top of page


The Anthropocene  


For several decades, scientists have been uncovering global crises with increasing clarity and precision, yet more recently these issues have become salient, indeed saturated, within the collective psyche of the public domain (Stokols, et al, 2009). Due to the global permeation of human impacts on the earth’s ecosphere, scientists are now claiming that the planet has already transitioned out of the Holocene and into the next geologic epoch in the earth’s history: that of the Anthropocene (Zalasiewicz et al, 2010; Crutzen & Stoermer, 2000; Steffen, Crutzen & McNeill, 2007). The underlying premise of the Anthropocene thesis is that we have entered a historical moment in which humanity has become a geophysical force capable of affecting the earht's natural operating systems. A variety of scientific methods have been employed to measure the magnitude of planetary changes associated with the Anthropocene, including sea level rises, global temperature increases, levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, rates of anthropogenic denudation, and human population growth (Zalasiewicz et al, 2008). These factors, combined with human-derived habitat fragmentation, invasive species and predation, have skyrocketed the biological extinction rate from 100 to 1000 times pre-industrial levels (Zalasiewicz et al, 2010). At this current rate, humans will have precipitated the sixth great extinction event in the earth’s history by the end of this century, and laid the groundwork for a Third World War based on the scarcity of living space and dwindling resources (Slaughter, 2012, p. 120).


Evidence of the Anthropocene can be found physically in the earth’s geologic strata, as sedimentary layers which have accumulated over the course of industrialisation (Zalasiewicz et al, 2010). These include heavily modified strata, such as those found underneath mass agricultural areas and water catchments. Measurable amounts of artificial radionuclides can be found in strata virtually anywhere in the world, dating back to the first atomic detonation in 1945 (Zalasiewicz et al, 2010). Certini & Scalenghe (2011, p. 1269) argue that the pedosphere, or outermost layer of the earth, is ‘the best indicator of the rise to dominance of human impacts on the total environment.’ The terrestrial landscape associated with the pedosphere has also been extended to include human-derived strata such as buildings, roads, cities, landfills and other infrastructure that has been terra-formed onto the earth’s surface (Denizen, 2013).



Many geologists are now tracing the first stage of the Anthropocene back to the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century, and marking a second stage with the explosion of the first atomic bomb in the 1940s (Steffan, Crutzen & McNeill, 2007). This second stage is defined by ‘The Great Acceleration’ of human enterprise, which saw the population double in half a century and levels of human interference with the earth’s ecological systems go vertical across the board (ibid). The third stage is said to be unfolding at the present moment, as defined by ‘the recognition that human activities are indeed affecting the structure and functioning of the Earth System as a whole (as opposed to local- and regional-scale issues)’, which is now ‘filtering through to decision-making at many levels’ (Steffen, Crutzen & McNeill, 2007, p. 618). Ruddiman (2003, p. 261), by contrast, cites much earlier evidence of anthropogenic soils in the pedosphere and CO2 emissions in the atmosphere. He argues for a longer timescale to account for the onset of the Anthropocene, as initiated by rice agriculture 5,000 years ago, and human deforestation of landmasses up to 8,000 years ago. This perspective places a historical emphasis on the very rise of human civilisation as the broad context for the Anthropocene, rather than the more recent ‘Great Acceleration’ of human enterprise identified by Steffan, Crutzen and McNeill (2007).


Cultural Responses to the Anthropocene


The Anthropocene era is still in the process of being formally added to the geological time-scale, though the term is commonly used by geologists and other earth scientists to denote the present period in the earth’s history. The Anthropocene has also entered the popular lexicon as a vivid descriptor of the contemporary world (Zalasiewicz et al, 2010). While the initial recognition of the Anthropocene thesis is rooted in the earth sciences, some of the biggest questions it raises fall under the domains of philosophy, education, the arts, and the humanities:  What does it mean to be human in a world which can no longer support our numbers? What elements of human civilisation can and should be sustained into this uncertain future? Ironically, at the very moment that we perceive the onset of the Anthropocene through, for example, advanced satellite imaging and geo-chemical testing, we also realise that we have lost any clear sense of the Human. Braidotti (2013, p. 5) suggests that such uncertainties could be addressed through posthuman theory and practice,  which could ‘help us re-think the basic unit of reference for the human in the bio-genetic age known as “anthropocene”… along with the basic tenets of our interaction with both human and non-human agents on a planetary scale’ .


