(Post)human Temporalities: Science Fiction in the Anthropocene

Jonathan Hay,

Ph.D. Candidate, University of Chester, UK

Article in KronoScope · September 2019, DOI: 10.1163/15685241-12341440


Although many SF texts proceed from the speculative premise that our species will continue to develop technologically, and hence become increasingly posthuman, our species’ continuance into even the next century is by no means assured. Rather, the Anthropocene exerts a new temporal logic; it is an age defined by an intensification of geological timescales. It is therefore noteworthy that many contemporary SF texts are ecologically interventionist and figure apocalyptic future temporalities which curtail the posthuman predilection common to the genre. This article analyses a tetrad of literary texts, written at various points during the last three decades, which summatively reveal the mutations of the (post)human temporalities figured by cli-fi texts. These four texts are: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy (1992-1996); Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods (2007); Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things (2014); and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife (2015).

Keywords Anthropocene – Science Fiction – cli-fi – Critical Posthumanism

Whilst geological epochs typically last thousands of years, over the last three centuries our species has engineered a significant enough impact on the Earth to instigate an epoch geologically distinct from the Holocene. Thus, although the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) continues to prefer the term Holocene, the popular term Anthropocene becomes an increasingly more accurate classification of our present geological epoch with each day that passes. Although some scholars argue for an earlier onset of the Anthropocene epoch, the term was coined in the year 2000 by Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermerto, who define the Anthropocene as the rapid intensification of our species’ adverse impact upon our host planet, which has been particularly evident since roughly the “invention of the steam engine in 1784” (17-18).

The term Anthropocene is no expression of hubris, however, but rather a damning acknowledgement of the planetary changes prompted by our species’ unqualified failure to sustain a mutualistic interaction with the Earth. The repercussions of anthropogenic climate change will imperil the continuation not only of our own species but also, in the long-term, the viability of the vast proportion of all life on Earth. Even since the beginning of 2019, scholarship on the Anthropocene has dealt with subject matters as diverse as Anthropocene politics, the role of poetry in the Anthropocene, and the provisional nature of architecture in the Anthropocene (John S. Dryzek and Jonathan Pickering’s The Politics of the Anthropocene (2019), David Farrier’s Anthropocene Poetics (2019), and Renata Tyszczuk’s Provisional Cities (2019), respectively). The riotously interdisciplinary nature of the field of Anthropocene scholarship deftly reflects the all-encompassing nature of the planetary changes that are driving the epoch.

In his 2019 book The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells laments that, incredibly, since the beginning of the 1990s, our species has collectively “done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization […] than in all the centuries—all the millennia—that came before” (4). Beyond our own lifetimes, it will be the damage we have wrought on the Earth’s ecosystems that will stand as the perverse legacy of modern societies. The Anthropocene is concurrently a hyperobject—as Timothy Morton proposes in his 2013 work of the same name—which “spell[s] the end of environmentalisms that employ Nature” as a valid ontological category (199). Likewise, in their 2015 essay “Preface to a Genealogy of the Postnatural,” Richard W. Pell & Lauren B. Allen propose the term “postnatural” in order to better reflect the plethora of “anthropogenic interventions into evolution that are both intentional and heritable” and that have always characterised the interactions between our species and planet (79, emphases in original). Ecological discourses in the Anthropocene must therefore define our planet’s environmental circumstances as postnatural, in order to reject dichotomous thought processes which posit a distinction between our species and the purportedly natural world. Likewise, as Elizabeth Kolbert notes in her 2014 book The Sixth Extinction, globalisation is effectively “running geologic history backward and at high speed” and has now become a far greater influence than millions of years of tectonic drift on the dispersal of species worldwide (208). The drastic acceleration of planetary history—along with the need to deconstruct the presumptions of many of our species’ most established ontological models—is the terrifying new temporal logic of the Anthropocene.

Indeed, as Wallace-Wells notes, “we might better conceive of history not as a deliberate procession of years marching forward on a timeline but as an expanding balloon of population growth” (2019, 8). By inaugurating population growth as the decisive temporal metric of the Anthropocene, it becomes newly apparent that our species’ detrimental impact upon the Earth is not a gradual process but an inevitable and near-exponential trend. In this manner, social development can no longer be considered a mode of progress because it leads not to a telos (an Ancient Greek term for a determinate end or purpose) but to catastrophe. This abrupt schism in the logic of progress, formerly the overriding metanarrative of our species, is already reflected in a range of contemporary art; yet, as Wallace-Wells emphasises, although “[o]n-screen, climate devastation is everywhere you look,” it is rarely a central premise of these same fictional narratives (2019, 143). Likewise, as George Marshall states in his 2014 book Don’t Even Think About It, “science fiction fans of all people, [are] so unwilling to imagine what the future might really be like” (2). Although this is largely accurate, Marshall’s insinuation that the entire SF genre fails to imagine the future in realistic terms is certainly mistaken.

I nevertheless agree with Marshall’s implicit assertion that Science Fiction (henceforth SF) has long proceeded from the speculative premise that our species will continue to develop technologically. In his 2009 essay “SF Tourism,” Brooks Landon stresses that SF’s tendency of “constructing change as progress, and seeing science and technology as its driving force [are] central aspects of sf thinking” (34). Crucially however, there is significant evidence that the onset of the Anthropocene has more recently rendered the genre’s teleological orientation problematic. Indeed, within the contemporary SF genre, apocalyptic representations of climate change are particularly abundant, and this trend challenges the assumption that our species will continue to become increasingly technologically advanced. It therefore proves productive to read this contemporary wave of SF— which can be termed climate fiction (or cli-fi for short)—in conversation with the philosophical field of Critical Posthumanism. In her 1999 monograph How We Became Posthuman, N. Katherine Hayles states that “As we rush to explore the new vistas that cyberspace has made available for colonization, let us remember the fragility of a material world that cannot be replaced” (49). As a means of definition, Hayles argues that “[a]lthough the ‘posthuman’ differs in its articulations, a common theme is the union of the human with the intelligent machine” (1999, 2). In concord with her contention that technological and social progress are inextricably “seriated” (1999, 20), this article refers to our species as (post)humanity, and to our condition as being (post)human, supposing that we currently inhabit an intermediary stage between being human and posthuman. Although I have elsewhere proposed that SF texts generally theorise a dreamscape of “posthuman possibility” (see Hay 2019), it is pertinent to note that many modern SF texts are ecologically interventionist and curtail the posthuman dreamscape common to the genre by emphasising the apocalyptic temporal attributes of the Anthropocene epoch in our own time. Hence, as Hayles also recognises, the figure of the posthuman is a possibility entirely conditional upon (post)humanity’s achieving modes of symbiosis with its planetary environment.

By foregrounding the necessity for human societies to fast become less beholden to habitual patterns of environmental apathy, the diegetic societies of cli-fi texts such as the 2009 film The Age of Stupid, the 2016 Black Mirror episode “Hated in the Nation,” Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), and Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam Trilogy (2003-2013) dramatise the annihilation of the everyday. As Heather J. Hicks proposes in her 2016 work The Post-Apocalyptic Novel in the Twenty-First Century, such texts carry a “sense of inevitable change, imagining a move not to new lands, but to new times, with no return passage possible” (103). As Pramod K. Nayar asserts is true of Posthumanism in his 2014 book of the same name, cli-fi does not endeavour to ideologically reinscribe “the human as exceptional, separate from other life forms and usually dominant/dominating over these other forms” (4). Rather, whilst engaging imaginatively with the dystopian milieux of cli-fi texts, (post)human readers can no longer delude themselves that they are exceptional beings. As cli-fi’s deliberate interruption of the SF genre’s posthuman dream implies, if our species does not make vast progress towards attaining environmental symbiosis, a large portion of our species will not even survive into the next century.

Cli-fi texts, therefore, solicit their reader to consider the alarmingly default possibility that our species may not attain symbiosis with its environment rapidly enough to circumvent apocalyptic consequences. In his 1979 work Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, Darko Suvin states that “SF is distinguished by the narrative dominance or hegemony of a fictional ‘novum’ (novelty, innovation)” (63, emphasis in original), or, in many instances, by multiple nova. Hence, if it remains true that—as Tom Shippey asserts in his 2016 work Hard Reading—“science fiction depends on novelty” (27), then cli-fi texts are certainly defined by a very atypical variety of novelty; their SFnal (science fictional) nova work to elicit the reader to undertake a sustained reflection upon their own damaging and yet habitualised methods of interaction with their environment. Accordingly, cli-fi narratives are typically attuned towards the environmental surroundings of their texts’ diegetic worlds, which are shown to imperil and hence condition the continued existence of any nova. Thus nova become habitual entities comparatively, directly inverting the typified relationship between the novum and its mundane environment in the existing body of science fiction.

Cli-fi texts often exacerbate the tendency of the genre towards what Suvin recognises as an inherent “anthropological pessimism” (1980, 236); their ecological pessimism has a powerful didactic utility. In contrast to the “resonances and charms of Big Dumb Objects”—a term coined by Roz Kaveney in her 1981 article “Science Fiction in the 1970s”—with which the SF genre is characteristically obsessed, cli-fi novels are principally concerned with the Small Dumb Objects that (post)humans themselves are (25). Through the analysis of four cli-fi texts, the present study argues that SF focussed on the Anthropocene comprises an invaluable tool for coming to terms with the future of our planet. The four texts studied are: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy (1992-1996), Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods (2007), Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things (2014), and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife (2015). All these texts were written during the last three decades by European and American authors. This article reads this cross-section of representative cli-fi novels chronologically, in order to reveal the rapidly mutating elements of the Western outlook on climate change over even this short period of the Anthropocene epoch.

1 The Mars Trilogy

Written and released during the 1990s, the temporally expansive narrative scope of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is ostensibly similar to several great canonical SF series, such as Isaac Asimov’s Greater Foundation series or Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle. Yet on closer inspection, the Trilogy actually works to deconstruct the escapist underpinnings of such prior SF works. Red Mars (1992) documents the colonisation of a neighbouring planet by a number of (post)humans; Green Mars (1993) narrates their continuing efforts to terraform that planet; and Blue Mars (1996) concludes as Mars becomes a liveable environment for its colonisers and their offspring almost two hundred years after its colonisation first began. By satirising his readers’ desire to read SF which escapes their own temporality, Robinson makes it clear that it is critical they begin to prioritise their attitude towards their planetary environment in their present.

Although its opening line is “Mars was empty before we came. […] We are all the consciousness that Mars has ever had,” the error of such neo-colonialist Science Fiction in the Anthropocene ideologies is rigorously challenged throughout the Mars Trilogy (Robinson, Red Mars, 13). At the series’ outset, this line of dialogue posits an exceedingly anthropocentric appraisal of Mars, envisioning that (post)humans have an entitlement akin to manifest destiny to settle their neighbouring planet, a planet which has only gained any degree of consequence by virtue of their settlement of it. The narratorial persona which voices this retrospective entirely fails to recognise that—as Erika Cudworth and Stephen Hobden emphasise in their 2011 book Posthuman International Relations—because “Humans neither exist, nor have they developed, independently of other animate and inanimate systems,” they will always remain interrelated within the stochastically complex systems which comprise any planetary environment (187).

The first settlers of Mars in the Trilogy choose to artificially regulate the Martian day, a feat brought about by “the Martian time-slip, the thirty-nine and a half minute gap between 12:00:00 and 12:00:01, when all the clocks went blank or stopped moving” (Robinson, Red Mars, 33). The re-imposition of the familiar diurnal cycle not only brings an illusory sense of naturalness to their inhabitation of the alien planet, but also allows the (post)humans inhabiting Mars to approximate habitual sleep patterns and hence to begin to re-establish society, which is itself undergirded by the habitual. Nevertheless, the settlers perceive that “something in the slant and redness of the light was fundamentally wrong”—Mars’s marginally different visible light spectrum being enough to upset “expectations wired into the savannah brain over millions of years” (Robinson, Red Mars, 25). This passage emphasises just how irregular it is for our species to have ever had the need to inhabit Mars as a surrogate Earth, reminding readers that we will never find another planet that is as suited to our species’ idiosyncrasies as Earth is, since we evolved here and thus are highly adapted to living here.

Correspondingly, it is only midway through the second book of the Mars Trilogy that (post)humans are finally able to brave the Martian atmosphere and get “their clothes off” outside of settlements or buildings (Robinson, Green Mars, 432). Although Mars is perceived as a chance to start again, a “blank red slate” for the crew of the Ares to write upon, it is a tabula rasa which proves challenging to inscribe (Robinson, Red Mars, 108). After landing, “for day after day after day [there is] No change in the weather to speak of” (Robinson, Red Mars, 135). To disrupt this monotonous trend, the first Martians find it necessary to thicken the atmosphere in order to gradually make the planet more Earth-like and hence more conducive to (post)human life. Although many (post)humans on both Mars and Earth disagree with this course of action, many other groups with an interest in Mars desire the planet to become a facsimile of Earth, through a process of terraforming effected through methods which include the creation of an aerial lens that makes “the light some twenty percent greater than before” (Robinson, Green Mars, 179).

It is deeply ironic that, years after Mars has first been settled, the (post) humans back on Earth are fast “running out of oil” and so start “mining and oil drilling” in Antarctica (Robinson, Red Mars, 298). Transnational corporations from Earth soon attempt to lay a claim on Mars, and call for it to be further terraformed under the rationale that “we’re all colonies now” (Robinson, Red Mars, 460). As Robinson makes plain at this point and throughout the Trilogy, capitalist and ecological modes of thought utterly contradict each other. Yet as Cudworth and Hobden highlight, “the state system, global capitalism, the agricultural system and the biosphere” (2011, 108) have all emerged through a process of autopoetic co-evolution, and so these phenomena are not individually mutable, but rather invariably anastomotic as formations emergent from (post)human societies.

