All posts by Victor Galaz

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.

Harder, Faster, Stronger – How Financial Markets are Shaping the Biosphere

Should ecologists and sustainability scientists care about financial markets? The answer is a loud and resounding “yes”, and I’m delighted to finally be able to share our latest article published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution yesterday, co-authored with colleagues Johan Gars, Fredrik Moberg, Björn Nykvist and Cecilia Repinski.

The article not only shows how financial systems connect to social ecological change at the global scale. It also shows the ultra-speed by which financial information flows through international commodity markets, often supported by sophisticated trading algorithms (Figure 1 below). Bluntly put: financial systems have a harder, faster, and stronger – and not necessarily better (for those familiar with the Daft Punk song) – impact on social-ecological connections in the Anthropocene than previously understood.

Figure 1. Algorithmic trade with commodity derivatives

Figure 1. Map showing the world’s 20 largest commodity derivatives markets, denoted with their official acronyms (KCBT = The Kansas City Board of Trade; ROFEX = The Rosario Futures Exchange; etc). Symbols indicate the main commodity derivative traded, and the purple-colored circles show where indications of algorithmic trade have been found (blue circles = no indication of algorithmic trade). The graph in the lower right corner shows the rapid increase from year 2005 in the turnover of commodity futures contracts traded in organized exchanges. For details, see Galaz et al. 2015 in TREE

Debates about the “financialisation of nature” and the potential of divestment from fossil fuels  is not new of course. Our article broadens these debates in two ways as I see it.

One is that it challenges recent arguments about the lack of “intercontinental connectivity” between ecosystems across the world put forward by Brook and colleagues in TREE in 2013 (see my previous critique here). As others have explored already, globalization has created a number of “telecouplings” across the planet (e.g. Liu and colleagues), often through trade flows. We show for the first time, that intercontinental connectivity between ecosystems also increasing unfolds through financial flows, financial innovation and associated technologies (illustrated in Figure 2 from McKinsey Global Institute (2014) .

Figure 2. Global Financial Flows, 2002 vs. 2012. Picture from McKinsey Global Institute (2014). Global flows in a digital age: How trade, finance, people, and data connect the world economy (pp. 12).

The second contribution I believe, is that we take a closer look at what normally (and sometimes too vaguely) is referred to as “Wall Street” (like here) or the “financialisation of nature” (e.g. here). These are valid and important contributions, but only give us a first glimpse of the complexities and dynamics of global financial systems and capital flows.

Put bluntly: “Wall Street” is not an amorphous “black box” system  – it consists of financial actors such as investment banks and hedge funds; instruments such as commodity derivatives; and technologies such as algorithmic trading. Understanding how financial connectivity evolves in the Anthropocene should include more than general criticisms against financial systems. It should also try to map how these actors, their relations, and associated capital flows shape the biosphere.

What happens in Wall Street and other international financial centers matters. Hopefully our article provides a first step in opening the financial “black box”.

Making Sense of the Anthropocene Debate(s)

by Victor Galaz | @vgalaz

Do you find it hard to keep track of ongoing discussions about the Anthropocene? So do I. Part of the reason why it is easy to loose track, is that there is actually not only one – but (at least) five parallel Anthropocene debates.

Last week’s event hosted by the German HKW Anthropocene project, is an excellent example of this increasing diversity of perspectives that nowadays frame the Anthropocene debate.

Anthropocene Working Group, 16/10-2014 via @AnthropoceneObsAnthropocene Working Group, 16/10-2014 via @AnthropoceneObs

The first debate is what I would call the classical Anthropocene debate – has humanity formally left the Holocene, and entered a new geological epoch? If that is the case, when did it start? The epicenter of this discussion is the work of the Anthropocene Working Group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy (neatly summarized by Elizabeth Kolbert here , and updated by Andrew Revkin’s here).

Over the years however, a number of parallell debates have evolved as well. These focus is not on geological epochs and insights from the Earth system science, but rather on the social, institutional and political dimensions of the Anthropocene concept.

The second for example, is what I would denote a debate about  Anthropocene framings. In short: does the concept really capture the social and economical dynamics that have shaped planet Earth? Does the emphasis of the Anthropocene on “humanity” and  “human domination” overlook critical underlying issues of social power, global injustices, and unequal exchange in the history of mankind? Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg (PDF here), and Ninad Bodre (here), have raised this point.

A very different version of this debate is the argument that the concept contains elements of catastrophism that could lead to fatalism, and a failure to inspire to collective action. Raj Patel raises the point here, as well as Ruth DeFries and colleagues here.

