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

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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.

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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

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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…

 

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Trump and the magic of information

President Trump’s victory will have massive consequences for the Anthropocene, and I’ve been suffering a lot of criticism, and dismissal, from friends over the last year or so for predicting a Trump victory. Now it’s all over, I guess it’s time to explain the logic of the prediction. My basic point is that to understand Trump’s victory, you have to understand how information and knowledge works in contemporary Information Society.

Most of the theory is argued at greater length in Disorder and the Disinformation Society: The social dynamics of information, networks and software. Routledge 2015.

1) The first point is simple. Information is primarily about power and persuasion. It is about shaping the world another person perceives and getting them to see themselves in a particular way, so as to act in a particular way. Information is not primarily about truth, but about magic. Repeated items, from respected sources, become taken as truth and create perceived reality.

2) There is too much information to uncover it all. Consequently people filter information by general knowledge (other already accepted information) and by group identity and belonging processes. In the Information Age good information is often drowned by easy to process information that meets the requirements of group identity.

3) When Trump got involved the election was never going to be about accuracy, but about magic and his puissance, or his status as a ‘man of power’.

4) Both candidates have a long term media history, which shapes the general knowledge people have to filter (or ‘frame’) information about them.

Clinton has been smeared for over 30 years by the mainstream media. Unfounded accusations have been reported and discussed repeatedly. The Republicans have spent millions trying to convict her of anything, and in both making the accusations public and a repeated (and therefore ‘verified’) part of public discourse. She is their number one villain, and the media has played along – in general giving small coverage to her victories, or any of her achievements. You have to be a fanatical Hilary fan to know anything good about her. Everyone else ‘knows’ she is suspicious, and criminal. At certain levels, the lack of criminal convictions proves that she is a form of superpowered evil, who escapes repeatedly (like Batman’s Joker or Poison Ivy). She is a strong evil woman; she is a witch.

Trump on the other hand has a long-time mainstream media coverage depicting him as a powerful, successful all-American businessman. His very name is promoted as an icon of luxury and success. He can sometimes seem a bit of a buffoon, but that humanises him and makes him a regular guy. In the US, business is generally conceived of as good, with successful business people almost always portrayed as having massive special and inherent talents which set them apart and make them a success – even the ruthless ones are ‘colourful’. In this filtering Trump become superhuman. A veritable god. Everyone who knows a little about Trump will know he is a great success, a triumph of the American Dream. You have to work much harder if you want to uncover the trail of failures, dark deals and privilege – this is usually hidden in the boring business pages, where some form of accuracy actually counts.

At a mythic level, or the level of ‘general knowledge’, the campaign was being fought between a crook and a hero or, if you prefer, an evil woman and an exemplary man.

5) As said previously, information is also filtered by group identity. Information is political and forms selves.

In Information Society people tend to form ‘information groups’, which are based upon their identities and general knowledge. The purpose of the information group is to filter and gather information together; this reinforces group cohesion, and group and personal identity. It is a necessary artefact of information society with huge consequences.

The group can, and often does, ‘protect’ people from the information possessed by other groups – it helps shield members and provide arguments to show how evil the outgroups are; to block flow and attempts at communication. These groups may overlap, but they tend to fall into exclusive categories.

The strategy of getting people worked up about how evil the outgroups are, and not letting them hear the views of real outsiders, is a good marketing strategy and is employed by some media outlets to keep and capture their audiences (profit reinforces lack of accuracy). It makes disloyalty hard. It reinforces group identity, and keeps people fixated on hearing what they want to hear to make sense of the world. Again, it keeps people ‘engaged’ and inhibits them from questioning the reality of what they read.

6) This occurs for both left and right groups. However, the right is much better at manipulating it – and this is the source of their magic.

They rigorously police speech, and make sure people are on target and repeating talking points. It is amazing how quickly the same meme will be everywhere on the right, giving it the appearance of inevitability and truth. They are not frightened of encouraging rage, because that keeps people engaged and unlikely to actually converse with outsiders. They drive out outsiders.

Repetition and reinforcement creates perceived reality. Eventually everyone just knows Clinton is a criminal and should be jailed, even if they are not sure what for, or reiterate that she was responsible for things that she has been cleared of or was never involved in. Her innocence in any one particular disconnected case does not prove she was innocent of all the charges (there are so many). General knowledge becomes personal knowledge.

The Republican party also could run memes in their groups to see which were likely to take off, and they did nothing to correct memes they knew where untrue if that brought them party loyalty, anger against Democrats and votes. They manipulated the system successfully, at the cost of not having policies based on reality – but fantasy has a greater pull (as it often does with sex, for example). The Democrats seemed constrained by an ideal of truth, and ideal of politeness (although this was the rudest election I’ve seen from the left- the relatively closed information group was having an effect, and groups are polarizing or defining themselves by opposition.)