Whilst the great flood that decimates large parts of Earth in the Mars Trilogy is not caused by anthropogenic climate change, and instead by “a cluster of violent volcanic eruptions under the West Antarctic ice sheet,” it is exacerbated by the effects of (post)human overpopulation which has, by the year 2128, far exceeded Earth’s carrying capacity (Robinson, Blue Mars, 167). The colonists of Mars are soon overwhelmed by immigrants from Earth fleeing the effects of anthropogenic overpopulation, as Mars is eulogised as a way of “saving Earth from overpopulation with the gift of empty land” (Robinson, Blue Mars, 346). As Cudworth and Hobden emphasise, even beyond our direct influence upon our climate, “Human systems are embedded within a number of non-human systems, with the consequence that developments in one system may have implications elsewhere in the panarchy” (2011, 138).

Eventually, the (post)humans of Mars have lived on Mars for so long, and their cultures have diverged so far from those of their originary planet, that the chance to see Earth would be “So interesting that no rational person could pass up the opportunity” (Robinson, Blue Mars, 109). Accordingly, 102 years after the Ares mission departed Earth, a small number of the crew and their descendants return briefly as ambassadors for Mars. As a (post)human born on Mars, Nirgal’s acute feeling of euphoria at his first experience of Earth is palpable. Able to distinguish “Fifty different shades of green on the hills” for the first time in his life, he experiences sensory overload, and finds the natural beauty and enormity of Earth incredibly overbearing (Robinson, Blue Mars, 175). After becoming acclimatised to the planet, Nirgal realises that he has rapidly developed a strong desire to inhabit “a home place that had something like these tile roofs, these stone walls, here and solid these last thousand years” (Robinson, Blue Mars, 192). In contrast, on Mars his life has consisted of his “home town [being] crushed under a polar cap […] and every place since then had been just a place, and everything everywhere always changing” (Robinson, Blue Mars, 192).

At this point in the Mars Trilogy, Martian life is defined by constant strife and precarity, whereas life on Earth has been defined by stability for near innumerable generations until recently, when climate change has begun to gradually make the planet inhospitable to (post)humans. Nirgal therefore has a desperate urge to experience a truly quotidian social life, which Mars has failed to provide for him, but which Earth too can no longer provide. There is more than a hint of satire here. Earth has, to the Martians, become a planet which is alien, and hence they desire to experience and imaginatively colonise its novelty. Life on Mars seems all too familiar to them. The Martians’ desire to see Earth thereby lampoons the readers of the text since—despite occupying the privileged position of being able to experience a largely unspoiled Earth automatically and corporeally—they are currently choosing to spend their time reading a grass-is-always-greener SF novel which—to some extent at least—fetishises the idea of leaving Earth behind for another planet.

Fascinatingly then, despite Mars’s being the titular planet of Robinson’s trilogy, when the Swiss Alps are described as a “majestic white range” (Robinson Blue Mars, 190) in the chapter set on Earth, it is one of only two times in the entire Mars Trilogy that the word majestic is used, the other instance being immediately qualified by the word “ludicrous” (Robinson, Blue Mars, 346). By having Nirgal arrive on Earth as a (post)human born on Mars, Robinson is able to depict our own planet through a principally defamiliarised lens and show us how beautiful, breathtaking and appropriate our originary planet already is. Earth’s postnatural splendour directly contrasts with all the strife within the Trilogy’s narrative which has been provoked as a by-product of the attempts to make Mars inhabitable.

Robinson’s Mars Trilogy stresses that our species has appeared “only in the last moment of [Mars’s] long history” (Robinson, Red Mars, 13) and thus that the entire timescale on which our species has existed is cosmically insignificant in comparison to planetary timescales. In our own world, Earth’s current planetary conditions are unusually attuned to sustaining life, to the extent that—as Raworth states—without (post)human influence the planet’s “benevolent conditions would be likely to continue for another 50,000 years due to the unusually circular orbit that Earth is currently making of the sun—a phenomenon so rare that it last happened 400,000 years ago” (2018, 48). The more we come to recognise that our complexity as a species and as individuals pales in comparison with the Earth’s complexity, the more likely we are to care for the amazing planetary body we inhabit. Thus the Mars Trilogy’s true novum should not be considered to be Mars, or any of the events or technologies that are created upon it, but Earth, the readers’ conception of which the text attempts to defamiliarise in order that they come to care for it anew. Ultimately, Robinson’s Mars Trilogy exhibits a cautious—although satirically tempered—optimism that (post)humanity is capable of realising the importance of the planet it already inhabits and of working to safeguard it.

2 The Stone Gods

Written only a decade later, Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods uses the Nietzchean motif of eternal recurrence to posit a far more fatalistic assessment of our relationship to our planetary environment. Within the novel, (post)humanity repeatedly becomes technologically developed enough to become an interplanetary species only through environmental necessity. Its (post)humans conceptualise their subsequent planetary exoduses as “only natural” (Winterson 2008, 4). This is deeply ironic, given that the need for “moving on” entirely results from their destruction of the natural. Each of the novel’s four temporally discrete sections is narrated from the perspective of a character named Billie, who appears to have been metempsychotically reborn in each timeframe. The recursive schema of Winterson’s text unequivocally refutes the application of linear conceptions of technological progress in the Anthropocene epoch and instead imagines this new temporality as an era of repeated ecological failure.

The opening of the text focuses upon the (post)human civilisation of Orbus who have been funding “the space mission for hundreds of years,” a myopic and fervent global agenda that reveals their preoccupation with escaping their originary planet (Winterson 2008, 5; emphasis mine). Despite assertions that, on the following planet they inhabit, “we’ll be more careful. This time we will learn from our mistakes,” the “Planet Blue” which the population of Orbus has earmarked for inhabitation is none other than Earth itself, and so it immediately seems inevitable that the enduring planetary symbiosis they seek is fated to elude them once again (Winterson 2008, 7; 74). By depicting climate change as a planetary function common to numerous planets which readily delimits (post)human development, The Stone Gods therefore insinuates that our species needs to constantly find new ways of reminding itself of our planet’s significance if it is to avoid the catastrophic mistake of taking it for granted.

The task of fostering effective environmental awareness is not an easy one. Kate Raworth argues in her 2017 work Doughnut Economics for the implementation of “economic thinking that unleashes regenerative [industrial] design in order to create a circular—not linear—economy, and to restore humans as full participants in Earth’s cyclical processes of life” (2018, 29). Raworth demonstrates that economic policies must—on a global scale— renounce their present telos of GDP growth, and instead adapt towards the realization of “a social foundation of well-being that no one should fall below, and an ecological ceiling of planetary pressure that we should not go beyond,” in order to realistically generate and maintain “a safe and just space for all” throughout the coming century (2018, 11, emphasis in original). Yet, as Naomi Klein argues in her 2015 book This Changes Everything, “it’s hard to keep [climate change] in your head for very long. We engage in this odd form of on-again-off-again ecological amnesia for perfectly rational reasons. We deny because we fear that letting in the full reality of this crisis will change everything” (Klein 2015, 4). Despite Raworth’s having proposed a brilliant and wholesale theoretical solution to the postnaturalisation of the Earth, we are, like the characters of Winterson’s novel, far too willing to refuse to confront the issue until we are outright forced to.

The ecological amnesia Klein details is particularly evident in Winterson’s novel when the celebrity and child abuser Pink McMurphy claims “Don’t blame me, […] I didn’t destroy [Orbus]” (Winterson 2008, 80). He exhibits a plain cognitive bias here, as his defensive tract is predicated upon a tu quoque (you too) fallacy; he presumes that he is exonerated from blame for contributing towards climate change because others are also to blame. As is evidently also the case on Orbus, our contemporary consumerist societies promote individualism at the cost of our capacity to work and think collectively—in this instance, in order to bear the cognitive burden of species-wide threats. Likewise, as Marshall states, because climate change is an unusually gradual variety of existential threat which “carries none of the clear markers that would normally lead our brains to overrule our short-term interests” and hence prompt us to act to mitigate a threat, we tend to “mobilize our own biases to keep it perpetually in the background” (2014, 229).

The Stone Gods strongly implies that Orbus itself was not humanity’s originary cosmic locale, but rather that its (post)humans came from a precursor planet too, as members of the crew sent to colonise Planet Blue recount in the form of a tale about the discovery of artefacts on “Planet White [which] shares the sun of Planet Blue” (Winterson 2008, 64). Since Planet Blue is Earth and Planet White is stated to have “an atmosphere that is ninety-seven per cent carbon dioxide” (Winterson 2008, 64) and “carbon dioxide constitutes 97 per cent of the Venusian atmosphere” (Kaufmann III 1978, 369), it is safe to assume that (post)humanity has moved from Venus to Orbus and then back to their previous planet’s next-door-neighbour within the diegesis of Winterson’s text. Winterson’s ludic implication is that (post)humanity’s civilisational progress is fundamentally recursive: that we move from planet to planet, irrevocably devastating each one with our voracity and short-sightedness, before developing spacecraft adequate to move us to another host planet in just sufficient time to escape annihilation.

The Stone Gods therefore plays on the concept of eternal recurrence, suggesting that (post)humanity is condemned to precipitate its own extinction time after time, in an endless causal loop. Although this may seem flippant, the novel’s conceit is rendered at least partially plausible by contemporary scientific theories which suggest that countless species of extraterrestrial life may indeed have brought about their own extinction events. Fermi’s paradox, which was proposed by Enrico Fermi in the early 1950s and has since been the subject of sustained scientific enquiry, centres around the mathematically implausible observation that our species has not yet come across any evidence that complex life is extant elsewhere in the universe than on Earth. Vilhelm Verendel and Olle Häggström’s answer to Fermi’s paradox, in their 2017 research paper “Fermi’s Paradox, Extraterrestrial Life and the Future of Humanity,” proposes that the disparity between the lack of evidence of extraterrestrial life and its high theoretical probability, given that there are “an astronomical number of exoplanets,” is the result of a “Great Filter” which occurs during the processes of technological development that all organisms undergo in order to become capable of departing from their home planet (Verendel and Häggström 2017, 14). Climate change is evidently one such Great Filter. Interpreted in this way, Fermi’s paradox becomes a compelling imperative to action on ecological grounds, a call to alter customary consumerism, which cumulatively have the effect that—as Keith Allaun states in the 2018 article “Fuel For Thought”— “If we continue to make single-use plastics at the same pace [as at present], by 2050 we are going to be dealing with an ocean that has more plastic in it, by weight, than fish” (Greenway, np).

By the conclusion of The Stone Gods, the planet that (post)humanity has settled is once more ecologically devastated, to the extent that Billie, meeting a person named Alaska, has no referent to determine her namesake and presumes that her name is “perhaps to match the colour code,” implying that in her time the American state has been drilled out of existence (Winterson 2008, 206). Likewise, the multinational MORE corporation which had subsumed the political system by growing large enough to take “over the Central Power” on Orbus is soon reincarnated on Earth, coming to exert a monopoly over “every station” of television (Winterson 2008, 71; 231). There is a disparaging amor fati in the way The Stone Gods portrays collective (post)human societies as existentially greedy and presumes that we will always revert to type and prize fiscal gain over ecological considerations, perpetually attempting to achieve economic growth purely for the sake of achieving economic growth.

Unfortunately, this novel’s misanthropic contentions only seem to have been confirmed by the often insincere and largely fiscally motivated “ecological advances” that have ensued since its publication. In his 2018 article “The Colour of Money,” Fred Pearce contends that, following the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement, although there has been “a huge upswing of investment in ‘green’ bonds that profess to finance long-term projects needed to fight against climate change” in the financial sector, these bonds often do not sufficiently discriminate between the technologies in which they invest (36). Purportedly green bonds support hydroelectric technologies, for example, which, despite generating renewable energy, also—according to Pearce—“flood ecosystems, displace thousands of people and spread waterborne diseases” and so have a negative impact on the environment on aggregate (2018, 39).

Capitalism and consumerism are anathema to ecological harmony, as The Stone Gods makes apparent through its imagery of “the huge double laser arches […] giant golden Ms […], glittering under the sky, adapting to the weather” (Winterson 2008, 31). This passage’s defamiliarised depiction of the ubiquitous McDonald’s logo suggests that billboards on Orbus have been implanted with a technology which makes them adaptive to the changing weather around them, presumably in order that the company’s logo can be glimpsed by potential customers in any light conditions. Such a bathetic use of technology—expending finite energy resources in order to attempt to prospectively increase revenues—demonstrates the dangerous fallacy that our species’ priorities should be geared towards economic growth regardless of the resultant impact on the environment.

The Stone Gods emphasises that the near-global predominance of anthropocentric ideologies encourages us always to “want the human story” (Winterson 2008, 36) and to consider only the short-term and human-related implications of any action. This is because we conceive ourselves to be “The only intelligent life in the Universe […]. Solitary, privileged” (Winterson 2008, 67). As Pearce states, “The fixation on fast returns makes [capitalism] seemingly ill equipped to cope with a long-term problem like climate change” (2018, 36); indeed, the (post)humans of Orbus absurdly believe that “Without a doubt, parking is the number-one issue facing the[ir] world” (Winterson 2008, 42). Yet we ourselves—since the lives we are living today will detrimentally impact the everyday lives of future generations of (post)humans—are just as short sighted as the ludicrously ignorant citizens of Orbus who, for instance, unconcerned about pollution levels so long as they can buy the “designer versions” of air-masks (Winterson 2008, 44).

