacts, to return to the conference logo, a modified version of the image which adorned the booklet. The portrait presentation for the booklet had been turned into a circular motif, symbolising the earth, with Singapore’s skyscrapers emerging above the surface, an outer layer composed of microbes, and an inner layer composed of the same plants and animals from the conference booklet cover, and finally an innermost layer comprising the conference title SB 7.0 with eight human hands radiating out around the circle, in different skin tones to represent the diverse ethnicities and races of the differentiated Anthropos subsumed into the singular Anthropocene. This imagery presents the dream as if it were about future action, as per How Geoengineering Could Change thWorld, whereas those who have already awoken realise we are no longer fantasising but are already living within the dream itself.

SB7.0 was staged at the University Cultural Centre within the National University of Singapore, a kilometre from where the shoreline was when Wallace stayed there in 1854. Nowadays, one would need to travel a further 300 metres to reach the shoreline, to cross the land that has been reclaimed from the ocean through dredging, sand relocation and engineering. Which is to say that it is not so much about asking “Is it Time for Synthetic Biodiversity Conservation”, but rather time to acknowledge that we already inhabit a planet rife with the artifice and artificiality of design and engineering. At the same time, we must acknowledge that, however audacious the current proposals to extend this agency may be, they invoke increasing incursions into the inhuman, non-human and more-than-human world. Incursions, that it turns out, reveal technoscientific conservation in the Anthropocene to paradoxically be both vital and futile, as well as timely and too late.


This research was funded by the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Synthetic Biology (CE200100029). The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the Australian Government or the Australian Research Council.


My thanks to Rubymaya Jaeck-Woodgate for feedback and editing successive drafts.

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War, Empire and Racism in the Anthropocene

By Nafeez Ahmed, originally published by Insurge Intelligence

Resilience version here

The Anthropocene. A proposed new geological epoch which designates a shift to a planetary age dominated by human impacts across the geological processes of the Earth. Geologists dispute the duration, precision, relevance and even accuracy of the concept. But the term has increasingly entered the scientific lexicon as increasing numbers of experts across myriad disciplines recognise that for the first time in history, the future of the entire planet — for generations if not millennia to come — is now being fundamentally determined by the activities of the human species. But the Anthropocene is about far more than just climate change. It is about an entire system of life, whose design is to maximise resource extraction at the expense of expendable ‘Others’. It is bound up, intimately, with a global system of racism emerging from the legacy of centuries of colonialism. And it is inseparable from the ceaseless sequence of industrial wars, culminating in today’s permanent state of the endless ‘war on terror’.

Human-induced global heating — terraforming the Earth beyond recognition

It is the unprecedented impact of anthropogenic climate change that has, perhaps, played the biggest role in efforts to define the Anthropocene as a distinctive new era in Earth’s history. Multiple warnings backed by a global consensus of climate scientists have warned over the last few decades that human activities, through the escalating consumption of fossil fuel resources — the burning of oil, gas and coal — is destabilising the Earth’s natural carbon cycle.

For hundreds of thousands of years, the planet has sustained an equilibrium, a ‘safe operating’ space offering an optimum environment for human and other habitation — in which the quantity of carbon emitted and absorbed by planetary ecosystems remains stable.

But since the Industrial Revolution, as human civilisation has inexorably expanded, consuming greater quantities of fossil fuel energy along the way, associated carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have exponentially increased — overwhelming the planet’s capacity for absorption. The result has been a steady increase in global average temperatures.

Scientists warn that the extra addition of CO2 into the atmosphere, capturing greater heat, is in turn playing escalating havoc with the Earth’s climate, weather and ecological systems. As human civilisation continues its expansion, as it continues to burn up escalating quantities of fossil fuels, the climate science community warns that above a certain level of CO2 and global heating, planetary ecosystems will shift passed a key tipping point into a new, dangerous era — one that is outside the boundaries of the preceding hundreds of thousands of years, outside anything human beings have ever experienced.

If we continue on this pathway of business-as-usual, conservative projections suggest we are heading toward anywhere between a 3 to 6 degrees Celsius global average temperature rise.

Others, such as Schroders, the global investment firm, have suggested we could be heading toward an 8C planet due to the current rate of fossil fuel consumption — the 8C temperature projection was also suggested by a study funded by US Department of Energy’s Climate Change Research Division, which highlighted the potential impact of ‘amplifying feedback loops’ triggered by altering earth system processes that might trigger further greenhouse gas loading.

Between 4–6C, most climate scientists agree that there would be such a degree of chaos that the planet would become largely uninhabitable. The variation is complicated, and depends on a concept called ‘Earth System Sensitivity’ — how sensitive the planet’s ecosystems are to the CO2 change. But even at a conservative estimate of sensitivity, a 3C planet, to which at minimum we are likely heading, should be considered “extremely dangerous”; and a global average temperature rise within the 3–4C threshold would probably create conditions that make the core infrastructures of human civilisation increasingly unviable.

To the extent that governments are taking seriously this threat, they are doing so largely with a view to assess the implications for their own functioning — and with a view to consider how to sustain business-as-usual amidst rising instability. This is the context in which many studies have concluded that our current climate change trajectory will increase the chance of conflict. For the most part, Western national security agencies that have examined the issue agree that while climate change does not automatically produce war, it acts as an ‘amplifier’ which increases the prospect of war, due to its impacts in terms of water scarcity, the degeneration of critical food systems, the failure of conventional energy supplies, and the unpredictable impact of extreme weather events. Such impacts can sometimes devastate infrastructures and lead to the collapse of public services. In those contexts, the proliferating outbreak of wars and conflicts is widely recognised to be a likely symptom of climate change on a business-as-usual pathway.

The problem is that this usually leads to little reflection on the need to change the human system that is producing this trajectory — instead, we are largely told of the need for a greater expansion of security powers to respond to the chaos of a climate-impacted world: the intensification of the same system that produced the problem.

On the polar opposite of the spectrum, we have outright state denialism rooted in the goal of protecting the system of endless fossil fuel exploitation at any conceivable cost. It is telling that the Trump administration, as of March 2019, was considering the creation of a White House panel to dispute the findings of dozens of US military and intelligence assessments on the grave security risks posed by climate change. Which is interesting, given that the Pentagon emits more fossil fuel emissions than as many as 140 different countries.

And yet, the preoccupation with war that emerges from the narrow lens of ‘national security’ through which the human gaze is obsessed primarily with physical threats to the interests of nation-states, is ultimately counterproductive, symptomatic of the fragmentary cognitive framing in which human institutions are currently capable of thinking and acting — it focuses myopically on how to uphold the survival of the business-as-usual operations of the state and the interests lobbying through it, overlooking the global existential character of the crisis as a threat to the whole species.

At the worst end of the scale, war would be the least of our problems: we have the risk of a ‘hothouse’ Earth. A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the risk of an uninhabitable planet is not simply a far off possibility that might be triggered at several degrees of temperature rise in a more distant future — it could be triggered imminently; and it is possible that it may already have been triggered at the current level of an approximate 1C temperature rise above the pre-industrial average, which NASA’s former chief climate scientist James Hansen had argued is the safe upper limit, beyond which we move into a dangerous and more unpredictable climate with some consequences that may be irreversible.

But climate change is only one facet of the crisis. Our civilisational model, which has exponentially increasing energy and resource consumption as its driving motor, has seen human activities, exploitation and waste-generation accelerate across the planet. This has driven an escalating biodiversity crisis leading to potentially irreversible changes to soils and oceans, underpinning mass species extinctions.

Human civilisation and the war on life

About 15 years ago, the UN’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment provided one of the first and most damning insights into the destruction wrought by humans that defines the Anthropocene. The report pinpointed the mid-twentieth century as a marked tipping point into a new era, where rapidly intensifying industrial agriculture accompanied an escalating collapse of biodiversity.

Consumption of food, water and fuel has not only exponentially increased, it has exponentially encroached on habitats — more in the preceding 50 years alone than throughout all of human history. The extinction rate of species was “up to one thou­sand times higher than the fossil record”, when “every thousand mammal species, less than one went extinct every millen­nium”. The UN assessment projected that the rate is still going up, and will be “ten times higher” in the near future.

The situation is now far worse than expected. This year, the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services concluded that one million of the planet’s 8 million animal and plant species are at risk of going extinct in the near future, due to the expansion of human societies that has driven climate change, the loss of habitat, overfishing, pollution and invasive species.

Numerous studies have warned that our present trajectory is heading toward the collapse of our current form of civilisation. One model developed with NASA funding indicated that the current endless growth model of human civilisation was likely to lead to diminishing returns and deepening economic stratification, eventually culminating in collapse. All civilisations, the model seemed to show, tend to follow a growth trajectory consisting of an increasing intensification in complexity, whereby greater layers of complexity are continuously innovated to solve problems.

With each new layer, more complex problems are generated, requiring a further even more complex layer of problem-solving to address them, which in turn generates further problems. The cycle, drawing on the work of archaeologist Joseph Tainter who studied dozens of past civilisations, suggests that any civilisation will eventually collapse under the unsustainable weight of its own complexity due to excessive resource consumption and internal maldistribution of wealth — unless consumption and distribution begin to be rectified in time.

This particular model was fairly simple, focusing on a smaller number of variables to explore the general plausibility of the core hypothesis. A few years later, a far more complex scientific model with thousands of data inputs was developed by Anglia Ruskin University’s Global Sustainability Institute. with funding from the British Foreign Office. When run forward on a business-as-usual trajectory, the model suggested that human civilisation would probably collapse around 2040 amidst an eruption of converging climate, energy, food and water crises that would devastate major economies amidst an epidemic of food riots. Conventional war might happen — but either way, the planet would likely experience a proliferation of civil unrest within, between and across borders.

This year, a scenario analysis backed by the former head of Australia’s military drew on the peer-reviewed scientific literature to outline a plausible business-as-usual trajectory, based on what we know about how planetary ecosystems can respond to human-induced CO2 emissions. The scenario took seriously the scientific evidence of a potential ‘hothouse’ Earth scenario. It suggested that by 2050, human societies would face “outright chaos” due to escalating climate-impacts on key ecosystems, with two billion people suffering from water scarcity and another billion requiring relocation just to survive. The prospects would severely strain the capacity of human civilisation to function, and increase the chances of its collapse. The authors of this analysis called on the national security sector, the agencies of war, to respond more appropriately to these risks by supporting a comprehensive World War 2 style mobilisation to transition to a post-carbon civilisation.

While perhaps well-intentioned, the report did not recognise that war agencies might be structurally incapable of undertaking such a response precisely due to their embeddedness in the institutions captured by the very same fossil fuel system — and that such a transformation would conceivably imperil their very reason for being.

Another assessment in the form of a scientific briefing commissioned to feed into the UN’s Sustainable Development report found that one of the key drivers behind the growing risk of collapse is the very nature of the endless growth model of capitalism, as currently structured. The more we escalate our consumption of resources, raw materials, minerals and energy, the more we are using up the cheapest and most plentiful resources, and therefore the greater the costs of continued production. Drawing on the pioneering work of environmentalist Professor Charles Hall, the study advocated a focus on the ‘energy return on investment’ (EROI) of national and global energy systems to measure how efficient they really are (EROI measures the quantity of energy used to extract energy). The answer? Efficiency is declining for largely geological reasons. As the costs increase due to the need for greater quantities of energy and more complicated mechanisms of exploitation; the returns to society diminish. As we are using ever increasing quantities of energy and resources just to extract more energy and resources, the surplus we have left to sustain the financing of the public goods and services necessary to maintain a functioning civilisation is declining. This doesn’t mean we are running out of energy — but it means that as the energetic and environmental costs of energy extraction increase, we effectively have less and less spare to invest back into key social goods.

French economists Victor Court and Florian Fizaine showed in a recent global EROI study that we are well passed the maximum levels of efficiency. The amount of energy we can extract from fossil fuels compared to the energy used to extract it was once lucratively high — around 44:1 in the 1960s. Since then it has inexorably declined to just over 30 overall, accompanied by a long-term slow-down in the growth rate of the global economy, a decline in productivity, and an expansion of debt. At this rate of decline, by 2100 we are projected to extract the same value of EROI from fossil fuels as we were in the 1800s. While there might be more actual total energy being produced by end of century, the surplus energy available could be at nineteenth century levels if we continue on a business-as-usual path of fossil fuel-dependence.

This predicament is already driving social unrest, communal polarisation and the resurgence of populism in a situation where neither governments nor wider publics really understand why economies continue to experience chronic dysfunction, instability and tepid growth.

The report to the UN forecasted that this trajectory means that the current economic system, which depends on endless growth to survive, simply cannot be sustained. It therefore portends a future of increasing unrest without a change of course. We will inevitably shift toward a new, different type of economy — if we don’t, then we face a heightened risk of social tensions that could cascade into conflict; and at worse we may well face the danger of collapse.

War in the mirror of civilisation

The risk of collapse is inherently entwined with war — industrial civilisation’s growth trajectory has not only enabled the technologies of war, but is in turn enabled by them.

Earlier this year, the main scientific committee established to determine the accuracy and nature of the definition of the Anthropocene signed off on its initial proposal positing 1950 as the starting date for the new geological era.

The sign off is the first stage of a longer scientific process to properly investigate and test what is still, in raw scientific terms, a mere hypothesis. The scientists based their preliminary evaluations on the mid-twentieth century as a major tipping point into a new era of human interference with the Earth’s geology, characterised by industrial expansion, the proliferation of agricultural chemicals, and most significant of all, the invention and deployment of the atomic bomb. The latter’s radioactive debris became embedded in sediments and glacial ice, becoming part of the geologic record. All this demonstrates an unprecedented and unmistakeable human footprint across the planet whose impacts will be seen for decades, centuries and millennia to come.

War, then, is carved into the sinews of the Anthropocene. While the twentieth and twenty-first centuries can be seen as exemplifying the inherently ecocidal dynamic of the exponential growth of human civilisation, they have also exhibited another parallel feature: the systematic proliferation of war, mass violence, and multiple forms of genocide.

These parallel features — ecocide and genocide; the destruction of our environmental life-support systems, and our direct destruction of the lives of members of our own species — do not coincide haphazardly, but are symptoms of the system of human life itself, in its current form.

From 1945 onwards, human civilisation was caught between the clash of two pseudo-scientific industrial ideologies of endless growth: capitalism and communism — the former premised on extreme privatisation and individuation, the latter premised on extreme nationalisation and collectivisation.

Both paradigms saw the Earth as little more than an external repository of resources to be exploited ad infinitum for the endless consumption of a human species, now self-defined by its capacity for technologically-driven industry.

Both promised that their paradigms would herald utopian oases of industrial prosperity for their respective societies.

In reality, both not only ‘Otherised’ the Earth itself as merely a resource to be consumed by human beings as a predator species, they simultaneously ‘Otherised’ large sections of working populations in and beyond their own demarcated territories, as little more than instruments by which to endlessly accelerate industrial productivity; and they both went on to mindlessly ‘Otherise’ each other whenever they clashed with each other (and even when they did not).

The result was that in their very different efforts to expand, both systems resulted in the mass deaths of millions of people on a colossal scale.

The Soviet Union and Maoist China deployed brutal collectivisation methods on their path toward accelerating productivity, which produced foreseeable mass deaths. This included the generation of devastating artificial famines. Stalin’s policies eliminated between 20 and 60 million people; Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ caused 27 million people to starve to death.

But liberal Western governments also left a trail of blood of a quite distinct kind, in the first major spate of violence since the dawn of the Anthropocene as so far tentatively defined.

From 1945 onwards, Western governments under the leadership of the United States — bearing the mantle of leader of the ‘Capitalist Free World’ — pursued a continuous sequence of direct and covert military interventions across the world. Western military interventions generated a continuum of violence in over 70 developing nations across Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East from mid-century until today.

British historian Mark Curtis calculates that the total number of direct and indirect deaths from these interventions is approximately 8.6–13.5 million — a conservative underestimate, he qualifies. The interventions were often aimed at quelling nationalist movements for self-determination. Although publicly justified as defensive actions to repel communist subversion, Curtis’ evaluation of historical archives from the US and British governments revealed that policy planners had deliberately inflated the communist threat to justify a militarism aimed at defending Western business interests and acquiring control of critical resources and raw materials. In the Middle East, the biggest prize was control of strategic fossil fuel reserves, the very lifeblood of economic growth.

