Modernism in the Anthropocene

Researcher Peter Adkins explores how radical early 20th-century literary shifts reimagined the human within broader planetary processes, a ‘Modernist Anthropocene’ expanding understandings of our geological agency long before global environmental predicaments became the widespread crises of our times.


2,000 words: estimated reading time = 8 minutes


1922 is often considered a golden year when it comes to literature. James Joyce published his epic modernist novel Ulysses, a work that was almost immediately banned in Britain and America on account of its transgressive content. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land arrived as a fiery example of how verse might respond to the upheavals of post-World War One life. And Virginia Woolf’s experimental narrative of a young man who doesn’t return from the front, Jacob’s Room, established her as one of the foremost novelists of her generation.

Literature was reinventing itself, pushing at the boundaries of what could and couldn’t be said. Along with similar revolutions in the visual arts, music, and architecture, rapid transformations were sweeping cultural forms, breaking down the old ways of experiencing the world and offering new ways of conceptualising lived experience.

Less well-known is the degree to which 1922 was something of a threshold year in attempts to conceptualise what we now refer to as the Anthropocene. The Cambridge geographer, R. L. Sherlock published a book entitled Man as a Geological Agent, in which he argued that we have to think of the human species as both a biological and geological actor — predating Dipesh Chakrabarty’s influential argument about the human as a geological agent in the Anthropocene by almost 90 years. And perhaps even more remarkably, the Russian geologist Aleksey Pavlov actually used the word ‘Anthropocene’ in a 1922 paper, arriving at it as a term that might recognise the longstanding influence of human activity on the planet. 

Human in the nonhuman world

When I began the research on what would become my book, The Modernist Anthropocene, I wanted to know if there were any links between these two spheres of activity: one revising how we understand literature and the other revising how we understand planetary life.

Certainly, it was the case that modernist writers were interested in how humans interact with and imagine the nonhuman world. In one of the moments of Jacob’s Room that moved me when I first read it during my PhD, Jacob Flanders is described as overcome with the urge to press himself against the ground and “feel the earth spin; to have–positively–a rush of friendship for stones and grasses”. Woolf’s writing is so often attuned to geology and ecology. The middle portion of her novel To the Lighthouse (1927), entitled ‘Time Passes’, is largely devoid of human characters and instead imagines the decay of a house on the Isle of Skye, left abandoned during World War One and slowly succumbing to the sea air. It is a vision of life after humans, of the world we might leave behind us. While in Orlando (1928), whose narrative covers over four hundred years, Woolf charts the vicissitudes of the English climate seeming, at moments, to appear to intuit the concept of anthropogenic climate change (possibly, as I discovered during my research, influenced by her reading of the early climatologist John Tyndall).

Modernist Anthropocene: Showing the cover for the first edition of Virginia Woolf's 'To the Lighthouse' (1927) featuring a jacket design by Vanessa Bell
Cover for first edition of Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’ (1927) featuring a jacket design by Vanessa Bell

This cosmological orientation towards the earth and the air is shared by Joyce, albeit in starkly different ways. Leopold Bloom, one of the principal characters in Joyce’s Ulysses, frequently turns in his thoughts towards nonhuman life, from other animals to celestial bodies. Towards the end of Ulysses, the reader finds Bloom reflecting on the puniness of the human when placed within a planetary frame that runs from macroscopic to micro. In a tour de force sentence, Joyce presents Bloom meditating on:

the eons of geological periods recorded in the stratifications of the earth: of the myriad minute entomological organic existences concealed in cavities of the earth, beneath removable stones, in hives and mounds, of microbes, germs, bacteria, bacilli, spermatozoa: of the incalculable trillions of billions of millions of imperceptible molecules contained by cohesion of molecular affinity in a single pinhead: of the universe of human serum constellated with red and white bodies, themselves universes of void space constellated with other bodies, each, in continuity, its universe of divisible component bodies of which each was again divisible in divisions of redivisible component bodies, dividends and divisors ever diminishing without actual division till, if the progress were carried far enough, nought nowhere was never reached.

For Bloom, whose interest in science provides a worldview in which the human is itself a constellation of otherworldly processes, there is a clear continuity between the geological and the biological. As we find throughout Joyce’s writing, the human is divisible into flows and processes that firmly situates it within broader planetary processes. The human is, in an important sense, resolutely inhuman.

Modernist Anthropocene: Showing the first edition of James Joyce's 'Ulysses' (1922), banned in Britain and USA.
First edition of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ (1922), banned in Britain and the USA.

Tipping points in the Modernist Anthropocene

As I wrote The Modernist Anthropocene, I discovered that there were clear points of confluence between the modernist writers shaking up the literary world and those in the sciences, both in terms of direct points of connection and indirect areas of resonance and overlap. The French philosopher, Henri Bergson, provided one such connection. Eliot had attended Bergson’s lectures while in Paris and his writing on evolution both inspired Joyce (who owned a copy of Creative Evolution while writing Ulysses) and Vladimir Vernadsky, whose work Geochemistry helped pave the way for the field of climatology. Indeed, Joyce and Vernadsky lived in Paris at the same time in the 1920s. Although I am yet to find any evidence of their having met, I like to think that they might have drank at the same cafés or attended the same operas, unaware that they were in the company of a fellow intellectual revolutionary.

Another question which presented itself as I wrote my book was: why then? Why was it during the 1910s, 20s and 30s that these developments took place in literature and science?

Part of the reason was that they were looking to dislodge ideas from the previous century that now appeared lacking in certain respects. In literature, modernist writers were looking to challenge (although not necessarily wholesale reject) Victorian literary conventions. For novelists, this meant utilising narrative techniques such as free indirect discourse and interior monologue to break with what they saw as the artificiality of the realist novel and get closer to the subjective experience of life itself. A similar rationale could be found among figures such as Bergson and Vernadsky, who saw nineteenth-century ideas in evolutionary biology and physics as being too mechanistic, unable to account for what Bergson famously termed ‘élan vital’ – the vital spark which powers life onward.

