Global Studies as if Reality Mattered: Globalizing Education in the Anthropocene to Build Global Competence and Resilience

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe. (John Muir 1911)

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. (Philip K. Dick; Peter Viereck)


Euphorbia antiquorum, sending out rhizomes. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari developed ‘rhizome‘ as s philosophical concept to observe and analyze substantive multiplicities, of which the real world is composed and to which global studies attempts to articulate a response. The rhizome is the best metaphor (Lakoff & Johnson 1980) and analogy (Hofstadter & Sander 2013) for global studies as I understand it.

What and how do we need to learn to live well together in the 21st century?

The answer to this question obviously depends on how one understands what this century has in store for us, which in turn depends on what kind of education one has received – at which point we come full circle.

The answer given here is that the 21st century is part of the dawning age of the Anthropocence, which is an age of consequences. The reality that emerges and unfolds this century is likely to be increasingly global, complex, interdependent, polarized, and challenging. Discussed since 2000, and proposed as a informal geological epoch in 2008, the Anthropocence is likely to be formalized in 2016.

The best evidence strongly suggests that we are at the beginning of a global state shift from the stable Holocene of the last 12,000 years, during which climate, weather, and average temperature were stable enough for civilization to evolve (‘and to which life on Earth is adapted,’ Hansen et al. 2008), to the increasingly unstable and volatile epoch of the Anthropocene in which the global system subverts itself by undermining its life-support system. The transition from the Holocene to the Anthropocene in terms of energy and climate could well be described with the titles of two books (only the first one of course actually refers to this transition): The Party is Over (Heinberg 2003) and Paradise Lost (Milton 1668).

The Anthropocene is a new geological era in Earth history, in which the collective human impact on the Earth system has become so great that it is comparable in scale to the great forces of nature. Humanity has become a force of nature on a geological scale. Due to environmental stability, resource abundance, technological innovation and the resulting overpopulation and overconsumption (Dilworth 2009), the impact of ‘homo colossus’ (Catton) has become so massive that it increasingly interferes with the proper functioning of the Earth system by disrupting a growing number of global biogeochemical cycles that support life on Earth and provide vital ecosystem services.

Johan Rockstroem, Will Steffen et al. (2009) and the Stockholm Resilience Center have identified nine planetary boundaries that define humanity’s ‘safe operating space.’ We have already transgressed three of the nine boundaries, most importantly by disrupting the global climate system, but also by interfering with the nitrogen cycle and in terms of the loss of biodiversity in the midst of the sixth major extinction wave in the history of life. Ocean acidification seems likely to be added to the list soon, with global freshwater use not far behind. Water demand is projected to outstrip supply by 40% in 2030. Yet a different way of conceptualizing the Anthropocene is in terms of our ecological footprint. According to this measure, we have been overshooting carrying capacity since the mid-1970s.

Some scholars argue that all these major changes amount to a global state shift, understood as an abrupt, large, and irreversible change in the structure and function of a system, in this case of the global ecosystem, i.e. the ecosphere in which life as we know it has evolved. One could add two more state shifts: The shift from abundant and cheap energy to scarce and expensive in the global energy system and, closely related, the shift from cheap credit and high growth rates to develeraging and low growth rates in the global economy. Those three key function systems of the global system, the environment, energy (and other resources more generally), and the economy – the ‘three Es’ – are structurally tightly coupled and integrated, stitched together by technology, most importantly by a gigantic global fossil fuel infrastructure with massive sunken costs and correspondingly enormous carbon lock-in.

It makes a world of a difference whether we conceptualize the social in humanist and individualist terms as a group of people who act individually and together or in posthumanist and systemic terms as systems that operate in the mode of communication. Does is make sense to think of the global system as a group of 7+ billion individuals where ‘we’ (who exactly?) have a ‘choice’ about our common future in the Anthropocene, as so many book titles suggest? Does it not make much more sense to conceive of the global system as a social-ecological system, composed of the Earth system and world society, and coupled through communication and technology?

There is a divide between those who believe that the global system can be effectively governed or managed and somehow be controlled (global governance, planetary management, complex adaptive systems theory, etc.), and those who argue that the global system essentially is a runaway system that evolves but cannot be controlled, as in the modern social systems theory developed by Niklas Luhmann.

Luhmann categorically rejects the notion that the global system can be steered. This notion is at the core of popular and ‘scientific’ understandings of the global system, including most science, popular and policy discourses, and especially the preponderant social theories and theories of action and agency. The key idea is that through more and better research, ‘we’ could better understand the global system and therefore act better to solve its many problems. This may be the main reason why Luhmann’s theory has not been more widely absorbed. It fundamentally calls into question deeply ingrained professional identities and vested interests.

According to Luhmann, this is a control illusion that only exists in the virtual reality of communication (and in the consciousness of many people), and not in the material reality of global systems and how they actually operate, be it the energy or the climate system. Paradoxically and ironically, it is the global system itself that produces and reproduces both its own predicaments and its collective self-delusion. The dominant communication of the global system is self-delusional while its actual behavior is self-subversive. Self-delusion is the price of a functionally differentiated global system that is still supposed to make sense (King 2009).