Development economist J. W. Smith has offered a higher estimate of the death toll, which he puts somewhere between 12–15 million deaths directly due to Western military interventions, with further “hundreds of millions” dying as an indirect consequence of the destruction and reconfiguration of their economies. Smith traced how Western interventions paved the way for the imposition of new capitalist social relations designed to extinguish domestic resistance and forcibly integrate developing countries into the global capitalist economy.

In the twenty-first century, this war trajectory has escalated, not waned. The driving motor remains the use of force to expand access to resources and labour, in order to lubricate the ever-expanding networks of global capital. It is a process sanitised, though, by various ideologies of humanitarianism, benign developmentalism, and ‘national security’.

The principal interventions of the ‘war on terror’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, are resource wars in core ways.

British Foreign Office documents prove clearly that American and British policy-planners saw the invasion and occupation of Iraq as a way to consolidate access to one of the world’s largest oil reserves, while ensuring the continued flow of to global markets with a view to help stabilise the global economy. In Afghanistan, Congressional records have revealed longstanding US-Western efforts to establish a trans-Afghan pipeline route for the transport of oil and gas from Central Asia to Western markets, bypassing US rivals Iran and Russia. In the 1990s, the US and British even funnelled support to the Taliban in a failed bid to establish the ‘security’ needed to pursue the plan.

Consecutively, the Obama and Trump administrations both continued to back the pipeline project which remains under construction.

In the Anthropocene, resource wars are bipartisan.

Both conflicts wrought colossal violence. Although the more widely accepted estimates of deaths in the hundreds of thousands are terrible enough, higher scale estimates could be more accurate, ranging up to a total of around 4 million people killed directly and indirectly across both conflicts since 1990.

Since then, war in the Anthropocene has intensified and proliferated in new and surprising ways as the more vulnerable nodes of human civilisation have begun to experience overlapping levels of failure and collapse due to the slow acceleration of converging climate, energy, food and water crises. The 2011 Arab Spring uprisings spiralled into a protracted, coalescing amalgamation of riots, civil wars and armed conflicts encompassing multiple theatres, Syria, Yemen, Libya and beyond.

The Arab Spring had been triggered by food price shocks which were, in turn, driven by a confluence of economic-energy shocks interacting with a series of climate shocks which had led to droughts and extreme weather crises across the world’s major food basket regions. Many Arab Spring countries from Syria to Egypt to Yemen had slashed subsidies for food and fuel in preceding years, largely due to the collapse of state revenues — many of them had been former major oil exporters, but in the mid-1990s had experienced peaks of their domestic conventional oil resources. As production thus declined, so did export revenues. With subsidies in the years before 2011 disappearing, coupled with global price spikes due to rampant market speculation on commodity prices coupled with global food shortages, prices of staple foods in these largely import-dependent countries rocketed. As the price of bread became unaffordable, people across the region hit the streets.

The Earth system crisis of the Anthropocene played a critical role in prolonging and amplifying this Middle East crisis, which in turn drove migration and asylum seeking from 2011 to 2015 to an unprecedented degree. Some 11.5 percent of the population of Syria alone has been killed in the ensuing conflict. The West, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE have vied for control of Syria for a range of geopolitical reasons, not least of which was its centrality to potential transhipment routes for oil and gas to global markets. Partisans of these different forces tend to absolve their favoured side(s) of complicity, but it is worth noting that prior to the 2011 uprising the State Department was actively negotiating with Syria and EU officials to push forward a pipeline route through the country to transport Iraqi oil to Europe; Russia simultaneously saw Assad’s efforts to capitalise on Syria’s strategic position vis-a-vis the region’s energy corridors as a fundamental threat to Putin’s own gas export plans — the war provided the ideal spoiler, with each side using it to try to further their own interests, the Syrian people be damned.

In the Anthropocene, so-called anti-imperialists have few qualms about fighting resource wars in their own self-interest.

The million plus migrants that turned up on the shores of Europe did so as a direct result of these wars. They were escaping devastating geopolitical conflicts amplified by vested interests, but which had also been created or exacerbated by severe droughts amplified by climate change.

According to the co-author of a key study of the climate-migration connection, Dr Raya Muttarak — a senior lecturer in geography and international development at the University of East Anglia: “The effect of climate on conflict occurrence is particularly relevant for countries in Western Asia in the period 2010–2012, when many were undergoing political transformation during the so-called Arab Spring uprisings.” Muttarak and his team showed that climate change laid the groundwork for the simmering tensions which led to the outbreak of war in Syria and across parts of the region, by generating droughts that led to mass migration.

The mass migration triggered by these processes, in turn, have transformed and radicalised politics across the Western hemisphere. They provided the fodder for extreme nationalist narratives funded by colossal quantities of ‘dark money’ from a cross-section of trans-Atlantic right-wing elites, many of whom hold vested interests in perpetuating deregulation for fossil fuel giants and other giant corporations.

The mass migration thus stoked nativist fears that helped fuel the rise of extreme nationalist movements, which suddenly found renewed constituencies for their views and policies with increasing numbers of ordinary citizens who felt disillusioned with the prevailing order, but had no way of making sense of it. They knew, can feel, that something is deeply wrong, that the old order is collapsing, but their diagnosis is incomplete, narcissistic, fragmented and symptom-oriented. As such, it has led to incomplete, narcissistic, fragmented and symptom-oriented political reactionism.

The series of victories for the far-right that followed the eruption of Earth system crisis in the Middle East between 2011 and 2015 can thus be seen as a direct consequence of an incoherent cognitive response to the crisis, which reacted purely to its chief symptom: the desperate mass movement of vulnerable peoples.

We thus witnessed a series of seismic shifts in the reconfiguration of Western political systems, a hardening and centralising of power, a self-centring of values, a defensive rejectionism of science, and a polarising of identities, manifesting in a string of extreme nationalist wins. In 2014, far-right parties won just under a quarter of all seats in the European Parliament. In 2015, David Cameron was re-elected as Prime Minister with a parliamentary majority, a victory attributed in part to his promise to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. Unbeknownst to many, the Tories had quietly established wide-ranging links with many of the same far-right parties that were now capturing seats in the EU. The following year in June, the ‘Brexit’ referendum shocked the world with its result: a majority vote to leave the EU. Six months later, billionaire real estate guru Donald Trump became president of the world’s most powerful country. Like the Conservatives in the UK, the Republicans too had forged trans-Atlantic connections with European parties and movements of the extreme-right. Since then, far-right parties have made continued electoral gains across Europe in Italy, Sweden, Germany, France, Poland and Hungary; they are now just short of a third of seats in the European Parliament — and they are rapidly consolidating elsewhere, in the Philippines, Brazil, India, Myanmar and beyond.

The troubles and tribulations of contemporary politics, the increasing polarisation between left and right, the chronic incapacity to engage constructively across ideological divides, have become a pantomime hyperreality obsessing our consciousness through our television screens, desk computers, laptops, smartphones and wearable devices. The missing link is the planetary context — the crises of contemporary politics are, indeed, tidal waves, but they are occurring on the surface of an ocean in turmoil, of which, for all intents and purposes, we remain oblivious.

Political crisis is a symptom of the accelerating Earth system crisis. And as Clausewitz famously said, war is a continuation of politics by other means.

Colonisation and globalisation in the Anthropocene

Not everyone agrees, though, that the Anthropocene began in the mid-twentieth century. Some argue that there is a strong geological case for the Anthropocene commencing with the dawn of modern global empire.

British geographers Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin have put forward a much earlier date for this unprecedented era, one that “adheres to the geological criteria for defining an epoch: 1610. This date marks the irreversible exchange of species following the collision of the Old and New worlds”, which coincided with “an associated unusual drop in atmospheric CO2 captured in Antarctic ice cores.”

This alternative dating for the Anthropocene derives from the measurable impact of farming in relation to the colonisation of America by the Spanish, a pivotal event which many historians see as marking the inception of a new, distinctive age of empire that facilitated the birth of global capitalism. The drop in CO2 at the time, visible today in the ice cores, resulted from “vegetation regrowth on abandoned farmlands following the deaths of 50 million indigenous Americans (mostly from smallpox brought by Europeans). The annexing of the Americas by Europe was also an essential precursor to the Industrial Revolution and therefore captures associated later waves of environmental change.”

This alternative dating offers a compelling re-envisioning of the Anthropocene that associates it directly with the violence of empire, with the 1610 date providing the bridge connecting the historical violence of colonial discovery with its ensuing expansionism through biological conquest.

This encompassed the mass ‘free market’ famines in Ireland and India, which saw the deaths of one million and up to 12 million respectively; as well as the trans-Atlantic slave-trade which saw the deaths of as many as 65 million Africans over five centuries — a blood-drenched international regime that was inextricably linked to the formation of a capitalist world system that helped facilitate Britain’s industrial revolution.

By this standard, the Anthropocene — encompassing the period in which the human species most profoundly and near-permanently began transforming the very geology of the Earth — simultaneously represents the rapid expansion of empire, and with it, the systematic construction of new racial categories to legitimise the emerging system of global apartheid that came with it.

In this very period, we saw the dawn of scientific racism, the formal and scientifically-justified concept of multiple races, the grotesque legacy of which we continue to struggle with today. The idea that there are different ‘races’ can be traced back to the political appropriation and distortion of neo-Darwinian theories of evolution to underpin racial hierarchies which positioned white Europeans at the pinnacle of civilised human advancement in this juggernaut of global industrial expansion.

Racism, then, is not discrimination against other ‘races’. It is the very act of creating the notion of a distinctive ‘race’ of people — that is, of possessing common generalised characteristics, an act inseparable from the very dawn of the Anthropocene, which witnessed the emergence of a civilisation defined by its insatiable hunger for resources and labour.

Polarised constructions of the ‘Other’ have played a crucial ideological function throughout the Anthropocene, cleaving human beings from the environments in which they find themselves, and cleaving them apart from each other into exploitative factions of power. And so it is no surprise that the formalisation of racism as a global system appeared to solidify during the industrial revolution, as the human species’ domination of the Earth began to reach exponential acceleration.

In the early nineteenth century, racism manifested largely as a religious ideology linked to interpretations of the Bible, viewing non-European groups as inherently inferior due to their heathen beliefs and ancestry, and frequently targeted Jews. From the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries, racism evolved on the basis of scientifically-justified biological theories which attributed fixed traits, behaviours, characteristics, abilities and disabilities to constructed groups of people based on their supposedly distinctive biological characteristics. Since then, racism has continued to evolve and is largely underpinned by a cultural theory which still projects homogenised constructions of different social groups with common traits and characteristics, but derived instead from their affiliation to a culture, ethnicity, nation, language or faith. Often, racism today borrows from across these subliminal theories — its proponents frequently not even recognising what they are doing.

The late sociologist Stuart Hall famously described “race” as a “floating signifier”. Rather than being a fixed concept, he explained, race has always been a deeply and inherently political construct, projected by powerful dominant groups, justifying unequal power relations with other groups. As such, it is a construct that changes and adapts to historical circumstance. Far from being exclusively biologically determined, Hall showed that the new type of cultural racism moves beyond discrimination related to skin colour. Instead, it focuses on the imagined cultures of people, generalised abstractions about their beliefs and practices, projecting a hierarchy of cultures. Racialised stereotypes can thus cut across colour divides, and ‘non-racial’ categories like faith, culture and civilisation can become racist code for similar discriminatory practices. One result is the projection of an unsurpassable divide between the “West” and “the Rest”, in which “Westerners” are seen as “civilised”, “safe”, “known”, while “migrants”, “Muslims”, “asylum seekers”, “foreigners” and so on are viewed as “uncivilised”, “dangerous”, and “different”.

The deepening and acceleration of identity-politics is a defining feature of the tail-end of the Anthropocene, as the endless growth project of maximum extraction, exploitation and centralisation of resources invents and entrenches multiple divides between human beings on its path of self-legitimisation. And so, too, the devastating impacts of the Earth system crisis remain racialised, with the worst consequences disproportionately affecting the poorer, darker nations around the world.

War is, perhaps, the most visible surface-symptom of the Anthropocene’s defining feature.

In the Anthropocene, we all become Others.

It is not yet too late to begin to actively redefine the meaning of the Anthropocene.

For ultimately, the character of the Anthropocene so far is a reflection of the system of human civilisation within the prevailing paradigm. This is a life-destroying paradigm, a death-machine whose internal logic culminates in its own termination. It is a matrix of interlocking beliefs, values, behaviours and organisational forms which functions as a barrier, not an entry-point, to life, nature and reality.

And in that sense, the end of this paradigm is utterly inevitable. But this does not erase the choice before us — which is to decide whether humanity will perish in the ashes of this paradigm, or plant seeds of a new life-affirming paradigm by building out an emerging system for the flourishing of a new ecological civilisation.

If human civilisation is to survive, it will not be what we see before us — erected on the blood of millions; premised on the exhaustion of planetary resources; crushing the bones of the poor, vulnerable and weak; hell-bent on self-annihilation — that does so. This is a paradigm beguiled by a techno-hyperreality of its own projection; a utopian simulacrum of endless growth, desperately attempting to conceal its own dystopic core from self-awareness.

And so our task is to reflect on what we have truly done to each other, and to the planet; and to recognise that these two phenomena are part of the same self-defeating paradigm: one which perpetually constructs a hyperreality of divisions, borders, and boundaries around projected externalisations of the ‘Other’, seemingly necessitating exploitative, parasitical behaviours. What emerges from this recognition is the relinquishing of the binary delusions that have riven the path of civilisation for hundreds of years, and thereby an embracing of a new vision of what it means to be human — retrieving the essence of our existence as beings who, together, have come from, and will inevitably return to, the Earth itself.

Nafeez Ahmed

Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is a bestselling author, investigative journalist, international security scholar, policy expert, film-maker, strategy & communications consultant, and change activist. The focus of Ahmed’s work is to catalyse social change in the public interest by harnessing radical, systemic approaches to understanding the interconnections between the world’s biggest problems …

Biology in the Anthropocene: Challenges and insights from young fossil records

Susan M. Kidwell

PNAS April 21, 2015 112 (16) 4922-4929; first published April 20, 2015;

  1. Edited by Neil H. Shubin, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, and approved February 6, 2015 (received for review July 6, 2014)

With overwhelming evidence of change in habitats, biologists today must assume that few, if any, study areas are natural and that biological variability is superimposed on trends rather than stationary means. Paleobiological data from the youngest sedimentary record, including death assemblages actively accumulating on modern land surfaces and seabeds, provide unique information on the status of present-day species, communities, and biomes over the last few decades to millennia and on their responses to natural and anthropogenic environmental change. Key advances have established the accuracy and resolving power of paleobiological information derived from naturally preserved remains and of proxy evidence for environmental conditions and sample age so that fossil data can both implicate and exonerate human stressors as the drivers of biotic change and permit the effects of multiple stressors to be disentangled. Legacy effects from Industrial and even pre-Industrial anthropogenic extirpations, introductions, (de)nutrification, and habitat conversion commonly emerge as the primary factors underlying the present-day status of populations and communities; within the last 2 million years, climate change has rarely been sufficient to drive major extinction pulses absent other human pressures, which are now manifold. Young fossil records also provide rigorous access to the baseline composition and dynamics of modern-day biota under pre-Industrial conditions, where insights include the millennial-scale persistence of community structures, the dominant role of physical environmental conditions rather than biotic interactions in determining community composition and disassembly, and the existence of naturally alternating states.

The Anthropocene is an informal term that is gaining wide currency for the present epoch of Earth’s history, when humans dominate a majority of natural processes globally (12). The biological effects of climate change receive the greatest attention (3–6): secular warming, ocean acidification, and novel precipitation patterns are now pervasive (78) (Fig. 1). However, many other human pressures—most particularly nutrification, habitat conversion, and the overexploitation and introduction of species—also intensified with the expansion of human populations and technology during the Industrial Revolution and the post-World War II “Great Acceleration” (241718) and are equally relevant to conservation and restoration efforts, as well as to basic ecological research. These pressures, moreover, started much earlier during preceding centuries to millennia at regional scales, both on land and in coastal seas, and have been accompanied by biological-stress syndromes (19), such as decreased body size, population size, trophic levels, and diversity, as well as functional and complete extinction of species (142024). These nonclimate factors are now as global as climate change (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1.

Fig. 1.

