Articles by author: Brock University

  • Why we need to exit from colonisation for better sustainability

    Photo: Liette Vasseur; 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference

    Contributor: Simone Bignall

    Indigenous peoples have long governed lands and waters sustainably, historically using resources wisely for thousands of years and now continuing to do so in the present period following colonial invasion and settlement.

    Indigenous peoples do not merely strive to live in harmony with the natural world (like many non-Indigenous people do). More profoundly, being Indigenous means living rightfully and lawfully as part of the natural world; existing as Country.i Indigenous peoples therefore consider that they have an ages-old natural authority and responsibility to care for the Country that defines what it is to be an Indigenous human. In this sense, ‘Country’ is the interconnected web of land, water, sky, human and nonhuman life, ancestral agencies, and environmental forces that, together, make up the distinctive character of a place. From this perspective, healthy Country means healthy people and humanity is thus obliged to uphold the health of the Country that sustains all life within an interconnected ecology.

    Environmental damage depletes human wellbeing, since it weakens the reciprocal connections needed for all to flourish in harmony. Additionally, human damage depletes environments that rely upon symbiotic processes balancing complex systems of relationship.  The cultural identity and wellbeing of Indigenous peoples is connected with the health of the environment, because belonging to a place defines the cultural and political identities of First Nations. Likewise, environmental destruction affects the capacity of Indigenous peoples to enjoy and exercise their collective cultural rights. In the current global context of climate crisis, mass species extinction, and the collapse of fragile ecologies because of unsustainable extractive industry, the cultural need to protect Country is ever more urgent to Indigenous leaders and communities.

    In many settler-colonial places, environmental policy planning has recently shifted to recognise First Nations leaders as “stewards” and “custodians” of their traditional lands and waters. Yet, such acts of recognition rarely extend to the acknowledgement of Indigenous leaders as environmental “governors,” exercising rights flowing from aboriginal sovereignty. Properly recognised in political terms, Indigenous governors would then be vested with the authority to manage environmental resources wisely according to scientific evidence that has been developed through ages of innovation, experimentation, and observation.ii It makes perfect sense then that Indigenous authorities should lead the way as humanity struggles to find more sustainable pathways, because Indigenous peoples already know how to govern life, lands and waters sustainably.  This obvious solution, however, appears hard to realise when Indigenous authority has been so severely impacted by settler-colonisation. In fact, settler-colonisation works specifically to erode or deny Indigenous sovereignty and settler-colonial governments rarely even imagine turning to Indigenous governments for advice and assistance in public planning or environmental policy. Indigenous political structures and processes have also, in many cases, been weakened by settler-colonisation. This has resulted in a loss of jurisdiction and less capacity for self-determination or self-government in many communities, which consequently are unable to demonstrate effective leadership for social development and environmental stewardship.

    Around the world, many Indigenous communities have begun strategic programmes of Indigenous Nation (re)building as a way of responding to these legacies of settler-colonisation in Canada, Australia, Sápmi, the United States of America, Aoearoa-New Zealand, and other occupied territories. Nation (re)building refers to: “the processes by which a Native nation enhances its own foundational capacity for effective self-governance and for self-determined community and economic development.”[iii] Nation (re)building revives the political life of an Indigenous collective in a way that matches cultural traditions while catering to contemporary political needs and aspirations. It involves an Indigenous polity raising cultural awareness and resilience amongst its citizenry, honing political structures and processes for maximum effectiveness in relevant contexts of political and economic engagement. Moving through stages of identifying, organising, and acting as a political collective, the process of nation (re)building supports a community’s leaders to act strategically and make decisions that can bring about the long-term vision of their nation. By reviving the capacity for Indigenous governments to exercise meaningful authority and expand their powers over traditional jurisdictions that have been lost through colonisation, Indigenous nation (re)building opens up pathways of exit from colonialism.

    Settlers, too, must responsibly learn how to walk these pathways collaboratively for a more general release from the colonial structures that continue to shape every aspect of post-colonial society.[iv] Ultimately, Indigenous peoples’ renewed enjoyment of political authority and expanded jurisdiction over Country allows for the firm expression of Indigenous voice in federal and international policy developments for decolonisation and sustainable environmental governance. And this offers all of humanity hope for securing the future of life on Earth.

    i See, for example: Steve Hemming, Daryle Rigney, Simone Bignall, Shaun Berg & Grant Rigney. 2019. ‘Indigenous nation building for environmental futures: Murrundi flows through Ngarrindjeri country’, Australasian Journal of Environmental Management, 26:3, 216-235.

    ii. Gregory Cajete. 2000. Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence. Santa Fe: Clear Light Books

    iii. Miriam Jorgensen (editor). 2007. Rebuilding Native Nations: Strategies for Governance and Development. University of Arizona Press, page xii.

    iv. Simone Bignall. 2014. ‘The Collaborative Struggle for Ex-Colonialism’, Journal of Settler-Colonial Studies, 4:4, 340-356.


    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Ecopsychology, Ecopsychosis, Indigenization: Reciprocal Healing Between Humans and Nature

    Creative engagement with nature is a good way to begin to address ecopsychosis

    Contributor: David Fancy

     Reciprocal healing between humans and the earth involves the simultaneous and mutually informed pursuit of human as well as wider environmental health, wellness, and renewal. In other words, human health and wellness occurs in a broader ecological and environmental context, and, for better or for worse, given the current climate crisis, ecosystem health is in many cases dependent on human’s ability to foster beneficial relationships with ecosystems.  