People on the Democrat side, don’t find it easy to be as isolate. They generally, have to have to be involved with at least mildly right wing media, as the corporate sector controls the media, and pays for the media through advertising. It does not have such a ‘closed box effect’  in the same way; it gives light right views, seeks balance etc. This media emitts plenty of pro-corporate right wing material – it seems ‘left’ because, in comparison with the mainstream right media, it’s not completely without a moderate perspective. However, this has also meant that the left have tended to accept the comfortable idea that neoliberalism was ok in principle, and that fighting it was problematic or extreme. The Right, in its more isolated media, managed to both promote corporate dominance and denounce its consequences.

7) Information groups tend to manufacture scapegoats to help form unity

These scapegoats can be blamed for all the ills of the world, and attacked/sacrificed, while keeping group members pure and unified. Scapegoats are often said to be from information outgroups.

On the right you have a range of choices to suit your placing; blacks, latinos, migrants, commies, liberals, godless liberals, wicked liberal business people, educated liberals, liberal women, femininazis, Hillary Clinton, or the interfering State.

Pro-democrat information groups tend to scapegoat the uneducated, or the really wealthy. In the US, few really believe that wealth is bad, so that position has little appeal, and the first simply proves the right’s point about educated elites. The left has no effective scapegoats to blame or sacrifice, so their groups are less tight, less bonded, less passionate and less integrated.

8) The faults of exemplars appear small
If a person is defined as exemplary of an ingroup, then their faults tend to be ignored or diminished in respect for their apparent virtues. Indeed faults may be seen as ‘things-everyone-does’ even if you don’t know anyone as bad as the exemplar. By becoming presidential candidate Trump, with his supposed business ability, was able to become an exemplar of the ingroup, and his faults excused – even if most Republican men and women would be horrified to meet an ordinary person who contemplated grabbing their daughters, or who appeared unable to tell the truth or make a consistent story. If a person becomes an exemplar of an outgroup (as Clinton did for Republicans, and Trump does for Democrats) then their faults become exaggerated and obscure their virtues – having anything openly to do with them shows massive disloyalty.
Clinton could never get herself defined as an exemplary Democrat, because of the mainstream media’s promoted general knowledge about her, and because many Democrats wanted a more obviously radical candidate – as said previously, you had to work to find Clinton’s positive record. This helped make her faults more visible to everyone, and lowered enthusiasm for her amongst nominal supporters, and this feeds into point 13 below.

9) Falsehood is expected

People in information groups are also not frightened of making up fiction, which sounds plausible. If caught out, the groups will either ignore the failure, reiterate their falsehood more strongly, forget it for a while and repeat it later, accuse the revealer of unspeakable crimes, or say that everyone lies and the outgroup members are much worse. Once issued, a pleasing falsehood can separate from its refutation and easily be reaccepted.

People play the game that they know information is likely false. Everyone can say they are suspicious and smart, while accepting ingroup crap. This move effectively reinforces the idea that their opponents lie constantly, but they are clever and can see through this, as well as see through the few lies in their group. This keeps people loyal and on topic.

That Donald Trump made unreliable statements, was secondary to him making pleasing statements for his followers. He was also vague enough for his lies to be justified or ignored, should they ever become a problem. It also appears likely that because his followers did not expect him to tell the truth, they could select out the statements which were pleasing to them as being true and dismiss displeasing ones as strategic lies. Given Trump’s insistence on success, and the media’s promotion of his success, this made Trump an almost blank canvas for fantasies of success however that appeared to his audiences.

Being wrong involves a loss of status in this information world. So not admitting being wrong or failure is a mark of strength – of puissance if you like

10) The right pulls together. The left factionalises

The right have been pulling together for years. There should be nothing in common between libertarians and Christian fundamentalists, but they get on to keep power. The Christians have been taught to accept capitalism as part of Christianity. White supremacists can also get on with libertarians and non-racist Christians for the sake of power. There has been an effort to promote solidarity (often through scapegoating marked outgroup members), which is missing on the left.

Because Trump was centred in right wing media, the general informational and identity group pull would be for those who felt Republican to move towards cementing their loyalty towards the Republican party. Very few Republicans who had anything to lose really disowned Trump, when it came down to it; they joined in with their own side. Despite his lack of religion, Evangelicals supported him because the Republican party is their sole power base, he was not the evil witch and was a man who held the right opinion on abortion. No other issue was allowed to matter. They have a long history on this as well.