Yet this was only half the story, as I discovered. The early twentieth century was also a period of environmental tipping points and thresholds. The period saw the development and use of liquid fuels, the nascence of motor and air travel, the invention of human-made nitrate fertiliser, as well as continued rapid growth in industrialism, urbanisation, fossil fuel extraction, and intensive agriculture, all of which were responding to, and fuelled by, ever-expanding population levels.

And although the figures I look at in my book cannot be said to be ‘environmental writers’ in the sense of writing with the explicit aim of ecological consciousness-raising, they were nonetheless alert to the poisoning of the world around them. In Joyce’s Ulysses, for instance, we find repeated descriptions of Dublin’s polluted status. In one particularly memorable description, the River Poddle is described as a “tongue of liquid sewage” emptying out into the Liffey. Later in the book we discover that Bloom knows a family who, reliant on collecting mussels for food, have been poisoned by the sewage. In his attention to the unequally distributed consequences of pollution, Joyce might be seen as intuiting the notion of slow violence, or the way in which many of the effects of the Anthropocene materialise not through cataclysmic instances but gradual processes that unfold so slowly as to become near invisible to all those but most directly impacted.

Showing a postcard image of the River Liffey, Dublin, in 1900. The Liffey, and the tributaries that fed into it, were heavily polluted by the end of the nineteenth century.
Postcard image of the River Liffey, Dublin, in 1900. The Liffey, and the tributaries that fed into it, were heavily polluted by the end of the nineteenth century.

The concept of the ‘Modernist Anthropocene’ emerged as a synthesis of these observations and insights. The term, as I use it, denotes both a historical period, in which significant environmental change and scientific developments occurred that profoundly altered our relationship to the planet, and an identifiable set of aesthetic responses to that historical moment, represented in the works of innovative writers who were highly aware of the way in which humans were influencing nonhuman processes.

The finished book explores this idea by looking in detail at three modernist writers: James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Djuna Barnes. T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence, Gertrude Stein, Franz Kafka, Vita Sackville-West and others also make appearances at various points. As I write, I’ve just finished a follow-up book, an edited collection entitled Virginia Woolf and the Anthropocene. Woolf, for me, might be the modernist writer who was most sensitive to developments in the physical world and the edited collection, which brings together essays from ten leading scholars, explores various facets of her writing as they relate to the Anthropocene. My own contribution to the volume is a chapter on Woolf, petroleum and colonial extractivism and reflects what, I hope, will be the subject of my next book: modernism, energy transition and oil.

Literary works are, as critics are increasingly recognising, uniquely poised to open up new ways of thinking about emergent planetary conditions. As Tobias Menely and Jesse Oak Taylor frame it in the introduction to their edited collection, Anthropocene Reading: Literary History in Geologic Times (2017), literature might be approached as offering a kind of stratigraphic record, providing us with snapshots of specific points in planetary history and thereby helping us understand how we have historically imagined the world. Yet this stratigraphic approach also insists that texts are not just historical artefacts but lively and vibrant materials which can enter into dialogue with the present and help us make sense of ongoing crises and challenges.
Reading and writing are, as the modernists showed us, activities that can help us see the world afresh and foster new ways of understanding what it means to live on a damaged planet. 

Showing 'The Modernist Anthropocene' by Peter Adkins


Peter Adkins

Peter Adkins

A researcher and writer exploring how literature helps us imagine, understand and rethink environmental history, planetary change, resource use, and relationships between humans and other animals.

The Modernist Anthropocene: Nonhuman Life and Planetary Change in James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Djuna Barnes by Peter Adkins (Edinburgh University Press, 2024) is published in a paperback edition and is also available for free as an open access e-book. 

Virginia Woolf and the Anthropocene is forthcoming with Edinburgh University Press, due for publication in June 2024. 

Peter mentions how the writings of key modernist authors such as Joyce prefigure or intuit ideas that have become established in 21st-century accounts of the Anthropocene. Among these are the works of historian Dipesh Chakrabarty and literary scholar Rob Nixon. 

In 2009, Dipesh Chakrabarty published The Climate of History: Four Theses (Critical Inquiry, Volume 35, Number 2) in which he suggested that: anthropogenic explanations of climate change spell the collapse of the age-old humanist distinction between natural history and human history; the idea of the Anthropocene, the new geological epoch when humans exist as a geological force, severely qualifies humanist histories of modernity/globalisation; the geological hypothesis regarding the Anthropocene requires us to put global histories of capital in conversation with the species history of humans; and the cross-hatching of species history and the history of capital is a process of probing the limits of historical understanding.

In 2013, Rob Nixon published Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Harvard University Press), discussing how the violence wrought by climate change, deforestation, oil spills, and the environmental aftermath of war takes place gradually and often invisibly: a “slow violence, because it is so readily ignored by a hard-charging capitalism, exacerbates the vulnerability of ecosystems and of people who are poor, disempowered, and often involuntarily displaced, while fueling social conflicts that arise from desperation as life-sustaining conditions erode.”

Dystopian Farming: An Inquiry

For animist farmer and author Paul Feather, 2024 brings a creative inquiry into ‘dystopian farming’ as resistance as well as sustenance, and a search for joy and meaning that makes our dire times tolerable: the potential for liberation.


1,100 words: estimated reading time = 4 minutes


I have been farming for twenty years, and I’ve had some success in growing food. Enough success that people ask me lots of questions about it, and that I have several hundred pounds of sweet potatoes, yacón, pumpkins, and potatoes stacked in crates in the cellar alongside shelves full of canned tomatoes, pears, and pickled everything. Enough that I don’t feel overworked in producing all of this. I have been farming for twenty years, yet I still don’t feel like I know how to do it — even less do I know how to talk about it or how to answer your questions about farming.