Historical trends in environmental conditions and technology over the last 5 million years, culminating in the Anthropocene, when human activities achieved a global signature. Most biological data (Top) are from studies conducted after World War II, and thus short-term variability has occurred in the context of trends rather than stationary means in climate, nutrients, and other human pressures. The deeper historical reach of paleobiological data challenge assumptions of stability and equilibrium and show that many populations, species, communities, and biomes had undergone significant changes in abundance, structure, and function at regional scales well before the mid-20th century. Note changes in scale along the x axis, where the present day is operationally set at 1950 CE (radiocarbon definition). Based on signals in sedimentary records and notwithstanding earlier effects on biota, geologists will likely formalize the start of the Anthropocene Epoch either at 1950 CE (i.e., when bomb-generated radionuclides appear and isotopically depleted industrial nitrates increase strongly) or at 1850 CE, with the culmination of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and North America, when atmospheric pCO2 first reached the upper limit of Holocene variability (the previous ∼12,000 y) (29). Sources are as follows: ocean pH (adapted from ref. 8); temperature anomalies from a 1961–1990 baseline for the Plio-Pleistocene (reprinted from ref. 6 with permission from AAAS), Holocene to 1850 CE (10), and post-Industrial Revolution (HarCRUT3 data from ref. 11), all lowered by 0.3 °C to fit the 1986–2005 baseline used to project future changes (reprinted with permission from ref. 12); human cultural evolution (2); land-animal extinction phases, regional fisheries (13), and catch-based global data (reprinted with permission from ref. 14); land conversion (reprinted from ref. 15, by permission of the Royal Society); and anthropogenic reactive nitrogen input to biosphere (reprinted with permission from ref. 16), which now equals total natural N2 fixation (dashed line).

Today, even lakes in remote, high-altitude and -latitude settings receive atmospheric deposition of nitrates from industrial fertilizers (1625), and more than half of all land area inclusive of the Arctic has been converted to range, crop, or densely settled “anthromes” (15). The human footprint in marine settings has been more difficult to evaluate because these areas are further from direct observation, but seasonal hypoxia linked to the runoff of cultural nutrients occurs in all oceans and at more than 400 sites globally, having doubled each decade since the 1960s (26), and 32–57% of the world’s fisheries are assessed as overexploited or collapsed, with the remainder fully exploited (14). Both terrestrial and marine biologists now speak of a historically cumulative “Anthropocene defaunation,” a concept that includes many kinds of ecological disruption (e.g., refs. 2730). More biological changes are almost certainly locked into place, much as additional decades of warming are inevitable from current levels of atmospheric CO2.

For biologists now fully embedded in the Anthropocene, the disconcerting working assumptions must be that (i) any area or biota under study today is not fully natural, given current human stresses and legacies of past stress, and (ii) interannual to -decadal variability is probably superimposed upon a trend rather than a stationary mean. These realizations underscore the arbitrary nature of most proposed ecological baselines, which are often defined by the first scientific observations (usually from the early 20th century, at best), by the oldest digitized records (1980s or younger), or by the personal experience of a scientist or manager (for discussion of the shifting baselines syndrome, see ref. 31) (Fig. 1). These realizations also suggest (iii) that many analytical subjects—species and populations, communities and habitats, landscapes and gradients, ecosystems and nutrient cycles—may well be in disequilibrial states, a fundamental challenge to experimentation, modeling, and prediction. Ecologists and conservation biologists increasingly recognize that unexpected relationships and outcomes often emerge as study durations exceed a decade, that directional change in climate and other environmental factors can compromise experimental controls, and that most field experiments incorporate legacy effects, such as species depletion or habitat change, that are only later appreciated (e.g., refs. 3234).

The thesis of this Perspective is not simply that historical data of many types are needed, but that (i) the power of young fossil records to contribute critical data has been transformed in the last few decades by three revolutions in the earth sciences and (ii) paleobiologic analysis of records from the last few centuries and millennia is already challenging our understanding of ecological dynamics and contributing to conservation, restoration, and management efforts in a young field becoming known as conservation paleobiology (for reviews, see refs. 3540). Paleobiology relies on a fundamentally different source of biological data from that of traditional ecology, drawing on naturally accumulated assemblages of skeletal and other dead remains rather than direct observation of living individuals and interactions (Fig. 1, Top). However, death assemblages forming on seafloors and land surfaces today, the precursors of fully buried fossil assemblages, include individuals drawn from still-standing populations. This overlap in the time frames of paleobiological and modern biological data provides a means of cross-validating shared data types (e.g., phenotype, DNA, abundance, range size), testing space-for-time assumptions, answering basic “before–after” questions, and building extended time series for extant (and recently extinct) species, communities, and ecosystems. Such time series are fundamental to framing and evaluating synthetic models, much as the integration of geohistorical and modern data has transformed our understanding of climate dynamics and is unveiling the interaction of climate and carbon cycles (e.g., ref. 41). Along with sedimentary cores, which are rarely taken [e.g., at long-term ecological research sites (LTERS)], death assemblages have been a severely underexploited source of biological data.

Integrating paleobiological, archeological, and biological data—and training—will thus become only more important as the 21st century unfolds. If we are to alter the trajectories of the most troubling biological trends in the modern world, or at the least manage biodiversity and ecosystem function in the certainty of continued climate and other change, we need to understand baseline dynamics, stressors, and biotic response on the centennial and longer time frames that encompass suspected natural and anthropogenic drivers.

Three Revolutions in the Earth Sciences That Have Transformed the Power of the Fossil Record
Fidelity of (Paleo)biological Information.

The first-order concern with all geohistorical records—ice cores, tree-rings, sediment cores, and biological remains in both natural and archeological contexts—is their fidelity, or faithfulness, to the original signal. Over the past two decades, taphonomic research on postmortem processes has dramatically increased the kinds of biological information that can be confidently extracted from fossil specimens, especially from the durable tissues that are most likely to be preserved under the more or less oxygenated conditions of soils, caves, lake floors, and seabeds (shells, bones, pollen, and other biomineralized or refractory organic tissues). Ancient DNA (aDNA) analysis can now exploit a larger array of materials and preservational settings than previously assumed, with a temporal scope to 1 Ma (million years ago) and full paleo-genomes now within reach (42). Diet, home range, growth rate, and other life-history information are regularly reconstructed for specimens from well-dated assemblages using many of the same isotopic, elemental, and histologic (e.g., sclerochronologic) methods applied to live-collected individuals, revealing both the vulnerability of species undergoing past population bottlenecks and their unsuspected trophic and life-history flexibility (4346).

Taphonomic research has also quantified the reliability of paleoecological information at the community (assemblage) and metacommunity levels (for a review, see ref. 47). Concern with postmortem alteration of species richness and relative abundance has largely proven to be an oversimplification, notwithstanding the potential of interspecies differences in tissue durability, population turnover, and postmortem transportation to distort the record. In principle, the potential for postmortem bias of assemblage composition should be high where multiple generations of dead remains might accumulate before being sequestered by permanent burial, with habitats of different destructive intensity imposing a range of durations of such “time-averaging” (see table 1 in ref. 47). Despite these differences, research on the net effects of postmortem processes on community-level information, usually by comparing the naturally accumulating death assemblage with the local living assemblage, finds remarkably modest postmortem bias in a majority of cases, at least for the groups that have received the most intense evaluation (shelled mollusks, corals, land mammals, and wind-pollinated flora). Metaanalysis and modeling find that, in coastal soft-sediment habitats with minimal human modification, the difference in diversity between a time-averaged molluscan death assemblage and samples of a local, “nonaveraged” living assemblage can be predicted almost entirely from the contrast in temporal scale, much as biological samples from a large area differ from those from a small area (4849). Although death assemblages pool temporal variability and some spatial variability in local living assemblages, they still accurately detect environmental gradients and more closely approximate the species composition and abundance structure of the larger metacommunity, a stubborn data gap for biologists. Mammal death assemblages collected from open ground, raptor roosts, and marine flotsam have comparable ecological fidelity, with habitat- to regional-scale spatial resolution (5052). Some clades with delicate skeletons have intrinsically poor preservation, of course, requiring analytic partitioning, and postmortem attenuation is stronger in some settings than others. Overall, however, rather than being compromised by myriad postmortem processes, death assemblages of key groups in undisturbed study areas have proven to be largely unbiased, albeit typically coarser, samples of their source communities. This fidelity is an extraordinary boon for the analysis of biodiversity, providing insights into species that are rare or otherwise difficult to sample, locally extirpated, or newly extinct (see examples in ref. 47).

A second key metaanalytic discovery is that strong live–dead discordance in species composition and relative abundance is a legacy of recent ecological change in the living assemblage: the living assemblage has apparently shifted away from its prior composition, which the time-averaged death assemblage remembers (53). This finding for marine mollusks overturns former assumptions that live–dead discordance is caused by poor postmortem preservation and seems to be general. For example, in Yellowstone National Park, elk have declined in the last decade in response to wolf reintroduction and are proportionately more abundant in death than in living assemblages; bison have increased in response to management changes and are proportionately more abundant alive than dead (ref. 54; see other examples in refs. 47 and 53, including the use of live-only species to detect new community states and species invasions). Only anthropogenic stressors seem to be capable of creating this magnitude of live–dead discordance, even in naturally variable environments such as lagoons, presumably because humans tend to produce a rapid, sustained change in environmental conditions (long-term press disturbance) or, in the case of introduced species, can overcome natural barriers to migration. Where human pressures are long-standing, or where postmortem destruction or deep burial is rapid (reducing the time frame for time averaging), baseline shifts may have occurred outside the memory of the local death assemblage, resulting in no live–dead discordance. This effect makes live–dead discordance a powerful and yet conservative method for detecting anthropogenic baseline shifts (more prone to false negatives than to false positives) (53).

Proxy Evidence of (Paleo)environmental Conditions.

For modern experimental and (geo)historical studies alike, testing for a biological response to environmental change requires environmental information that is accurate, spatially and temporally proximate, and not inferred from the populations under study. For periods before direct scientific observations—and in areas where monitoring is still limited—environmental conditions can be estimated from indirect, proxy variables that have been calibrated to direct measurements of conditions in modern environments. Data from tree rings, banded speleothems, and particulate charcoal in cores are examples of proxy records for past temperature and rainfall (e.g., ref. 35). Increasingly sophisticated analysis is reducing uncertainties in calibration and revealing the full magnitude of recent changes at the local to regional scales relevant to conservation and management (e.g., refs. 55 and 56).

The portfolio of methods is now diverse. Biological proxies remain important in all settings, for example indicator species of wetlands, seagrass, or ice cover and multispecies “transfer functions” used to infer temperature and salinity (57). However, as with niche models that use present-day bioclimatic associations to anticipate the future redistribution of species (see paleontologic tests of their reliability by refs. 58 and 59), there are concerns that the transfer–ecology approach is vulnerable to (i) failure of observed species’ distributions to reflect their full tolerances, (ii) inability to account for shifting biotic interactions and evolutionary adaptation, and (iii) assumptions of the statistical methods used (5760). Analysis of paleo-environmental conditions, including pollution and many aspects of ecosystem structure, has thus shifted increasingly from taxonomic to other biological, physical, and especially chemical evidence [isotopic and elemental ratios; environmental aDNA; molecular biomarkers of metabolism and organic-matter source; and indicator minerals of oxidation potential (Eh), pH, and salinity], achieving a new level of independence from ecological assumptions and expanding the dimensions of inference (e.g., refs. 45 and 6166). For example, H isotope ratios of leaf waxes now supplement dust, pollen, and charcoal proxies of paleo-aridity, and all can survive transport to marine basins, permitting those sediments to capture the climate of both the ocean and the adjacent airshed (64). Elemental data from corals can establish that mortality is associated with the stress of anomalously high rather than low sea temperatures and can test for changes in levels and drivers of mortality (66).

Advances in Geochronology.

Testing hypotheses about biological change requires reliable information on the ages of specimens and assemblages. Decadal-, centennial-, or millennial-scale dating precision can suffice, depending on the question at hand. Recent advances in geochronology have broadened the scope of hypotheses that can be tested by (i) increasing the precision and accuracy of age estimates, (ii) expanding the list of materials that can be dated, and (iii) reducing the required mass of individual samples for analysis. For fossil records from the most recent ∼2 My, numerical age estimates rely on relatively short-lived natural radioisotopes and on cultural markers, such as nuclear bomb fallout, metal and persistent organic pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and introduced species.

Radiocarbon remains the principal workhorse for records extending to ∼55 thousand years ago (ka) (67). The shift to accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) 14C analysis during the 1990s improved the precision of age determinations to ±20–50 y (1 SD) for Holocene samples (the last 11.7 ka) and permitted analysis of carbon samples ∼one-tenth the mass previously required. Bomb production of 14C and dilution of 14C and 13C by fossil-fuel burning are persistent challenges for isolated young samples, but regional marine reservoir effects are now well-known and long tree-ring, speleothem, and coral records permit radiocarbon years to be calibrated to calendar years by accounting for natural variation in 14C production. New field, laboratory, and calibration protocols have similarly enhanced other methods. Amino acid racemization dating is applicable to carbonate shells up to ∼1 Ma in cool waters and can yield decadal resolution within the Holocene; U-Th dating is applicable to corals, speleothems, and bones up to ∼500 ka and provides decadal resolution within the last few thousand years; and optically stimulated luminescence is applicable to mineral grains deposited in terrestrial settings up to several hundred thousand years with resolution ±5–10% (666870). Naturally occurring 210Pb, which rains out rapidly from the atmosphere, remains a powerful method with approximately decadal resolution for sediments deposited within the past ∼150 y. Bomb-generated 137Cs is becoming more difficult to detect owing to radioactive decay, but longer lived plutonium isotopes and their daughters produced at the same time can take its place as a global geochemical marker.

Finally, both Bayesian and classical statistical inference are now used to interpolate sample ages between dated tie points within cores, typically with decadal resolution, providing more robust age models. Bayesian methods are also being used to temporally correlate records from widely separated areas, usually with a smaller loss in temporal acuity (e.g., two cores each capturing a local history with decadal resolution can now be correlated to each other with centennial precision) (71). These advances are all stunning improvements in age determination for individual specimens and host sediments, fully adequate to test for biological trends on decadal and longer scales.

Paleobiological Perspectives on Conservation, Management, and Ecological Theory
Persistence and Disassembly.

The ability of species and communities to persist over long periods is of great theoretical and practical interest, regardless of whether persistence reflects resistance to change in the face of environmental perturbation (robustness) or an ability to rebound from an altered state (resilience)—although the question of dynamics remains a key issue. At the community level, the historic range of variability of a community structure rather than of a particular species composition is now used as a dynamic target for management for federal lands in several countries (72), with paleoecological records from the last 3–4 ky used to establish the antiquity (“fundamental resilience”) of a forest type (73).

Evidence from the fossil record underscores the importance of scale and context. For example, over the last ∼6 ky of fairly stable climatic conditions, pollen analysis reveals the multimillennial persistence of terrestrial communities in many biomes and continents (7375). Vegetation varied on decadal and centennial scales in concert with precipitation but maintained a structure and dominant functional type despite turnover in species and considerable pre-European land use. Some postcolonial, “secondary” forests have been similarly persistent for the last few centuries. In contrast, during strong climate changes between 50 and 6 ka, plant, insect, and mammal species exhibited individualistic shifts in their geographic range boundaries, meaning that species tended to relocate independently rather than as cohesive sets, resulting in novel or no-analog communities of still-extant species (refs. 7678; in the sea, see refs. 79 and 80). Until human pressures emerged, climate-driven reshuffling of species entailed little evolutionary extinction (refs. 81 and 82; and see Unprecedented and Unsuspected Changes below).

Individualistic shifts in latitude, elevation, and bathymetry are now being detected by biologists, relying on the resurvey of an area that was first studied decades ago (e.g., refs. 34 and 8385). Such modern-day corroborations are stimulating novel analyses of living populations in light of geologic history, finding, for example, that present-day endemism is most strongly correlated with the velocity of postglacial climate change rather than with a threshold temperature or particular direction of change (86) and that populations along the margin of a species’ range still exhibit low genetic diversity, a legacy of Quaternary expansion (87). Young fossil records alone show (i) just how pervasive changes in species’ distributions are likely to become, constituting both local losses and additions, (ii) that novel groupings are most likely to emerge near the edges rather than centers of biogeographic provinces or ranges (8889), (iii) that species most able to cross former boundaries and those showing strongest population declines are not random draws from their parent community (7990), and (iv) that species associations suggesting biotic interactions are rare and inconstant (91).