The third debate is not about geology nor framings, but rather about Anthropocene politicsWhat are the political and institutional implications of entering the Anthropocene era? Does the increased understanding of the Earth system calls for profound transformations of the way we organize international institutions? This argument can be found in the recent works of Frank Biermann and colleagues (here), and myself in my recent book “The Anthropocene Gap” here.

The fourth debate is about the notion of a Good Anthropocene is it fruitful, or even possible visualising a positive Anthropocene considering the vast negative repercussions that could unfold as the result of e.g. runaway climate change? The debate between Clive Hamilton and Andrew Revikin here is the clearest example . It should be noted however, that this issue is an emerging research area e.g. the newly launched project “Seeds of a Good Anthropocene”.

"Spare us a Manthropocene"

“Spare us a Manthropocene” from Kate Raworth.

The last debate is about the Anthropocene and Knowledge Production. This debate focuses on issues of legitimacy and the lack of gender, ethnic and disciplinary diversity in existing processes of knowledge production associated with the Anthropocene concept. Bluntly put: how representative are the scientist exploring the implications of this new epoch? Kate Raworth’s widely spread tweet and picture commenting on the obvious absence of female researchers at the Anthropocene Working Group at HKW (first picture), is an excellent case in point. Ola Uhrqvist’s recently published Ph.D. thesis explores similar issues about the linkages between knowledge production and power in the Earth system sciences.

So, let’s acknowledge not only the diversity of voices, but also the diversity in the Anthropocene debate itself.



A “Planetary Boundaries” Straw-Man

Update:  I work at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, headed by Johan Rockström and Carl Folke. The opinions reflected here are my own, and not the organizations.

The notion of “planetary boundaries” and its potential policy implications, are without doubt worth discussing. But the last blogpost by Roger Pielke Jr. (professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, as well as senior fellow at the Breakthrough Institute), left me wondering whether not the debate is becoming increasingly unproductive. I will not try to recap the argument, but recommend a thorough read of Pielke’s blogpost as well as Melissa Leach’s (from STEPS) article in the Huffington Post, on the Anthropocene, SDGs and democracy.

What really troubles me is the argument that “planetary boundaries” is associated with one (and only one) “political philosophy”: heavily centralized, top-down, “World Government-like” interventions where “issues of legitimacy and accountability are easily dealt with through the incontestable authority of science”. Hence, Pielke’s claim of a “power grab” by proponents of planetary boundaries.

This is either an unfortunate misunderstanding of what the academic discussions about “planetary boundaries” really looks like, or the creation of a straw man argument aspiring to create a heated, but essentially misdirected discussion. There is no such thing as one homogenous “political philosophy” for planetary boundaries. And there is no power grab. Allow me to elaborate.

Yes, Frank Biermann’s observation that “scientists involved in this process become inadvertently also political actors” seems relevant. But he also notes – in the very same paper that Pielke quotes in his blogpost to support his argument – that

“within this overall target corridor, the nine boundaries leave human societies ample space for different political choices and socio-economic development trajectories. These socio-economic development trajectories—within the safe operating space set by the planetary boundaries—are left open to the democratic political process and intergovernmental negotiation. […]. The planetary boundaries do not determine any “limits to growth”, but set limits to the total human impact on planetary systems.”

Needless to say, this is the complete opposite of what Pielke and the Breakthrough Institute argue. Another way to understand how so called “planetary boundaries proponents” (whatever that is) explore the political implications of the concept, is nicely summarized in the Earth System Governance Project synthesis piece, published in Science in 2012. In this paper, planetary boundaries are acknowledged as an important insight from the Earth system science community, and a trigger for fundamental and much-needed reforms in global environmental governance – in the article described as “seven building blocks”. The focus is on international institutional reform to create stronger coherence and integration, closing international regulatory gaps, mainstreaming of environmental goals into global trade, and novel financial mechanism with an emphasis on global equity and fairness. The details of these suggestions can be debated of course, but this is far from a “World Government/power grab” agenda.

Another example: in 2011, I coordinated a workshop where governance, politics and planetary boundaries were discussed with a group of international governance scholars. The end result (here in PDF) was again not the sort of “political philosophy” proposed by Pielke, but rather a more nuanced discussion of the role of scientific assessments in creating credibility, saliency, and legitimacy for the science of planetary boundaries; the politically contested role of “boundaries”; the role of international organizations as participants, coordinators and facilitators of polycentric governance initiatives; and the need to explore the institutional context of social-ecological innovation.

