Reflections to “Time to Rei(g)n Back the Anthropocene?”

This is a short reflection to Andy Stirling’s recent post “Time to Rei(g)n Back the Anthropocene?”  about the Anthropocene, “planetary boundaries” and politics. Feel free to join the discussions in the comment field here, or at the STEPS-blog

First of all, I would like to thank Andy Stirling for getting this discussion started with a very thought provoking post. I would also like to point out that the opinions raised here are my own, and should in no way be viewed as an “official” Stockholm Resilience Centre reply: there are simply too many different perspectives of the issues raised in the blogpost at SRC, which means that I possibly can’t make them all justice in a quick reflection. So I write this in hope that others will join the discussion.

I agree with you that this indeed is an important discussion. What I still don’t understand however (and this is what I see as the key argument in the blog piece), is how the Anthropocene concept lays “the foundation for planetary geoengineering”, “planetary management”, or how it contributes to an “authoritarian control agenda”. This issue has been raised before (by Melissa Leach here, and Robyn Eckersley here), but I simply don’t buy into the argument. Allow me to elaborate briefly.


For some reason, the notion of “earth system governance” (ESG) is mentioned side by side with the term “planetary management”. This I believe, is an incorrect and very unfortunate conflation of the two terms. ESG is a research agenda – not a specific governance model – that brings together a very rich community of social scientists from a diversity of disciplines. ESG includes a number of important of research perspectives and projects exploring exactly the sort of critical questions that are raised in the blog post, including agency, accountability, allocation and access. In short, the ESG does not at all “confirm and elaborate what Anthropocene ambitions mean in practice”. Instead, the community shows the need to critically explore the messy and unavoidably political nature of governance at multiple levels of the Earth system. It does not endorse nor support simplistic notions of planetary “management” or “control”. The reference to “planetary management” is a link to Eckersley’s text, and provides no evidence that  Anthropocene scholars  (and there are many, many more than Paul Crutzen, John Schellnhuber and Johan Rockström!) have a preference for top-down or authoritarian modes of governance.

Maybe it’s the ESG-community’s strong emphasis on international institutions that creates such a space for misinterpretation, but surely we must be able to explore international institutional challenges in the Anthropocene without “laying the foundations” for an “authoritarian control agenda”?

Another example of why I don’t buy into the argument is the summary made of David Christian’s lecture on Big History during the Transformation 2015 conference in Stockholm.

Indeed, in another wonderfully animated talk just before Johan’s [Rockström, my addition] 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.

This is an interesting reflection, but this was not at all what I brought with me from Christian’s lecture (and this is actually the second time I hear this talk). If anything, “Big History” teaches us that many of the processes that shape the planet are truly emergent – sum of interacting forces with transformative effects, but with highly limited predictability and beyond simple “control”. The argument that increased information processing drives growth in biosphere and social complexity is – in my mind – not at all about control. On the contrary, it is an observation about how profoundly evolution and information are related (for en excellent and lengthy overview, see  Gleick’s book “The Information”).

There is also a very important issue about terminology here, and how different terms are interpreted. The blogpost mentions  “Anthropocene planetary boundaries as “control variables” – this is clearly mainly about control.” I’m not a systems scientist, but my layman understanding of a “control variable” is a variable that in important ways shapes the behavior of a system. One example would be incoming solar radiation and global temperature. Now, identifying/proposing a variable such as this does not imply that it is possible nor desirable to “control” it. In my example, it might be (and I would say even is) both impossible and undesirable to launch a major Solar Radiation Management scheme. So I might argue that X is a control variable for Y, without inevitably suggesting that X needs to be “controlled”, even though I might term it a “control variable”. Happy to hear some more informed reflections about this issue from others. However, “non-negotiable”, “absolutely no uncertainty”, and “no compromise” are terms that I personally would not use, so I would ask others to respond to that particular critique!

But you are making a very important point that I fully agree with. “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.” We (STEPS, SRC and others) have important responsibilities in this regard.  I’m very happy that we are able to discuss issues such as these  in an open, and constructive way. I worry however that claims about ‘the Anthropocene’ always contributing to an “authoritarian control agenda” not only is an unfair summary of the immensely rich governance debate emerging in different parts of the world. It also risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let’s bring more nuances and voices to this important discussion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>