This Changes Everything: Professional and social practice in the Anthropocene

Kenneth McLeod, The Anthropocene Transition Project 2016: Directions PaperWith thanks to the numerous colleagues who contributed their ideas and suggestions.


The title of Naomi Klein’s acclaimed book on the politics of climate change well sums up the challenge of the Anthropocene. The arrival of the age when human activity has come to dominate and seriously compromise the stability of the Earth System poses fundamental questions for our professions, key cultural, social and economic institutions, our communities, and our systems of governance. In Klein’s words, this changes everything.

This short paper outlines the rationale for the Anthropocene Transition Project 2016, a collaborative inquiry under the auspices of the UTS Business School in Sydney, Australia. The project’s aim is to link Anthropocene-related research networks with specific areas of professional and social practice in order to explore the nature of the changes required by the Anthropocene Transition.

One Earth System

The term ‘Anthropocene’ arose from the Earth sciences and has been widely adopted across the social sciences and humanities. While several starting points have been proposed, the most widely accepted are:

  • the Industrial Revolution marking the rapid expansion of a powerful, increasingly globalised, industrial civilisation based on the exploitation of fossil fuels, and/or
  • the 1950s which saw ‘the Great Acceleration’ characterised by exponential growth in energy use, industrial output, consumption, population, and eco-system disruption, the unleashing of nuclear power, and a flood of fossil-fuel based plastics and chemicals into the environment.

In the Anthropocene human activity is outstripping the biosphere’s capacity to maintain the relative stability we’ve known during our species’ long journey through the Holocene. Our impacts are pushing the Earth System towards rapid, unpredictable and potentially catastrophic state changes beyond the evolutionary experience of both humans and many other species.

‘Anthropocene’ is a powerfully integrative concept. It draws together our thinking about specific aspects of Earth System disruption — like climate change or biodiversity loss or ocean acidification — to focus on their interconnections. By directing our attention to whole system dynamics, it encourages us to see the Earth as a single socio-ecological system.

The Anthropocene has far-reaching ethical implications in that it challenges us to accept an expanded understanding of collective responsibility that reaches beyond conventional human scale measured in multiples of human lifetimes, to consider the consequences of our collective actions on planetary and geological (or deep time) scales.

While it is the physical sciences that have revealed the enormity of our impacts on the planet, the concept of ‘Anthropocene’ helps us to broaden our focus to include the
cultural drivers of this disruption — deep conflict between the core values of a dominant global monoculture and the life support systems of Earth. As Swedish scholar Steven Hartman puts it: “The great environmental predicament of the early 21st century is not primarily an ecological crisis, though its ramifications are far-reaching within ecological systems. Rather it is a crisis of culture.”

Globally dominant ‘Western’ cultures operate as if reality is about organising inert matter in efficient ways to satisfy human needs and wants and generate surplus value. This prevailing ‘operating system’ couples our everyday taken-for-granted assumptions about the world to an ideology of dead matter, human utility and perpetual growth. The fundamental challenge of the Anthropocene is to restore a commitment to the vitality of life in all its forms on this planet as the basis of our institutions and professions. This is the cultural renaissance the Anthropocene calls forth.

For decades our principal response to this looming existential threat of our own making has been a grab bag of policies, processes, practices and products bearing the label ‘sustainable’. But ‘sustainability’ as both a concept and a practice generally falls short of the mark. As Christopher Wright, co-author of Climate Change, Capitalism, and Corporations: Processes of Creative Self- Destruction, suggests, many of the policies and practices of sustainability are really about being less un-sustainable. As such they fail the test of proportionality — valuable but inadequate in the context of the challenges of cultural renewal and systemic redesign we face. Nevertheless the true worth of many sustainability initiatives lies not so much in their outcomes as in the opportunities they open up for essential professional and social co-learning, particularly when embedded in value networks which have the potential to become learning networks.


Even as the magnitude of the Anthropocene challenge becomes clearer, in our everyday professional and social lives we continue to reproduce the status quo. We say business as usual is over, but business as usual is very much the order of the day — perhaps with some “sustainable” trimmings at the margins.

Shaping a Future We Want?

So what does the Anthropocene Transition mean for our communities of professional and social practice?

Today we stand poised on the cusp of the ‘Anthropocene Transition’, a dawning historical period most likely extending over several generations in which human societies must of necessity adjust to radically different environmental conditions and accomplish a far-reaching cultural shift.

Mitigating our dangerous disruption of the biosphere and adapting to the profound changes we have already built into the Earth System are now urgent priorities for all humanity. But what we could call ‘Anthropocene thinking’ looks beyond mitigation and adaptation to consider the transformation of the globally dominant but seriously dysfunctional ‘advanced’ human cultures. This is the central task of the Anthropocene Transition. It is a transition away from professional and social practices and their underpinning cultural values that are fundamentally at odds with the continuing viability of our species and many others as well.

