Democracy in the Anthropocene?

Planetary boundaries / Illustration from Global Change magazine

STEPS Centre director Melissa Leach recently wrote in the Huffington Post: “When the cover of the Economist famously announced ‘Welcome to the anthropocene’ a couple of years ago, was it welcoming us to a new geological epoch, or a dangerous new world of undisputed scientific authority and anti-democratic politics?” Melissa’s blog has provoked a series of fascinating responses and contributions to a vital debate about the planetary boundaries concept, the use of scientific expertise and authority within political processes, and the nature of democratic involvement in sustainability debates.  

Melissa was reflecting on her experiences as part of a group of experts convened by the United Nations to discuss science and sustainable development goals. She was writing about a particular UN process, and did not claim that the concepts of planetary boundaries, the anthropocene or the scientists developing and working with these concepts, are undemocratic or authoritarian. Far from it.

However she did express concern that the anthropocene could neatly be aligned with top-down, rather than bottom-up solutions to our planet’s most urgent challenges: “The anthropocene, with its associated concepts of planetary boundaries and ‘hard’ environmental threats and limits, encourage a focus on clear single goals and solutions,” She wrote. “It is co-constructed with ideas of scientific authority and incontrovertible evidence; with the closing down of uncertainty or at least its reduction into clear, manageable risks and consensual messages.”

The Huffington Post piece roused Roger Pielke Jnr, a professor of environmental studies at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder in to penning a thoughtful intervention on his blog, entitled Planetary Boundaries as Power Grab. Roger wrote: “For the proponents of planetary boundaries as political authority, issues of legitimacy and accountability are easily dealt with through the incontestable authority of science.”

The pieces kicked off a very interesting discussion – which can be followed via the comment sections of both Roger’s blog  – where Melissa added further clarification about her original piece – and that of the Resilience Alliance’s blog, Resilience Science. The latter became involved through a response to Roger’s post from Victor Galaz, Associate Professor and Senior Lecturer in political science at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, where Johan Rockström and colleagues formulated the planetary boundaries concept.

Victor countered that: “There is no such thing as one homogenous “political philosophy” for planetary boundaries. And there is no power grab.” He listed a number of “vibrant and diverse ways of studying and exploring the governance implications of planetary boundaries” that help explain how planetary boundaries can be used in open and constructive ways. His piece makes persuasive reading.

Following these debates, two PhD researchers at the University of East Anglia – Martin Mahony and Helen Pallett – have penned some rich reflections about the anthropocene on their blog, The Topograph. First Martin, explored the “relevance of the concept ‘Anthropocene’ to our understandings of how knowledge and politics, and nature and culture, are related to each other”. And then Helen went on to talk about her belief that “as an emergent mode of thinking and acting the anthropocene is a potentially productive concept which goes beyond old certainties, assumptions and forms of action.”

All of these pieces make fascinating reading, and the opinions expressed might well make you interrogate your own feelings and thoughts about the anthropocene, scientfic authority and the most effective ways to tackle the challenges facing our people and planet. May this constructive debate continue.

December 2013 update:

Video: Melissa Leach on ‘science-governance challenges in the Anthropocene’

Here’s a video of Melissa Leach highlighting the importance of social justice and governance in thinking about planetary boundaries, as part of a seminar on challenges for the Anthropocene hosted by the Stockholm Resilience Centre in November 2013.

This article was originally posted on the The Crossing.