Farming dystopia. Showing Full Life Farm in the lower piedmont of the Appalachian mountains.
Farming dystopia: Full Life Farm in the lower piedmont of the Appalachian mountains. Photograph: Terra Currie © 2023

Whether I have answers or not, people continue to ask how my farm works. So, in pursuit of these answers that I don’t yet have, in 2024 I will make an inquiry into what I do. I shall call it ‘Farming Dystopia’, because I feel that dystopia best describes our cultural and ecological context. I resonate with the words of Potawatomi scholar Kyle Powys Whyte who points out that “some indigenous peoples already inhabit what [their] ancestors would have likely characterized as a dystopian future” in which settler colonialism has so drastically altered people’s environment that it is harder to obtain the traditional foods and materials that they have relied on for millennia. He emphasizes that in spite of this unfortunate reality, “we do not give up by dwelling in a nostalgic past even though we live in our ancestors’ dystopia.”1

This dystopia does not only affect Indigenous people (even if it does affect them most severely). We all live in a world of façade and confusion, where every practice, including farming, requires some not-quite-tolerable measure of exploitation half perceived, but partly veiled by the cognitive dissonance that makes it possible to get through the day. The present dystopia is a soul-numbing experience for anyone, at best; and a terrifying and dangerous one for far too many.

Farming for liberation

If I would honestly describe my farming methodology, acknowledgment of our dystopian context would have to be the jumping-off point. I am farming within a dystopian context. I am inside The Matrix. It is Nineteen Eighty-Four, and this is a Brave New World. Dystopian farming is a means of sustenance and also resistance. It is a frank admission of our dire context, but also — maybe even primarily — a search for the joy and meaning that makes that context tolerable.

This inquiry originates as an attempt to answer questions about my farming methods, and so its initial structure will be blog-like: if I can’t ‘explain’ my methods, perhaps I can narrate them every week or so. However, I would also like to de-center my own methods, because farming is extremely context-dependent. I have no real way to know whether my particular methods will be helpful for people with different access to land, different body types, different social and family structures, different climates … different everything. In the dystopian context, the value of a method is in its potential for liberation, and I don’t know how much my methods can liberate others, especially people with less privilege than I have enjoyed. I would like to be able to answer that question.

If my inquiry is to be successful, it will also have to include other voices, other platforms, and other knowledge. Perhaps it will evolve away from a personal blog to become more like a book, a zine, or a journal article. If there is dialogue, we could even borrow the format of a podcast.

For now, I will inquire and write. My initial reflections have been about the curious mix of liberation and obligation that goats bring into my life. As I make small daily movements in preparation for spring seeding, I will snap pictures and share thoughts about how to coax another round from the dirt. What do I owe the dirt for this?

Dystopian farming in dialogue

As I hope to include others in this inquiry, I think it is helpful to situate dystopian farming in a broad dialogue about global agriculture. Without making prescriptions about what people should or shouldn’t be doing in contexts that I haven’t experienced, I hope I can narrow the scope of the inquiry in a way that invites the participation I am looking for.

I think that dystopian farming should be agroecological and radically holistic. Agroecology is a broad framework that includes dimensions of science, social movement, and practice.2 It is true that like many frameworks, the concept of agroecology is partially coopted by institutions3, so for this inquiry we retain the multidimensionality of agroecology and emphasize its roots in peasant social movements such as La Via Campesina.4 We also use it as a framework that addresses multiple scales: from the ecology of a single farm plot all the way to the global food system as a whole.

This inquiry will naturally interact with dialogue about permaculture — which along with ‘regenerative farming’ seems to have captured much of the imagination of the ecological farming movement — but we should critique these frameworks for their extraction of Indigenous farming practices while failing to integrate Indigenous critiques of modernity. Permaculture and regenerative agriculture have also failed to credit Indigenous people for their intellectual foundation or adequately address the legacies of settler colonialism. This is not something I will critique on the basis of morals or ideology, but because the approach I describe as dystopian farming is radically holistic and acknowledges that failure to integrate these critiques makes our farming practice more damaging to the land, weakens our social movements, and undermines our scientific foundation.

Showing Full Life Farm logo
Full Life Farm. Design: Terra Currie

Finally, dystopian farming is pragmatic. There is room for abstract discussion — and possibly even fiction — but in the end we must have sweet potatoes and a cellar to put them in. Obviously my initial inquiry is personal and fundamentally anecdote, and perhaps that is all it will ever be. But this is also an invitation — or maybe it’s a manifesto to co-create something far more interesting than anecdote or my personal critique of a farming ethos that fails to address the deeper crises of our modern dystopia.


References

[1] Whyte, Kyle Powys, “Our Ancestors’ Dystopia Now: Indigenous Conservation and the Anthropocene”, in The Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities (2021, Routledge).

[2] Steve Gliessman (2018) Defining Agroecology, Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 42:6, 599-600.

[3] Omar Felipe Giraldo & Peter M. Rosset (2017) Agroecology as a territory in dispute: between institutionality and social movements, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 45:3, 545-564.

[4] Val, V., Rosset, P. M., Zamora Lomelí, C., Giraldo, O. F., & Rocheleau, D. (2019). Agroecology and La Via Campesina I. The symbolic and material construction of agroecology through the dispositive of “peasant-to-peasant” processes. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 43(7-8), 872-894; Rosset, P., Val, V., Barbosa, L. P., & McCune, N. (2019). Agroecology and La Via Campesina II. Peasant agroecology schools and the formation of a sociohistorical and political subject. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 43(7-8), 895-914.

Find out more

You can find Paul’s Farming Dystopia blog at his website with Terra Currie, where they discuss Full Life Farm — the ecological experiment they established in 2007 on five acres in the lower piedmont of the Appalachian mountains – as well as present their art and writing and health and education work.

Paul Feather

Paul Feather

An animist farmer and author whose artistic interests include the courtship of landscapes for food and seed and translating animist thought into the language of physics.

Planet Local — Community and Connection

Writer and filmmaker James Murray-White visited the Planet Local Summit, finding in its examples of urgent work around the world to foster being and acting locally a cultural turning towards nature as antidote to climate and ecological breakdown.


1,800 words: estimated reading time = 7 minutes


Once in a while I’m fortunate to attend a gathering — truly in this case an in-gathering of a community — that is so warm and focused that my intuitive heart knows that this is a real crystallisation of the worldwide urgent work going on, and that this will be a big impetus for it to flourish, broaden and deepen.

