The Anthropocene Idea: Janus-Faced and Interdisciplinary

We welcome to the blog John Meyer, of Humboldt State University, for the next in our series on Environmental Political Theory.

I’m very pleased to contribute to this collection of posts about the challenge of the Anthropocene for environmental political theory (and vice versa). I want to reflect upon two widely espoused and relevant premises of the Anthropocene idea. First, from the start, many of those advancing the idea have encouraged interdisciplinarity, arguing for a type of knowledge that could not be generated by the natural sciences alone. Second, the Anthropocene idea is inherently Janus-faced: on the one hand, it highlights a human power so great as to transform not just landscapes and ecosystems but the Earth system itself, while on the other hand, it draws equal attention to the inherent limits of intentional human action, given our embeddedness in planetary processes far beyond human control.

These premises are echoed by major research initiatives such as Future Earth. While some who discuss the Anthropocene neglect one or the other premise, I take them both to be pretty firmly established, yet suggest that the consequences of taking them seriously are more challenging and profound than is often acknowledged. There are many other important claims made for, against, and about the Anthropocene, but for my focus at the moment, only these two seem required.


Beginning with the second premise, what does research that embraces this Janus-faced character look like? Clearly, it must take seriously both the nature of planetary processes and the workings of power and privilege within human communities. The latter requires that we attend to cultural, social, and political ideas and institutions. And this returns us to the first premise of the Anthropocene idea: we can think of this as broadly interdisciplinary research in the sense that it requires meaningful collaboration between those steeped in very different ways of knowing — something like what C.P. Snow long ago described as the “two cultures” of academic life. Much – perhaps most – interdisciplinary work is of a less far-reaching sort. This broad collaboration can neither privilege the frames developed in the physical sciences only to add in the “human dimensions” of environmental change later, nor can it discount the significance of insights from the physical sciences. It must allow for dialogue and collaboration across these boundaries — from the start — about the very character and definition of the problem. Putting this into practice is far easier said than done.

One reason that broadly interdisciplinary collaboration is so hard to achieve is that – a bit ironically – it entails a high degree of disciplinary self-awareness and reflexivity in order to pursue. Let’s approach this challenge first by considering existing initiatives to promote collaboration on planetary futures. Here is how the most prominent of them — Future Earth — describes itself:

Future Earth is a major international research platform providing the knowledge and support to accelerate transformations to a sustainable world. [It is an] initiative to advance Global Sustainability Science… and provide an international research agenda to guide natural and social scientists working around the world. But it is also a platform for international engagement to ensure that knowledge is generated in partnership with society and users of science.

Future Earth, “sustainability science,” and related projects have been dominated by a particular configuration of physical scientists, economists, behavioral psychologists, empirically-oriented governance scholars, and others in business and management fields. Clearly, this is — prima facie — interdisciplinary. Yet Noel Castree, Eva Lövbrand, and others in the social sciences and humanities have argued that despite the proclaimed inclusiveness of such projects, this configuration of fields privileges particular ways of knowing that are dominant in the natural sciences as the only meaningful sort of finding. It also often implicitly accepts a “linear model” of science advice and a set of top-down, managerialist assumptions about how policy can — and ought to be — formulated and implemented. Historians Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz detail these assumptions in their excellent new book.

In contrast to this approach stands another formation of scholars in the humanities and interpretive social sciences, including historians, cultural geographers and anthropologists, political ecologists, philosophers, science and technology studies scholars, literary and cultural critics, and political theorists. A clunky but useful acronym recently formulated for this is “ESSH”: environmental social sciences and humanities. This grouping, too, is clearly interdisciplinary. Findings among these scholars are more likely to be qualitative than quantitative, to focus on exposing underlying assumptions or premises, and to highlight the role of values, power and privilege, and framing in claims made about how to act in the Anthropocene.

When C.P. Snow wrote more than half a century ago of the “two cultures,” he was explicitly contrasting the physical sciences and the literary humanities. But as the above lists make clear, the cultural divide is no longer so simple (if it ever was); the social sciences in particular are fragmented, with some disciplines and sub-disciplines to be found on either side.


