Lit world

Many people will be familiar with the idea of the Anthropocene: it is a proposed new geological age, marked by that point when the human influence on Earth became irrevocably written into the rocks. It is a period that we can imagine future geologists remarking on, as they discover a layer of plastic and nuclear isotopes, of chemicals that never occurred on Earth before humans produced them, evidence of a huge population humans – unprecedented in the natural history of large mammals – accompanied by the rapid extinction of other species. The Anthropocene has not yet been officially recognized by the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London, the body that decides on these things, and yet it is fast entering popular imagination as a way of speaking about the strange times we live in. My own interest was sparked when I was invited to review Gaia Vince’s book Adventures in the Anthropocene for EarthLines Magazine.

Of course, it is itself a strange thought, to imagine ‘future geologists’ peering back from future millennia at contemporary life on Earth, particularly when many of us fear that the whole civilization that made the study of geology possible may be hastening towards its demise. It takes us outside ourselves in a peculiar way. I think this points to an important aspect of the Anthropocene: it is not just a potential geological epoch, studied and defined by scientists; it is a metaphor for human life as a geological force on earth. By giving it a fancy scientific name, we are in danger of normalising something that is quite unprecedented and extra-ordinary. The Anthropocene is not just a geological construct: it is an invitation to the imagination. Should we take it as triumph, as tragedy, as comedy? And what kind of story does it evoke?

Writers committed to the ‘ecomodernist’ perspective on environmentalism have already seized on it. The Ecomodernist Manifesto holds that ‘A good Anthropocene demands that humans use their growing social, economic, and technological powers to make life better for people, stabilize the climate, and protect the natural world…’ Ecomodernism sees the past three centuries as being a time of increasing human flourishing; it argues that humans can protect non-human nature by using technology to decouple human impacts from the natural world. To do this, greater applications of technology are required. A more overtly metaphoric expression of this view comes from Stuart Brand in Whole Earth Discipline: ‘We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it’. Ecomodernism sees the Anthropocene as a challenge to humans to take on the role of managing the ecology of the planet.

One might ask whether the last centuries have truly been a time of human flourishing – and of flourishing for whom; one might ask just which group of humans would take on the management of Earth’s ecology – and again, managing for whom. But aside from these questions, the ecomodernist movement can be seen as a continuation of the materialist and consumerist path that has got us into the present crisis of ecology, with all the perils that entails. There is no logic or evidence to support the proposition that ‘more of the same’ will solve the problems that a civilization based on a materialist worldview has brought about.

Behind the proclaimed pragmatism of the ecomodernist perspective lies an ancient myth: the Anthropocene can be taken as a continuation of the Myth of Progress. This myth has roots, among others, in the Hebrew God’s injunction to humans to go forth and multiply and have dominion over the Earth and its creatures. This command has morphed from its original divine command to a humanist view that ‘man [sic] is the measure of all things’. It is at the foundation of modern western culture, its economy, its science, its medicine, even its art. It assumes that the Earth is there to provide ‘resources’, ‘an environment’, for human domination. This myth, especially when coupled with a hugely powerful technology, brings about the ecological disaster that faces Earth and her beings.

If we change our perspective and look from a broadly ‘deep ecology’ perspective, the metaphor of the Anthropocene seems rather different. For this view challenges the assumed supremacy of humans. It sees the Earth and her community of life has having intrinsic value and purpose irrespective of their value as ‘resources’. Rather than seeing this new age as an adventure or a challenge, it draws attention to human hubris, inviting us to reconsider our identity and place on the planet. Are we destined to be as gods, or, as Aldo Leopold told us, plain members of the planetary community? This perspective can be linked to a panpsychic or animist view, which sees the whole Earth is not as a material entity out of which life somehow arose, but as a self-organizing, self-creating and self-transcending being suffused with a field of subjectivity; for some, this will imply that what we might call the divine or sacred lives in and through the Earth.

Of course, just as the myth of dominance and progress has its origins in the mists of time, so does the myth of animate Earth. It grounds many indigenous worldviews, was rooted in Pythagorean mysticism, expressed by Plato as anima mundi, was part of the Romantic retort to the Enlightenment, emerged again in the counterculture of the 1960s. It finds contemporary expression in systemic thinking and emergent theories of chaos and complexity. Gregory Bateson pointed out that through the ages, philosophers have asked two contrasting questions about their world: on the one hand, ‘What is it made of?’ which leads to a materialist paradigm; and the other, ‘what is its pattern?’ which leads through the movements I have sketched. These two ways of thinking have accompanied each other through history, with the animist/pattern perspective usually the submerged by the materialist one. The pattern perspective is fundamentally opposed to the dominant materialist perspective, its distinguished philosophical lineage unacknowledged and unrecognised, and so it may appear both mystical and functionally irrelevant struggles for acceptability.

