Exploring ‘dynamic sustainabilities’ in the Anthropocene

In this post, STEPS Summer School alumnus Mathew Bukhi Mabele explains plans for a session on ‘Exploring ‘dynamic sustainabilities’ in the Anthropocene’, which will feature at the 6th Annual Dimensions of Political Ecology Conference at the University of Kentucky, on February 26 – 27, 2016.


Jacob Weger and myself were very lucky to participate at the 2015 STEPS Centre Summer School on pathways to sustainability. While at the summer school, we started thinking about how to engage further with the concept of ‘dynamic sustainabilities’, which embraces “dynamics, complexity, uncertainty, differing narratives and the values-based aims of sustainability”. All that we wanted was to keep on asking ourselves this question: “How can dynamic, intertwined social, technological and ecological change contribute to processes and outcomes that are more sustainable – stable, durable, resilient and robust – with respect to the functions, goals and values that are important to poorer people in particular settings?” (Leach et al. 2010: 65). We then thought of different platforms that we could use to think and explore answers to the question. One of the platforms was an academic conference. So, when I saw the call for sessions for the 6th annual Dimensions of Political Ecology (DOPE) conference, I had to remind Jacob about our quest.

While contemplating on the main theme for our session, I came across Melissa Leach’s talk at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, where she argues for new ways of thinking and doing science, and engaging science with governance in the Anthropocene. It clicked into my mind, and I immediately thought of the theme around ‘dynamic sustainabilities’ in the Anthropocene. I shared the idea with Jacob; he liked it, and we started exchanging emails about the plot. We drafted the plot and sent it to a person that we believed to be the suitable director cum discussant, Amber Huff. She liked the plot and agreed to be the director. We finally, had the plot set and the director ready. We are now looking forward to the premiere in Lexington, Kentucky.

The plot

Since 2000, when Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer first proposed the term “Anthropocene” for the current era in which humankind has become the dominant force behind global environmental change, altering the functioning of the entire Earth System, lively and heated academic debates have persisted about this new age of humans. Some focus on interrogating the exact starting dates of the Anthropocene (Lewis and Maslin 2015; Ruddiman 2013), or criticizing the narrative’s basic premise about the fossil fuel economy’s contribution to the alteration of the Earth System, arguing that “fossil fuel was not created nor is it upheld by humankind in general” (Malm and Hornborg 2014: 62). Others question the accuracy and political-ethical implications of the name “Anthropocene,” suggesting that alternatives such as “Capitalocene,” “Plantationocene,” or “Cthulucene” might be more apt (Haraway 2015). Still others stress the need for interdisciplinarity in researching the Anthropocene, arguing for more proactive engagements by critical environmental social sciences and humanities with Anthropocene science and discourse, which tend to be dominated by natural science perspectives (Brown 2015; Castree et al. 2014; Palsson et al. 2013).

Frank Biermann goes further, arguing that a “governance perspective” is sorely needed in Anthropocene science and discourse. According to Biermann, the Anthropocene must be understood as “as a global political phenomenon” (2014: 57), which alters interdependency relations within and between human societies at multiple scales and creates extreme variations in wellbeing, thus posing novel political challenges. Such developments call for critical theories/perspectives that engage a political economy approach in interrogating sustainability challenges, transformations, and pathways. Political economy matters in sustainability research because “it integrates a structural and relational understanding of economy and politics in historical context, with an understanding of the influences of the diverse axes of social difference and power relations” (Schmitz and Scoones 2015: 38). This approach is necessary if the Anthropocene is to change the way we understand political systems from local to global scales (Biermann 2014).

One promising perspective is that of dynamic sustainabilities (Leach et al. 2010). Dynamic sustainabilities offers an approach that embraces the importance of dynamics, diversity, nonlinearity, uncertainty, complexities, and power relations in sustainable development pathways (ibid). Sustainability challenges such as climate change, human health problems, food insecurity, land grabbing, water insecurity, deforestation, land degradation, etc. hold diverse meanings for different people and institutions, in different contexts and at different scales. It is therefore imperative to seriously consider the ways that people understand and value complex socio-ecological systems, and to “recognize the essentially plural and political nature of our quest for pathways to sustainability” (ibid: 2). Moreover, given the devastating impacts of poverty and inequality across the world, it is essential to give “priority to people living in poverty and marginalisation, seeking sustainabilities that meet their goals for better lives and livelihoods and greater social justice” (ibid: 171). Inspired by such an approach, this session calls for papers that bring attention to the complex, multi-scalar, political, and justice implications of sustainability challenges in the Anthropocene. It builds on research exploring how in a complex, dynamic, and power-laden world, people can think, conceptualize, and develop pathways to sustainability that embrace environmental integrity and social justice (Leach et al. 2010). Possible topics may include, but are not limited to:

  • Policy framings, processes and spaces that recognize plurality, diversity, and the political nature of pathways to sustainability
  • Alternative framings and pathways to sustainability in forestry, wildlife conservation, agriculture and food systems, climate change, water resources management, human health and wellbeing, etc.
  • Politics and power relations in the production, application, and circulation of sustainability knowledges and pathways
  • Losers and winners in the context of current [hegemonic] and alternative [potential] pathways to sustainability
  • Innovative ways [methodologies, epistemologies, ontologies] of thinking and doing science to foster “dynamic sustainabilities” in the Anthropocene
  • Innovative ways of engaging science with governance to support adaptive and deliberative pathways to sustainability.

Attending the premiere

For those who would like to participate in this session, please send an abstract of no more than 300 words to Mathew Mabele ([email protected]) and Jacob Weger ([email protected]) no later than November 11th 2015.

Successful applicants will be notified by November 13th 2015, and will be expected to register and submit their abstracts by November 20th 2015 at this link https://www.as.uky.edu/dope-2016-registration


Biermann, F. 2014. the Anthropocene: A governance perspective. The Anthropocene Review 1(1): 57–61.

Brown, K. 2015. Global environmental change II: Planetary boundaries – A safe operating space for human geographers? Progress in Human Geography

Castree, N., et al. 2014. Changing the intellectual climate. Nature Climate Change 4: 763–768.

Crutzen, P.J. and E.F. Stoermer. 2000. The Anthropocene. IGBP Newsletter 41(17): 17–18.

Haraway, D. 2015. Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin.  Environmental Humanities 6: 159–165.

Leach, M., I. Scoones and A. Stirling. 2010. Dynamic sustainabilities: Technology, environment, social justice. Milton Park, London: Earthscan Publications.

Lewis, S.L. and M.A. Maslin. 2015. Defining the Anthropocene. Nature 519: 171–180.

Malm, A. and A. Hornborg. 2014. The geology of mankind? A critique of the Anthropocene narrative. The Anthropocene Review 1(1): 62–69.

Palsson, G., et al. 2013. Reconceptualizing the ‘Anthropos’ in the Anthropocene: Integrating the social sciences and humanities in global environmental change research. Environmental Science & Policy 28: 3–13.

Ruddiman, W.F. 2013. The Anthropocene. Annual Review of Earth Planetary Sciences. 41: 45–68.

Schmitz, H. and I. Scoones. 2015. Accelerating sustainability: Why political economy matters. IDS Evidence Report No. 152.