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Utopia in the Anthropocene?

Published onJun 06, 2023
Utopia in the Anthropocene?

This is an essay about change and innovation, and therefore, potentially, about utopia. Moreover, it necessarily finds itself drawn into the process of education itself, for if change is not just for its own sake, and innovation means something more than novelty, then each of these vectors ought to be informed by aims such as making improvements, finding solutions, opening up wider perspectives, or the acquisition of skills and knowledge that might be of use along the way. In short, often the same aims we ascribe to education, howsoever they are stressed or configured differently in each of its manifestations.

We are also already within the domain of the utopian, for the changes to which we aspire, particularly when thinking more reflectively about education, as those of us working within the traditions of the Humanities or the Liberal Arts, for example, seek to do, are characterised by hope, perhaps the hope that what we learn and teach can make a difference, whether the difference is described in terms of personal growth, social change, or a combination of both. However, writing in 2023 during a period of global despair, hope is a commodity that is in short supply. What hope can there be for the survival of our species, that of others, and for the future of the planet, when the last best chance to reverse the climate crisis is characterised by the all-too-familiar business of horse-trading margins of economic exploitation, framed by the empty rhetoric of aggrandisement, and puts stability before sustainability and justice? As I write, António Guterres, the General Secretary of the United Nations proclaims at the annual stitch-up and back-slap fest also known as Davos, “Today, fossil fuel producers and their enablers are still racing to expand production, knowing full well that their business model is inconsistent with human survival. This insanity belongs in science fiction, yet we know the ecosystem meltdown is cold, hard scientific fact.” It is tempting to retort that science fiction tends to at least have more utopian ambitions (about which more later), but the intention, at least, is to be applauded.

Education and the Anthropocene are, to state the obvious, big concepts. In the space of one short essay, the aim is simply to draw a vital connection rather than elaborate a comprehensive argument. The key point I wish to make is that to consider educational utopia and hope without attending to the immediate crisis confronting humankind would ultimately lead to meaningless, rote “learning objectives and experiences,” failing to provide learners (and thereby ultimately tomorrow’s society) with the tools required for fixing and for coping in extraordinary times. One could say that rehashing existing models would be like handing out yesterday’s pedagogical fiddles to play while the world burns, or renting out over-priced deckchairs that students can rearrange neatly on their CVs while our collective Titanic sinks. It is interesting though, that these metaphors that have come to mind to outline these dispositions are, themselves, quite loaded. On the one hand, tools imply technology, the capacity to build or fix, perhaps raise marvellous cities, construct (more efficient) machines, invent weapons (useful in managing the effects of climate migration), or Macgyver schemes mitigating actual environmental damage by reframing progress (yet again) as profit. Music or the arts (even if only the art of arranging patio furniture) are dismissed in the examples above as mere pastimes, and more than this, as indications of the vain-glory of humankind, trifles compared to the ravages of nature or the Cnutian folly that we can control it. Already we are stumbling upon a deeply rooted prejudice against the Humanities, taking the form of a binarism that, at its most extreme, elevates technological progress over mere aesthetic appreciation. Surely, proponents of this worldview argue, the next generation should be equipped with twenty-first century skills commensurate with the advances in industry, rather than spending time on ‘soft’ learning? Yet, and this will be the second major strand of argumentation in the essay, to posit such a dualism is to radically miss the point of education, particularly at such a pressing moment.

Rather than sticking with the false dichotomy between the Arts and hard science, or, to put it in other terms, familiar to those from Liberal Education backgrounds, between learning for self-improvement and advancement and instrumental or applied learning, it is time to forge new paradigms. I base this assertion on two contemporary theories, each of which addresses education, whether directly or indirectly, in terms of contexts, in particular the situations in which learning occurs. Together, these critiques make a case for changing the terms of the debate - we cannot answer questions about what to teach, far less how to teach it, until and unless we are clear about the reasons for educating, and in the current situation the answer to this fundamental question must, in some real sense, be about equipping humanity with an understanding of the climate catastrophe, and inculcating a real commitment to averting it, as much as providing the skills to do so. This means we have to talk about values, perhaps even recalibrate values, since the current emphases in formal education persist in valuing what we have always valued (capital) and doing what we always have done (growing profit, competing for resources), which, there’s no surprise, will give us what we always got (exploitation of the environment, the extraction and exhaustion of materials, and disregard for the biosphere).