All of these dynamics can be expected as climate continues to change, arguably requiring new strategic approaches to management, conservation, and restoration (refs. 80 and 92; but see ref. 93). As a further challenge, many late 20th to early 21st century communities are geologically novel assemblages because of the introduced species they include, sometimes in key roles (e.g., ref. 80; and see Ranking Multiple Stressors below), placing a premium on having data of sufficient temporal scope to test whether dynamics and ecosystem processes differ fundamentally from those of communities assembled under natural conditions.

Regardless of how we choose to respond, the lessons from young fossil records are clear. To a first approximation—that is, with the exception of some obligate relationships—environmental conditions, including substratum type and disturbance regime, are better predictors than biotic interactions in determining which species assemble into and persist as a community. On decadal and longer time frames, stable conditions promote stable, persistent communities, and environmental change promotes community disassembly and reassembly into novel communities, probably for the same reasons that community composition varies spatially along environmental gradients. Once together, species may interact strongly or weakly, with more or less cascading effects: top-down changes—depletion or elimination of higher trophic levels—and loss of habitat-forming ecosystem engineers are typically anthropogenic and can dismantle a community in the absence of other environmental change (see Unprecedented and Unsuspected Changes below). The fossil record of the dynamics of extant species across the landscape or seascape indicates that the webs of biotic interactions observed in stable communities are allowed by stable environments rather than being a fundamental cause of community stability, as is evident from their modification or dissolution when species migrate (individualistically) in response to environmental change.

Alternative Stable States, Phase Shifts, and Recoveries.

The ability of populations and communities to alternate between discrete states under a single set of conditions has been difficult to demonstrate in modern systems (small-scale patch dynamics aside). Commonly, only a single shift can be recognized and is suspected to be anthropogenic, driven either by climate, habitat modification, and/or an increase or decrease in the density of a single species, particularly a top predator or ecosystem engineer (9496). The rapid shift or collapse to a new state after some threshold stress is crossed (a nonlinear dynamic suggesting initial resistance), the ability to rebound to a former state after alleviation of stress (resilience), and the existence of warning signs for impending phase shifts, regardless of drivers, are important but challenging issues for field tests (but see ref. 97). Lags in response to stress and otherwise slow regime changes are particularly problematic for establishing cause and effect.

Lakes and coral reefs have received the greatest attention from biologists and are highly amenable to paleobiological analysis, which can test for patterns of change under fully or reasonably natural conditions where the existence of alternative stable states should be most clear. Lake and exceptionally high-resolution marine records of finfish reveal bimodal, decadal-to-centennial alternations in the abundance of key species that have persisted over millennia during pre-Industrial times (ref. 98; and see pollen studies cited above). Likely driven by climate, these alternations show that shifts in state are fully natural, perhaps with attractor states, and provide a baseline for evaluating the effects of commercial fishing and other human impacts. In the southern California pelagic system, for example, regular alternation in dominance by anchovies and sardines over the last ∼2 ka largely exonerate commercial harvesting as the primary driver of boom-and-bust populations of comparable decadal scale observed in the 20th century (99). In the NE Pacific and other oceans, strongly fluctuating populations of these species and other fish (salmon, hake) are linked to regional changes in temperature and productivity over past millennia up until climatic reorganization and commercial fishing within the last 100–150 y (98100). In tropical reefs, both historical documents and paleobiological analysis show that community structures have changed dramatically in the 20th century, in some cases to dominance by fleshy macroalgae or sponges (see next section). However, over the preceding 500 ky, different but remarkably consistent coral, red algal, and foraminiferal reef communities, all dominated by calcifiers, alternated on ∼100-ky time scales linked to the alternation of warm (highstand) and cooler, less favorable (lowstand) climatic regimes (101). Fossil records show that evolutionary survival entailed shifts of coral species both away from and back toward the core tropics (102) and that proximity to coral refugia during cool-water lowstands is the strongest correlate of modern-day richness in reef fish (ref. 103; for management implications, see ref. 104).

Alternating phases can thus emerge at multiple time scales. However, they are generally associated with evidence of change in environmental conditions, arguing against the existence of autogenically modulated alternating stable states in a strict sense, and some of the most impressive state changes within the last 2 My are unique to the Anthropocene (see next section). The power of fossil records for retrospective analysis could be productively focused on developing a stronger empirical understanding of possible harbingers of impending shifts, regardless of driver, such as increasing variance, decreasing resilience, and loss in trophic redundancy, and on anticipating community structures and compositions expected under future climate states (e.g., sponge-dominated reefs under ocean acidification) (105). Historical and paleobiological data that document rates and stages of past declines and recoveries (e.g., multidecadal to centennial perspectives of refs. 2023106, and 107) are also needed to frame expectations and parameterize regional models for restoration, moving beyond hypothetical diagrams of hysteresis. Compared with short-term assessments, metaanalysis using (geo)historical baselines reveals a lower frequency (10–50%) and magnitude of recovery, especially in species abundance and ecosystem structure, and finds that recoveries often require decades or more and attention to multiple stressors (ref. 106; and see Ranking Multiple Stressors below). This hard truth—even for marine systems, which are arguably less altered by human pressures than terrestrial systems (30)—needs to spur collaborative analyses and action, not discouragement or denial.

Unprecedented and Unsuspected Changes.

One of the key contributions of young fossil records is documentation of the unprecedented changes that have occurred in virtually all biomes within the last few centuries, especially evidence of sudden biotic collapse or shifts after millennia of stability or fluctuation around a stationary mean. Such data typically recalibrate our sense of scale, revealing large, unsuspected changes—mostly declines—(i) in the abundance and distribution of still-extant species and in the flexibility of their life-history and diet (e.g., refs. 314344, and 108) and (ii) in the richness and complexity of communities and food webs (examples later in this section).

Fossil records do not carry the effort alone. Dramatic changes that occurred before professional scientific observations in an area can be revealed by written records—even the ancient Romans complained about declines in fish abundance (109)—and can be augmented by morphologic, isotopic, aDNA, and other analyses of archeological materials and museum-archived specimens (39110). Maps, photographs, and economic data can also draw back the veil on trends, especially for habitat and ecological changes at local-to-regional scales (23111113), and experiments can test historical hypotheses of effect (e.g., ref. 114). In most instances, however, paleobiological analysis is needed to construct a documentary record that is sufficiently long, broad in scope (of taxa and environmental variables), and consistent in quality (determined by natural processes of fossil accumulation) to (i) verify or even recognize that change has occurred, (ii) evaluate the human and coupled human–natural stresses that might have caused or influenced biological change, and (iii) acquire a reasonable sample of variability and dynamics before the onset of those stresses.

Trophic simplification and diversity loss are common predictions of environmental stress, whether bottom-up (modification of nutrients and primary productivity, loss of habitat complexity, removal of habitat-former) or top-down (loss of consumers, especially predators). Top-down trophic cascades from the removal of apex consumers have now been recognized in all biomes but remain challenging for direct biological analysis: top-down effects can take years to decades to become evident due to long generation times and/or high motility of key species; processes commonly operate on much larger spatial scales than are amenable to experimentation; and populations of apex species are by now mostly reduced or extirpated (115).

Fossil records provide compelling evidence that, in the relatively recent past, many food webs were richer, with longer chains, more interactions, and different (mostly climate-controlled) dynamics of species substitution. For example, N-isotope analysis of 14C-dated bones shows that the Hawaiian petrel, a widespread and generalist oceanic predator, has fed at a significantly lower trophic level in the last 100 y than in the preceding 3,000 y, notwithstanding the arrival ∼950 y B.P. of humans to Pacific islands (116). Foraging segregation of petrel populations also decreased markedly, indicating less abundant prey. These changes suggest a rapid change in the composition of oceanic food webs well before direct scientific observation and are probably related to the development of commercial fishing. Shallow-water communities have also undergone significant simplification, mostly within the last few centuries, linked to the rise of sediment and nutrient runoff from colonial and industrial agriculture (refs. 117119; but see ref. 120) and to top-down commercial extirpation of herbivores and filter-feeding invertebrates capable of keeping primary production in check (13). For example, the branching corals Acropora and Porites dominated Caribbean reefs for millennia (and for longer periods where records are sufficient) but, within the 20th century, have been widely replaced by turbidity-tolerant foliose Agaricia or noncalcifying taxa (refs. 121 and 122; and, in the Pacific, see ref. 118). Diatoms and other proxy records show that estuarine and lacustrine ecosystems have become more plankton-rich and detritus-based in recent decades to centuries, depending on the timing of watershed development and/or removal of key consumers, even when systems had been naturally eutrophic and episodically hypoxic over previous millennia (123125).

Simplification of food webs and diversity loss are also evident in terrestrial records over the last 50 ka, usually with human involvement and entailing high extinction intensities (29126128). Significant mammal and bird extinctions started with human expansion out of Africa in the Late Pleistocene, making initial contact with independently evolved faunas and eventually reaching Pacific islands by a few thousand years ago [approximately half of all mammal species >50 kg lost by ∼11 ka) (128); loss of ∼1,000 Pacific nonpasserine landbirds alone via pre-Industrial hunting, habitat change, and species introductions (129)]. A second phase of this “sixth extinction” began in the 15th century associated with European exploitation and agricultural colonialism (e.g., ref. 29), and a third, late 20th Century phase is underway related to the latest acceleration in human populations and global markets [manifest in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List] (Fig. 1). The ecological consequences of regional species losses (and additions of introduced species) have been significant. For example, mammal food webs in Iberia exhibited relatively constant richness and structure for ∼800,000 y within the Pleistocene, with waning species being replaced by phylogenetically related species during each climate cycle, only to undergo dramatic reductions of richness and interactions in the Holocene (130). This change in structure and dynamics was not associated with a change in climate but occurred in two phases with (human-associated) extinction of mega-fauna and, as part of the Neolithic Revolution, the introduction of modern horse and cattle; the loss of specialist species actually increased connectivity, with humans as a new generalist predator (and see ref. 131).

Ranking Multiple Stressors.

Most regions today are under multiple anthropogenic pressures, but these variables occur in the context of natural processes such as orbital and other climate oscillations [El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO)]. The potential for natural cycles and trends to amplify, mask, or reverse the effects of human pressure is thus a large concern in conservation. A related challenge is to disentangle the (probably compounding) effects of multiple human stressors. Rigorously determining the roles of different stressors—and of sequential application of stressors—requires datasets with sufficient temporal scope to look back past their onset, arguably a century at minimum even in remote areas and multiple centuries to millennia in many others. Given data of sufficient temporal scope, the roles of suspected stressors, human and otherwise, can be differentiated by comparing the timing, sign, and magnitude of changes in a target species or community or ecosystem (the response variable) with events in cultural history and with levels of variability and mean state before the onset of suspected activities.

The most contentious topic, among both biologists and paleobiologists, is the role of climate as a driver of biological change. In terms of species extinction, a fundamental tension exists between the persistence of most extant species despite strong Pleistocene climate variability and, on the other hand, the dramatic declines predicted for the future using bioclimatic envelope models and extrapolating from regional reductions in population sizes and genetic diversity (e.g., refs. 34682, and 84). Climate change was probably solely responsible for the extinction of some Eurasian and North American large-mammal species within the last 50 ky and may have reinforced the effects of hunting on others (132), modulating a simple “overkill” hypothesis for Pleistocene extinctions (and see refs. 126 and 128). If restricted to in situ evolution, many tetrapods will not survive projected warming unless rates of adaptation accelerate more than a thousandfold above those observed paleontologically (133).

Nonetheless, taking a global perspective of terrestrial vertebrate biodiversity over the last 2 My, the most compelling first-order pattern for elevated extinction is a close association with phases of human colonization and technological advance (e.g., ref. 127). The same can be said for marine mammals, although their extinctions arguably did not become significant until the Industrial Age (21233031108). Among marine ectotherms, documented extinctions of corals, shelled mollusks, and fish are few, and those known are difficult to link to the present warming phase or to other warm pulses in the last 2 My (134). It is possible that, as with insects (82), the species most vulnerable to climate change were lost during the first strong Pleistocene excursions, leaving an inherently resilient subset able to survive subsequent climate changes up to the present day. Regional extirpation, short of global extinction and reflecting shifting ranges (see Persistence and Disassembly and Alternative Stable States, Phase Shifts, and Recoveries above), can still have large regional consequences, as shown by multicentennial and millennial disruptions of Pacific coral reef growth during past periods of high ENSO variability such as projected for the next century (135). The potential effects on biodiversity, community structure, and ecosystem function of the anthropogenic climate changes that are now unfolding (Fig. 1) thus should not be underestimated.

However, it would be equally wrong to underestimate the role of human pressures other than climate in creating the modern-day and future world. Overharvesting of wild species, species introductions, (de)nutrification, and other habitat modifications are intentionally excluded as “local effects” in many tests of climate impacts, but (i) are equally or more deeply rooted than post-Industrial warming, (ii) have become global since the 1950s (Fig. 1), and (iii) commonly emerge as the strongest correlates of biotic change at local to regional scales, both in biological and geohistorical analyses that consider multiple drivers (for examples, see refs. 4096, and the rest of this section). Such activities can have strong feedbacks on regional climate. For example, in New Zealand, pollen records show that wetland and lake landscapes today reflect changes in water balance driven by deforestation by pre-Industrial humans rather than recent or deep-past climate change (ref. 136 and in Europe, see ref. 137). The mixed results of climate-only studies may thus derive from unconsidered interacting variables (see discussions in refs. 6 and 17, and many others). Many biologists identify climate change as the greatest threat for future biodiversity loss but recognize that many changes today are smaller or different from expected, and they attribute these contradictions to other, usually anthropogenic factors (e.g., habitat conversion or invasive species that limit colonization).

Geohistorical analysis can create data of practical value while we strive to develop a general explanatory model for the roles of climate and other factors. For example, exploitation has figured in 95% of all depletions of animal species in estuaries, based on metaanalysis of nine suspected factors including climate change (20). Multiple factors (usually exploitation plus habitat loss) figure in ∼45% of losses and in 78% of recoveries of species with commercial, cultural, or other special value (for comparable analyses of reefs and recoveries, see refs. 106 and 117). Such multifactorial syntheses of data from written, archeological, and paleontological archives establish otherwise unknown baselines, provide an empirical foundation for identifying the factors that have contributed most to observed declines, allow areas to be ranked by degree of damage, and confirm that recoveries tend to require more factors than declines. In targeted areas, geohistorical data have resolved fundamental questions on native and nonnative species, altering restoration plans. For example, pollen analysis shows that plant species on the Galapagos Islands that were widespread and difficult to control are actually returning natives (ref. 138; for other examples, see refs. 40 and 47). Young fossil records also show that nonnative species that become dominant or habitat-transforming can have cascading effects on other groups—a particular concern given that many late 20th to early 21st century communities are novel assemblages because of the introduced species they include, sometimes in key roles (e.g., refs. 80 and 90).

Finally, paleontological data can be especially valuable for assessing multiple stressors on endangered species, where baseline data may be scarce and sampling living individuals is difficult or unethical (e.g., refs. 4344, and 108). For example, the critically endangered fish Totoaba macdonaldi in the upper Gulf of California has declined over the 20th century in both abundance and body size, and biologists suspected both direct fishing pressure and degradation of habitat in the Colorado River delta, owing to river damming. Sclerochronologic comparison of modern and 1,000- to 5,000-y-old otoliths established that Totoaba growth rates and thus sexual maturation slowed significantly coincident with river damming (139). Recovery of this traditional fishery thus cannot be achieved solely by relieving fishing pressure but will require restoration of some minimum river flow, with a binational trial flooding now underway.


