Cosmopolitanism in the Anthropocene

What does it mean to live in the Anthropocene?  On one hand, it means that the human species has transformed the climatic and environmental processes of its entire planet.  So radically are we changing our biosphere that we may bring about the collapse of our economic system[1] and perhaps even a sixth “mass extinction event”[2].

But announcements of the Anthropocene do not merely describe. They also prescribe.  Like any environmental matter of concern, the Anthropocene is always already implicated in moral narratives about who is accountable and what is right (see also Zev’s recent post).  If humans are responsible for such widespread, potentially catastrophic changes to our biosphere, then surely we have a moral obligation to change our ways.

But who are “we”?  Who is in fact responsible for changes in the Earth system, and who are the authors of the moral narratives that address those changes?  What kind of a world do Anthropocene narratives imagine and who/what has claims to it?  Such questions are crucial but often go unasked in discussions of the Anthropocene.

Take, for example, this characteristic passage from an op-ed by Erle Ellis, one of the most prolific scholars on the Anthropocene:

We most certainly can create a better Anthropocene. We have really only just begun, and our knowledge and power have never been greater. We will need to work together with each other and the planet in novel ways. The first step will be in our own minds. The Holocene is gone. In the Anthropocene we are the creators, engineers and permanent global stewards of a sustainable human nature.[3]

“We,” it seems, are humanity writ large—and we are both the cause of and the solution to the problems of this new era.  Herein, then, lies a tacit but nonetheless potent vision of cosmopolitanism.

Not all Anthropocene narratives are the same, but this cosmopolitan vision is one that many if not all of them share.  Cosmopolitanism refers to the goal of bringing all of humanity into a common moral and political community free of national and ethnic prejudices.  If humans created the Anthropocene—a condition that affects everyone and everything on the planet—then we must coordinate a global (read cosmopolitan) response appropriate to the scale of the challenge.

This is a noble sentiment—far preferable to apathy or denial—and not one that I wish to devalue.  It does, however, present certain risks.  Here I will briefly sketch out four of them, leaving further elaboration to future posts.

  • Risk 1: Anthropocene narratives risk conveying certainty and, thus, closure as to the composition of the cosmos. In an exchange with Ulrich Beck, a prominent exponent of cosmopolitanism, Bruno Latour raised the question “whose cosmos, which cosmopolitics?”   His concern is that, if we take the cosmos for a given, as something that exists “out there,” we risk assuming that our own vision of the cosmos is universal.[4]  For the purposes of this blog, such an assumption could lead us to overlook and thereby exclude alternative cosmologies, particularly those of marginalized peoples, from our discussions about how to live in the Anthropocene.  Our discussions should, therefore, explicitly consider which versions of the cosmos we embrace and which we exclude.
  • Risk 2: Anthropocene narratives, in their emphasis of anthropogenic solutions to anthropogenic problems, risk being anthropocentric in the extreme. This is what concerns Eileen Crist in her passionate essay “On the Poverty of Nomenclature,” in which she argues that “the discourse of the Anthropocene refuses to challenge human dominion, proposing instead technological and managerial approaches that would make human dominion sustainable.”[5]  Crist wants us to think about the status and rights of nonhumans in the Anthropocene.  In the above-quoted passage, Ellis tell us that “we will need to work together with each other and the planet in novel ways” (emphasis added).  But who again are “we” and who/what comprises “the planet”?  Are nonhuman entities—whether animals, plants, hydrocarbons, or mountain beings—merely the objects of human plans or are they agents as well?  We ignore these questions at our peril.
  • Risk 3: Anthropocene narratives risk obscuring matters of accountability, representation, and ultimately justice. If humans created the Anthropocene, then humans must manage the consequences.  But which humans are we talking about here?  If the burning of hydrocarbons and the clearing of forests are the primary drivers of this climatic-cum-geologic shift, then not all human societies are equally responsible for bringing about the Anthropocene.  Ironically, as the Climate Justice Movement[6] reminds us, those who are least responsible for carbon emissions are often most vulnerable to the consequences of global warming.  We should not allow one noble tenet of cosmopolitanism—that the Anthropocene necessitates pan-human cooperation—obscure the fact that we are not entering this new era on equal footing or with equal accountability for what got us here.  The Climate Justice Movement makes this concern explicit, as do concerns noted above about the status of nonhumans.  Questions of habitability should always come in tandem with questions of distributive, representational, and ecological justice.[7]
  • Risk 4: Anthropocene narratives risk derailing collective action by fostering sentiments of either despair or hubris. Kari Marie Norgaard’s work[8] suggests that the former ultimately breeds apathy, while recent work on the political economy of resilience science links the latter to neoliberal managerialism[9].  Both of these extremes reinforce the status quo and ignore what Ogden and colleagues[10] call the “power of grassroots global movements, in collaboration with other institutions, to foster resilience in sites that are vulnerable to economic globalization and global environmental change.”  Remembering this power will, I hope, help us resist the temptations of despair and hubris, apathy and managerialism.

Living in the Anthropocene calls for cosmopolitanism, but it also calls for careful reflection about what that entails.  These concerns—and a number of the works cited—will serve as inspiration for future posts.


