Globalization or the Age of Transition?

A Long-Term View of the Trajectory of the World-System

Immanuel WallersteinBinghamton University


Globalization is a misleading concept, since what is described as globalization has been happening for 500 years. Rather what is new is that we are entering an `age of transition’. We can usefully analyze the current world situation using two time frames: 1945 to the present and circa 1450 to the present.

The period since 1945 has been one long Kondratieff cycle, with an A-phase that ran through 1967-76 and a B-phase ever since. The economic and political developments of the last 50 years are easy to place within this framework. The period from 1450 to the present is the long history of the capitalist world-economy, with its secular trends all reaching critical points. This article analyzes the long-term rise in real wage levels, in costs of material inputs of production and of levels of taxation, the combination of which has been creating constraints on the possibilities of capital accumulation. The long history of the antisystemic movements and their structural failures has led to a serious decline in the legitimacy of state structures which is threatening to subvert the political pillars of the existing world-system.

For all these reasons, the modern world-system is in structural crisis and has entered into a period of chaotic behavior which will cause a systemic bifurcation and a transition to a new structure whose nature is as yet undetermined and, in principle, impossible to predetermine, but one that is open to human intervention and creativity.

wallersteinImmanuel Wallerstein is an American sociologist, historical social scientist, and world-systems analyst, arguably best known for his development of the general approach in sociology which led to the emergence of his World Systems Theory


Time for regions and cities to pick up the banner of climate action


Perhaps the time has come to widen the signatories to the Paris Agreement to include regions and cities. Such a move would create a hopefully unstoppable new momentum that would carry many national governments along with it and move the international negotiations closer to the grassroots where real progress is possible.

Here in Australia it would generate significant pressure on Labor state governments to sign up and thus make their continuing promotion of coal mining and coal powered electricity even more transparently two-faced.

Preparing for the Anthropocene Transition discussion group on Linkedin: Time for regions and cities to pick up the banner

Join the discussion now.

There’s no way around it: Donald Trump is going to be a disaster for the planet

The Age of Humans is all about us, together

The Anthropocene is not about the environment, it’s not even about climate change – it’s about “us”.

It’s about “us” in communities and societies and families and nations. It’s about “us” in our workplaces, our professions, our institutions of knowledge and learning, our systems of governance. It’s about “us” reflected in and fashioned by our shared cultures. It’s about “us” in relationship with other life forms on this planet.

And it’s about “us” learning and acting together to meet challenges new in our evolutionary experience and on historically unprecedented scales.

The Anthropocene is the Age of Humans. It is about what we do together, collectively, to reframe our most fundamental relationship – our place in the Earth’s web of life.

A Species Swarming

There has never been anything like 7.5 billion humans on Earth. There has never been another species able to invade almost every ecological niche in the biosphere from the equator to the poles. There has never been a single species capable of disrupting the life support systems of the planet.

For the first time in the evolution of human cultures on planet Earth our impacts on the Earth System have become global, systemic and inter-connected.

This is in part a function of our sheer weight of numbers and of the even greater numbers of the animals we breed for our use. And it’s also a function of our ever more powerful technologies and the capacity they give us to control, exploit and manipulate the environment. But most significantly it’s a function of a globalised system of hyper-production and consumption that depends on continuous growth to maintain its stability.

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


The term “Anthropocene” has quite rapidly come to be used as a kind of shorthand for the rupture in the Earth System that our species has caused. The changes we have triggered just in my lifetime will endure for thousands of years. There is no going back.

Looking Beyond the Physical Sciences

While the concept of “Anthropocene” arose from the physical sciences that have steadily revealed the scale and nature of human impacts on the planet and its precious web of life, we must remember that this research is describing the symptoms, not the drivers of the long emergency we now face.

Because these symptoms are most obviously manifest in physical systems like the climate, the water cycle, the carbon cycle, the phosphorus and nitrogen cycles, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, etc, much policy debate and informed public awareness is focused in the physical domain. We talk as if each symptom is a discrete problem with its own answer – renewable energy to solve climate change for instance – and by addressing them separately we can ignore unpredictable knock-on effects that cascade across the whole Earth System. Thus responses have been conceived within dubious notions of linear causality and framed in terms of technological innovation and hard-systems interventions. This encourages a very dangerous naiviety, a belief that the answers are “out there” in the hands of scientists and technocrats and politicians.

But the symptoms are also geo-political, economic, social, and yes personal. They include never ending wars, the spread of violent extremism, economic instability, huge disparities of wealth and power, rising food and water shortages coexisting with massive waste, an ever-increasing risk of pandemics, and personal despair, demoralisation, and trauma.

These are soft-systems issues – driven by cultural understandings, aspirations, behaviours and values.

Most of the public debate about specific aspects of the Anthropocene, like climate change, takes for granted the maintenance of the economic, social and cultural status quo, even as it unravels around us. Our political, commercial and educational institutions are deeply wedded to “business-as-usual”.