In his 2017 article “Postmodernism—Posthumanism—Evolutionary Anthropology,” Wolfgang Welsch asserts that if environmental sustainability is ever to become prevalent, it will only be able to do so by fostering alternative ideologies which emphasise that “we are inherently worldly beings, deeply rooted in the process of evolution, […] participants in the process of life, sharing a great many traits with other living beings” (76). As Billie proclaims in The Stone Gods, “Human beings aren’t just in a mess, we are a mess.” Contemporary (post) human societies ought to pay close attention to Klein’s avowal that “the solution to global warming is not to fix the world, it is to fix ourselves” (Winterson 2008, 216; Klein 2015, 279).

Unlike in the diegetic world of Winterson’s novel, we do not yet possess any reliable means of interstellar travel. Given that a 2018 research paper by Bruce M. Jakosky and Christopher S. Edwards, titled “Inventory of CO2 Available for Terraforming Mars,” suggests that it will be impossible to terraform Mars in the “foreseeable future” (638), once we enter the stage of runaway global warming there will simply be no option for our “beginning again differently” by relocating to a nearby planet (Winterson 2008, 39). As Winterson’s novel implies through its recursive temporal schema, in the Anthropocene readers need to work fast to take care of the planet they currently inhabit if they are to avoid their impending extinction which—unlike in The Stone Gods—they will be unable to escape by means of a planetary exodus.

3 The Book of Strange New Things

Released seven years later, Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things approaches the challenges of the Anthropocene in a different manner; but it is ultimately just as apocalyptic. The dire effects of climate change occur increasingly rapidly as the novel progresses, and so the impact of the Anthropocene on the lives of the novel’s characters undergoes an intensification even throughout its relatively short narrative timeframe. The text is set in a time where the 1980s band A Flock of Seagulls are deemed to be “vintage” and Star Wars “antiquated” (Faber 2015, 30; 266). Its depiction of life on Earth in a near-future temporality envisions the ramifications of the prospect that, as Bryan Lovell predicts in his 2011 book Challenged by Carbon, “our dependence on fossil fuels is likely to persist until 2050” (148). As the accelerated timescale of apocalyptic events in the novel suggests, the passage of time in the Anthropocene is phenomenologically quickened.

In The Book of Strange New Things, a minister named Peter leaves his wife Bea behind and travels to Oasis to become an intergalactic missionary, on a planet which is located “in a foreign solar system, trillions of miles from” Earth (Faber 2015, 47). Much of the novel’s narrative energy derives from the brief dispatches Peter receives from Bea back on Earth through a “Shoot”—a text based interface which enables rudimentary communication between the two planets (Faber 2015, 86). Taken as a whole, Bea’s messages gesture towards a cataclysmic depiction of a futuristic Earth’s being ravaged by anthropogenic climate change, in terms of which it becomes pertinent to dispute Hayles’ assertion in her 1996 article “The Life Cycle of Cyborgs” that, since “the human as a concept has been succeeded by its evolutionary heir[,] Humans are not the end of the line” (2016, 247). Rather, as things currently stand, we may very well be.

Although the novel’s second section is titled “ON EARTH,” its narrative only ever depicts Earth by proxy after Peter first leaves it. Yet the near-apocalyptic events occurring back on Earth hold immense significance within the text’s overarching plot (Faber 2015, 179). The final message Bea sends to Peter, for example, begins, “Peter, I love you. But please, don’t come home. I beg you. Stay where you are” (Faber 2015, 575), a message made terrifying by its evocative yet dire concision and by its choice to leave many of the latest tragedies occurring back on Earth purely to the reader’s—and Peter’s—imagination. Faber’s implication seems clear. Given that—as Thomas L. Friedman states in his 2008 book Hot, Flat, and Crowded—the superficial promotion of climate awareness within contemporary societies lies “out of all proportion to the time, energy, and effort going into designing a systemic solution” to the root causes of ecological crisis, it is likely that the catastrophic imagery of The Book of Strange New Things is soon to become an everyday reality outside of the realm of fiction (206).

Whilst the novel’s principal SFnal nova occur through Peter’s evangelistic attempts to convey the Christian Gospel to the thoroughly unfamiliar Oasans, these same nova are undergirded by the recurrent interposition of transmissions from an Earth upon which the mundane is fast becoming equally unfamiliar. The first transmission Peter receives from Bea after arriving on Oasis includes an ostensibly mundane aside about the weather, which “has been terrible since [he] left. Heavy downpours every day. […] There’s been flooding in some towns in the Midlands, cars floating down the street, etc. We’re OK except that the toilet bowl is slow to drain after a flush, ditto the plughole in the shower cubicle” (Faber 2015, 94). Bea reports this recent spell of unsavoury weather in a matter-of-fact tone and seems less concerned about its palpable—presumably temporary—impact on society than she is about its minor impact on her own familiar, suburbanite existence.

Since spats of bad weather themselves would appear not to be that far out of the ordinary, they are not notable enough to become a cause for concern or sustained reflection, unlike Bea’s drainage situation, which is evidently a perturbing inconvenience for her. As Haydn Washington and John Cook state in their 2011 book Climate Change Denial, the reticence of (post)human societies to recognise the gradually escalating effects of “Climate change has now got to the point where the elephant is all but filling the room. We may now talk about it, but we still deny it” (3). If, as the 2017 Renewables Global Futures Report worryingly asserts, there “appears to be no common view on the role that renewables will play in 2050 amongst experts from the conventional and renewables industries, the scientific community and policy makers,” this is at least partially due to the difficulty of conceiving that incremental—and hence primarily irritating—changes in local weather systems are symptomatic of just the beginning of a far wider-reaching anthropogenic planetary crisis (27).

When Bea chastises Peter that “You just don’t seem to appreciate how fast and how frighteningly and how MUCH things have changed” (Faber 2015, 428), her frenzied proclamation warns of the drastic disruption and strife that future generations of (post)humans will almost undoubtedly have to undergo on a habitual basis, since—as Daniel J. Fiorino states in his 2018 book Can Democracy Handle Climate Change?—“Much of the impact of climate change already is locked in” (104). As Fiorino emphasises, the onset of anthropogenic climate change is already “all around us, in the form of rising sea levels, intense storms, declining snowpack, costly droughts, heat waves, and worrisome trends in disease patterns” (2018, 104). Although many texts within the SF genre anticipate posthuman futures based on the assumption that there will continue to exist a continuum of posthumanity, our species is unlikely to realise such hypothesised further stages of posthuman progression. Like other cli-fi texts, Faber’s novel attempts to redress the myopic technophilia exerted by much of the existing body of science fiction.

As of Bea’s second Shoot transmission, anthropogenic climate change has become a major component of public consciousness and everyday reality in her society, as is evident by her message’s tragic opening, which reveals that “There has been a terrible tragedy in the Maldives. A tidal wave. It was the height of the tourist season. The place was teeming with visitors and it’s got a population of about a third of a million. Had. […] It’s one vast swamp of bodies. You see it on the news footage but you can’t take it in” (Faber 2015, 126). Whilst tsunamis are not directly caused by climate change, the level of danger they pose to (post)human communities living in low-lying coastal areas such as the Maldives is proportionately exacerbated by sea-level rises (Li et al, 2018).

Erratic weather continues to intrude further upon Bea’s mundane existence, as “blank space” (Faber 2015, 128) begins to gradually overtake supermarket shelves. It becomes progressively harder for Peter to reconcile his wife’s traumatic experiences of the increasingly hostile Earth with “his own glad tidings” (Faber 2015, 129) from his missionary successes on Oasis. Every newness in the novel is thereby counterpointed by the obliquely glimpsed impacts of climate change back on Earth. Michel Foucault’s prophecy—from his 1966 book The Order of Things—of humanity’s being “erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea” rapidly becomes identifiable in terms that exceed the merely theoretical (2003, 422).

Bea’s third communication is shorter and shows evidence that adverse living conditions have become her new normality, as is indicated by the parenthetical (and hence less notable) portion of the sentence “I really must go now and have a shower (assuming the plumbing hasn’t gone bung again)” (Faber 2015, 158). Bea’s weary aside seems to corroborate Wallace-Wells’ prediction that “In a four-degree-warmer world, the earth’s ecosystem will boil with so many natural disasters that we will just start calling them ‘weather’” (2019, 78). Although Klein argues that the inciting moment for environmental awareness may be brought about by any one major natural disaster, as “the world tends to look a little different when the objects we have worked our whole lives to accumulate are suddenly floating down the street” (465), our species’ proficiency in coming to terms with what was previously alien should not be underestimated. Somewhat predictably then, Bea’s fourth message to Peter first confirms that “The Maldives tragedy has dropped out of the media,” before it discloses that in the UK “The rain was ridiculous, it didn’t let up for five hours, full pelt. There were torrents flowing along the footpaths; the drains just aren’t designed to take that kind of volume” (Faber 2015, 173; 174). Bea’s new “normal” standards of weather, and hence her conditions of (post)human existence, are fundamentally abnormal by prior standards.

Washington and Cook note that “Historically, fear of change probably made sense, as change was often bad news. However, today the change is happening whether we like it or not, due to our actions” and inactions in everyday (post) human life (2011, 90). Although the mundane activities we undertake from day-to-day appear ephemeral in nature, their daily enactment has a lasting impact on our planet. Bea’s eleven successive communications are far more ominous in tone. One of these messages reads “things are falling apart fast. […] In our local supermarket there are apology stickers on most of the shelves, empty spaces everywhere. […] The news says that the supply problems are due to the chaos on the motorways because of the earthquake in Bedworth a few days back” (Faber 2015, 233). The inability of this supermarket to locate an alternate supplier is emblematic of our species-wide unwillingness to adjust our established routines in times of crisis, a behaviour which extends beyond the personal sphere. Wallace-Wells asserts that typically “we assume climate change will hit hardest elsewhere, not everywhere” (Wallace-Wells 2017). Although having to significantly alter our familiar practices to avert ecological catastrophe is never going to be a popular choice, we must come to recognise, as Klein contends, that beliefs “that we can solve the climate crisis without having to change our lifestyles in any way” are deeply flawed (Klein 2015, 232).

Bea reports that “A large chunk of North Korea was wiped out a few days ago. Not by a nuclear strike, or even a nuclear accident, but by a cyclone called Toraji. […] It was surreal” (Faber 2015, 238). Soon after, “the snow leopard is extinct,” Tesco has “gone bust,” a “volcanic eruption has destroyed one of the most densely populated cities in Guatemala,” and “Some of the wealthiest people in America were murdered […] dragged out of their homes and beaten to death” (Faber 2015, 250; 337; 354; 355). The rate at which these successive cataclysmic events impact (post)human society, coupled with their indiscriminate nature, make Bea’s reports truly horrifying. Peter eventually becomes so perturbed by Bea’s communiqués that he begins to feel “feverish and dehydrated” after reading her messages, and hallucinates a voice shouting “WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?,” which admonishes him for being separated from the disastrous events unfolding back on Earth (Faber 2015, 357; 358). This yelled invective also vicariously implicates the readers in Peter’s guilt, provoking them to interrogate their own modes of interaction with their host planet and to seek modes of reparation. The calamitous progression of Faber’s novel towards its dire conclusion dramatises the drastic acceleration of planetary history in the Anthropocene.

4 The Water Knife

Published a year later than Faber’s novel, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife takes a more direct approach to depicting the acceleration of planetary history upon (post)humanity. Whereas Faber’s novel narrated the catastrophic impacts of the Anthropocene through Shoot transmissions, Bacigalupi’s narrates them firsthand, and in a near-future American context. While the preceding texts analysed within this study mediated the cataclysmic impacts of climate change through intergalactic lenses, and so symbolically distanced that impending temporality from the readers’ own, The Water Knife depicts the imminent collapse of (post)human society firsthand and in gruesome detail.

In the novel’s Mundane SF milieu—an established SF subgenre which explicitly situates its SFnal nova within the otherwise recognizable fundaments of contemporary life—Arizona’s water reserves have run out, not only because its inhabitants “hadn’t been able to see something that was plain as day, coming straight at them,” but also because regional climate change has contributed to water supplies having become unreliable (Bacigalupi 2016, 113). The narrative of the text accordingly centres around a violent contestation among California, Arizona and Nevada over the rights to the waters of the Colorado River. Having become even more besieged by drought than they are in our contemporary world, the westernmost states of America have begun to contest the ownership of this river by acts of political sabotage. Texas, meanwhile, has already become all but uninhabitable; there are massive numbers of Texan refugees dispersed across the other beleaguered Western states as a result. The novel follows the lives of Angel, a hitman working for the state of Nevada; Lucy, a journalist based in Arizona; and Maria, an opportunistic refugee from Texas—as each of them attempts to survive day-to-day within the drought-stricken city of Phoenix, Arizona.

The (post)human technological mundane has been ruptured; the (post)humans of the novel’s diegesis are far more preoccupied with securing and preserving reliable sources of water for themselves than with utilising any ancillary form of technology. The corresponding rupture of Lucy’s society is evident in the disparity between the bucolic character of her webchat call to her relatives in “green safe” Vancouver and the house from which she is calling in Arizona, where “A truck idle[s] in the alley behind [her] house, a predatory gasoline growl. It had been rumbling outside for ten minutes and didn’t seem to be leaving” (Bacigalupi 2016, 76; 74). The call seems tantalisingly to leave the “two realities separated only by a thin wafer of computer screen” (Bacigalupi 2016, 76).

