The fundamental ethical adaptation: anthroponomy

We welcome to the blog Jeremy Bendik-Keymer, of Case Western Reserve University, for the next in our series on Environmental Political Theory.

I’m one of those people who doesn’t like the term “environmentalism.” I think every human should take care of her home, want to be mindful of other forms of life on Earth, and should conserve the fabric of life as we’ve inherited it for future generations. This all flows from being a decent human being.[1]

I also don’t like the term “Anthropocene.” I think it’s being used inaccurately before we have a strong geological consensus on where we are and imports scientific authority into places where that authority is not actually behind the claims being made. It also pins a problem on all of humankind when that problem really belongs to specific social processes-–like horribly regulated capitalism or the modernist project of industrial production that was also found in state communism.

All the same, we are now aware that planetary processes are shifting on a planetary scale-–spatially and temporally. The biochemistry of the atmosphere has changed enough that the planetary climate is shifting, and the extensiveness of habitat destruction and use is such-–combined with the shifting chemistry of the atmosphere and the oceans–that life forms are going extinct left and right around us. We don’t know-–actually, we can’t know until it is too late–whether we are in period of mass extinction, but there is a legitimate fear that we might be sliding into one and risking extinction cascades that will change the rules of life irreversibly and risk our own extinction.[2]

This socially caused physical event unfolding around us demands fundamental change in our form of life. Irreversible and extreme effects are in the offing as a result of the social processes of many nations that permit, among other things, extremely powerful transnational actors to influence and shape the political economies of nations as well as the dominant infrastructural, settlement, and energy forms of the world. It is reasonable to believe that the world would be very different if it reflected the actual preferences of people. We the people might accept some of the effects being caused on a planetary scale, on reflection, collectively, but at present neither reflection nor collectivity characterize the social processes in which the problematic patterns are embedded. Things are being brought about that bear on the future of humans and other forms of life about which the majority of human beings and all other forms of life have no choice. This abominable situation demands that we increase the true democracy of the world.

Now, Allen Thompson and I have called for “ethical adaptation” regarding planetary-scaled environmental changes. We do not mean simply ethically using the infrastructure and economic tools so common to the IPCC discussions on adaptation. Instead, we mean adapting our ethics themselves, changing who we are, what we are about, and how we think we ought to live together going forward.[3] We focused on virtues with some nods to the civic space needing to be filled with thought about political virtue and institutional reorganization to enable a decent form of life. But we did not squarely address the much needed scope and form of collective democracy called for by socially-caused, planetary-scaled, environmental change. This is what I am doing now. I am calling for civic adaptation by marking out the big picture frame for such a needed change to our ethical form.

I don’t like it, but I have found the need to use one big and ugly word to orient me in the massive democratic deficit that characterizes our planetary situation. This word is anthroponomy. Anthroponomy is the collective self-regulation of humankind as a whole.[4] About the only thing that has become clear to me in the big picture of how we ought to change our lives is that our lives ought to-–actually, must–become “anthroponomic,” i.e., oriented by anthroponomy in our civic identities. Otherwise, we risk allowing powerful interests to continue the unjust inertia of our existing social orders, dominating the powerless-–especially in the future–and rushing to extinction the order of life we have inherited, all without our say in the matter.

The paths that lead to anthroponomy are simple. On the one hand, all human beings, not just some of them, should have a say in how the social processes that speak for them go. And we all should have a say in how we affect the world of life and future generations. To leave our societies up to a select few is oligarchic, and to let those few decide the fate of life on Earth for the future is oppressive of the rest of us. Humankind as such did not cause the planetary change we are in–pace the discourse of the “Anthropocene”–but humankind as such had better decide what we do going forward. If we don’t situate decision-making with humankind as such, we will be treating some of our brothers, sisters and agendered partners as less than human. This is the path of equal dignity.

On the other hand, the situation that characterizes the mess we are in is shocking and simple. In planetary-scaled, environmental change, we largely witness an aggregation of effects that undermine the commitments and values most human beings hold. Human cultures widely are concerned with future generations, just as families typically are. What is more, the major religions of the world-–to take just one indication–all espouse some form of reverence of life beyond the human. Attention to early childhood development shows that connection with the world of non-human life is basic to childhood as well. There is a colossal disconnect between the apparent commitments and values of most people on the planet and the actual effects of the dominant social processes of the planet.

