Act: Inspiration

Robert Macfarlane: “The Metaphors we Use Deliver us Hope, or they Foreclose Possibility”

June 5, 2018

They say you should never meet your heroes.  They’re wrong. I recently had the huge honour of spending almost an hour in conversation with Robert Macfarlane, author of 9 books including ‘Mountains of the Mind’, ‘The Old Ways’, ‘Landmarks’ and, most recently, ‘The Lost Words’.  I have admired Robert’s work for many years, in particular his reflections on imagination and his determination to keep alive, in our minds and our culture, a whole library of words which help us better articulate our place in, and relationship with, the natural world.  As well as being a writer, Robert teaches at Cambridge about language and landscape.  As he told me, “the convergences of those two things, along with social justice and environmental justice, are the things I’ve written most about”.

Robert is one of the most fascinating people to follow on Twitter, and he had recently tweeted a quote by Rebecca Solnit where she said, “the destruction of the Earth is due in part to a failure of the imagination, or to its eclipse by systems of accounting that can’t count what matters.”  So, I started by asking him how he would assess the state of health of our collective imagination in 2018? [Robert made a few changes to the transcript of our discussion, so you will find the transcript below more accurate, but we know how you love podcasts, so we’ll share the original audio too].

Impoverished, vulnerable, but with surprising flourishings.  In that quotation Rebecca challenges something she calls “the tyranny of the quantifiable”.  Actually I suppose I would oddly say a word for the tyranny of the quantifiable.  We need to quantify.  It’s vital for change, not least how we measure our baselines –  how we keep track of shifting baseline syndrome.

So I don’t fully agree with Rebecca that we should seek out and purge the quantifiable wherever we find it, but I think she’s absolutely right that imagination has been closed down, and particularly that uncertainty is a space that can be inhabited with enormous generative richness, as a consequence, is something that we feel uneasy with.  I think that it is in some sense the climb of rationalism that has excluded that as a possibility.  So I would say a word both for the rigours of naming and knowing, and for the possibilities of being uncertain.

What would you identify as being some of the factors that are responsible for that imaginative poverty?

It’s very tempting to say new media, but I’m not sure I agree with that, partly because my own adventures into social media over the past year – after a decade of extreme scepticism towards them – have been so exciting, and have led to so much possibility.  In an odd way, I see that that’s one of the benefits, as well as one of the threats, to imagination in our time –  the speed and echoic nature of communication.

Hope is very hard to come by right now, particularly in terms of the changes that people like you and me are interested in, by which I mean that the sense of crisis – as something that has arrived, that is declaring itself all around us all of the time at a local and a planetary level –  is so vast that we end up in something that Sianne Ngai, who’s a cultural theorist at Harvard at the moment, calls ‘the stuplime’  or ‘stuplimity’.  There she’s taken two words, stupor and the sublime, and she’s crushed them together to make a very contemporary ‘affect’ (is what she calls it), a very contemporary feeling.

Her point being that when we look at the troubles that we’re confronted with, they are sublime.  They are so vast in that old sense of the word “sublime” that we can hardly comprehend them.  What that results in is what she calls “a series of minor fatigues, concussions to the spirit”, that leave us in a stupor.  I feel that.  I don’t know if you feel that…

I mean you’re somebody who’s made change happen.  But I feel that often.  You look around – I have these conversations very often – I look around and talk to people and I say, “But what can we do?  It’s all so awful.”  So that for me, that repeated not-so-much single hammer blow, but that repeated concussion to hope, and to dreaming, is at the root of this impoverishment.

interviewed Lise van Susteran who uses a term ‘Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder’, the idea that living with the knowledge of climate change and so on, puts us into a sense of trauma, which in turn shuts down the imagination.  For her the way through that is through action, is through doing stuff.  That’s the remedy.  But by my reading of your work, you would also suggest that finding new or old names for what we see happening around us, is part of this too.  I loved the bit at the end of Landmarks where you say we also need words for the things we see happening in the Anthropocene that we haven’t seen before.  I wonder to what extent is knowing the names of things, or creating the names for things, a remedy to that Pre-Traumatic Stress?