    Researchers have coined the term “ecopsychosis” to describe the pathological and deeply dysfunctional relationship between humans and ecosystems played out in many contemporary societies. This sickness-inducing relationship is predicated on the faulty notion that, as humans, we are somehow separate from one another and from the planet in ways that relieve us from responsibility towards one another, towards other beings, and towards the Earth. Addressing and healing pervasive ecopsychosis affecting many humans and many human cultures is central to the work of reciprocal healing, and to the continued sustainability of human life on the planet. 

    From an ecopsychological perspective, it is important to emphasize that the human psyche has emerged and developed in deep entanglement with the natural world. Humans have spent 99.97% of their existence as a species as hunter gatherers, and much of the remaining 0.3% as tribal pastoralists. Only approximately 0.0002% of our time as a species has been spent during the modern industrial and post-industrial eras in which the current ecopsychosis and separation from “nature” has come to the fore, especially for those living in the Economic North. 

    Many ecopsychologists advocate, with full recognition of the political complexities and nuance that this will entail, that humans living in the industrialized world who have benefitted the most from the exploitation of natural and human resources need to re-Indigenize their relationship with the natural world. Unlike relationships with nature in industrialized regions, Indigenous relationships with nature are often characterized by: 1) ongoing daily exposure to nature, 2) perpetual embodied relationships with nature through walking, moving, hunting and so forth, and 3) by the creation of cultural artefacts such as tools, housing, or artistic production patterned from the natural world around them.  

    Of additional significance from an ecopsychologically informed perspective is the idea that for much of human history, nature was encountered subjectively. In other words, nature was personal, was a location for the interpretation of patterns and meanings that had significance for individuals and for groups. This allowed our collective ancestry the ability to retain flexibility and resilience in a natural world marked by continuous cyclical changes. The compartmentalization and professionalization of scientific knowledge about nature in contemporary societies has contributed to the alienation many people experience in the face of the natural world. 

    How to achieve these complex connection, relation, and interrelation that are integral to the process of re-Indigenization that can help thwart the ecopsychosis fueling the climate crisis? Much research has begun to demonstrate what ancestral and Indigenous cultures already know: that time in nature reduces chronic stress, assists in emotional regulation, intensifies healthy attachment, nourishes the development of a coherent sense of self and increases respectful understanding of the natural world. Time in nature is a particularly good way to begin to address ecosychosis and the many problems it engenders in turn. 

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Why the Arts are Integral to a Sustainable Future

    Ecological Art seeks to draw attention to environmental themes.
    Contributor: David Fancy 

    There are diverse ways in which the arts can be integral to a future sustainable for continued human life on earth. These may take the form of using art to draw attention to the climate crisis or art practises involving collective responses to the climate crisis. Responding to the climate crisis might also manifest as art practises imagining revolutionary and loving futures in which supremacy logic, greed, and materialism are not as central to the many human societies which they are now. One element that is shared across these approaches is the following premise: that the environmental crisis is not simply the result of scientific failure, the faults in several types of government policy or in economic practices. Instead, underpinning all these challenges is the notion that the climate crisis represents fundamental failures of imagination. These failures result from profoundly maladapted understandings of kinship and connection between human and other-than-human entities in the complex networks of which humans are embedded. In short, and in response: the arts can permit us to imagine kinship, connection, and relationship differently in such a way that can be integral to sustainable futures for humans on this planet.  

    Geoartistry explores how other-than-human entities create artistic effects.

    Although different modes of artistic creation across many cultures provide models of complex relationships between human and other-than-human, we can focus briefly here on three overall types of art practice. The first of these, broadly speaking, is Eco-Art or Ecological Art. These practices—in painting, performance, dance, installation, storytelling, or other genres—regularly seek to draw attention to environmental themes, the need for healthy ecosystems, and humans’ negative impacts on these ecosystems. For example, the Brooklyn-based group STUDIOCKA installed a towering multi-story blue whale entitled ‘Skyscraper’ made of plastic garbage in a canal in Bruges, Belgium. By using 5 tonnes of recovered materials collected from shorelines around the world, the artist collective foregrounded that this amount of plastic represents only 0.00000003 % of the estimated total amount of plastic on shorelines around the world.1  

    A second type of practice falls under the rubric of Nature Art, in which natural materials are used to draw attention to their beauty and  encourage the awareness of subtle interconnections between human and natural expression. Andy Goldsworthy’s often sprawling nature installations in the English countryside2 or Anna Rakitina’s paintings of the human body as they map on floral or other forms of patterning3 are excellent examples of Nature Art. In many ways Nature Art is by no means a new phenomenon; many forms of Indigenous expression have existed before Nature Art emerged as a category from creative practices in the Economic North. 

    A third category of practice can be described as geoartistry, or the recognition that natural systems may also generate aesthetic effects and sensations not simply for the purposes of human enjoyment, but for their own sake, or for the enjoyment of other non-human animals and entities. Geoartistry serves as an invitation to help humans move beyond their species narcissism and to wonder: do other creatures experience beauty, do other species generate aesthetic experience for its own sake?  

    Each of these modes of creation—from Eco-Art, Nature Art, Geoartistry, and beyond—are all part of the work of creating a new earth and a new people to come. 


    Duncan, R. (2018). Systemic Thinking and Imagination in Ecopsychology and Mental Health. Routledge. NY. 

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Earth: Human’s most misused relationship? 

    Photo caption: Environmental Sustainability Students stand in the healing garden at the Niagara-on-the-Lake campus of Niagara College, at the foot of the Niagara Escarpment Biosphere. 

    Contributor: Cassandra Carlson  

    How does one heal oneself? Whether it be a physical, mental, or spiritual injury, the only one that can truly heal ourselves is us. You can be prescribed medication by a doctor, for example, but if you do not take it, you will not get better. We are responsible for our own happiness, and thus, need to find and use our own tools to combat the difficulties of everyday life.  