Take climate change. Its acceleration is largely the result of unintended, indirect, incremental effects at a small scale that add up to a shifting planetary climate. We are locked into these effects by way of agency capture of our economy by powerful transnational actors that intend on profiting from the energy use that causes the unwanted effects.[5] So we have a situation where we are collectively producing effects that we didn’t intend and which are truly questionable on the whole–and we are locked into them by an oligarchic deficit of democratic equality. Our societies are thus wanton to themselves, producing effects that undermine the commitments of the many. This suggests the path of collective integrity: our societies should reflect our commitments, not distort or undermine them.

Equal dignity and collective integrity both lead straight to anthroponomy. Anthroponomy thus has basic and powerful moral rationale behind it. I think our discourse around planetary environmental change ought to reflect this moral reality. After all, there is nothing more authoritative than the moral.  But our discourse of the “Anthropocene” is not clearly moral in the way that it should be, and it is also not political enough.

In saying all this, I in no way wish to offend the many, many passionate voices who have organized their concern with the present social orders of our world by pointing to the possibility of a geological shift created by those social orders. The discourse of the “Anthropocene” has managed to focus people’s attention on the power of the effects being generated by the dominant social processes of our world. It has underlined the irreversibility of the effects, too, which translates into their potential to dominate all those who have to bear them, human and non-human alike (even more non-human than human). Talking about the “Anthropocene” has also gotten many humanists out of their gyres of language and identity to think about ecology and geology. This wonderful website is a case in point on all these accounts: a site where the term “Anthropocene” can organize far-reaching, critical and much needed interdisciplinary discussion of socially-caused, planetary-scaled, environmental change.

Nonetheless, I respectfully submit that the term “Anthropocene”-–besides being scientifically questionable and suspiciously hasty–is not political enough. What we are now in, globally, is not simply a physical world which we are at risk of suffering; we are in a social order that is producing domination and wantonness affecting all of humankind and our inherited order of life. This is the situation, a social situation, and we should focus all our attention on the real causes of it-–not “the human,” but oligarchy and social disconnection produced by vested interests that do not want all people to have a say. Respectfully, I propose that we shift the discourse of the “Anthropocene”-–already so questionable- to focus instead on the task of anthroponomy.

I will say more about this suggestion later this summer.

The ideas in this post can be explored further at:


[1]   See my (2006) The Ecological Life: Discovering Citizenship and a Sense of Humanity (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield)

[2] See my and Chris Haufe’s (2016) “Anthropogenic mass extinction: the science, the ethics, and the civics” in Gardiner and Thompson’s, The Oxford Handbook of Environmental Ethics, online at: (May 31, 2016).

[3] See our (2006) Ethical Adaptation to Climate Change: Human Virtues of the Future (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).

[4] John Levy Barnard suggested to me that “anthroponomy” might simply imply “economy” as Thoreau understood it-–living well within our common household. I like the suggestion, but the fact remains that the scalar issue is the big one: we need this common household to include humankind as such-–and almost certainly representation of other forms of life as extensions of our human commitment to respect life.

[5] And, as John Levy Barnard points out, by agribusiness and the meat industry that exhaust habitats and species in production of monocultures and-–land and sea–meat (a different kind of energy consumption, industrial all the same).

9 thoughts on “The fundamental ethical adaptation: anthroponomy

  1. Thanks for this really through-provoking post, Jeremy—and welcome to the blog!

    I’m eager to hear more about anthroponomy in your next post, and maybe you have in mind to address these questions then. First—I wonder how you see anthroponomy in relation to traditional cosmopolitanism? It strikes me that there’s at least a prima facie connection between the ideas—insofar as both refer to a moral community of humankind as a whole. The issue of cosmopolitanism has come up on the blog before—e.g. in this post by Noah Theriault.

    Second—I completely take your point that some advocates of the Anthropocene idea have glossed over the question of “who is the Anthropos of the Anthropocene?” That is, that discussion has been hampered by insufficient recognition of differential responsibility for and vulnerability to phenomena associated with the Anthropocene. This has also been a topic on the blog—see these posts, for example. However, I wonder whether this problem with any putative Anthropos might also affect anthroponomy. In brief—can’t we ask who is the Anthropos of anthroponomy?