These two different perspectives are held within two different kinds of story, which my storytelling friend Geoff Mead calls the heroic and the post-heroic. In the heroic story the protagonist, usually young and male, responding to a call to adventure, a quest to right wrongs, journeys out in pursuit of some more or less grand purpose and returns changed. The adventure involves trials and ordeals, meeting with helpers and mentors and substantial amounts of courage, magic and luck to overcome one obstacle after another. In the end, the hero marries his princess, becomes King and lives happily ever after. In this heroic version of the Anthropocene, the hero is the whole of humanity, or maybe the ‘advanced’ bit, or maybe the masculine bit.

But from a deep ecology perspective, the ecomodern story of increasing human ‘flourishing’ looks much more problematic; it evokes a different kind of story, one that Mead calls ‘post-heroic’. While the trajectory of the heroic story is out and back, the post-heroic story goes down and back up. The post-heroic tale is not based on a call to adventure, but is a necessary response to something that has gone wrong, has been spoiled, causing the protagonist to lose their way. It is what happens after the ‘happily ever after’ ending of the heroic story.

The post-heroic story starts with downfall – often arising from the hubris that accompanies the heroic ego. The challenge of the post-heroic protagonist is not to slay metaphorical dragons and marry the princess, but to discover and stay faithful to that which he or she truly loves through long and difficult labours. There will be helpers and mentors along the way – the post-heroic protagonist has to learn to recognize them in order to gain their advice and support – but there are no magic interventions that solve problems with the wave of a wand (or a technological innovation). The post-heroic tale is about learning to be true to what really matters in life rather than obey the dictates of our own egos or the expectations of others; it is about bringing the true self back to work in the world through mid-life and beyond. This can be taken as a sketch of the post-modern human story, as we realize (or maybe are on the verge of realizing) that our dream of human progress separate from our ecological context is a foolish illusion and that our challenge now is to recover from that which we have spoiled.

There is another critique of the hero story that comes from a feminist perspective: the hero story is essentially a masculine story, and modern human troubles are rooted in over-dominant masculinity. Writer Sharon Blackie, for example, is unhappy with what she sees as the highly active, privileged ‘swashbuckling, adventuring’ hero. She thinks women need to take a different path, more a pilgrimage than an adventure: ‘A pilgrim isn’t entirely sure whether she can save herself, let alone the world. She knows that something is lacking in her own life, that something is missing or broken… A pilgrimage asks that we give up everything so we might learn what is truly ours’. Jungian writer June Singer suggests the heroic woman’s story is often one of plunging into the depths of the unconscious or underworld to break the conventions that bind women to their false selves – the stories of Inanna and Persephone’s journeys into the underworld are important examples. These are stories about the struggle of waking up and so are often subversive or dissident, telling tales of possibility beyond patriarchal assumptions. There is some overlap between these women’s stories and the post-heroic story.

From this story perspective, a major problem with the ecomodernist perspective is that it takes human life and action too seriously. In the post-heroic story, survival depends upon taking a comic rather than a tragic perspective. This is not to say that life is a poor joke, but as Joseph Meeker puts it that comedy – in literature as in life – is about responding to events as they actually are rather than how we might wish them to be. Comic action seizes the moment and playfully adapts to circumstances while not taking itself too seriously. Tragic figures in literature and history cling to their self-image and pursue single-pointed achievements, which can lead to heroic self-sacrifice. They attract admiration even in failure – as, for example, does Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s death in the Antarctic. In contrast, comic figures such as Yossarian in Joseph Heller’s novel Catch 22 – who rejects questions of right and wrong in the interests of survival – are viewed with amused suspicion. Yet such characters survive and adapt, while tragic figures bring about their own suffering because they commit to a course of action that must inevitably lead to their own doom.

Looked at like this, the comedic way is an evolutionary necessity, essential for survival in a complex and interconnected world, a world that – despite the ecomodernists claims – we cannot control. In traditional post-heroic stories, the protagonist loses their way when they cease to pay attention to what is really going on around them. To survive, even to thrive, you have to be awake, pay attention to what is happening with wide-eyed awareness; you have to be present in the actuality of events, rather than thinking about what should be or how you would like things to be; you have to keep options open and not make unnecessary all-or-nothing choices.

What is it that we modern humans need to rediscover in our post-heroic quest? I think it is to re-join the project of life on Earth. Scientist Tim Flannery suggests we should think of this, not through the old metaphor of competition for resources, but as a ‘commonwealth of virtue’ self-organizing toward ever increasing diversity and interdependence. For three and a half billion years life on Earth has used photosynthesis to draw on the energy source of the sun. It has used this vast energy budget to continually increase biological productivity and make the planet ever more habitable to life.