But Luhmannian systems theory goes even further. Seeking to be applicable to all things social, it also applies itself to itself. Universal aspiration precludes self-exemption. The result is that systems theory – contrary to most other theories – does not claim that its insights may lead to any significant change. In fact, it seems more likely that this type of communication about the self-subversion of the global system is itself self-subversive, i.e. that it subverts the ‘standing’ of the those observers in the ‘scientific community’ who carry on this kind of discourse precisely because it runs counter to the mainstream discourse and the careers that go along with it. With Luhmannian systems theory,

the world does not become morally better, more rational or spiritually complete. It only becomes more distinct. (Moeller 2006)

This critical difference between humanist action theory and posthumanist Luhmannian systems theory can be illuminated by the juxtaposition of the two excerpts below. The first is from a recent essay on the Anthropocene, and the second is from one of Luhmann’s last articles on globalization.

Geological time scales, civilizational collapse and species extinction give rise to profound problems that humanities scholars and academic philosophers, with their taste for fine-grained analysis, esoteric debates and archival marginalia, might seem remarkably ill suited to address. After all, how will thinking about Kant help us trap carbon dioxide? Can arguments between object-oriented ontology and historical materialism protect honeybees from colony collapse disorder? Are ancient Greek philosophers, medieval theologians, and contemporary metaphysicians going to keep Bangladesh from being inundated by rising oceans? (Scranton 2013) […]

Obviously, no autopoietic system can ‘adapt’ to its environment. It only operates as if it were adapted. This is the reason why modern society slides into more and more problems with its individuals and its ecological conditions. Autopoietic systems are operationally closed systems. But they can observe, that is, communicate about whatever comes into their span of attention. They oscillate between external references and self-reference by focusing on the constative and the performative aspects of communication, on information and on utterance. Sociology may well see a task in correcting its own tradition and in shifting its attention from the outworn themes of stratification and compensatory social ideas to the more urgent external problems. (Luhmann 1997)

Empirically, all the data confirms that the global system operates increasingly outside of the ‘safe operating space’ of the Earth system. It increasingly overshoots the carrying capacity of the planet, which is why we are now probably facing multiple, simultaneous, and mutually reinforcing state shifts in the global system. Global crises are converging, producing negative synergies, and we observe synchronous failure of vital systems.

This mounting evidence confirms Luhmannian systems theory. It is ‘the most advanced, adequate, and applicable’ theory (Moeller 2011) to understand how the global system operates, why it operates the way it does, and what the consequences are. Realistically, ‘we cannot do much, but at least we can know why the opposite claim is presumptuous’ (Moeller 2006). As a result, instead of more meaningful ecological collective action, we get more and more exasperated ecological communication, especially from the scientific and activist communities. Thus, the global system increasingly alarms itself about its own self-subversion without being able to do much about it.

It turns out that neglect is the main calamity of the functionally differentiated global system, since the very success of the function systems that constitute it depends upon neglect (Luhmann 1997). Evolution has created systems whose very complexity, efficiency, and effectiveness depends upon operational closure. In other words, they are so good at what they are doing precisely because because they ignore and neglect everything else, which in turn creates huge problems for other systems and for the global system as a whole, without there being a supersystem that could at least address these global predicaments.

Traditional and contemporary mainstream social science, and especially political science – particularly in the US – is still doubly stuck in the increasingly obsolete paradigms, categories, and concepts of humanist and voluntarist ‘agency,’ and in those of the pre-Anthropocene world of the stable and benign Holocene.

In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists. (Eric Hoffer, emphases added)

In the Anthropocene, all pre-Anthropocene fields need to be thoroughly updated in order to be able to make sense of and prepare for this new age. This is exactly what ecologically minded global studies seeks to achieve by systematically combining Earth system and global change science with posthumanist systems theory. Pragmatically, global studies thus provides critical orientation, allows us to avoid a lot of un- if not counterproductive alarm and, most importantly, enables us to focus increasingly scarce resources on the single most meaningful activity: building a world of small, local, resilient communities, as Leopold Kohr had already suggested back in 1957.

To live well in this reality – personally, professionally, and as citizens – requires the lifelong development of global competence and resilience, understood as the capacity and disposition to understand and act on the most important global challenges: sustainable economic development, ecological and social resilience, and human security.

Excellent education – education at its best – prepares learners as best as it can for the real world in which they are going to live for the rest of their lives. The best response to the Anthropocene is globalizing education along the lines of global studies, both as a method and as a ‘zone of inquiry’ (Mark Taylor), as transdisciplinary and transformative education focused on cultivating global competence and resilience. By implication, all pre-Anthropocene fields need to be fundamentally revised and reorganized.

As a field and as a method, global studies sublates and thereby reconfigures more traditional understandings of education as some combination of generalization and specialization and their respective trade-offs.