As an SF text, The Water Knife deploys a number of near future nova, including: “data glasses” (Bacigalupi 2016, 347) that appear to be able to store and retrieve information on the object of their gaze in real time; the “Clearsac” (Bacigalupi 2016, 91) which filters the toxins out of urine so that its user can imbibe the precious water from it that would otherwise be lost to the ground; and portable sources of “medical growth stimulant” which vastly improve recovery times from injuries (Bacigalupi 2016, 419). And yet these nova are part of such a nightmarishly-mundane social reality that their novelty seems irrelevant; they scarcely make an impact on the novel’s narrative. This, then, is a world where the (post)human fixation on technology has become decentered in favour of a now-mandatory fixation on the essential components of (post) human sustenance.

Whilst the Phoenix Development Board’s promotional material for the Phoenix Rising campaign envisions “a picture of a fiery bird spreading its wings behind a collage of laughing children,” just beneath “the billboard a security squad [armed with] M-16s” are herding the same civilians meant to be living in a city resurgent in fortune into waiting vehicles (Bacigalupi 2016, 123). In a world where corporate and political ideologies have become utterly irreconcilable with social reality, life has come to be starkly defined by water consumption, as is apparent when Maria states that “it made her nervous, staring at that pile of water they’d scored. Knowing the days of life it would support. Knowing that people would be inspired to just take it from her” (Bacigalupi 2016, 90). Water is no longer a natural resource but a precious commodity; any engagement with it is just as starkly necessary as it is deeply perilous. The Water Knife’s near future vision is terrifying precisely because, as Wallace-Wells states in his 2017 article “The Uninhabitable Earth,” “absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.”

At a refugee settlement which characters in the novel visit, “Pure Life and Aquafina and CamelBak had set up relief tents. Getting good PR photos of how they cared for refugees,” their underlying motive is opportunistic rather than altruistic (Bacigalupi 2016, 101). And yet, corporate interests and environmentally friendly policy can co-exist. As Fiorino states, “climate action delivers ecological, health, economic, and social benefits” when carefully enacted (2018, 97). In his 2014 book Feral, George Monbiot outlines the benefits, for example, of a project which will “reintroduce the complexity and trophic diversity in which our ecosystems are lacking” by allowing the range of species that constitute native wildlife to repopulate in less intensely post-natural conditions (117). Monbiot concludes that the reintroduction of wolves to the Scottish Highlands would actually make estates “more profitable” by outsourcing the (post) human labour and resources necessary to regulate large populations of deer to their natural predator (2014, 116). Likewise in The Water Knife, many animals are managing to thrive even whilst (post)humanity finds itself in a state of catastrophe; when they need to find water “They’d smell it, anyway. Animals are better at this stuff than we are. Human beings, we’re stupid in comparison to a coyote” (Bacigalupi 2016, 114). As Monbiot emphasises, “The planet was, before its food webs were broken up, controlled by animals and plants [and so] the earth functions as a coherent and self-regulating system” outside of (post) human influence; we are the prime factor that prevents life on our planet from operating in an autopoietic manner (2014, 242). The extent of (post)humanity’s stupidity is apparent once more when, after waking in a wealthy suitor’s apartment, Maria is amazed that when she turns on the shower “More water than all of her score at the Red Cross pump gushed down her body and disappeared down the drain” (Bacigalupi 2016, 214). In the novel, climate change has only perpetuated and worsened extant inequalities, even whilst the social mundane of the wealthy has continued unabated. Maria’s suitor is like many of us; he truly does not “realize the magic of his life,” a life sustained by an abundance of everyday conveniences which are taken entirely for granted (Bacigalupi 2016, 216).

As Erik Bichard realises in his 2014 book The Coming of Age of the Green Community, “The social implication of [climate change] will be that the vulnerable and the less well-off will suffer first and disproportionately [but that] Ultimately everyone will suffer as the fabric of society unravels” (120). Bourgeois individuals should not feel themselves exempt from the coming repercussions of (post)humanity’s detrimental impact on our host planet. In The Water Knife, Lucy discovers that regardless of “all the statistics of people displaced by tornadoes and hurricanes and swamped coastlines, these piled corpses […] struck [her] more forcefully” (Bacigalupi 2016, 135). By depicting the novel’s apocalyptic near-future temporality so vividly and urgently, Bacigalupi’s pessimistic, even tragic narrative has the same diegetic effect on the reader as the piled corpses do on Lucy.

5 Conclusion

As the analysis herein has demonstrated, our species’ collective lack of progress towards a position closer to symbiosis with our planetary environment over the last three decades is both shocking and perilous. Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is critical, yet hopeful, about the propensity of our species to adapt; Winterson’s The Stone Gods is significantly more ludic, misanthropic and fatalistic; Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things implies the urgency of the need for change in the present; even more desperately, Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife brings its apocalyptic vision to bear on an America we can all recognise. Although The Water Knife bears a degree of similarity to Robinson’s Mars Trilogy in the sense that they both effectively attempt to compel their readers to modify the manner by which they interact with the planet they live on, there lies a lingering sense, in the intervening twenty years between their respective publications, that the battle might already have been lost. The temporal logic of the Anthropocene which these texts collectively depict is characterised by a claustrophobic sense of catastrophe; they expose the extent to which the future gradually becomes an increasingly precarious territory.

This article has demonstrated that these four representative cli-fi texts—particularly when read as constituent pieces of a larger subgeneric movement—bear important reflections regarding the position of our species in the Anthropocene epoch. They are texts that break new ground from the largely technophilic canon of SF which precedes them; they attempt to redirect the posthuman dream of the genre away from technological progress and towards the environmental considerations we all need to make in the present if our species is to have a future. In order to investigate whether these findings can be extrapolated more widely within the cli-fi subgenre, the extent to which other cli-fi texts fit this model must be the subject of further critical enquiry. Since this article is entirely focused on cli-fi from the Western Anglophone context, cli-fi from other literary traditions across the Earth must also be a focus for future research in the field. As demonstrated by the cli-fi texts that this article has analysed, (post)humanity must either rapidly and comprehensively rethink the nature of its position on—and responsibilities towards—our already postnatural planet, or we will soon have to confront our own extinction. Either way, however, we will need to fully come to terms with the grim fatalism of Suvin’s avowal that “we and our ideologies are not the end product history has been laboring for from the time of the first saber-toothed tigers and Mesopotamian city-states” (1980, 83).


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Our future in the Anthropocene biosphere

Ambio volume 50, pages834–869 (2021)Cite this article


The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed an interconnected and tightly coupled globalized world in rapid change. This article sets the scientific stage for understanding and responding to such change for global sustainability and resilient societies. We provide a systemic overview of the current situation where people and nature are dynamically intertwined and embedded in the biosphere, placing shocks and extreme events as part of this dynamic; humanity has become the major force in shaping the future of the Earth system as a whole; and the scale and pace of the human dimension have caused climate change, rapid loss of biodiversity, growing inequalities, and loss of resilience to deal with uncertainty and surprise. Taken together, human actions are challenging the biosphere foundation for a prosperous development of civilizations. The Anthropocene reality—of rising system-wide turbulence—calls for transformative change towards sustainable futures. Emerging technologies, social innovations, broader shifts in cultural repertoires, as well as a diverse portfolio of active stewardship of human actions in support of a resilient biosphere are highlighted as essential parts of such transformations.


Humans are the dominant force of change on the planet, giving rise to a new epoch referred to as the Anthropocene. This new epoch has profound meaning for humanity and one that we are only beginning to fully comprehend. We now know that society needs to be viewed as part of the biosphere, not separate from it. Depending on the collective actions of humanity, future conditions could be either beneficial or hostile for human life and wellbeing in the Anthropocene biosphere. Whether humanity has the collective wisdom to navigate the Anthropocene to sustain a livable biosphere for people and civilizations, as well as for the rest of life with which we share the planet, is the most formidable challenge facing humanity.

This article provides a systemic overview of the Anthropocene biosphere, a biosphere shaped by human actions. It is structured around the core themes of the first Nobel Prize Summit—Our Planet, Our Future, namely climate change and biodiversity loss, inequality and global sustainability, and science, technology, and innovation to enable societal transformations while anticipating and reducing potential harms (Box 1). These interconnected themes are framed in the context of the biosphere and the Earth system foundation for global sustainability, emphasizing that people and nature are deeply intertwined. Scientific evidence makes clear that both climate change and biodiversity loss are symptoms of the great acceleration of human actions into the Anthropocene, rather than independent phenomena, and that they interact, and interact with social, economic, and cultural development. It emphasizes that efficiency through simplification of our global production ecosystem challenges biosphere resilience in times when resilience is needed more than ever, as a critical asset of flexibility and insurance, for navigating rising turbulence, extreme events, and the profound uncertainty of the Anthropocene. This implies that not only will it be critical to curb human-induced climate change but also to enhance the regenerative capacity of the biosphere, and its diversity, to support and sustain societal development, to collaborate with the planet that is our home, and collaborate in a socially just and sustainable manner. This is the focus of the last part of this article on biosphere stewardship for prosperity. We stress that prosperity and wellbeing for present and future generations will require mobilization, innovation, and narratives of societal transformations that connect development to stewardship of human actions as part of our life-supporting biosphere.

BOX 1 The first Nobel Prize Summit – Our Planet, Our Future


The first Nobel Prize Summit, Our Planet, Our Future, is an online convening to discuss the state of the planet at a critical juncture for humanity. The Summit brings together Nobel Laureates and other leading scientists with thought leaders, policy makers, business leaders, and young people to explore solutions to immediate challenges facing our global civilization: mitigate and adapt to the threat posed by climate change and biodiversity loss, reduce inequalities and lift people out of poverty, and made even more urgent due to the economic hardships posed by the pandemic, and harness science, technology, and innovation to enable societal transformations while anticipating and reducing potential harms. The Nobel Prize Summit includes both workshops, publications, and online programmes in forms of webinars, pre-events, and the Nobel Prize Summit days on April 26–28, 2021. The Summit is convened by the Nobel Foundation, in partnership with the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, and the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University/Beijer Institute, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. This article is a condensed and updated version of the White Paper “Our future in the Anthropocene biosphere: global sustainability and resilient societies” (Folke et al. 2020) written for the Nobel Prize Summit.Show more

The biosphere and the earth system foundation

Embedded in the biosphere

The Universe is immense, estimates suggest at least two trillion galaxies (Conselice et al. 2016). Our galaxy, the Milky Way, holds 100 to 400 billion stars. One of those stars, our sun, has eight planets orbiting it. One of those, planet Earth, has a biosphere, a complex web of life, at its surface. The thickness of this layer is about twenty kilometres (twelve miles). This layer, our biosphere, is the only place where we know life exists. We humans emerged and evolved within the biosphere. Our economies, societies, and cultures are part of it. It is our home.

Across the ocean and the continents, the biosphere integrates all living beings, their diversity, and their relationships. There is a dynamic connection between the living biosphere and the broader Earth system, with the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the lithosphere, the cryosphere, and the climate system. Life in the biosphere is shaped by the global atmospheric circulation, jet streams, atmospheric rivers, water vapour and precipitation patterns, the spread of ice sheets and glaciers, soil formation, upwelling currents of coastlines, the ocean’s global conveyer belt, the distribution of the ozone layer, movements of the tectonic plates, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. Water serves as the bloodstream of the biosphere, and the carbon, nitrogen, and other biogeochemical cycles are essential for all life on Earth (Falkenmark et al. 2019; Steffen et al. 2020). It is the complex adaptive interplay between living organisms, the climate, and broader Earth system processes that has evolved into a resilient biosphere.

The biosphere has existed for about 3.5 billion years. Modern humans (Homo sapiens) have effectively been around in the biosphere for some 250 000 years (Mounier and Lahr 2019). Powered by the sun, the biosphere and the Earth system coevolve with human actions as an integral part of this coevolution (Lenton 2016; Jörgensen et al. 2019). Social conditions, health, culture, democracy, power, justice, inequity, matters of security, and even survival are interwoven with the Earth system and its biosphere in a complex interplay of local, regional, and worldwide interactions and dependencies (Folke et al. 2016).

Belief systems that view humans and nature as separate entities have emerged with economic development, technological change, and cultural evolution. But the fact that humans are living within and dependent upon a resilient biosphere has and will not change. Existing as embedded within the biosphere means that the environment is not something outside the economy or society, or a driver to be accounted for when preferred, but rather the very foundation that civilizations exist within and rely upon (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1
A dominant force on earth

The human population reached one billion around 1800. It doubled to two billion around 1930, and doubled again to four billion around 1974. The global population is now approaching 8 billion and is expected to stabilize around 9–11 billion towards the end of this century (UN 2019). During the past century, and especially since the 1950s, there has been an amazing acceleration and expansion of human activities into a converging globalized society, supported by the discovery and use of fossil energy and innovations in social organization, technology, and cultural evolution (Ellis 2015; van der Leeuw 2019). Globalization has helped focus attention on human rights, international relations, and agreements leading to collaboration (Keohane et al. 2009; Rogelj et al. 2016; Bain 2019) and, rather remarkably, it appears, at least so far, to have inhibited large-scale conflict between states that have plagued civilizations from time immemorial. Health and material standards of living for many have improved and more people live longer than at any time in history. Boundaries between developed and developing regions have become blurred, and global economic activity is increasingly dispersed across production networks that connect metropolitan areas around the world (Coe et al. 2004; Liu et al. 2015).

Now, there is ample evidence that the cumulative human culture has expanded to such an extent that it has become a significant global force affecting the operation of the Earth system and its biosphere at the planetary level (Steffen et al. 2018). As a reflection of this unprecedented expansion, a new geological epoch—the Anthropocene, the age of mankind—has been proposed in the Geological Time Scale (AWG 2019).