The first theorist I consider is not conventionally associated with thinking about education, yet his thesis has far-reaching consequences for how we frame our endeavours in universities and schools. I refer to the philosopher Yuk Hui, who focuses on “technicity,” or the ontologies according to which technologies are ascribed value, as the cornerstone of modernity, and connects this to the current state of our planet. He writes:

“The Anthropocene is regarded as a new era - a new axis of time - in which human activities influence the earth system in previously unimaginable ways….The recognition of the Anthropocene is the culmination of a technological consciousness in which the human being starts to realise, not only in the intellectual milieu but also in the broader public, the decisive role of technology in the destruction of the biosphere and in the future of humanity: it has been estimated that without effective mitigation, climate change will bring about the end of the human species within two hundred years. The Anthropocene is closely related to the project of thinking modernity, since fundamentally the modern ontological interpretations of the cosmos, nature, the world, and humanity are constitutive of what led us to the predicament in which we find ourselves today” (Yuk Hui, 2016, pp. 311-312).

Yuk Hui is not directly addressing the role of education, however the way in which he lays out delusional and misplaced faith in modernist technology as the summum of human activity points clearly to the interconnections between his thesis and our “consciousness,” how we “interpret” and “imagine” the earth system and the cosmos, in short, to the basic components of education when it is conceived of contextually - perception, ontology, and understanding. This connection becomes more evident as Yuk Hui proceeds to identify the dilemma we currently confront: can we solve the planetary crisis by throwing new technological solutions at it, through an accelerated “geo-engineering” of our environment, or should we learn from the mistakes of our past and adopt new approaches? His answer is informative. “Ameliorative measures” such as reducing pollution (or, one could add, carbon trading or capture), he writes, “are necessary but not sufficient” (Yuk Hui, 2016, pp. 298-299). Much more important, he argues, is to become aware of how the European model of neo-liberalism, now elevated to a world system, is premised on a technicity that never tires in mining nature for its resources and reducing humanity to labour in its service. Other thinkers, such as Bruno Latour (2018) and Achille Mbembe (2020), arrive at similar conclusions, and also point to the same solutions. For Latour (2018, p. 42), it is incumbent on us to seek answers that posit “the terrestrial” as co-agent, rather than the setting for our actions, while Mbembe looks to pre-colonial Africa (much as Yuk Hui finds alternative models in Chinese traditions) for ontological and metaphysical dispositions for myths, oral literature and cosmologies that “concern the limits of the Earth; the frontiers of life, the body and the self; the themes of being and of being in relation; and of the human body as an assemblage of multiple entities, the articulations between these a task to be resumed continuously” (Mbembe, 2020, p. 89).1 In each case, it is incumbent on us to find ways to reset natural balances, find (and reimagine) ways to live sustainably, learning both from ancient, and often overlooked, forms of wisdom, and from attuning to the natural cosmotechnicities that inform them.

I refer next to the work of Tim Ingold (2018), who revisits some of the most insightful educational thinking of recent years in terms of precepts drawn from his own discipline, anthropology. Building on John Dewey’s rejection of conventional education as a form of transmission of knowledge through imitation or inheritance, Ingold points to anthropology’s emphasis on participation, practice and community as the requisites for an attentive education, one that provides learners with shared experiences leading to reflection, reassessment and reasoning. In this sense, it is counter-intuitive to prescribe goals, or pre-determine outcomes. Instead, he refers to the ancient Greek concept of “school time” as unhindered by destinations or aims, much as the anthropologist approaches “the field” through attending to it, rather than bringing expectations to it:

“The purpose of school was not to furnish every child with a destiny in life and the means to fulfil it, in the form of a given identity with its particular ways of speaking, acting and thinking. Quite the reverse: it was to un-destine, to suspend the trappings of the social order, to detach means from ends – words from meanings, property from use, acts from intentions, thinking from thoughts – so as to set them free, bring them into presence in the here-and-now, and place them at the disposal of all…. (T)he educator is not so much a custodian of ends as a catalyst of beginnings, whose task it is to restore both memory and imagination to the temporal stretch of life.

