We’re all living in the Anthropocene today, and I believe that there’s no way that our children will not be living in the Anthropocene, that we have, at least in the terms of centuries, we have transformed the planet in such a way that there’s no going back.
And what I think is that we haven’t thought enough about living in the Anthropocene, and unfortunately we lack thinking about how we would like to think we would live in the Anthropocene. And there’s a paucity of, especially thinking of more positive visions, of what the Anthropocene could mean.
And this doesn’t mean that the Anthropocene is good, but it is, and good for people, but it means that we have to think about how we can make the Anthropocene, whoever “we” is and whatever “good” means, as good as it can be for us.
So one of the ways I like to think about the Anthropocene is through also popular representations of the future, and, at least in the English-speaking world, there’s been a boom in dystopian literature in the last ten years. And it’s interesting when you try to look through different visions of the future, of how rarely you see positive visions of the future. And these range from, things like, embodied in stuff like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a novel and a movie, to “Mad Max,” and all these other films about a collapsed world where the biosphere is severely degraded, and humanity in on the way out, and there people are just struggling to survive.
In another sense you have this, with the widespread exception of the Anthropocene, there’s been an idea we’re living on engineered Earth, and these futures often downplay the fact of how much we have transformed the planet, but how much we rely upon the biosphere to keep our civilization functioning, which is absolutely essential.
And we need to, in this sense, have more futures that try and think about both how humanity can better fit with the biosphere, and what could it look like if the world didn’t collapse?
There are some visions of this. An old one from California in the ’70s is Ernest Callenbach’s book Ecotopia, which tried to imagine a sustainable society.
But one of the challenges of this kind of thinking is these are often kind of more, locally-based, little sort of, pocket utopias that don’t think about the rest of the world, of what’s going to happen to people who don’t already live in rich countries, and don’t have lots of land.
And then there’s sort of more sort of visionary work, which is very much only in the science fiction world, of thinking about how people could really be planetary engineers, say for example, works by science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson thinking about transforming the planet.
But I think as more sustainability scientists, and as people on the planet we need to think about what are ways that we can imagine desirable social-ecological futures? And I think there’s many different things with the Anthropocene that we’re not really thinking enough about.
One of them is that the Anthropocene challenges us to think about there needs to be new ways of thinking about global social integration, because if the world has become a social-ecological system, our webs of global trade, migration are radically changing the planet. And we need to think about the ways in which all the difference in the world can be done to support the biosphere that underpins all our wealth and well-being. Due to these really big differences on the planet we can expect surprises, as we’ve seen so far in the 21st century. We can expect new types of migration, new types of diasporas, new social identities, and new social movements, and new types of economics, and we should be trying to envision what are ways we could live on the planet more positively rather than just thinking about what are the dangers to the status quo. Because I think we really need to have a new world and we need some pluralism in how we think about a new world to move forward. And this takes lots of work.
I think a good place to start, or my place to start, is to think about the basic definition of sustainable development, which is generally, something to do with that we need prosperity, there’s an economy that exists within some kind of society, where we need to have fairness, and this is supported by the biosphere, which needs to be sustainable. And I think three, maybe utopian, but reasonable ways of thinking about what would be good for the world, that a lot of people would agree with, and can at least be a starting point for discussion.
That is prosperous, that people have an opportunity to live fulfilling lives, and that the current civilization isn’t eliminating the possibilities for people to have good civilizations in the future.
And of course how are we doing today? I think as everyone is aware, our world today is very prosperous, it’s the most prosperous it has ever been. But it’s also extremely unfair in that this prosperity isn’t shared around the world, and it’s not sustainable.
So prosperity, we’re now richer as a planet than we’ve ever been before. People live longer, people are higher educated, and this development is broad-based around the world. However, we’re also hugely unequal. This figure shows, a bit complicated, people’s incomes, in different countries, in different 5% steps, and the total income distribution in the world. And what this shows is that the richest 20-35% of the people living in Uganda, Mali and Tanzania are poorer in terms of income than the poorest people living in Denmark – that the world is tremendously unfair, and this is not a good world.
And finally with sustainability. There’s many different ways of thinking about sustainability, but we know lots of things about how the world works, and we’re not on good trajectories. This graph is a recent graph showing that how from based on looking at IPCC scenarios for the future of just climate change we’re on a very bad trajectory, and that we don’t have to be on that trajectory as a world, but we are on this one so we need to change.
However, we also know that there’s a lot of capacity to have a better planet, that looking at what contributes to human well-being and inequality is showing by actually having a fair world could greatly increase the well being of the planet. We know that by transforming the way we farm, eat, and distribute our food, we could support many more people with the same amount of farmland we have today. And we also know that, as people more and more move to cities, we have lots of opportunities in building new cities and building new urban environments to provide environments that are better for people and nature as people move around the planet.
So there’s a lot of latent capacity. I believe there’s a lot of evidence for having a good Anthropocene, but the challenges, how do we reach this?
And I think we need to have more integrated research that tries to better unite these three, sort of pillars of the Anthropocene, of trying to have more fair — think about how fairness, prosperity, and sustainability can reinforce one another.
But I think as I was talking about in terms of how the 21st century is likely to be surprising, we need to think more about also resilience, that we have to be planning for surprise, maintaining diversity, and keeping our capacity to self-organize to enable us to experiment our ways towards a better Anthropocene because no one knows what that exactly will look like.
And I think it’s also very much we need to kind of keep thinking in these — we need to have these visions of the world, and I think it’s important to look to literature, film, and art to get inspiration to move towards a more beautiful and fun world, not just something that provides income and opportunity to people, but is really an inspiring place to move towards, to enable our transition towards a better Anthropocene. And I think this, expansion of the possible ways of living is very important, because without this when we have transformation, when we have shocks, we’re less likely to be able to use those to move towards a better world, and we have much more opportunity to end up in these bad futures we’ve been envisioning.
So in conclusion, I really believe that we need to have more thinking by more people and more diverse groups of people about what a desirable Anthropocene would look like, and what are some pathways to achieve it. And I think one of the things, to come back to what I’ve said at the beginning, is to try and imagine in fiction, in film, in all sorts of visual representations: what would a world that’s probably going to be warmer, has different animals in it, and has different amounts of nutrients flowing through it, what kind of world would, could that be? Not would it be, but could it be. And what kind of world would you like it to be that we think we can achieve? And what are kind of things that people can do to work towards this?
And I think there’s no way we’re going to get a blueprint, but by having a diversity of visions from different perspectives; from Asia, from indigenous perspectives, from urban perspectives, from rural perspectives; we can work towards a vision of a better future. And while dystopias tell us where not to go, they often give us little guidance about where we should strive for, and I think to try and get these stories of thriving, of fairness, of justice, of reconciliation between people, and between people and nature, is something that’s vitally needed.
And I urge everyone who’s listening to this to think about, both for themselves, and trying to think about how we can encourage and spread more desirable positive visions, whatever your definition of positive and desirable is.