A moral cartography for the Anthropocene

We welcome Manuel Arias Maldonado, of the University of Malága, as a guest on the blog . . . click for his bio, or go to the “Who we are” tab. This post summarizes an argument in his recent book Environment & Society: Socionatural Relations in the Anthropocene (Springer, 2015).

If the Anthropocene were just a scientific category dealing with natural phenomena, we would not feel so concerned about it. But, as Mike Ellis and Zev Trachtenberg have rightly argued, the Anthropocene is not a scientific concept with a detachable moral significance, but a concept that has moral content at its core.[1] Human actions have produced the Anthropocene, which is thus the result of individual and social choices. And although we have no choice but to live in an Anthropocene, the choices we make now will have some influence on the shape of the future. To some extent, we can choose which Anthropocene it is going to be. Such is the subject of this post, which tries to offer a cartography of the moral pathways we can follow when trying to react to this complex challenge.

Admittedly, there is nothing new in claiming that human beings are responsible for the damage they have inflicted on natural systems, yet their recognition as major forces of nature with the Anthropocene produces a shift in the conversation. Hence the widespread idea that human beings must become effective stewards of the Earth system. Human exceptionalism, then, can reinforce human responsibility. The question is, in turn, what exactly does it mean that we should become planetary stewards, and how exactly should we behave as such. After all, moral questions inmediately become political questions: recognizing human responsibilities vis-à-vis the Anthropocene is one thing, determining how to react to it is another. The possible answers are many and this ambivalence is inherent to the story that the Anthropocene tells. As Clark has suggested, the Anthropocene “is as much about the decentering of humankind as it is about our rising geological significance.”[2] In other words, it does not manifest a clear moral lesson.

In this post, I would like to present four moral positions that may define the way human beings react to the challenges posed by the Anthropocene. They are ideal types in the Weberian sense–intellectual constructions that synthetize real phenomena and/or discourses, thus helping us to understand social and political reality vis-à-vis ecological futures.

  1. Frugality. Human societies are on a dangerous path of unsustainability and ecological destruction, and therefore a complete value change is needed: human beings must step back, abandon the capitalistic mode of production, and build up a different, more harmonious socionatural relationship. The Anthropocene is understood as a fragile equilibrium that will not last. This is the traditional view of classical environmentalism: a thoroughly moralized vision of the Anthropocene as the antithesis of a sustainable society that radically departs from the current social model and involves the strong protection of the remaining natural world. As John Barry argues, a transition towards a post-growth sustainable society must be guided by the idea that an economy aimed at producing enough goods and services (instead of maximizing production and consumption) is one in which a new kind of well-being flourishes.[3] Principles such as resilience or sufficiency become the guide for a frugal, non-capitalistic Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is just seen as further proof that the classical green vision needs to be put into practice.
  2. Restraint. Human societies are endangering their own survival by going too far in the exploitation of natural resources, overloading the global environment beyond its carrying capacity and thus threatening their ability to perform the functions and provide the services that a sustainable Anthropocene demands. Echoing the “limits to growth” perspective, but seemingly less radical in its implications, this perspective signals a number of “planetary boundaries” that must not be trespassed.[4] It is a goal that can be achieved by various means which do not necessarily entail too radical a social change. As the Earth System approaches or exceeds thresholds that might precipitate a transition to some state outside its Holocene stability domain, society must consider ways to foster more flexible systems that contribute to the planet’s resilience. In this context, a new social contract on global sustainability should be agreed upon that translates into political and institutional action the idea of a human planetary stewardship.[5] The Anthropocene is thus seen as a new condition under which societies must operate cautiously.
  3. Enlightenment. Although the need for a rearrangement of socionatural relations is clear, the latter will not be effective unless it is linked to new social values that actually reconceptualize the human place in the world. Frugality is not enough to encourage radical action, as it is associated with a somber narrative of human limitations that has proven so far utterly ineffective. Instead, human exploration and enjoyment of new possibilities for defining the good life and engaging creatively with humanity’s socionatural entanglement should be emphasized. In this context, the Anthropocene is an opportunity to reframe the conversation on the good society, thus making it the driver for an Anthropogenic Enlightenment. Such is the meaning of the “ecological receptivity” advocated by David Schlosberg, involving a new human disposition towards the nonhuman world. A similar path is taken by Andreas Weber, who advocates an “erotic ecology” that reconnects human beings with nature. Yet, according to the German Advisory Council on Global Change, such global transformations cannot be grounded just on a “planetary boundaries” perspective, but rather need to be rooted in an “open frontiers” narrative that emphasizes the alternative ways of living the Anthropocene will entail (WBGU 2011: 84).[6] In this context, environmentalism might be seen as the enlightening agent that continues–and carries further–the task of modernity.
  4. Boldness. Despite indications that socionatural relations must to some extent be re-arranged, the anthropocenic condition suggests that there is no turning back on humanity’s deep socionatural entanglement. Human beings cannot reproduce the state of relative autonomy that nature enjoyed before the great anthropogenic acceleration: Holocene conditions are gone forever. Therefore, human beings must be bold and perfect their control of socionatural relations. This can only be done through scientific and technological means. A general premise for those who hold this position is the denial of natural limits or planetary boundaries as such. On this view the human enterprise has continued to expand beyond natural limits for millennia. As two well-known representatives of this perspective argue, an environmentalism that preaches the virtues of frugality and humility may be an obstacle to true modernization, as shrinking the human footprint does not look like a good strategy in a world where most of the people seek to live energy-rich, modern lives.[7] Hence a significant reorientation of social preferences is not seen as likely nor desirable. Rather new techniques and innovations must be fostered in order to make liberal society and the Anthropocene technically compatible. In other words, the recognition of the Anthropocene is thus taken mainly as an invitation to produce even more Anthropocene.