Yet we know full well that business-as-usual is no longer a viable option.

Mitigate, Adapt, Transform

But don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that urgent interventions to address the most immediately threatening environmental crises we have provoked are pointless. Quite to the contrary. There is a critical need to look at every possible way of mitigating human impacts on the Earth System – like reducing greenhouse gas emissions – while remembering that all human knowledge is provisional and our actions must always be tempered by the precautionary principle.

And at the same time we need to develop comprehensive adaptation strategies to deal with the disruptions we cannot avoid whatever we do, particularly for the most vulnerable communities, populations and social infrastructures.

But these are palliatives. Ultimately our future will depend on our success in creatively transforming the soft systems – the human systems – that are driving the disruption of the Earth System. We need to redesign key social and economic institutions and rethink our core cultural values.

This is already happening in a process of experimentation and collective learning from the bottom up in countless communities around the world. Despite their rhetoric, it is not governments and corporations that are demonstrating the necessary creativity and agility. Everywhere we can see that they are deeply compromised by the blinkers of short-termism, the greed of vested interests, institutional inertia and, all too often, corruption. It’s grassroots organisations, local communities, collaborative and mutual enterprises, and civil society movements that are nurturing real change.

Another essential arena for transformational change is our collective professional and social practices. Indeed, it is what we do at work in collaboration with colleagues, and in our communities and social networks together with friends and neighbours, that we most directly participate in co-creating the future. And at the moment we are creating a present and a future that is at odds with the viability of our species and of many others as well.

This is the focus of the Anthropocene Transition Project at the UTS Business School here in Sydney. Its aim is to invite professional cohorts to get a grip on the nature of the Anthropocene and start to rethink their professional practices to meet the challenges ahead.

Cathedral Thinking


I recently received an email headed: “What’s your 1,000 year plan?” It was a reference to a talk by Canadian author Rick Antonson called Cathedral Thinking.

Antonson reminds us that when medieval architects, artisans and labourers began work on one of the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe they knew they would not live to see its completion.

Such undertakings were the work of generations – each making a contribution to a collaborative venture that others would build on to realise its fulfilment in the future.

How different from our myopic contemporary mindset with its immersive focus on the 24 hour news cycle, 3 or 4 year electoral cycles, quarterly corporate reporting, and short-term business cycles.

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

How can we step out of our disciplinary and professional silos, take off our institutional blinkers, and start to explore more powerful trans-disciplinary and trans-cultural approaches to knowing, understanding and acting in the world?

There are no easy answers or short-term fixes. This is a challenge not only for our generation but for many to come. Perhaps the most important task for us now is to frame the deep questions that our professions and institutions must grapple with.

As Albert Einstein is reported to have said…



Romance, Gender Conflict, and Domestication in the Anthropocene

 • Published on July 19, 2016


The term “she-wolf” has always seemed a strange distinction to me. Have you ever seen one? Same size and ferocity as a “he-wolf” to my eyes (although nobody says he-wolf), and I imagine if either of them were trying to chew my liver out, I wouldn’t really care if they had a penis or not. Human men and women were like this once too, until very recently in human history. The other day I viewed some footage of Andaman Islanders at the point of “first contact” with civilisation and saw the truth of this. A woman and man, clearly partners, walked naked towards the camera with warning in their eyes. They were side by side, both equally muscled and magnificent. There was no inequality, conflict, domination. There was a confidence and power they each possessed that made me ashamed of what I had become. I felt like a labrador looking at a pair of dingoes. This got me thinking about domesticated dogs, men and women and civilisation, and I started writing these ideas down.

All dogs (including dingoes) are descended from wolves. They used to be wolves, until people caught them, confined their young, trained them, selectively bred them, retarded their brains and bodies with behavioural conditioning, torturing them into the slavering, drooling, stupid “man’s best friend” we see today. This is the domestication process that civilisation perfected on animals, and then later applied to us. We have all been reduced and deformed into the shapes that this self-destructive system needs to sustain itself. Men have been made into lesser beasts, like pit bulls or terriers. Women have been tortured into far worse forms however, as poodles and a wide variety of strange lapdogs. Male and female, we are all unrecognisable from the equally formidable wolf-like beings we once were. We are now shrunken, weak and divided. We did not do this to ourselves, just as we did not destroy our habitat through some kind of naturally self-destructive genetic defect. It is not people who are inimical to the planet, but the civilising systems that enslave us. This age should not be called the Anthropocene, but the Civilocene, or perhaps the Corporatocene.

