Time to rei(g)n back the Anthropocene?

I was very lucky to be able to participate in last week’s Stockholm Resilience Centre conference on Transformations 2015: People and Planet in the Anthropocene. Involving a dynamic and highly policy-influential global interdisciplinary community, this was a large, friendly and very interactive meeting. It more-than-fully lived up to the very high standards set by earlier meetings. Discussions were provocative, informative, engaging – sometimes boggling, often inspiring… and a lot of fun.

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After some very useful discussions at a session on the recent STEPS Centre book on the Politics of Green Transformations’, I greatly appreciated being asked to join a plenary debate with Marcella D’Souza, Elin Enfors and Laura Pereira on the recently-signed Sustainable Development Goals.

Kicking off the conversation, Elin asked about the implications of this important global initiative for the way science had been framed at this SRC conference. In particular, this focused attention on the opening presentation by Johan Rockström on ‘the Challenge of Sustainable Development in the Anthropocene‘. In his inimitably clear and compelling way, Johan had addressed environmental aspects of Sustainable Development in the precisely-quantified, tightly-integrated terms of ‘planetary boundaries’ – framed according to the very particular lens of ‘the Anthropocene’.


Not surprisingly given some of my own earlier work and that of STEPS colleagues, my response to this question included a quite strongly critical take on ‘the Anthropocene’ as a way of framing science for Sustainability.

In short, I expressed serious concerns about the kinds of agency asserted in the notion of ‘the Anthropocene’. Without denying the complexities in this – and despite the best intentions – I argued that this mood of externally-oriented control can oppose and undermine the real values essential to Sustainability: instead laying the foundations for planetary geoengineering.

Notwithstanding their own compromises, complications and drawbacks, the principal framings of the Sustainability Development Goals are, by contrast, more about challenging than celebrating incumbent power.

Challenging power

Pursuit of the SDGs is not about one notionally-singular human agency exerting outward control. Indeed, interest in externally-oriented domination is arguably closer to the forces that are causing presently exponentially increasing social and environmental impacts.

Instead, progress on the SDGs requires more diverse collective actions – including care, solidarity, accountability, responsibility and self-discipline. And these involve reducing unsustainable impacts from within the diversity of human affairs, rather than asserting some monolithic human control outward over the entire planet.

In order to develop Planetary Boundaries debates in ways that better support the more progressive potential of the Sustainable Development Goals, then, I argued that Planetary Boundaries should be freed from their present close association with the Anthropocene.

So why make such a point? The issues are so important and I admire and share so much with the SRC community, that there is no time or space for self-indulgent academic criticism.

But – for reasons I expand on here – I think the problems I sketched are very substantive and of the utmost importance. Real political choices are being made, about how Sustainability is to be interpreted, the directions in which it is going – and the kinds of futures to which it might lead. With the SDGs just signed, now is the time to reflect and critically deliberate on how best to make the ‘right’ choices (whatever these might variously be seen to be).

With distracting and overbearing aspirations dropped to ‘outward’ Anthropocene planetary control, the nine physical “boundaries” can more effectively face ‘inward’ onto the problematic political-economic structures and interests – helping to substantiate the environmental side of the SDGs and work more closely with their socially progressive grain.

Where does the ‘Anthropocene’ lead?

But why such concern that the Anthropocene is so much about externally-oriented control? This is a complex and sophisticated discourse, with diverse voices and implications. And of course, such an emphasis is often far from intentional. Counter-examples can always be found. Yet the dynamics of discourse are not about individual eddy currents, but overall flows of meaning and their political effects.

Whether it be in Paul Crutzen’s foundational Anthropocene idea of humanity “taking control of Nature’s realm“, or John Schellnhuber’s vision of “a self-conscious control force that has conquered the planet” or Johan Rockström’s own framing (with other colleagues) of Anthropocene planetary boundaries as “control variables” – this is clearly mainly about control. And associated work by Johan and others also gives a pretty clear sense of what style of control this is – variously described as non-negotiable, with absolutely no uncertainty”, brooking “no compromise.

Beyond this, burgeoning literatures on planetary management and “earth system governance” further confirm and elaborate what Anthropocene ambitions mean in practice. Despite the complexities and qualifications in many of these sophisticated discussions, what is mainly being targeted are not just particular offending industrial activities, social practices, institutional structures, economic interests or political cultures within human societies. Even this level of control would be daunting – and unprecedented.