Work on anthropogenic biomes finds that more than 75% of Earth’s ice-free land is directly altered as a result of human activity, with nearly 90% of terrestrial net primary production and 80% of global tree cover under direct human influence (Ellis and Ramankutty 2008). Similarly, in the ocean, no area is unaffected by human influence and a large fraction (41%) is strongly affected by multiple human impacts (Halpern et al. 2008). For example, oxygen-minimum zones for life and oxygen concentrations in both the open ocean and coastal waters have been declining since at least the middle of the twentieth century, as a consequence of rising nutrient loads from human actions coupled with warmer temperatures (Limburg et al. 2020). Just as on land, there has been a blue acceleration in the ocean, with more than 50% of the vast ocean seabed claimed by nations (Jouffray et al. 2020).

The human dominance is further reflected in the weight of the current human population—10 times the weight of all wild mammals. If we add the weight of livestock for human use and consumption to the human weight, only 4% of the weight of mammals on Earth remain wild mammals. The weight of domesticated birds exceeds that of wild birds by about threefold (Bar-On et al. 2018). The human dimension has become a dominant force in shaping evolution of all species on Earth. Through artificial selection and controlled reproduction of crops, livestock, trees, and microorganisms, through varying levels of harvest pressure and selection, through chemicals and pollution altering life-histories of species, and by sculpting the new habitats that blanket the planet, humans, directly and indirectly, determine the constitution of species that succeed and fail (Jörgensen et al. 2019).

Humans are now primarily an urban species, with about 55% of the population living in urban areas. By mid-century, about 7 out of 10 people are expected to live in cities and towns (UN DESA 2018). In terms of urban land area, this is equivalent to building a city the size of New York City every 8 days (Huang et al. 2019). Urbanization leads to more consumption, and the power relations, inequalities, behaviours, and choices of urban dwellers shape landscapes and seascapes and their diversity around the world (Seto et al. 2012ab). There is growing evidence that urban areas accelerate evolutionary changes for species that play important functional roles in communities and ecosystems (Alberti et al. 2017).

In addition, essential features of the globalized world like physical infrastructure, technological artefacts, novel substances, and associated social and technological networks have been developing extraordinarily fast. The total weight of everything made by humans—from houses and bridges to computers and clothes—is about to exceed the mass of all living things on Earth (Elhacham et al. 2020). The extensive “technosphere” dimension underscores the novelty of the ongoing planetary changes, plays a significant role in shaping global biosphere dynamics, and has already left a deep imprint on the Earth system (Zalasiewicz et al. 2017).

The notion that humanity is external to the biosphere has allowed for models in which technological progress is expected to enable humanity to enjoy ever-growing GDP and thus consumption. This view was comparatively harmless, as long as the biosphere was sufficiently resilient to supply the demands humanity made of it. This is no longer the case, and it has far-reaching implications for contemporary models of economic possibilities that many still work with and draw policy conclusions from (Dasgupta and Ramanathan 2014; Dasgupta 2021).

The intertwined planet of people and nature

The Anthropocene is characterized by a tightly interconnected world operating at high speeds with hyper-efficiency in several dimensions. These dimensions include the globalized food production and distribution system, extensive trade and transport systems, strong connectivity of financial and capital markets, internationalized supply and value chains, widespread movements of people, social innovations, development and exchange of technology, and widespread communication capacities (Helbing 2013) (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2

In the Anthropocene biosphere, systems of people and nature are not just linked but intertwined, and intertwined across temporal and spatial scales (Reyers et al. 2018). Local events can escalate into global challenges, and local places are shaped by global dynamics (Adger et al. 2009; Crona et al. 20152016; Liu et al. 2016; Kummu et al. 2020). The tightly coupled human interactions of globalization that allow for the continued flow of information, capital, goods, services, and people, also create global systemic risk (Centeno et al. 2015; Galaz et al. 2017). However, this interplay is not only global between people and societies but co-evolving also with biosphere dynamics shaping the preconditions for human wellbeing and civilizations (Jörgensen et al. 2018; Keys et al. 2019). For example, extreme-weather and geopolitical events, interacting with the dynamics of the food system (Cottrell et al. 2019), can spill over multiple sectors and create synchronous challenges among geographically disconnected areas and rapidly move across countries and regions (Rocha et al. 2018). The rise of antibiotic resistance, the rapid spread of the corona-pandemic, or altered moisture recycling across regions expose the intertwined world. Probabilities and consequences of the changes are not only scale dependent, but also changing over time as a result of human actions, where those actions can either exacerbate or mitigate the likelihood or consequences of a given event.

In the twenty-first century, people and planet are truly interwoven and coevolve, shaping the preconditions for civilizations. Our own future on Earth, as part of the biosphere, is at stake. This new reality has major implications for human wellbeing in the face of climate change, loss of biodiversity, and their interplay, as elaborated in the next section.

Climate change and loss of biodiversity

Contemporary climate change and biodiversity loss are not isolated phenomena but symptoms of the massive expansion of the human dimension into the Anthropocene. The climate system plays a central role for life on Earth. It sets the boundary for our living conditions. The climate system is integral to all other components of the Earth system, through heat exchange in the ocean, albedo dynamics of the ice sheets, carbon sinks in terrestrial ecosystems, cycles of nutrients and pollutants, and climate forcing through evapotranspiration flows in the hydrological cycle and greenhouse pollutants. Together these interactions in the Earth system interplay with the heat exchange from the sun and the return flow back to space, but also in significant ways with biosphere-climate feedbacks that either mitigate or amplify global warming. These global dynamics interact with regional environmental systems (like ENSO or the monsoon system) that have innate patterns of climate variability and also interact with one another via teleconnections (Steffen et al. 2020). The living organisms of the planet’s ecosystems play a significant role in these complex dynamics (Mace et al. 2014).

Now, human-induced global warming alters the capacity of the ocean, forests, and other ecosystems in sequestering about half of the CO2 emissions, as well as storing large amounts of greenhouse gases (GHG) in soils and peatlands (Steffen et al. 2018). Increased emissions of GHG by humans are creating severe climate shocks and extremes already at 1.2° warming compared to pre-industrial levels (WMO 2020). In addition, human homogenization and simplification of landscapes and seascapes cause loss of biosphere resilience, with subsequent erosion of the role of the fabric of nature in generating ecosystem services (Diaz et al. 2018) and serving as insurance to shocks and surprise and to tipping points and regime shifts (Nyström et al. 2019).

Climate change—stronger and faster than predicted

Earth has been oscillating between colder and warmer periods over a million years (the entire Pleistocene), but the average mean temperature has never exceeded 2 °C (interglacial) above or 6 °C below (deep ice age) the pre-industrial temperature on Earth (14 °C), reflecting the importance of feedbacks from the living biosphere as part of regulating the temperature dynamics of the Earth (Willeit et al. 2019) (Fig. 3b).

Fig. 3

Human-induced global warming is unparalleled. For 98% of the planet’s surface, the warmest period of the past 2000 years occurred in the late twentieth century (Neukom et al. 2019) and has steadily increased into the twenty-first century with the average global temperature for 2015–2020 being the warmest of any equivalent period on record (WMO 2020). Already now at 1.2 °C warming compared to pre-industrial levels, we appear to be moving out of the accommodating Holocene environment that allowed agriculture and complex human societies to develop (Steffen et al. 2018) (Fig. 3a). Already within the coming 50 years, 1 to 3 billion people are projected to experience living conditions that are outside of the climate conditions that have served humanity well over the past 6000 years (Xu et al. 2020).

Currently, some 55% of global anthropogenic emissions causing global warming derive from the production of energy and its use in buildings and transport. The remaining 45% comes from human emissions that arise from the management of land and the production of buildings, vehicles, electronics, clothes, food, packaging, and other goods and materials (Ellen MacArthur Foundation 2019). The food system itself accounts for about 25% of the emissions (Mbow et al. 2019). Human-driven land-use change through agriculture, forestry, and other activities (Lambin and Meyfroidt 2011) causes about 14% of the emissions (Friedlingstein et al. 2020). Cities account for about 70% of CO2 emissions from final energy use and the highest emitting 100 urban areas for 18% of the global carbon footprint (Seto et al. 2014; Moran et al. 2018). About 70% of industrial greenhouse gas emissions are linked to 100 fossil-fuel producing companies (Griffin and Hede 2017). Collectively, the top 10 emitting countries account for three quarters of global GHG emissions, while the bottom 100 countries account for only 3.5% (WRI 2020). As a consequence of the pandemic, global fossil CO2 emission in 2020 decreased by about 7% compared to 2019 (Friedlingstein et al. 2020).

Climate change impacts are hitting people harder and sooner than envisioned a decade ago (Diffenbaugh 2020). This is especially true for extreme events, like heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, extreme precipitation, floods, storms, and variations in their frequency, magnitude, and duration. The distribution and impacts of extreme events are often region specific (Turco et al. 2018; Yin et al. 2018). For example, Europe has experienced several extreme heat waves since 2000 and the number of heat waves, heavy downpours, and major hurricanes, and the strength of these events, has increased in the United States. The risk for wildfires in Australia has increased by at least 30% since 1900 as a result of anthropogenic climate change (van Oldenborgh et al. 2020). The recent years of repeated wildfires in the western U.S. and Canada have had devastating effects (McWethy et al. 2019). Extreme events have the potential to widen existing inequalities within and between countries and regions (UNDP 2019). In particular, synchronous extremes are risky in a globally connected world and may cause disruptions in global food production (Cottrell et al. 2019; Gaupp et al. 2020). Pandemics, like the COVID-19 outbreak and associated health responses, intersect with climate hazards and are exacerbated by the economic crisis and long-standing socioeconomic and racial disparities, both within countries and across regions (Phillips et al. 2020).

Some of these changes will happen continuously and gradually over time, while others take the form of more sudden and surprising change (Cumming and Peterson 2017). In addition, some are to some extent predictable, others more uncertain and unexpected. An analysis of a large database of social-ecological regime shifts (large shifts in the structure and function of social-ecological systems, transitions that may have substantial impacts on human economies and societies), suggests that in the intertwined world one change may lead to another, or that events can co-occur because they simply share the same driver (Rocha et al. 2018). Large-scale transitions can unfold when a series of linked elements are all close to a tipping point, making it easier for one transition to set off the others like a chain reaction or domino effect (Scheffer et al. 2012; Lenton et al. 2019).

With increased warming, humanity risks departing the glacier-interglacial dynamics of the past 2.6 million years (Burke et al. 2018). If efforts to constrain emissions fail, the global average temperature by 2100 is expected to increase 3–5 °C (IPCC 2014) above pre-industrial levels. Although higher global temperatures have occurred in deep geological time, living in a biosphere with a mean annual global temperature exceeding 2 °C of the pre-industrial average (Fig. 3) is largely unknown terrain for humanity and certainly novel terrain for contemporary society.

The climate and the biosphere interplay

The relation between climate and the biosphere is being profoundly altered and reshaped by human action. The total amount of carbon stored in terrestrial ecosystems is huge, almost 60 times larger than the current annual emissions of global GHG (CO2 equivalents, 2017) by humans, and with the major part, about 70% (1500–2400 Gt C) found in soil (Ciais et al. 2013). The ocean holds a much larger carbon pool, at about 38 000 Gt of carbon (Houghton 2007). Thus far, terrestrial and marine ecosystems have served as important sinks for carbon dioxide and thereby contribute significantly to stabilizing the climate. At current global average temperature, the ocean absorbs about 25% of annual carbon emissions (Gruber et al. 2019) and absorbs over 90% of the additional heat generated from those emissions. Land-based ecosystems like forests, wetlands, and grasslands bind carbon dioxide through growth, and all in all sequester close to 30% of anthropogenic CO2 emissions (Global Carbon Project 2019).

The biosphere’s climate stabilization is a critical ecosystem service, or Earth system service, which cannot be taken for granted. Recent research has shown that not only human land-use change but also climate impacts, like extreme events and temperature change, increasingly threaten carbon sinks. For example, the vast fires in Borneo in 1997 released an equivalent of 13–40% of the mean annual global carbon emissions from fossil fuels at that time (Page et al. 2002; Folke et al. 2011). The devastating forest fires of 2019 in Australia, Indonesia, and the Amazon triggered emissions equivalent to almost 40% of the annual global carbon sink on land and in the ocean (

The Earth system contains several biophysical sub-systems that can exist in multiple states and which contribute to the regulation of the state of the planet as a whole (Steffen et al. 2018). These so-called tipping elements, or sleeping giants (Fig. 4), have been identified as critical in maintaining the planet in favourable Holocene-like conditions. These are now challenged by global warming and human actions, threatening to trigger self-reinforcing feedbacks and cascading effects, which could push the Earth system towards a planetary threshold that, if crossed, could prevent stabilization of the climate at intermediate global warming and cause escalating climate change along a “Hothouse Earth” pathway even as human emissions are reduced (Steffen et al. 2018). Observations find that nine of these known sleeping giants, thought to be reasonably stable, are now undergoing large-scale changes already at current levels of warming, with possible domino effects to come (Lenton et al. 2019).

Fig. 4

The significance of the challenge of holding global warming in line with the Paris climate target is obvious. As a matter of fact, the challenge is broader than climate alone. It is about navigating towards a safe-operating space that depends on maintaining a high level of Earth resilience. Incremental tweaking and marginal adjustments will not suffice. Major transformations towards just and sustainable futures are the bright way forward.

