The Holocene epoch of the last 10,000 years or so is defined by highly unusual stability in the Earth system. In particular, the climate system shows little variability compared to the preceding late Pleistocene. The Holocene is now giving way to the Anthropocene, in which human influences introduce instability in the Earth system of a degree unprecedented in human history – but common in geological time. The consequences for all political institutions, not just those parts of government normally classified as environmental, are profound.
This unusually stable Earth system of the Holocene epoch of the past 10,000 years, in which human civilization arose, is yielding to a more dynamic and unstable Anthropocene driven by human practices. The consequences for key institutions such as states, markets, and global governance, are profound. Path dependency in institutions complicit in destabilizing the Earth system constrains response to this emerging epoch. Institutional analysis can highlight reflexivity as the antidote to problematic path dependency. A more ecological discourse stresses resilience, foresight and state shifts in the Earth system. Ecosystemic reflexivity can be located as the first virtue of political institutions in the Anthropocene. Undermining all normative institutional models, this analysis enables re-thinking of political institutions in dynamic social-ecological terms.
The domains variening from the nitrogen and carbon cycles to ocean acidification, urbanization, and climate change, energy and material use etc– might at first appear vastly different. Yet there are also significant similarities. Importantly, all domains exhibit key manifestations of the changed role of humankind in the planetary system, as it is captured in the notion of the Anthropocene. Each displays different dimensions, but all are inevitably entangled in the complexities of the Anthropocene. Moreover, analysis manifests the global links through numerous interdependencies and teleconnections. The interdependencies, inequalities and disparities that are uncovered in exploring the domains have important consequences for the governance challenge of the Anthropocene and the underlying need for fundamental changes in social values and development pathways.
Physical non-linear systems, societal complexity, co-evolution of socio-epistemic formations, intricate feedback loops between the material and the mental, econophysics, city planning, ……. Complexity is, without a doubt, a more than appropriate term for the Anthropocene. The interconnection of entities, places, agencies, and times is a strong conviction across the disciplinary board when it comes to the world today. Thus, it has become difficult to imagine a system that is, indeed, non-complex. Problems tend to become ever more wicked, solutions ever more tentative and short-lived. There seems to be a general limit not only to understanding but also to the forms of representation itself.
Understanding the impact of the Anthropocene is understanding the Earth System as being influenced by biogeophysical feedbacks within the system that can maintain it in a given state (negative feedbacks) and those that can amplify a perturbation and drive a transition to a different state (positive feedbacks). Some of the key negative feedbacks that could maintain the Earth System in Holocene-like conditions— notably, carbon uptake by land and ocean systems—are weakening relative to human forcing, increasing the risk that positive feedbacks could play an important role in determining the Earth System’s trajectory. Most of the feedbacks can show both continuous responses and tipping point behavior in which the feedback process becomes self-perpetuating after a critical threshold is crossed; subsystems exhibiting this behavior are often called tipping elements. The type of behavior—continuous response or tipping point/abrupt change—can depend on the magnitude or the rate of forcing, or both. Many feedbacks will show some gradual change before the tipping point is reached.
Human feedbacks in the Earth System are an external force driving change to the Earth System in a largely linear, deterministic way; the higher the forcing in terms of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, the higher the global average temperature. However, analysis argue that human societies and our activities need to be recast as an integral, interacting component of a complex, adaptive Earth System. This framing puts the focus not only on human system dynamics that reduce greenhouse gas emissions but also, on those that create or enhance negative feedbacks that reduce the risk that the Earth System will cross a planetary threshold and lock into a -as example Hothouse Earth pathway.
The Anthropocene holds out the potential to transcend the silently assumed dualism which haunts much of environmental thought; clearly demonstrating that Humanity is imbedded within, entwined with, and vulnerable to nature. Arguing that as Humanity is undoubtedly contained within and impacting nature through its activities and as nature can be seen to be responding reciprocally to those human activities, that both Humanity and Nature must be understood as existing as a singular interconnected system.
At its core, the Anthropocene commits the practice and understanding of human ethics to the unprecedented proportions and dynamics of the epoch. The entire physical scale of the planet—from the individual to the global—is compressed down to questions of conscience, responsibility, and empathy. This ethical reorientation extends not only for and towards one’s immediate neighbor, including the next proximity along the scale, but also to the very remote human, or non-human, entity. Modernity seems to have interrupted long-held principles of spatiotemporal ethics, defined by an integral continuity between past and future generations, as well as a clear positioning within an immediate environment.
Recognition of the Anthropocene connotes a powerful challenge to human institutions, as the non-human world becomes impossible to ignore as a central player in human history. This challenge merits more than response from environmental governance conceived as a niche area to be consigned to a government department or an academic sub-discipline, or even the ‘mainstreaming’ of ecological concerns into all areas of government. By confirming the causal force of human social processes in driving the character of the Earth system, whose instability in turn becomes a larger force, the Anthropocene forces a re-think of social-ecological systems and the place of political institutions therein (along with deep commitments about what constitutes rationality in these institutions and beyond). The depth, novelty, dynamism, and complexity of the challenge call to the ecosystemic dimension of reflexivity effectively understanding the active Earth system, the capacity to reconsider core values such as justice in this light, and ability to seek, receive, and respond to potential ecological state shifts. This framework can be applied in institutional analysis, evaluation, and design in a way that is true to the dynamic nature of the Anthropocene, and so avoids the temptation to think in terms of static institutional models. Taking the Anthropocene seriously suggests an evolving institutionalism joining inquiry and practice, in the face of existing dominant institutions that fall so far short of the requirements of this emerging epoch.