Planet Local - promotion for the summit in Bristol, October 2023

Helena Norberg-Hodge, inspirational founder of Local Futures, the organising NGO, spoke in her opening address of the Planet Local Summit of all attendees being part of the ‘bacterial mycelia’ seeding the crucialness of acknowledging our local belonging. This felt a deep truth and, as I write and reflect, still feels the best take-home gift. I left Bristol feeling energised to return home (currently Cambridge) with many gifts, new and old connections made and refreshed, and a strong motivation to keep working at a local level. I returned specifically to co-host a public engagement event called Dear River, of which more later.

Planet Local - showing speaker Dolma Tsering with Helena Norberg-Hodge at Planet Local.
Speaker Dolma Tsering with Helena Norberg-Hodge at Planet Local. Photograph: James Murray-White © 2023

Planet Local – our need for connection

Helena set the term ‘localisation’ as the antidote to the twin threats of climate and ecological breakdown, happening at speed now in every corner and continent of our planet, and the death march of the industrial/economic system that capitalism has wrought upon the human world. By acknowledging, being and acting locally — in terms of fostering community, emphasising well-being, local food growing, and community care — including finance staying within our local systems, Local Futures describes localisation through these actions as “a cultural turning towards nature” and “an expression of our need for connection — both to others and to all living beings.”

This was the first post-pandemic gathering for me that I felt called to, due to both the high-profile speakers in-person and the sessions sharing case studies of specific local actions and issues. From Helena, Bayo Akomolafe, Morag Gamble, Iain McGilchrist and Charles Eisenstein to many other brilliant engagers, thinkers and philosophers, pragmatists, growers and weavers, the hall at St George’s, associated spin-off rooms — including the cafe/bar, and various rooms at the nearby Folk House venue, and The Tobacco Factory arts centre to which the summit relocated on day three — were all humming with conversations and ideas brewing and being dissected and unpicked.

The big evening conversation on the Friday, a much-hyped conversation between XR co-founder Roger Hallam and ex-Government Minister Zac Goldsmith felt almost a dampening of the enthusiasm during the day: neither seemed to absorb the energy of the gathering, and while they found a kind of middle ground around failures of policy, and the potential of coming bloody revolutions (and the history of previous ones), neither could really offer any threads to hold hope upon.

The community-building that XR and Just Stop Oil has created is hugely commendable and needs anchors and deep seeding across all levels of our societies. I recently heard about an elderly couple who watched Chris Packham’s incisive and timely documentary struggling with his conscience about being arrested for activism and using his powerful voice; and they are now inspired to act, in whatever local way they are able.

On the other hand, Goldsmith’s tale of woe and pressure from lobbyists, including in one notable case the National Farmers Union, against plans for environmental support he was proposing is simply insane, and needs calling out. This is the industrial death machine of chemicals, vested interest, power; the insecurity of the human mind, tragically, that has created this huge schism in a world with so much staggering beauty, potential, and constant flux and change. The next day, Charles Eisenstein’s words — “The idea that the change can happen with the right person in charge is inherently wrong” — reminded me of Goldsmith and Hallam, and also the pedestals and stages we create for leaders to stand on (and fall or get kicked off, because we’re fallible humans!).

Belonging in the human and the natural

Bayo Akomalafe and Iain McGilchrist. Photograph: James Murray-White © 2023

It was a joy to hear philosopher Iain McGilchrist reflect upon the theme, both alone and in conversation with Bayo Akomalafe and then Helena. I’m struck by his phrase:

“We are here to respond to the values of the universe, both in belonging ourselves and as part of the human community; to develop and expand our relationship to the natural world, and, partly as a result of these two practices, to live within divinity.”

A one-to-one conversation with Iain became a beautiful engagement around the theme of grace, which is an enduring talisman for me to hold. I recommend Iain’s The Master & His Emissary for an erudite scientific dissection of the schism in our body-brain and how this permeates across human history.

Food and farming, and the systems that support them, was a key theme of the Summit. With another hat on, I’m a member of the team making Six Inches Of Soil, a new documentary on regenerative agriculture and new entrant farmers, which will be premiered at the Oxford Real Farming Conference early in 2024, so I’ve an interest here, as I hope we all have. It’s increasingly clear that knowing our local farmers and buying direct or from local farmers’ markets, with local supply chains, is vital to planetary health and soil-human survival and potential thriving.

Chris Smaje, smallholder, writer and food activist, based outside Frome, and Jyoti Fernandez, farmer, activist, and co-founder of the Landworker’s Alliance, are tremendous forces for good in this sphere. Both are making change, standing strong against big farm companies and food/meat manipulation and galvanising opinion.

It was refreshing to hear from Nelson Mudzingwa, a Zimbabwean farmer who has struggled to gather seed sovereignty and organic certification across his land and the African continent. By open source seed saving, his collective is developing crop resilience to climate change in their region. Words of hope from a country known for bitter political struggle. Farmer, former head of the Soil Association and now founder of the Sustainable Food Trust, Patrick Holden chaired this session with passion and aplomb, though I found his constant allusions to connections across the CEO worlds, including Bill Gates, distracting and pretty irrelevant given the brilliance within this audience and panel.

Speaking from a new story

A day and a half in, however, I was chomping at the bit for news from really local actions, initiatives and community building from these isles. As a former Bristol resident, I know that this city is bursting with creative social enterprise and strong community efforts, particularly around peri-urban food growing and combatting poverty. It’s a gritty sprawl of communities, and I sadly heard there had been a stabbing that led to a fatality in a neighbourhood nearby on Friday.

I had expected to meet the Street Goat Project bringing their furry troupe up the steps of St George’s to engage with us all. However I found the answer in a brilliant presentation from three members of Frocal in the village of Forest Row, Sussex: in a nutshell, asking themselves “what it might be like if we all lived and acted more locally?” They gave examples of their success and failures and acknowledged that it was a work in progress, albeit a vital effort for these times. I will visit friends there and investigate shortly. Frocal feels like a really valuable and catalysing project.