The living biosphere and Earth system dynamics

The interactions and diversity of organisms within and across the planet’s ecosystems play critical roles in the coevolution of the biosphere and the broader Earth system. For example, major biomes like tropical and temperate forests and their biological diversity transpire water vapour that connects distant regions through precipitation (Gleeson et al. 2020ab). Nearly a fifth of annual average precipitation falling on land is from vegetation-regulated moisture recycling, with several places receiving nearly half their precipitation through this ecosystem service. Such water connections are critical for semi-arid regions reliant on rain-fed agricultural production and for water supply to major cities like Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro (Keys et al. 2016). As many as 19 megacities depend for more than a third of their water supply on water vapour from land, a dependence especially relevant during dry years (Keys et al. 2018). In some of the world’s largest river basins, precipitation is influenced more strongly by land-use change taking place outside than inside the river basin (Wang-Erlandsson et al. 2018).

The biosphere contains life-supporting ecosystems supplying essential ecosystem services that underpin human wellbeing and socioeconomic development. For example, the biosphere strongly influences the chemical and physical compositions of the atmosphere, and biodiversity contributes through its influence in generating and maintaining soils, controlling pests, pollinating food crops, and participating in biogeochemical cycles (Daily 1997). The ocean’s food webs, continental shelves, and estuaries support the production of seafood, serve as a sink for greenhouse gases, maintain water quality, and hedge against unanticipated ecosystem changes from natural or anthropogenic causes (Worm et al. 2006). These services represent critical life-supporting functions for humanity (Odum 1989; Reyers and Selig 2020) and biological diversity plays fundamental roles in these nature’s contributions to people (Diaz et al. 2018).

Biodiversity performing vital roles in biosphere resilience

Organisms do not just exist and compete, they perform critical functions in ecosystem dynamics and in creating and providing social-ecological resilience (Folke et al. 2004; Hooper et al. 2005; Tilman et al. 2014) (Fig. 5). Resilience refers to the capacity of a system to persist with change, to continue to develop with ever changing environments (Reyers et al. 2018).

Fig. 5

Biodiversity plays significant roles in buffering shocks and extreme events, and in regime shift dynamics (Folke et al. 2004). The diversity of functional groups and traits of species and populations are essential for ecosystem integrity and the generation of ecosystem services (Peterson et al. 1998; Hughes et al. 2007; Isbell et al. 2017). Variation in responses of species performing the same function is crucial in resilience to shocks or extreme events (Chapin et al. 1997). Such “response diversity”, serves as insurance for the capacity of ecosystems to regenerate, continue to develop after disturbance and support human wellbeing (Elmqvist et al. 2003).

The Amazon rainforest is a prime example. Conserving a diversity of plants species may enable the Amazon forests to adjust to new climate conditions and protect the critical carbon sink function (Sakschewski et al. 2016). Frequent extreme drought events have the potential to destabilize large parts of the Amazon forest especially when subsoil moisture is low (Singh et al. 2020), but the risk of self-amplified forest loss is reduced with increasing heterogeneity in the response of forest patches to reduced rainfall (Zemp et al. 2017). However, continuous deforestation and simultaneous warming are likely to push the forest towards tipping points with wide-ranging implications (Hirota et al. 2011; Staver et al. 2011; Lovejoy and Nobre 2018). Also, with greater climate variability, tree longevity is shortened, thus, influencing carbon accumulation and the role of the Amazon forest as a carbon sink (Brienen et al. 2015). A large-scale shift of the Amazon would cause major impacts on wellbeing far outside the Amazon basin through changes in precipitation and climate regulation, and by linking with other tipping elements in the Earth system (Fig. 4).

Hence, the resilience of multifunctional ecosystems across space and time, and in both aquatic and terrestrial environments, depends on the contributions of many species, and their distribution, redundancy, and richness at multitrophic levels performing critical functions in ecosystems and biosphere dynamics (Mori et al. 2013; Nash et al. 2016; Soliveres et al. 2016; Frei et al. 2020). Biodiversity and a resilient biosphere are a reflection of life continuously being confronted with uncertainty and the unknown. Diversity builds and sustains insurance and keeps systems resilient to changing circumstances (Hendershot et al. 2020).

Homogenization, hyper-connectivity, and critical transitions

Conversion and degradation of habitats have caused global biodiversity declines and defaunation (human-caused animal loss), with extensive cascading effects in marine, terrestrial, and freshwater ecosystems as a result, and altered ecosystem functions and services (Laliberte et al. 2010; Estes et al. 2011). Over the past 50 years of human acceleration, the capacity of nature to support quality of life has declined in 78% of the 18 categories of nature’s contributions to people considered by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (Diaz et al. 2018).

Much of the Earth’s biosphere has been converted into production ecosystems, i.e. ecosystems simplified and homogenized for the production of one or a few harvestable species (Nyström et al. 2019). Urbanization is a force in homogenizing and altering biodiversity in landscapes and seascapes (Seto et al. 2012b), and over the past decade land-use change (Meyfroidt et al. 2018) accounted for nearly a quarter of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (Arneth et al. 2019).

The increase in homogeneity worldwide denotes the establishment of a global standard food supply, which is relatively species rich at the national level, but species poor globally (Khoury et al. 2014). Globally, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are disappearing (Diaz et al. 2018). Land-use intensification homogenizes biodiversity in local assemblages of species worldwide (Newbold et al. 2018) and counteracts a positive association between species richness and dietary quality. It also affects ecosystem services and wellbeing in low- and middle-income countries (Lachat et al. 2018; Vang Rasmussen et al. 2018). In much of the world more than half, up to 90%, of locally adapted varieties of major crop species (e.g. wheat and rice) have been lost due to replacement by single high-yielding varieties (Heal et al. 2004).

The simplification and intensification of production ecosystems and their tight connectivity with international markets have yielded a global production ecosystem that is very efficient in delivering goods to markets, but globally homogeneous, highly interconnected, and characterized by weakened internal feedbacks that mask or dilute the signals of loss of ecosystem resilience to consumers (Nyström et al. 2019; Ortiz et al. 2021). In addition, the global food trade network has over the past 20 years become progressively delocalized as a result of globalization (that is, modularity has been reduced) and as connectivity and homogeneity increase, shocks that were previously contained within a geographical area or a sector are becoming globally contagious and more prevalent (Tamea et al. 2016; Tu et al. 2019; Kummu et al. 2020).

Homogenization reduces resilience, the capacity to live and develop with change and uncertainty, and therby the diversity of ways in which species, people, sectors, and institutions can respond to change as well as their potential to functionally complement each other (Biggs et al. 2012; Grêt-Regamey et al. 2019; Nyström et al. 2019). In addition, homogeneous landscapes lack the diversity of ecosystem types for resilient responses when a single homogeneous landscape patch, such as a production forest or crop, is devastated by pathogens or declines in economic value. In addition, such ecosystem simplification and degradation increase the likelihood of disease emergence, including novel viruses (Myers and Patz 2009). In parallel, people, places, cultures, and economies are increasingly linked across geographical locations and socioeconomic contexts, making people and planet intertwined at all scales.

Evidence suggests that homogenization, simplification, intensification, strong connections, as well as suppression of variance, increase the likelihood of regime shifts, or critical transitions with thresholds and tipping points (Scheffer et al. 2012; Carpenter et al. 2015). These shifts may interact and cascade, thereby causing change at very large scales with severe implications for the wellbeing of human societies (Hughes et al. 2013; Rocha et al. 2018). Comparison of the present extent of biosphere conversion with past global-scale regime shifts suggests that global-scale biosphere regime shift is more than plausible (Barnosky et al. 2012). The biotic hallmark for each earlier biosphere regime shifts was pronounced change in global, regional, and local assemblages of species (Barnosky et al. 2012).

Planetary boundaries and a safe-operating space for humanity

It is in the self-interest of humanity to avoid pushing ecosystems or the entire Earth system across tipping points. Therefore, a major challenge is to enhance biosphere resilience and work towards stabilizing the Earth system and its biosphere in a state that, hopefully, is safe for humanity to operate within, albeit a warmer state than the Holocene and one with a human-dominated biosphere. Clearly, the climatic system and the biological diversity and functional integrity of the biosphere, as well as their interplay, are foundational for cultivating a resilient Earth system.

Climate and biosphere integrity constitute the two fundamental dimensions of the Planetary Boundaries framework, which delineates a Holocene-like state of the Earth system, the state that has enabled civilizations to emerge and flourish (Fig. 6). Four of the nine boundaries, including climate and biodiversity, are estimated to already have been transgressed. The framework provides a natural-science-based observation that human forcing has already, at the planetary scale, rapidly pushed the Earth system away from the Holocene-like conditions and onto an accelerating Anthropocene trajectory (Steffen et al. 2018).

Fig. 6

In recent years, there have been several efforts to further investigate and deepen the understanding of planetary boundaries and the safe-operating space for humanity. These include updates on the biodiversity boundary, the freshwater boundary, the biogeochemical flows (Carpenter and Bennett 2011; de Vries et al. 2013; Mace et al. 2014; Newbold et al. 2016; Gleeson et al. 2020b), multiple regime shifts and possible links between regional and planetary tipping points (Anderies et al. 2013; Hughes et al. 2013), regional perspectives on the framework (Häyhä et al. 2016; O’Neill et al. 2018), and creating safe-operating spaces (Scheffer et al. 2015). Attempts to quantify interactions between planetary boundaries suggest that cascades and feedbacks predominantly amplify human impacts on the Earth system and thereby shrink the safe-operating space for human actions in the Anthropocene (Lade et al. 2020).

There are also propositions for integrating the planetary boundaries framework with economic, social, and human dimensions (Raworth 2012; Dearing et al. 2014; Downing et al. 2019) as well as tackling the policy and governance challenges associated with the approach (Biermann et al. 2012; Galaz et al. 2012; Sterner et al. 2019; Pickering and Persson 2020; Engström et al. 2020). The global food system is also placed within the framework of the planetary boundaries (Gordon et al. 2017), like in the EAT-Lancet Commission’s report on healthy diets from sustainable food systems for nearly 10 billion people by 2050 (Willett et al. 2019).

In light of the profound challenges of navigating the future of human societies towards a stabilized Earth state, it becomes clear that modest adjustments on current pathways of societal development are not very likely to guide humanity into sustainable futures (Kates et al. 2012). Stabilizing the Earth system in a safe-operating space will require transformative changes in many dimensions of human actions and relations (Westley et al. 2011; Sachs et al. 2019).

Inequality and global sustainability

Inequality describes an unequal distribution of a scarce resource, benefit, or cost and does not necessarily represent a normative statement. Inequity is a more normative term that evokes an unfair or unjust distribution of privileges across society. There are complex interconnections between inequality, the biosphere, and global sustainability (Hamann et al. 2018) (Fig. 7) that go beyond unequal distribution of income or wealth, like distributional, recognitional, and procedural inequities (Leach et al. 2018). Distributional equity refers to how different groups may have access to resources, and how costs, harms, and benefits are shared. Recognitional equity highlights the ongoing struggle for recognition of a diversity of perspectives and groups, e.g. referring to nationality, ethnicity, or gender, whereas procedural equity focuses on how different groups and perspectives are able to engage in and influence decision-making processes and outcomes (Leach et al. 2018). Approaches to sustainability generally include some form of equality, universal prosperity, and poverty alleviation. Global environmental change and unsustainable practices may exacerbate inequalities (Hamann et al. 2018). Greater inequality may lead to weaker economic performance and cause economic instability (Stiglitz 2012). Increasing income inequality may also lead to more societal tension and increase the odds of conflict (Durante et al. 2017).

Fig. 7

Rising inequality

The majority of countries for which adequate data exist have seen rising inequality in income and wealth over the past several decades (Piketty 2014). In the U.S., Europe, and China, the top 10% of the population own 70% of the wealth, while the bottom 50% own only 2%. In the U.S., the share of income going to the top 1% rose from around 11% in 1980 to above 20% in 2016 (World Inequality Report 2018), and the share of wealth of the top 0.1% more than tripled between 1978 and 2012, and is roughly equal to the share of wealth of the bottom 90% (Saez and Zucman 2016). Also, the wealthiest 1% of the world’s population have been responsible for more than twice as much carbon pollution as the poorest half of humanity (Kartha et al. 2020). Seventy-five per cent of the world’s cities have higher levels of income inequalities than two decades ago, and the spatial concentration of low-income unskilled workers in segregated residential areas acts as a poverty trap (UN-Habitat 2016). About 10% of the world population in 2015, or some 740 million people, were living in extreme poverty (World Bank 2019).

Inequality can impact the sense of community, common purpose, and trust (Jachimowicz et al. 2017) and influences successful management of common pool resources in different ways (Baland et al. 2007). Inequality may give rise to perceptions, behaviour, and social norms about status and wealth, and disparities in worth and cultural membership between groups in a society—so-called “recognition gaps” (Lamont 2018).

Inequalities and the environment

Greater inequality can lead to more rapid environmental degradation, because low incomes lead to low investment in physical capital and education. Such situations often cause excessive pressure and degradation of natural capital leading to declining incomes and further degradation in a downward spiral, a poverty trap (Bowles et al. 2006). Furthermore, interventions that ignore nature and culture can reinforce poverty traps (Lade et al. 2017), and economic and environmental shocks, food insecurity, and climate change may force people back into poverty (lack of resources and capacities to fulfil basic needs) (Kates and Dasgupta 2007; Wood et al. 2018).