Followers of Bernie Sanders appear not to have done the same (I suspect Republican provocateurs stirred up dissension between Clinton and Sanders supporters; certainly there was a lot of rather peculiar fighting going on). Many people on the left could not bring themselves to say “I don’t like Clinton but Trump is so bad I have to vote for her”. Whereas, on the right, “I don’t like Trump but I won’t let Clinton get in”, seems to have been common.

11) Trump’s communication style fits in with this basic paradigm of communication

Trump stays on topic: “Make America Great Again”, “I’m a success. I can solve these problems”, “Things are bad and I’ll fix it”, but he is rarely specific. People can agree with him or think that what he says is good, but he produces few splits amongst his audience over matters of detail. He does not say what a “Great America” involves, which could cause disputes. He does not say how he will solve problems. He repeats himself frequently, as with “Crooked Hillary”, where he makes the unfounded charge part of her name, part of her identity. This reinforces the ‘general knowledge’ people have, and creates the ‘crookedness’. Similarly dwelling on “success”, as an undefined category when attached to himself, appeals to all audiences who want to absorb their own success from him. He makes himself a ‘man of power’. People talk of his ‘genius,’ – another suitably vague term loaded with meaning.

He, and his audience by proxy, engage in magical evocation. He makes his audience passionate, angry, involved, entranced. He attacks the scapegoats he borrows from their information groups. He is the strong man who will protect his audience from the nightmares he evokes. He motivates anyone prepared to respond to his key trigger words. He creates his temporary reality, and carries an audience to their reality in which he becomes central.

Clinton goes on and on, believing in truth, planning and inclusion. Consequently, people in her audience argue about little things with her. They may get the impression they disagree with her a lot, she seems to have no sense of who to blame, or of who her ingroup is, so they don’t know what they are fighting against. So while you can’t altogether trust her, Trump says “a lot that makes sense”.

12) Fictional Demographics generated by information groups

Pro-Democrat people frequently told me that nobody could vote for Trump because he was clearly a manipulative braggart who knew nothing, despite similar facts not stopping people from voting for Bush Jr. twice. However, they could say this because they were in their own information world in which this was impossible. Not in reality. People would say women would not vote for Trump, but pictures from his rallies were full of women. People said that educated people would not vote for Trump, when a few minutes on facebook in right wing groups would have shown them otherwise. Trump’s potential demographic was always bigger than Democrats seemed to suspect, because the people they knew who were not going to vote for Trump anyway, were not going to vote for Trump.

13) Non compulsory voting

If people generally disliked Clinton, for no particular reason, they would not feel compelled to vote for her. However, Trump voters were passionate. They would go out and vote, and organise others to vote. There might be a whole body of people who had never voted who would vote for Trump. This discovery of previous non-voters was incredibly unlikely for Clinton, because of the general knowledge about her. That Clinton had a machine, simply reinforces the idea that she was compelling people to vote, not allowing spontaneity. Without voter enthusiasm, and with the general doubt about Clinton, she risked being lost beneath passion of Trump’s magic.

14) Surveys were undecided

Pro-Democrats would repeatedly point to surveys. However they nearly always forgot to report that sometimes these surveys showed 25% undecided. Unless one candidate is more than 25% ahead of the other, such a survey tells you nothing. If surveys two months out from the election still have huge numbers of undecided voters then that should worry people, but it didn’t – they took their reinforcement from their information group, not the data. People decided not to accept the uncertainty, or work with it, but to resolve that the uncertainty did not matter.

15) Surveys are not accurate anyhow

Old Anthropological issue. Particularly, if people think you are official, they will tell you what they think you want to hear. In general they will not tell you the truth if there is much of a chance they will be blamed or ridiculed for it.

When Clinton had been portrayed as the face of the system, then the likelihood people would lie or misdirect about their intentions towards her is huge. There was a large possibility that most of the undecided people had already decided to vote Trump, or were inclining that way.

16) Conclusion

Trump was a master of informational magic. He may not understand how it works, but it uses it to persuade and involve people, to shape their view of the world, through vague impressive terms, without giving them handholds to criticise him. The effectiveness of this technique is is reinforced by the dynamics of information in Information Society.

Information is primarily about making groups, reinforcing views of the world and persuading people to act. It is only about ‘truth’ or accuracy in specific, and often hard to maintain, circumstances. Eventually, false information will cause upset and unintended consequences, but that may well be less important to those using it, than its socially more pleasing and empowering aspects.