Another interesting and emerging stream of research of relevance here, explores the legal implications of planetary boundaries and the Anthropocene. I think Davor Vidas discussion from (2011) on the need to reform legal principles embedded in the international law of the sea, is a nice example of the sort of nuanced discussion emerging between social scientists wishing to explore the implications of planetary boundaries.

Lastly, a very important research stream relevant for this discussion, attempts to explore the possible institutional and broader governance implications of planetary boundaries, by focusing on “Planetary stewardship” or “Earth system stewardship”. (See Folke and colleagues (2012) paper for an introduction). As a comment to Prof Leach’s observation, this stream with its roots in studies of adaptive co-management, acknowledges not only the role of uncertainty, participation, and diversity, but also has a very explicit multilevel-governance focus. Ideas of polycentric, participatory, and reflexive modes of governance of this sort, align just as neatly into the planetary boundaries discourse.

I fail to see how these vibrant and diverse ways of studying and exploring the governance implications of planetary boundaries, are part of the “top-down”, “World Government”, “power grab” narrative depicted in the discussions.

That being said however: As a political scientist, I too find the formulation by Steffen, Rockström and Constanza (2011) that there is a need for a “global referee on the planetary playing field”, confusing. My personal interpretation after discussing these issues repeatedly with the authors on other occasions, is that this is likely to be the result of uncareful phrasing – pretty much in the same way that social scientists like myself, struggle to grasp and articulate the nuances of Earth system science in my papers. I do hope however, that they will be able to elaborate their argument somehow in the near future to avoid further misunderstandings, and to steer away from an artificial conflict between the social and Earth system sciences.

A final observation. Breakthrough Institute praises itself for being a paradigm shifting think-tank. I applaud that ambition, but also note that their framing of planetary boundaries research, and some of their researchers, is creating a really unhelpful polarization of the discussions. Polarization might create a nice temporary buzz on Twitter, and drive loads of readers and comments to a blog. But is it really creating an interesting and productive discussion? Most certainly not.

Planetary boundaries science is, and should be, an arena for continuous dialogue and constructive debate between actors with different perspectives, values and disciplinary backgrounds. It would be a pity to build the foundation for such a debate on straw man arguments, and polarized misconceptions.

Is 3D printing the “next big thing” for ecology?

If you are interested in emerging technologies with disruptive potential, it is hard to avoid the growing hype around 3D-printing: printers able to reproduce a digital model by adding materials in layers, until the final product is achieved. If you think this sounds like weird science fiction, you probably haven’t heard about 3D printed bikes, jawbones, guitars and …. meat. And yes, there is a “Pirate Bay” for 3D printing called “physibles” which would allow you to download the code needed to print 3D objects.

3D-printed bike, image from policymic

Interestingly enough, a paper by William Sutherland and colleagues was recently published in TREE [PDF] where they explore emerging technologies which may have big implications for conservation and biological diversity. Among the list of issues you find rapid growth of concentrated solar power, wide spread development of thorium-fuelled nuclear power, ecological monitoring drones, vegetarian aquaculture feed and of course, 3D-printing. They write:

The environmental effects of a society that only prints what is needed could include waste reduction and decreased emissions from transporting manufactured goods. Additionally, spare parts could be printed in remote regions. However, printing on a whim could lead to an increase in resource consumption, higher energy demand due to transportation of raw materials, and pollution, if storage or disposal of chemicals used in household-level printing are haphazard.

Interesting first take on the issue, but seems like there is lots more to think about than simply the consumption of raw materials and energy.

A Planet without Humans? Two Short Reflections on “Does the terrestrial biosphere have planetary tipping points?”

Are “planetary tipping points” likely? Trends in Ecology and Evolution recently published a very thought provoking article by Brooks et al. that challenges the notion of abrupt global threshold change. In the authors’ own words, we are likely to experience “[…] relatively ‘smooth changes at the global scale, without an expectation of marked tipping patterns.”

“Planetary tipping points” is not only a very important issue, with clear links to discussions about “planetary boundaries” and a “state shifts in the Earth’s biosphere”. It is also a very multifaceted inquiry that entails an electric combination between Earth system science, complex systems thinking, and science communication.

The paper opens up a whole set of important issues, but allow me to just briefly elaborate points that I find critical and interesting to explore and debate further.