Gender, class, caste, and ethnic identities and relationships, and the specific social, economic and political power, roles and responsibilities they entail, shape the choices and decisions open to individuals and households in dealing with the climate and environmental risks they face (Rao et al. 2020). Gender inequality has important reinforcing feedbacks with environmental change (Fortnam et al. 2019) and has, for example, been shown to change with shifts in tropical land use in Indonesia (Maharani et al. 2019) or with changes in levels of direct use of local ecosystem services by households in South Africa (Hamann et al. 2015). Climate change is projected to disproportionally influence disadvantaged groups, especially women, girls, and indigenous communities (Islam and Winkel 2017).

People with less agency and fewer resources at their disposal are more vulnerable to climate change (Althor et al. 2016; Morton 2007) and to environmental shocks and extreme events such as floods and droughts (Hallegatte et al. 2016; Jachimowicz et al. 2017). The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the inequality in vulnerability to shocks among communities that lack the financial resources and essentials for a minimum standard of living, feeding off existing inequalities and making them worse (Drefahl et al. 2020; Stiglitz 2020). There is significant concern that climate-driven events exacerbate conflict because they affect economic insecurity which, in itself, has been shown to be a major cause of violent conflict and unrest (Mach et al. 2019; Ide et al. 2020).

Vulnerability to climate change is also due to many low-income countries’ location in low latitudes where further warming pushes these countries ever further away from optimal temperatures for climate-sensitive economic sectors (King and Harrington 2018). Examples include countries with high numbers of vulnerable, poor or marginalized people in climate-sensitive systems like deltas, semi-arid lands, and river basins dependent on glaciers and snowmelt (Conway et al. 2019). Changes to glaciers, snow and ice in mountains will likely influence water availability for over a billion people downstream by mid-century (Pihl et al. 2019). Under future scenarios of land-use and climate change, up to 5 billion people face higher water pollution and insufficient pollination for nutrition, particularly in Africa and South Asia. Hundreds of millions of people face heightened coastal risk across Africa, Eurasia, and the Americas (Chaplin-Kramer et al. 2019).

Ocean inequity

In the ocean, inequity manifests, for example, in skewed distribution of commercial fish catches, limited political power of small-scale fishers, particularly women and other minority groups, limited engagement of developing nations in high-seas activities and associated decision making, and consolidated interests of global supply chains in a few transnational corporations, with evidence of poor transparency and human rights abuses (Österblom et al. 2019). The results of inequity include a loss of livelihoods and limited financial opportunities, increased vulnerabilities of already marginalized groups, who are facing nutritional and food security challenges, and negative impacts on marine ecosystems (Harper et al. 2013; Hicks et al. 2019).

Coastal communities are sensitive to climate-induced shifts in the distribution and abundance of fish stocks crucial to their livelihoods and nutrition (Blasiak et al. 2017). This accentuated sensitivity is coupled with comparatively low levels of adaptive capacity, as remote coastal communities often have limited access to education, health services and alternative livelihoods, all of which could buffer the projected negative impacts from climate change (Cinner et al. 2018).

As a means to improve fish abundance for coastal communities of low-income nations, there have been suggestions of closing the high seas to fishing through groups of states that commit to a set of international rules. This would not only slow the pace of overfishing, but would also rebuild stocks that migrate into countries’ Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), which could reduce inequality by 50% in the distribution of fisheries benefits among the world’s maritime countries (Sumaila et al. 2015; Green and Rudyk 2020).

Inequities and sustainability

Alleviating inequality and poverty is a central objective of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals agreed to by national governments. Achieving global sustainability is another important set of objectives in the Sustainable Development Goals. The relation between inequality and sustainability is the outcome of this dynamics and not simply of cause and effect, but rather unfolding in different places, as experienced and understood by the people living there. Supporting and enhancing the emergence of capacities for dealing with shocks and surprises as part of strategies for learning and developing with change in the turbulent times of the Anthropocene will be central to confront inequality and advance wellbeing (Biggs et al. 2012; Clark and Harley 2020). Multiple inequities and sustainabilities will require diverse forms of responses, attuned to diverse contexts (Leach et al 2018; Clark and Harley 2020) (Fig. 8) and framed by transformations towards global sustainability as embedded in the biosphere (Westley et al. 2011).

Fig. 8

Societal transformation and technological change

By transformation, we refer to the capacity to create fundamentally new systems of human–environmental interactions and feedbacks when ecological, economic, or social structures make the continuation of the existing system untenable (Folke et al. 2010). It involves multiple elements, including agency, practices, behaviours, incentives, institutions, beliefs, values, and world views and their leverage points at multiple levels (Abson et al. 2017; Moore and Milkoreit 2020). Understanding transformation goes beyond a focus on the triggers, to unravelling the capacities for reducing resilience of an undesired, status quo, system, and nurturing and navigating the emergence of new, desired systems (Elmqvist et al. 2019); to confront path-dependencies, build capacities for new shocks and risks, and shift towards sustainable pathways (Olsson et al. 2017).

Here, we stress that technological change and social innovation in relation to sustainability will need a deeper focus on intertwined social-ecological interactions and feedbacks of the Anthropocene, since that will be necessary to understand and achieve large-scale changes towards global sustainability. We start this section with the role of emerging technologies and social media in this context, followed by findings from social innovation and transformation research and with an emphasis on the significance of narratives of hope for shifting towards sustainable futures.

Emerging technologies and sustainability

Most likely, technological change such as information technology, artificial intelligence, and synthetic biology will drastically change economies, human relations, social organization, culture and civilization, creating new unknown futures. However, technological change alone will not lead to transformations towards sustainability. It could lead humanity in diverse directions, pleasant and unpleasant ones, and with different social and environmental impacts. For example, rapid advances in sequencing technologies and bioinformatics have enabled exploration of the ocean genome, but the capacity to access and use sequence data is inequitably distributed among countries and companies (Blasiak et al. 20182020). The technological dimension of development has to be deliberately and strategically guided, to contribute to just and sustainable futures and guided how and by whom as a central challenge (Galaz 2014; van der Leeuw 2018).

On the other hand, it is most unlikely that transformations to sustainability will happen without the deployment of technologies that, e.g. help build resilience and development on the ground (Brown 2016), support transformations of current food production and innovation systems (Gordon et al. 2017; Costello et al. 2020), and contribute to a shift towards carbon neutral (or even negative) energy systems (Rockström et al. 2017).

The following categories of new technologies are already having bearing on global sustainability: the diversity of existing and emerging renewable energy technologies, like solar cells, hydrogen energy, wind generators, or geothermal heating; technologies that remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere; the digital transformation, with Artificial Intelligence (AI), satellite remote sensing, quantum computing, and precision agriculture; synthetic biology, including biotechnology and genetic and molecular engineering, by redesigning and using organisms to solve problems in medicine, manufacturing and agriculture; mechanical engineering, like robotics and also nanotechnology. Their development, as embedded in the larger social-ecological systems, should be connected to and become part of ways forward when designing transformative pathways towards sustainability within planetary boundaries.

As human pressures on the biosphere increase, so does the hope that rapid advances in AI (including automated decision making, data mining, and predictive analytics) in combination with rapid progresses in sensor technology and robotics, will be able to increase society’s capacities to detect, adapt, and respond to climate and environmental change without creating new vulnerabilities (Joppa 2017). Such technologies are applied in a number of research fields related to the environment and climate change, including environmental monitoring, conservation, and “green” urban planning (Hino et al. 2018; Ilieva and McPhearson 2018; Wearn et al. 2019; Reichstein et al. 2019). While nascent in terms of both scale and impact, such technological “niche-innovations” have the potential to rapidly upscale and shape ecosystems and institutions in multiple geographies (Geels et al. 2017). Such innovations have been claimed to be central for a “digital revolution for sustainable development” (Sachs et al. 2019).

Applications of these technologies have effects that span beyond climate and environmental research and monitoring, and more efficient natural resource use. AI-supported recommender systems as an example, influence consumer choices already today (André et al. 2018). Targeted attacks in social media by social bots, applications of computer algorithms that automatically produce content and interact with humans on social media, “trying to emulate and possibly alter their behavior” (Ferrara et al. 2016; Grinberg et al. 2019), also influence conversations in social media about climate and environmental issues and affect institutions for deliberative democracy (Dryzek et al. 2019).

So far, the technological changes to our social systems have not come about with the purpose of promoting global sustainability (van der Leeuw 2019). This remains true of recent and emerging technologies, such as online social media and information technology, causing changes that are increasingly far-reaching, ambiguous, and largely unregulated (Del Vicario et al. 2016). For example, “online social networks are highly dynamic systems that change as a result of numerous feedbacks between people and machines”. Algorithms suggest connections, to which users respond, and the algorithms, trained to optimize user experience, adapt to the responses. “Together, these interactions and processes alter what information people see and how they view the world” (Bergstrom and Bak-Coleman 2019).

Hence, applications of novel technologies stemming from advancements in AI could at best be benevolent and lead to improved stewardship of landscapes, seascapes, water, or climate dynamics, through improved monitoring and interventions, as well as more effective resource use (Chaplin-Kramer et al. 2019). Negative impacts of novel technologies on vulnerable groups (Barocas et al. 2017) are also pertinent since they diffuse rapidly into society, or when used in sectors with clear impacts on the climate, or on land and ocean ecosystems. This issue needs to be taken seriously as technological changes influence decisions with very long-term climatic and biosphere consequences (Cave and Óhéigeartaigh 2019).

Social media and social change

The participatory nature of social media gives it a central role in shaping individual attitudes, feelings, and behaviours (Williams et al. 2015; Lazer et al. 2018), can underpin large social mobilization and protests (Steinert-Threlkeld et al. 2015), and influence social norms and policy making (Barbier et al. 2018; Stewart et al. 2019). It is well known that dire warnings can lead to disconnect of the audience if it is not accompanied by a feasible perspective for action (Weber 2015). Social media changes our perception of the world, by promoting a sense of crisis and unfairness. This happens as activist groups seek to muster support (Gerbaudo and Treré 2015) and lifestyle movements seek to inspire alternative choices (Haenfler et al. 2012). For instance, social media catalysed the Arab spring among other things by depicting atrocities of the regime (Breuer et al. 2015), and veganism is promoted by social media campaigns highlighting appalling animal welfare issues (Haenfler et al. 2012).

On the worrying side, isolationism stimulated by social-media-boosted discontent may hamper global cooperation needed to curb global warming, biodiversity loss, wealth concentration, and other trends. On the other hand, social media has powered movements such as school strikes, extinction rebellion, voluntary simplicity, bartering, flight shame, the eat-local movement and veganism to promote a steadily rising global awareness of pressing issues that may ultimately shift social norms (Nyborg et al. 2016), trigger reforms towards sustainability (Otto et al. 2020) and perhaps also towards wealth equalization at all institutional levels (Scheffer et al. 2017).

The combination of discontent and self-organization not only promotes rebellion against the old way of doing things, as in street protests, populist votes, radicalization, and terrorism, but also catalyses the search for alternative ways, as in bartering and sharing platforms, or voluntary simplicity and other lifestyle movements (Haenfler et al. 2012; Carpenter et al. 2019).

The rise of social media and technologies such as bots and profiling has been explosive, and the mere rate of change has made it difficult for society to keep pace (Haenfler et al. 2012). Crowd-sourced fact checking may be combined with computer-assisted analyses and judgements from professionals (Hassan et al. 2019), and labelling quality of media sources ranging from internet fora to newspapers and television stations may alert users to the risk of disinformation and heavy political bias (Pennycook and Rand 2019). With time, such approaches together with legislation, best-practice agreements, and individual skills of judging the quality of sources may catch up to control some of the negative side-effects (Walter et al. 2019).

The emerging picture is that social media have become a global catalyst for social change by facilitating shifts on scales ranging from individual attitudes to broad social norms and institutions. It remains unclear, however, whether this new “invisible hand” will move the world on more sustainable and just pathways. Can the global, fast moving capacity for information sharing and knowledge generation through social media help lead us towards a just world where future generations thrive within the limits of our planet’s capacity?

Social innovation and transformation

Transformations towards sustainability in the Anthropocene cannot be achieved by adaptation alone, and certainly not by incremental change only, but rather that more fundamental systemic transformations will be needed (Hackmann and St. Clair 2012; Kates et al. 2012; O’Brien 2012). Transformation implies fundamentally rewiring the system, its structure, functions, feedbacks, and properties (Reyers et al. 2018). But, despite such changes, there is hope for systemic transformations with dignity, respect and in democratic fashions (Olsson et al. 2017), in contrast to large-scale disruptive or revolutionary societal transformations like those of earlier civilizations (van der Leeuw 2019). It will require trust building, cooperation, collective action, and flexible institutions (Ostrom 2010; Westley et al. 2011).

A characteristic feature of transformations is that change across different system states (trajectories or pathways) is not predetermined but rather emerges through diverse interactions across scales and among diverse actors (Westley et al. 2011). Therefore, the literature on transformations towards sustainability emphasize framing and navigating transformations rather than controlling those. Work on socio-technical sustainability transitions, social-ecological transformations, and social innovation provide insights into these dynamics (Geels et al. 2017; Olsson et al. 2017; Westley et al. 2017).

These literatures have illustrated the importance of connectivity and cross-level interactions for understanding the role of technological and social innovation and transformative systemic change. The work emphasizes the importance of fostering diverse forms of novelty and innovations at the micro-level, supported by the creation of “transformative spaces”, shielded from the forces of dominant system structures. These allow for experimentation with new mental models, ideas, and practices that could help shift societies onto more desirable pathways (Loorbach et al. 2017; Pereira et al. 2018ab). The examples of the “Seeds of a Good Anthropocene” project reflect ongoing local experiments that, under the right conditions, could accelerate the adoption of pathways to transformative change (Bennett et al. 2016). As multiple demands and stressors degrade the ocean, transformative change in ocean governance seems required, shifting current economic and social systems towards ocean stewardship, e.g. through incorporation of niche innovations within and across economic sectors and stakeholder communities (Brodie Rudolph et al. 2020).

