Education In The Anthropocene: Re-Imagining Schools In The Midst of Planetary Transformation

This is an excerpt from a paper soon to be presented to Ken Wilber’s working group on Integral Geo-Politics and the Ukraine.

Introduction: Education In A Time Between Worlds


Civilizations are mortal.

—Susan George


This paper offers some reflections and speculations about the contemporary possibilities for large-scale adoptions of integral educational practices at the level of a nation-state or global community. I take as a starting place the idea that the years between 2000 and 2050 represent a critical turning point in the history of humanity and the planet. This belief is based on results from the field of world-systems analysis as well as a growing body of scientific research suggesting that we have entered a new geological epoch known as the Anthropocene. The term was brought to prominence by Paul Crutzen, a Nobel Prize winning atmospheric chemist, and has been reverberating through scientific, cultural, and political discourses ever since.[i] From the Greek roots anthropo, meaning “human” and –cene meaning “new,” this term is now being used to mark a formal unit of geologic epoch division, suggesting that humanity has so impacted the Earth’s basic physical constituents (especially its atmospheric and chemical composition) that our age constitutes a new geological phase of planetary development.

This is only one of the latest scientific concepts to show the extent to which humanity’s fate is now intertwined with the fate of the planet itself. Our decisions in the next decades will determine the future of the biosphere, the Earth’s geological trajectory, and, of course, our survival as a species. This is not some controversial science. Even climate change skeptics have to recognize the power of nuclear weapons to wipe the biosphere from the face of the planet’s hard rock mantel. It is also impossible to overlook the sheer scope and impact of massive human infrastructures, such as cities, dams, canals, and highway systems, which impact whole landscapes and ecosystems. In particular, Earth-system and socio-economic trends generative of the Anthropocene have been accelerating since 1950 (see Figures 1 and 2).

It appears the Earth is in our hands, and we are not prepared for the responsibility. Our species is reeling from the shock that comes from realizing that it is up to us to assure the continuation of the Earth’s life supporting systems. We are existentially intertwined in a common destiny, both as a species and as a biosphereric community—a vast web of life now depends on our stewardship. This is a profound educational challenge and an historical opportunity.




Figures 1 & 2: Earth system and socioeconomic trends charts from: Steffen, Broadgate, Deutsch, Gaffney & Ludwig (2015). The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration. Anthropocene Review, 2.1. [click to enlarge]


It is important to understand that the recent genesis of the Anthropocene is a direct result of the modern capitalist world-system, which began to emerge during the 16th century, and which represents today the largest functionally integrated social unit the human species has ever created. The idea of “world-systems” is essential for any serious thinking about evolutionary futures for the human species.[ii] World-system analysis is a growing trans-disciplinary field, encompassing economics, politics, sociology, and history. It suggests that the existence and continuation of the capitalist world-system has fundamentally changed the very frontiers of human possibility and fundamentally altered the self-regulatory processes of the biosphere itself.

The modern world-system is now perilously close to literally encompassing all of humanity while at the same time exhausting the biosphere. This is something never achieved before by any existing historical world-system. Based on the analysis of long-term global trends in economics and political history, world-systems analysts argue that we have reached a crucial moment in geohistory. When a world-system reaches its structural limits an evolutionary crisis ensues and a fundamentally new kind of world-system must be painfully and violently born.[iii] We are currently in just such an evolutionary crisis; we inhabit a transition between world-systems. This is the second educational challenge and opportunity of our time.

Today we are witnessing simultaneous and interactive crises playing out between our broadest social structures and their biospheric corollaries. In the midst of all this external transformation there are, of course, related changes in human consciousness, culture, personality, and capability. Our global crises have an interior dimension.[iv]

Popular media and culture suggest that we live in a time of identity crises, a time in which the self-understanding of humanity is changing. Throughout the world basic institutions of government, finance, and education are suffering a crisis of legitimacy, as the basic principles upon which public culture is founded have deteriorated. We have no shared sense of purpose or shared ethical worldview upon which to base constitutional governance. The resources of the lifeworld (for meaning-making and identity creation) have become almost as depleted as the resources of the natural world.

Humanity’s inability to understand itself is part of a cascading planetary phase shift; our identity crisis is coinciding with the climax of the Anthropocene. The educational healing and transformation that needs to take place is in large part a matter of reconstructing our self-understanding as a species. Future educational configurations will require a response not only to the current global environmental and economic crises, but also to the current global identity crisis. This is the third great educational challenge and opportunity of our time.

In this essay I trace these themes into the domains of schools, education, and learning. I argue that the external crises (of world-system and biosphere) and the internal crises (of identity and legitimation) both require a fundamentally new approach to education that entails the end of what we have known as schooling. The external crises demand radically new infrastructures and technologies, a change in the basic platforms of educational technology (from blackboards and notebooks to screens and tablets), which is already making simplistic notions of schooling obsolete. The internal crises demand a reconstruction of academic knowledge and a release from the hidden curriculum of schools, which foster outdated modes of socialization and limiting forms of self-understanding.

The vision of education I offer is one in which dynamic forms of abundance and universal access replace static forms of scarcity and competition-based access. Education must no longer be something that is kept behind closed doors and that requires special privileges and capital to get. In a world pushed to the brink of crisis, education, like energy, must be made abundant, free, and healthy, if our species is to survive. Everyone everywhere must have access to educational resources that are good, true, and beautiful, even if only so that solutions can be found in time for the billions of community-level problems that are reverberating across our planet as it reels in crisis. Integral education looks beyond post-industrial schooling and current trends in global education reform and toward a radically different set of educational possibilities, which assume that the world of tomorrow will be very different from the world of today.