Our domestication stems from this system they call “civilisation”. Ask anybody what that word means, and they will probably talk about technology, arts, culture, rule of law. But those are things produced by any human community, so what actually separates civilisation from village life or tribal societies? The distinction is simply this – while a village or tribe lives self-sufficiently off the resources of its own bio-region, a civilisation depends upon the importation of resources to survive. Further, the average village remains at a sustainable population of about 150 people, with a stable economy that is able to survive in perpetuity, trading with groups from other regions in a balanced economy of equal inputs and outputs. A civilisation, however, has an economy of unequal inputs and outputs that demands constant growth or it will collapse, and therefore needs an exponentially expanding population to sustain it. The resources needed for this cannot be provided on the homelands of the civilisation itself, which become degraded and lifeless very quickly. Therefore, in order to secure the resources needed for constant growth, the civilisation must take over other lands using either economic or military aggression, or a combination of both.

In any civilisation, the plundering of foreign lands for resources and the murdering and enslavement of people that needs to occur for that plunder to take place requires an illusion strong enough to sever the visceral ties that humans have with land and spirit. Without those ties, we are free to do harm and destroy ourselves and everything around us. We are trained to accept this illusion through the altering of our most core relationships, particularly the one between man and woman…

…we have come to regard the depradations of what we are calling the Anthropocene as a somehow normal, natural part of being human. This is why we call this epoch the Anthropocene, rather than the Corporatocene or Civilocene. We have been brainwashed to believe that it is in our nature to be destructive, that our plight is our own damn fault. Water shortage must be due to our selfish washing and drinking, not the ninety percent of water use by big industry and agriculture! And even though most pollution is done by these same big corporates, surely it is all our fault for not recycling enough of the relatively small amount of waste our communities produce?

When we question our condition, we are told that things have always been like this. That is a lie. Things have not always been like this. We did not evolve with soft skin and vulnerable eyes and massive brains by being stupid and warring with each other, enslaving each other, destroying our habitat. We have not survived for half a million years or more by abusing and dominating and confining our women. We were something else once, not too long ago. Do you have the courage to remember what came before civilisation? It’s not what you’ve been told. My old people tell me what it was like, as they still hold the memories of that time. It was wonderful. The working day was no more than three hours long, and that work consisted of the things that people do for leisure now – hunting, fishing, collecting, cooking, craft.

Communities that do not carry a memory of this freedom and abundance find it hard to conceive of a time when the fish were thick in the waterways, the skies dark with flocks and trees heavy with fruit. Endlessly productive grasslands, pastoralist living, a life focused on spiritual development, ceremony, intellectual pursuits and relationships. This no longer exists, and it is actually not possible to return to this way of being immediately, as the resources needed to sustain it are depleted. It will take a long time to regrow these natural systems and the cultures that sustain them. The ancient Law of our old people has been kept, will continue to be a constant thread held by our Indigenous communities until land and people are healed enough to live those ways again. Until then, a long-term transitional culture is needed.

Make no mistake; this is a time of upheaval and transition. It will last for a long time. We will not be able to switch to an abundant lifestyle connected to land and knowledge and each other immediately, due to scarcity and remnant structures of capital that will continue to deny humans access to their habitat, while wilfully attempting to destroy the last of that habitat. Even with a complete collapse or dismantling of this system, the natural resources will not exist for a long time to support a return to any kind of paleolithic paradise. For the longest time, people will need to be putting back far more than we take. In this culture of transition, where we and our children and children’s children pay the bill for our “civilised” antecedents, we will need cultures, pedagogies, languages, ethics and economies that are grounded in reality and the basic laws of existence rather than the fantastic illusions and agendas of a disconnected elite minority. We need frameworks of being that will allow us to move away from the placeless, uniform, nationalised identities we currently inhabit (also the incipient globalising identities creeping into our hearts) and then reclaim local or regional realities grounded in the land-bases that support us. We need to begin designing those frameworks now.

To return to the metaphor of wolves and dogs; our collars are chafing some of us right now, as we look over the fence we are chained to and wonder what is left for us out there. Is it even possible to reverse this devolution and become the beings we once were again? Probably not. But there is a chance to become something else just as vibrant and brilliant and true as the wolves we once were. As with all transformations of this kind, we must begin with a time of flux, of transition and upheaval. These new ways of transition for the Anthropocene era must be genuinely demotic and organic and responsive in their design. As such, the work is fractal, beginning with the core relationships in our lives, getting those right and spiralling that pattern outwards into our societies and knowledges. This will require shedding the illusory romance of civilisation and reclaiming a foundation of true love. When we know what that is again, when we heal the recently fabricated rift between men and women, then we will know what we need to do. This rift is the most basic unit of our domestication, and we need to end it.


I think about dingoes a lot, and the old people give me story to understand them. Around seven thousand years ago they were brought here as domesticated pets, traded from Asia. They made a hell of a mess in the ecosystem initially. It wasn’t their fault that this happened. As they adjusted to their new reality, once freed from domestication, they did not return to their original wolf-state, but became something else altogether – the incredible native species we now know as the dingo. They took responsibility for the species they had destroyed and took up that niche in the ecosystem, those stories and song-cycles in the Dreaming, healing the habitats they had damaged, over time. They adapted into something wonderful, real and connected, alongside their other uniquely placental relations on this continent – the humans. This is a sacred relationship and a Dreaming of cycles of birth, death and renewal. True transformation. I want to make sure the same kind of transformative Dreaming is available to my descendants. Don’t you?