By now we can see clearly that a commitment to interdisciplinarity (or transdisciplinarity; I’m using the terms ecumenically here) can remain consistent with — and even reinforce — a deep “cultural” divide among Anthropocene scholars. Let’s call this “limited” interdisciplinarity. Such work can be valuable and important. It may present opportunities to pursue really deep forms of collaboration, since scholars share underlying epistemologies. But the broadly interdisciplinary work that I call for at the outset of this post requires us to transcend this sort of interdisciplinarity at least some of the time. My aim, to this point, has been to make a case for both the necessity and the difficulty of doing so.

It is a truism that broadly interdisciplinary work can only succeed if there is openness and change on both sides of the divide. Given my own position as a political theorist and ESSH scholar, however, I wish to resist the temptation to criticize others and instead focus the remainder of my comments upon my own field. Here I will just tease out a few resources that might allow political theorists to contribute to broadly interdisciplinary work on/in the Anthropocene.


Noel Castree concludes that most humanist writings on the Anthropocene play two time-honored roles that he labels “inventor-discloser” and “deconstructor-critic.” These roles are shaped by comfortable or habitual practices including the publications we read, the conferences we attend, and the intellectual conversations in which we engage. Yet he concludes that “despite their importance… as currently performed these roles hold environmental humanists at a distance from those geoscientists currently trying to popularise the Anthropocene proposition and a set of related grand ideas (like ‘planetary boundaries’).” He calls for more investment in the role of an “engaged analyst.”

I’ll end by briefly sketching three areas in which environmental political theorists may be particularly well situated to act as engaged analysts.

  1. Bridging the academic “two cultures” divide

The training and professional location of most environmental political theorists (in the discipline of political science) means that for better and worse, we are confronted with these differences on a regular basis. Competing conceptions of rationality, debates about the place of quantitative versus qualitative research, and the question of what counts as a finding are all familiar to scholars in political science to a degree that seems uncommon in many other disciplines. While disagreements and divisions can run deep, this familiarity might also position us to communicate across the divide better than many others.

2. Offer broader insight into politics

One of the more widely used frameworks by ESSH scholars for critiquing the managerialist and technocratic presumptions of climate change and Anthropocene research is to follow geographer Erik Swyngedouw and frame it as a “post-political” discourse. This should encourage us to carefully consider both what counts as politics and “the political” and temporal questions of whether or in what ways we might now find ourselves in an era that is “post” politics.

While environmental political theorists offer no singular answer to these questions, they are subjects about which many have devoted careful attention. I would argue that the perception that we are in an age beyond politics is not a new phenomenon but a recurring one; by contrast it is the eruption of spaces for politics in this sense that seems fleeting – “fugitive” in Sheldon Wolin’s later writing – rather than a long-standing norm. Political theorists are well-positioned to correct this nostalgic reading, which I believe can lead to a misdiagnosis of our contemporary condition.

The phenomenon seems better described as a consequence of the mainstreaming or cooptation of environmental concerns by elites who assume that they must be addressed with the economic, technocratic, and administrative tools presently at hand. This assumption can often be seen in work on “sustainability science.” To challenge the adequacy or inexorability of such supposed “solutions” necessarily results in their politicization and can open up space for consideration of alternative strategies.

3. Open up conceptual space

While environmental political theorists have much to contribute when the conversation turns to opening up political space in the sense outlined above, I would argue that the raison d’etre of political theory is to open up conceptual space.

Other scholars often take concepts including justice, freedom, democracy, or sustainability for granted, acting as though they possess – or at least should possess – a single correct meaning. We can see this when they assert that sustainability’s meaning has been lost – as, for example, when David Owen laments that it is now “one of the least meaningful and most overused words in the English language.”

But this desire for univocal meaning seems misconceived. Political theorists can encourage others to see ways that essentially contested concepts don’t reflect a failure of words, but an underlying struggle over meaning and value. Recognizing this struggle as inherently political is a powerful argument against those who ignore or seek to evade it. Those who fail to grasp the implications of this set themselves up for recurring disappointment.

If my brief sketches have merit, they will serve to open reflection about these and encourage readers to envision other roles for political theorists to play in the Anthropocene. I welcome this and look forward to continuing the conversation.


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