             Ellsworth and Kruse (eds., 2012) recently edited a collection of over forty essays addressing artistic and cultural responses to the Anthropocene in their book Making the Geologic Now: Responses to the Material Conditions of Everyday Life. In the year and a half it took them to compile the book, the authors witnessed ‘Anthropocene’ go from an obscure scientific term to a word that yielded over half a million citations on Google (Ellsworth & Kruse, 2012, p. 6). Ellsworth and Kruse describe how many artists and philosophers are now taking up the Anthropocene as the ‘explanation, motivation and inspiration for cultural and aesthetic responses to the present moment’ (ibid). Citing Denizen, they explain how the rapid acceleration of human enterprise has precipitated a situation in which ‘speeds of change in material realities of life on the planet are outpacing our ways of knowing’ (p.  8). The sheer numbers, diversity and hybridity of bodies in the world, be they human or nonhuman, are increasing exponentially by the second. Humans are now able to bring species back from extinction using DNA samples (Biello, 2013), clone existing species and fuse machines with living tissue (Morton, 2010).  Such unprecedented environmental and technological change means that ‘new sorts of thinking and making are now possible, and called for, in response to new material situations of daily life’ (Ellsworth & Kruse, 2012, p. 9).


            States and Territories takes up this call for posthuman thinking and knowledge production in universities which respond to the shifting social and ecological conditions of the Anthropocene. As Leinfelder (2013, p. 9) suggests, the concept of the Anthropocene provides ‘a solid base for envisioning a sustainable human presence on Earth in which humans would no longer be “invaders” but rather participants in shaping the natural environment.’ This capacity for humans to shape the terrestrial landscapes of the earth will necessarily draw as much from arts, humanities and education as from the fields of science and technology. Leinfelder (ibid) further speculates that ‘in the future, technology and culture could be integrated into nature- and thus the “unnatural” environment that surrounds us today would be transformed into a human-designed neo-natural environment that includes culture and technology as an integral part of an interconnected system.’ Some of the implications of such a future are explored in this paper, specifically with regards to the future of university campuses and their learning environments. 



























The University in the Anthropocene


            Universities can be readily identified as significant sites for cultural changes in response to the rapidly shifting environmental conditions of the Anthropocene (Slaughter, 2012). University campuses are places in which technological, creative, scientific and philosophical advancements are often made on a daily basis, many of which have the potential to address the social and ecological issues of our time. More specifically, universities are some of the only places in which scientific, philosophical, educational and artistic innovations are being made side by side, that is, in close physical proximity with one another. Slaughter (2012, p. 123) gives a summary of the current situation:


As the world trembles on the edge of chaos, most universities remain caught up in business-as-usual thinking, their priorities very much bound up with inward-looking purposes and goals such as funding, standards and position in the international pecking order. Paradoxically, many have within them some of the most talented and capable people in the world, many of whom work at the leading edge of research and innovation in a vast number of fields. Universities need to be taking the lead in gearing up for the transitions ahead. They need to take up their potentially catalytic role in creating and sustaining social foresight.


            Research and teaching in universities that effectively works between the arts and sciences is deemed necessary to address the fundamental entanglement of nature and culture endemic to everyday life in the Anthropocene (Rayner, 2003; Stables, 2003; Ellsworth & Kruse, 2013; Ryan, 2012; Braidotti, 2013). Trischler (2013, p. 6) argues that addressing the Anthropocene thesis demands an interdisciplinary approach, because the concept ‘permeates disciplinary boundaries and challenges established demarcation lines within academia.’ The structural properties of proximal disciplines equip university campuses and their learning environments with unique potentials for such interdisciplinary research and practice between the arts, humanities and the sciences. Braidotti (2013, p. 179) describes this in terms of a posthuman multi-versity, which would be characterised by an explosion of new learning technologies, metaphysical frameworks, a collectivist ethos, speculative and imaginative experimentation, and the creation of new publics.