Tyson Yunkaporta
Dr Tyson Yunkaporta
Tyson Kaawoppa Yunkaporta is a Bama of Nunga and Koori descent with cultural ties to Mardi mobs in Western NSW. With an accomplished career in both mainstream and Aboriginal community contexts, Tyson has worked in K-12 classrooms, as a university lecturer, as a senior executive officer in the Department of Education and as an Aboriginal pedagogy mentor. In 2009, Tyson completed his PhD in Education at James Cook University, where he was awarded the medal for excellence with his thesis titled “Aboriginal Pedagogies at the Cultural Interface.” As The Aspiration Initiative’s (TAI) Aboriginal Education Specialist, Tyson works on the overall development and structure of TAI’s pedagogy and curriculum. On camps, he takes on key roles in teaching and cultural facilitation, with both students and teachers. He continues to play a fundamental role in community relationship building and consultation.

Climate Change And The Astrobiology Of The Anthropocene

ADAM FRANK • 13.7 cosmos & culture • October 1, 2016

You can’t solve a problem until you understand it. When it comes to climate change, on a fundamental level we don’t really understand the problem.

For some time now, I’ve been writing about the need to broaden our thinking about climate. That includes our role in changing it — and the profound challenges those changes pose to our rightly cherished “project” of civilization.

Today, I want to sharpen the point.

But first, as always, let’s be clear: We have not gotten the science wrong. The Earth’s climate is changing because of human activity. That part has been well-established for awhile now, in spite of the never ending — and always depressing — faux “climate debate” we get in politics.

But the part of climate change we’ve failed to culturally metabolize is the meaning of what’s happening to us and the planet.

In other words, what we don’t get is the true planetary context of the planetary transformation human civilization is driving. Getting this context right is, I think, essential — and I’m dedicating most of the year to writing a book on the subject. The book’s focus is what I believe should be a new scientific (and philosophical) enterprise: the astrobiology of the Anthropocene.

I meet a lot of folks who’ve heard of both astrobiology and the Anthropocene before. In general, however, lots of people look at me a bit sideways when I use either word, much less lump them together as the future of humanity.

Given that experience, let’s start with a couple of definitions.

A trip to NASA’s astrobiology homepage will tell you the field is all about understanding life in its planetary context. It might seem strange to have an entire scientific domain dedicated to a subject for which we have just one example (i.e. life on Earth). But take that perspective and you’d miss the spectacular transformation astrobiology has brought to our understanding of life and its possibilities in the universe.

All those planets we’ve discovered orbiting other stars are part of astrobiological studies. The robot rovers rolling around Mars proving that the planet was once warm and wet — they are astrobiology, too. The same is true for work on Earth’s deep history. These studies show us that Earth has been many planets in its past: a potential water world before major continents grew; a totally glaciated snowball world; a hothouse jungle planet. In understanding these transformations, we’ve gotten to see one example of life and a planet co-evolving over billions of years.

If you want an example, consider how cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, completely reworked the planet’s atmosphere 2.5 billion years ago giving us the oxygen-rich air we breathe today. Another example is the work showing how after the retreat of Ice Age glaciers, Earth entered a warm, wet and climatically stable period that geologists call the Holocene — about 10,000 years ago.

The Geologic History of Earth. Note the timescales. We are currently at the end of the Holocene, which has been warm and moist and a great time to grow human civilisations. But the activities of the dominant civilisation is now pushing the planet into a new epoch which scientists call the Anthropocene. Ray Troll/Troll Art

The Holocene has been a good time for human civilization to emerge and thrive. The seasons have been pretty regular, moving between relatively mild boundaries of hot-ish and cold-ish. That transition was the key change and allowed humans to get stable and productive agriculture started.

But, thanks to civilization, the Holocene is now at an end. That’s where the story gets really interesting and where the Anthropocene makes its entrance.

Scientists now recognize that our impact on Earth has become so significant we’ve pushed it out of the Holocene into the Anthropocene, an entirely new geological epoch dominated by our own activity (see Andy Revkin’s reporting on the subject). And it’s not just about climate change. Human beings have now “colonized” more than 50 percent of the planet’s surface. And we drive flows of key planetary substances, like potassium, far above the “natural” levels.

It may seem impossible to some folks that a bunch of hairless “primates” could change an entire planet. But that view misses the most important part of our story, the part that speaks directly to our moment in planetary evolution.

