TS Eliot’s The Waste Land in the Anthropocene

UCL Urban Laboratory
13 min readMar 23


Pushpa Arabindoo, Miranda Miller and Pavan Manogaran reflect on an Urban Lab roundtable held in December 2022, re-reading this embodiment of poetic modernism in the present as a foreshadowing of the Anthropocene.

Image credit: Steve Powell

2022 was the centenary anniversary of not only TS Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, an ur-modern poem that confounded normative modes of poetry writing, but also a year of remarkable wider literary significance, including the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses and Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room. Amongst the rich literary outputs from 1922, Eliot’s The Waste Land stimulated our particular interest in relation to one of the eight priority research areas within UCL Urban Laboratory, Wasteland. (1).

The theme of Wasteland as we engage with it draws on discourses from urban studies to highlight, via ecological imaginaries, the use and abuse of resources, especially wasteland as a testament to a long history of land dispossession. Initially, our reference to Eliot’s The Waste Land was only in passing, viewing it as a metaphorical allegory playing on the catastrophic and the apocalyptic. And yet, what connects the two in a more than titular sense is the way Wasteland as we see it and Eliot’s The Waste Land envision viscerally a waste regime unleashing a common anxiety that humans may not survive. This sense of potential extinction inducts us into addressing the strangeness of a temporality that vastly exceeds anything we are familiar with.

Eliot’s The Waste Land, in this context, is not just a premonition of the twentieth century’s (post)apocalypse — a prelude to the moment of “Great Acceleration”, pointing to an axiomatic sense of the new, albeit marked by war, conflict and a global pandemic. (2). One hundred years later, in the contemporary now, this is eerily familiar to us, and its ‘juxtaposition of mythological stories of infertile, desiccated landscapes with their contemporary urbanized analogues, damaged by the practices of industrial technology, atomized society, and burgeoning mass cultures’ is the story of a wasteland enfolded by a contradictory temporality whose experience of the present is marked as much by its historical consequence as its anticipatory destruction. (3).

Against this déjà vu, we set out to undertake a more speculative musing on the centenary, reading these masterpieces from the new to the now while confronting the past century as ‘a complex and intertwined set of histories stretching across many different contexts’. (4). Instead of treating them as historical texts subject to all the associations that have come to overlay these works in the last century, we wanted to reclaim their narratives afresh, in the long now of the present. (5). The Waste Land thus becomes a synecdoche for how human lives are inextricably enmeshed with the more-than-human world. (6). Its sense of anticipation is not for some kind of prophesised horizon but acknowledging that the processes that have produced the wasteland have clear temporal rhythms, a timescale that exists in relation to not just the ecological but those of geological formation or what we now know as the deep-time of the Anthropocene.

Our first instinct was to treat it as an eco-poem that foresaw the woes of the Anthropocene a century ago, as evidenced in its references to anthropogenic detritus and environmental degradation. The roundtable which we staged in December 2022 was an opportunity not to simply re-read The Waste Land in order to know the Anthropocene, but to provoke and trouble how we know the Anthropocene. In doing so, it expanded Eliot’s sense of the ecological to the geological. Given that much of what The Waste Land describes is contiguous with the material conditions of the Anthropocene, the roundtable used the poem to address the bolder question of what modernism’s sense of human history tells us about Anthropocene’s geo-history. We took the opportunity to unpack the conceptual tensions between a period (modernism) and an epoch (Anthropocene) as the two interrupt and contradict each other. (7).


We thus began the discussion with writer Miranda Miller’s recent reflection on ‘One hundred years on: the birth of modernism’, reproduced below in a shortened form. Miller’s essay is a reminder that the ‘planet’s entry into the Anthropocene did not follow a frenetic modernism ignorant of the environment but, on the contrary, decades of reflection and concern as to the human degradation of the Earth’. (8). Amidst this revelation, reading Eliot’s The Waste Land in the Anthropocene requires a more careful interpretation of how the posthuman world holds up in Eliot’s real as well as imagined landscapes. As we get re-enchanted with the ecocritical tone of the poem, we need to appreciate the way elements of the more-than-human world were already being deployed to present the ontological liveliness of the material world beyond the illusory separation of culture and nature, an introspection provided by Dr Julia Jordan at the roundtable.