    I think we can cash out this concern as follows. The complaint with respect to the Anthropocene is that thinking of a single agent, humanity, ignores the actual material relations among different groups—the external effects of production and consumption processes, of course, but also, as you indicated, their different roles in decision-making institutions. I completely agree that we should think in these material, institutional terms. But that raises the question, through what institution(s) would all of humankind exercise anthroponomy? (Again, this is a question relevant to cosmopolitanism.) And wouldn’t all the structural inequities that make the conception of a unified Anthropos problematic for the Anthropocene bedevil the institutions aimed at supporting anthroponomy? (To put this in more technical political theory terms, I guess I’m asking whether your account of anthroponomy is a matter of ideal theory, or if you have a non-ideal theoretical account in mind.)

    Finally—I should mention that my questions are based on my understanding of Andrew Dobson’s book Citizenship and the Environment (Oxford, 2004), which deals with cosmopolitanism in the environmental context.

  2. Thanks Jeremy for the interesting thoughts on the Anthropocene, and I whole-heartedly agree that far too much of the Anthropocene discourse today falls flat when it comes to a critical analysis of politics. However I don’t see how switching to yet another new term like “anthroponomy” avoids this same pitfall. If anything, it seems like it just takes us even further into the realm of esoteric jargon and away from real political discussions, and as Zev noted above, still has the problem of answering who the “anthropos” is in the mix.

    I must admit, as someone finishing a dissertation on the Anthropocene, that I share your concern for how to grab onto this issue in a way that has enough interest that it can move the public, but also doesn’t require a heavy dose of bad science to get us there. The approach I have taken, and the one I would also encourage you to consider, is not to abandon the Anthropocene, but to work on redefining it. If I had to list my biggest gripe with most Anthropocene skeptics, it’s that they say something like “it’s not political enough” and then abandon it as a lost project. I always find myself yelling No! and pounding the desk.

    We need to redefine the terms of the Anthropocene, not abandon it as a conceptual frame. The term is here for good, whether we like it or not, so why not accept this and orient our projects towards a critical analysis and appraisal. After all, the Anthropocene is whatever we make of it–not what Andrew Revkin or the Breakthrough Institute or the “good Anthropocene” pundits tell us it is. If we are serious about the Anthropocene having a critical political analysis, then the task before us is precisely that–to make the Anthropocene a truly useful political concept.

  3. I would like to follow Zev’s point about power relations and anthroponomy. It seems to me that, despite being a very attractive concept that brings forward a key point, i.e. the centrality of individual ethical life to socionatural relations, it might be difficult to translate it into meaningful political and institutional practices. However, it could also be the case that the value of this idea is not political, or it is political only in a narrow sense: in the sense that every individual enlightening can be political when many different personal enlightenments are aggregrated. Because what the post says, or points to, is that we should realize, as human beings, that we make a difference in the world with our everyday actions and practices, whether material or symbolic -and that the Anthropocene itself is at the end of the day but the outcome of a huge number of such individual trajectories. In other words, it is a call to awareness. The hidden premise is that once enough number of individual citizens have realized their own agency and its relation with the state of the environment, collective virtue will prevail. And I agree that awareness is essential, yet am not so sure that is enough or can be presented in this simple way. Because there are power relations, personal interests, different worldviews. We all want to have a sustainable relationship with the environment, since otherwise we go extinct -but beyond this basic core of agreement it is not so easy to build a meaningful consensus. Still, the concept can be useful as an ethical tool and I look forward to further theoretical developments.

  4. Thanks so much for your comments, folks. I will be minimal in reply currently as I want to leave room for others to raise criticisms and connections and will additionally be able to let things sink in for my follow up post later this summer. Thanks again, Zev, for putting this all together. Also, good to meet you, Chris.

    Perhaps it would help to say that I think regulative ideals are important in ethics. Anthroponomy is a regulative ideal. We could never to sure that we had arrived at it, because human plurality is a fact. Here I follow not even Rawls, but Larmore even more. It is human to disagree, and non-identity is part of human reality. So whatever ideal anthroponomy is, it is regulative.

    But this is not mere ideal theory. It is actually critical theory. If we lose the regulative, ideal capacity of anthroponomy, we lose critical distance -its capacity to introduce -or rather point to- non-identity in a social order and show, e.g., that it is oligarchic. Far from the ideal being a problem, I would argue that it is necessary for critique. And as a liberal of sorts, I bristle at anything that wants to close down the possibility of critique. Besides, my ontology suggests it would be deeply inaccurate to do so anyway (as it would suppress plurality).