What I’m interested in, now, is putting these two ideas together: the astrobiology of the Anthropocene. That means looking at what’s happening to us today from the broadest possible perspective. A couple of years ago, my colleague Woody Sullivan and I published a paper titled “Sustainability and the Astrobiological Perspective: Framing Human Futures in a Planetary Context.” The idea was to show how much of what’s been learned in astrobiology could be brought to bear in understanding what’s happening to us now (a’la climate change, etc.). Going further, we wanted to know how the astrobiological perspective about life and planets might also help us understand what to do next. (Here is a piece I wrote for The New York Times about it, since the paper is behind a pay wall.)

Our robotic probes of Venus and Mars provide one good example of this intersection. Both planets have taught us about climate extremes. Venus is a runaway greenhouse world and Mars is freezing desert. Venus taught us a huge amount about the greenhouse effect. Even better, we have ample evidence that Mars was once a warm, wet and potentially habitable world. That means Mars provides us a laboratory for how planetary climate conditions can change.

So why does that matter so much?

Astrobiology is fundamentally a study of planets and their “habitability” for life. But sustainability is really just a concern over the habitability of one planet (Earth) for a certain kind of species (homo sapiens) with a certain kind of organization (modern civilization). That means our urgent questions about sustainability are a subset of questions about habitability. The key point, here, is the planets in our own solar system, like Mars, show us that habitability is not forever. It will likely be a moving target over time. The same idea is likely true for sustainability — and we are going to need a plan for that.

Woody and I are not the only ones thinking about astrobiology and the Anthropocene. David Grinspoon, a highly-respected planetary scientist has also been pursuing his own line of inquiry on the issue. As the Library of Congress’s chair of astrobiology, Grinspoon began exploring his questions with experts in fields as diverse as history and ecology. His new book The Earth In Our Hands gives a beautiful and detailed overview of the ways we must change our thinking if we want to truly understand the transformation in our midst.

Possible trajectories of history for a young species building energy intensive technological civilisations. This plot shows the trajectories defined by just three variables: population (N); energy use (ec); and degree of feedback on the planet (Planetary Forcing). Harvesting energy allows the species to grow rapidly until the feedback from that energy use changes the planet’s climate. Frank & Sullivan 2014


Thinking about the astrobiology of the Anthropocene in terms of just our species is, I think, a rich line of inquiry. But I think we can go even further. In the last part of my book I’m following a line of research that is also the focus on my sabbatical year.

As a theoretical physicist, I’m used to watching colleagues take the science we understand now and extend it to new possible domains of behavior. This is what happens when particle physicists think about new, but as yet unobserved, kinds of particles. Such theoretical investigations can prove enormously beneficial in widening our vision of the world’s behavior.

There is no reason we can’t take the same approach with the astrobiology of the Anthropocene. Earlier this year, Woody and I used the amazing exo-planet data (and some very simple reasoning) to set an empirical limit on the probability that we are the only time in cosmic history that an advanced civilization evolved. It turns out the probability is pretty low — one in 10 billion trillion. In other words, one can argue that the odds are very good that we’re not the first time this — meaning an energy intensive civilization — has occurred. With that idea in hand, you can take a theoretical jump and ask a simple question: How likely is it that other young civilizations like our own have run into the kind of sustainability crisis we face today?

We know enough about planets and climate to begin investigating that question. In our 2014 paper, Woody and I presented an outline for this kind approach. One can ignore science fiction issues about alien sociology and just ask physics — i.e. thermodynamic — kinds of questions.

If young civilizations use some particular energy modality (combustion, wind, solar, etc.) what will the feedback on their planet look like? (By the way, as we’ve discussed before, there is always a planetary feedback when using lots of energy for large-scale civilization building. No free lunches folks. Sorry).

Woody and I sketched out the kind of behaviors you might expect from this kind of modeling. Considering just population, energy use and planetary feedback, one can imagine models showing trajectories of history that lead to collapse or to sustainability.

Which path a civilization finds itself on will depend on the parameters for their planet and the energy modalities (sources) they’re using (or switching between). Of course, the models I am building are not reality. But they can prove to be a huge help in understanding the interplay of forces that shape the fate of planetary-scale civilizations like ours. In the end, this kind of understanding can help us at least understand what we’re up against. Are we doomed, or is there a lot wiggle room in the choices we have to make?

The key point, for me, is that consideration of the astrobiology of the Anthropocene changes the frame of our debate and lets us see something we have been missing. We’re not a plague on the planet. Instead, we are simply another thing the Earth has done in its long history. We’re an “expression of the planet,” as Kim Stanley Robinsonputs it. It’s also quite possible that we are not the first civilization is cosmic history to go through something like this. From that perspective, climate change and the sustainability crises may best be seen as our “final exam” (as Raymond PierreHumbertcalls it). Better yet, it’s our coming of age as a true planetary species.

We will either make it across to the other side with the maturity to “think like a planet” or the planet will just move on without us. That, I believe, is the real meaning of what’s happening to us now. It’s a perspective we can’t afford to miss.

Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described “evangelist of science.” You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter:@adamfrank4

Five Propositions | Critiques for the Anthropocene


Anja Kanngieser, University of Wollongong • Angela Last, University of Glasgow

GeoCritique has just published the five propositions that Anja Kanngieser and I delivered as a critique at the Anthropocene themed RGS-IBG 2015 conference in Exeter, UK. The propositions also represent an experiment in positioning ourselves not just in relation to Anthropocene discourse, but in terms of geography, race, gender etc. This is an on-going writing experiment, and we welcome critique.     Angela Last, Mutable Matter

What we are trying to address in this paper follows on, in a way, from other attempts at addressing a political lack perceived by the humanities and social sciences in the earth sciences formulation of the anthropocene. These attempts have seen a recent proliferation of critical re-framings such the capitaloscene (Moore, 2015), the plantationocene (Haraway et al, 2015), the cthulucene (Haraway, 2015), the anthrobscene (Parikka 2014), anthro-obscene (Ernstson and Swyngedouw 2015), and even the anthropo-not-seen (Cadena 2014). Aside from these, the social sciences and humanities have been slow to specifically foreground the racist and classist foundations of economic and social exploitation linked to geography and territory. For us, this is seen in the colonial connection that was missing in the organisation and session calls for the 2015 Royal Geographical Society-Institute of British Geographers ‘Anthropocene’ themed annual conference, and is further reflected in the knowledge production around the anthropocene as well as the proposed existing methods for intervention in it.

With the following propositions we contend that, while it is very easy to get caught up in the spectacle and novelty of the anthropocene, its aesthetics, or in in the feedback loops of earth and social science debates on when it started and so on, it is critical to emphasise the fact that global environmental changes are not happening at the same rate, nor with the same consequences, around the world. We want to focus on what bell hooks calls the ‘imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy’ of climate crisis. At the same time we want to consider the possibilities for thinking and behaving differently, so that this construct of the anthropocene doesn’t become yet another impermeable barrier to becoming otherwise. The points we make are done so from the position of our own white and privileged subjectivities, and we aim to address a predominantly white and/ or privileged audience – with all the problems this entails. This, we feel, is necessary given how knowledge of the anthropocene is currently produced, and given the need to be actively engaged in working against the on-going consequences of colonialism. To that end we have assembled a few propositions that we think might help speak to a practice of decolonisation within anthropocene discourses.


The general Western media narrative at the moment is one of threat and crisis. The present condition sees a tendency in economically ‘developed’ nation-states toward shutting down, toward border policing, moral panics around asylum seeking, terrorism, and natural resources. In general there is a move toward stricter control in the face of ‘disaster’. While there are ecological and economic changes occurring at a rapid rate, there is an urgent need to avoid preemptive and speculative future catastrophising. This is for several reasons.

The hyper-focus on what might happen to the ‘developed’ world in the future distracts from what is happening already, and has been happening, for decades. A recent report from an ex- NASA scientist predicted a sea level rise of 10ft over the next 50 years, which sparked a flurry of concern over coastal cities in ‘developed’ countries such as New York and Florida, being underwater. While such concern is not misplaced it sits in stark contrast to the lesser attention given over to climate processes such as urban flooding, drought and ocean and soil acidification already affecting hundreds of millions of people inhabiting low-lying atoll islands (such as Kiribati and Tuvalu), low lying coastal deltas (including Bangladesh, Vietnam and Egypt) and mid-continental drylands (central Asia and Kenya and Somalia in Africa, for instance). It also hides the fact that disaster response is always more favourable to those bodies deemed appropriate and valuable even in ‘developed’ territories – the racist responses during Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy being clear instances of this. This obfuscation takes attention away from the structural and colonial underpinnings of anthropogenic change and its effects.

With these disaster scenarios, there is a temptation to get lured in by the spectacle or shock that leads to an individualisation of response. This feeds into the same atmosphere of control and turning inwards that, as mentioned, leads to a closing down of borders, and the general mistrust of ‘others’ used as justification for extreme racism and xenophobia. The reality is that extraction, expulsion, extermination and extinction is deeply embedded in capitalist geopolitics: the individualised and myopic panic stops conversation about capitalism and effectively dehistoricises it, taking attention away from the structural and colonial underpinnings of anthropogenic change and its effects.

What comes after panic is often impotence. It is critical to make sure not to become paralysed, not to get caught up in the shock that shuts down possibilities for action.

There is a profoundly urgent need to become active, to become aware and engaged in whatever ways possible for individuals and collectives, to pursue, for instance, what Edouard Glissant (1997) calls ‘disruption and intrusion’, to search out and make allies, to engage uncomfortable conversations, to re-discover the culture in cultural geography as an agonistic space, and so on. In short, not to distract oneself from doing something by writing obituaries for the world as it is. We cannot carry on evacuating politics at a time of crisis – we should reserve the lifeboats for when you really need them and try to help other worlds into being.