But where does–or should–environmentalism stand? Mainly, the Anthropocene impacts environmentalism in a twofold way: it forces it to accept some features of the socionatural relation that had been so far neglected or denied (mainly, nature’s deep entanglement with human beings and social systems), while providing the opportunity to give environmental values a leading place in the ensuing debate about the good Anthropocene. In this vein, an Anthropocene-friendly environmentalism should acknowledge that nature and society are not, nor have ever been and neither will be, separate entities.

Therefore, environmentalism should reframe itself as an active agent of ecological enlightenment, one that is able to recognize both the poorness of human behaviour towards other living beings and the richness that characterizes humanity as a whole (without denying that humans are dangerous to each other, as history has painfully taught). Up to now, the human colonization of nature has helped to provide social wealth. Now, it is time to refine the human control of nature, re-arranging the socionatural entanglement in a more reflective way. This will not ‘liberate’ nature, but it will protect surviving natural forms in the highly technological world that is rapidly being made. After all, environmentalism cannot escape the fact that biological nature, including human nature, is becoming to a great extent a matter of design, a transformation driven by a logic of recombination. But what kind of designs, what ends they serve, what subjectivities they nurture, and what lifestyles they support–these questions remain (at least partly) to be decided. It would be a shame if environmentalism does not participate meaningfully in these decisions.


[1] Mike Ellis, M. & Zev Trachtenberg, “Which Anthropocene is it to be? Beyond geology to a moral and public discourse“, Earth’s Future, 2013, 2(2), 122-125.

[2] Nigel Clark, “Geo-politics and the disaster of the Anthropocene“, The Sociological Review, 2014, 62(S1), 19-37, p. 25.

[3] John Barry, The Politics of Actually Existing Unsustainability, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012.

[4] Johann Röckstrom et al., “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity“, Nature, 2009, 461, 472-475. Click here for a previous discussion of this paper on this blog.

[5] Carl Folke, “Reconnecting to the Biosphere“, Ambio, 2011, 40(7), 719-738.

[6] WBGU [German Advisory Council on Global Change], World in Transition – A Social Contract for Sustainability, WBGU, Berlin, 2011.

[7] Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberg, “Introduction”, in M. Shellenberg and T. Nordhaus (eds.), Love Your Monsters. Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene (p. 5-7). The Breakthrough Institute, San Francisco, 2011.

One thought on “A moral cartography for the Anthropocene

  1. Pingback: A moral cartography for the Anthropocene | The Age of Transition Blog

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