Drawing on our work at the Urban Lab where we now perceive wasteland as an extraordinary stratum of the Anthropocene, at once physical and cultural, The Waste Land in the Anthropocene probes the latter as both a discourse and a landscape, highlighting the aspect of an overdetermined landscape by human capitalist gain-making. It offers an insight into how literary modernism might clarify a concurrent phenomenon accompanying this mode of capitalism — that of twentieth century’s colonialism. This requires a bolder enquiry into the reverberations of colonialism in Eliot’s text as questions of how the Anthropocene can be indigenised and decolonised are being asked today. In the roundtable, Dr Pavan Manogaran used the spectre of an ending evoked by the poem to link the emergence of the Anthropocene with the history of colonialism and remind us how wasteland ecologies are not simply the result of human disturbances, but a disruption shaped by contingent historical processes of capitalism and colonialism. As an inevitable outcome of modernisation, the designation of land as waste conveys a deepest sense of colonialism that goes hand in hand with its extraction of value in deep time, i.e. the Anthropocene. (9). The Waste Land in the Anthropocene fleshes out this relationship, situating Eliot’s references to extinction at the disjuncture of extraction. It equally creates a space to revive the minor moments of subaltern politics which risk being set aside as blips in planetary history with the valorisation of a new set of relations — between the rock or the mineral and a dominantly white future.

Spectral afterlife

As a (re)reading of The Waste Land in the Anthropocene, the roundtable’s focus drew on Benjamin’s sense of an “afterlife” — not simply as that which comes “after” life has gone, but a life that is “after” itself — that is, constantly in pursuit of what it will never be, one that is inherently spectral. (10). While at one level, the poem is idiomatic of a spectral afterlife as an unfinished enterprise, there is something empirical about its spectrality that is not incomplete but renewed. It is through the spectral afterlife of The Waste Land that we finally realise the impossibility of its full presence. By tracing the human, nonhuman and more than human across Eliot’s text, from life to their afterlives, we awaken to a spectral awareness of their fragile presence in the Anthropocene. This is essentially iterative, an aspect captured by Tess Winkelhake’s video documentary Waste Land screened at the roundtable. (11). Whether this can be recuperative is a question that is central to her outputs even as we see The Waste Land’s spectral afterlife as a crucial register through which new knowledges about the Anthropocene can be generated and presented. In fact, it is its spectral afterlife that has come to inhabit the Anthropocene.


The roundtable included a reading from Wasteland, a play by Nicola Baldwin, UCL’s Creative Fellow in 2019–20 drawing on Urban Lab and the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) annual theme WASTE. Set in the UCL Student Centre, the venue of the roundtable, the play uses a 24-hour operative logic to frame, akin to Eliot’s The Waste Land, multiple temporalities in a spectral sense of the ever-present. The play unfolds as an encounter between words and worlds across a temporal threshold that draws the building and its many spaces into focus, finally opening it up as a wasteland. (12). Excerpts of the play were read by one of the main characters, Jess (the student played by Tara Kearney) in a manner of Barad’s diffractive reading of The Waste Land in the Anthropocene, a lively process that troubles the dichotomies around human/nature, modern/postmodern, west/rest, waste/value etc. (13).

One hundred years on: The birth of modernism (14)

Miranda Miller, Author and RLF Fellow

The Waste Land by TS Eliot, Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf, and Ulysses by James Joyce were all first published in 1922. It seems obvious to us now that these are monumental works that embody the birth of modernism in literature, but how obvious was it at the time? Did these writers and first readers feel, like us, exhausted by war and a pandemic? Was it clear that one era had died and another was being born? In January 1922, Ezra Pound dated a letter to TS Eliot ‘An 1,’ or year one of a new calendar, just as people did after the French Revolution. Recently, I have felt that we are also at the beginning of a new era, although it doesn’t yet have a name. So, I want to look very briefly at that year when modernism invented itself, when none of those books was conventionally published.

In 1917, TS Eliot tried to join the US navy but was rejected because of a hernia. He had moved to England in 1914, when he first had the idea for his poem. In London he taught at Highgate School and later worked for Lloyds Bank. He finished writing The Waste Land after a breakdown that was probably triggered by his father’s death. The manuscript draft of The Waste Land features the poem’s original title, He Do the Police in Different Voices, a quotation from the Dickens novel, Our Mutual Friend.