But the clue is in the name. What “planetary management” requires, extends far beyond governance of merely human affairs (in all their intractable unruliness). It encompasses aspirationally determining power over the even more recalcitrant “Earth System” itself. Whether acknowledged or not, this is where there begins to entrench, a path that leads to geoengineering.

A cosmology of control

Indeed, in another wonderfully animated talk just before Johan’s own, Australian scholar of ‘big history‘ David Christian outlined a very graphic fourteen billion year ‘origin story’ for the Universe as a whole. Deliberately presented as a creation myth, this reproduced the usual analytic-normative duality of all such narratives: diagnosing in the same theme as the prescription.

And this theme was, again, control: emphasising this time not only how the destiny of humanity, but the identity of life itself, can (and should) be seen in terms of ever-growing capacities to command information in order to control the external world. In this potent allegory, the advent of humans is suggested as a “threshold moment” not just for the Earth, but for the Universe more widely.

The result was a truly forceful cosmology for Anthropocene control. And the upshot of all this for Sustainable Development was well expressed in Johan’s own talk. Anthropocentrically portraying the brief Holocene period as “our Eden”, Johan was very clear that the Anthropocene imperative far transcends visions of merely human self-control. Implying an appropriation of agency over the destiny of the planet as a whole, the aims expand to “returning the Earth to Holocene conditions”.

Behind the compelling banner of reversing mass-industrial destruction, then, it is clear something very different is also going on. The idea is not just to attenuate the present episode of catastrophic damage. On a planet where radical endogenous change has been a norm over geological time, the implication of maintaining Holocene conditions, is the effective flat-lining of even natural oscillations into an indefinite future.

What then has happened to any autonomous agency, or even contingency, on the part of ‘Gaia’ herself? Beyond curbing human impacts, a move is emerging to tame to presumptive internal human ends, the very deep time of the Earth.

A good Anthropocene?

And this is where there comes to the fore another theme repeatedly returning at the Conference – including in the framing of several sessions. Even merely as an idea, what are we to make of increasing talk of “the good Anthropocene”?

This language might be understandable in the mouths of ‘ecomodernists’ or ‘transhumanists’ – unimaginatively propounding incumbent patterns of power, elite culture and associated innovation. Here, “a good Anthropocene” is one securing ‘business as usual’ for ‘the usual suspects’. But these are the very interests and forces most implicated in entrenching the problems that Sustainable Development Goals seek to challenge.

So, what can “a good Anthropocene” mean among anyone committed to progressive Sustainability? If realising the Anthropocene by definition entails – as is so clear – the effective devastation of the Holocene; what could possibly be “good” about this for environmentalism or social justice? In flirting with notions of “the good Anthropocene” the best of intentions in this community risk opening the door to an especially insidious ecomodernist, transhuman subversion of Sustainability.

“Dominion over Creation”

Yet, although heralded as new, aspirations to the formidable transhuman powers of the Anthropocene are not unprecedented. Indeed, they are in one guise quite familiar. Far from characterising some notional homogenous destiny for humanity as a whole (itself seen in a one-dimensional way), what is speaking here is a much more parochial (if still longstanding) cultural voice: the foundational Baconian tradition in science.

It was this pioneer of the experimental method, Francis Bacon, after all, who more than four hundred years ago remarkably anticipated Crutzen’s Anthropocene vision, in his own resolve to exercise “dominion over Creation”. Recognising aspirationally that “knowledge itself is power”, Bacon’s task for science was also prophetic: “to put nature on the rack and torture her secrets out of her”.

With deliberate Anthropocene planetary management inevitably amounting to experimentation on a global scale, the metaphor is horribly apt.

But, apparently unlike Crutzen, Bacon presciently noticed a crucial paradox of control – also not without deep implications for the Anthropocene. As attentive as any torturer should be to actualities rather than expedient fictions, Bacon also observed that: “we cannot command Nature except by obeying her”.

Exercising control or reproducing privilege?

In Bacon’s case as in others, then, it seems that domineering rhetorics of control must quietly succumb in the end to more gentle concessions of the recalcitrant complexities of reality.

Indeed, perhaps the point of this language of domination is not so much substantive description as social performance – as much about reproducing privilege as exercising control? Perhaps a similar dynamic drives the hungry uptake of Anthropocene language by some current incumbent interests?

After all, even in the contemporary world, the most powerful political agency – as for instance described by US President Barack Obama’s former Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel – must acknowledge that deterministic control is less important than the opportunistic surfing of contingent crises. And British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan underscored the same reality, in lamenting his own ever-present vulnerability to events, dear boy, events.

