The Anthropocene, control and responsibility: a reply to Andy Stirling

By Johan Rockström (Director, Stockholm Resilience Centre). This post is a slightly edited version of an email response and follows a blogpost by Andy Stirling on the Anthropocene, and Laura Pereira’s comments on Prof Stirling’s post.

I tend to place myself in between the two of you, Andy and Laura. The Anthropocene is nothing more than a label for the observed fact that humans are now the dominant force of change on the planet. For good or for bad, you may have different epistemological, ethical and power reflections “pinned” to it, but to me it means little, as this is simple observation.

This means that I tend to agree with Laura, that the Anthropocene is not primarily associated with control, but with responsibility.

(Geo-engineering and ecomodernism originate as naïve escape routes from responsibility, not due to the existence of a label such as the Anthropocene, but rather as part of the natural normal distribution of extreme views on dealing with environmental problems – which has plagued the debate since way before the Anthropocene was born – as by the way, the notion of climate justice which also clearly comes to the fore, when thinking of sharing the remaining carbon/ecological space in the Anthropocene.

The Anthropocene is thus, merely, the “summary” label that we have entered the globalized phase of human impacts on the environment. Most people understand this, irrespective of culture, power, geography, or walk of life. For example, see the SDG ‘chapeau’ text underwritten by all world leaders: no word of the Anthropocene, but clear a recognition that the world now poses Earth scale threats).

I therefore think we should be careful in loading the Anthropocene with too much perceptional weight.

I know you do not agree with me here, Andy. But think of the Holocene. Who cares about this? Still it has had immense impacts – as it is the label of a stable period where Earth “manages its own stability”….it is an inter-glacial period that we do not ‘fiddle with’ as humans. But it is neutral in power terms, as it simply states that we are in an inter-glacial period and being in or out is steered by our position vis-à-vis the Sun. Basta.

On the other hand, I am very skeptical of the notion of a “good Anthropocene”. The Anthropocene can by definition not be a good thing – as it is only the manifestation of humans posing an exponential and rising negative environmental pressure on the Earth system. It is simply the term given to the myriad of hockey-sticks that pose a threat to life on Earth. No good. And, not only is it bad. It is only a term for the fact that humans are now a dominant pressure on the Planet.

The Anthropocene is not a new state of the Planet. We are still in the Holocene equilibrium. The REAL drama is if the Anthropocene became a new stable state…i.e., that we tipped the Planet out of the Holocene. This would mean rolling irreversibly into a hot state, with 10s of meters of sea level rise and no permanent ice-sheet on the Poles, and a planet that no longer can support our modern world.

But, still, can we not talk of a good Anthropocene? Well, in fact yes…if we think of the Anthropocene only as ‘humanity now determining the fate of the Planet’, and as a responsibility term, then of course we can envisage a new vision for humanity, of us thriving within the safe operating space of a stable and resilient planet, which stays, yes, in a Holocene-like state. This, to me, is where a good Anthropocene comes in – in exploring deep transformations to global sustainable development.

Strictly speaking though, if we succeed with a ‘good Anthropocene’ – i.e., navigate a planetary scale transformation of the world (which, by the way, will have to occur through myriads of local transformations) – then we exit the Anthropocene, as we then go back to the ‘good old order’ of the universe determining our fate on Earth… So, however you turn things, the Anthropocene does not fulfill my definition of a good thing.

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