Glenn Albrecht, whose work you probably know, talks about ‘solastalgia’ and ‘psychoterratica’.  It’s interesting that we are even reaching for these neologisms to describe the feelings of being alive in the Anthropocene.  These are all versions of what Aldo Leopold says famously in the late 1940s.  He says to be a conservationist, to be an ecologist, “is to live always in a world of wounds”.

The Greek word for wound is trauma.  There is a sense that you are stunned, stupefied into a traumatic inaction.  It’s very, very interesting to hear that chime with the other interview that you’ve done.  I’m sure it’s something you talk about a lot in your work and your experiences.  Action is a fabulous remedy.  Language is action.  Language is a world-making, world-shaping force.  It’s a geological force.  It’s shaping the Anthropocene because the discourse we use shapes, of course, everything that we encounter in the world and the ways we frame the world to ourselves.

The metaphors we use deliver us hope, or they foreclose possibility.  The ways that we represent each to each other, or the human and more-than-human world, are incredibly powerful and determining, in the ways we then go on and behave towards those other entities.  So the cornerstone, the keystone, of my as-it-were language project, is diversity.  That, in another form, the form of biodiversity, is the keystone of modern conservation, I guess.

I would rather that we have, and that we use, this immense richness of language for landscape and nature than that we make do with generics (though generics are sometimes necessary).  The image I often use is just a very simple biodiverse one.  Would you rather be lying on your belly looking at a golf course fairway, with its single species of grass, or would you be lying in a wildflower meadow, surrounded by this astonishing humming diversity?  Those are our language choices.  That hunger [for language diversity] is very widely shared.  It seems to be both an apparently ornamental aspect of the ways we relate, but actually to me is a fundamental aspect to the ways that we relate to this more than human world.

What’s the relationship between diversity and imagination when we live in a world where we’ve lost half the creatures that we share the planet with during my lifetime, and half the insects during my son’s lifetime, how does that in turn affect our imagination and our sense of what’s possible do you think?

I think of this very resonant phrase that Michael McCarthy uses, ‘the Great Thinning’.  It’s a thinning in its most important form of a material basis of life, of a biodiversity,  but it’s also a thinning of language, and a thinning of possibility.  What’s extinguished when ecosystems go, when species go, when languages go, is knowledge, is possibility, is a deep ancient coding.

I believe in what might be called ‘distributed cognition’, which is to say that the ways we think are deeply shared between ourselves and other entities.  A kind of intersubjective sense that the ways we think are not contained within our single skulls, but are made possible by the surroundings, the weather, the lights, the atmosphere, the ecologies, the landscapes and the people and the objects with which we share our spaces.  They do our thinking for us, and with us, and sometimes to us.  So of course when we lose these things, then the possibility of thought is thinned as well.

You quote in Landmarks Evan Calder Williams who says that “the Anthropocene imagination crawls with narratives of survival”, which I loved.  Why is it that we keep telling ourselves unhelpful narratives, and what would the telling of positive tales of the future look like?  What would stories of a healthy Anthropocene look like if we started to tell those?

Let’s set aside the question of the naming of the Anthropocene itself, which is a very vexed business, but we can come back to that if you like.  It’s something I’m very interested in.  As to the question of what a good Anthropocene might look like: well, it’s important to imagine the possibility of a good Anthropocene, because otherwise we end up on the fatalised, over-determined downward slide of the helter-skelter towards hell.  That’s no good, really!

We need to hold possibility for change and hope.  Hope, as Rebecca Solnit says, “exists [and] is made possible by uncertainty”.  By not knowing what the future holds.  So what might good Anthropocene stories be?  Well they would hold the possibility for change.  They would hold the possibility for replenishment, for turns back to biodiversity.

They would also hold the possibility for good in terms of human action.  Something we were talking about before we began recording was what you call a kind of self-willed, or self-organising, possibility to group human action when it’s energised by good, by what we would understand as the good.  Of course group human action can be organised and energised by the bad as well, but let’s stay with the good for a moment.