Given extensive paleontological evidence for biotic change, the conclusion must be that, absent such long-term perspectives, most biological benchmarks—for abundance, distribution, variability, drivers, and dynamics—and rate estimates that are embedded within the last 50–100 y are probably far from natural. Natural may not be an achievable or desirable goal. However, paleobiological data for the recent past confront us with the true status of modern-day biota and with the very real potential that climate-driven changes will result in elevated extinctions rather than community disruptions alone, owing to the continued press of other human factors and damage already sustained. Paleontological data, derived both from fully buried fossil assemblages and from death assemblages that are still accumulating alongside living populations, constitute a powerful source of insights into the dynamics of extant (and recently extinct) species, communities, and ecosystems over the interdecadal to millennial time frames at which environments undergo natural and human-driven change. Improved environmental proxies, age-control, and confidence in paleobiological evidence mean that disparate data types should no longer impede the development of a rigorous “Biology in the Anthropocene” that squarely faces legacy effects, ongoing trends, and disequilibrial states as default conditions. We should in fact embrace the modern world as an unnatural experiment in progress, no matter how uncomfortable our eventual discoveries may prove to be, and commit to greater integration of modern and paleo approaches in both research and training. The fossil record’s future includes its ability to provide critical data and new time frames for conservation, management, and ecological theory.

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Urbanization in and for the Anthropocene

npj Urban Sustainability volume 1, Article number: 6 (2021) Cite this article

Key insights on needs in urban regional governance – Global urbanization (the increasing concentration in urban settlements of the increasing world population), is a driver and accelerator of shifts in diversity, new cross-scale interactions, decoupling from ecological processes, increasing risk and exposure to shocks. Responding to the challenges of urbanization demands fresh commitments to a city–regional perspective in ways that are explictly embedded in the Anthopocene bio- techno- and noospheres, to extend existing understanding of the city–nature nexus and regional scale. Three key dimensions of cities that constrain or enable constructive, cross scale responses to disturbances and extreme events include 1) shifting diversity, 2) shifting connectivity and modularity, and 3) shifting complexity. These three dimensions are characteristic of current urban processes and offer potential intervention points for local to global action.

Urbanization in the Anthropocene

We live in turbulent times—the Anthropocene—where rapid changes are occurring in biophysical conditions driven by accelerating growth in human activity. New risks emerge from interactions at the interface of multiple systems including climatic, ecological, political, social, institutional, infrastructural, financial, and technological systems1,2,3,4. In a globalized world characterized by shifting patterns of inequality, new cross-scale interactions, and decoupling from ecological processes5,6,7,8, altered disturbance regimes increasingly lead to shocks that were previously contained within a geographic area or a sector, but now are becoming globally contagious9,10. Global urbanization (the increasing concentration in urban settlements of the increasing world population), is a driver and accelerator of many of these processes11.

The effects of multiple interacting changes that can be traced to the expansion of cities, generates new and extreme global vulnerabilities12,13, making global urban change a frontier of science for sustainability14,15. For example, cities are responsible for ~70% of global CO2 emissions from final energy use, but are disproportionately and increasingly exposed to the impacts of climate change, since 90% of urban areas—and the majority of the world’s population—are situated on coastlines16. A recent study shows that 339 million people live on deltas throughout the world. Of these 31 million people are living in the 100-year storm surge floodplains, 92% of whom live in developing or least-developed economies17. Further, in coming decades, climate-change driven migration is expected to increase dramatically. When migrants settle in larger cities they add to existing challenges, particularly in developing countries often unable to provide basic infrastructure or social protection in response to accelerated growth18,19,20. While some cities are already shrinking, the overall challenge is one of expansion, with the global urban footprint up by up to 1.3 million square kilometers between 2015 and 2050 (an increase of 171 percent over the 2015 figure)21. Given the overarching dominance of urban growth, we here consider ways in which interlinked social, ecological and technological system diversity and interlinkages support or hinder urban development and influence potential for cities to be positive drivers of local and global sustainability transformation. We argue that to position cities at the core of planetary change, better understanding of the city–regional scale is key.

Although urbanization has existed for millennia, in its present form it functions as an accelerating aspect of the Anthropocene. What is important is not just that cities and their hinterlands are interdependent but that the form of their interdependencies are increasingly complex and significant globally—as the COVID-19 pandemic has recently demonstrated22. Urban areas are dependent on extracting external, teleconnected resources that empower cities as economic, political, and cultural hubs, that in turn drive global flows of material, energy, and information23,24. A recent study shows that human energy expenditure since 1950 (~22 zetajoules (ZJ)), particularly related to fossil fuels, exceeds that across the entire prior 11,700 years of the Holocene (~14.6 ZJ)25. Urban resource demand is influenced by continuous changes in urban stocks such as population size, infrastructural and housing density, consumption patterns and lifestyles, and urban policy and management decisions26. Disconnection of cities from their hinterlands tends to lead to the undervaluation of remote nature—and associated deforestation and other habitat destruction, agricultural intensification, climate change, and the wildlife trade—are driving biodiversity loss27,28.

Uniform approaches to making technology and urban infrastructure ever more efficient are often reducing the redundancy needed for resilience in the face of global change and extreme events15,29. Innovating and transitioning societies along more sustainable development pathways that can reverse changes brought about by the intial onset of the Anthropocene is set in the context of a reality in which strategic decision making in and for cities is challenged by obdurate governance systems30. These have yet to embrace polycentric31, multi-scale32, and other governance innovations already articulated. In our current urban Social-Ecologial-Technological Systems (SETS)33, governance is characterized by decentralization and compartmentalization, intensively managed ecosystems34 and activities increasingly mediated through technologies and through support from socioeconomic infrastructures.

Cities have long been known to depend on their natural hinterlands35,36, but an increase in global connectivity and redundancy of supply systems have masked this dependence, particularly consequences of local resource exploitation, through long and complicated global supply chains. Now more than ever, flexible multi scale urban management that links the points of consumption to the extraction, production, and distribution of goods, is essential. It is well established that actions at the local scale can add up to positive or negative impacts at regional or global scales, potentially affecting distant areas through investment and political incentives as well as urban worldviews and lifestyles at an increasingly rapid pace7,13,24,37. In this context, envisioning and implementing ways to extend urban governance and sustainability initiatives beyond the local is a critical challenge38. In parallel with cities taking on more global responsibilities, global decision-making and linked institutions need to allow for local, polycentric, bottom-up embedded solutions and governance approaches to fit the cultural, fiscal, economic, and geographic contexts in which they are to function in order to mitigate “environmental reductionism” in society39.

We ask a critical question: What constrains or enables constructive, cross scale responses to disturbances and extreme events, and over the long term, transformations towards more sustainable and resilient cities? To address this complex question we focus on three key dimensions of cities as embedded in the Anthopocene bio-, techno- and noosphere to examine fundamental drivers and opportunities for sustainability and resilience solutions: 1) shifting diversity, 2) shifting connectivity and modularity, and 3) shifting complexity. We describe these three urbanization dimensions as especially characteristic of current processes. Additionally these dimensions offer potential intervention points for local to global action (Fig. 1a–c)

  1. Shifting diversity—We see a recurring pattern of shifting diversity (Fig. 1a) with increased diversity at local scales and increased homogeneity at global scales. One example is the global food system8: although local and regional crop diversity have increased, the same kinds of bulk crops are grown on all continents40. This replication of local and regional diversity is further amplified by intensive long-distance trade, resulting in an increasingly diverse but standardized set of food commodities being available locally8. Estimates suggest that 20% of global cropland is being allocated to the production of commodities that are consumed in another country41, with significant impacts on deforestation levels42, masking the erosion of overall diversity. Similarly, migration in the form of urban–rural or international population movements by relatively privileged migrants spread environmentally impactful consumption habits around the world43.At the same time, cities are increasingly shifting away from analog ways of interacting, gathering data, and even decision-making towards digital alternatives with reduced redundancy and increasingly (fragile) reliance on a narrow range of energy and communication networks. While increasingly prolific and diverse, digitalization will generate both opportunities but also may create barriers to data access, and can even decrease diversity, such as when transportation, information, communication, and other critical urban infrastructure systems rely on a single systems, internet connectivity, to function. Such overreliance on single systems with impacts on myriad infrastructure systems will generate new reliability and security risks with as yet unknown potential consequences for urban resident life, not least when digital systems are threatened by climate or other extreme events and may stop functioning altogether44,45.
  2. Shifting connectivity and modularity—We illustrate (Fig. 1b) how human activities, not least in urban regions, increase the spatial dimensions of connectivity and change modularity15. Although the drivers of these changes are not new (e.g., trade, transport, technology and consumption), the speed and scale at which they occur are unprecedented8. As urbanization proceeds (left to right in Fig. 1b), modularity is reduced and connectivity is increased, which has been argued to, after a breaking point, greatly reduce resilience of the system46. With low modularity in a highly connected system, responses become more synchronized. For example Tu et al.47, suggest that the resilience of the global food system has declined over the past decades due to increased interconnectedness and reduced modularity. They argue that, due to the structural characteristics of the food trade network, additional trade links will further erode the resilience of the global food system. In an economically, digitally, socially, and ecologically connected global network that is also connecting at faster and faster rates, several new and compounded risks emerge associated with an ever more hyper-cohesive world (e.g., climate change induced shocks occurring simultaneously with new global pandemics). A shift back to some intermediate form of connectivity and modularity would be needed to restore resilience to the system47. Such modularity that we focus on here can, for example, be promoted by institutions that allow for bottom-up, self-organized, and locally evolved management solutions that to a higher degree draw on civil society actors48. On the other hand, the experience of COVID-19 pandemic also shows that networks within and across cities can help enhance the functional resilience of the city in the face of major disasters49. For example, there have been large flows of aid through sister city networks across borders, for example from other cities to Chinese cities, but also later reciprocated strongly once these cities started to recover. This points to the need for a greater coordination and collaboration across cities, which can help turn the vulnerability of high connectivity into sources of resilience49.
  3. Shifting complexity—We illustrate (Fig. 1c) the increasing physical and cognitive distance between (re)sources and consumers as well as actions and outcomes. In addition to diversity and the overall anatomy of local to global linkages, this point concerns the complexity of the linkages themselves. As cities grow, they expand in complexity50, both internally and in how they are embedded in regional to global systems. Globalization, advancing technological development, commodification, and sectoral compartmentalization are adding a growing number of intermediate steps51 between people and the resources they use, such as natural resources, information, and technology. This ever-greater cognitive distance makes it increasingly challenging for people to know the impacts of their consumptive decisions and also to design effective institutions to govern economic exchange and human interaction (e.g., the value–action gap52,53).
figure 1
Fig. 1: Characteristics of urbanization in the Anthropocene over time.

Ecosystem service use is increasingly becoming commodified and commercialized, while information networks are increasingly global (and thus often far from what people can experience directly), and health services and transportation are increasingly provided by interacting, specialized actors and structures. For example, small household appliances often have long supply chains associated with their production, and there is little transparency regarding the sustainability of any production process along the chain. It can be challenging, almost impossible, to make positive choices for sustainable consumption with so many information steps within each step to understand or have information on to inform consumption practices. The subsystems interact as well, creating dizzying complexity for anyone trying to make sense of how to live sustainably, at individual or community decision-making levels. With increasing urban SETS complexity33,54 comes an increased complexity of governance. Cities require multiple city agencies to deal with waste, park management, public health, crime, transportation, infrastructure, and more. As the number of departments or agencies multiply, including ascendent sustainability and resilience departments, coordinating responses to build resilience and transform complex urban SETS along sustainability pathways faces institutional challenges of trade-offs between decisions still made in governance siloes11.

Urbanization for the Anthropocene

Building on the tradition of seeing the city and nature as interconnected, we argue for a response to the processes of urbanization that highlights the potential of both cities and their rural support areas as positive forces for sustainable development and governance.

Global sustainability will hinge on reshaping the nature of urbanization to bring it in balance with fundamental planetary limits and boundaries. We need a transformation of urbanization processes for a desired or “good” Anthropocene11,38,55,56,57.

  1. 1.Rescaling diversity—Diversity needs to match scales with emerging disturbance regimes to provide improved flexibility to respond to slow and fast local and global changes. Much of the diversity in and across urban areas is more or less intentionally designed and managed. Generating and acting on clear targets of desired diversity at different scales would be a first step towards building more options into how cities tackle regional sustainability challenges as well as prepare for and respond to emerging and even novel disturbance regimes and extreme events. Attention to and investment in diversity could include such strategies as 1) accelerating present trends of local and regional sourcing of more diverse foods, 2) intentionally designing hybrid green, blue, and gray infrastructure particularly with emphasis on diversity and flexibility, which may reduce vulnerability to disturbances58,59,60, 3) providing accessibility to regional and local multifunctional open space when mobility is reduced, for example during a pandemic61. In social contexts, diversity can be promoted by approaches such as co-management of urban commons48, and mobilizing different types of knowledge, which in turn can allow for multiple alternative opportunities for learning about and using the system. Plurality of institutional arrangements for managing different functions through processes of co-creation in parallel to streamlined planning processes may enable experimentation and simultaneous evaluation of multiple solutions to address challenges across urban regions15.
  2. 2.The anatomy of urbanization—managing connectivity and modularity—As discussed earlier, cross-scale linkages allow people to benefit from and draw on diversity external to their everyday environment. Linkages also allow disturbances to spread. Both reactive and proactive responses to change balance and actively work with connectivity and modularity for different aspects of the system (e.g., information vs. trade in goods or food) and in different situations and transformation towards more desirable and resilient ends. While a rich array of regional level studies of urbanization exist24, much of our knowledge about cities in the Anthropocene is either at a very high aggregate level, a global “urban”, or at the individual city level. These two perspectives need to be complemented by an intermediate level that explicitly addresses interlinkages and exchange. Cities are embedded in clusters of reciprocally interacting urban–rural multi-dimensional complexes characterized by different patterns, processes, and connections. Unpacking these complex relationships, accelerated by the exponential pace of urban change over the last few decades, can help us identify openings and opportunities for innovations in management of connectivity and modularity. Changes in technology and shifting norms and values alter urbanization trajectories but at the same time could present opportunities to shift those trajectories toward local, regional, and global sustainability.One example that could help steer urbanization pathways toward such positive trajectories is the initiation of new incentives for more sustainable landscape management that fosters new types of urban–rural connections, and also fosters city–city linkages focused on sustainability at larger scales. The flows and exchange that have been one of the characteristics of globalization are often seen as static, or difficult to change. However, the current COVID-19 pandemic has shown that these flows and exchanges can undergo fundamental change quite rapidly. For example, mobility has been curtailed by the COVID-19 lock-downs and overall restrictions on traveling, giving cities an incentive to rethink their approach towards urban space and suggest alternative options, as has occurred in cities across the world62. In many cities, systems for mobility are complemented by an emphasis on accessibility and modular design of the urban landscape to increase provision of essential services at a neighborhood scale. Managing globalization towards temporarily variable and more easily adjustable levels of modularity and connectivity across scale and within different subsystems (Fig. 1b) could provide an important new target for expanded urban resilience building.
  3. 3.Managing increasingly complex connections to the biosphere—Diversity, not least in the sense of increased specialization and longer functional chains with more interactions can also make functions more vulnerable, especially if it makes the linkages more opaque. On the other hand, functional diversity also allows for greater response diversity to deal with malign and unwanted change and disturbance that in turn nurtures resilience63. New crises will need complex responses where different actors/units can add complementary contributions, but this requires communication among actors, social trust, and ability to coordinate complexity.

If fundamental transformations are what we need to move towards sustainability11 we need to understand what the different pathways would mean. For example, the COVID-19 crisis has provided multiple examples of indirect, far-reaching effects of seemingly targeted decisions. In response to these open-ended outcomes, many cities have been collaborating with a wide range of actors, including the national and regional governments, and urban stakeholders and citizens. These collaborations have enabled design and implementation of immediate, short-term and long-term responses to the multiple dimensions of the pandemic, and international city networks have played a key role in peer learning, exchanging knowledge, experience, medical equipment and protective gears, and in taking leadership in policy making49,62. Even though the pandemic has had extremely severe economic, social, and health effects across the globe, there are also positive outcomes, e.g., in its Adaptation Plan 2020, Milan is using the crisis to question fundamental characteristics and expectations of the city and its scale, creating new visions for increased wellbeing62.

The future process of urbanization in the post-COVID-19 Anthropocene where globalization processes may be more wisely managed and consequences of different decisions are easier to anticipate and plan for, would likely be strikingly different and take on a new face. Although urbanization may look different post-COVID-19, jobs, infrastructure, and opportunities will still for the foreseeable future exist and mainly expand in urban areas—of all sizes, including suburbs and peri-urban areas. We expect a multipolar world to develop though, where thriving local and regional social, cultural, and ecological diversity and governance towards sustainability become more central, and a new urban–rural regional integration is possible. Global agendas such as the Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda, provide a common roadmap and vision to engage local stakeholders, including the private sector and civil society in co-creating and building new urban visions and purposes. The three urbanization dimensions, as proposed in this paper, offer a framework for a potentially more successful realization of diverse positive urban visions and for guiding action towards a more regenerative urbanization in and for the Anthropocene.