Darcia Narvaez of The Evolved Nest. Photograph: James Murray-White © 2023

Other takeaways for me include the theme of colonisation of the mind as well as land and countries and continents: Vandana Shiva in her pre-recorded video highlighted this, reminding us that just 600 men created the East India Company treaty (that our monarch signed and sealed) to sail off and colonise that part of the world. Anthropologist Darcia Narvaez picked up on this with her fascinating presentation on her work on Nestedness, agreeing “we are all colonised”, and how might we respond to that knowing? Her thesis continues in the knowledge of our connectedness to, and acceptance of, our heritage.

Keynote speaker Charles Eisenstein delivered a meandering wander through his response to the topic — “ I trust the deployment of the intelligence that my gifts will be useful for” — and concurred with the broader theme that we “need to speak to people from a new story”. He brings a wisdom to our human need to really acknowledge that “technology is reaching deeper and deeper into the core of what it means to be human” and that our “common goal is to rekindle our connections”.

Planet Local.

Sadly, I had to leave after two days, and the third and final day of the summit relocated to another Bristol venue, and I suspect drilled down more into very local UK and Bristolian specifics.

What called me very strongly back to my locale was an event I co-hosted to celebrate water and river systems at this time of waking up to the sorry state most rivers are in, and specifically how they are being abstracted from, and our human sewage dumped within. Dear River was a locally-organised gift to our community, to meet the issue with creativity, grief, and space — space to gather, to listen, to respond, and to ask “what can we do?” After two days of deep stimulation at Planet Local and then this event, I suspect that asking this question is our fullest human response.


Find out more

The Planet Local Summit took place from 29th September to 1st October 2023, in Bristol, UK. You can find the full programme, find about the speakers and watch the livestream recording on the Local Futures website.

James highlights Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master & His Emissary (2009). You can find out more at Channel McGilchrist, and James shares his experiences taking part in and filming a retreat with Iain in a post for James’s Finding Blake project on William Blake: Exploring the Divided Brain.

You can read about the work of Water Sensitive Cambridge, the local organisation James has helped create and which organised the Dear River event that took him away from the final day of Planet Local, in this piece from Cambridge Independent: ‘We need to make the shift’: Water Sensitive Cambridge joins Accelerate Cambridge programme’s new cohort.

And Six Inches of Soil is the film James has been working on: “the inspiring story of British farmers standing up against the industrial food system and transforming the way they produce food — to heal the soil, benefit our health and provide for local communities.”

And here on ClimateCultures, you will find many other pieces by James, including his review of fellow member Susan Holliday’s book, Hidden Wonders of the Human Heart.

James Murray-White
James Murray-White
A writer and filmmaker linking art forms to dialogue around climate issues, whose practice stretches back to theatre-making.

Power, Love, Religion & Climate Fiction: Life Imitating Art

Writer Rod Raglin discusses his novel The Triumvirate and how a story about power, love and religion finds echoes in our unfolding climate crisis and how we try to come to grips with a hostile and uncertain future.


1,160 words: estimated reading time = 4.5 minutes


I wonder if other writers of climate fiction get the feeling of life imitating art as they watch events unfold this summer.

All my novels have a subplot that addresses one or more environmental issues, however, The Triumvirate – Love for Power, Love of Power, the Power of Love is the only one that could be labeled climate dystopia, “the global collapse of human civilization as either a direct or indirect result of anthropogenic climate change.”

One of the reasons for writing The Triumvirate was to try to imagine the future impact of climate change on where I live, British Columbia, Canada. I looked at how we were responding to the stresses that were developing in our everyday life, the society we lived in and influences beyond our borders. Then I tried to imagine, not dramatically, but realistically how they would manifest in the years to come. I took into account local, national and global attempts to mitigate effects.

Power Love Religion - showing the cover art for The Triumvirate by Rod Raglin

The Triumvirate was completed in 2019 and one of the issues addressed included the likelihood of pandemics. A year later COVID hit and the world was in lockdown. Others were drought, human migration and the breakdown of social order including insurrection and secession.

These last two weeks, the news is validating many of my premises. For example:

— In B.C., Drought Level 5 is the highest level. It means adverse impacts on both communities and ecosystems are almost certain. As of August 3rd, most of B.C.’s water basins are at Drought Level 4 or 5. Officials blamed the conditions on unusually low amounts of rainfall recorded over the last year.

— 366 wildfires currently ravaging B.C. have 30,000 people on evacuation order and 36,000 more under evacuation alert.

— As of August 21st, 5,849 fires had burned 15 million hectares (over 37 million acres), about four percent of the entire forest area of Canada and more than six times the long-term average of 2.46 million hectares (6.1 million acres) for that time of the year.

— “Sell them for nothing or watch them starve”. As B.C.’s drought worsens, farmers are scrambling to protect their livestock and crops. The impacts could be felt for years to come. 

— July 3rd-6th, 2023, were the warmest days on record, crossing 17°C for the daily global mean surface are temperature. The global mean temperature statistic masks the extreme events taking place worldwide.

Daily global mean surface air temperatures – see note for link

Those stories are climate specific, but other more disturbing stories are emerging, and though not directly attributed to climate change are the result of it. Consider:

— A new survey finds more Canadians would vote for a political leader who promised to cut immigration levels than would be repelled by this. This is partly a response to the pressure on healthcare and housing.

— In an op-ed piece, Jason Opal, Professor of History at McGill University, suggests that “America is on the brink of another civil war, this one is fueled by Donald Trump”.

Power, love and religion

In The Triumvirate, the three main characters begin as childhood friends, each with strong principles and character.

Shyloh watched the dynamic develop. Judith and Aiya were opposites. Judith was strength; Aiya feelings. Judith was about action; Aiya considered consequences. Judith looked to the end; Aiya the means. This natural adversity seemed to challenge them, bring out their best.

When the dissension, disagreement, and at times hostility threatened to destroy this triumvirate, a word Shyloh borrowed from history class which meant a group of three powerful people, it was up to him to take the heat and energy generated from the polarity and craft a consensus, identify a goal and, most importantly, create a process for getting there. 