Our ‘professional and social practices’ are all the activities, both paid and unpaid, in which specialised and tacit knowledge and skills are used to achieve socially and culturally valued outcomes. These activities are often collaborative in nature and usually involve some degree of critical reflection and collective learning. ‘Professional and social communities of practice’ refers to the networks that link people involved in common of similar activities. It is through these activities and networks that most of us participate in both continuously reproducing and reinventing the institutions and values of our society. These are the ways in which we all most directly contribute to shaping the future.

Every era has its own notion of the ethical ‘good life’, an essentially context conditioned notion that humankind has repeatedly redefined to fit different historical, cultural and environmental settings. We often hear it said that a shared vision of the ‘good life’ is necessary if we are to embrace fundamental change. But in transition times fashioning such a vision is a tall order indeed. The inherent unknowability of the future is compounded by the heightened uncertainty of treading a path untravelled.

Attempts to fashion an inspiring vision of a better future can divert our thoughts and passions into ideological struggles over desirable end states, when it is the process of transition itself that demands our most creative endeavours. And like previous times of transition in our human story, it involves rethinking what we understand to be the core of our humanity. The question we must now ask ourselves is what would the ‘good life’ look like in a period of existential danger and profound uncertainty? What are the aspects of our humanity that we needs must value most highly in such times, and how do we nurture them in the present?

History teaches us that periods of transition are characterised by great intellectual ferment, philosophical doubt, and social conflict. Serious disruption of an eco-system or a social system frequently triggers the emergence of virulent new pathogens — both biological and social. Xenophobia, inter-communal and religious violence, ethnic cleansing, war, population movements, pandemics and famine are well-known to humankind in transition times.

But these times when the old order strains and fractures can also be ages of heightened creativity, of intellectual and spiritual breakthroughs, of new cultural syntheses. This is the challenge of the Anthropocene Transition — to equip our communities, our professions, and our institutions with new tools for thinking, doing, and learning.

A Values Framework for the Anthropocene

As we set about preparing for the long-haul of the Anthropocene Transition we may feel the need to frame our inquiry and experimentation. The following four principles are offered as anchors for these explorations:

four-part framework1. Earth sovereignty

Sovereignty is a foundational concept for our systems of jurisprudence and international relations. But its expressions in the sovereignty of the nation state since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 and the sovereignty of the individual according to some readings of the US Constitution of 1787 have become inimical to the viability of our own species and many others as well.

A new conception of sovereignty vested in the Earth and asserting the preeminence of respect for all life and the integrity of the biosphere has become a necessity. Such a definition of Earth sovereignty as prior to and more fundamental than human agency would provide a basis on which to reframe all our doctrines of authority, justice and responsible governance.

2. Eco-mutuality

Eco-mutuality is a core relational principle that recognises the need to nurture and sustain a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship as the very basis of human cultures. It incorporates the principle of equity but extends it beyond the sphere of social relations to embrace our inter-dependence with all living creatures and the eco-systems of which they are an integral part.

Eco-mutuality transcends the essentially anthropocentric and utilitarian concept of sustainability to recognise the intrinsic value of all life forms within the socio-ecological wholeness of the Earth System.

3. Holism

Holism is an epistemic principle that emphasises the intrinsic coherence of complex systems and their emergent properties that cannot be understood from a knowledge of their parts. It implies that the system as a whole determines in important ways how the parts behave, even while the parts condition the nature of the whole.

As an approach to inquiry and learning, holism does not displace other modes of knowing but transcends them and opens the door to a more creative engagement with change in complex systems at all levels from the micro-organic to the planetary.

4. Eco-social resilience

Resilience is the capacity of a system to absorb disruption and reorganise itself under conditions of turbulence and on-going change. Eco-social resilience must be a core organising principle for the Anthropocene Transition. It establishes eco-systemic integrity as a fundamental design criterion for human technologies, economies, habitats and systems of governance.

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

A Collaborative Inquiry

The objective of The Anthropocene Transition Project is to inspire and inform new trans- disciplinary thinking and experimentation in the redesign of our professional and social practices. Trans-disciplinarity in this context implies the emergence of new knowledge syntheses drawing on the cultural resources of diverse disciplines and traditions, including the traditional knowledges of indigenous peoples. It needs to be distinguished from multi-disciplinary approaches that employ the lenses of different disciplines to examine a problem, and interdisciplinary methods that promote a dialogue between disciplines. The plain English words for multi-disciplinary, inter-disciplinary, and trans-disciplinary are additive, interactive, and holistic.

For details of our 2016 program see the document:

Anthropocene Transition Project 2016: Proposals for this year’s collaborative inquiry

If you think your professional network, organisation or community might be interested in participating in this collaborative inquiry please contact our Project Convenor via the Contact tab at


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