I think of that as a kind of wildness.  Wildness has its origins as a word in the idea of self-willedness.  And when wildness is released into thought, into societies, into communities, it can rip through them, like wildfire, for the good.  It’s just we too often hear about the bad forms of wildfire.

In Landmarks you wrote that “our children’s vanishing encounters with nature represent a loss of imagination as well as a loss of primary experience”.  I wonder if you could say a little more about that and also, is it the same for adults?

Yes, I think it is the same for adults.  What I meant by that is that when nature is foreclosed as a set of primary experiences within a life, within a life-way or life-world, then among the things that also get closed down, I think, are forms of play, forms of improvisation, forms of learning and heuristics, forms of interaction with other children and other life-forms, that then of course have their out-workings in story, in the way language is used, in the way narratives are told.

I give the example there of the, to me, annually fascinating analysis of the 500 Word Story Competition that’s run every year in Britain, where hundreds of thousands of children write their 500-word stories.  We get this extraordinary glimpse into a communal imagination as it’s at work within childhood.  There is no other database like it.  OUP, who organise it, run a big data analysis of what the story types are.  Some of them are amazing.  Incredibly hopeful.

I think the year 2015 it was, probably when Landmarks came out, one of the most popular stories was finding a cure for Ebola.  I thought, “Wow, how brilliant, that this is preoccupying the narrative minds of our children” but the other most popular story was gaining overnight fame as a footballer or YouTube star.  I thought, “Okay, well, there’s your counterbalance to the Ebola cure.”  Everything was happening there.

But yes, I guess I return to this sense that what is enabled by the living world is not just a form of internalised self-improvement for the individual, and is not either just a form of good or ill for the more than human world; it has profound cultural and imaginative out-workings.

I wonder how you think of the relationship between building the imagination, and access to digital technologies, and the impact they’ve had?  One of the people that I interviewed was Douglas Rushkoff who said to me, “We’ve ended up over the last 20 years disabling the cognitive and collaborative skills that we would have needed to address a collective problem like climate change.”  Would you agree with that, and how do you think is the best way to live alongside those technologies and to keep our imagination and access to nature and wilderness intact?

The last question is probably the key one.  It’s how to have both I think, it seems to me.  Perhaps if you’d asked me this question in 2014, or 2015, I’d have given a more oppositional answer to it.  I’m always keen to uncouple simple oppositions between tech and nature, and indeed between tech/new media, and imaginative impoverishment.

I mean here we are, talking about the possibilities of imagination, 400 miles away from one another by the miracles of a connective technology known as Skype, and I’m incredibly grateful for that.  So these days I’m pretty wary of those oppositions.  Particularly when I hear the word ‘collaborative’ touted as something that’s being destroyed by technology.  I find that very odd.

As a university teacher I find the students I’ve interviewed and admitted over the past 15 years – a very small dataset in a very particular context obviously – but their sense of worldliness has transformed in the course of that 15 years.  Their specific specialist intelligences with regards to literature and geography has maybe changed not so much, that’s stayed constant – but their sense of connection has transformed, and their wider global knowledge.

My own experiences, having stayed very clear of social media for well over a decade, only then to take to it a year and three months ago, and to find its astonishing power to produce that wildness of action that we were talking about earlier –  to produce collaboration, to drive change – well, it’s been an absolute revelation. Clearly there are things we need to be concerned about with regard to technology.  We can shift this conversation, for instance, to questions of the amount of time children are spending indoors, or the time children are spending on screens.  These are clearly increasing.  The turning-away from the outdoors, from ‘nature’, is a multi-factorial issue, but screens are clearly involved.  So, yes, huge forces for good, huge forces for stasis.

If you were to identify what the ideal conditions would be for us to be as imaginative as possible, would you have a sense of what some of those conditions might be?  In your experience?

I have to note that in some ways imagination is a function of privilege.  There’s a version of Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’ at work here, that your basic needs on Maslow’s hierarchy need to have been fulfilled, perhaps, before imagination becomes possible.  My own creative work is made possible by having a salaried, tenured position in a University – which I work hard for and believe in as a vocation very powerfully, and do my best for – but that makes a lot possible for me.