    In today’s society, humans are sharing knowledge and producing opportunities at a far greater rate than ever before. At the same time, there is an increasing level of both supply and demand, in many fields, that is  becoming unsustainable. The rise of urbanization and industrialization, and continuous technological and medical advancements, seem to imply that humans are increasing the tools available to combat everyday difficulties. The solution to solving our everyday problems may not be creating new tools, however. The solution may instead lie in re-examining how we can use the tools we already have to the greatest effectiveness. Maybe it is more accurate to say that “we’re given the tools to achieve happiness, it is up to us how we use them”. With that in mind, it can be argued that the greatest tool of all—Earth—is often the tool that is most ignored.  

    Healing Gardens are one of many tools used in Indigenous practices to promote greater health and wellbeing for both people and the Earth. Not only do plants provide a variety of beneficial medicinal uses, but healing gardens also act as an open space for worship, thinking, and self-reflection. The combination of connecting to the Earth and the benefits of the various plants within the garden provide the potential for people to gain great improvements to their physical, mental, and spiritual health. Land is also very important in Indigenous culture and holds a special connection to healing and overall wellbeing. The idea of respect and treating others the way you would want to be treated is the key feature between the relationship of land and human health. Is it a coincidence that as global climate change is on the rise, so too are levels of stress, anxiety, and general distress? From a Westernized perspective, this connection may never be examined. In an Indigenous worldview, however, it is ever so clear.  

    Compared to a Westernized perspective, Indigenous mental health revolves around a holistic approach, where all spiritual, mental, and physical aspects of the individual’s current situation are intertwined. For example, improving cultural pride, self-esteem and interpersonal relationships has been shown to increase the resilience and wellbeing of many youth. A focus on the land-health connection has also been shown to provide many benefits to those who lack access to relevant mental health resources due to barriers in location, understanding and availability. Ideologically speaking, a problem that exists in the human mind probably has a solution that can be found in nature. . . Not only can Indigenous land-based programs provide the same, if not better, benefits than  Western medicine,  these programs are also  more widely available to different demographics of people. Why then, are they not more popular? The  answer could be rooted in colonialism. 

    Indigenous peoples have a historical level of mistrust of the Canadian government, and the practices it embodies. Understanding and accurately using land-based programs goes beyond having an uncomfortable conversation about the effects and involvements of colonial trauma and genocide and environmental protection. These conversations need to extend toward an acceptance of a “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” relationship between Earth and Human. For example, children should not just be taught to reduce, reuse, and recycle, but rather, should be encouraged to develop a personal connection to the Earth, to gain a greater appreciation and respect for the gifts that Earth provides.  

    How do we do this? As an Indigenous person myself, I believe the best way to learn is through the sharing of stories, listening to a variety of perspectives, and self-reflecting on different ways to integrate new ideas, opinions, or narratives. Our voices are  powerful, but what is even more powerful is our ability to listen and   relate to others. We need to respect and learn from the stories of others so that we have an integrated understanding and appreciation of the human experience. 

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Vasseur’s appointment as UNESCO Chair renewed for another term

    Liette Vasseur (centre), Brock University Biological Sciences Professor and UNESCO Chair on Community Sustainability: From Global to Local, travelled to Paris, France, recently for the 30th anniversary of the UNESCO Chairs Network. Pictured from left are: William Hodgson, support program for the representative of Quebec Government at UNESCO; Frédérick Armstrong, co-Chair UNESCO, Cégep Marie-Victorin; Shin Koseki, UNESCO Chair at Université de Montréal; Vasseur; Michel Bonsaint, representative of the Quebec government at UNESCO; Julie Halle; and Richard Hotte, UNESCO Chair TELUQ University.

    Photo: Justin Steepe, Brock News

    Liette Vasseur’s appointment as UNESCO Chair on Community Sustainability: From Local to Global has been renewed for four years.

    Vasseur also recently travelled to Paris, France in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the UNESCO Chairs Network. She was invited to provide reflections on the event’s plenary as well as presenting in a session on the importance of integrating different ways of knowing into research.

    Read the story in The Brock News



    Categories: Updates of the Chair

  • A Banana’s Journey to the Centre of Your Grocery Store: Reducing Food Miles for More Sustainable Eating

    Photo by José de Azpiazu on Unsplash

    Contributors: Ariana Forand & Tasha Gunasinghe 

    When you enter your local grocery store, you look down at your list with one goal in mind: get in and out of the store as quickly as possible so you can get dinner on the table. As you walk over to grab a bunch of bananas, you may notice a “Product of Mexico” label and for a moment, you are reminded of the country’s sunshine and hot weather. In that moment, however, do you also remember how far Mexico is from your local grocery store? 

    Going to the grocery store is a routine activity for many of us. These humongous stores are typically piled high with a wide variety of different foods for us to choose from.  While we are shopping, however, how often do we stop and consider the journey our food took before landing in our baskets? Would you believe that the bananas in your basket have likely travelled more than 5,000 km to get to you1 

    The distance that food travels before it reaches your plate is defined as “food miles.” The number of food miles that are accumulated by many items we regularly enjoysuch as bananas, avocados, mangos, and coffeeare, for the most part, unsustainable. Food miles have become a tool for understanding not only where food comes from, but the unsustainability of food production overall. A high number of food miles often indicates a large carbon footprint, or, in other words, a significant production of greenhouse gases that negatively contribute to the climate crisis.  In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, we often forget about the faces of the producers of our food and the journey our food has taken. For the sake of food security (and our stomachs!) we need to put more thought into the journey of our food and food miles must become a vital part of our sustainability efforts.  