1. Connectivity

Connectivity is a key factor in the assessment of the paper. As the authors note “If drivers or responses are spatially heterogeneous and inter-regional or intercontinental connectivity (through biotic or abiotic factors) is weak, the global aggregate pattern and rate of ecological change are likely to be relatively constant, without any identifiable tipping point. Conversely, if drivers and responses are spatially homogeneous or inter-regional or intercontinental connectivity is strong, ecological change might display a tipping-point pattern at a global scale.” (pp.2)

So, how strong is “intercontinental connectivity” between ecosystems? It depends on how you define “connectivity” of course. On the same page, the authors list a whole set of “biotic” and “abiotic factors” which underpin connectivity: species movement, ocean transport of heat, changes in CO2 levels, and others. Based on a brief analysis of these “connectors” for terrestrial ecosystems, the authors conclude that the “lack of strong continental interconnectivity, probably induce relatively smooth changes at the global scale, without an expectation of marked tipping patterns”.

Am I the only one getting the feeling that something is missing here? What I find intriguing in the analysis, is the absence of a discussion of “social connectors” which are likely to connect ecosystems across the world. The interconnected degradation of marine systems through global markets and new technologies denoted “roving bandits” are well known, and I see no reason why scholars should ignore similar phenomena for terrestrial ecosystems.

GWSP Digital Water Atlas (2008). Map 34: Virtual Water 2 (V1.0). Available online at

For example, while forest ecosystems in different continents might have few biotic and abiotic intercontinental connections, it is known that successful conservation policies in one region or a country, tends to shift environmental externalities to other areas through global markets (a “displacement effect” elaborated Lambin and Meyfroidt 2011). The flows of “virtual water”, and the observation that decreasing fish stocks force people to extract more resources from wildlife and tropical forests in West Africa (Brashares et al. 2004) are two additional examples of how social connectivity is tightly related to interconnected environmental change (some of which is likely to be non-linear). Global change scientists are just starting to get to grips with these complex human-environmental connectors (Adger et al. 2006, Young et al. 2006), but surely these would have an impact on how we analytically assess the sort of intercontinental connectivity Brook and colleagues are trying to get at? Bluntly put: if we indeed have entered the Anthropocene, why is social connectivity through institutions, technology and globalized trade, not part of the analysis?

2. Global tipping points and fatalism

The article ends with an interesting statement: “Second, framing global change in the dichotomous terms implied by the notion of a global tipping point could lead to complacency on the ‘safe’ side of the point and fatalism about catastrophic or irrevocable effects on the other.”

Brook also argues (in an associated blogpost) that “Why does this matter? Well, one concern we have is that an undue focus on planetary tipping points may distract from the vast ecological transformations that have already occurred.”

I find both these claims surprising. Surely a discussion about “thresholds” of this sort lead to more multifaceted social perceptions and responses than simple dichotomies of doom-and-gloom, or distraction? Nuttal and Hulme (which are quoted to support the first quote on framings) are just two articles in a much richer and multidisciplinary body of literature (raging from formal theory, to social-psychological experiments and case based approaches) that elaborates social perceptions, framings and responses to threshold phenomena. A somewhat more nuanced and empirically based discussion on this last issue of social perceptions and responses, could have contributed in significant ways to a much-needed discussion.

Impacts of Geoengineering on Biodiversity

The Convention on Biological Diversity just released a report [PDF] put together by their Liaison Expert group on geo-engineering and biodiversity. The report – to which I have contributed as one of several lead authors – brings together peer-reviewed literature on expected impacts of a suite of geoengineering technologies, on biodiversity and ecosystem services. The last chapter also elaborates social, economical and ethical dimensions as they relate to the technologies’ impacts on biodiversity. Key messages include:

10. There is no single geoengineering approach that currently meets all three basic criteria for effectiveness, safety and affordability.  Different techniques are at different stages of development, mostly theoretical, and many are of doubtful effectiveness. Few, if any, of the approaches proposed above can be considered well-researched; for most, the practicalities of their implementation have yet to be investigated, and mechanisms for their governance are potentially problematic.  Early indications are that several of the techniques, both SRM [Solar Radiation Management, my addition] and CDR [Carbon Dioxide Removal, my addition], are unlikely to be effective at the global scale.
42. Geoengineering raises a number of questions regarding the distribution of resources and  impacts within and among societies and across time. Access to natural resources is needed for some geoengineering techniques. Competition for limited resources can be expected to increase if land-based CDR techniques emerge as a competing activity for land, water and energy use. The distribution of impacts (both positive and negative) of SRM geoengineering is unlikely to be uniform – neither are the impacts of climate change itself. (Section 6.3.4)

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.