            Despite the potential for transformation in academic research and teaching practice which is responsive to the conditions of the Anthropocene, very little has so far been published in this regard. The ways that the cultural landscapes of universities can and will change in response to the Anthropocene thesis remain to be seen, along with the associated changes in curriculum and pedagogy within current university structures (Slaughter, 2012).  For Leinfelder (2013, p. 15), the core structural challenge facing academia in relation to the Anthropocene is that of a fundamental mismatch between isolated disciplines and an interconnected world.  Rather than waiting for top-down structural changes to happen over time, he argues that teachers and researchers should enact pioneering activities that open up interdisciplinary spaces in university settings.  To this end, Leinfelder (p. 23) describes several key methods for conducting such transformative projects in higher education: 1) learning by participation, in which learning about the Anthropocene is integrated into participatory research projects and learning activities; 2) using experiential scenarios to bring the conditions associated with the Anthropocene alive for people, such as museum exhibitions and fictional narratives; 3) creating new forms of reflection and speculation which address the fundamental entanglement of nature and culture; and (4) developing new modes and formats for communication, including innovative methods of ‘translating’ research findings and theory for children and young people (p. 24). Such approaches could enable the Anthropocene concept to drive innovation in teaching and research, and at the same time open the university campus up to the wider community as a public institution much like a museum or a botanic garden.




Disaster and Hope in Higher Education


            The emerging field of ‘critical university studies’ provides a variety of socially critical perspectives on the state of the university in contemporary times (Whelan, Walker & Moore, 2013). These competing perspectives are useful in establishing a background by which cultural responses to the Anthropocene can become perceptible within the higher education landscape. Where for Leinfelder (2013) the primary aporia in higher education is between isolated disciplines and an interconnected world, for Whelan, Walker and Moore (2013, p. 4) the untenable discrepancy is between ‘what universities espouse as their stated aims, and how they actually work (or do not work).’ The authors attribute a number of key factors to this current tension within higher education, including: 1) the deprofessionalisation and casualisation of academic staff; 2) the digitisation of curriculum, pedagogy and research practices; 3) the commercialisation of research grants and funding; 4) the instrumentalisation of universities to serve the labour market; and 5) massification and the rise of virtual learning environments (VLEs) and Massive Open Online Courses or ‘MOOCs’ (pp. 4-6).


            Whelan, Walker and Moore (2013, p.1) interpret these indicators as signs of ‘the “living death” of higher education,’ and what they provocatively term the ‘zombification’ of the contemporary university. This perspective can be summarised as a position of deep unease and dissent grounded in the gaping divide between the current state of universities and the ‘undead’ concepts that continue to haunt them. The shade of the ‘elitist, inviolate tower’ of academia persists, for example, despite the massification and intellectual dilution of higher education to serve the demands of both the market and the state (p. 4). Essentially, what universities purport they will provide for students and staff is often predicated on older concepts and values that have ceased to be consistent with current practices.


            On the other side of the spectrum, Peters and Besley (2013) observe the current climate of change in higher education as grounds for the rise of the creative university. For these authors, the digitisation and decentralisation of the university holds significant opportunities for more democratic and imaginative forms of educational practice:


“creative universities” might embrace a myriad of different descriptions based on user-centered, open-innovation ecosystems that engage in cocreation, coproduction, codesign and coevaluation emphasizing theories of collaboration, collective intelligence, commons-based peer production and mass participation in conceptions of open development. (p. x, emphasis in original)


            Peters and Besley (2013, p. x-xi) specifically cite the work of Barnett (2013) in re-imagining a creative and ecological model for higher education based on four different layers of creativity: 1) intellectual creativity associated with creative research and knowledge production; 2) pedagogical creativity associated with innovation in curriculum and pedagogy; 3) learning creativity which is developed among students through their learning processes and experiences; and 4) reflexive creativity through which the university comes to understand itself and its possibilities.


            These calls for radically open universities (Peters & Besley, 2013), along with creative and ecological universities (Barnett, 2013; 2012; 2011) resonate strongly with Braidotti’s (2013, p. 184) vision of the contemporary university as an ‘exploded and expanded institution that will affirm a constructive post-humanity’. Braidotti (2013) describes this as a transition from the self-contained university to the multi-versity which is deeply integrated into the social and ecological fabric of its surrounding civic environment. The multi-versity would operate as a kind of social, cognitive, technological and ecological hub for posthuman knowledge production and preservation within the civic community, rather than being enshrouded in the ivory towers of the academic disciplines (Braidotti, 2013, p. 180). Braidotti further argues that only a trans-disciplinary ‘mix of innovation and tradition can sustain the continuing relevance of the institution of the university in the contemporary world’ (p. 181). In this way, the emerging model of the multi-versity is one of an academic community without fixed identities or unifying principles, but which is orientated towards the emerging publics, technologies and landscapes of an uncertain future. This vision would see a new outpouring of intellectual creativity associated, in Braidotti’s terms, with the Posthuman Humanities, including the neural humanities, the digital humanities, the environmental or sustainable humanities, the bio-genetic humanities, and any number of new configurations between the arts and sciences (p. 184).


