The Anthropocene Transition is a cultural term that encompasses the ways in which changes in the planet’s bio-geo-chemical dynamics, triggered by the human-technology complex, interact with that complex. It spans the geo-political, economic, social, and even the personal. Look around. The symptoms are already everywhere apparent.
The list of traumas that haunt our present and near future are clear: economic stagnation, zero-hour and ‘bullshit’ jobs, the rise of the robots and the end of employment, mental ill-health, sexual violence, consumption addiction, resurgent extremism, climate collapse, population displacement, virulent pandemics, and a political system that, subordinate to the short-termism of the media, appears increasingly incapable of finding solutions to the deadlock.
It is increasingly clear that the hyper-separation of humans from nature that has taken place within modernity and the development of growth-based economies in industrially developed nations is responsible for the crisis. Moreover, the ‘great acceleration’ of GDP, population growth, consumption, deforestation, urbanization, water, and energy use that followed the 1950s has dramatically increased environmental crises, entailing irreversible loss of species and biodiversity, rising climatic instability and levels of pollution which put today human and non-human life under threat. We live, indeed, in an epoch characterized by a destabilized global climate, deforestation, the melting of glaciers and large ‘dead zones’ in coastal marine, unprecedented extinction rates of species, the tremendous presence of radionuclides, microplastic particles and aluminum in the core elements of matter, and the beginning of massive environmental migration due to environmental changes which compromise the well-being and secure livelihood of millions of people.
IS IT JUST ….
It is not just capitalism and its deployment of the thermodynamic machine that has unleashed the world-wide ecological destruction and climatic disruption that are the most obvious signals leading geologists and atmospheric scientists to propose that we have entered the geological epoch of the Anthropocene. The true cause of the problem of the present and future does not -just- reside in these thermodynamic machines and their carbon emissions as prime cause of the destruction of natural ecologies. Of course, we should diminish carbon emissions and think of cleaner, renewable energy sources and more eco-friendly technologies, but the root of the problem lies in the logic of capital and its persistent and all-too-successful strategies, over the last two centuries, for overcoming its own intrinsic limits.
Neoliberal competitive market-state systems have colonized all aspects of life, but mainly, they have subjugated nature and used it as an ‘unlimited’ spring of profit and resources intended to feed the logic of growth. The globalized neoliberal framework behaves as if nature would be a neutral background for profit-seeking economic development. In order to push back the ecological limits that are more and more visible, neoliberals argue that we can transcend such limits through decoupling and technological innovations. Constructivist neoliberal governments act as if the biosphere was a mere component of the socio-economic sphere. As an anti-ecological ideology, neoliberalism denies the existence of natural limits and promotes unlimited material wants vs. limited resources, a cult of endless consumption (consumerism), and techno-fixes (technooptimism) as the solution to social and ecological problems. The appropriation and commodification of nature undertaken by neoliberal economics and the freedom it enshrines – understood mainly as the legitimate exercise of extractive power – entails that nature is viewed only as an instrumental source of raw material and sinks of fossil fuels rather than as an ethically valuable physical, biological, and chemical context of life. Inevitably, this type of economics has supported an insatiable extraction that is today overwhelming ecosystemic capacities.
Rational optimists’ protest that wealth continues to rise; that humans are defined by our ability to adapt to anything; and that AI has brought us to the brink of unprecedented technological emancipation. But critics fear that we are caught in a spiral of terminal decline, the overwhelming scale of which is captured in the emergence of a new geological era whose suggested names include the Anthropocene.
The ‘Anthropocene’, or ‘Age of humans’ (Anthropos), is the Apex of the human domination over nature and human-induced ecological crisis, and that the decisions made in the name of this concept and the reality it embodies will decide on the future of human and non-human species. The first occurrence of human impact on the natural environment did not take place during the industrial revolution. Since the Neolithic for instance, humans have modified landscapes by agricultural practices and predation of animals. Nevertheless, the human imprint on the environment may have been discernible at local, regional, and even continental scales, but preindustrial humans did not have the technological or organizational capability to match or dominate the great forces of nature.
The Earth can be seen as a single Complex Adaptive System – an integrated whole, a nested system of systems, all dynamically interacting and continuously forming new structures and patterns of relationships that cannot be readily isolated or predicted with any certainty. It is a system that has evolved to its present state of emergent, life-sustaining complexity over 4.5 billion years — a number functionally incomprehensible to our human consciousness.
