Anthropocene futures: Living with, and in, ‘more-than-human’ communities

Dr Lisa Garforth is a senior lecturer and the Postgraduate Research Director for Sociology at Newcastle University. Recently, our colleague Audrey Verma and her collaborator JC Niala ran the Hope and Resistance in the Anthropocene symposium. In the second of two related blog posts, Lisa links themes from the event to her work on imagining green futures. This post is based on a conversation with Natalie Partridge who transcribed it and helped frame the ideas.

My work has for a long time explored how we imagine better futures in relation to nature and the environment and how sustainable societies might look. Although a lot of environmentalism is about crisis, loss and fear for the future, there have also been philosophies, policies, polemics and fictions trying to envision a different model of human wellbeing and a different relationship with nature. Much of radical ecopolitical thought and writing since the 1960s has said that there can be better ways of living with, and in, ‘more-than-human’ communities – with a focus on connection, care and caution rather than the emphasis in much of the global North on consumption, commodities and economic growth.

The idea of the Anthropocene is a moment of realisation or recognition that what we conventionally call ‘nature’ has been thoroughly made and remade by social actions and systems. In scientific terms, the Anthropocene marks the point at which humans supposedly become geological actors and when the outcomes of human impacts become threatening to all planetary life. So, older ideas about saving or caring for nature, or saving ourselves, by getting closer to nature, become problematic in two main ways. The notion of a separate nature becomes extremely unstable, and the idea that we can make or remake the future is undermined by the earth system threats already in train.

The climate-changed future

There’s something about the physical dynamics of climate change, in particular, that erodes the space for imagining better futures. The emissions that are probably going to cause global temperature rises, sea level rises, and climate chaos have already happened. Without major geo-engineering this can only be mitigated, not removed. The climate changed future is already unfolding in the present. The climate modelling that explains these dynamics induces a constant sense of belatedness: the right time to act for a better or at least liveable world has always already passed. The solutions currently proposed by technoscience entrepreneurs and neoliberal government policy tell us that all we need is more of the same: technology, economic expansion, efficiency logics.

So what kinds of utopian imaginary are possible in relation to climate change and the Anthropocene?  I think speculative fiction has done a lot to speak to us about alternative Anthropocene futures with utopian dimensions. The cliched image of contemporary futures in science fiction is dystopian blight and post-apocalyptic ruin. It can be easy to dismiss darker future visions as nihilistic or failing to inspire action. But that flattens all dystopias into a monolithic pessimistic message and assumes that post-apocalyptic scenarios are literal predictions. Good speculative fiction is much richer and more complex than that – and so are its readers.

Dystopias and utopias: A different way of thinking

A different way of thinking about speculative fiction is as a kind of lay sociology of what John Urry calls “probable, possible and desirable” post-carbon futures. Speculative fiction creates alternative worlds in text. As readers, we can use them to explore what it might feel like to live in very different kinds of societies. In the last thirty years, many of the best science fiction writers have been the most utopian, and also the most sociologically astute: Kim Stanley Robinson, Ursula K Le Guin, Octavia E. Butler. Between them, they have written compelling social-ecological futures – often apocalyptic or dystopian, but always insisting that we can, and should, imagine better ways of living and being.

Butler was one of the earliest science fiction writers to extrapolate the social and political implications of climate change in the context of social and racial injustice, anticipating current tensions emerging in California over land and water use and contemporary authoritarian and populist politics. Kim Stanley Robinson has approached environmental and climate challenges with an unflagging but always adapting utopianism in his fiction over the last 30 years. ‘Utopian’ here doesn’t just mean formal visions of sustainability and security.  It means refusing the anti-anti-utopianism that says things can only stay the same or get worse. Thinking about hope and resistance for the Anthropocene, we are going to need all the positive resources we can get to change an unsustainable, climate disrupted global capitalist system. These novels can help both publics and sociologists imagine it otherwise.