At the core of global studies and higher education in the 21st century lies a rarely acknowledge paradox: The very success of the global system (at least for some) is the result of its functional differentiation into increasingly autonomous function systems such as the economy, politics, science, law, education, etc. Ever more specialization is required by these increasingly complex systems at the same time as this very specialization further advances functional differentiation. Our predicament is that the functionally differentiated global system – precisely because of this – evolves but cannot be effectively managed, governed or otherwise controlled, as economic stagnation, resources depletion, environmental degradation, and increasingly symbolic politics clearly illustrate on a daily basis.

In short, specialization as a process in which – as the saying goes – one knows more and more about less and less until one know everything about nothing is increasingly dysfunctional, maladaptive, and counterproductive in the Anthropocene. But the opposite process of generalization is no solution either. As the mirror image of specialization, generalization is a process in which ones knows less and less about more and more until ones knows nothing about everything.

There is, however, a third way, as it were. Global education as global studies focuses on the most important global challenges and their local impacts, and builds competence and resilience in order to be able to effectively respond to them. It is organized as a function of global problems and predicaments, which can be conceptualized as ‘zones of inquiry’ (Mark Taylor) and substantive multiplicities (Gilles Deleuze), such as water, food, energy, climate, economic development, technology, etc.

As talent development, global studies combines specialization and generalization in new ways. The idea is to assume the shape of a ‘T,’ in which the vertical dimension represents the specialization, and the horizontal dimension represents the generalization. What is crucial is that the specialization itself must be shaped by the generalization. Generalization here is understood as the competence (disposition & capacity) for cross-disciplinary collaboration, which is a function of the intellectual empathy and enthusiasm of the learner for other fields. Learners must know how their specialty fits into the larger world, and they must relearn that critical relationship for the rest of their lives as it continues to change. As such, global studies is the specialization on critical interconnections and interdepedencies.

As such, global education as global studies assumes the shape of a rhizome. Instead of digging ever deeper wells (and as a consequence seeing a smaller and smaller sliver of the sky above them) or going ever broader until one is lost in the flat culture of the modern hologram, where one mistakes virtual for material reality, global studies combines specialization and generalization as a function of real-world, complex problems and predicaments, and cultivates critical and creative problem-solving skills and responses.

Real-world problems are substantive multiplicities in the sense of Deleuze, where multiplicity designates the multiple not as a predicate but as a substantive. And indeed, any phenomenon is always already located in time and space (materiality, planetarity) as much as it is positioned in society and culture. All issues are located in places where the relevant systems intersect and interact. A place is the space where the physical and the social come together. This understanding of global studies is inspired by the ‘third culture’ (C. P. Snow, John Brockman), which blends the natural with the social sciences and the humanities.

This understanding of global studies as based on an ecological worldview (broadly understood), composed of substantive multiplicities, intersectionality, and combinatorial creativity, is implied by this quote from big picture thinker Vaclav Smil, Bill Gates’ favorite author:

I saw how the university life goes, both in Europe and then in the US. I was at Penn State, and I was just aghast, because everyone was what I call drillers of deeper wells. These academics sit at the bottom of a deep well and they look up and see a sliver of the sky. They know everything about that little sliver of sky and nothing else. I scan all my horizons. (emphasis added)

This conceptualization of global studies as outlined above is informed, among others, by the ontology of Martin Heidegger; the modern social systems theory of Niklas Luhmann; actor-network theory (ANT), especially as developed by Bruno Latour; Science, Technology & Society studies (STS), especially as used by Timothy Mitchell in Carbon Democracy (2011); Gilles Deleuze’ understanding of philosophy as the production of concepts; and, closely related to the latter, Daniel Pink’s understanding of the 21st century as the ‘conceptual age’ – at which point, just as at the beginning of this essay, we again come full circle: Our understanding and praxis of global education/global studies depends on the concepts we use to observe and make sense of the world and of ourselves.

Which horizons do you scan? The concepts and the media we use determine what we know, what we don’t know, and what we don’t know that we don’t know, for in the moment of observation we can only see because we cannot see what we cannot see – ‘existence is selective blindness.’ (Niklas Luhmann)

Finally: ‘Wer mehr sieht, hat recht.’ (Edmund Husserl) – Those who see more, are more in the right.

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One Response to Global Studies as if Reality Mattered: Globalizing Education in the Anthropocene to Build Global Competence and Resilience

  1. Elizabeth says:

    I think this is an excellent post! Very important points and connections as we think about the ways we are woven into education, economic, and natural systems. One important thing – which is where I think there is much work to be done – is to think about the ways that knowing this information does very little to translate into people acting differently. If systems are closed and operate on their own logic in order to reproduce themselves, how do we conceive of where emotional and affective systems fit into this picture? As we know, many people know the information here, yet fail to act differently: fail to learn how to grow food, fail to prepare for major disruptions in the food and transport systems, or fail to develop community relationships that will provide greater resilience. What if it is the case that knowing better does not help us to act better, or even that knowing better actually contributes to greater inaction because it makes clearer the futility of action? What, then, are the implications for education? Anyway, just some thoughts. Very good post!

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