The Waste Land first appeared in print in The Criterion, a quarterly British literary magazine founded and edited by Eliot himself. The first UK book edition was published by the Hogarth Press in a run of 460 copies, with the type set by Virginia Woolf. The poem is usually read as a response to the devastation of Europe by the end of the First World War. Eliot and his wife, Vivien, both caught the influenza virus in December 1918. Eliot’s attack was comparatively mild, but Vivien became very ill and, as he wrote to his mother (December 8, 1918), the illness affected her nerves and prevented her from sleeping. Eliot’s great visionary poem spoke directly and personally to an exhausted and disillusioned generation. The Waste Land is full of images of the war he did not fight in and of death: ‘A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many.’

As with Jacob’s Room and Ulysses, some critics detested The Waste Land. FL Lucas in the New Statesman in November 1923 attacked it for being obscure. He complained that the poet seemed to be obsessed with squalor and that Eliot was one of those writers who imagined himself to be a philosopher, ‘sacrificing their artistic powers on the altar of some fantastic Mumbo-Jumbo.’ His review concluded that ‘Perhaps this unhappy composition should have been left to sink itself.’

Modernism refused to sink. Out of a disintegrating Europe writers and artists found the energy to confront the world in a fresh and innovative way with modernism dominating the literary landscape through the last century. A hundred years later, we also live at a time when, once again, war rages in Europe and we feel exhausted by a global pandemic. I have been wondering what new and surprising voices will be heard now, as we try to make sense of a rapidly changing world. How can we use language to bring energy and hope? I would like to think that we have overcome some of the sexism, racism and snobbery that limited writers in the past. Let’s hope that some exciting, inclusive novels, plays and poems come out of our troubled decade.

On ends and endings in the Anthropocene — reading T S Eliot’s The Waste Land a hundred years on

Dr Pavan Manogaran, UCL Sarah Parker Remond Centre

In thinking about where to begin with this colossal poem, I found myself drawn to the end — the final line ‘Shanti, Shanti, Shanti’. Perhaps, then, it would be interesting to begin with the end and think about endings or, at least, the spectre of endings at a planetary scale of the Anthropocene. And maybe that way, I can sketch some questions that we could grapple with as we return to this poem 100 years on.

Shanti is a Sanskrit term that loosely translates as peace and thus opens the register of peace in relation to the waste land. The question of peace is incredibly relevant in relation to the climate crisis that we are engulfed in. When the image of the waste land is conjured in relation to the climate crisis, it is usually with a deferred futurity. As if it isn’t here already; as if a ruined uninhabitable planet will appear as a discrete object at a certain point in time.

But the waste land doesn’t simply materialize — it is actively produced. It must be laid to waste. What does shanti mean in that context of not just a waste land but a land laid to waste? Who is able or is going to be able to live in peace as the climate crisis unfolds and who is going to have to live lives plagued by all kinds of disturbances caused by rising fluctuating temperatures, rising sea levels, ecological disasters and so on? This is, in other words, a question about the distribution of peace — one that is contingent on the distribution of power — and thus a distribution that is racialized, gendered, classed and more.

But it is also worth remembering that in the Hindu tradition, ‘Shanti Shanti Shanti’ is uttered as part of the last rites after death. We could, therefore, open the question of death in relation to the waste land, the planet laid to waste, and the climate crisis. As the planet hurtles to ever more degrees of warming than it can tolerate, all kinds of destructive changes will occur at the geological level, meteorological level and so on. But these changes will not affect everyone in the same way at the individual, quotidian level. The climate crisis is unfolding on a planetary scale but its effects are not spread equitably. They press down on different constituencies of people differently.

I think about Singapore where I grew up and where daytime temperatures routinely hit mid to high 30s. Some people wake up in their air-conditioned bedrooms, hop into their air-conditioned cars, drive to their air-conditioned offices, have dinner in an air-conditioned restaurant, and return to their home. Before inevitably switching on the air-conditioner. But other people inhabit very different lifeworlds. The army of low-wage mainly South Asian migrant workers who work in construction, for instance, wake up sweating in their multi-person dormitories. They undertake outdoor physical labour whilst exposed to the elements and the elevated risk of heat injury till night falls, perhaps longer. Before doing it all over again the next day and the next. They don’t have the luxury of creating a micro-climate for themselves insulated from the warming planet. They must contend with the effects of a planet that is being laid to waste. The difference in the contours of these two prototypical worlds is one that’s racialized, classed, bordered, and shot through with all kinds of nationalist, neo-colonial logics.