Utopia: Looking for hope for a better future

Dr Lisa Garforth is a senior lecturer and the Postgraduate Research Director for Sociology at Newcastle University. Recently, our colleague Audrey Verma and her collaborator JC Niala ran the Hope and Resistance in the Anthropocene symposium. They drew together interdisciplinary, intersectional and diverse papers to reflect not just on “life and loss in the Anthropocene” but also on “what sustains us and what it means in practice and theory to be citizens and humans in these trying times.” In the first of two related blog posts, Lisa links this with ideas from contemporary utopian theory. This post is based on a conversation with Natalie Partridge who transcribed it and helped frame the ideas.

One of the real pleasures of Hope and Resistance in the Anthropocene was hearing anthropologists, systems ecologists, biologists and many other researchers thread conceptual ideas about prospects for making better more-than-human societies and communities through their work. We heard from Matthew H. John about how concerns over the loss of natural beauty might stimulate better thinking about environmental challenges (‘Radical relationalities, possible futures: Reimagining experiences of beauty-of-place in nature’), and from Lyn Baldwin about using place-based learning and art to mobilise new forms of connection and care in relation to bee conservation.

It was exciting to hear about projects looking empirically for hope for a better future and resistance to current Anthropocene realities. It can be helpful to think about these issues in relation to utopia – which I see as encompassing a range of cognitive and affective imaginaries and desires for things to be different.

Defining utopianism

I define utopianism broadly. It can include individual ideas and feelings that collective life can and should be different (however weak or fleeting). It includes more worked up visions of better collective futures, like formal utopian novels. In relation to politics, it can encompass the desires for change that so often infuse activism and social movements. And there are multiple social sites where people try to live everyday life differently that we can think of as utopian.

I find Ruth Levitas’s idea that utopia can be a method or hermeneutic helpful – a practiced and disciplined way of understanding social life oriented towards better futures. It’s a way of understanding the world rooted in everyday social experiences in worlds that are far from perfect. This method can also be taken up by social theorists trying to understand both how the world is and how it could be. That critical and creative tension between what is and what might be, between present and the future, is where utopia works.

Staying playful and creative

Often utopia is criticised as a way of trying to impose rigid social structures on people – blueprints and totalitarian regimes. At the other extreme it is written off as unrealistic and silly – daydreams and fantasies. Contemporary utopian theory celebrates utopia as process, journey and critique rather than endorsing specific endpoints and blueprints. Sometimes social scientists’ thoughts are either dismissive of utopia’s wild dreaminess and lack of realism or seek to domesticate it by only valuing realistic utopias.   But for me, this risks missing the value of utopianism which lies in the playful, creative and excessive character of imagining otherwise – in its refusal of reality and realism.

This can and should often have an otherworldly or fantastical character.  A creative refusal of realism is also often a moment of social critique, enriching the progressive imagination. Utopian visions can inform and enliven policy proposals. But you can’t reduce utopia to policy proposals – and policy proposals can’t and shouldn’t be utopian. So that raises the question of what utopia might have to do with sociology.

Speculative thinking in sociology

In my experience contemporary critical and qualitative sociology is primarily concerned with people’s experiences and struggles in current social circumstances. In the discipline’s formal origins, there was, by contrast, the ambitious confidence of Comte that it could predict and manage the future. We are rightly sceptical of this positivism now. In the post-war period critical social theories have maintained a broadly utopian interest in understanding contemporary social structures and dynamics by insisting things could be otherwise. But I share with Ruth Levitas a sense that sociology as a discipline has not often engaged with explicitly speculative thinking.

Levitas’s answer is to encourage sociologists and sociology to become overtly and committedly utopian, to get involved with imagining and describing proposals for better societies, not just exploring what is wrong with how we live now. She argues for a utopian sociology that would work in what she calls the ‘architectural’ mode – building and making visionary alternatives. But I am just as interested in a sociology of utopia, linked with what Levitas calls ‘archaeological’ utopianism, or the digging up and examining of utopianism in the wider society. Sociology – social thought, making critical sense of the social world that we’re in – is not constrained to professional or disciplinary practice. Undisciplined, creative, speculative sociologies can be infused with a utopianism and resistance to the real in ways that might complement and extend academic sociology in vital ways in the face of the climate crisis.