So imagination is squeezed out in the first instance by not having to worry about bureaucracy, and food, shelter, warmth, and the other basics.  That said, there are people like, for example, John Muir, Dunbar born, obviously father of the American National Parks and massively influential environmentalist, who was the son of a Methodist who moved out to Wisconsin and basically beat him, dropped him down a well to hack wells from a very young age. Then he nearly lost an eye in a factory accident.

Muir had an enormous number of adversities to overcome, and in a way those adversities, when he finally was free of them and became a shepherd in the Sierra Nevada, they opened space for him.  So clearly there’s a very complex relationship between adversity and imagination.  I don’t for a moment want to suggest that only those who are well off can be imaginative, but I think it’s also important to note the kind of protected space, the ‘what if’ space, that you need to think in this way.

If a wren flies past us, or sings near us, but we don’t hear it or we don’t notice it, or we don’t know what it is, what have we lost?

Technically we haven’t lost anything because we never had it in the first place, as it were, in terms of consciousness.  And the wren is doing very, very well in Britain.  8 million breeding pairs.  So in a way the wren doesn’t need us to notice it.  And yet, what have we lost?

We’ve lost a moment of wonder, which in its powerful, piercing way… Descartes says “wonder is the first of all the passions”, partly because he says it prompts us first to be astonished, and then to explain the source of that astonishment.  I think that idea of amazement followed by the wish to understand how amazement is made is a very powerful two-stroke engine, as it were, for change.

But also I think of an idea that I believe in profoundly – that good names, well used, are sort of portals, really.  They summon a creature, or another, into our way of being, into our consciousness.  They allow us to enter respectfully its ways of being.  To know that a wren has crossed your path as it flits from cover to cover is to become aware of the wren-world, and in turn to become aware of the more-than-human world.  Those of us who are lucky enough to have some degree of tuning in to that more-than-human world, underestimate how tuned out it is to most people.

I don’t by any means mean to suggest that those who “know” are some kind of blessed clerisy.  We’re the lucky ones.  We’re lucky because of the ways we’ve been brought up, or whatever the causes are.  But to not see, and to not notice at all, that this other world is anything other than a kind of wallpaper or basic ecosystem service provider, well, if that’s the case why would you give a shit about what’s happening to it, except insofar as it may subtract that ecosystem service from your life at some future point?  Why would you care?  There’s no need at all to care.

I went on Soundcamp this year at Dartington.  Got up and went out for the dawn chorus and even now a week or so now later, it somehow tuned my brain in to listening out for the birds.  Normally I’d be cycling along and in my thoughts and I would never really notice, but just as I’m going around, it just shifted my awareness out a few levels, and I just sort of see all the birds everywhere.  And find myself just tuning into the birds, although I can’t really tell them all apart from each other, the different songs, but it’s really shifted my experience of the world around me.  It’s been quite a profound thing really.

I think I heard a blackbird calling in fact from your end quite early in our conversation [I was speaking to Robert on a sunny day with my back door open].  I was thinking, “That’s nice.  You must be looking out somewhere fairly pleasant.”  But I guess the trick then is to think about how we move from, as it were, individual mindfulness, which I’m all for, that’s great.  I’m deeply invested in that and the ways it’s good for the individual, and it’s good for mental health, but in a way what that treats is birdsong as another form of ecosystem service provider.  “Oh, that’s great, it’s good for us, there it is.”

It’s really nice to have birdsong.  It makes us feel better.  But what it doesn’t do is automatically reverse the flow.  Potentially, doesn’t reverse the flow and turn that good back towards the birds and the habitats that make it possible.  But I believe that that flow can be reversed, and that precisely those moments of wonder, of encounter, can be incredibly powerful –sometimes massively powerful – because they have amplified unintended consequences weeks later, or years later. Sometimes structural consequences, political consequences.

In Landmarks I talk about many of those stories where writers in particular have had an encounter, written about that encounter; then that book has then been read by someone else.  In the case of John Muir, for instance; read by Theodore Roosevelt, who then seeks Muir out, who then spends three days camping with Muir, who then goes off and signs into existence the greatest public land designation of any American President.  Some of which is now being rolled back by Trump.