    The push to improve the sustainability of the food supply chain starts with you as a consumer. There is a built-in privilege associated with being able to choose from whom and where your food comes from, and with privilege comes the responsibility of using your power as a consumer to improve the sustainability of our food supply chains. You hold the power to improve the sustainability of food supply chains by making environmentally conscious decisions. Choosing foods that have accumulated fewer food miles in their journey from farm to fork can lead to huge benefits in the sustainability of our food supply chains. Try choosing foods that are in season in your local area, for example Finding a reputable local farmers’ market will allow you to consume more locally produced goods and putting a face to the farmer behind your food will help you gain a greater appreciation for the food on your plate.  

    Looking to reduce your food miles even further? Growing some of your own food is one way to improve health and reduce food costs, while simultaneously lessening the negative environmental impact of industrial agriculture. Try starting small at the beginning; vegetable and fruit gardens don’t have to be elaborate to thrive. Vegetables such as cucumbers, carrots, kale, and beets are a great option for those trying to find their green thumb3 because they are both easy to grow and chock-full of nutrients2.. Raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, and apples also make great options for those looking to incorporate fruits into their gardens4.  

    Taking steps to reduce your own personal food miles may seem small and insignificant, but when we band together, we can create positive change for the environment. If all of us do our part, we can ensure that our food is sourced in a more sustainable manner that allows both humans and the planet to thrive.  


     1 Food Miles. (n.d.). Bananas. 

     2 Toronto Star. (2015). Superfruits that will thrive in your garden. 

     3 Almanac. (n.d.). 10 Easiest Vegetables to Grow at Home. 

    4 Gladwin, M. (2019). The Five Best Fruit Trees to Plant in Ontario. Sequoia TreeScape. 



    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Grow With What You’ve Got

    Contributors: Ariana Forand and Tasha Gunasinghe 

    There are numerous benefits to nurturing your green thumb, and an increasing number of people are looking to grow their own food to one degree or another.  

    According to the findings of a 2018 study conducted by a team from Australia, home and community gardening may offer a supportive role in the health and wellbeing of the gardener1. Gardens also provide various environmental benefits, including acting as a food source for bees and other pollinators. Whether big or small, incorporating these green spaces into your home can be a great way to learn a new hobby, bring fresh fruits and vegetables into your kitchen, minimize your grocery bill, and, to a certain degree, take food security into your own hands. But where to start 

    As a beginner, gardening can often seem intimidating, especially to those who don’t feel as if they were born with a green thumb. Numerous choices must be made in relation to plants, pots, and tools, which can easily become both economically and environmentally unsustainable. With so many seeds, pots, watering cans and gardening tools to buy, the seemingly endless options can leave you feeling overwhelmed with an empty wallet. In addition to not being economically sustainable, purchasing new items is often not environmentally sustainable, either. The great news is that a little bit of resourcefulness goes a long way. By growing with what you got and only purchasing items when you have no alternative at your disposal your gardening endeavor will become more environmentally and financially friendly — a win-win solution. This blog will provide some tips and tricks to grow with what you got!  

    First things first, a garden requires seeds or seedlings. Depending on location, some plants will do better than others. When choosing seeds, keep in mind not only your geographic location, but also the placement and orientation of your future garden. Because plants basically “eat” light, determining what type of sunlight your garden receives is an important first step in ensuring that your plants survive and thrive. Once you have that sorted out and you have decided on what to grow, you might be surprised to learn that you have access to free seeds at home. For example, if you have a green pepper in your kitchen, youre in luck! The white membrane inside a pepper contains seeds that can be transplanted to your garden. Remove the seeds, place them carefully on a towel and store in a safe, dry space for a few days. After the seeds have dried out, they are ready to be planted. Follow a growing guide to learn the right depth for planting and with a little luck, and some sun and water, youll have homegrown green peppers. If you already have a garden, or know someone that does, you may also be able to take seeds from their annual plants. Flowers such as marigolds, sunflowers and morning glories are annuals that, in addition to looking great, provide a source of pollen for bees and other pollinators.  

    Do you have seeds but no pots? Look around your house, and dont forget to check out your recycling bin. Mason jars from pasta sauce, old disposable coffee cups, pop bottles or juice containers (as seen above) all make great alternatives to pots. After a good clean, these items are perfect for growing small plants, or for growing seedlings before you transfer them to a larger space. Soil does not care about the appearance of the pot that contains it. By using pieces of recycling, you can give them a second life and save yourself the cost of small pots.   

    Creating your own compost is a fantastic way to add organic fertilizer to your garden and adding compost to your garden provides essential nutrients to the soil. These nutrients are then taken up by the plants and used throughout their lifecycle. Both the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the National Public Radio (NPR) have created great, easy-to-follow reference guides if you are interested in learning more about making your own compost 2,3(check out the references at the bottom of this blog for links to these references2,3) 

    Finally, are you in need of some gardening tools that you simply dont have and cant seem to find an alternative for? Try asking a friend, family member or a neighbour if they have what you need. If borrowing is not an option, thrifting is an economic alternative as second-hand stores are a great way to shop more sustainably.  

    While not for everyone, a garden can be a great way to spruce up your living space, increase health and wellbeing benefits and give back to the environment. If you are looking to give it a go, try following this guide to learn how to grow with what you got! 


    1 Pollard, G., Roetman, P., Ward, J., Chiera, B., & Mantzioris, E. (2018). Beyond Productivity: Considering the Health, Social Value and Happiness of Home and Community Food Gardens. Urban Science, 2(4), 97.  

    2 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (2010). Preparation and Use of Compost. 