Can Geoengineering and Planetary stewardship be combined?

Should we deliberately intervene in the Earth system to counteract the negative impacts of climate change? Certainly not, if we ask prominent Earth system scholar Will Steffen. In a recent article published in Ambio , Steffen and colleagues argue that geoengineering and Planetary stewardship are opposing extremes because the former deal with “symptom treatment” rather than the reduction of anthropogenic pressures on the planet (Steffen et al. 2011:752).

In my view, this very much depends on what particular technology you focus on, and on what scale. In a recent article in Ecology and Society “Geo-engineering, Governance, and Social-Ecological Systems: Critical Issues and Joint Research Needs” , I argue that there is an interesting, and unexplored interface between some types of geoengineering technologies, and Planetary stewardship.

One important detail that tends to get lost in the public debate about geoengineering, is that the concept not only includes technologies that intend to counteract warming through the regulation of solar radiation (e.g. injection of stratospheric aerosols, cloud brightening), but also a suite of proposals that build on ecosystem-based approaches such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), long-term storage of charcoal in soils (biochar), and reforestation and afforestation.

Once this wider spectrum of proposed and future technologies is acknowledged, a whole different set of poorly explored issues emerge.

Earth stewards could play a key role in various phases of geo-engineering research, ranging from theory and modeling, to technology development, and subscale field-testing. […] Two issues will prove critical. One is to secure that geo-engineering experiments explore technologies that not only address climate stresses, but could also bring multiple social-ecological benefits to communities. […] Second, participatory and co-management processes always play out within an institutional context. Hence, the creation of institutional mechanisms at the national or international level that support consultation, the disclosure of information, provide ombudsmen functions, and endorse integrated assessments of social-ecological dimensions will provide a critical underpinning for participatory processes (from mentioned article in Ecology and Society).

Is this really geoengineering? Well, if you follow the conventional definitions of the concept, I would argue that it is. But it is geoengineering in a different way. As Mark Stafford-Smith and Lynn Russell so elegantly summarizes it in a recent article in Carbon Management

Instead, the geoengineering debate should urgently be reframed as, “what combination of many smaller geoengineering options could be resilient, least harmful and yet effective in mitigating global environmental change?”

Time has come for the resilience community to think more creatively about technology, and seriously engage with the geoengineering debate.

Additional resources of interest:

Lynn M Russel et al. (2012). “Ecosystem Impacts of Geoengineering: A Review for Developing a Science Plan”, Ambio

STEPS Centre (2012). Biochar: “Triple Wins”, Livelihoods and Technological Promise, STEPS Working Paper [PDF]

Oxford Geoengineering Programme (Oxford University)

Stockholm Seminar with Jason Blackstock on Solar Geoengineering

Interdisciplinary science – what should we measure, and why?

Research impact assessments of academic environments with bibliometric indicators are becoming increasingly important. Not only do they define where you are placed in international rankings of research institutes, but they are also being used as a basis for distribution of funds. This might sound like a smart and simple way to secure funds for world-leading researchers. But it could also create difficulties for interdisciplinary research environments. Here is one example.
Lennart Olsson from Lund University gave an interesting and critical presentation at the Resilience Conference in Arizona early this year, and presented data indicating that resilience thinking has had very little impact in the social science community. The analysis is the following. First, pick the 10 top-ranked social sciences journals (based on Science Gateway) for a few disciplines. Then, search for articles that contain “social-ecological systems” AND “resilience”. The results:

So, is resilience thinking (from a social science perspective) in crisis? If the ambition is to target mainstream top-political science journals, we sure are. Two issues could be raised here however. One: is this really the best way to measure our impact in the social sciences? Why not (just as one example) look for articles that reference Holling’s, Folke’s or Elinor Ostrom’s work for example?

A second, and I would argue more important objection to the analysis, is whether the sort of metric Olsson uses really captures the core ambition of interdisciplinary research. Bluntly put: isn’t the whole point of building interdisciplinary teams, teaching, methods and research networks, to create innovative sustainability science that is hard to classify as “social” or “natural”? These articles are not likely to fit easily into mono-disciplinary social science journals. If that is the case, how do we measure the scientific success of such attempts, without contributing to an artificial split between the “social” and the “natural”?

I assume many of you have had similar experiences or thoughts. Feel free to share in the comment field below.