So yes, this law of unintended consequences – all of which might come from something as simple as a blackbird song –makes the case for imaginative encounter and imaginative representation as potentially hugely valuable, but I also think we need to be wary of claiming too much for it.

You used the word ‘awe’ there.  That experience of awe that we can get from nature is something we don’t really find in many other places in life today. 

I think other people would disagree and they would find it in, I don’t know, the techno-sublime.  They would find it in the astonishing flows of global capital around the world.  I have friends who tell me classically that I’m a – and I don’t know if you get this either?  In fact, you can’t – but I’m a misanthropist.  That I’m much more interested in the astonishing achievements of plants in warning each other via the fungal network that there’s an insect attack coming from the other side of the clearing, than I am in the fact that humans have put a man on the moon.  So I think other people have other sources of awe, but yeah, you and I are pretty wowed by blackbird song.

And is that a fair accusation that you’re more impressed with the fungi than putting a man on the Moon?

I think intuitively, yes.  Perhaps that’s a function of having seen so much of what our species can do for good and ill.  But perhaps the answer there is we are extremely bad, as anthropocentrists, at acknowledging the achievements, if we want to call them that, or even just the complexities of other worlds, other beings.

The fungal network revelation is an interesting cultural moment, where it’s taken 2000 years for western science to find a material basis for the intercommunication of trees by means of a subterranean fungal network that arguably fuses the forest into a single superorganism.  You talk to first nations, or indigenous people specialists, and they’re like, “Yeah.  We’ve been telling you that for 2,000 years!  Well done.  You’re playing catch up.”  But now people are amazed by this.

When you hear about the Wood Wide Web for the first time, people reel backwards, astonished.  I think what’s really interesting is that astonishment.  That they’re so surprised that trees that can communicate with one another.  I think that says a lot about the ways we underestimate the world around us.

You’re a patron or a member of Cambridge Curiosity and Imagination.  Could you say a little bit about that, and what it does?

They’re a tiny organisation that is doing exactly what you’re interested in.  They are fusing science, playfulness, education, and space, landscape, and childhood, and trying to see curiosity and wonder as world-changing attitudes, if you like, and to find ways of bringing creative makers, poets, mapmakers, graphic artists, together with children, particularly at very early years.  Children, classes from local schools, taking them out and letting them all work together with the idea that of course what is not happening here is that children are being taught by adults.

What is happening here is that there is a collaborative learning process going on between the grown-up creator figure, the children who are these incredible spontaneous creators of language, of movement, of gesture, of behaviour – total rule breakers because they don’t see the rules – and the landscape itself.  The work that is coming out of that idea – that everyone is making together – is incredible.  One of the most beautiful images – perhaps one you can use – are these fantastical maps that are being made.  They’re incredible!

Suddenly you see this tiny little spinney on the edge of a city or a country park, in the middle of Huntington, has become this wildwood.

You mentioned before that the nine months since The Lost Words came out had shifted some of your thinking around imagination.   I wonder if you could just share a little bit what you mean by that?

I’d go as far to say it’s transformed my thinking about imagination and about the relationship between culture and change.  Just before I say a little bit more about it, I would just say that what I now see is that the book itself is nothing other than a catalyst.  What has happened with The Lost Words is not because of the book.  It is because the book arrived as a catalyst, or a seed crystal, into a culture that was ready to precipitate, and it was ready to do so because it was filled with worry, and it was filled with hope.  That chemistry fascinates me.

I say all that just to clarify that I’m not claiming that what has happened around the book is the book’s doing.  The book is a catalyst in all this but what has happened is that it has moved through culture with a speed, and a force, and a consequence that makes me wonder why I ever do anything other than write short spells for children!

Probably the most powerful consequence is this movement that has begun to place copies of the book in each primary school in the British Isles.  These campaigns have been chiefly crowdfunded campaigns.  Crowdfunded campaigns have been started up, fully grassroots, by individuals who’ve been moved by the book.  It was begun by one woman in Scotland, Jane Beaton, a bus driver from Midlothian, who looked at the book, and tweeted me, and said, “This has just knocked me over.  I want to get a copy into every school in Scotland.”  I said, “Okay, um, great.  Let me know how I can help.”  From that began her successful campaign.