They emerge as adults with their personalities leading them to pursue their principles. Shyloh becomes a politician, Aiya an inter-faith leader and Judith a commander in the military.

When economic and social pressures spawned by climate change make the Canadian federation untenable, Shyloh leads a political movement for secession and wins when Aiya encourages her followers, primarily new immigrants, to support it. But when the government reneges on a promise of citizenship for illegals now in the country — a promise that was key in getting the ethnic vote — violence flares. 

As the government equivocates, Judith, now head of the security forces, doesn’t, and declares martial law.

Making a better world — but which one?

Now cast in key leadership roles, could they come to a consensus as they so often had in the past, one that would restore order and democracy, or would circumstances harden their positions, leaving no room for compromise — as so often is the case today?

They sat at the table, Aiya across from Shyloh and Judith.

“Your gesture in the Legislature was appreciated,” Aiya said.

Shyloh nodded.

“It was reckless,” Judith said. “It was an implicit approval to break the law.”

“If laws are broken it won’t be because of Shyloh’s act of solidarity with the new immigrant population,” Aiya said. “It will be because of the betrayal of the government.”

“Will laws be broken, Aiya?” Shyloh said.

“Civil disobedience becomes a sacred duty when the state has become lawless or corrupt,” Aiya quoted.

“In a democracy, there is only one rule of law, Aiya,”, Judith said. She leaned forward and fixed the other woman with a hard stare. “And it applies to everyone.”

Aiya didn’t flinch. She folded her hands on the table and stared back. Black coals met grey steel.

“A citizen who barters with such a state, shares in its corruption and lawlessness,” Aiya said.

Judith stood. “The army is sworn to support the democratically elected government of Cascadia. We will uphold the rule of law.”

“Shyloh?” Aiya said.

Both women looked at him. In the past, he’d been able to broker a compromise, or better still a third way, which was ultimately stronger. He’d never taken sides before. He wasn’t about to now. Sometimes the best response was no response.

The question posed to the three characters in the novel is already being debated at a societal level, among families, even between partners. If there can only be one better world, whose will be best?

The Triumvirate is a story about love and loyalty, politics and power, race and religion, and sacrifice and survival. More than that, it’s a story I’m seeing unfold before my eyes as I watch us try to come to grips with a hostile and uncertain future.


Find out more

Rod Raglin’s novel The Triumvirate – Love for Power, Love of Power, the Power of Love is available from Amazon in Kindle and in paperback. And you can read his previous for ClimateCultures, A Drop in the Pond.

The graphic for daily global surface air temperature is from the story from Axios on 7th July 2023 Earth saw hottest day yet Thursday…

Rod Raglin

Rod Raglin

A journalist, publisher of an online community newspaper, photographer and writer of novels, plays and short stories that address the human condition and serious environmental issues ...

Resisting a Human Anthropocene: Diasporic African Religious Experiences in Nature

Writer Hassaun Jones-Bey introduces a human Anthropocene as corollary for our planet’s new geological era. The commodification of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the US shows human nature resisting the same commodification that’s visited upon non-human nature.


3,050 words: estimated reading time = approximately 12 minutes


My artistic process is both intuitive and backwards. If I were a painter, I would describe it as throwing all of the paint up on the canvas, then subtracting some things, moving other things around, and also adding some back until it seems to work. It might be described as putting together a puzzle in which it is okay to change the shape and appearance of the pieces, to throw some pieces away, to go out and find totally new pieces, and to even change the size and shape of the entire puzzle. Part of this comes from a couple of decades of creating ‘word pictures’ on the professional side of my life as a science journalist, while also ‘painting with light’ as an amateur landscape photographer.

Human Anthropocene: commodifying human and non-human nature 

The puzzle I’m completing right now suggests that the commodification of non-human nature over the past 500 years has a corollary in the commodification of human nature during the same period. I think of it as a human corollary for the geological Anthropocene. I focus specifically on the commodification of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Americas, particularly in the US. The evolution of musical expression among these people seems to offer a record of human nature resisting the same commodification that has been visited upon non-human nature.

What I’ve essentially done is draft an essay that asks questions based upon my research (which is actually an interpretive analysis of what others have written rather than original field research). My online essay crunches tens of thousands of academic words down into seven or eight 1,000-word blog posts. I tell it like a story and illustrate it with embedded videos to provide the actual pieces of my puzzle. The idea I was hoping to develop further in connecting with ClimateCultures was that paying more attention to the resistance of human nature might provide useful perspectives concerning the escalating crises that human nature continues to aggravate in non-human nature. My interpretation of C. Eric Lincoln’s concept of ‘Black Religion’ — based on a common experience that crosses the various doctrinal and denominational lines in Western religion — plays a central role in this storytelling, because of the Blackamerican need to reconnect societal religion with actual religious experience.

The story narrative grows out of a musically expressed West African river proverb. Its wisdom seems to have traveled to America with enslaved Africans by traversing the environmental water cycle as rivers do. It refers to the Creator in the terms of religious experience of human and non-human nature, as opposed to what modern Western culture would describe as a ‘religion’. The original essay was based on my own interpretation (once again) of a lyrically told Akan proverb about the crossing of a river and a path. The river is described as ‘elder’ because the river comes from the creator.

Akan proverb, translated in Michael Bakan’s ‘World Music: Traditions and Transformations 2nd Edition’ & featured in Hassaun Jones-Bey’s ‘A Blues Gospel of Anthropocene?’

My initial interpretation of this proverb, in accordance with the textbook in which I encountered it, involved visualizing the intersection like a two-dimensional Cartesian plot or essentially a cross, with the river as the vertical axis and the path as the horizontal axis. My thought was that the exchange of commodities upon the path (which is created by human technologies that kill or at least limit life) need to serve the life that comes from the Creator (in the form of rivers for instance), and not the other way around. I write in the essay:

Paths are technologies as opposed to ecologies. So in this context, the proverb of the river and the path seems to suggest that the Creator gives life through complex environmental cycles and ecologies that essentially embody the Creator’s sacred ego, which might be thought of as the essence of life itself.