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This paper is a result of a workshop “Urbanization in the Anthropocene” held in Stockholm in January 2019. Funding for the workshop was provided by the Beijer Foundation. Gretchen Daily and Carl Folke are supported by the Marianne and Marcus Wallenberg Foundation. TM is supported by the US National Science Foundation through grants (#1444755, 1927167, 1934933, and 2029918).


Open Access funding provided by Stockholm University.

Author information
  1. Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Stockholm, SwedenT. Elmqvist, E. Andersson, T. McPhearson, C. Folke & D. Ospina
  2. Unit for Environmental Sciences, North-West University, Potchefstroom, South AfricaE. Andersson
  3. Urban Systems Lab, The New School, New York, NY, USAT. McPhearson
  4. Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Millbrook, NY, USAT. McPhearson
  5. Fenner School of Environment & Society, Australian National University, Canberra, AustraliaX. Bai
  6. Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation & Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, USAL. Bettencourt
  7. Department of Anthropology, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, USAE. Brondizio
  8. The Beijer Institute, The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Stockholm, SwedenJ. Colding, C. Folke & D. Ospina
  9. Department of Building Engineering, Energy Systems and Sustainability Science, University of Gävle, Gävle, SwedenJ. Colding
  10. Natural Capital Project, Department of Biology and Woods Institute, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USAG. Daily
  11. School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, USAN. Grimm
  12. Department of Geography, Humboldt University, Berlin, and Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ, Leipzig, GermanyD. Haase
  13. School of Geography, University of Bristol, UK and African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South AfricaS. Parnell
  14. Department of Applied Economics, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, USAS. Polasky
  15. Yale School of the Environment, Yale University, New Haven, CT, USAK. C. Seto
  16. School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, USAS. Van Der Leeuw

T.E., E.A. and T.M. led the writing and all other authors contributed with discussions during the workshop 2019 and commented on the manuscript.

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Elmqvist, T., Andersson, E., McPhearson, T. et al. Urbanization in and for the Anthropocene. npj Urban Sustain 1, 6 (2021).

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(Post)human Temporalities: Science Fiction in the Anthropocene

Jonathan Hay,

Ph.D. Candidate, University of Chester, UK

Article in KronoScope · September 2019, DOI: 10.1163/15685241-12341440


Although many SF texts proceed from the speculative premise that our species will continue to develop technologically, and hence become increasingly posthuman, our species’ continuance into even the next century is by no means assured. Rather, the Anthropocene exerts a new temporal logic; it is an age defined by an intensification of geological timescales. It is therefore noteworthy that many contemporary SF texts are ecologically interventionist and figure apocalyptic future temporalities which curtail the posthuman predilection common to the genre. This article analyses a tetrad of literary texts, written at various points during the last three decades, which summatively reveal the mutations of the (post)human temporalities figured by cli-fi texts. These four texts are: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy (1992-1996); Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods (2007); Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things (2014); and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife (2015).

Keywords Anthropocene – Science Fiction – cli-fi – Critical Posthumanism

Whilst geological epochs typically last thousands of years, over the last three centuries our species has engineered a significant enough impact on the Earth to instigate an epoch geologically distinct from the Holocene. Thus, although the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) continues to prefer the term Holocene, the popular term Anthropocene becomes an increasingly more accurate classification of our present geological epoch with each day that passes. Although some scholars argue for an earlier onset of the Anthropocene epoch, the term was coined in the year 2000 by Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermerto, who define the Anthropocene as the rapid intensification of our species’ adverse impact upon our host planet, which has been particularly evident since roughly the “invention of the steam engine in 1784” (17-18).

The term Anthropocene is no expression of hubris, however, but rather a damning acknowledgement of the planetary changes prompted by our species’ unqualified failure to sustain a mutualistic interaction with the Earth. The repercussions of anthropogenic climate change will imperil the continuation not only of our own species but also, in the long-term, the viability of the vast proportion of all life on Earth. Even since the beginning of 2019, scholarship on the Anthropocene has dealt with subject matters as diverse as Anthropocene politics, the role of poetry in the Anthropocene, and the provisional nature of architecture in the Anthropocene (John S. Dryzek and Jonathan Pickering’s The Politics of the Anthropocene (2019), David Farrier’s Anthropocene Poetics (2019), and Renata Tyszczuk’s Provisional Cities (2019), respectively). The riotously interdisciplinary nature of the field of Anthropocene scholarship deftly reflects the all-encompassing nature of the planetary changes that are driving the epoch.

In his 2019 book The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells laments that, incredibly, since the beginning of the 1990s, our species has collectively “done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization […] than in all the centuries—all the millennia—that came before” (4). Beyond our own lifetimes, it will be the damage we have wrought on the Earth’s ecosystems that will stand as the perverse legacy of modern societies. The Anthropocene is concurrently a hyperobject—as Timothy Morton proposes in his 2013 work of the same name—which “spell[s] the end of environmentalisms that employ Nature” as a valid ontological category (199). Likewise, in their 2015 essay “Preface to a Genealogy of the Postnatural,” Richard W. Pell & Lauren B. Allen propose the term “postnatural” in order to better reflect the plethora of “anthropogenic interventions into evolution that are both intentional and heritable” and that have always characterised the interactions between our species and planet (79, emphases in original). Ecological discourses in the Anthropocene must therefore define our planet’s environmental circumstances as postnatural, in order to reject dichotomous thought processes which posit a distinction between our species and the purportedly natural world. Likewise, as Elizabeth Kolbert notes in her 2014 book The Sixth Extinction, globalisation is effectively “running geologic history backward and at high speed” and has now become a far greater influence than millions of years of tectonic drift on the dispersal of species worldwide (208). The drastic acceleration of planetary history—along with the need to deconstruct the presumptions of many of our species’ most established ontological models—is the terrifying new temporal logic of the Anthropocene.

Indeed, as Wallace-Wells notes, “we might better conceive of history not as a deliberate procession of years marching forward on a timeline but as an expanding balloon of population growth” (2019, 8). By inaugurating population growth as the decisive temporal metric of the Anthropocene, it becomes newly apparent that our species’ detrimental impact upon the Earth is not a gradual process but an inevitable and near-exponential trend. In this manner, social development can no longer be considered a mode of progress because it leads not to a telos (an Ancient Greek term for a determinate end or purpose) but to catastrophe. This abrupt schism in the logic of progress, formerly the overriding metanarrative of our species, is already reflected in a range of contemporary art; yet, as Wallace-Wells emphasises, although “[o]n-screen, climate devastation is everywhere you look,” it is rarely a central premise of these same fictional narratives (2019, 143). Likewise, as George Marshall states in his 2014 book Don’t Even Think About It, “science fiction fans of all people, [are] so unwilling to imagine what the future might really be like” (2). Although this is largely accurate, Marshall’s insinuation that the entire SF genre fails to imagine the future in realistic terms is certainly mistaken.

I nevertheless agree with Marshall’s implicit assertion that Science Fiction (henceforth SF) has long proceeded from the speculative premise that our species will continue to develop technologically. In his 2009 essay “SF Tourism,” Brooks Landon stresses that SF’s tendency of “constructing change as progress, and seeing science and technology as its driving force [are] central aspects of sf thinking” (34). Crucially however, there is significant evidence that the onset of the Anthropocene has more recently rendered the genre’s teleological orientation problematic. Indeed, within the contemporary SF genre, apocalyptic representations of climate change are particularly abundant, and this trend challenges the assumption that our species will continue to become increasingly technologically advanced. It therefore proves productive to read this contemporary wave of SF— which can be termed climate fiction (or cli-fi for short)—in conversation with the philosophical field of Critical Posthumanism. In her 1999 monograph How We Became Posthuman, N. Katherine Hayles states that “As we rush to explore the new vistas that cyberspace has made available for colonization, let us remember the fragility of a material world that cannot be replaced” (49). As a means of definition, Hayles argues that “[a]lthough the ‘posthuman’ differs in its articulations, a common theme is the union of the human with the intelligent machine” (1999, 2). In concord with her contention that technological and social progress are inextricably “seriated” (1999, 20), this article refers to our species as (post)humanity, and to our condition as being (post)human, supposing that we currently inhabit an intermediary stage between being human and posthuman. Although I have elsewhere proposed that SF texts generally theorise a dreamscape of “posthuman possibility” (see Hay 2019), it is pertinent to note that many modern SF texts are ecologically interventionist and curtail the posthuman dreamscape common to the genre by emphasising the apocalyptic temporal attributes of the Anthropocene epoch in our own time. Hence, as Hayles also recognises, the figure of the posthuman is a possibility entirely conditional upon (post)humanity’s achieving modes of symbiosis with its planetary environment.

By foregrounding the necessity for human societies to fast become less beholden to habitual patterns of environmental apathy, the diegetic societies of cli-fi texts such as the 2009 film The Age of Stupid, the 2016 Black Mirror episode “Hated in the Nation,” Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), and Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam Trilogy (2003-2013) dramatise the annihilation of the everyday. As Heather J. Hicks proposes in her 2016 work The Post-Apocalyptic Novel in the Twenty-First Century, such texts carry a “sense of inevitable change, imagining a move not to new lands, but to new times, with no return passage possible” (103). As Pramod K. Nayar asserts is true of Posthumanism in his 2014 book of the same name, cli-fi does not endeavour to ideologically reinscribe “the human as exceptional, separate from other life forms and usually dominant/dominating over these other forms” (4). Rather, whilst engaging imaginatively with the dystopian milieux of cli-fi texts, (post)human readers can no longer delude themselves that they are exceptional beings. As cli-fi’s deliberate interruption of the SF genre’s posthuman dream implies, if our species does not make vast progress towards attaining environmental symbiosis, a large portion of our species will not even survive into the next century.

Cli-fi texts, therefore, solicit their reader to consider the alarmingly default possibility that our species may not attain symbiosis with its environment rapidly enough to circumvent apocalyptic consequences. In his 1979 work Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, Darko Suvin states that “SF is distinguished by the narrative dominance or hegemony of a fictional ‘novum’ (novelty, innovation)” (63, emphasis in original), or, in many instances, by multiple nova. Hence, if it remains true that—as Tom Shippey asserts in his 2016 work Hard Reading—“science fiction depends on novelty” (27), then cli-fi texts are certainly defined by a very atypical variety of novelty; their SFnal (science fictional) nova work to elicit the reader to undertake a sustained reflection upon their own damaging and yet habitualised methods of interaction with their environment. Accordingly, cli-fi narratives are typically attuned towards the environmental surroundings of their texts’ diegetic worlds, which are shown to imperil and hence condition the continued existence of any nova. Thus nova become habitual entities comparatively, directly inverting the typified relationship between the novum and its mundane environment in the existing body of science fiction.

Cli-fi texts often exacerbate the tendency of the genre towards what Suvin recognises as an inherent “anthropological pessimism” (1980, 236); their ecological pessimism has a powerful didactic utility. In contrast to the “resonances and charms of Big Dumb Objects”—a term coined by Roz Kaveney in her 1981 article “Science Fiction in the 1970s”—with which the SF genre is characteristically obsessed, cli-fi novels are principally concerned with the Small Dumb Objects that (post)humans themselves are (25). Through the analysis of four cli-fi texts, the present study argues that SF focussed on the Anthropocene comprises an invaluable tool for coming to terms with the future of our planet. The four texts studied are: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy (1992-1996), Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods (2007), Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things (2014), and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife (2015). All these texts were written during the last three decades by European and American authors. This article reads this cross-section of representative cli-fi novels chronologically, in order to reveal the rapidly mutating elements of the Western outlook on climate change over even this short period of the Anthropocene epoch.

1 The Mars Trilogy

Written and released during the 1990s, the temporally expansive narrative scope of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is ostensibly similar to several great canonical SF series, such as Isaac Asimov’s Greater Foundation series or Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle. Yet on closer inspection, the Trilogy actually works to deconstruct the escapist underpinnings of such prior SF works. Red Mars (1992) documents the colonisation of a neighbouring planet by a number of (post)humans; Green Mars (1993) narrates their continuing efforts to terraform that planet; and Blue Mars (1996) concludes as Mars becomes a liveable environment for its colonisers and their offspring almost two hundred years after its colonisation first began. By satirising his readers’ desire to read SF which escapes their own temporality, Robinson makes it clear that it is critical they begin to prioritise their attitude towards their planetary environment in their present.

Although its opening line is “Mars was empty before we came. […] We are all the consciousness that Mars has ever had,” the error of such neo-colonialist Science Fiction in the Anthropocene ideologies is rigorously challenged throughout the Mars Trilogy (Robinson, Red Mars, 13). At the series’ outset, this line of dialogue posits an exceedingly anthropocentric appraisal of Mars, envisioning that (post)humans have an entitlement akin to manifest destiny to settle their neighbouring planet, a planet which has only gained any degree of consequence by virtue of their settlement of it. The narratorial persona which voices this retrospective entirely fails to recognise that—as Erika Cudworth and Stephen Hobden emphasise in their 2011 book Posthuman International Relations—because “Humans neither exist, nor have they developed, independently of other animate and inanimate systems,” they will always remain interrelated within the stochastically complex systems which comprise any planetary environment (187).

The first settlers of Mars in the Trilogy choose to artificially regulate the Martian day, a feat brought about by “the Martian time-slip, the thirty-nine and a half minute gap between 12:00:00 and 12:00:01, when all the clocks went blank or stopped moving” (Robinson, Red Mars, 33). The re-imposition of the familiar diurnal cycle not only brings an illusory sense of naturalness to their inhabitation of the alien planet, but also allows the (post)humans inhabiting Mars to approximate habitual sleep patterns and hence to begin to re-establish society, which is itself undergirded by the habitual. Nevertheless, the settlers perceive that “something in the slant and redness of the light was fundamentally wrong”—Mars’s marginally different visible light spectrum being enough to upset “expectations wired into the savannah brain over millions of years” (Robinson, Red Mars, 25). This passage emphasises just how irregular it is for our species to have ever had the need to inhabit Mars as a surrogate Earth, reminding readers that we will never find another planet that is as suited to our species’ idiosyncrasies as Earth is, since we evolved here and thus are highly adapted to living here.

Correspondingly, it is only midway through the second book of the Mars Trilogy that (post)humans are finally able to brave the Martian atmosphere and get “their clothes off” outside of settlements or buildings (Robinson, Green Mars, 432). Although Mars is perceived as a chance to start again, a “blank red slate” for the crew of the Ares to write upon, it is a tabula rasa which proves challenging to inscribe (Robinson, Red Mars, 108). After landing, “for day after day after day [there is] No change in the weather to speak of” (Robinson, Red Mars, 135). To disrupt this monotonous trend, the first Martians find it necessary to thicken the atmosphere in order to gradually make the planet more Earth-like and hence more conducive to (post)human life. Although many (post)humans on both Mars and Earth disagree with this course of action, many other groups with an interest in Mars desire the planet to become a facsimile of Earth, through a process of terraforming effected through methods which include the creation of an aerial lens that makes “the light some twenty percent greater than before” (Robinson, Green Mars, 179).

It is deeply ironic that, years after Mars has first been settled, the (post) humans back on Earth are fast “running out of oil” and so start “mining and oil drilling” in Antarctica (Robinson, Red Mars, 298). Transnational corporations from Earth soon attempt to lay a claim on Mars, and call for it to be further terraformed under the rationale that “we’re all colonies now” (Robinson, Red Mars, 460). As Robinson makes plain at this point and throughout the Trilogy, capitalist and ecological modes of thought utterly contradict each other. Yet as Cudworth and Hobden highlight, “the state system, global capitalism, the agricultural system and the biosphere” (2011, 108) have all emerged through a process of autopoetic co-evolution, and so these phenomena are not individually mutable, but rather invariably anastomotic as formations emergent from (post)human societies.

