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Deconstructing the Anthropocene

Imagine a group of Earth-system scientists discussing the Anthropocene. Chances are they would debate the finer details of the carbon cycle or the damming and diversion of rivers, throwing in a bit of modelling jargon for flavour. Now imagine a bunch of social scientists conversing about Earth’s newest epoch: you might almost sense the atmosphere warming up by impassioned allusions to geopolitics, power and justice. It isn’t simply a cliché to say that these two communities inhabit two separate worlds. What if these worlds were to collide? If a workshop I attended recently in Washington, DC is anything to go by the result would be an outburst of creativity, not annihilation.

Two global-change research programmes facilitated this not-quite-spontaneous collision: The International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) and the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP). The primary aim was to revisit, deepen and broaden the Anthropocene concept by bringing to bear a diversity of perspectives. Another aim was to build a new community, a process that could hopefully serve as a template for Future Earth. Among those raring to go were geologists, biogeochemists, governance experts, historians and journalists.

What, then, is the Anthropocene? That was the first question the group of 30 or so experts tackled and, not surprisingly, the number of perspectives almost equalled the number of participants. Is it Earth’s newest geological epoch, one in which humanity competes with and even defies the forces of nature on a planetary scale? Or is it a symbol of anthropocentrism and even a certain type of narcissism? Did its origin coincide with the dawn of agriculture or the even earlier manipulation of landscapes by fire? Or was the origin more or less synchronous with the Industrial Revolution in Europe?

The Anthropocene is a surprisingly malleable concept that accommodates several co-existing and, at times, contesting narratives. This malleability is not dissimilar to that exhibited by the ‘chemical bond’. In the words of Cornell University's Roald Hoffmann1, “any rigorous definition of a chemical bond is bound to be impoverishing.” Instead, “have fun with the fuzzy richness of the idea”. Perhaps this applies to the Anthropocene concept too.

Despite the fuzziness, most of us agreed that the Anthropocene reframes the ever-evolving relationship between humans and their non-human environment. Most of us also agreed that the concept has rapidly transcended its geological and Earth-systemic confines to encompass a much wider range of questions. From the perspective of University of Oslo geographer Karen O’Brien, the Anthropocene represents the emergence of a new worldview:  humans are an integral part of the Earth system and, more importantly, can collectively shape the future. Understanding the new epoch, O’Brien noted, therefore requires understanding the role of beliefs, values and identities in recognising and responding to complex collective challenges.

The broadening interest in the Anthropocene is desirable, not least because of its potential to recast issues such as climate change, environmental history and technology in a new light. The eventual realisation of this potential, of course, depends on the extent to which we resist the temptation for consensus and convention, and instead welcome “the controlled conflict generated by paradoxes.”2 Some of us argued at the workshop that the standard Anthropocene narrative masks the history of exploitation and inequalities that helped to precipitate and sustain the new epoch. As Christophe Bonneuil, a historian at the Centre Alexandre Koyré in Paris, asked:  “Do we consider inequalities as a corollary to the Anthropocene? Or do we consider them as a global driver of the Anthropocene?” At the same time, there is no denying the common future that confronts all of humanity in the thoroughly globalised and interconnected world of today. The tension between a differentiated history and a common future could be the locus of new perspectives.    

Priya Shyamsundar, an environmental economist and member of IGBP’s Scientific Committee, was keen not to lose sight of the local context, which is what most people relate to. How could we use our understanding of people, environments and histories at the local scale to understand as globalising a concept as the Anthropocene? Perhaps cities provide a template: spatially restricted and fairly autonomous in their governance they are nevertheless nodes in global chains of materials and people. Their sphere of influence therefore far exceeds their immediate surroundings. This simultaneously local and global character of cities could provide one way of contextualising the Anthropocene.

No concept as overarching as the Anthropocene can escape questions about its relevance to policy. In the words of veteran journalist Andy Revkin, the architect of the Dot Earth blog on the New York Times, “the policy impact of the Anthropocene concept will come mainly in the softest, least measurable – and possibly most important – way: through a shift in consciousness of societies, which can lead to greater willingness to conserve scarce resources or otherwise work to make sure the human era on this planet plays out in a way we will be proud of for generations to come.”

But this might not be fast enough for everyone. On the final day of the workshop author Clive Hamilton expressed frustration at what he perceived to be a failure within the group to acknowledge the urgency and severity posed by climate change. Characterising the talk about models and management as a form of denial, Hamilton argued that there is no “good” Anthropocene, only a horrible one. He urged us not to use concepts and ideas to insulate ourselves from the truth. In my view whether and how the Anthropocene might lead to lasting change will become clearer when we are past the turbulence that inevitably accompanies an emerging paradigm.

Could the Anthropocene stimulate truly critical, transdisciplinary2 work? Here, I think, we are on far firmer ground. Understanding the age of humans requires an exploration of the links between such aspects as colonialism, capitalism, technology, climate, biogeochemical cycles and land use. This is not simply a matter of combining the expertise of existing disciplines. Instead, it entails transcending disciplinary boundaries to develop new conceptual frameworks and ideas. More than any other concept in recent history – including sustainability – the Anthropocene might provoke innovative and lasting changes to knowledge production in academia. At minimum, it could provide an umbrella for research coordinated by Future Earth.


1. The Hoffman quote is from: Ball, P (2011). Beyond the bond. Nature 469: 26-28.

2. Ramadier, T (2004). Transdisciplinarity and its challenges: the case of urban studies. Futures 36: 423-439.