Equating the path with the river—or even more so exalting the technology above the ecology—would seem to miss this point. It imagines a human ego that is equal to or even above that of the Creator because of the human capacity to kill. This appears to be the fundamental point of what Lincoln referred to as Black religion. Enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Americas found themselves ensnared in a “white” colonial ego that attempted to commodify them as its tools or technologies. As a result, Black religion arose to reassert the light of the Creator over the darkness of colonial ego.

To apply the wisdom of the West African proverb to the passage of time and events in the Americas, I translate it into a metaphor of light that also plays a prominent role in scriptures of Western religion. The water cycle metaphor seems to naturally give way to a metaphor of changing light over the course of four annual seasons. All of this seems to be represented for both light and water — the biospheric water cycle and the daily cycle of the sun as observed from the earth — in a puzzle piece that I stumbled upon a decade ago. It is a symbol that was evidently found in one form or another among the artifacts of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Americas, and has been described as representing the ‘four movements’ of the sun. The structure also seems applicable to periodic cycles of religious and cultural experience and expression that have been and still are observed in human communities throughout the world. The cross in this symbol is intersected by a closed circle or ellipse that I imagine as illustrating an environmental life cycle or ecology, as perhaps the inner meaning of the entire symbol.

Human Anthropocene: showing River and Path with environmental life cycle. An image by Hassaun Jones-Bey.
‘River and Path’ representation with environmental life cycle. Image: Hassaun Jones-Bey © 2023.

The horizontal bar still represents the path. I think of it now as human technology that embodies a human ego — particularly in a context of modern Western religion that seems to separate the Creator from nature and to place humanity in between. To my mind, this is the modern Western separation of religion from religious experience that necessitated the development of Black religion. It also seems to be fundamental to what I refer to as the human Anthropocene. For me the intersecting environmental cycle is what brings everything and everyone back together. It represents resistance to commodification by both human and non-human nature.

In the process of writing this blog post, I also happened upon a hilltop memorial to Cesar Chavez (1927-1993) and Dolores Huerta (still living) in the McLaughlin Eastshore State Park in Berkeley, CA. The memorial (as illustrated and described in the images below) conveys a religious experience of non-human nature as understood through Chavez’ and Huerta’s Andean culture, which — the memorial literature states — was also expressed through the Virgen de Guadalupe in the Catholicism of many Mexican and Native American people. The structure of the memorial conveys a religious experience of the changing angle of sunlight as it cycles through four annual seasons to powerfully illustrate a narrative of farmworkers’ struggle against commodification in the Americas.

Human anthropocene: 3 images showing a hilltop memorial to Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, McLaughlin Eastshore State Park - Berkeley, CA. Photographs by Hassau Jones-Bey.
3 images: hilltop memorial to Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, McLaughlin Eastshore State Park – Berkeley, CA. Photographs: Hassaun Jones-Bey © 2023.

As it turns out, this memorial was threatened by commodification as well. A year ago a newspaper commentary article, ‘Berkeley Marina Plan would destroy Cesar Chavez Park,’ argued that changes proposed in a city plan for the Berkeley Marina “would transform the park from a place of relief from urban stress into a high-pressure commercial amusement park.”

I initially learned about this from a local resident who shared memories of participating in successful community opposition to the original plan. According to a news article published last month in another city paper, ‘New Master Plan for Berkeley Waterfront Park,’ a new plan for the waterfront area has scrapped a proposed ferry terminal from the initial plan and will instead fill in a portion of the bay to create a potentially much more lucrative ‘container terminal’ for international shipping.

Another key factor the local resident shared with me was the rising cost of real estate and just plain living was driving long-term residents out of the area (all-too-often a factor in the history of Blackamerican community experience), which is currently true of the San Francisco Bay Area in general. The relationship between people and land seems key here.

Modern Western culture seems more likely to describe the water in the river as a natural resource and the talent of a drummer as an entertainment resource. Resources (including the “human resources” currently measured in “man-hours”) may be used wisely or even reverently, but they are still resources to be used rather than ecologies of which we are composed and in which we participate.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries throughout the Americas, a combination of ‘Jim Crow’ religion, ‘scientific racism,’ ‘social Darwinism,’ and emerging global markets pushed formerly enslaved ‘black’ people and culture to the margins of society and often to the margins of existence. Reading about this makes me think of the homelessness and despair one sees in the midst of soaring affluence today but on a much grander scale. Since all of these folks and their communities were actually human and not just commodities, this also seems like a massive demolition of human community consciousness — particularly in terms of the Black religious experience that C. Eric Lincoln described as Black religion.

Cycles of water, cycles of history

The process of working back through this with climate crises in mind and connecting it directly to the commodification of non-human nature led to a good bit of revising in my online essay. It also provided a great deal of focusing, clarity, and brevity (significantly increasing the ratio of music videos to words), which I am quite pleased with and grateful for.

As mentioned above, it is helping me to understand and articulate one of the intuitive pieces that just kind of showed up to become an essential piece of the puzzle, which I mentioned briefly above. An environmental water cycle characterizes each of the century-long quadrants in the religious history that I tell. Such a cycle also works for the larger historical cycle that arises from putting the four quadrants together into a single US history. I still describe it that way at the outset, as follows:

The narrative begins with an “apocalypse” that stripped diverse African people of lands, identity, and dignity to create “black” disposable commodities for colonizing an entire hemisphere where the sacred ecology consciousness of indigenous civilizations was also being marginalized and exterminated. The narrative continues into a rainstorm “genesis” of enslaved Africans and their descendants creating “Blackamerican” identity, evidenced in Negro Spirituals.

After emancipation, headwaters of “blues people” flowed in “exodus” from Jim Crow persecution. This Great (rural-to-urban) Migration became a blues river that overflowed its banks. It burst the Jim Crow dam with a global “gospel” of social change. The freshwater river emptied into a saltwater ocean of “New Jim Crow” massive incarceration, from which hip-hop arose in a “pentecost” of storm clouds spreading globally with post-modern “tongues of fire.