    3 National Public Radio. (2020). How to Compost at Home. 

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Getting the Anthropocene Right: The Earth Science Perspective 

    Photo caption: Ultrahigh resolution image of a cross section of a freeze core from Crawford Lake across the proposed boundary between the Anthropocene (to the left of the gap between panels) and the Holocene Epoch in panels displayed at HKW (Haus der Kulturen der Welt) as part of the Earth Indices installation, May 2022. Couplets of organic detritus capped each summer by crystals of calcite precipitated in the alkaline waters in this sinkhole in the Niagara Escarpment allow annual resolution, like tree rings. Many geologically preservable markers of the Great Acceleration and the Nuclear Age, including the products of fossil fuel combustion and fallout from nuclear weapons, increase sharply in abundance in the mid-20th century, and the proposed GSSP is at the boundary between the light-coloured calcite layer deposited in the summer of 1952 CE.
    Photo credit: Mike MacKinnon. 

    Contributors: Francine McCarthy, Brock University, and Julia Adeney Thomas, University of Notre Dame   

    I suspect that few people reading this blog refute the fact that humans have substantially impacted our planet. With our superior intellect and opposable thumbs, we have altered the courses of rivers, mined entire mountains for their resources, and turned forests into pasture, with many unforeseen consequences.  

    Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen, an atmospheric chemist studying the changes in atmosphere, together with paleolimnologist Eugene Stoermer coined the term “Anthropocene” for the epoch in which we live. The term emphasizes the role of humans in pushing Earth systems beyond their environmental limits. With respect to the span of our modern epoch, in Newsletter 41 of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP, 2000) they wrote:

    To assign a more specific date to the onset of the “Anthropocene” seems somewhat arbitrary, but we propose the latter part of the 18th century, although we are aware that alternative proposals can be made (some may even want to include the entire Holocene). However, we choose this date because, during the past two centuries, the global effects of human activities have become clearly noticeable. This is the period when data retrieved from glacial ice cores show the beginning of a growth in the atmospheric concentrations of several “greenhouse gases”, in particular CO2 and CH4. Such a starting date also coincides with James Watt’s invention of the steam engine in 1784.  

    The International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) has the final say on the geologic time scale of the world since its creation. So, its task is to identify a single point in time to define the beginning of this new Epoch called Anthropocene. This blog – whose title borrowed from the subtitle of Altered Earth, edited by historian Julia Adeney Thomas of the University of Notre Dame – summarizes the efforts made by this organization to define the term Anthropocene in a manner consistent with the previous 4.6 billion years of Earth History. This requires identifying a specific location that exemplifies the characteristics of that interval (typically the materials are sedimentary rock strata, but ice core records and cave deposits have been used to define and subdivide time through the Quaternary Period).  A ‘golden spike’ marks the base of that section, which defines the beginning of that interval of time. Should the ICS accept the proposal of the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) that a new epoch be formally erected, a GSSP (Global boundary Stratotype Series and Point) must be identified to define the beginning of the Anthropocene / end of the Holocene Epoch.  

    To Earth scientists, this is what “getting the Anthropocene right” means. Precisely defining the beginning of an interval of time based on geologically preservable, globally correlatable markers does not necessarily mean “getting it right” for all members of the “Anthropocene’” community. The term has been used enthusiastically by historians, human/social geographers, environmental scientists, philosophers, anthropologists, and a host of others outside of the geological community. Sometimes these communities use the term without reference to Earth science, defining it in hundreds, if not thousands, of alternative ways. Recently, however, a growing group of social scientists and humanists have been working with the scientific understanding, asking their own distinctive questions about how and why this phenomenon arose and what might be done to mitigate it. To the stratigraphic community, loose usage of a term that mimics formally defined units of geologic time (e.g., Pleistocene, Holocene) is untenable. 

    Even among the geological community, there is not unanimous agreement with the decision ratified in May 2019 that:  

    1) “the Anthropocene be treated as a formal chrono-stratigraphic unit defined by a GSSP”, and 2) “the primary guide for the base of the Anthropocene be one of the stratigraphic signals around the mid-twentieth century of the Common Era” (Working Group on the ‘Anthropocene’ | Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy).  

    Nonetheless, with ratification of decisions made at the International Geological Congress in Cape Town in 2016, the formal search began for a GSSP that records the Great Acceleration of Steffen et al. (2015) with great chronological precision. In this case, it would be unprecedented in the geological time scale, to a single calendar year.  

    Together with a team of roughly 50 researchers, including social scientists and an artist, I have explored the annually laminated (varved) sediments of Crawford Lake, in the Township of Milton, Ontario, as a potential GSSP. Calcite crystals form each summer in surface waters of this small, but very deep (nearly 24 m!) lake. They sink to the lakebed, capping the organic-rich sediments that are mainly the remains of phytoplankton and their consumers that accumulate the rest of the year. 

    The varve couplets can be counted (similar to how tree rings can be counted to give the age of a tree) and “Team Crawford” proposed that the base of the Anthropocene Series to mark the beginning of the new epoch be the light-coloured calcite lamina deposited in the summer of 1950 CE (common era), when plutonium-239 (the main fissionable isotope used in nuclear weapons) and spheroidal carbonaceous particles/ SCPs (produced by incomplete high-temperature combustion of fossil fuels) increased sharply in abundance. If the varved succession of Crawford Lake is chosen by the Anthropocene Working Group as the proposed GSSP and if the proposal is eventually approved by the International Commission on Stratigraphythis date would mark the end of the Holocene Epoch.  


    Graph depicting the levels of Spheroidal carbonaceous particles (SCPs) in varved sediments from Crawford Lake

    Spheroidal carbonaceous particles (SCPs) in varved sediments from Crawford Lake record rapidly increased fossil fuel combustion following the Second World War, when plutonium fallout first appears. Modified from McCarthy et al. (submitted).