Whilst the great flood that decimates large parts of Earth in the Mars Trilogy is not caused by anthropogenic climate change, and instead by “a cluster of violent volcanic eruptions under the West Antarctic ice sheet,” it is exacerbated by the effects of (post)human overpopulation which has, by the year 2128, far exceeded Earth’s carrying capacity (Robinson, Blue Mars, 167). The colonists of Mars are soon overwhelmed by immigrants from Earth fleeing the effects of anthropogenic overpopulation, as Mars is eulogised as a way of “saving Earth from overpopulation with the gift of empty land” (Robinson, Blue Mars, 346). As Cudworth and Hobden emphasise, even beyond our direct influence upon our climate, “Human systems are embedded within a number of non-human systems, with the consequence that developments in one system may have implications elsewhere in the panarchy” (2011, 138).

Eventually, the (post)humans of Mars have lived on Mars for so long, and their cultures have diverged so far from those of their originary planet, that the chance to see Earth would be “So interesting that no rational person could pass up the opportunity” (Robinson, Blue Mars, 109). Accordingly, 102 years after the Ares mission departed Earth, a small number of the crew and their descendants return briefly as ambassadors for Mars. As a (post)human born on Mars, Nirgal’s acute feeling of euphoria at his first experience of Earth is palpable. Able to distinguish “Fifty different shades of green on the hills” for the first time in his life, he experiences sensory overload, and finds the natural beauty and enormity of Earth incredibly overbearing (Robinson, Blue Mars, 175). After becoming acclimatised to the planet, Nirgal realises that he has rapidly developed a strong desire to inhabit “a home place that had something like these tile roofs, these stone walls, here and solid these last thousand years” (Robinson, Blue Mars, 192). In contrast, on Mars his life has consisted of his “home town [being] crushed under a polar cap […] and every place since then had been just a place, and everything everywhere always changing” (Robinson, Blue Mars, 192).

At this point in the Mars Trilogy, Martian life is defined by constant strife and precarity, whereas life on Earth has been defined by stability for near innumerable generations until recently, when climate change has begun to gradually make the planet inhospitable to (post)humans. Nirgal therefore has a desperate urge to experience a truly quotidian social life, which Mars has failed to provide for him, but which Earth too can no longer provide. There is more than a hint of satire here. Earth has, to the Martians, become a planet which is alien, and hence they desire to experience and imaginatively colonise its novelty. Life on Mars seems all too familiar to them. The Martians’ desire to see Earth thereby lampoons the readers of the text since—despite occupying the privileged position of being able to experience a largely unspoiled Earth automatically and corporeally—they are currently choosing to spend their time reading a grass-is-always-greener SF novel which—to some extent at least—fetishises the idea of leaving Earth behind for another planet.

Fascinatingly then, despite Mars’s being the titular planet of Robinson’s trilogy, when the Swiss Alps are described as a “majestic white range” (Robinson Blue Mars, 190) in the chapter set on Earth, it is one of only two times in the entire Mars Trilogy that the word majestic is used, the other instance being immediately qualified by the word “ludicrous” (Robinson, Blue Mars, 346). By having Nirgal arrive on Earth as a (post)human born on Mars, Robinson is able to depict our own planet through a principally defamiliarised lens and show us how beautiful, breathtaking and appropriate our originary planet already is. Earth’s postnatural splendour directly contrasts with all the strife within the Trilogy’s narrative which has been provoked as a by-product of the attempts to make Mars inhabitable.

Robinson’s Mars Trilogy stresses that our species has appeared “only in the last moment of [Mars’s] long history” (Robinson, Red Mars, 13) and thus that the entire timescale on which our species has existed is cosmically insignificant in comparison to planetary timescales. In our own world, Earth’s current planetary conditions are unusually attuned to sustaining life, to the extent that—as Raworth states—without (post)human influence the planet’s “benevolent conditions would be likely to continue for another 50,000 years due to the unusually circular orbit that Earth is currently making of the sun—a phenomenon so rare that it last happened 400,000 years ago” (2018, 48). The more we come to recognise that our complexity as a species and as individuals pales in comparison with the Earth’s complexity, the more likely we are to care for the amazing planetary body we inhabit. Thus the Mars Trilogy’s true novum should not be considered to be Mars, or any of the events or technologies that are created upon it, but Earth, the readers’ conception of which the text attempts to defamiliarise in order that they come to care for it anew. Ultimately, Robinson’s Mars Trilogy exhibits a cautious—although satirically tempered—optimism that (post)humanity is capable of realising the importance of the planet it already inhabits and of working to safeguard it.

2 The Stone Gods

Written only a decade later, Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods uses the Nietzchean motif of eternal recurrence to posit a far more fatalistic assessment of our relationship to our planetary environment. Within the novel, (post)humanity repeatedly becomes technologically developed enough to become an interplanetary species only through environmental necessity. Its (post)humans conceptualise their subsequent planetary exoduses as “only natural” (Winterson 2008, 4). This is deeply ironic, given that the need for “moving on” entirely results from their destruction of the natural. Each of the novel’s four temporally discrete sections is narrated from the perspective of a character named Billie, who appears to have been metempsychotically reborn in each timeframe. The recursive schema of Winterson’s text unequivocally refutes the application of linear conceptions of technological progress in the Anthropocene epoch and instead imagines this new temporality as an era of repeated ecological failure.

The opening of the text focuses upon the (post)human civilisation of Orbus who have been funding “the space mission for hundreds of years,” a myopic and fervent global agenda that reveals their preoccupation with escaping their originary planet (Winterson 2008, 5; emphasis mine). Despite assertions that, on the following planet they inhabit, “we’ll be more careful. This time we will learn from our mistakes,” the “Planet Blue” which the population of Orbus has earmarked for inhabitation is none other than Earth itself, and so it immediately seems inevitable that the enduring planetary symbiosis they seek is fated to elude them once again (Winterson 2008, 7; 74). By depicting climate change as a planetary function common to numerous planets which readily delimits (post)human development, The Stone Gods therefore insinuates that our species needs to constantly find new ways of reminding itself of our planet’s significance if it is to avoid the catastrophic mistake of taking it for granted.

The task of fostering effective environmental awareness is not an easy one. Kate Raworth argues in her 2017 work Doughnut Economics for the implementation of “economic thinking that unleashes regenerative [industrial] design in order to create a circular—not linear—economy, and to restore humans as full participants in Earth’s cyclical processes of life” (2018, 29). Raworth demonstrates that economic policies must—on a global scale— renounce their present telos of GDP growth, and instead adapt towards the realization of “a social foundation of well-being that no one should fall below, and an ecological ceiling of planetary pressure that we should not go beyond,” in order to realistically generate and maintain “a safe and just space for all” throughout the coming century (2018, 11, emphasis in original). Yet, as Naomi Klein argues in her 2015 book This Changes Everything, “it’s hard to keep [climate change] in your head for very long. We engage in this odd form of on-again-off-again ecological amnesia for perfectly rational reasons. We deny because we fear that letting in the full reality of this crisis will change everything” (Klein 2015, 4). Despite Raworth’s having proposed a brilliant and wholesale theoretical solution to the postnaturalisation of the Earth, we are, like the characters of Winterson’s novel, far too willing to refuse to confront the issue until we are outright forced to.

The ecological amnesia Klein details is particularly evident in Winterson’s novel when the celebrity and child abuser Pink McMurphy claims “Don’t blame me, […] I didn’t destroy [Orbus]” (Winterson 2008, 80). He exhibits a plain cognitive bias here, as his defensive tract is predicated upon a tu quoque (you too) fallacy; he presumes that he is exonerated from blame for contributing towards climate change because others are also to blame. As is evidently also the case on Orbus, our contemporary consumerist societies promote individualism at the cost of our capacity to work and think collectively—in this instance, in order to bear the cognitive burden of species-wide threats. Likewise, as Marshall states, because climate change is an unusually gradual variety of existential threat which “carries none of the clear markers that would normally lead our brains to overrule our short-term interests” and hence prompt us to act to mitigate a threat, we tend to “mobilize our own biases to keep it perpetually in the background” (2014, 229).

The Stone Gods strongly implies that Orbus itself was not humanity’s originary cosmic locale, but rather that its (post)humans came from a precursor planet too, as members of the crew sent to colonise Planet Blue recount in the form of a tale about the discovery of artefacts on “Planet White [which] shares the sun of Planet Blue” (Winterson 2008, 64). Since Planet Blue is Earth and Planet White is stated to have “an atmosphere that is ninety-seven per cent carbon dioxide” (Winterson 2008, 64) and “carbon dioxide constitutes 97 per cent of the Venusian atmosphere” (Kaufmann III 1978, 369), it is safe to assume that (post)humanity has moved from Venus to Orbus and then back to their previous planet’s next-door-neighbour within the diegesis of Winterson’s text. Winterson’s ludic implication is that (post)humanity’s civilisational progress is fundamentally recursive: that we move from planet to planet, irrevocably devastating each one with our voracity and short-sightedness, before developing spacecraft adequate to move us to another host planet in just sufficient time to escape annihilation.

The Stone Gods therefore plays on the concept of eternal recurrence, suggesting that (post)humanity is condemned to precipitate its own extinction time after time, in an endless causal loop. Although this may seem flippant, the novel’s conceit is rendered at least partially plausible by contemporary scientific theories which suggest that countless species of extraterrestrial life may indeed have brought about their own extinction events. Fermi’s paradox, which was proposed by Enrico Fermi in the early 1950s and has since been the subject of sustained scientific enquiry, centres around the mathematically implausible observation that our species has not yet come across any evidence that complex life is extant elsewhere in the universe than on Earth. Vilhelm Verendel and Olle Häggström’s answer to Fermi’s paradox, in their 2017 research paper “Fermi’s Paradox, Extraterrestrial Life and the Future of Humanity,” proposes that the disparity between the lack of evidence of extraterrestrial life and its high theoretical probability, given that there are “an astronomical number of exoplanets,” is the result of a “Great Filter” which occurs during the processes of technological development that all organisms undergo in order to become capable of departing from their home planet (Verendel and Häggström 2017, 14). Climate change is evidently one such Great Filter. Interpreted in this way, Fermi’s paradox becomes a compelling imperative to action on ecological grounds, a call to alter customary consumerism, which cumulatively have the effect that—as Keith Allaun states in the 2018 article “Fuel For Thought”— “If we continue to make single-use plastics at the same pace [as at present], by 2050 we are going to be dealing with an ocean that has more plastic in it, by weight, than fish” (Greenway, np).

By the conclusion of The Stone Gods, the planet that (post)humanity has settled is once more ecologically devastated, to the extent that Billie, meeting a person named Alaska, has no referent to determine her namesake and presumes that her name is “perhaps to match the colour code,” implying that in her time the American state has been drilled out of existence (Winterson 2008, 206). Likewise, the multinational MORE corporation which had subsumed the political system by growing large enough to take “over the Central Power” on Orbus is soon reincarnated on Earth, coming to exert a monopoly over “every station” of television (Winterson 2008, 71; 231). There is a disparaging amor fati in the way The Stone Gods portrays collective (post)human societies as existentially greedy and presumes that we will always revert to type and prize fiscal gain over ecological considerations, perpetually attempting to achieve economic growth purely for the sake of achieving economic growth.

Unfortunately, this novel’s misanthropic contentions only seem to have been confirmed by the often insincere and largely fiscally motivated “ecological advances” that have ensued since its publication. In his 2018 article “The Colour of Money,” Fred Pearce contends that, following the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement, although there has been “a huge upswing of investment in ‘green’ bonds that profess to finance long-term projects needed to fight against climate change” in the financial sector, these bonds often do not sufficiently discriminate between the technologies in which they invest (36). Purportedly green bonds support hydroelectric technologies, for example, which, despite generating renewable energy, also—according to Pearce—“flood ecosystems, displace thousands of people and spread waterborne diseases” and so have a negative impact on the environment on aggregate (2018, 39).

Capitalism and consumerism are anathema to ecological harmony, as The Stone Gods makes apparent through its imagery of “the huge double laser arches […] giant golden Ms […], glittering under the sky, adapting to the weather” (Winterson 2008, 31). This passage’s defamiliarised depiction of the ubiquitous McDonald’s logo suggests that billboards on Orbus have been implanted with a technology which makes them adaptive to the changing weather around them, presumably in order that the company’s logo can be glimpsed by potential customers in any light conditions. Such a bathetic use of technology—expending finite energy resources in order to attempt to prospectively increase revenues—demonstrates the dangerous fallacy that our species’ priorities should be geared towards economic growth regardless of the resultant impact on the environment.

The Stone Gods emphasises that the near-global predominance of anthropocentric ideologies encourages us always to “want the human story” (Winterson 2008, 36) and to consider only the short-term and human-related implications of any action. This is because we conceive ourselves to be “The only intelligent life in the Universe […]. Solitary, privileged” (Winterson 2008, 67). As Pearce states, “The fixation on fast returns makes [capitalism] seemingly ill equipped to cope with a long-term problem like climate change” (2018, 36); indeed, the (post)humans of Orbus absurdly believe that “Without a doubt, parking is the number-one issue facing the[ir] world” (Winterson 2008, 42). Yet we ourselves—since the lives we are living today will detrimentally impact the everyday lives of future generations of (post)humans—are just as short sighted as the ludicrously ignorant citizens of Orbus who, for instance, unconcerned about pollution levels so long as they can buy the “designer versions” of air-masks (Winterson 2008, 44).

In his 2017 article “Postmodernism—Posthumanism—Evolutionary Anthropology,” Wolfgang Welsch asserts that if environmental sustainability is ever to become prevalent, it will only be able to do so by fostering alternative ideologies which emphasise that “we are inherently worldly beings, deeply rooted in the process of evolution, […] participants in the process of life, sharing a great many traits with other living beings” (76). As Billie proclaims in The Stone Gods, “Human beings aren’t just in a mess, we are a mess.” Contemporary (post) human societies ought to pay close attention to Klein’s avowal that “the solution to global warming is not to fix the world, it is to fix ourselves” (Winterson 2008, 216; Klein 2015, 279).

Unlike in the diegetic world of Winterson’s novel, we do not yet possess any reliable means of interstellar travel. Given that a 2018 research paper by Bruce M. Jakosky and Christopher S. Edwards, titled “Inventory of CO2 Available for Terraforming Mars,” suggests that it will be impossible to terraform Mars in the “foreseeable future” (638), once we enter the stage of runaway global warming there will simply be no option for our “beginning again differently” by relocating to a nearby planet (Winterson 2008, 39). As Winterson’s novel implies through its recursive temporal schema, in the Anthropocene readers need to work fast to take care of the planet they currently inhabit if they are to avoid their impending extinction which—unlike in The Stone Gods—they will be unable to escape by means of a planetary exodus.

3 The Book of Strange New Things

Released seven years later, Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things approaches the challenges of the Anthropocene in a different manner; but it is ultimately just as apocalyptic. The dire effects of climate change occur increasingly rapidly as the novel progresses, and so the impact of the Anthropocene on the lives of the novel’s characters undergoes an intensification even throughout its relatively short narrative timeframe. The text is set in a time where the 1980s band A Flock of Seagulls are deemed to be “vintage” and Star Wars “antiquated” (Faber 2015, 30; 266). Its depiction of life on Earth in a near-future temporality envisions the ramifications of the prospect that, as Bryan Lovell predicts in his 2011 book Challenged by Carbon, “our dependence on fossil fuels is likely to persist until 2050” (148). As the accelerated timescale of apocalyptic events in the novel suggests, the passage of time in the Anthropocene is phenomenologically quickened.

In The Book of Strange New Things, a minister named Peter leaves his wife Bea behind and travels to Oasis to become an intergalactic missionary, on a planet which is located “in a foreign solar system, trillions of miles from” Earth (Faber 2015, 47). Much of the novel’s narrative energy derives from the brief dispatches Peter receives from Bea back on Earth through a “Shoot”—a text based interface which enables rudimentary communication between the two planets (Faber 2015, 86). Taken as a whole, Bea’s messages gesture towards a cataclysmic depiction of a futuristic Earth’s being ravaged by anthropogenic climate change, in terms of which it becomes pertinent to dispute Hayles’ assertion in her 1996 article “The Life Cycle of Cyborgs” that, since “the human as a concept has been succeeded by its evolutionary heir[,] Humans are not the end of the line” (2016, 247). Rather, as things currently stand, we may very well be.