Education in this sense is a form of longing, a practice of care, a way of doing undergoing, and its freedom is the freedom of habit… It is a field alive with minor gestures, in which false problems can be set aside for real ones – ‘open problems that bring us together in the mode of active enquiry’” (Ingold, 2018, p. 49).

Ingold goes on to draw out three characteristics of this disposition, or approach (for he is effectively considering the question of how we learn) as follows:

  1. Education should not take place in isolation, independently from the concerns of society, but rather as an integrated part of the social, in common, or what he refers to as commoning.

  2. We should not conceive of education as a staging point, or a way to get from a to b, but rather as an immersion in the thick of things. Quoting Michel Serres, (1997) he describes this as entering the middle of the river, the current or the milieu, something better thought of not as a dividing line but as a new and unpredictable space that ‘unfolds into a universe’ (Ingold, 2018, p. 8).

  3. Education ought to be approached with detachment, leaving preconceptions behind. He denounces the orthodoxy where, instead, it is the repository of our prejudices, by quoting the French author, Daniel Pennac describing school children on their way to class, “Look, here they come, their bodies in the process of becoming and their families in their rucksacks.” The task of education, it becomes clear, requires these assumptions to be left outside the classroom: “The lesson can’t really begin until the burden has been laid aside and the onion peeled” (Ingold, 2018: 50).

These principles might, at first glance, seem to contradict my emphasis on context (in communing, the objects of study are defamiliarized, uprooted; by detaching learners from their background their situation is suspended), however I would argue, with Ingold, that in seeing education as a milieu where all participate in enquiry together as equals, a new kind of context is co-created, the educational context, and this can open up, or unfold, into new perspectives. As Ingold concludes:

[B]eing collectively present here and now means not only that you are present to others. They are also present to you. They too are lifted from the positions and categorisations into which they have been consigned by the majority, freed up from the ends to which they are customarily deployed and brought to our attention not as objects of regard but as animate things in their own right, to which we are bound to respond…. Things act, they speak to us directly, make us think: not just about them but with them. They become part of our word as we are of theirs. We care for them, as they for us. This is what it means to study (Ingold, 2018, p. 49).

Our approach to education, then, for Ingold, is as important as what we study, for it is in cultivating and fostering attentive, careful dispositions that we learn, re-learn, or even, forge the values that we share. By stressing the animate nature of the world around us, and our obligation to it, he is clearly aligning education with an un-doing of those ideologies and philosophies that have relegated the non-human to the category of the worth-less.

At this point it is worth taking stock of the possible objection that aims such as those outlined above are, well, utopian. We are all too aware of the many practical and political constraints involved in introducing educational change, and therefore my emphasis is one that seeks to be adaptable, grounded in the principles of what we practice as educators, and which I have described elsewhere (Cohen de Lara et. al., 2019) as “learning-centred education”—a realignment that foregrounds the process of attentive and contextual learning over the expectations of teachers or the interests of learners, each of which are necessarily caught up in the doxas that produced the current crisis, and neither of which, on their own, can sufficiently reorient pedagogy away from reproducing existing social structures. Paolo Friere, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, provides a far-reaching critique of the former, demonstrating how traditional education dehumanises learners, but I would also argue, the dialogue he seeks can also be counter-productive if it is too far weighted in favour of learners’ agendas or direction. After all, they, as much as their teachers, are products of the same social situations, and, to follow the argument through to its conclusion, “learner choice” at least in part driven by market imperatives deeply embedded in the logic of extractive capital.