Human technology has effectively separated itself from the process and become a disrupter of ecosystems. The human adventure has done enormous damage to the Earth project. But just as it is an error to indulge in the optimistic heroism of ecomodernism so it is a mistake to see human life as tragedy. Just as we should not overreach ourselves, we should not take too small a view of who we are. The post-heroic quest, the comic response, is to look steadfastly at what has been spoiled and, without hubris or immodesty, draw on every resource we can to address it.

We humans cannot ‘manage’ a self-regulating and self-creating planet, but neither are we an unnecessary burden. Our challenge is to find a way to rejoin the community of life, and once again take part in and even enhance the life process. By taking a holistic view and understanding that the life grows out of mutual interdependence, the human community can learn to support a re-wilding of the planet, restore the life force and expand Earth’s biocapacity. This will require a shift in our sense of identity, to see ourselves as part of, rather than apart from, the community of life on Earth – a shift that will require us to draw deeply on our better natures and above all learn to stop taking ourselves too seriously.

Technology and human inventiveness have important parts to play in this. We will not support the billions of humans on Earth while avoiding accelerating loss of other species by returning to pre-industrial technology – although old ways will continue to play an important role. Nor can we continue to wreck the planet through an economy based on fossil fuel and a consumer society. The ‘bright green’ world of post–industrial technology will have its part to play. In particular, through the digital information revolution we know far more about the state of the planet than ever before and might learn to use this for enhancement of the life project.

This is a grand claim, but I think the story of the Anthropocene, not as a heroic adventure or as tragedy but as a post-heroic story, has the potential to draw the best from the ecomodern and the deep ecology perspectives. It invites us to draw on all our resources and capabilities to re-discover and re-create what really matters for the community of life on earth.

Why is this important? It is important because the Anthropocene with its competing metaphors is a powerful emerging idea, a ‘meme’ that will be prominent in future ‘environmental’ debates. As an idea that is rooted in geological science, it will have particular resonance in modern society. If we are not careful, it will be captured by the forces of ecomodernism. We must find ways to think and write so that this powerful idea, which is both a geological construct and an imaginative opportunity, remains open to carry a wider range of metaphors, including those I have sketched here.

There are new stories to be told, stories that locate the human as part of a larger pattern; stories that have the ability to lift our eyes above our everyday preoccupations. These new stories hold the glimmer of a vision of how the human species might redeem itself (religious language seems unavoidable). It will be a long and challenging post-heroic journey to rediscover the soul of the human and find appropriate expression for our time. It may, of course, be too late. But the opportunity is there.




My reflections on the Anthropocene have been informed by the following, among many others:

Bateson, Gregory. “Conscious Purpose Versus Nature.” In Steps to an Ecology of Mind, 402-14, 1972.

Bateson, Gregory. “Form, Substance and Difference.” In Steps to an Ecology of Mind, 423-40, 1972.

Berry, Thomas. The Dream of the Earth. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1988, p.204.

Chinen, Alan B. Beyond the Hero: Classic Stories of Men in Search of Soul. New York: Tarcher/Putman, 1993.

Chinen, Alan B. Waking the World: Classic Tales of Women and the Heroic Feminine. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1996.

Singer, June. Foreword. In Chinen, Alan B. Waking the World: Classic Tales of Women and the Heroic Feminine. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1996.

Macfarlane, Robert. “Desecration Phrasebook: A Litany for the Anthropocene.” New Scientist 15 December 2015

Mead, Geoff. Coming Home to Story: Storytelling Beyond Happily Ever After. Bristol: Vala Publications, 2011.

Meeker, Joseph W. The Comedy of Survival: Literary Ecology and a Play Ethic. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1997.

Reason, Peter. Spindrift: A Wilderness Pilgrimage at Sea. Bristol: Vala Publishing Cooperative, 2014.

Reason, Peter. “Review: Adventures in the Anthropocene by Gaia Vince.” EarthLines, no. 14 (2016): 73-74.

Rickards, Lauren. “Metaphor and the Anthropocene: Presenting Humans as a Geological Force.” Geographical Research 53, no. 3 (2015): 280-87. 10.1111/1745-5871.12128.

Sharon Blackie, See also If Women Rose Rooted: The power of the Celtic Woman. September Publishing, 2016.

The Ecomodernist Manifesto

Vince, Gaia. Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made. London: Chatto and Windus, 2014.

Waters, Colin N et al. “The Anthropocene Is Functionally and Stratigraphically Distinct from the Holocene.” Science 351, no. 6269 (2016). 10.1126/science.aad2622. Also