The anthropocene is problematic to translate into the humanities, as it is not explicitly imbued with politics (despite the fact that what is happening through global environmental change is inherently social-political). Beyond coining and popularising a new term, it is crucial to politicise ecological disaster, and to recognise and manifestly engage with power and resource distributions that are seen in the very uneven effects on people and places. The anthropocene, despite its name, is not just made up of human consequences.

We can see this blindspot at play, for instance, in current posthumanist discourse that continues to have a strong influence on anthropocene debates. As both Alexander Weheliye (2014) (drawing on Sylvia Wynter) and Juanita Sundberg (2014) have pointed out, posthumanism talks about overcoming ‘humanity’, but implicitly assuming that everything is ‘western humanity’. Attentiveness in this context includes giving more time to understanding what Audre Lorde called ‘dismantling the master’s house’ (1984): dismantling the intersection of power structures in what bell hooks calls the ‘imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy’ (hooks, 2004). What is key is understanding how these come together to construct Whiteness, which is the primary vehicle of colonialist domination. In anthropocene and climate change discourse, this is mirrored in the dominance of first world, planetary-scale technocratic approaches to carry on business/divisions as usual practices and policies.

To that end, contributions must be made to contest asymmetric visibilities. To ask: who is visible for whom and to what ends, for example, in the case of climate refugees, environmental racism and lack of consideration of so-called nonhumans? Often, the visibility is conditional on asymmetry: non-humanity is only visible in the sense that it is in the service of ‘Man’. There is, in much western discourse, a rejection of the nonhuman as something other than expendable. The danger in ignoring the complex earthly networks and rhythms is that ‘human scale’ decisions are made that serve no-one in the end. This tension is seen over and over again, for example, in the consequences of overfishing, overfarming, excess resource extraction and so on, which are well publicised but often ignored or mitigated.

At this time political delineations become starker in terms of privilege, so it is easy to get stuck in maintaining those privileges, rather than re-examining how one got there, how they hinder, and where to go to next. In such a situation, it is necessary to continue re-examining one’s relation to the earth with regard to both other humans and nonhumans: this is not simply all of ‘humanity’s’ fault. How do we want to be (in)human?


The anthropocene raises questions about the co-constitution of the human and the nonhuman. There has been a recent turn to using earth crises to advocate a new politics. The problem we find with some of this work is not the advocacy of new politics, but the reliance on the crisis to do the political work itself. As Guadeloupian novelist Daniel Maximin wryly asks: ‘how many cyclones does it have to take to reconcile us with our land?’ (1987: 88).

There is a strange romantic anthropomorphism at play in the idea that ‘nature fights back’. Neither the biosphere the atmosphere, earthquakes nor volcanoes operate in the service of human politics. We want to know: what does it mean to hijack planetary processes for ideological purposes? What does it mean to represent nature, to assert that any human can know what ‘nature’ wants or needs as a political position? The only thing that is for certain is that the planet will go on despite human inhabitation.

Such anthropomorphism ties into fantasies of nature as helping along progressive politics: there is danger of repeating logics of classical geopolitics and neo-colonialism where rescue from disaster or potential disaster is tied to occupation. This obviously does not mean that there are no connections between ecology and politics, far from it, but rather that these connections need to re-examined in terms of human/nonhuman entanglements, and how nature is put to ‘work’ (e.g.see Johnson & Goldstein, 2015)

Much of this work of re-examination is already taking place, but there is a clear struggle as to how to deal with aspirations for greater inclusion of the nonhuman in politics without resorting to over- and underusing its potential: the question of ‘matter’ and ‘politics’ is certainly not solved and needs more experimentation and methodological, theoretical and empirical expansion. We should not have to wait for the right kind of disaster to prompt us.


The main problem we see is the reproduction of power relationships of the anthropocene within anthropocene discourse. There is a distinct lack of diversity of perspectives in conversations, largely as a result of the inequalities of the university landscape.

Right now it feels like institutions and academics are stuck in neoliberal loops of fear and stress: there is pressure of publishing specific themes for funding, less time for considered thought, and a turn away from political economy and analysis. This is conjunctive to an identity crisis of the European radical left. While there is ample evidence of how Euro American universities are structurally and systemically colonial – as are their theories and methods (see Ferreira da Silva, 2007; Shilliam, 2014; Todd 2014) – this doesn’t seem to translate into widespread concrete practices (including hiring, promotion, citation, conference representation, network building, teaching). It is therefore critical to explicitly decolonise universities by implementing forms of practice on a day to day basis without falling into traps of white fragility, guilt or inertia. Such practices take ongoing effort. Additionally a culture of listening to different approaches and experiences has to take place, to stop reproducing the dominance of white male, or white, scholars.