Although the novel’s second section is titled “ON EARTH,” its narrative only ever depicts Earth by proxy after Peter first leaves it. Yet the near-apocalyptic events occurring back on Earth hold immense significance within the text’s overarching plot (Faber 2015, 179). The final message Bea sends to Peter, for example, begins, “Peter, I love you. But please, don’t come home. I beg you. Stay where you are” (Faber 2015, 575), a message made terrifying by its evocative yet dire concision and by its choice to leave many of the latest tragedies occurring back on Earth purely to the reader’s—and Peter’s—imagination. Faber’s implication seems clear. Given that—as Thomas L. Friedman states in his 2008 book Hot, Flat, and Crowded—the superficial promotion of climate awareness within contemporary societies lies “out of all proportion to the time, energy, and effort going into designing a systemic solution” to the root causes of ecological crisis, it is likely that the catastrophic imagery of The Book of Strange New Things is soon to become an everyday reality outside of the realm of fiction (206).

Whilst the novel’s principal SFnal nova occur through Peter’s evangelistic attempts to convey the Christian Gospel to the thoroughly unfamiliar Oasans, these same nova are undergirded by the recurrent interposition of transmissions from an Earth upon which the mundane is fast becoming equally unfamiliar. The first transmission Peter receives from Bea after arriving on Oasis includes an ostensibly mundane aside about the weather, which “has been terrible since [he] left. Heavy downpours every day. […] There’s been flooding in some towns in the Midlands, cars floating down the street, etc. We’re OK except that the toilet bowl is slow to drain after a flush, ditto the plughole in the shower cubicle” (Faber 2015, 94). Bea reports this recent spell of unsavoury weather in a matter-of-fact tone and seems less concerned about its palpable—presumably temporary—impact on society than she is about its minor impact on her own familiar, suburbanite existence.

Since spats of bad weather themselves would appear not to be that far out of the ordinary, they are not notable enough to become a cause for concern or sustained reflection, unlike Bea’s drainage situation, which is evidently a perturbing inconvenience for her. As Haydn Washington and John Cook state in their 2011 book Climate Change Denial, the reticence of (post)human societies to recognise the gradually escalating effects of “Climate change has now got to the point where the elephant is all but filling the room. We may now talk about it, but we still deny it” (3). If, as the 2017 Renewables Global Futures Report worryingly asserts, there “appears to be no common view on the role that renewables will play in 2050 amongst experts from the conventional and renewables industries, the scientific community and policy makers,” this is at least partially due to the difficulty of conceiving that incremental—and hence primarily irritating—changes in local weather systems are symptomatic of just the beginning of a far wider-reaching anthropogenic planetary crisis (27).

When Bea chastises Peter that “You just don’t seem to appreciate how fast and how frighteningly and how MUCH things have changed” (Faber 2015, 428), her frenzied proclamation warns of the drastic disruption and strife that future generations of (post)humans will almost undoubtedly have to undergo on a habitual basis, since—as Daniel J. Fiorino states in his 2018 book Can Democracy Handle Climate Change?—“Much of the impact of climate change already is locked in” (104). As Fiorino emphasises, the onset of anthropogenic climate change is already “all around us, in the form of rising sea levels, intense storms, declining snowpack, costly droughts, heat waves, and worrisome trends in disease patterns” (2018, 104). Although many texts within the SF genre anticipate posthuman futures based on the assumption that there will continue to exist a continuum of posthumanity, our species is unlikely to realise such hypothesised further stages of posthuman progression. Like other cli-fi texts, Faber’s novel attempts to redress the myopic technophilia exerted by much of the existing body of science fiction.

As of Bea’s second Shoot transmission, anthropogenic climate change has become a major component of public consciousness and everyday reality in her society, as is evident by her message’s tragic opening, which reveals that “There has been a terrible tragedy in the Maldives. A tidal wave. It was the height of the tourist season. The place was teeming with visitors and it’s got a population of about a third of a million. Had. […] It’s one vast swamp of bodies. You see it on the news footage but you can’t take it in” (Faber 2015, 126). Whilst tsunamis are not directly caused by climate change, the level of danger they pose to (post)human communities living in low-lying coastal areas such as the Maldives is proportionately exacerbated by sea-level rises (Li et al, 2018).

Erratic weather continues to intrude further upon Bea’s mundane existence, as “blank space” (Faber 2015, 128) begins to gradually overtake supermarket shelves. It becomes progressively harder for Peter to reconcile his wife’s traumatic experiences of the increasingly hostile Earth with “his own glad tidings” (Faber 2015, 129) from his missionary successes on Oasis. Every newness in the novel is thereby counterpointed by the obliquely glimpsed impacts of climate change back on Earth. Michel Foucault’s prophecy—from his 1966 book The Order of Things—of humanity’s being “erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea” rapidly becomes identifiable in terms that exceed the merely theoretical (2003, 422).

Bea’s third communication is shorter and shows evidence that adverse living conditions have become her new normality, as is indicated by the parenthetical (and hence less notable) portion of the sentence “I really must go now and have a shower (assuming the plumbing hasn’t gone bung again)” (Faber 2015, 158). Bea’s weary aside seems to corroborate Wallace-Wells’ prediction that “In a four-degree-warmer world, the earth’s ecosystem will boil with so many natural disasters that we will just start calling them ‘weather’” (2019, 78). Although Klein argues that the inciting moment for environmental awareness may be brought about by any one major natural disaster, as “the world tends to look a little different when the objects we have worked our whole lives to accumulate are suddenly floating down the street” (465), our species’ proficiency in coming to terms with what was previously alien should not be underestimated. Somewhat predictably then, Bea’s fourth message to Peter first confirms that “The Maldives tragedy has dropped out of the media,” before it discloses that in the UK “The rain was ridiculous, it didn’t let up for five hours, full pelt. There were torrents flowing along the footpaths; the drains just aren’t designed to take that kind of volume” (Faber 2015, 173; 174). Bea’s new “normal” standards of weather, and hence her conditions of (post)human existence, are fundamentally abnormal by prior standards.

Washington and Cook note that “Historically, fear of change probably made sense, as change was often bad news. However, today the change is happening whether we like it or not, due to our actions” and inactions in everyday (post) human life (2011, 90). Although the mundane activities we undertake from day-to-day appear ephemeral in nature, their daily enactment has a lasting impact on our planet. Bea’s eleven successive communications are far more ominous in tone. One of these messages reads “things are falling apart fast. […] In our local supermarket there are apology stickers on most of the shelves, empty spaces everywhere. […] The news says that the supply problems are due to the chaos on the motorways because of the earthquake in Bedworth a few days back” (Faber 2015, 233). The inability of this supermarket to locate an alternate supplier is emblematic of our species-wide unwillingness to adjust our established routines in times of crisis, a behaviour which extends beyond the personal sphere. Wallace-Wells asserts that typically “we assume climate change will hit hardest elsewhere, not everywhere” (Wallace-Wells 2017). Although having to significantly alter our familiar practices to avert ecological catastrophe is never going to be a popular choice, we must come to recognise, as Klein contends, that beliefs “that we can solve the climate crisis without having to change our lifestyles in any way” are deeply flawed (Klein 2015, 232).

Bea reports that “A large chunk of North Korea was wiped out a few days ago. Not by a nuclear strike, or even a nuclear accident, but by a cyclone called Toraji. […] It was surreal” (Faber 2015, 238). Soon after, “the snow leopard is extinct,” Tesco has “gone bust,” a “volcanic eruption has destroyed one of the most densely populated cities in Guatemala,” and “Some of the wealthiest people in America were murdered […] dragged out of their homes and beaten to death” (Faber 2015, 250; 337; 354; 355). The rate at which these successive cataclysmic events impact (post)human society, coupled with their indiscriminate nature, make Bea’s reports truly horrifying. Peter eventually becomes so perturbed by Bea’s communiqués that he begins to feel “feverish and dehydrated” after reading her messages, and hallucinates a voice shouting “WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?,” which admonishes him for being separated from the disastrous events unfolding back on Earth (Faber 2015, 357; 358). This yelled invective also vicariously implicates the readers in Peter’s guilt, provoking them to interrogate their own modes of interaction with their host planet and to seek modes of reparation. The calamitous progression of Faber’s novel towards its dire conclusion dramatises the drastic acceleration of planetary history in the Anthropocene.

4 The Water Knife

Published a year later than Faber’s novel, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife takes a more direct approach to depicting the acceleration of planetary history upon (post)humanity. Whereas Faber’s novel narrated the catastrophic impacts of the Anthropocene through Shoot transmissions, Bacigalupi’s narrates them firsthand, and in a near-future American context. While the preceding texts analysed within this study mediated the cataclysmic impacts of climate change through intergalactic lenses, and so symbolically distanced that impending temporality from the readers’ own, The Water Knife depicts the imminent collapse of (post)human society firsthand and in gruesome detail.

In the novel’s Mundane SF milieu—an established SF subgenre which explicitly situates its SFnal nova within the otherwise recognizable fundaments of contemporary life—Arizona’s water reserves have run out, not only because its inhabitants “hadn’t been able to see something that was plain as day, coming straight at them,” but also because regional climate change has contributed to water supplies having become unreliable (Bacigalupi 2016, 113). The narrative of the text accordingly centres around a violent contestation among California, Arizona and Nevada over the rights to the waters of the Colorado River. Having become even more besieged by drought than they are in our contemporary world, the westernmost states of America have begun to contest the ownership of this river by acts of political sabotage. Texas, meanwhile, has already become all but uninhabitable; there are massive numbers of Texan refugees dispersed across the other beleaguered Western states as a result. The novel follows the lives of Angel, a hitman working for the state of Nevada; Lucy, a journalist based in Arizona; and Maria, an opportunistic refugee from Texas—as each of them attempts to survive day-to-day within the drought-stricken city of Phoenix, Arizona.

The (post)human technological mundane has been ruptured; the (post)humans of the novel’s diegesis are far more preoccupied with securing and preserving reliable sources of water for themselves than with utilising any ancillary form of technology. The corresponding rupture of Lucy’s society is evident in the disparity between the bucolic character of her webchat call to her relatives in “green safe” Vancouver and the house from which she is calling in Arizona, where “A truck idle[s] in the alley behind [her] house, a predatory gasoline growl. It had been rumbling outside for ten minutes and didn’t seem to be leaving” (Bacigalupi 2016, 76; 74). The call seems tantalisingly to leave the “two realities separated only by a thin wafer of computer screen” (Bacigalupi 2016, 76).

As an SF text, The Water Knife deploys a number of near future nova, including: “data glasses” (Bacigalupi 2016, 347) that appear to be able to store and retrieve information on the object of their gaze in real time; the “Clearsac” (Bacigalupi 2016, 91) which filters the toxins out of urine so that its user can imbibe the precious water from it that would otherwise be lost to the ground; and portable sources of “medical growth stimulant” which vastly improve recovery times from injuries (Bacigalupi 2016, 419). And yet these nova are part of such a nightmarishly-mundane social reality that their novelty seems irrelevant; they scarcely make an impact on the novel’s narrative. This, then, is a world where the (post)human fixation on technology has become decentered in favour of a now-mandatory fixation on the essential components of (post) human sustenance.

Whilst the Phoenix Development Board’s promotional material for the Phoenix Rising campaign envisions “a picture of a fiery bird spreading its wings behind a collage of laughing children,” just beneath “the billboard a security squad [armed with] M-16s” are herding the same civilians meant to be living in a city resurgent in fortune into waiting vehicles (Bacigalupi 2016, 123). In a world where corporate and political ideologies have become utterly irreconcilable with social reality, life has come to be starkly defined by water consumption, as is apparent when Maria states that “it made her nervous, staring at that pile of water they’d scored. Knowing the days of life it would support. Knowing that people would be inspired to just take it from her” (Bacigalupi 2016, 90). Water is no longer a natural resource but a precious commodity; any engagement with it is just as starkly necessary as it is deeply perilous. The Water Knife’s near future vision is terrifying precisely because, as Wallace-Wells states in his 2017 article “The Uninhabitable Earth,” “absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.”

At a refugee settlement which characters in the novel visit, “Pure Life and Aquafina and CamelBak had set up relief tents. Getting good PR photos of how they cared for refugees,” their underlying motive is opportunistic rather than altruistic (Bacigalupi 2016, 101). And yet, corporate interests and environmentally friendly policy can co-exist. As Fiorino states, “climate action delivers ecological, health, economic, and social benefits” when carefully enacted (2018, 97). In his 2014 book Feral, George Monbiot outlines the benefits, for example, of a project which will “reintroduce the complexity and trophic diversity in which our ecosystems are lacking” by allowing the range of species that constitute native wildlife to repopulate in less intensely post-natural conditions (117). Monbiot concludes that the reintroduction of wolves to the Scottish Highlands would actually make estates “more profitable” by outsourcing the (post) human labour and resources necessary to regulate large populations of deer to their natural predator (2014, 116). Likewise in The Water Knife, many animals are managing to thrive even whilst (post)humanity finds itself in a state of catastrophe; when they need to find water “They’d smell it, anyway. Animals are better at this stuff than we are. Human beings, we’re stupid in comparison to a coyote” (Bacigalupi 2016, 114). As Monbiot emphasises, “The planet was, before its food webs were broken up, controlled by animals and plants [and so] the earth functions as a coherent and self-regulating system” outside of (post) human influence; we are the prime factor that prevents life on our planet from operating in an autopoietic manner (2014, 242). The extent of (post)humanity’s stupidity is apparent once more when, after waking in a wealthy suitor’s apartment, Maria is amazed that when she turns on the shower “More water than all of her score at the Red Cross pump gushed down her body and disappeared down the drain” (Bacigalupi 2016, 214). In the novel, climate change has only perpetuated and worsened extant inequalities, even whilst the social mundane of the wealthy has continued unabated. Maria’s suitor is like many of us; he truly does not “realize the magic of his life,” a life sustained by an abundance of everyday conveniences which are taken entirely for granted (Bacigalupi 2016, 216).

As Erik Bichard realises in his 2014 book The Coming of Age of the Green Community, “The social implication of [climate change] will be that the vulnerable and the less well-off will suffer first and disproportionately [but that] Ultimately everyone will suffer as the fabric of society unravels” (120). Bourgeois individuals should not feel themselves exempt from the coming repercussions of (post)humanity’s detrimental impact on our host planet. In The Water Knife, Lucy discovers that regardless of “all the statistics of people displaced by tornadoes and hurricanes and swamped coastlines, these piled corpses […] struck [her] more forcefully” (Bacigalupi 2016, 135). By depicting the novel’s apocalyptic near-future temporality so vividly and urgently, Bacigalupi’s pessimistic, even tragic narrative has the same diegetic effect on the reader as the piled corpses do on Lucy.

5 Conclusion

As the analysis herein has demonstrated, our species’ collective lack of progress towards a position closer to symbiosis with our planetary environment over the last three decades is both shocking and perilous. Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is critical, yet hopeful, about the propensity of our species to adapt; Winterson’s The Stone Gods is significantly more ludic, misanthropic and fatalistic; Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things implies the urgency of the need for change in the present; even more desperately, Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife brings its apocalyptic vision to bear on an America we can all recognise. Although The Water Knife bears a degree of similarity to Robinson’s Mars Trilogy in the sense that they both effectively attempt to compel their readers to modify the manner by which they interact with the planet they live on, there lies a lingering sense, in the intervening twenty years between their respective publications, that the battle might already have been lost. The temporal logic of the Anthropocene which these texts collectively depict is characterised by a claustrophobic sense of catastrophe; they expose the extent to which the future gradually becomes an increasingly precarious territory.

This article has demonstrated that these four representative cli-fi texts—particularly when read as constituent pieces of a larger subgeneric movement—bear important reflections regarding the position of our species in the Anthropocene epoch. They are texts that break new ground from the largely technophilic canon of SF which precedes them; they attempt to redirect the posthuman dream of the genre away from technological progress and towards the environmental considerations we all need to make in the present if our species is to have a future. In order to investigate whether these findings can be extrapolated more widely within the cli-fi subgenre, the extent to which other cli-fi texts fit this model must be the subject of further critical enquiry. Since this article is entirely focused on cli-fi from the Western Anglophone context, cli-fi from other literary traditions across the Earth must also be a focus for future research in the field. As demonstrated by the cli-fi texts that this article has analysed, (post)humanity must either rapidly and comprehensively rethink the nature of its position on—and responsibilities towards—our already postnatural planet, or we will soon have to confront our own extinction. Either way, however, we will need to fully come to terms with the grim fatalism of Suvin’s avowal that “we and our ideologies are not the end product history has been laboring for from the time of the first saber-toothed tigers and Mesopotamian city-states” (1980, 83).


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