The Outback’s global significance as we move into the Anthropocene

The recent Pew Charitable Trust’s report – The Modern Outback: nature, people and the future of remote Australia – documents the huge diversity and value of this part of the world. It is one of only a handful of large natural areas remaining on Earth including the rapidly diminishing wildlands of the Amazon basin; the boreal forests and tundra of Canada, Alaska and Siberia and the Sahara.

In our “age of humans”, where the world populations are such as to have irrevocably reduced the natural world, we face a future of increased urbanisation.

The move to cities will increase as the degradation and loss of productivity of lands increases. Clearly, we need people to live well in what many find as hostile environments. Aboriginal custodians have a long history of creating abundance in the natural world and are those most likely to want to be there. They need to be supported to stay.

Evidence for the sustainability of Aboriginal settlements on their lands exists where Aboriginal people are moving increasingly into collaborations with scientists and other researchers to maintain the viability of fragile ecosystems on their lands.

  Photo: Rusty Stewart

Their role in mapping biodiversity, crucial to maintaining sustainable country in remote places, is unique and without parallel. This activity has important spin-offs in education and employment.

Maintaining populations in remote Australia will involve increasing investments in renewable energy, water and food supplies, including wild foods. This will have short and long term economic and educational benefits for all of us as we move further into the Anthropocene.

These benefits are beginning to be obvious from the innovations that are already occurring in remote Australia. One good example is the renewable energy initiatives of the Centre for Appropriate Technology (CAT) in the Desert Peoples Precinct in Alice Springs. Projects include the solar-powered Bushlight that is now being exported to villages in India, and renewable energy projects in Australia and the Pacific.

Perhaps the most important argument for supporting Aboriginal people to live on their own lands in remote Australia is that their capacity to survive over many thousands of years in changing environments demonstrates resilience. It is this quality that we will need in bucket loads in the future.

What we now urgently need is a government with the vision and the acumen to put in place policies that match the demands of our future in this country and on this planet – policies that meaningfully include Aboriginal people in ways forward, as part of the solution, not the problem.


2100 AD : A poem

The children turned the page and said
What is this creature?
It is the spirit of the wind
And the heart of fire
And its name was Cheetah I said

And the children turned the page and said
What is this garden green?
It is the creator of beauty
And the seat of life
And its name was Forest I said

And the children turned the page and said
Where is this place?
And I said
It is where freedom flies
It is the link
It is where the soul finds its sanctuary
And the gospel its spirit
And its name was Wilderness.

And the children said
You have stolen from us.
You have taken what is ours.
We do not know Cheetah or Forest or Wilderness
Therefore how can we know Soul or Spirit or Freedom or Fire.
Because you have destroyed the link
We are blind.

And I saw how they grasped desperately for a light
Out of the darkness we had led them too

And I had no answer.

Val Payn (2005)

This poem by South African writer and environmentalist Valerie Payn was originally published in the anthology ‘For Rhino in a Shrinking World’.  Visit this website for more details:

Val will be an occasional contributor to this blog.

Rethinking Emergence

A workshop in the series: Living in the Anthropocene – Rethinking the nature/culture divide (see previous post)

University of Southampton UK
January/February 2016
Convenor: Tudor Vilcan

Complexity theory presents a fundamental challenge to the rationalist principles of liberal modern thought and governance. Whereas the latter is premised on the ability of subjects to predict and control the world around them, complexity theorists propose that such attempts will always be exceeded by the unpredictable and non-linear nature of life itself. Various complexity theorists suggest that governance can only work by abandoning the reductionist frameworks of liberal modernity and instead unleashing the potential of life to self-organise. The key to understanding how complex life can be governed is the concept of emergence. In between the entropy generated by chaos and the reductionist order of modernity, emergence postulates that order exists through a process of continuous adaptation modelled on evolution through the mechanism of natural selection. This means that order can be generated without an overarching designer or hierarchy, whether we are looking at a colony of ants or a human society.

Complexity and emergence are subject to wide consensus in regards to the natural world, but the entrance of emergence into the cultural realm should be subject to more examination. Questions can be asked about the rather deterministic overtones of the concept and its relation to human agency and intentionality. The workshop represents an opportunity to rethink emergence in the light of its implications for the nature/culture divide.

Manifesto for Living in the Anthropocene

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edited by Katherine Gibson, Deborah Bird Rose, and Ruth Fincher

The recent 10,000 year history of climatic stability on Earth that enabled the rise of agriculture and domestication, the growth of cities, numerous technological revolutions, and the emergence of modernity is now over. We accept that in the latest phase of this era, modernity is unmaking the stability that enabled its emergence. Over the 21st century severe and numerous weather disasters, scarcity of key resources, major changes in environments, enormous rates of extinction, and other forces that threaten life are set to increase. But we are deeply worried that current responses to these challenges are focused on market-driven solutions and thus have the potential to further endanger our collective commons.

