Sustainability in the Anthropocene: A Techno-Political Project (not a Scientific one)

This is a guest post by Thad Miller, Assistant Professor in Urban Civic Ecology and Sustainable Communities at Portland State University’s Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning. You can visit his website here and follow him on Twitter at @Thad_Miller. This is the second post in a series on technology-Anthropocene-resilience. The first post about geoengineering and planetary stewardship, can be found here.

Scientists have declared that the Earth has entered a new epoch—one that is characterized by human impact on the planet’s biophysical processes. So, too, has the notion of the Anthropocene come to dominate discussions around sustainability and the environment in the lead up to Rio+20. One would have been hard pressed to find a single session in which it was not mentioned at last week’s Planet Under Pressure conference in London. Over the past year, we’ve reached a veritable discursive tipping point as an avalanche of papers on one aspect or another of the Anthropocene have hit major scientific journals (including this recent article in Science), the blogosphere, and the popular press. In short, if you haven’t heard of it, it is time to get out of your cozy Holocene cave.

Many of these discussions about the Anthropocene, particularly at Planet Under Pressure, have focused on what scientists know about the human impact on earth systems. For example, to what extent has human activity begun to push the Earth beyond certain “planetary boundaries” beyond which lies potential ecological catastrophe? (Quick aside: for a scathing—if not off-base, according to the moderator of this blog—critique of planetary boundaries see this guest post by Schellenberger and Nordhaus at Roger Pielke, Jr.’s blog).  While such questions may indeed be important, two critical themes are missing in discussions of the Anthropocene: technology and ethics.

The Anthropocene is not an era in which humans simply dominate the world, but an era in which humans engineer it. If there is one thing we humans do, it is building things. This is, of course, part of what got us into this mess (and, paradoxically, what has helped advance human well-being and development throughout much of the world over the last several centuries). We have literally constructed the Anthropocene. What we decide to make of the Anthropocene and make it more desirable (for humans and nonhumans alike) will in large part be influenced and enabled by technology. Yet, if technological innovation got us into this situation (albeit with many incredible benefits), why should we assume that it will get us out? (If, for instance, I was a betting man and I had to choose the more probable pathway to global food security—a sudden shift in the priorities and practices of our global political and economic institutions or technological advances in genetically modified crops and fertilization—I’d choose the latter.) I am not suggesting that we revert to technological fixes; rather, that we begin to think critically about the complex role of technology in both creating unintended consequences and providing sorely needed solutions. Perhaps it is hubris, but we must begin to merge humanity’s great technological project with an ethical one.

Rockström et al. urge us to maintain a “safe operating space for humanity.” This seems like a reasonable place to start (though it does potentially mask important local and regional variations in what that space might look like, how it is determined and by whom). However, the question of what kind of world(s) we want to live in cannot be determined by scientific elites alone (also, those advocating global governance may want to take note of recent attacks by American Tea Party groups). It is a messy social and political task that must tackle a complex net of trade-offs between values—across both space and time, human and nonhuman. It is a task that challenges neat categories of artificial/natural or human/nonhuman and will force a rethinking of knee-jerk reactions against, for instance, technology by some traditional environmentalists. This is an issue that Emma Marris eloquently highlights in her book, Rambunctious Garden.

Our ability to navigate the Anthropocene will depend on our capacity to innovate; hopefully, with a strong dose of humility and guided by an open debate of what trajectory we ought to take. How, for example, can we harness humanity’s proficiency for technological innovation to pursue what Ruth DeFries, Erle Ellis and colleagues refer to as planetary opportunities (for full article, click here)? Both natural and social scientists in the resilience/sustainability community must begin, as Victor Galaz concludes in his earlier post, to more rigorously engage with values, politics and technology. One way to start is to make sure that there are at least a few engineers and humanists at the next Planet Under Pressure (or, better yet, Rio+20).

Thanks to Victor Galaz for inviting me to post on Resilience Science this week.

3 thoughts on “Sustainability in the Anthropocene: A Techno-Political Project (not a Scientific one)”

  1. Engineers maybe, though from the practice side of all of this, our current human codes, laws, and thinking is so narrowly focused that on actual projects, there is no room for consideration other than specific sustainability programs, i.e., LEED for Homes, ICLEI, Passive House, etc.

    The builders, attorneys, architects, i.e., the literal ecosystem engineers of the Holocene, must somehow understand and begin to design relative to Planetary Boundaries or similar Holocenic metrics. How to do that is actually stunningly less complex than is often portrayed by the business, political, “innovation”, and related communities.

  2. Betting on technology over institutional change is probably prudent. But it’s also self-fulfilling, because one reason institutions won’t change is that no one is willing to take the risk and invest the effort required to change them, because they’re all betting that a technical solution will mitigate the need.

    The bet gets increasingly risky when you start to talk about things like solar radiation management though. There’s little evidence in favor of reliable success for large scale engineered systems.

    I share the opinion that the Breakthrough critique of planetary boundaries is off-base. http://blog.metasd.com/2012/04/the-neo-cornucopians-are-at-it-again/

  3. Victor,

    Thanks for the provocative post. From the perspective of practice, perhaps leading with “technology” instead of “design” risks confusing the issue? I’ve been involved with a prize program for 5 years seeking comprehensive approaches for making the world work for 100% of humanity, and our criteria (http://challenge.bfi.org/criteria) are intented to identify effective designs regardless of approach. We require “more than a great stand-alone innovation. If for example, your solution emphasizes a new design, material, process, service, tool, technology, or any combination, it is essential that it be part of an integrated strategy dealing with key social, economic, environmental, policy and cultural issues.”

    Our transdisciplinary jury has selected projects that integrate new technologies with situated and systemic approaches as well as ones that make the maximize ecosystem synergies through “low-tech” design strategies. In my experience the unclassified use of “technology” leads to semantic confusion, since in many respects extant ecosystems are simply non-human evolutionary technologies (as illustrated by the fields of biomimicry and ecomimetics).

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