            Despite the apparent differences between battling the living dead of academia and the re-visioning of a creative, ecological and posthuman mulit-versity, the Anthropocene concept provides fruitful grounds for working between these positions of benighted disaster and visionary hope. Indeed, the undead model of isolated disciplines in their inviolate towers is long due for revision in response to the onset of the Anthropocene (Leinfelder, 2013). It is also apparent that the contested territory of the university itself will continue to play a central role in whatever the future holds for the human species. While the university may currently exist in a liminal and uncertain state without a coherent role in society, there is still hope that strong new movements may emerge which are resistant to the attacks of corporatisation and neo-liberal policy. The creative university (Peters & Besley, 2013), the ecological university (Barnett, 2013), and the ‘posthuman multi-versity’ (Braidotti, 2013) are three such possible trajectories for universities hoping to navigate their way through the uncertain times of the Anthropocene era.


























While this shed was originally crafted by humans using locally sourced materials, over time it’s been abandoned to become part of the regional landscape. Do we keep working the ruins of the modern university, or pick up the pieces and start building something new? 


The Regional University Campus


            While the potential directions cited above operate across a macroscopic view of ‘the university’ in a global context, higher education actually takes place at a regional level of specificity within a university campus and its surrounds. Drawing on the work of Connell (2007), approaching higher education from a regional perspective means working with the singular, site-specific resources that can be found in a particular learning environment and its surrounding communities. Connell argues that the academy has too often been dominated by ‘the viewpoints, perspectives and problems of metropolitan society, while presenting itself as universal knowledge’ (p. viii). In contrast to what she calls ‘northern theory’, Connell advocates the development of ‘southern theory’ that brings the specificity of the regional, peripheral and marginal into the center of teaching and research in universities. This means that theorising is grounded in specific landscapes and research settings, rather than being generalised from raw data into ‘abstract universals’. Connell (p. 207) thus argues against pure general theory in favour of ‘dirty theory’ that is ‘mixed up with specific situations.’ The goal of dirty theory is ‘not to classify from outside, but to illuminate a situation in its concreteness’, in order to multiply, rather than reduce, ‘the theoretical ideas that we have to work with’ (ibid). In other words, southern theory is about embracing and extending the complex realities of regional cultures and ecologies, rather than attempting to generalise localised knowledge in order to produce universal theories.


            The primacy of the regional over the local is also central to many Indigenous philosophies and practices which are currently informing critical approaches to education (Dei, ed., 2011) and sustainability (Blewitt, 2006). Ingold (2000, p. 226) draws on the philosophies and practices of First Peoples around the world in articulating this distinction: where the local implies the mapping of fixed locations within the landscape, the regional involves the mapping of embodied movement through the landscape. In the field of contemporary art, the regional is similarly associated with site-specific practices within communities and environments that are predicated on the fluidity and movement of bodies, identities and meanings rather than fixed positions (Kwon, 2002, p. 165). In environmental education the regional is folded into a critical pedagogy of place, in which the cultural and ecological history of the surrounding environment critically informs the development of a curriculum and pedagogy for that location (Gruenwald, 2003). A regional approach to the university would then be predicated on the primacy of movement, in which the campus becomes a fluid space for moving between diverse learning environments and communities of practice. This could also be extended through a bioregional perspective, in which the learning space is recognized as a more-than-human environment shared with legions of other species.


            In different ways, these varied approaches conceptualise the regional as a fluid and heterogeneous field of relations that expresses the vernacular specificity of place as both a curriculum and a pedagogy. The regional thus contrasts with a homogenizing conception of ‘the local’, and also with universalising abstractions associated with ‘the global’ (Connell, 2007). The concept of the regional university campus could, in this sense, be specially suited to exploring the implications of the Anthropocene in higher education. It might provide a contextual theatre of operations in which the natural and the cultural can be sensibly and perceptually entangled within a constellation of diverse learning environments and communities. 