Reading ‘Shanti Shanti Shanti’ as an invocation of last rites, then, is an invitation to open the question of death and dying in relation to the Anthropocene and the climate crisis. The question of which lives are regarded as disposable or sacrificeable so that others may be preserved or enhanced and how this disposability reflects historical effects of power and social forces. Put another way, we could ask who is going to be able to live in peace in the Anthropocene whilst others are consigned to resting in peace. Living on a planet that is heating up dangerously quickly, there is a stark hierarchization of lives. For some, ‘Shanti Shanti Shanti’ is a hopeful chant for peace; for others, it is a prelude to their funeral.

Based on the roundtable organised by Dr Pushpa Arabindoo (UCL Urban Laboratory and UCL Geography) with Nicola Baldwin (Playwright and UCL/IAS Creative Fellow 2019–20)

05 December 2022, 6–8pm, UCL Student Centre


Miranda Miller, author & RLF Fellow

Dr Julia Jordan, UCL English

Dr Pavan Manogaran, UCL Sarah Parker Remond Centre

Contributors’ Biographies:

Dr Pushpa Arabindoo is Associate Professor of Geography & Urban Design, UCL Department of Geography. She is a co-convenor of the MSc Urban Studies programme and a co-director of UCL Urban Laboratory, responsible for the priority research theme Wasteland.

Miranda Miller has published a book of short stories about Saudi Arabia, a book of interviews with homeless women and politicians, and eight novels, most recently Angelica: Paintress of Minds(Barbican Press 2020), about the eighteenth-century artist Angelica Kauffman. She was a Royal Literary Fellow at the Courtauld Institute. www.mirandamiller.info

Dr Pavan Manogaran is a Research Fellow: Racism, racialisation and gender at UCL Sarah Parker Remond Centre, Institute of Advanced Studies. He is a cultural theorist working in and around the fields of (20th and 21st century) contemporary literature and cultural studies. His work has been published in journals such as Critical Discourse Studies, Culture, Theory and Critique, the Journal of Language and Sexuality and he has also written for the King’s English and LSE Southeast Asia blogs, Back Page Football, and Atticus Review.


1. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/urban-lab/research/wasteland

2. Morton, T. 2014. How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Term Anthropocene. Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry 1(2):257–264.

3. Hegglund, J., and J. McIntyre. 2021. Introduction: Modernism and the emergent Anthropocene. In Modernism and the Anthropocene: Material ecologies of twentieth-century literature, eds. J. Hegglund and J. McIntyre, ix-xviii. Lanham, Boulder, New York and London: Lexington Books.

4. Robinson, J. 2013. The urban now: Theorising cities beyond the new. European Journal of Cultural Studies 16 (6):659–677. p. 662

5. McGurl, M. 2010. Ordinary doom: Literary studies in the waste land of the present. New Literary History 41 (2):329–349.

6. This has been acknowledged by scholars — see, for instance: Serrano, L. M. M. 2022. Reading the more-than-human world in TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingleses 85 (October ):133–151.

7. Hegglund, J., and J. McIntyre. 2021, op. cit.

8. Bonneuil, C., and J.-B. Fressoz. 2016. The shock of the Anthropocene: The earth, history and us. London and New York: Verso. p. 76

9. Farrier, D. 2019. Anthropocene poetics: Deep time, sacrifice zones, and extinction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

10. Steinhäuser, S., and N. Macdonald. 2018. Introduction: Performative afterlife. Parallax 24 (1):1–10.

11. The film sits within a larger project including a photographic essay book and a series of interactive workshops, surveys construction sites across London, depicting their materiality and processes of demolition. It is narrated by recombined excerpts of TS Eliot’s epic poem The Waste Land to portray contemporary loss and trauma of the climate emergency. Further details here: https://wastelanduk.cargo.site/

12. Another output of this collaboration between Dr Pushpa Arabindoo and Nicola Baldwin is this recent publication: Arabindoo, P., and N. Baldwin. 2023. City Dionysia: Narrating wasteland in urban life. International Journal of performance arts and digital media. https://doi.org/10.1080/14794713.2023.2177431.

13. Barad, K. 2014. Diffracting diffraction: Cutting together-apart. Parallax 20 (3):168–187. 14 A longer version of this essay was first was first published in October on the Royal Literary Fund website, https://www.rlf.org.uk/ in their online magazine ”Collected”.



UCL Urban Laboratory

Crossdisciplinary centre for critical and creative urban thinking, teaching, research and practice at UCL | www.ucl.ac.uk/urban-lab