Navigating the Anthropocene: Towards an Alternative Modernity for an Era of Limits

By Stephen Quilley and Katie Kish

Our programme of research starts from two premises – that there are biophysical limits to growth and that growth is intrinsic to capitalist development. This tension between ecology and economics, between the integrity of the biophysical life support systems of the biosphere and modern civilization, suggests a series of apparently intractable ‘wicked’ problems. Specifically, many of the things that we most value and cherish most about the modern world are linked intrinsically to the complex system that environmentalism seeks, in some ways, to unravel. Not only technological innovation, but all forms of social complexity including democratic institutions, welfare systems, public infrastructure, liberal values, individualism and youth culture have emerged on the back of growth economies and are associated with a high and expanding metabolic footprint. We are interested in whether there is any room for manoeuvre between the maximum scale of economic activity compatible with ecological integrity and the minimum scale necessary for a global, cosmopolitan, science-based, technologically progressive, liberal and socially inclusive civilization (Quilley 2013, 2011). The success of discussing this lies in a few propositions that we hope offer the start of a conversation:

  1. Ecological-economic foregrounding of metabolic scale: There are limits to growth.
  2. Novel ecosystems: The Anthropocene is defined by determining influence of human activity in the biosphere; any successful ecological economics would need to embrace and build upon this reality. Contra the reflex towards preservation, restraint and the precautionary principle, there may be long-view-pragmatic grounds for embracing certain applications of ‘Faustian’ technologies including nuclear energy or synthetic biology (Brand 2010).
  3. Thermodynamic understandings of social complexity: Building on established approaches to entropy within ecological economics (Georgescu Roegen, 1971; Daly and Farley 2010; Faber et al, 1986) and especially the work of HT Odum (2001), all social phenomena including ideas, concepts and institutions are associated with an energy signature. Complexity in society usually entails a loss of complexity or an increase in entropy elsewhere in the biosphere (pollution, loss of biodiversity).
  4. Complex systems: Critical thresholds, ‘basins of attraction’ and state-space heuristics for conceptualizing environmental politics and social-economic transformation. A revolutionary or evolutionary transformation of global consumer society into a sane, sustainable and more ecological society should be conceived in terms of bringing capitalism to some kind of ‘tipping point’. Both academic work and sustainability activism involve a kind of prefigurative politics which seeks to hollow out an alternative basin of attraction, post tipping-point. The deeper and more coherent this basin of attraction, the more likely it will be to become the dominant attractor in the context of any exogenous economic, political or ecological shock. Deepening this basin implies developing a coherent model of political economy, exploring the contours of a low-energy liberal or cosmopolitan society and developing a much better understanding of the drivers of behaviour that might move people quickly towards novel cultures, attitude/values, social interdependencies and commitments and life goals.
  5. The adaptive cycle (‘panarchy’) and a privileging of ‘creative destruction’, technological innovation and instability: Whilst the ‘steady state’ concept has a heuristic value for environmental politics, it is fundamentally misleading. All complex systems generate dynamics, which engender endogenous instabilities and critical transitions. Marx’s most enduring contribution was to show that capitalism, in particular, depends on a logic of accumulation that drives innovation and successive rounds of ‘creative destruction’. All complex systems, the economy included, are vulnerable also to external shocks and instabilities.
  6. The politics of re-embedding: Drawing on the work of Karl Polanyi the problem of ecological politics is understood in terms of the tension between re-embedding economic activity in wider social institutions, cultural values and ecological parameters whilst sustaining a dynamic, science-based trajectory of technical innovation.
  7. Low/no growth or degrowth: Any move towards a steady state economy would have the potential for political instability and a range of unintended consequences. In a capitalist consumer society there is no ‘trivial’ consumption. All public goods and infrastructures (especially those associated with the welfare state) depend upon tax transfers that are generated by the endless cycling of commodities and services. Pathological consumer excess pays for unemployment benefits, nurses and scientists, drives product cycles and engenders technical innovation.
  8. Distributive economics and open-source commons: Recognition of the disruptive potential of open source information, peer collaboration and micro-fabrication technologies as drivers of relocalization, distributed innovation, lower overhead production systems and the re-embedding of economic life in culture.
  9. The networked reMaker Society as an alternative to global consumer society: Hitherto, the Romantic vision of local production and community self-sufficiency has involved a zero-sum trade off with technological innovation, efficiency and material progress. Peer to peer design (P2P) and collaboration combined with new small-scale fabrication technologies may open up new possibilities for participatory, community-based high tech fabrication.
  10. Psychoanalytical accounts of motivation and non-rational drivers of behaviour: Environmental activism has failed to gain traction on behaviour partly because of an a priori commitment to the rationality of actors conceived as sovereign individuals. Even if the political economy and technology for a new and ecologically benign kind of modernity is coming into view, generating cross-scale change involving hundreds of millions of people requires that the green movement embraces not only knowledge, data and incentives aimed at rational individuals, but non-rational drivers of behaviour including religion, spirituality, group psychology and ritual. Terror management theory and the work of Ernest Becker (1973) (green hero/immortality projects) and the dramaturgical concept of ‘communitas’ pioneered by Victor Turner (Turner, 1969; E. Turner 2011) may provide compelling points of departure.



Becker, Ernest. 1973. The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press Paperbacks.

Brand, Stewart. 2010. Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, RestoredWildlands, and Geoengineering Are Necessary. Reprint edition. New York: Penguin Books.

Daly, Herman E., and Joshua Farley. 2010 Ecological economics: principles and applications. Island Press.

Faber, Malte, Reiner Manstetten, and John Proops 1986. Ecological economics: concepts and methods. Edward Elgar Publishing Ltd.

Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas. 1971. The entropy law and the economic process. Cambridge, Mass.

Odum, Howard Thomas 2007. Environment, power, and society for the twenty-first century: the hierarchy of energy. Columbia University Press, 2007.

Quilley, Stephen. 2011. “Entropy, the Anthroposphere and the Ecology of Civilization: An Essay on the Problem of ‘liberalism in One Village’ in the Long View.” The Sociological Review 59 (June): 65–90. doi:10.1111/j.1467-954X.2011.01979.x.

—. 2013. “De-Growth Is Not a Liberal Agenda: Relocalisation and the Limits to Low Energy Cosmopolitanism.” Environmental Values 22 (2): 261–85.

Turner, Edith. 2011. Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Turner, Victor 2011(1969) The Ritual Process. Structure and Anti-structure. Walter De Gruyter Inc.

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