The Capitalocene, the Great Dithering, Greta Thunberg’s Plea for Action, and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

In March 2019 I was part of panel discussion hosted by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA Australia/New Zealand) on the topic of Social Climate Change.

This post presents the text of that presentation, which was prefaced with a discussion of the conference/program that we are developing.

Young people’s well-being, resilience and enterprise: Critical perspectives for the Anthropocene

Our present is marked by profound and highly consequential crises in multiple earth systems – oceanic, atmospheric, terran and capitalist. Feminist theorist of science and technology studies Donna Haraway (2016) highlights the crises of earth systems that situate us, all, ‘in the midst of the earth’s sixth great extinction event and in the midst of engulfing wars, extractions, and immiserations of billions of people and other critters for something called “profit” or “power” – or, for that matter, called “God”.’

Jason Moore (2015), a US based sociologist, argues that Neo-Liberal capitalism has gorged itself on what he calls the four ‘cheaps’: food, labour-power, energy and raw materials.

And it is now, I think, devouring its young and their futures.

Our present is also marked by a growing sense that our futures, young people’s futures, have already been used up, consumed, exploited. That the crises that we encounter in our presents both foretell more profound crises to come, and foreclose any sense that we can do anything about our probable futures.

The idea of the Anthropocene – literally ‘the human period’ – is firstly a geological discourse, then a discourse taken up by climatologists, biologists, ecologists and other earth systems sciences to examine and explain the impact of humans on the bio-sphere.

However, if ‘humans’ – in all their historical, cultural, social, economic and political diversity – are differently implicated in the emergence and consequences of the Anthropocene then the arts, humanities, social sciences and philosophy must critically engage and contribute to debates about these planetary wide changes. My means of engagement with these challenges – as a member of a number of groups and networks – is in developing ‘critical’ perspectives on young people’s well-being, resilience and enterprise.

Well-being, resilience and enterprise are key-words in many policy, academic and community discourses about contemporary populations of children and young people around the globe. These ‘states-of-being’ are frequently imagined as being able to ‘inoculate’ individual children and young people against many of the education, training, work and life ‘disruptions’ and ‘crises’ that characterise the start of the 21st century.

Most often these key-words take the form of psycho-biological based, encouragements for persons to care for their own physical, mental and social health and well-being, to develop their resilience, and to become enterprising in a world that is taken-for-granted as being challenging and ‘disruptive’.

The conference that we are organising emerges from a sense that we need to develop new ways of ‘troubling’ these keywords at a time when planetary systems are in crisis. Young people – proverbially and literally – will ‘inherit the earth’ that we, and history bequeath them. The fields I work in have, largely, yet to develop a critical vocabulary about the ecologies that allow well-being, resilience and enterprise to thrive (or not); or to critically engage with how humans – young and old – must re-imagine themselves as truly ‘networked’ with other humans and non-humans at scales from the bacterial to the planetary if the bios is to flourish in the Anthropocene.

The Anthropocene? Or the Capitalocene?

In early 2017 the American novelist and playwright Benjamin Kunkel (2017) published a long essay in the London Review of Books titled The Capitalocene. In that essay Kunkel reviewed three recent books, alongside providing a sketch of some of the key moments in the development of the idea of the Anthropocene.

The books included: The Birth of the Anthropocene by Jeremy Davies (2016); Jason Moore’s (2015) Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital; and Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam-Power and the Roots of Global Warming by Andreas Malm (2015).

This is how Kunkel (2017) begins his essay: ‘How is the ecological predicament of the 21st century to be conceived of? Politically, how is it to be confronted, and by whom?’ As he suggests, the ‘basic features of the problem are plain enough, when you can stand to look. Universal carbon pollution, known by the mild term ‘climate change’, is already distempering the seasons with bounding extremes of heat and cold, and magnifying storms and droughts; increasingly, it will spoil harvests, spread tropical diseases, and drown coastlines’. The increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will turn ‘the oceans more acid…

The list of challenges could go on, and will likely grow, as we become more aware of the consequences of our individual and collective actions – and inactions.

From this opening Kunkel (2017) sketches the emerging usage of the concept of the Anthropocene to capture the collective impact of humanity on the planet in a way that constitutes a new geological epoch whose starting points, whose fingerprints or signature, and the consequences of these, are all much debated.

Kunkel (2017) uses these debates to introduce an initial summary of the contribution that Jason Moore in Capitalism in the Web of Life, and Andreas Malm in Fossil Capital, make to what Moore calls ‘the Anthropocene argument’. Kunkel (2017) argues that the major weakness of the concept of the Anthropocene ‘is to present humanity as a “homogeneous acting unit”, when in fact human beings are never to be found in a generic state’.

Rather, throughout history, in many different cultures, in all the possible places we have lived, humans have always had different relationships to, and understandings of what a resource is, and how it might be used or exploited.

Many of these groupings have had a very small carbon footprint, but may now carry the burdens and consequences of our very large footprints!

From Moore’s perspective, the Anthropocene should be re-imagined as the ‘Capitalocene’, since ‘the rise of capitalism after 1450 marked a turning point in the history of humanity’s relation with the rest of nature, greater than any watershed since the rise of agriculture’.

In a similar, though slightly different vein, Andreas Malm, a professor of ecology in Sweden, argues that ‘the headwaters of the present ecological crisis’ need to be located ‘several centuries later, in the global warming set off by coal-burning industrialisation’ (Kunkel 2017): ‘Capitalists in a small corner of the Western world invested in steam, laying the foundation of the fossil economy; at no moment did the species…exercise any sort of shared authority over its own destiny and that of the earth system.’