In this context the Anthropocene encapsulates a world of intertwined drivers, complex dynamic structures, emergent phenomena, and unintended consequences, manifest across different scales of analysis and subject to multiple and linked biophysical and social constraints. Yet while the concept Anthropocene reflects the nature, scale and magnitude of human impacts on the Earth, its societal significance lies in how it can be used to explore and guide attitudes, choices, decisions and actions that will reverberate far into the future.
THERE IS NO GOING BACK.
We must, as a species, learn to live with what we have created however discomforting this may be. This clash of our power to wrought planetary change with our inability to control what we have done is the great paradox of the Anthropocene.
What the Anthropocene further reveals is the constitutive dependency of human life on natural ecosystems of which they are a part. This situation does not demand more economic management of the planet, more intrusive technologies or more artificialization. It rather calls for a radical reinvention of our societies, a decentering of the humans within our metaphysical worldview, a withdrawal of the capitalist technosphere at the benefit of the biosphere. That is a new economic paradigm that replaces the unsustainable capitalist logic of growth by sustainable degrowth and/or steady economics. It also requires envisioning an institutional model which preserves and enhances democratic institutions and processes (procedural and critical democracy), fosters environmental justice, and, against the ‘superpower syndrome’ and dominant techno-optimistic Promethean views of liberal societies, acknowledges the biological and social embeddedness as central elements of human existence.
Today’s ecological reality is powerfully connected to other issues such as growing socio-economic inequalities, the erosion of democratic institutions, the organized apathy of citizens, the loss of power of nation-states in favor of corporations, the progressive disappearance of the notion of common good, and the economic colonization of the social, cultural and political life by economic objectives. The global ecological crisis reveals these interlinked disasters caused by all the core components of capitalism that include: an excessive exploitation of nature, the rise of industrialism, the self-destructive over-confidence in human-technical power, the arrogant anthropocentric mind-set and denial of limits, as well as the narrow rationalism and materialism that develop within a reductionist predominant form of science.
The change from capitalist neoliberal anthropocentric economics focused on material expansionism, consumerism, individualism, and competition to a post-capitalist, post-liberal and post-anthropocentric political economy will not be straightforward.
A CRISIS OF CULTURE
The Anthropocene is a concept that challenges many of our most deep-rooted taken-for-granted cultural assumptions. Throughout recorded history humanity has regarded the continuity of Nature as a given — the reliable if episodically capricious backdrop against which the glories and tragedies of the human story are enacted. Now that backdrop is shifting rather rapidly. In the face of increasingly radical discontinuity, we must achieve feats of rapid adaptation beyond anything in our evolutionary experience. This will be a challenge for many generations to come as a dawning historical period of indeterminate duration characterized by widespread and erratic disruption of human systems interacting with unpredictable changes in the Earth System. It will profoundly challenge humanity’s collective resilience and creativity in this period of transition and will take us over the generations to come towards a fundamental reframing of what it means to be human and of our relationship to life on Earth.
While often diagnosed as a failure of political will or leadership, this hiatus more likely reflects forms of governance that evolved in and for a fundamentally different world. Thus our institutions lack the capacity to deal with complex, long-term, planetary-scale processes. They are intrinsically maladapted for the Anthropocene. Again, there is the clash between human time embodied in the political process, and geological time that is shifting the very ground on which we stand.
The sustainability of Earth’s life-support systems is threatened by trespassing biophysical boundaries, and human agency is needed to manage the course of nature. Rethinking a symbiotic way of steering nature’s course, that grows with Earth’s biological wealth instead of depleting it.
The Anthropocene not only denotes the fact that the human has now become the most important geological force within the biosphere, but much more importantly, the insight that humans will have to become increasingly responsible itself for the maintenance of this biosphere as the very condition of its own survival. Besides naming a geological fact, the term Anthropocene designates nothing less than a call to humanity, a call with an unprecedented and unsurpassable ethical and political urgency that compels humans to assume the responsibility for the habitability of the Earth’s biosphere that they in fact already have.