Buy or download this book at:

So what of eco-mutuality?

It’s not just that the concept of sustainability has been co-opted as a corporate greenwashing tool. Nor that its meaning has become so diluted and oxymoronic that its usefulness is problematic. My problem is that sustainability is in its essence an anthropocentric concept.

The focus of sustainability is on how humans can satisfy the present demands of a swarming and rapacious population “without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland 1987). But what of the ecosystems we have laid waste to, the species our predations have driven to or over the edge of extinction? Surely the concept of sustainability at best ignores and at worst reinforces the very essence of the problems we have created by acting as though the rest of life on Earth exists primarily to serve our needs and satisfactions.

This is the hubris that drives the existential crisis we have created for ourselves in the Anthropocene—and for the many other species we are driving before us. Life on Earth will survive our marauding self-interest, but it will be many thousands of years before the biosphere finds a new stability conducive to life’s flowering on the planet.

Take climate change for example. Scientist tell us that even if we were to cease all greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow the Earth system will take hundreds of millennia to reabsorb the excess carbon we have pumped into the atmosphere and the oceans since the start of the industrial revolution (Archer 2009). In the Anthropocene we must accept responsibility for the consequences of our collective actions in deep time, when our custom is to think only within a timeframe of multiple human lifetimes.

To me it seems self-evident that we need a much more robust and inclusive term to encompass a fundamentally different relationship between our species and the rest of the community of life on Earth if we are to survive the Anthropocene. Sustainability simply doesn’t cut it.

This is not just semantics. Our categories of thought and discourse prescribe our actions and condition our ethics.

So what of eco-mutuality? To me the term denotes an ethos of partnership or, in Thomas Berry’s words, “a mutually enhancing relationship between humans and the Earth and all its living creatures” (1988). It implies a retreat from hubris to humility, from predation to co-existence.

I’d be interested to know what connotations the term eco-mutuality has for others. What specifically are the values that seem to you to be explicit or implicit in the term? What resonances does it have for you?

Can we try a thought experiment to flesh out some of the meanings and implications of eco-mutuality and how they might translate into practical ethics?


Our Common Future, Report of the UN World Commission on Environment and Development (known as the Brundtland report), Oxford, 1987.
David Archer, The Long Thaw: How Humans Are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of Earth’s Climate, Princeton, 2009.
Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth, Sierra Club Books, 1988.

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Navigating whole system transformation

There can be little doubt that the 21st century will unfold as an age of transition when humanity will be called to reconsider our global civilisation’s core values. The odds are better than even that this essential resetting of our cultural compass from human exceptionalism to eco-mutuality will be driven by an accelerating succession of economic and environmental crises and widespread societal breakdown.

We have often experienced such times on our evolutionary journey, but never on a planetary scale and thus never with the stakes so high. We must discover new modes of engagement and new levels of human solidarity for this transition.

Faced with the prospect of inter-linked environmental, economic, demographic, and socio-political crises, most of our institutions are in deep denial or, in much of the corporate sector, a feeding-frenzy of short term profit-taking. Business-as-usual is their ever more stridently proclaimed mantra, and blind faith in the chimera of unending growth their creed. Yet it is clear that the whole-system complexity of the 21st century’s challenges render conventional politico-managerial models, tools and methods redundant.

So what is to be done? Have we no alternative than to fasten our metaphoric seat belts and prepare for an exceedingly turbulent ride into oblivion?

Historically most social change movements have tended to be preoccupied with advocating desirable end states – how a more equitable society might be structured, what a post carbon economy might look like, what forms participatory democracy might take. Such blue-sky visioning is valuable and necessary. But, in practice, the Achilles heal of these movements has too often been the process question: by what means do we get from A to B; from an existing ethically or environmentally untenable state of affairs, albeit one with huge institutional and political inertia, to a more just and sustainable future, without tearing ourselves apart?

The 19th and 20th centuries saw experimentation in social transformation on an unprecedented scale — spearheaded by political movements of both the left and the right. Beginning with high hopes, most of these experiments either resulted in the piecemeal amelioration of the worst effects of industrialisation and social inequity, or ended in fratricidal violence, wide-spread suffering, or self-defeating compromises and trade-offs.

Now humanity faces a very steep learning curve to develop the collective competencies needed to envision and enact the transition to a viable future. Developing these capabilities will go hand-in-hand with a practical rethinking of the social forms by which we live, work, and learn. This will be a project for generations, but the urgency of our predicament requires that we make a start now.

Do you agree that the challenge of the Anthropocene involves much more than replacing fossil fuels with renewable sources of energy or protecting precious ‘legacy’ ecosystems as lifeboats for future recovery — as essential and urgent as these and similar reforms are?

By what processes can we transform the core cultural values of the dominant and rising industrial growth societies?

What are the collective capabilities we will need to navigate this historic transition?