The Learning Environment


So how might we begin to conceptualise these diverse and regional learning environments which would populate the universities of the Anthropocene? In higher education, the academic learning environment has traditionally referred to the spaces in which teaching, learning and research take place within a university campus. These environments often include physical spaces, such as studios, laboratories, lecture theatres, classrooms, libraries and common outdoor spaces. More recently, academic learning environments have extended into digital spaces that can be accessed regardless of geographical location (Bayne, 2008), as well as external public spaces such as galleries, museums, botanic gardens and national parks (Ellsworth, 2005; Mackenzie, 2008). Yet the academic learning environment can be understood as much more than the physical, geographical or digital location in which learning takes place; it also refers more broadly to ‘the set of conditions that enable and constrain learning’ (Brown, 2009, p. 16). As Brown further explains, learning environments are open, mobile systems with porous borders that are responsive to both internal and external dynamics, allowing them to evolve morphogenetically over time (ibid). This suggests that the possibilities for learning are enabled and constrained by the affordances and constraints which inhere to the ontology of a particular learning environment (Gibson, 1979).


            Kolb and Kolb (2005, p. 199) further describe the learning environment in terms of the ‘learning space’, which builds on Lewin’s concept of the ‘life space’. A learning space is composed by the interface between the self and the environment, meaning that behaviour is essentially a function of a person within a particular learning environment. Wenger’s (1998) situated learning theory further informs the concept of the learning space, in which the learner is embedded within a community of practice with its own cultural history, tools, social norms, practices and functions. These and other sociocultural learning theories, often grounded in the work of Vygotsky on social learning, go some way towards conceptualising a learning environment that is rich with potentials for human development.


Yet the Anthropocene thesis, along with resonant calls from ecological philosophy (Guattari, 1995) and posthumanism (Bogost, 2012; Braidotti, 2013), demands moving beyond conceptions of the learning environment as socially constructed and anthropocentric. The work of Gibson (1979) and Bateson (1972) initially pointed the way towards an ecology of sensation and perception, in which the affordances of an environment ‘exist as inherent potentials of the objects within the world, independent of any use made of them by individuals or other sentient creatures’ (Blewitt, 2006, p. 21). From this perspective, the learning environment is not constructed by humans and for humans to apprehend, but is rather constituted through the total relations between beings in a collective field of engagement, some of whom may happen to be human.  As Ingold (1992, p. 44) further explains, a human’s direct perception of the learning environment is a particular mode of engaging with that environment, not a mode of constructing it. Higher education then becomes a particular mode of perceptual attunement and experimentation with the affordances and constraints of the learning environment, what Ingold (2000) calls an ‘education of attention’ and Deleuze (1994) an ‘education of the senses’.


The Fate of the Disciplines


            The onset of the Anthropocene thus calls for new mappings of the academic learning environment as a complex field of inquiry that composes people, places, things and ideas into eco-aesthetic collectives (Latour, 1993), networks (Latour, 2013) and assemblages (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987). The academic learning environment could then be approached as the sensorium and the imaginarium of the academic disciplines as they are situated within a university's ecology of practices (Pink, 2009; Ingold, 2000; Simons & Masschelein, 2008). In the climate of interdisciplinary scholarship associated with the Anthropocene, however, the learning environment is not the exclusive territory of a single academic discipline. Most learning environments in a university will host a number of different disciplines simultaneously or consecutively, such that the learning environment is defined by the pragmatics of the learning situation taking place at a particular time rather than a fixed disciplinary territorialisation (Brew, 2008). These spatial movements associated with the constant de- and re-territorialisation of learning environments means that academic disciplines are in a constant and fluid state of mobility, not only epistemologically but also ontologically (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987). The recent proliferation of interdisciplinary 'studies' between the sciences, arts and humanities has not only opened up new discursive fields, but has also changed the very structure of academic thinking and practice (Braidotti, 2013). 


            This fluid orientation towards disciplinary territory contrasts from Becher and Trowlers’ (2001) use of the anthropological terms ‘tribes and territories’ to describe discrete academic communities, their learning environments and structural knowledge bases. Latour (2013, p. 23), for example, describes how the academic disciplines no longer retain any clear borders in the Anthropocene, and yet still manage to sustain their core differences from one  another.  These differences include the kinds of concepts, practices, knowledge and materials that are valued within the discipline (Carmichael, 2012). The academic domains have become untethered from their moorings, in this sense, and yet they continue to carry their conceptual cargo as they float freely in the erratic climate of the Anthropocene. The disciplines may be seeking to find new shelters and alliances with which to weather the storms of social and ecological upheaval and reformation.  Indeed, Latour (2013, p. 23) describes the need to ‘sketch out temporary dwelling places’ for the disciplines of the academy as we move deeper into the uncharted territories of the Anthropocene.


Anchor 2
Anchor 3
Anchor 4
bottom of page