The Anthropocene provides a radical new opportunity for such stewardship, because it overthrows classical dichotomies like nature-technology or nature-culture. If the current phase of the Anthropocene demands a human stewardship of Earth in order to ensure the sustainability of Earth’s life-support systems on the one hand, while the Anthropocene on the other hand shows the immanence of thinking to the physical, what then exactly is the role of human agency in general, and of human technology in particular? What does it mean to exist in the Anthropocene? This raises the question not only of how technology should respond to the changing environment in which technologies operate, but also of how we as a society should attune our future technologies to this new situation. Assume a more ecological or even eco-centric focus, instead of focusing on technical arte¬facts or (socio)technical systems only?
This responsibility will become vital in the future since it has become perfectly clear that the Earth will not be able in the long term to support the exploitative and care-less ways in which ever growing parts of humanity have been inhabiting her since at least the Industrial Revolution unleashed by capitalism.
Navigating the Anthropocene requires a systematic thinking about the future, as drivers and consequences (intended, unintended, and unanticipated) of societal actions accelerate and amplify, moving clearly away from a sustainable end. Forecasting the future with any level of consensus and/or reliability is difficult because forecasting entails error, and the future is an emergent property shaped by individual and collective choices, decisions and actions at all levels, and influenced by biophysical constraints.
TRYING TO EXPLAIN, UNDERSTAND, AND MANAGE THE WORLD BY THE OLD RULES, STRUCTURES, AND BELIEFS IS FUTILE.
The linear, reductionist, deterministic models of thought that have helped drive extraordinary progress are increasingly less able to comprehend our world. Our existing models break down the enormous complexity of reality into manageable parts but ignore the whole, just as medicine has fractured into different specialties but lost focus on the inter-relationships between them. They focus on linear cause and effect, meaning they treat symptoms and then symptoms of side effects. They fail to understand the complexity that would allow us to identify root causes and optimize the whole.
This reductionism is reflected in the silos that have developed in education, science, academia, government, industry, and in the increasing specialization of labor, as the complexity of the whole is broken down into individual parts, disciplines, departments, or jobs. This blinded us to many of the non-linear outcomes of our actions. Implicit in our models of thought has been a determinism that suggests outcomes can be predetermined from starting conditions – this change causes that effect, but all else remains equal (et ceteris paribus). This way of thinking ignores emergence and the second-order effects that occur in all complex systems. This deep, segmented knowledge is hugely valuable and must not be discarded, but to thrive in the coming age we will need to find ways to reassemble these fragmented parts and understand the system as a whole, with all its complexity. In many ways, our current models could be best understood by the rules of classical physics and linear causality, but the models of thought required in the 2020’s will mirror biology and systems dynamics.
NEW ORGANIZING SYSTEM
Almost every conversation today about fixing societal, economic, ecological problems is rooted in this linear mindset. A new Organizing System emerges that can make sense of, and manage effectively, the emerging future, allowing us to break through to a higher order. At the level of society, the same dynamic convergences expands the possibilities of what a civilization is capable of. These future possibilities can be seen as the possibility space; infinite futures.
Technological progress removes constraints on what we can do and achieve and creates entirely new possibilities in how we live our lives and meet our needs – in a very real sense, it represents humanity’s journey from the impossible to the possible. The scope of what is possible can be seen as the emergent possibility space of our civilization. Huge strides have been made by the technology we have already invented, but our current technologies are far from perfect and we are nowhere near the capability frontier represented by the laws of physics. In the 2020’s progress could trend towards this potential.
CITIES AS DRIVERS FOR CHANGE
All aspects of life are complex combinations of events in both the real world (and physical space) and digital world (of cyberspace) and many transactions and interactions take place in or between both. Wherever they take place, the outcomes are certainly felt in the real world of a city’s stakeholders.
An urban environment may be termed a city by looking at the density of its population, commuting patterns, or by administrative borders. The problem with these definitions is that they are a very narrow representations of what is in fact a complex system. The city is best addressed as a complex adaptive system. A systems approach offers a better understanding of the social, economic and political interconnections inherent in city systems. Our society has become highly dynamic, volatile and a-linear, which makes a city system complex and unpredictable. Therefore it is crucial that cities are designed to be adaptable. Major research programs that study global environmental change processes and sustainable human development pathways allude to the fact that these challenges are best tackled from a complex adaptive systems perspective. Building on complexity theory, complex adaptive systems (CAS) contain adaptive components and capacities. Adaptive components allow systems to change and evolve over time in response to feedbacks and changes in the systems context. A CAS is a system of agents that interact among themselves and/or their environment, such that even relatively simple agents with simple rules of behavior can produce complex, emergent behavior.