To conclude, education for the mid twenty-first century should provide learners (including teachers. administrators and managers) with spaces, activities and projects that challenge assumptions and seek new lessons, rather than reassure or comfort, encourage connection with rather than alienation from nature, each other, ourselves. In the current predicament, learning ought to be taken seriously as an invitation to develop an awareness of what it is to be human, within our evolving awareness of the affordances of the more-than-human.

Returning to science fiction, Liu Cixin, the author of the acclaimed ‘Three Body’ trilogy, provides a good example of the broader perspectives that we, as learners, might consider. In an earlier text, Of Ants and Dinosaurs, he imagines earth before humans, and tells the story of how intelligent dinosaurs, hampered by their mass and clumsiness, collaborated with agile ants, who in turn, although nimble, were incapable of creative thinking. In brief, they learned together, drawing on their mutual strengths and forging unforeseeable technicities through simultaneous co-working, and in doing so advanced civilisation. As the novel progresses though, they learn another important lesson, and that is that care has to extent not just to those inhabiting the planet, but crucially also to the planet that sustains life. He describes this mutual collaboration as follows:

“As communication between the two worlds improved, the ants absorbed more and more knowledge and ideas from the dinosaurs, for each new scientific and cultural achievement could now be promptly disseminated throughout ant-kind. And so, the critical defect in ant society – the dearth of creative thinking – was remedied, leading to the simultaneous rapid advancement of ant civilisation. The result of the dinosaur-ant alliance was that the ants became the dinosaurs’ dextrous hands while the dinosaurs became a wellspring of vision and innovation for the ants. The fusion of these budding intelligences in the late Cretaceous had finally sparked a dramatic nuclear reaction. The sun of civilisation rose over the heart of Gondwana, dispelling the long night of evolution on Earth” (Liu, 2020, p. 57).

I won’t reveal the end of the novel, but let’s just say that their day in the sun, perhaps like our own, has its limits. Through their neglect of the proto-continent of Gondwana and the Earth, the sun will finally set on their civilisation and a long night ensue. The subtitle of Liu’s novel is a “cautionary tale.” Human learning in the Anthropocene needs urgently to pay heed to our own, and others’, fates if we and our planet are to co-evolve beyond the brink of catastrophe.2


Cohen de Lara, E, Van Drunen, M., & Pratt, M. (2019). An Ongoing State of Dialogue: Learning-centred education at Amsterdam University College. Th&ma, Tijdschrift voor hoger onderwijs & management, 26(4), 26-30. Accessed 18 January 2023,

Elliott, L. (2023). UN head accuses fossil fuel firms of business models ‘inconsistent with human survival, The Guardian. Accessed 18 January 2023,

Friere, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Ingold, T. (2018). Anthropology and/as Education. Abingdon: Routledge.

Latour, B. (2018). Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Liu C. (2020). Of ANTS and DINOSAURS: The Cautionary Tale of Earth’s FIRST and GREATEST Civilization. London: Head of Zeus. First published 2010. Translated by Elizabeth Hanlon.

Mbembe, A. (2020). Brutalisme. Paris: Editions de la Découverte.

Pennac, D. (2010). School Blues. London: MacLahose Press. Translated by S.Ardizzone.

머래이 프랫(2022). “배우는 인간, 인간에 대한 배움: 인류세 시대의 일반교육에 대하여”, 홍석민 편, 교양교육으로서의 인문학: 무엇을, 왜, 어떻게 가르칠 것인가? (pp. 171-185), 서울: 연세대학교 출판문화원 [Pratt, Murray (2022). “Human Learning, Learning Human: Approaching General Education in the Anthropocene”, In Hong Seok Min (Ed.), The Humanities as General Education: What, Why, and How To Teach? (Seoul: Yonsei University Press), 171-185.].

Serres, M. (1997). The Troubador of Knowledge. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. Translated by S. Glaser and W. Paulson.

Yuk, H. (2016). The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics. Falmouth: Urbanomic Media.

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