    As with other chronological boundaries on the Geologic Time Scale, the base of the Anthropocene is based on geologically preservable markers of large-scale change on the planet, exceeding the range of environmental change through the Holocene. The mid-20th century base proposed by the AWG after years of study and debate was not intended to reflect the earliest evidence of human impact on the planet, nor the greatest anthropogenic impact at any given location. Rather it was to record the profound impact on Earth systems (atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, and biosphere, and geosphere) that can be identified synchronously worldwide using markers of that change.  

    The plutonium-239 and SCPs that mark the proposed GSSP in a sediment core from Crawford Lake that is archived at the National Cryobank of Canada (Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa) are anthropogenic markers that were deposited synchronously worldwide as atmospheric fallout far from their points of origin – as a result of thermonuclear weapons tests and industrial emissions, for example. Greater anthropogenic impacts on Crawford Lake are recorded around ten centimeters below the proposed GSSP, when a lumber mill operated on the south end of the lake around the turn of the last century, and around 30 centimeters below that, recording the impact of ‘three sisters agriculture’ by several hundred people who inhabited longhouses in the northwestern part of its catchment for several centuries before the middle of the last millennium.  

    If adopted, a GSSP would formalize the definition of the term Anthropocene, but it would by no means imply that human impact began in the mid-20th century. That point is well illustrated by the longhouses at the Crawford Lake Conservation Area that were reconstructed by Conservation Halton based on archaeological excavations. This history is communicated to visitors by its staff and through displays. The Interpretive Centre and boardwalk around the lake is also a useful means of communicating the difference between the geological definition of an epoch and evidence of anthropogenic impact, irrespective of the decisions of the AWG and the ICS. In any case, the research done at the Crawford Lake site has allowed us to better understand the kind of impact human activity has had and continues to have on ecosystems and the Earth’s system as a whole. This understanding can potentially lead us to adopt more sustainable ways of existing. 

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Empathy: What it is, what it isn’t, and why it’s important for ecological systems thinking

    Contributors: Julie Gemuend and Mitch Goldsmith, members of the Young Professionals (in research) Exploration Group(YPEG). Photos by: Julie Gemuend.

    How can we productively and meaningfully respond to emergent environmental and social crises in ways that remain open and attentive to the needs of others, including nonhuman others? At the same time, how can we protect ourselves from being so open that we become overwhelmed or despondent about the scale and urgency of the compounding emergencies that characterize our times, what many now call the Anthropocene — our current epoch of human-induced global environmental change? Systems thinking is an important part of grasping and responding to our current social and environmental precarity. Systems thinking understands humans and other beings, entities, and forces as interdependent actors irreducibly entangled with each other. These entanglements form a series of dynamic “systems” or networks that operate in ways inconceivable within a reductive, mechanistic framework. A systems approach to sustainability and environmentalism instantiates not only new ways of conceiving our relationships to nature, but also new ways of being in, and relating to, the world at large. Empathy activates our awareness of emotional and embodied relationships to both oneself, and others, and can be a crucial part of generating systems of care and environmental sustainability.  

    But what is empathy? Words, like people, are part of a lineage — a family tree — and though the term empathy is a fairly young branch, it nevertheless benefits from a rich, colourful, and complex history. First appearing in the English language in 1908, empathy, translated from the German term Einfühlung, literally means “feeling into.”i Einfühlung was theoretically developed within the fields of philosophical aesthetics and psychology over the 18th and 19th centuries and came to embody a strong connotation to physical responsiveness. In other words, it was a connection between bodies and other bodies, as well as bodies and objects. Einfühlung was also frequently applied to the experience of viewing art and in this way, empathy largely emerged as a term that concerned not only the enlivening of artifacts but the sensing and comprehension of those artifacts in and through the body, as well.  

    As the 20th century progressed, so too did the meaning of empathy. It abandoned its relationship to the body and settled within the domain of psychology, where it continues to be investigated largely as an emotional experience. This is the context in which the term is commonly understood and used today, disembodied, and floating across our social media spheres — often as a dramatically reduced or misinterpreted version of itself.  In fact, many social media platforms have recently become saturated with empathy-related content that draws millions of views. 

    But something is missing in the transformation of empathy as an embodied and relational experience to empathy as mere psychological phenomenon or online clickbait. Arguably, empathy can perhaps be best understood as a powerful transformative tool that offers a pathway to radical intimacy and encourages us to rethink our relationship to the natural world. Yet its power to enhance our communion with ourselves and others in a sustained way has been compromised due to appropriation, misuse, and misunderstanding within the social media realms we frequent.  Thus, we must develop a more robust and nuanced understanding of the concept in order to use it constructively. This is especially important when considering empathy’s foundational role in building and maintaining ecologically sustainable relationships and institutions.  

    Within social media systems, for example, the rise of self-identifying empaths — those who believe they have heightened perceptual abilities, which they often describe as the ability to feel what others are feeling — have popped up across a range of platforms. This has been especially true in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. This phenomenon can be seen on Reddit, where, for example, the membership to the “Empaths” Subreddit forum soared from 20,000 members in 2019 to over 100,000 members in 2022.ii Data from Google Trends corroborates this increase in popularity, reporting a dramatic spike in searches for the term in January 2022, right around the time one “empathic” TikTok user went viral after their video provoked widespread critical reaction. The video has since been deleted but essentially the user frames their empathic abilities as a kind of superpower capable of immediately detecting nefarious undercurrents in individuals that no one else is able to sense. Detractors interpreted the video in myriad ways — as hyper-judgmental, insensitive, dangerously parochial — and created parodies of the video, which also went viral.   