Even within human affairs, then (let alone beyond), notions of control seem expediently overstated. In Bacon’s times as in our own, it seems that polemics of control tell more about how political cultures wish to represent themselves, than about what they might actually find it possible to do.

A discourse of fear, not of hope

It was on these grounds that I argued at the SRC conference against the Anthropocene vision of externally-oriented control, as a way to frame science for Sustainable Development.

And the point is not just that Anthropocene notions are a contingent distraction. Albeit unintended, the confusing of manifestly disastrous current human impacts for some form of incipient “control” or “domination” of the Earth, is far from politically innocent. It is like invoking responsibility for criminal destruction, as grounds for proprietary rights. And the thrust is not merely oblique, but diametrically opposed to the central values of Sustainability.

This is a discourse of fear, not of hope. It is about subordination, not emancipation. It substitutes imagined certainties of control, for the experienced ambiguities of care.

Remembering the roots of Sustainable Development

In judging whether all this is simply colourful argumentation, it is worth quickly reflecting on where the Sustainable Development Goals came from in the first place. Neither the Brundtland Commission of a generation ago, nor the equally notable Stockholm Environment Conference nearly a generation earlier, were mainly driven into being by any form of control. The formative dynamics were not those currently-emphasised, in the painstakingly-designed collaborative procedures of Anthropocene ‘planetary management’ or ‘earth systems governance’.

Instead, incumbent powers of many kinds and in many sectors, had to be dragged to these developments – often kicking and screaming! – by agonistic struggle. Although elite interests and top-down instruments played crucial roles at particular points (and leave their abiding imprints – including in the SDGs), the potently persistent momentum behind Sustainability came from messy, plural, unruly collective action by a ‘counterculture’ of social movements, not instrumental ‘evidence-based’ control from above.

And no-one has greater cause for humility in this regard, than those institutions of global elite science that are now so enthusiastically propounding Anthropocene control.

When environmentalism was more about subaltern rebellion rather than incumbent control, mainstream science was as generally opposed to the nascent Sustainability agenda as were other entrenched interests in government and business. And this was as true of the framing of the problems of Sustainability as of the prospective responses.

For instance, it is a Baconian paradigm of control still embedded in conventional ‘sound scientific’ risk assessment that resists to this day, in international trade disputes, the greater illumination of uncertainty by the precautionary principle.

And it was precisely the incumbent economic and political interests for whom general agendas of control are so appealing, who for so long suppressed the crucial innovations that give hope of Sustainability: like renewable energy, recycling, green production, ecological farming, grassroots innovation.

Power and knowledge

To analyse incumbent science and other institutions in this way, is not idealistic or partisan. It is about realistically appreciating the ubiquitous dynamics of power – including in the framing of knowledge. And why this is so important, is because the Sustainability movement achieved so much over recent decades, that now seems jeopardised by the Anthropecene elision of ‘impacts’ with ‘control’.

It was a key achievement of the Brundtland formula, that environmental goals were linked intrinsically to progressive social imperatives for human wellbeing, social inclusion and political equality.

This is not only important in the consequences of contemporary global political economies, but in the processes through which these are understood. Here, it is crucial that (amidst the inevitable negotiated qualifications) the Brundtland Commission also emphasised the pervasive general importance of democratic struggle – as much in the production of knowledge about Sustainability and what it means, as in the implementation of resulting collective actions.

It is in warping these kinds of imperfect-but-progressive struggles for Sustainability, that I believe any continued move towards an Anthropocene framing of the SDGs would impose its most serious threat.

Along with other current strands in environmentalism, it actually reinforces pre-existing pressures for authoritarianism. With “100 months to save the planet” (now nearly up!), strident voices are already insisting that urgency compels obedience. Democracy is increasingly dubbed a “failure” or a “luxury” that cannot be afforded – or even queried as an “enemy of nature”. The iconically influential environmentalist, Jim Lovelock, insists that “democracy must be put on hold for a while”. Formerly rebellious NGOs now move from seeking to represent social movements against established power, to delivering for incumbency the controlling instruments of “nudge”.

It seems the original emancipatory thrust of Sustainability – combining compellingly the imperatives of social justice and environmentalism – is in real danger of being lost.

Science and democracy

And – since the original conference question was about the framing of science – it is worth making a final remark specifically about science itself.

It is a further reflection of the above dynamic, that democratic struggle is too often nowadays seen as if necessarily in tension with science. In fact, if science is understood for what it is – rather than how powerful incumbent interests wish to represent it – then nothing could be further from the truth.