[1] Oreskes, N., and E.M. Conway. 2013. “The Collapse of Western Civilization: a View from the Future.” Daedalus. Vol. 142, No. 1, pp. 40-58.

[2] Steffen W., Grinevald J., Crutzen P., and J. McNeill. 2011. “The Anthropocene: conceptual and historical perspectives.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A. Vol. 369, No. 1938, pp. 842-67.

[3] Ellis, E.C. 2011. “Forget Mother Nature: This is a World of our Making.” NewScientist. Vol. 2816, p. 27.

[4] Latour, B. 2004. “Whose Cosmos, Which Cosmopolitics? Comments on the Peace Terms of Ulrich Beck.Common Knowledge. Vol. 10, No. 3, pp. 450-62.

[5] Crist, E. 2013. “On the Poverty of Our Nomenclature.” Environmental Humanities. Vol. 3, p. 129.

[6] Tsosie, R.A. 2007. “Indigenous People and Environmental Justice: The Impact of Climate Change.” University of Colorado Law Review. Vol. 78, pp. 1625-77.

[7] Questions about who constitutes the “anthropos” of the anthropocene, particularly with regard to accountability for global climate change, are the subject of a growing literature.  Some examples include: Malm and Holmberg, Luke, and Chakrabarty.

[8] Norgaard, K.M. 2011. Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life. Cambridge: MIT Press.

[9] Hornborg, A. 2013. “Revelations of resilience: From the ideological disarmament of disaster to the revolutionary implications of (p)anarchy.” Resilience. Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 116-29. Joseph, J. 2013. “Resilience as embedded neoliberalism: a governmentality approach.” Resilience. Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 38-52. Nadasdy, P. 2007. “Adaptive Co-Management and the Gospel of Resilience.” In Adaptive Co-Management: Collaboration, Learning, and Multi-Level Governance, eds. Berkes, F., Armitage, D.R., and N. Doubleday. Vancouver: UBC Press, pp. 208-27.

[10] Ogden, L., Heynen, N., Oslender, U., West, P., Kassam, K., and P. Robbins. 2013. “Global assemblages, resilience, and Earth Stewardship in the Anthropocene.” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. Vol. 11, No. 7, p. 345.

2 thoughts on “Cosmopolitanism in the Anthropocene

  1. Thanks for a really insightful post, Noah! Your articulation of the risks of Anthropocene narratives is extremely useful, and should help make discussion of these matters much clearer.

    Let me respond (quickly) with two points. First, if you don’t mind my suggesting another dimension to Risk 4–a further danger of derailing collective action. This is a general issue with cosmopolitanism: it may not have as much motivational power as more localized appeals to narrower communities. Collective action can be facilitated by a sense of shared identity–and, arguably, a local community can provide a stronger sense of identity than humanity as a whole (the former is thick, the latter is thin, to appeal–as I’ve done before–to Michael Walzer). This seems to me to be one of the deepest challenges of the Anthropocene: it indeed calls for a globalized politics, yet the sources of robust politics seem localized. This problem is not unique to environmental concerns, of course, and it has been overcome (at least substantially) in certain cases. But it is a challenge that must be reckoned with.

    Second, I couldn’t agree more with your point regarding Risk 3, the danger of losing sight of considerations of justice. Here let me just say something bout the “specifications” I have in mind for the “habitability approach” that is one of the themes of this blog. When I think of what habitability means for human beings (and I am focused for now on human belongs), I understand that in essentially social terms–i.e. human beings inhabit the places they do in social groups. Now the normative element in the (human) habitability idea is based on ideas of a good human life–and I am convinced that it is impossible to dissociate the ideal of a good individual life from ideas about a just social order.1 Obviously that blunt claim must be spelled out (to explain why, for example, a good private life in a bad society is not sufficient for a fully good human life). I state this now just to say that I will take your clear statement of Risk 3 to heart in my own efforts working on the habitability approach.

    1. I should add that a just society is both itself ordered justly, and also relates to other societies justly. 
    • Thanks, Zev, for your comments. Your first point is very well taken. To me it seems self-evident that building a broad, transnational movement is the only way we’ll ever get world powers to take meaningful, cooperative, equitable action on global environmental problems like climate change. But there are many factors pushing in the opposite direction, including localized identification as you note.

      To connect this matter to that of justice (your second point), I wonder whether stressing accountability and justice may have tradeoffs when it comes to building solidarity across national or class boundaries. For example, some Americans and Europeans might feel threatened by the prospect of being held accountable for climate change. When I asked my students about whether the US should pay climate reparations, most did not respond favorably. Along with localized identities, differential accountability may complicate efforts to motivate collective action.

      Finally, to connect the above to your point about individual lives and just social order, this seems like an especially crucial matter to emphasize if we’re trying to motivate people in the US and Europe to ally with transnational movements. So much of the activism we end up engaging in ends up promoting our own wellbeing (and assuaging our guilt) while leaving the overall system basically intact. So reminding people that it’s not possible to lead a just life in an unjust system seems like it could help to overcome the challenge I mentioned in my second paragraph above.

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