    Critics of the term empath, and its appropriation, often argue that those who portray themselves as empathic, or empaths, are narcissistic and attention seeking. This, they argue, is the exact opposite of empathy. However, these online empaths are perhaps products of a larger system. Under the banner of capitalism, new age spiritualism appears to be a driving force behind this new “narcissistic empathy,” which places attention on individual self-improvement (often labelled as “self-care”) and leads to the online exploitation of empathy as a commodity. This commodification of emotion disempowers the capacity of empathy to enhance our relationships with ourselves, others, and the environment. It ultimately highjacks our desire for connection by putting it to work in favour of capitalist systems of power, all the while claiming to transcend those systems. Furthermore, no matter how seemingly deserving of scorn, the critics who mock these social media “empaths” perpetuate a kind of anti-empathy that reinforces the idea that what happens to one person does not affect another, that we are not connected, and that others do not matter. This worldview is one that positions itself in direct contrast to both empathy and systems thinking. 

    In light of these debates, we advance empathy as a loaded — but vital! — concept about care, interconnectedness, intimacy, compassion, and community, including community beyond the human. Central to empathy’s power, we argue, are the kinesthetic, embodied, and physical dimensions of the concept explored in its antecedent, Einfühlung. Empathy discloses that the psychological and the physical — the mind and the body, reason, and emotion — cannot be disentangled and marshals both into the service of understanding ourselves as/and others. Unfortunately, much of this complexity is missing in the online cache generated by TikTok empaths and their critics. The simplified conception of the term distorts empathy into a process of emotional contagion; when one contemplates another’s sadness, one becomes sad. Walt Whitman illustrates this phenomenon when he writes: “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels. I myself become the wounded person.”iii This is not how we should understand empathy. Empathy, we suggest, extends beyond this kind of projection, and should instead be understood as an oscillation between one’s own perspective and that of another (between first person and third person). It is a process of gathering knowledge about the situation and then assessing that knowledge, which gives rise to a genuine desire to help and to ease the other’s pain.  

    According to the philosopher Lori Gruen, empathy is best understood as the temporary suspension of the self rather than “a kind of narcissistic projection of our own interests and desires onto others, particularly nonverbal others,” such as animals and the environment.iv In her book Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Ethic for our Relationships with Animals, Gruen argues that empathy can form the basis of a powerful environmental ethic that can ground our relationships with other humans, animals, and the more-than-human world in ways that are both caring and just. For Gruen, the key to this empathetic ethic is the understanding that we are already entangled. That is, we already always exist in complex webs of relationships, or systemswhether we like it or not. An entangled, empathic ethic, therefore, is accountable to these relationships and those they are inextricably linked to. There can be no individuals that exist prior to and separate from the entanglements that constitute them. 

    Ultimately, this attentive attunement to our entanglement amounts to, according to Gruen:  

    “[A] type of caring perception focused on attending to another’s experience of wellbeing… [and] [a]n experiential process involving a blend of emotion and cognition in which we recognize we are in relationships with others and are called upon to be responsive and responsible in these relationships by attending to another’s needs, interests, desires, vulnerabilities, hopes, and sensitivities.”v 

    What would change, we ask, in the way we work, socialize, shop, travel, worship, and relax, if we prioritized the cultivation of empathy, including empathy for nonhumans and those most affected by anthropogenic environmental change?  What would our schools, offices, hospitals, governments, and other institutions look like if they prioritized care, that is, to quote Gruen, the “needs, interests, desires, vulnerabilities, hopes, and sensitivities” of others, including the planet, in their daily practice? What industries and practices would be deemed untenable in an empathic society? What would have to change? And what would remain? Far from frivolous, these questions, we argue, are central to adequately responding to this current human-induced age of climate crisis, deforestation, oceanic acidification, and mass extinction.  

    We are not suggesting that empathy alone can change the world. Indeed, empathy can go wrong. Sometimes there are things we don’t know or don’t perceive accurately, which leads to what Gruen calls “epistemic inaccuracies”. Other times, we may misunderstand others’ experiences, what Gruen calls “ethical inaccuracies” and, of course, we can become overwhelmed by demands on our empathy or else fail to empathize adequately, what Gruen calls “empathetic saturation” and “incomplete empathy,” respectively. However, despite these dangers, we believe that a shift in the way we understand, and practice empathy can help guide, inspire, and sustain ecological thinking and movements. Uncoupling empathy from perceptions, however real or unfair, of empathy as self-aggrandizing or commodified, as seen in the debates of Tik Tok empaths discussed above, is the first step towards rehabilitating the concept as a critical mode of ethical and embodied relationship-making. Empathy both acknowledges our irreducible entanglement with other humans, animals, machines, plants, and indeed the entire cosmosand calls us to be responsive to the complex needs of these innumerable others. While we can’t be everything to everyone all the time, empathy can serve as the organizing principle in our daily lives, including in our visions for a just and hopeful ecological future. 

    i British psychologist Edward Bradford Titchener is credited with the coinage


    iii Merrill, C. et al. 2016. ”Song of Myself: With a Complete Commentary.” University of Iowa Press, p. 113.

    iv Gruen, L. 2015. “Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Ethic for Our Relationships with Animals.” Lantern Books, p. 57.

    v Gruen, L. 2015. “Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Ethic for Our Relationships with Animals.” Lantern Books, p. 3

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog

  • Neoliberalism and the Economic Beliefs That Took the World Beyond Sustainability

    Contributor: Mike Jones

    “Economics is the mother tongue of public policy and the mindset that shapes society.” — Kate Raworth 

    The term neoliberalism has been well-known by economists for decades — but what does it have to do with sustainability? 