She raised £25,000 and is now overseeing the really hard bit, which is distribution of those single books into every school in Scotland.  A huge network has sprung up to get the books in, and this is where it really changes things, is where you have an individual who’s invested in a school, going into the school, giving the book, saying, “Wow, this is about our relationship with the living world, and children in particular should do something with this.  This has done this to me, let’s see what it does to the children.”

The generosity and the gift – something you must be very familiar with – this giving of time, of energy, of passion, has been unbelievable.  Jane’s campaign, the Scottish campaign, has then triggered, well, I think we’re up to 28 separate campaigns now.  Barking and Dagenham “went” this morning and the last week alone has seen Yorkshire, Essex, Sussex, with the support of Caroline Lucas behind it, and County Clare in Ireland are start-up campaigns.  A copy has gone into every care home in Wales, given by a business, because that’s another way we lose words, is through dementia.  The end of life as well as the beginning of life.

None of this is to do with me.  I just kind of watch it and help it along its way as best I can.  And it’s something you know on a much bigger and more exciting scale with Transition Towns.  Someone described what is happening to The Lost Words to me.  He said, “You know what you’ve done?  You’ve made a piece of open source software and you’ve released it and now everyone’s using it to write outcomes for themselves.”

I should say there’s obviously a sense to which it’s not open source insofar as one has to buy the book, but these campaigns are not bringing me any income.  I give lots of money to each one that starts up.  I’m already giving a bunch of my royalties straight to a youth conservation charity called Action for Conservation and that will continue for as long as the book continues.  And the books are all given at a massive cost discount anyway by the publishers to enable the campaigns.  So there isn’t really a vested interest from that side. 

For me, it’s seeing change happen exactly as you describe, through imagination and story. Story is what makes it contagious.  People say, “Oh, this, this this…” So there’s a lovely recent campaign has just begun in Sheffield, where as you will know very well, there’s a huge battle ongoing between the local residents and the County Council over the mass felling of up to 15,000 street trees in that city.  A tree has begun the fundraising campaign in Sheffield.  The Vernon Oak.  Of course it’s not the tree, but it’s represented by the tree, and therefore it’s become deeply involved with that campaign, that grassroots campaign to save the forest canopy, the city canopy.

In turn as soon as I realised this was what they were doing, I suddenly thought, “Well, I’m going to write a spell, a charm against harm, for the trees of Sheffield, and for any tree, any tree that we really want to keep, that needs saving.”  So I’m now writing a kind of incantation that I will give freely obviously to the people of Sheffield, and to anyone, any tree campaigners anywhere in the world, who want to speak a spell to try and save – it’s called ‘Heartwood’ – to try and save the tree from the bite of the chainsaw.

That for me has just been thrilling – the way story begets story, and gift begets gift.  This is what Lewis Hyde says in The Gift.  He says gifts give on; that that is their gift.  So by giving freely, with an open hand, without expecting equal reciprocity within the same currencies, what is created is more.  In that sense it’s like grace.  That is what grace does, too.  Grace gives freely and produces more than itself.

I don’t know whether it’s worth just talking briefly about time.  One of the things that Rebecca Solnit says in Hope in the Dark is that writers write; they scatter their seeds, rats might eat them, or they might rot.  Some seeds take 5,000 years and the rasp of wildfire to germinate.  She’s talking about dormancy there.  She’s talking about uncertainty and dormancy.  The uncertainty part is that you do not know whether your ideas will become wild, but still you’ve got to make them and scatter them into the world.  I think that’s really important.

There’s a courage question there that’s born of not knowing.  Because not knowing isn’t just telling you they’re not going to catch, turn wild, it’s telling you they might.  And that ‘might’ is the real hope.  Then there’s the dormancy question which is about time and the future.  That says it might not happen in your lifetime.  You might be under the sod by the time your ideas or your words catch.  That does matter, and that doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter because, great, it will happen, you don’t need the affirmation of it.  But it does matter I guess because what we’re talking about are urgent questions.  This is change that can’t really take two generations.  Can’t really take 5,000 years or the equivalent in human time of that.