    As to cosmopolitanism, I do think there is a difference, although I appreciate the opportunity to make it. Cosmopolitanism does not speak directly to the question of collective regulation or collective life. It speaks to a scalar dimension — the world — but does not speak to the self-reflective problem of a world in which the effects of our actions are acceptable to ourselves, or, more precisely, where we do not offload the effects of our actions on others who have no say in the matter and would not want to suffer the effects of our actions, for very good reasons. Cosmopolitanism works toward a breadth scale of equal dignity, but says nothing about the integrity question I mentioned, which is the self-reflexive one. That is why I used two paths, not one. What makes anthroponomy different than cosmopolitanism is the question of collective integrity.

    The reason it seems to me that the concept is needed is simple. Humankind –the anthropos– must have a say in its own fate when what we do affects all of us. So unlike the inaccurate discourse of the Anthropocene, where humankind as a whole did not create the situation illicitly pinned on it, the discourse of anthroponomy must have it subject be humankind as a whole. The category is analytically correct and in that way accurate. I would also say, unavoidable.

    If you join this point with the point about the regulative ideal needed for critique, then even if the discourse of anthroponomy is frustrating because it is vague, it is nonetheless needed. And so the pressure works the opposite way — not to dismiss it– but to begin filling it in. Also, rather than focusing on indivisuals, I would argue the central concept of anthroponomy is the collective, specifically, the question of nested, related, and interlocked collectives that make up multi-scalar governance. More on this later.

    Thank you all again for your comments.

  5. Thanks Jeremy for your interesting post. For me, in a first view, your approach seems like an abstract applied ethics for the general goal to save the world. But this interpretation is deceptive! With a deeper look to the idea of anthroponomy it seems to be clear that Jeremy develops a political concept of human action which is able to formulate an answer to the problems of environmental destructions. The effort of this approach is the critique of the anti-humanistic essence of the discussion about the Anthropocene and the offer of a more humanistic understanding. However, the exercise of the anthroponomy is the challenge, that, here I follow the reply of Manuel, everybody human within its everyday practices accept the limits of the planetary resources. But under which conditions every human would think and act within a framework, which is, like the planetary (or the humanity), so far away? Jeremy offers, therefore, a connection of the person and the planetary through a sense of common humanity – and this is a political connection! My comment about the anthroponomy supports this idea but it makes a suggestion to connect it with the discussion of the Anthropocene: It is likeable that the concept of anthroponomy not follows the strategy of the ideal theory. But I think that anthroponomy as a “regulative ideal” deals with a very optimistic version of politics. This optimistic account of politics imagines that political tasks will be solved through cooperation and, therefore, it needs a collective, what Jeremy also points out in his reply. I think that this collective could be assumed as a kind of a multitude (Spinoza) because it is not a kind of a society or a community. The missing social framework prevents these social (political) units on a global scale. So, what could be the reasons for this multitude when the idea of humanity is not really a practical part of the simple life? Under the conditions of a non-ideal theory the idea of the collective like the concept of multitude needs another reason respectively another foundation but not an abstract setting. And here, in my opinion, the Anthropocene could act as a productive approach. The identity of the multitude depends on a shared awareness of environmental problems. And the debate about the Anthropocene (I know, that the debate about the Anthropocene is not equal and democratic) presents a shift in this awareness and, therefore, promotes the development of a new collective identity which is the anthroponomy (on the level of human action).

  6. Thank you, Jörn! & hello from Cleveland. Perhaps that is right: the basis of common civic responsibility could be the thing we share by virtue of the situation we are in: this planet, an age of socially-caused, planetary-scaled, environmental change. One reason I like your suggestion is that it seems more correct to say that we intraact in the planetary situation, rather than that we simply interact on the basis of common humanity. I will think about it. Wishing you the best. Sincerely, Jeremy

    • I too like that “interact in the planetary situation” idea . . . I mentioned Dobson previously; he makes something like this point with respect to the “environmental footprint” idea, which he takes to be a way of articulating the material interactions that link people across the globe, e.g. through far-flung supply chains, or the transport of waste products.

      • Thanks, Zev. I hope to take a look at ecological citizenship again for the next post.

      • Zev, I just want to note that I didn’t make it to ecological citizenship because decolonialism struck me as an obvious obstacle to thinking ecologically about geography. But I appreciate your and Jörn’s comments pointing to intra-action in Earth’s systems. I need to think about it. Thanks again.

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