For Kunkel (2017), the work of Malm and Moore and others, suggest that ‘capitalism must be recognised as the overriding determinant of humanity’s recent ecological career if the present era of natural history is to become a useful object of analysis, not merely of handwringing’.

The message here is that to treat or respond to a problem we need to identify the root of the problem.

When we start to think in these terms then we can start to understand why so little is being done at this moment in time to act on what has become almost irrefutable evidence about the trouble that we are in!

For capitalism – as a globalising system whose core logics are about creative production, destruction and exploitation; are about the extraction of value from anything that can be commodified; are about the reduction of the concept of ‘value’ to that of purely economic gain or profit; are about the pursuit of individual interest at the expense of any sense of the collective good or interest – there is still so much to exploit in Canada’s tar sands, or at the Adani mine site, or in the Arctic as the sea ice melts, or… As Kunkel (2017) suggests: ‘The collective activity of humanity is sapping the ecological basis of civilisation – and no collective agency capable of reckoning with the fact can yet be discerned’.

The Great Dithering

This time of a profound lack of action in the face of global existential crisis has been given a name: The Great Dithering.

Gabriel Metcalf writes in a 2014 article from The Urbanist that

There is also a name for the period of historical time we have entered, which I suggest we take from Kim Stanley Robinson, one of the great writers of our time: the Dithering’. As seen from Robinson’s science fiction–imagined future in his acclaimed, award winning novel 2312: ‘this is the period of human history…in which humanity failed to act rapidly or decisively enough to avert catastrophic climate change.

We dither when we know we face a problem, when we know we should do something about that problem – but we don’t!

In an interview from The Atlantic monthly journal in April 2014 Kim Stanley Robinson, in the context of making claims for the power of the sorts of speculative, science fiction that he and others use in grappling with what it means to be human, with our possible futures, and our messy pasts and presents, suggests that:

Capitalism is a system of power and ownership that privileges a few in a hierarchical way, and it has in it no good controls or regulation concerning its damage to the biosphere, so to deal with the environmental catastrophes bearing down on us, we have to impose our will as a civilization on capitalism and make it do what we want civilization to do now, which is to create a just and sustainable human interaction with the biosphere and each other…So we are in quite a bit of trouble here, because capitalism is a cultural dominant and the current global way of conducting things, world law, and yet completely inadequate to the situation we face.

‘I want you to panic! The house is on fire!”

Greta Thunburg is the 16 year old Swedish young woman who started a very personal form of activism by going on strike from her high school and picketing the Swedish parliament to take more action on climate change. To stop dithering!

Through a number of serendipitous and improbable events and relationships her action has evolved into global strike action every Friday by thousands of young people around the world. And there is a large, co-ordinated strike to be held tomorrow.

Greta has since addressed various forums including the World Economic Forum at Davos, and a UN session on climate change in Poland. Her Davos speech and a TEDx talk have been viewed by more than 600,000 people on YouTube.

This is some of what Greta had to say at Davos:


Our house is on fire. I am here to say, our house is on fire.

We are facing a disaster of unspoken sufferings for enormous amounts of people. And now is not the time for speaking politely or focusing on what we can or cannot say. Now is the time to speak clearly.

You say nothing in life is black or white. But that is a lie. A very dangerous lie. Either we prevent 1.5C of warming or we don’t. Either we avoid setting off that irreversible chain reaction beyond human control or we don’t.

Either we choose to go on as a civilization or we don’t. That is as black or white as it gets. There are no grey areas when it comes to survival.

Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.

I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.

But of course, the very fact that Greta has been on strike, the very fact that hundreds of thousands of other young people will join her tomorrow, indicates that to this point we haven’t been acting in that way, and many, if not most of us, think that the crises of earth systems, if we acknowledge these crises, can be addressed in a ‘business-as-usual’ approach.

At the very end of her TEDx talk Greta further highlights the follies we continue to engage in during the Great Dithering:

Today we use 100 million barrels of oil every single day.

There are no politics to change that.

There no rules to keep that oil in the ground.

So, we can’t save the world by playing by the rules because the rules have to be changed.

Everything needs to change

And it has to start today.

Quality Education, Gender Equality and Decent Work for All: Critical Encounters with the UN Sustainable Development Goals(SDGs)

Which brings us to a possible framework for action. In 2015 the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) agreed and endorsed a series of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) under the banner of a resolution titled Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

As a global framework for action the SDGs have yet to make a significant impact in policy, commercial, educational and labour market debates and discussions in Australia (and possibly in other ‘over-developed’ countries of the EU and OECD.) Which raises the question: Is sustainable development still seen as a problem only for developing economies?

As part of the work that I do in leading the UNESCO UNEVOC Centre at RMIT, and in the collaborations I am part of in the School of Education and elsewhere, we want toexplore how we – those who live in the over-developed neo-Liberal democracies – critically entangle with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Particularly:

Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning;

Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls; and

Goal 8: Promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all.

Along with our collaborators, we want to play a role in changing these conversations through a variety of discussions that are informed by some of the following questions/provocations – which is where I want to leave this presentation tonight:

*       Does adding the ‘c’ word (capitalism) to the SDGs produce an oxymoron – or a further series of contradictions and paradoxes to an ‘earth system’ already in deep crisis?

*       What is the promise of the SDGs for joining social justice concerns to development and sustainability on a global scale (not just in Australia)

*       At the other end of the scale, can the SDGs provide a warrant for shaping ‘place-based’ interventions into communities to critically re-imagine issues related to quality education and training, gender equality, development and decent work for all?

*       How can the SDGs help us to imagine ourselves and our communities as being truly inter-connected, as being-in-this-trouble together, as having to figure-this-out together?