Instead of focusing on becoming ‘world leaders’ in the latest academic fad, more attention needs to be consistently drawn to its usual side effect: the reproduction of hierarchies of knowledge. The current ideal of scholarship is anglophonic journals and publications, writing literature reviews, articles, all of which contribute to massively unequal vocalisations. As many authors including Mariolga Reyes Cruz (2008), Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2012) and Hortense Spillers (1994) have pointed out, indigenous or ‘raced’ interviewees or authors get denigrated as ‘data’ or raw material, for instance, through the citation process in favour of ‘great thinkers’ and specific kinds of theoretical discourse. As Tara Lynn Joly, commenting on both Reyes Cruz and Todd’s texts, aptly summarises “to cite our informants as on par with these famous thinkers would be a decolonising practice, yet it isn’t standard. At all.” (2014) In anthropocene discourse, it is particularly important that, to paraphrase Weheliye, ‘alternative instantiations of humanity’ as opposed to ‘Man’ don’t keep on being systematically eradicated.

At the same time, heavy handed attempts to ameliorate anthropocentrism and anthropocentric violence against the non-human world are frequently anchored in accounts of indigenous communities and peoples, who are fetishised and exotified. Indigenous scholars have criticised deployments of postcolonial frameworks without an anti-racist or decolonising framework, pointing out that these are at risk of reproducing fraught and even dangerous stereotypes about indigenous subjects (Deloria, 1991; Tuhiwai Smith, 2012). As Tuhiwai Smith (2012) has argued, non-indigenous scholars have to carefully ensure that they do not perpetuate appropriations of indigenous knowledge and beliefs, and thus contribute to the insularity of the Euro American academy.

As part of changing practices when it comes to responding to Western knowledge with non-Western knowledge, there needs to be an acknowledgement that ‘the Western archive’…‘is neither monolithic, nor the exclusive property of the West’ (Mbembe, 2015). This means that Western knowledge has always been co-constituted by non-western knowledge. This is not to take away the force of anti-Western arguments or expose them as ‘strategic essentialisms’, but to further expose ‘the West’ itself as perpetuating a false unity and origin myth that keeps on being reflected in dealing with geophysical matters.


In outlining the above points we have aimed to show why the anthropocene needs to be decolonised and begun to explore what this might mean. Many of the things we have mentioned have already been argued over and over again by indigenous scholars and scholars of colour. The main aspect we have sought to emphasise is how the ‘imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy’ of climate crisis is produced in the academic realm, through academic practices. If the anthropocene discourse is to be seriously considered in the human and cultural geographies then we hope that the racist, gendered and classed dimensions of it are are the forefront of debate. In this final section we want to focus on some practical methods and actions that we have found helpful in our own process of learning what decolonisation and anti-racist work entails.

Firstly, to shut up and listen, and to do so without being defensive. Zoe Todd writes that “folks who are white or are racialized as white (like me) need to LISTEN (no fragility, no defending whiteness) when people of colour speak about racism” (2015). This means that white and privileged academics need to stop using defensive ‘sorry for being white and privileged’ rhetoric, and take on the arguments and anger. It is crucial for academics to read up about the importance for self-determination, self-representation and how to act in solidarity without expecting education, gratitude, acceptance or rewards.

Secondly, to ask questions and to participate in the reimagination of the human and nonhuman interaction. Western academics have to consider if the continuation of the European model of humanity/hierarchy of planetary inhabitants is really going to help with present threats to all life. Who is currently defined as ‘nonhumans’ and to what ends? It is important to become aware of what is happening globally in terms of changing these parameters, for instance Bolivia passing The Law of Mother Earth, or New Zealand legally recognising sentience in all animal species.

At the same time, academics need to ensure not to use decolonisation as a means for avoiding examining essentialisms (see Shepard, 2006), even strategic essentialisms such as ‘the European model of…’, ‘the natural habitat’, or ‘the urban species’. There are always silent/silenced contributors within essentialisms. The question to ask is where do struggles intersect between those that are implicated? Who and what is registered as ‘makers of history’ and allowed temporality/ visibility?

None of the questions or points we have raised with this talk are easy, nor are they addressed once and then finished, nor do we have any kind of solutions for them. They form part of a difficult process. Underpinning this process is this is the courage for stumbling, as the Notes from Nowhere collective asks: “Is this what the Zapatistas mean when they say, “Walking, we ask questions?” Do we have the courage to move – sometimes stumbling, sometimes running – towards an unknowable destination? Would you be willing to suspend your disbelief if we told you we had all the answers? And if we did and you followed them, how would that help you, in the long run?” (2003: 506).

As academics, what must be worked towards is a ‘pluriversity’: Achille Mbembe (drawing on Boaventura de Sousa and Enrique Dussel) writes that ‘at the end of the decolonizing process, we will no longer have a university. We will have a pluriversity’ (2015). This is an experimental endeavour that needs effort and ongoing work, that academics collectively have to undertake. Because as Césaire makes clear, no one ‘regardless of country or race’ can escape the question: ‘what kind of world are you preparing for us?’ (1959: 122)


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