Seasons of change

When I am actually telling the story I used the water cycle to create, however, the narrative seems to flow much more smoothly when I use a metaphor of natural light as it changes during the course of four annual seasons. So in the essay, after introducing the concept of human community ecology and its emigration to the Americas in the first two chapters, I then proceed through a “winter solstice darkness of colonial ego” in the third chapter; a “spring equinox light of Blackamerican genesis and ring shout spirituals” in the fourth chapter; a “summer solstice light of Blackamerican exodus and Blues-matrix Gospel” in the fifth chapter; and an “autumnal equinox light of Blackamerican Pentecost and Hip Hop hybridity” in the sixth chapter. Each of these chapters covers one of my four quadrants, covering the past 500 years of US history. The seventh chapter asks four questions that suggest a problem-solving hypothesis based on my suggested correlation of an Anthropocene in non-human nature to an Anthropocene in human nature.

Originally, I attempted to avoid the potential confusion of a mixed metaphor by going back and changing the water metaphor in each quadrant to a light metaphor. After doing so and reflecting on it, however, it seemed both strained and ineffective. Obfuscating words seemed to overwhelm the visual, audible, and tactile imagery. Simply returning to the mix of metaphors, however, appeared to intuitively translate the embodied religious ecology that seems to flow so naturally in indigenous stories into a religious, scientific, and cosmological imagery of light within the more conceptual and less embodied languages of modern Western literature. 

In any event, after struggling through all of this analysis, I encountered a musical video on YouTube by Afro-Cuban pianist, composer and bandleader Omar Sosa that brought the two metaphors together so seamlessly that I embedded it in my online essay. I’ve also included it here below.

This also produced a kind of surprise result that didn’t show up in my academic research. As mentioned previously, the original research arranges the past half-millennium of history into four cycles, which I ultimately arrange as four quadrants of one large cycle at the conclusion. Upon doing so, the upcoming global climate crisis seems as if it might be accompanied or perhaps even preceded by a potentially much more catastrophic repeat of the human ‘climate crisis’ that modern Western culture visited upon the global hemisphere that started to become the Americas 500 years ago. The previous human climate crisis seems to have been caused in large part by abuse of emerging technologies, and revolutionary changes seem to be taking place in those same technologies now. The most important technology to refocus in addressing the Anthropocene, however, showed up as multi-national corporations, which I imagine as pseudo-religious community technologies focused on individual economic prosperity rather than on human community ecology embodying the Creator’s ego.

The hilltop memorial to Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta seemed to speak to me during this process with a confirming perspective that was indigenous to the  Americas. I’ve inserted a couple of landscape views that I took with my phone from that area after a recent rainstorm.

3 images: lands, sea, air, light – northern California. Photographs: Hassaun Jones-Bey © 2023

As I write this post, my online essay consists of an introduction and seven chapters. A major goal has been to make the whole thing flow like the river cycle that it flows from. There are two additional blog-length items as well. One is the story of a 400-year-old European song that emigrated to America during the antebellum period to eventually become a political rock song and jazz ballad. The other is a lyrical poem of Black religious experience, ‘Ms. Tubman’s Soldiers,’ that inspired the visual design of the homepage. I posted both of them previously and moved them around to try and make them fit. I ended up taking them down, however, upon realizing that they are not really part of the river I’m attempting to depict. Once the river is complete, I will probably put them back up separately, and also start reposting a lot of music that was just random stuff previously, but now has a meaningful context.

All of that said, I’m not really sure how or to what degree all of this really belongs in the ClimateCultures orbit. I am still thankful for the editorial feedback and stimulus to create a much better piece than I could have otherwise. I would also appreciate any such feedback from the broader community as well.


Find out more

You can read Hassaun’s online essay A Blues Gospel of Anthropocene? at his site, Peace Jungle, where hyperlinks throughout the essay text point to sources of additional information.

The newspaper articles about Chavez Park that Hassaun mentions are: Berkeley Marina Plan would destroy Cesar Chavez Park (Berkleyside, 24/4/22); and New Master Plan for Berkeley Waterfront Park (Berkeley Daily Planet, 1/4/23).

The book from which the English translation of the Akan proverb is taken is Michael Bakan’s World Music: Traditions and Transformations (McGraw Hill – now available in a 4th edition, 2024).

Hassaun’s suggestion of the human Anthropocene ties in with the crisis he describes as visited by modern Western culture upon the global hemisphere that started to become the Americas 500 years ago. Geography professors Mark Maslin and Simon Lewis have suggested that the Anthropocene began with European colonisation and mass slavery, with the death of 56 million indigenous people across the Americas in just 100 years of Christopher Columbus setting foot on the Bahamas: “deadly diseases hitched a ride on new shipping routes, as did many other plants and animals. This reconnecting of the continents and ocean basins for the first time in 200 million years has set Earth on a new developmental trajectory. The ongoing mixing and re-ordering of life on Earth will be seen in future rocks millions of years in the future. The drop in carbon dioxide at 1610 provides a first marker in a geological sediment associated with this new global, more homogeneous, ecology, and so provides a sensible start date for the new Anthropocene epoch.”

Hassaun adds some additional sources: “Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 (1999, Simon & Schuster) by W.E.B. Du Bois (the first modern American sociologist) provides well-documented and particularly valuable perspectives on the post-emancipation marginalization of ‘black’ humanity in the US. And Afro-Latin America, 1800-2000 (2004, Oxford University Press) by George Reid Andrews devotes an entire chapter to the simultaneous ‘whitening’ throughout the rest of the Americas. B.W. Higman has also written a number of fascinating articles on “The Sugar Revolution” as what I tend to imagine as the commodifying engine that drove modern Western culture’s initial expansion throughout the global Western Hemisphere.”

ClimateCultures explores many aspects of the human Anthropocene and its more-than-human aspects in our members’ series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects and our new series with Martin Mahony and his students on the University of East Anglia’s Geography and Environmental Sciences course: Museum of the Anthropocene.

Hassaun Jones-Bey

Hassaun Jones-Bey

A retired engineer, science journalist and founder of Peace Jungle, which began as a musical storytelling project when online discourse associated 'apocalypse' with the impending twenty-first century.