To be clear, I must deal with certain likely misunderstanding upfront, because the terms “schooling” and “educational technology” come fully loaded with preconceptions. Firstly, the vision of integral education I offer is not one of “home schooling” or “un-schooling” where parents shoulder the burden of education alone or with a small group of others who are “off the educational grid” in proper libertarian fashion. The re-imagined schools I envision are no longer really schools, that is true. But they are nevertheless truly places in which the village raises the child. This does involve higher levels of parental engagement, and I make account of that by arguing for labor market reforms that would provide parents with space and time to create learning communities. I argue later on that the possibilities of education are directly tied into macro-economic conditions and reforms, such as stipends for educationally active parents, or a basic income guarantee for all citizens, make possible radically new forms of education in which life- long learning and complex intergenerational relationships are central. An integral meta-theory of education allows us to see the concrete utopian possibilities that exist within specific alternative economic and institutional contexts; it hones our realistic social imaginations, which can access social worlds slightly adjacent to our own—we want to be exploring actual possible futures of schooling.

As radical as this may sound, what I am arguing for here is also a position that embraces the accomplishments of our historically public schools. Schools are not to be dismantled or shut down, let alone sold off to private enterprises, as is now being done worldwide in what is the largest privatization of educational institutions in history.[v] Our great school systems need to be repurposed and redesigned, transformed into unprecedented institutions that are a combination of public libraries, museums, co-working centers, computer labs, and daycares. Funded to the hilt, staffed by citizen-teacher-scientists, these public and privately supported educational hubs would be the local centers of regionally decentralized pop-up classrooms, special interest groups, apprenticeship networks, and college and work preparation counseling. Giant schools built on the model of the factory at the turn of the last century can be gutted, remodeled, and reborn metaphorically and literally, to create the meta-industrial one-room schoolhouses of the future. In these places technologies will enable the formation of peer-to-peer networks of students and teachers, of all ages, from all across the local region (or the world through video), and without coercion or compromise. What enables these safe, efficient, hubs of self-organizing educational configurations are fundamentally new kinds of educational technologies, which put almost unlimited knowledge in the palm of every person’s hand.

This vision of truly game-changing educational technologies is already on the lips of many educational innovators. I argue here that an actual and desirable revolution in schooling based on new educational technologies will only take place after a radical critique of current trends in educational technology has taken place. Many existing self-declared “educational technologies” are grounded in reductive human capital theory, which simplifies the nature of learning and limits ideas about the purposes of education. As I explain below, not all informational environments are educational environments. Search engines and social networking sites are not epistemologically reflective, nor or they transformationally challenging, both of which are important aspects of truly educational environments. Technology facilitated informational environments often have no teacherly authority. Most open-source web-content platforms cede all authority to the learner, which is the classic mistake of progressive and constructivist pedagogies. An integral meta-theory of education allows us to consider the levels of development that unfold as a part of all learning processes, and to thus grasp the ethical importance of appropriately exercising teacherly authority.

The modern sciences of learning, which are ignored in the design of most educational technologies, tell us that learning is optimized when it involves sustained interpersonal relationships, emotional connection and embodiment, and dynamically interactive hands-on experiences. Based on the best of what we know about learning, educational technologies should be bringing people together away from screens. Technologies should not be isolating individuals alone in front of screens. Part of an integral education is a set of design principles for integral educational technologies. These entail that the best educational technologies are those that facilitate real in-person relationships and peer-to-peer networks. The technology should not be the focus of attention, but a scaffold for group participation through content generation and pedagogically sophisticated instructions. The key is good practices and activities taking place away from the screen. The computer is not the new teacher in the meta-industrial one-room-school house; the computer is the new chalk board and text book, a technology that enables teaching and learning, and that works best when it is put to the side after sparking a conversation or activity.

With these key ideas foreshadowed and the general context set I will now turn to considerations about the current educational landscape and begin to make the argument that schools must be re-imagined if we are to survive this time of planetary transformation. Then I turn to consider the main facets of a minimalist integral meta-theory of education, which sets the stage for an exploration of educational technologies trends, peer-to-peer networks, and the beginnings of an integral education platform. I argue that we should begin to design technologies and direct the resources of our communities toward a radically different set of educational futures, where the categories of schooling—such as GPA, class rank, standards and tests, aged-normed classes, subject majors, etc.—are the meaningless categories of a bygone bureaucracy. Our task as educators today is to evolve the very form of schooling itself, looking beyond the institutional vestiges of a prior era and toward the emergence of educational configurations of almost unimaginable abundance, freedom, and efficiency. Educational networks must be created to facilitate the emergence and stabilization of those capacities and mindsets that are necessary for our historical moment. These are, almost by definition, unattainable through conventional schooling. This is where integral education will thrive in the decades to come: in the places where communities find new ways to work together to solve the problems facing their children and themselves: where new stories about our humanity are emerging; where new social possibilities are arising in the space between world systems; where the future of the biosphere and civilization are seen as intertwined.


[i] The term “Anthropocene” entered the Oxford English Dictionary remarkably late, in June 2014. That is 15 years after it is agreed to have been first coined, see: Angus I. (2015) “When Did the Anthropocene Begin… and Why Does It Matter.” Monthly Review, vol 67 no 4; Purey, J. (2015) After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene.

[ii] Wallerstein. I. (2007) World-Systems Analysis.

 [iii] Ibid.

[iv] Wilber, K. (1995) Sex, Ecology, Spirituality.

[v] This has been document on global scale, see: Sahlberg (2012). Finnish lessons: what can the world learn from educational change in Finland. But it starts with policy changes beginning in the US, see: Ravitch, D. (2013) Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s publics Schools.