 

Fragility of Knowledge

Some weeks ago I attended a lecture organised by Kenneth McLeod and the Anthropocene Project, and this raised some thoughts about the role of knowledge in society.
Despite their differences the two speakers both seemed to assume knowledge was true, cumulative, not lost and relatively easily distributed. This may arise from the shortness of pesentations but, whatever the case, I’m not sure about this position. I particularly want to focus on the first speaker and suggest:
1) Knowledge is inherently limited and inaccurate.
2) As knowledge is learnt behaviour, it can be forgotten, lost, or hidden.
3) The spread, distribution and innovation of knowledge, depends on its social, political and group identity base. It is not independent of social patterns. Social survival trumps accuracy.
4) Attempts to impose socially driven orders upon the world often require a social unconsciousness about that world, and often further disorganise that world.
David Christian, who has a well known TED talk, is a professor of ‘big history’ gave the first talk. His idea seems to be that the anthropocene is the result of human evolution and that the last five hundred years have changed the world, in a ‘hockey stick’ fashion, of increasing human impacts.
This approach seems to lead to ignoring anything other than crude differences between societies. He seemed to reduce varieties of societies to a) hunting and gathering, b) agricultural, and c) industrial. This diminishes the vast differences between societies with those kinds of technologies. This of course may be an artefact of the time available for the lecture, but it may not be as he has published a book giving a history of humanity in less than 100 pages.
He also argued that knowledge accumulates. That ‘later generations’ of humans had more information and understanding of their environment. As humans moved across the globe into new niches in the early migrations, they had to learn new things. This is obviously optimistic.
However, this increase is only partially true. Knowledge is also forgotten as people move into new niches. He more or less acknowledged this by saying that indigenous people may have knowledges about ecological living that ‘we’ don’t have, but this seemed a kind of footnote/addenda not strongly incorporated into his schema.
In reality, knowledge is not a fixed thing. What counts as ‘knowledge’ is also influenced by living in a particular society. Society, and your place in it, is an ecological niche in which you have to live. Surviving in that social niche is vital; belonging is important to humans, as it is hard to live without others. This surviving is more important than any accuracy of knowing. We are given knowledge by those around us; we judge knowledge by the opinions of those around us, or those we hear of, and the opinions of those to whom we give high status. People we give high status to seem more reliable. What we call ‘knowledge’ primarily acts as justification for action and identification.
Identification is influenced by the boundaries between groups – your social sense of ingroup and outgroup, and of people’s status within a group. Even your sense of being a passionately, independent individual can come through identification with another group of people who identify as passionate and independent individuals.
The relationship between social groups is inherently political, and consequently knowledge is always caught in political disputes and dynamics. Societies, as a whole, can abandon some kinds of knowledge because it appears incompatible with power structures, group identities, morality, or other forms of ‘more important’ knowledge. This should be obvious; different political factions often have different ideas about relevant knowlege.
This seems relatively well documented as well. It is often stated, that both China and the Islamic world, were centres of knowledge, innovation and exploration, but retreated from this into a kind of social fossilisation and stagnation that benefitted certain groups and group based patterns of power. Difficult knowlege became suspect.
The same is probably happening in the capitalist world, when faced with the failure of ‘free markets’ to deliver on their official promises or to handle the challenge of climate change.
The value of free markets, the overriding capacity of business to solve all problems, and the falsity of climate change become heavily promoted by people allied with the current patterns of power and activity. These knowledges (or perhaps anti-knowledges) become parts of group belonging, acceptance and survival, irrespective of their destructiveness. Accurate knowledge (and acting on that knowledge), becomes undesirable, and partially impossible (as is discussion) given the dynamics of group belonging.
Education cannot solve this issue, because education intending greater accuracy can easily become seen as political and defunded, banned or cut back, when it challenges power relations.
What counts as ‘knowledge’ adapts to satisfy the victors of social power struggles.
Consequently, what is required to deal with the anthropocene is to recognise that knowledge does not inevitably increase, to investigate understanding of how knowledge works in society, and the nature of the ‘class based’ politics that promote more, or less, accurate knowledge. It also requires knowledge of particular societies and their social functioning, not vague general knowledge which seems to render human impact in inevitabilist evolutionary terms.
We could ask ‘What kind of social patterns can be encouraged so that knowledge and action can work?’
It is in eveyone’s interest not to pollute beyond the capacity of the Earth’s ecologies to absorb, just as it is sensible not to keep shitting in your bedroom, or blame people in general for the problem of your shit.
Making it socially possible for the fragility of knowledge to be clear is a good first step.

Romance, Gender Conflict, and Domestication in the Anthropocene

 • Published on July 19, 2016

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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.

AUSTRALIA ZOO STEVE IRWIN

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.

graph-of-energy-pathways
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