You mentioned about the Anthropocene, and you said we could come back to why you have a problem with that word?

Well this, as you may or may not know, is a hugely contested term in certainly social sciences and the humanities.  The reasons for the contestation are more or less as follows, that it suggests that all of “Anthropos”, all of humanity, is the cause of the Anthropocene, and in that sense it elides and smooths out a very complex history of blame, and a very complex history of vulnerability in outcome.

Clearly the person in the Sundarbans who is going to be the person flooded out of their home in two years’ time by rising sea levels is not the “Anthropos” responsible for the Anthropocene.  So the counter argument to that is often suggested it should be the ‘Econocene’, or the ‘Capitalocene’, because actually it’s capitalism that has driven this. That’s one of the objections.

The other really interesting one is that this technocratic description of a stratigraphic phenomenon suggests that it’s technocracy that will get us out of this mess as well.  That this is an epoch that’s been brought into being by a sort of global capitalist managerialism, and that that’s what will get us out of it as well.  This kind of social justice objection to it, and then a deeper objection to the politics that it arguably encodes, are some of the objections to it.  So there are many, many versions of what the Anthropocene should be called.  The ‘Chthulucene’, the ‘Lichenocene’.

The other really big objection – I think this is fascinating – is actually it’s incredibly arrogant.  Actually, what’s shaping the world now, I mean yes, we are bringing about long-lasting change, and we all know what those are: soil damage, sixth great extinction, biodiversity and habitat depletion, and we’re going to leave a terrible mess in the rock record in the strata.

But actually to think that we are the species that is the world shaper, the earth shaper, the Titans, you know – what about bacteria?  What about methane?  What about viruses?  What about ice?  These are substances, forms of liveliness, that are massively, chronically, world shaping as well.  Some people suggest that calling it the Anthropocene reinforces precisely the kind of exclusory species exceptionalism that has got us here in the first place.

These debates are precisely what makes the Anthropocene so valuable as an idea.  It stops us short.  It buttonholes us.  It head-butts us.  Then it asks us really, really hard questions while we’re reeling.  I think that’s where its value lies.  Not long after we speak I’m going to be in North Carolina, beginning a three year project call the Luce Anthropocene Working Group.  That I guess might be one of your ‘what if’ spaces.

It’s bringing together I think fifteen thinkers to Duke University.  There’s a theologian, there’s an environmental historian, there’s a sinologist, there’s an environmental lawyer, there’s me, there’s a native indigenous knowledge/traditional ecological knowledge specialist, and we’re going to work together for three years and try as best we can to devise what might be a good Anthropocene scenario.  So I’ll report back in three years, Rob.

Yeah, do, I’d love to hear that.

Rob Hopkins

Rob Hopkins is a cofounder of Transition Town Totnes and Transition Network, and the author of The Transition Handbook, The Transition Companion, The Power of Just Doing Stuff, 21 Stories of Transition and most recently, From What Is to What If: unleashing the power of imagination to create the future we want. He presents the podcast series ‘From What If to What Next‘ which invites listeners to send in their “what if” questions and then explores how to make them a reality.  In 2012, he was voted one of the Independent’s top 100 environmentalists and was on Nesta and the Observer’s list of Britain’s 50 New Radicals. Hopkins has also appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Four Thought and A Good Read, in the French film phenomenon Demain and its sequel Apres Demain, and has spoken at TEDGlobal and three TEDx events. An Ashoka Fellow, Hopkins also holds a doctorate degree from the University of Plymouth and has received two honorary doctorates from the University of the West of England and the University of Namur. He is a keen gardener, a founder of New Lion Brewery in Totnes, and a director of Totnes Community Development Society, the group behind Atmos Totnes, an ambitious, community-led development project. He blogs at and and tweets at @robintransition.

Tags: connection to nature, cultural stories, imagination, the Anthropocene