Hope and Resistance in the Anthropocene: Some takeaways from the event

Natalie Partridge is a second year Sociology PhD student at Newcastle University. Here, Natalie introduces a forthcoming mini-series of posts by Dr Lisa Garforth and shares some insights from the event Hope and Resistance in the Anthropocene, hosted by Audrey Verma and JC Niala.

Greenhouse gas emissions, plastic pollution, deforestation… These familiar yet hopeless images beam into our living rooms and mobile devices on an increasingly regular basis. Anyone who has watched a David Attenborough documentary recently will have come away with the uncomfortable sense that human beings are affecting the planet in multiple, unpredictable ways.

Image credit: andreas160578, Pixabay

For many, though, the word “Anthropocene” might not mean very much. In a quick canvas of some friends about whether they’d heard the term, responses ranged from “no, I don’t think so,” to sarcastic, frowning-face gifs.

This is a rich and complex concept which I am conscious not to oversimplify. The Anthropocene is a proposed geological age, the ‘human’ age, if you like, borne of the suggestion that humans’ (relatively short) time on earth has been impactful enough to warrant definition as a distinct epoch. The shape of the Anthropocene remains contested. Some argue that it began in the 1950s. For others, it doesn’t exist at all. Many debates about Anthropocene life also problematise human existence as conflictual with the world we live in. Within this, ‘nature’ might be conceptualised as separate from the human world. This can feel jarring and destructive, evoking dystopian images of the future.

It’s good, then, to find ways to talk about hope.

 Feelings of hope and resistance

The symposium Hope and Resistance in the Anthropocene, organised by Audrey Verma and JC Niala, was held online on the 19th February 2021. The day was divided into sixteen short talks pinpointing reasons for hope and examples of resistance in the face of ‘climate disaster’. Speakers and attendees tackled topics such as ecological grief and loss, inequalities, the reponsibilisation of individuals and local communities, the role of structural issues and the impact on policy interventions, political and economic ideologies and systems like neo-liberalism and capitalism, colonial pasts, social connections to land and vulnerability. All practitioner contributions were also fantastic, including creative arts-based research, poetry, and botanical illustration to the event.

Each talk was vivid and question-generating: What do we mean when we talk about social justice? How do we understand human relationships to the non-human world, including ecological grief and ecological loss? In which ways might we collectively process and reflect on climate change and other overlapping challenges? How do we conceptualise a shared future for humans and non-humans? How do we recognise each other’s needs as our own?

The Hope and Resistance presenters also consistently challenged narratives which oppose humans and non-humans. Discussions explored the reconceptualisation of the human-non-human relationship as something reciprocal. In fact, for Matthew H. John, “the Anthropocene is nothing if not a crisis of relationship” between humans and the planet. John argued that natural beauty has relational capacities, and the ability to create space for relationships to form between the self, others and the beautiful.

Image credit: Pexels – Pixabay

Through her work on crane conservation in and around the Korean Demilitarized Zone, Myung Ae Choi explored the ways in which the lives of cranes, farmers, ornithologists, conservationists and computer engineers are entangled in and amongst the rice field ecosystem. Myung Ae Choi addressed the perception that nature is something to be “squeezed out for our own benefit”, or something to be cared for or saved. Instead, her work explored surprising visions of a shared future, prompting co-host JC Niala to suggest that perhaps shared vulnerability can be a source of shared hope.

Imagining better futures

Our Postgraduate Research Director, Dr Lisa Garforth, also gave a conceptual talk tying together threads from sociology, fiction, green utopianism and radical eco-philosophy to explore the idea of ‘utopia’. I caught up with Lisa afterwards to find out a little bit more about how imagined futures might offer a way for sociologists (and others!) to reflect on their place in the Anthropocene. Our conversation covered more ground than we could hope to condense into a single post. So, in the two posts that follow, Lisa shares her impressions of the Hope and Resistance symposium, and insights from her work on speculative fiction and utopianism. Lisa’s focus is one important aspect: imagining better futures.