    Neoliberalism is a political movement that supports free market capitalism and the reduction of government spending and control. The movement began in 1947 when a small group of economists (including Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman) formed the Mont Pelerin Society. At that meeting in Switzerland, they established a neoliberal agenda, based on the work of classical liberal thinkers like Adam Smith, with the goal of countering the threat of state totalitarianism (i.e. centralization) that was spreading under the influence of the Soviet Union. The initial meeting led to the development of a social movement, supported by billionaires and businesses, and the creation of a network of free market think tanks, such as the Cato Institute. 

    The movement achieved major political support in the 1980’s, thanks to the backing of then United States President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The two leaders, who were both surrounded by advisors that were members of the Mont Pelerin Society, implemented a series of neoliberal economic reforms in the early part of the decade to combat the economic stagnation being experienced in their countries. Neoliberalist influences became global in nature through structural adjustment programs (loans or subsidies given to countries experiencing financial hardship to increase their economic viability) of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the “free trade” rules of the World Trade Organization.

    Neoliberalism is based on the circular flow model of neoclassical economic theory. The circular flow model explains how resources and goods and services move throughout the economy. It has been a significant component of macroeconomic policy since the 1950’s. This simple mechanical model, however, makes invalid assumptions about rational actors, the availability of information, and perfect competition that are necessary to meet the conditions of a free market. Furthermore, the model excludes nature and society and seeks to privatize “the commons”: the natural and cultural resources that we all share.  It also promotes trade as “win-win”  despite the power imbalances that exist between overdeveloped and underdeveloped nations at the negotiating table. The structural adjustment programs of the IMF and World Bank, aimed at poverty reduction based on neoliberal principles that privatize state assets and common property systems, removed subsidies for essential industries and privatized services such as education and healthcare.

    While industrial societies benefited from increased access to resources at favourable prices, developing countries were plunged further into poverty and debt. The so-called free trade rules negotiated under World Trade Organization tilted the terms of trade in favour of wealthy countries, reducing the ability of developing countries to escape the debt burden and develop their own economies.

    The power of the Neoliberal movement has undermined each of the three criteria for sustainable use of natural resources, as defined by ecological economist Herman Daly:

    1. The withdrawal of resources cannot exceed the regeneration of resources; 
    2. Waste generation cannot exceed ecosystem ability to process waste;
    3. In the long term, non-renewable resources cannot be utilized at all.

    Donella Meadows, based on her work forecasting the limits to economic growth, added that to be socially sustainable, capital stocks and resource flows must be equitably distributed and sufficient to provide a good life for everyone.

    The unsustainable use of natural resources by society has led to the point where they are declining at a greater rate than they can be replenished, a point known as “ecological overshoot”. In addition to the overexploitation, rapidly growing inequality has led to rising social tensions and displays of extremism, such as the storming of the US Capitol in 2021 and the migration of people from underdeveloped regions of Latin America and Africa northwards to the USA, Canada, or Europe as they attempt to escape the poverty created by the unequal exchange of neoliberal capitalism.

    The current overexploitation of natural resources and pollution of oceans and atmosphere led Earth System scientists to call our present position on the geological time scale the Anthropocene because it was largely created by the impacts of humans on the global environment. The change from the previous Holocene (a relatively long period of stable climate) to the Anthropocene with its rapid global warming mostly occurred during the Great Acceleration a period of exponential industrial and technological development that occurred after World War II. The IMF World Bank and the World Trade Organization were developed during this period. They established economic policies influencing the relationships among developed and developing countries that favoured industrial societies in the global north. Developing countries in the global south were treated as sources of cheap material and labour to support economic growth in the north. These neoliberal economic policies have reduced human relations to the cold-hearted and flawed logic of the market. This situation caused ecological economist Richard Norgaard to call the current geological period the Econocene, instead of the Anthropocene to emphasize the role of neoliberal economics and its underlying beliefs in the creation of global change and instability. 

    Goal 12 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) relates to responsible production and consumption. This cannot be achieved until society at large is aware of how they are being driven by neoliberal economics to the self-destructive consumption that is exploiting the planet beyond sustainability. Goal 14 and 15, on protecting nature, and Goal 13, on climate change, cannot be achieved under the current premise of the SDGs that is based on the entrenched beliefs of mainstream economics and their influence on policy. Everybody has a role to play in changing their behaviour and changing economic policy. What will you do to change the economic policy goals that foster excessive consumption of everything and the overexploitation of nature? How can we change our behaviour to support the sustainable production and consumption of natural resources as required by Goal 12?

    1 Free-market capitalism means that the laws of supply and demand rather than central government regulates production, labour and the marketplace, giving the private sector much greater control over the economy than national governments.

    2 Hayek and Friedman were both members of the Chicago School of Economics and were both awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1974 and 1976 respectively, lending academic support to the principles of neoliberalism (Hickel, 2018). 

    3 Mount Pelerin Society 

    4 The Cato Institute seeks to create free, open, and civil societies based on libertarian principles that minimize the state and maximize individualism 

    5 Hickel, J. 2018. The Divide: Global Inequality From Conquest to Free Markets. W.W. Norton, London.



    8 Raworth

    9 Daly, H. 2007. Ecological Economics and Sustainable Development Selected Essays of Herman Daly. Edward Elgar Publishing, Cheltenham UK.

    10 Donella Meadows 1999. “Sustainable Systems” Lecture at the School of Business Administration, University of Michigan.


    12 Steffen et al 2018. The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration. The Anthropocene Review 2015, Vol. 2(1) 81–98 DOI: 10.1177/2053019614564785. 

    13 Norgaard, R., 2015. The Church of Economism and its Discontents. The Great Transition Initiative. 

    Categories: Beyond Sustainability Blog