Despite the performative rhetoric of Bacon – and alongside this authoritarian tradition – the aspirational dynamics of democratic struggle also form foundational qualities that help distinguish science from many other ways of producing knowledge.

For instance, when compared with knowledges often produced under religious dogma, political orthodoxy or disciplinary doctrine, it is the democratic qualities of idealised scientific practice that (at their best) offer the distinctive robustness of science.

Albeit never fully realised, what is striven for by key institutions of ‘the republic of science’ (like peer review, communitarian sharing, accessibility across class or race or gender, respect for uncertainties and organised scepticism) is the effective reinforcement of democracy. As the motto of the British Royal Society (deliciously paradoxically!) proclaims nullius in verba – ‘not on any authority’. This vision of science is as counter to uncompromising forms of Anthropocene control, as is Sustainability itself.

This concern over the authoritarian control agenda embedded in the Anthropocene is as much about respecting crucial constituting aspirations in science, as about reinforcing democratic struggles that are have always been – and continue to remain – so necessary for progress towards Sustainable Development.

And this is why it is so important that – for all the past connections and complexities – Planetary Boundaries and ‘the Anthropocene’ should actually be seen as crucially distinct. Neither needs the other. Each can be different on its own.

In particular (despite their own shortcomings and suppressions of uncertainty), suitably-developed Planetary Boundaries may potentially help to add further responsibility and accountability on the environmental side, to the wider emancipatory thrust of the Sustainable Development Goals.

What the externally-oriented control of ‘the Anthropocene’ does to Planetary Boundaries, is risk tipping them away from being a potentially progressive intervention, into a more definitely regressive one. Instead of accountable restraints on incumbent political and economic interests, acting as self-discipline inwardly within diverse human societies, they become the “control variables” for outward planetary domination by whatever interests are successful in capturing the notion of a singular-structured humanity.

This undermines the clear challenging of incumbent global interests, as is offered (at their best) by the emancipatory agenda of hope in the Sustainable Development Goals. Instead, if only inadvertently, the Anthropocene framing threatens to reinforce in the Planetary Boundaries, a fear-driven doctrine of technocratic control. And the emphases on control also helps to circumscribe imaginations of other kinds of action, further reinforcing the incumbent interests, concentrated power and detached privilege that are also so dependent on rhetorics of control.

It is these particular political economic configurations – not humanity in some comprehensive sense – that are most implicated in all the social and environmental destruction. It is these identifiable forms of lock-in within societies, which continue to form the most formidable obstacles to transformation. After all, if the really problem were ‘humanity’ as a whole in some unqualified way, what hope would there be?

What is sustainability?

What Sustainable Development is about instead, is the re-entangling of diverse human values and aspirations with the unknowable and uncontrollable complexities and dynamism of the Earth itself.

Here, the three Brundtland pillars of equity, well-being and integrity – now further articulated in the Sustainable Development Goals – are not just specific to human societies or their ecological environments. They also refer to the intimate relations between the two (and how these are understood).

Sustainability is therefore not just about the emancipatory will to advance the human condition, merely to ‘go forward’ – but about enabling the even more audacious possibility of equitable social agency over the directions in which such progress should actually best unfold. It is not about closing down around a single determinate idea of humanity, but about opening up imaginations of the multiple contending kinds of societies in which human ways of being can unfold.

This is a diametrically opposing vision to the monolithic instrumentalism of the Anthropocene. It involves many modes of caring, more than externalised control. It is about acting with solidarity, humility, responsibility, accountability and self-discipline – to express the many different ways in which diverse human societies relate to their disparate experiences of the Earth.

To reduce this to planetary control, risks an irreversible betrayal of the real hope of Sustainability. Fortunately (in ways so inspirationally explored in the community in and around the Stockholm Resilience Centre) humanity has more plural, grounded and vibrant alternative choices – to live more modestly on (not over) the Earth.

Image: “Artificial Archipelagos, Dubai, United Arab Emirates ISS022-E-024940 lrg” by Member of the Expedition 22 crew. – http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=42477 and http://eol.jsc.nasa.gov/scripts/sseop/photo.pl?mission=ISS022&roll=E&frame=24940. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Other posts in this series

The Anthropocene, control and responsibility: a reply to Andy Stirling Johan Rockström, 29 October 2015

Reflections on “Time to Rei(g)n Back the Anthropocene” Victor Galaz, 27 October 2015

Seeing the Anthropocene as a responsibility: to act with care for each other and for our planet Laura Pereira, 25 October 2015


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