Managing complex coevolving systems for sustainability requires the ability to cope with, adapt to and shape without losing options for future development. It requires resilience – the capacity to buffer perturbations, self-organize, learn and adapt. It requires adaptability –the capacity to change in spatial and architectural design: ability of a system to adjust to change to moderate potential damages, to take advantage of opportunities, or to cope with consequences (adaptivity), enabling minor shifts in how systems function or spaces are used (flexibility), allowing changes in use of space, buildings, infrastructure (convertibility), facilitating additions or deletions (expandability).
The quests in modelling is to merge social, economic and ecological processes with the designed and physical environment and to link functional and natural processes to socio-economic representations. Reactive models where feedback and visualizations enhance real-time or near real-time interventions and improve the smooth day-to-day running of the city or asset and predictive models where accurate input data is used to improve longer term scenario planning to steer appropriate (and equitable) investment decisions. For dynamical models to be realistic, they need to have accurate initial conditions, exact causality between systems variables and defined kinetics. The other issue with dynamical models of complex systems is the nonlinearity characteristic of complex systems. Because of the complex relationships between the variables in complex systems, the dynamics of the system quickly become nonlinear and complex.
DECISION SUPPORT MODEL
A – DIGITAL – URBAN DECISION SUPPORT MODEL offers the possibility to generate knowledge and information about our complex society. The model provides deep insight into and understanding the dynamics, coherence between social, economic and ecological aspects in a region, city, neighborhood or neighborhood. This digital context and content specific model make the city, neighborhood or neighborhood insightful, understandable, interactive and dynamic. Such a Decision Support Model will be vital to fully understand the complex web of interactions and maximize social-economic and ecological assets and values and catalyze a myriad of innovations. A real-time digital ‘dashboard’ for management and decision support that would enable the monitoring, modelling probabilistic programming and an array of statistical machine-learning techniques. A decision support system for the management of these complex systems at a scale and speed never before possible.
The DECISION SUPPORT MODEL is an expert -qualitative- digital model with the ability to process relevant amounts of critical data (dynamically selected and integrated smart data for providing intelligent urban information services): real time monitoring of the city’s real-time performance from different perspectives An analytic, predictive and prescriptive model where accurate input data is used to improve longer term scenario planning to steer appropriate (and equitable) policy and investment decision. This type of digital twin can run in real time alongside the basic real-time system and thereby receive input from the real system if only to provide some sort of diagnosis of faults in the original system.
This DECISION SUPPORT MODEL supported by artificial intelligence, with its ability to analyze scores of information from varied sources, can tease out the interactions between attributes and let us understand and predict the levers across the system we need to activate to enact change.
SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS (SDG’S)
As a consensus-based expert elicitation process, the Decision Support Model can enable the accomplishment of 134 targets across all the Sustainable Development Goals and its inhibit 59 targets. The model can help SDG planners overcome silo mentality and enable more synergistic approaches for recognizing and rewarding those who are striving to create value through sustainable means, effectively hindering growth in financial markets for sustainable investments. The model overcomes the limitations of current evaluation systems and reporting requirements such as inadequate transparency on evaluation criteria and methodology, inexperienced analysts with limited prognosis, and potential conflicts of interest.
By providing transparency in general by the Decision Support Model on performance, decision makers and investors can make better informed decisions about the financial and impact of their investments.
Complexity theory has provided a new basis for understanding how myriad local interactions among multiple agents can generate simple behavioral patterns and ordered structures. Cities, as example, are nonequilibrium systems; random events produce system shifts, discontinuities, and bifurcations, and patterns emerge from complex interactions that take place at the local scale, suggesting that urban development self-organizes. Emergent patterns are often scale-invariant and fractal, indicating that the emergent morphology of cities results from self-organizing processes operating at the local scale.
Understanding the complex relationships between patterns of urban development and the processes that maintain ecosystem function and resilience in urban areas requires a new framework to uncover the mechanisms that determine the relationship dynamics of urban ecosystem services and their roles in maintaining resilience of urbanizing regions. Urban systems are hybrid ecosystems and several types of new hybrid functions may emerge from these interactions.
DIGITAL DECISION SUPPORT MODEL: The rapid advancement of computer power, together with the remarkable emerging availability of high-resolution social and ecological data, provides unprecedented opportunities to reframe our questions.