It has been shown that real-world transformations come about through the alignment of mutually reinforcing processes within and between multiple levels. For example, the alignment of “niche innovations” or “shadow networks’ (which differ radically from the dominant existing system but have been able to gain a foothold in particular market niches or geographical areas) with change at broader levels and scales can create rapid change. Both slow moving trends (e.g., demographics, ideologies, accumulation of GHG) and sudden shocks (e.g. elections, economic crises, pandemics, extreme events) can start to weaken or disturb the existing social-ecological system and create windows-of-opportunity for niche innovations—new practices, governance systems, value orientations—to become rapidly dominant (Olsson et al. 20042006; Chaffin and Gunderson 2016; Geels et al. 2017) (Fig. 9).

Fig. 9

Hence, turbulent times may unlock gridlocks and traps and open up space for innovation and novelty (Gunderson and Holling 2002). Crises or anticipated risks can trigger people to experiment with new practices and alternative governance modes and key individuals, often referred to as policy, institutional or moral entrepreneurs, mobilize and combine social networks in new ways, preparing the system for change (Folke et al. 2005; Westley et al. 2013; O’Brien 2015). The preparation phase seems particularly important in building capacity to transform rather than simply returning to the status quo and reinforcing existing power structures following change. Bridging organizations tend to emerge, within or with new institutions, connecting governance levels and spatial and temporal scales (Cash et al. 2006; Hahn et al. 2006; Brondizio et al. 2009; Rathwell and Peterson 2012). In several cases, the broader social contexts provide an enabling environment for such emergence, for example, through various incentive structures or legal frameworks. When a window opens, there is skilful navigation of change past thresholds or tipping points and, thereafter, a focus on building resilience of the transformed system (Gelcich et al. 2010).

In general, the resulting transformation goes beyond the adoption of a new technology or a local social innovation alone. Instead it includes a portfolio of actions like investment in new infrastructures, establishment of new markets, changes in incentives, development of new social preferences, or adjustment of user practices. Furthermore, transformations gain momentum when multiple innovations are linked together, improving the functionality of each and acting in combination to reconfigure systems (Geels et al. 2017; Westley et al. 2017).

Successful social innovations are recognized by their capacity to radically shift broad social institutions (economies, political philosophies, laws, practices, and cultural beliefs) that provide structure to social life. In addition, social innovations seldom unfold in a deterministic manner, but with a kind of punctuated equilibrium, first languishing and then accelerating at times of opportunity or crisis. There is also the need for awareness of the shadow side of all innovation, the consequences of intervention in a complex system (Holling et al. 1998; Ostrom 2007). This is unavoidable but manageable if caught early, but needs attention, particularly in times of rapid change (Westley et al. 2017).

Social innovation is currently underway in many domains linked to climate change, like renewable energy (Geels et al. 2017) or agriculture (Pigford et al. 2018) and highlight the importance of innovations not only in science and technology, but also in institutions, politics, and social goals for sustainability. Substantial attention is also directed towards sustainability of the ocean, where policy makers, industries, and other stakeholders are increasingly engaged in collaboration (Österblom et al. 2017; Brodie Rudolf et al. 2020; UNGC 2020) and innovations (McCauley et al. 2016; Blasiak et al. 2018; Costello et al. 2020), aimed to create new incentives (Lubchenco et al. 2016; Jouffray et al. 2019; Sumaila et al. 2020) for action. However, for these to have transformative impact, shifts in cultural repertoires (schemas, frames, narratives, scripts, and boundaries that actors draw on in social situations) (Lamont et al. 2017) similar to those that accelerated the anti-smoking movement and the LGBTQ movement need to occur (Marshall et al. 2012; Moore et al. 2015; Nyborg et al. 2016).

There are suggestions for social tipping interventions to activate large-scale systemic shifts through, for example, rapidly spreading of technologies, shifts in social norms and behaviors, or structural reorganization of sectors, corporations, and societies (Folke et al. 2019; Otto et al. 2020). There are signs that such shifts are underway in western cultures, a desire for fundamental change towards a more sustainable way of life (Wibeck et al. 2019) aided by social movements such as the youth-led Extinction Rebellion, as well as a strong move to more healthy and sustainable diets (Willet et al. 2019). Again, all these changes unfold as part of cultural evolution, which needs attention as urgently as the decarbonization of our economy (Waring et al. 2015; Creanza et al. 2017; Jörgensen et al. 2019).

Narratives of action for the future

Social innovation and transformation require an individual and collective attention on the future. There are many documented obstacles to such future focus, from cognitive myopia to present-biased individual and institutional incentives and norms (Weber and Johnson 2016; Weber 20172020). Choice architecture provides tools that reduce status-quo bias and encourage more foresightful decisions in specific circumstances (Yoeli et al. 2017), but rapid and systemic change will require more fundamental shifts in narratives at a collective level (Lubchenco and Gaines 2019).

Narratives are ways of presenting or understanding a situation or series of events that reflects and promotes a particular point of view or set of values. Narratives can serve as meaning‐making devices, provide actors with confidence to act and coordinate action. They are of significance in shaping and anchoring worldviews, identities, and social interactions (van der Leeuw 2020).

Narratives of hope have proven essential for social resilience (Lamont 2019). Social resilience refers to the capacity of individuals, groups, communities, and nations “to secure favourable outcomes (material, symbolic, emotional) under new circumstances and when necessary by new means, even when this entails significant modifications to behaviour or to the social frameworks that structure and give meaning to behaviour” (Hall and Lamont 2012).

Transforming towards sustainable futures will require broadening cultural membership by promoting new narratives that resonate, inspire, and provide hope centred on a plurality of criteria of worth and social inclusion. Here, we are concerned with the challenge of motivating a collective recognition of our interdependence with the biosphere (Schill et al. 2019) and economic and political action based on that recognition.

Collective conceptions of the future have many aspects. They include (1) whether the future is conceived as near or far and is understood in terms of long, medium and short-term rewards; (2) what is likely and possible and how contingent these outcomes are; (3) whether the future will be good or bad; (4) how much agency individuals have on various aspects of their individual and collective future (concerning for instance, politics, societal orientation, personal and professional life; (5) who can influence the collective future (e.g., the role of the state policies and various societal forces in shaping them); (6) whether the future is conceived as a cyclical or as a linear progression; (7) how stable peoples’ conceptions of the future are and how they are influenced by events (terrorist attacks, recessions, pandemics); and (8) whether aspirations are concealed or made public.

Behind these various issues, one finds other basic conceptions about agency (to what extent are individuals master of their fate), the impact of networks (to what extent is fate influenced by peers, family, and others), the impact of social structure (what is the impact of class, race, gender, place of origin) on where we end up, and how much does our environment (segregation, resource availability, environmental conditions) influence our opportunities. Therefore, it is important to remember that, although individuals play essential roles in narratives of hope, such images of the future are seldom creations of individuals alone but shaped by many cultural intermediaries working in the media, in education, in politics, in social movements, and in other institutions.

Cultural scripts represent commonly held assumptions about social interaction, which serve as a kind of interpretive background against which individuals position their own acts and those of others (Lamont et al. 2017). Narratives of hope as cultural scripts are more likely to become widely shared if they offer possible course of action, something that reasonable people can aspire to. Such sharing bolsters people’s sense of agency, the perception that they can have an impact on the world and on their own lives that they can actually achieve what is offered to them (Lamont et al. 2017). In contrast to doomsday or climate-denying narratives, these scripts feed a sense of active agency. Such “fictional expectations”, anchored in narratives that are continually adapted, are at the core of market dynamics confronted with an uncertain future affecting money and credit, investment, innovation, and consumption (Beckert 2016).

Narratives of hope represent ideas about “imagined futures” or alternative ways of visualizing and conceptualizing what has yet to happen and motivate action towards new development pathways (Moore and Milkoreit 2020). As they circulate and become more widely shared, such imagined futures have the potential to foster predictable behaviours, and stimulate the emergence of institutions, investments, new laws, and regulations. Therefore, decisions under uncertainty are not only technical problems easily dealt with by rational calculation but are also a function of the creative elements of decision‐making (Beckert 2016).

There is a rich literature on scenarios for sustainable futures, narratives articulating multiple alternative futures in relation to critical uncertainties, increasingly emphasizing new forms of governance, technology as a bridge between people and the deep reconnection of humanity to the biosphere, and engaging diverse stakeholder in participatory processes as part of the scenario work (Carpenter et al. 2006; Bennett et al. 2016). The implication of inherent unpredictability is that transformations towards sustainable and just futures can realistically be pursued only through strategies that not only attend to the dynamics of the system, but also nurture our collective capacity to guide development pathways in a dynamic, adaptive, and reflexive manner (Clark and Harley 2020; Freeman et al. 2020). Rather than striving to attain some particular future it calls for a system of guided self-organization. It involves anticipating and imagining futures and behaving and acting on those in a manner that does not lead to loss of opportunities to live with changing circumstances, or even better enhances those opportunities, i.e. builds resilience for complexity and change (Berkes et al. 2003).

In order to better understand the complex dynamics of the Anthropocene and uncertain futures, work is now emerging on human behaviour as part of complex adaptive systems (Levin et al. 2013), like anticipatory behaviour (using the future in actual decision processes), or capturing behaviour as both “enculturated” and “enearthed“ and co-evolving with socio-cultural and biophysical contexts (Boyd et al. 2015; Waring et al. 2015; Poli 2017; Merçon et al. 2019; Schill et al. 2019; Schlüter et al. 2019; Haider et al. 2021), illustrating that cultural transmission and evolution can be both continuous and abrupt (Creanza et al. 2017).

Narratives of hope for transformations towards sustainable futures are in demand. Clearly, technological change plays a central role in any societal transformation. Technological change has been instrumental in globalization and will be instrumental for global sustainability. No doubt, the new era of technological breakthroughs will radically change the structure and operation of societies and cultures. But, as has been made clear here, the recipe for sustainable futures also concerns cultural transformations that guide technological change in support of a resilient biosphere; that reconnect development to the biosphere foundation.

Biosphere stewardship for prosperity

Transformation towards sustainability in the Anthropocene has at least three systemic dimensions. First, it involves a shift in human behaviour away from degrading the life-support foundation of societal development. Second, it requires management and governance of human actions as intertwined and embedded within the biosphere and the broader Earth system. Third, it involves enhancing the capacity to live and develop with change, in the face of complexity and true uncertainty, that is, resilience-building strategies to persist, adapt, or transform. For major pathways for such a transformation are presented in Box 2.

BOX 2 Four major pathwys towards global sustainability
  1. Recognize and act on the fact that societal development is embedded in and critically dependent on the biosphere and the broader Earth system for prosperity and wellbeing.
  2. Create incentives and design policies that enable societies to collaborate towards just and sustainable futures within planetary boundaries.
  3. Transform the current pathways of social, economic, cultural development into stewardship of human actions that enhance the resilience of the biosphere.
  4. Make active use of emerging and converging technologies for enabling the societal stewardship transformation.

Biosphere stewardship incorporates economic, social, and cultural dimensions with the purpose of safeguarding the resilience of the biosphere for human wellbeing and fostering the sustainability of a rapidly changing planet. Stewardship is an active shaping of social-ecological change that integrates reducing vulnerability to expected changes, fostering resilience to sustain desirable conditions in the face of the unknown and unexpected, and transforming from undesirable pathways of development when opportunities emerge (Chapin et al. 2010). It involves caring for, looking after, and cultivating a sense of belonging in the biosphere, ranging from people and environments locally to the planet as a whole (Enqvist et al. 2018; Chapin 2020; Plummer et al. 2020).

Such stewardship is not a top-down approach forced on people, nor solely a bottom-up approach. It is a learning-based process with a clear direction, a clear vision, engaging people to collaborate and innovate across levels and scales as integral parts of the systems they govern (Tengö et al. 2014; Clark et al. 2016; Norström et al. 2020).

Here, we focus on biosphere stewardship in relation to climate change, biodiversity, and transformations for sustainable futures.Show more

From emission reductions alone to biosphere stewardship

Global sustainability involves shifting into a renewable energy-based economy of low waste and greater circularity within a broader value foundation. Market-driven progress combined with technological change certainly plays an important role in dematerialization (Schmidheiny 1992; McAfee 2019) but does not automatically redirect the economy towards sustainable futures. Public awareness, responsible governments, and international collaborations are needed for viable economic developments, acknowledging that people, nations, and the global economy are intertwined with the biosphere and a global force in shaping its dynamics.

Since climate change is not an isolated phenomenon but a consequence of the recent accelerating expansion of human activities on Earth, the needed changes concern social organization and dynamics influencing the emissions of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, technologies, and policies for reducing such emissions, and various approaches for carbon capture and storage. However, to reduce the effects of climate change, it will not be sufficient to remove emissions only. The resilience of the biosphere and the Earth system needs to be regenerated and enhanced (Nyström et al. 2019). This includes governance of critical biosphere processes linked to climate change, such as in agriculture, forestry, and the ocean. In addition, guarding and enhancing biodiversity will help us live with climate change, mitigating climate change by storing and sequestering carbon in ecosystems, and building resilience and adaptive capacity to the inevitable effects of unavoidable climate change (Dasgupta 2021).

The global pandemic caused a sharp fall in CO2 emissions in 2020 (Le Quéré et al. 2020), while the cumulative emissions continue to rise (Friedlingstein et al. 2020). The fall was not caused by a long-term structural economic shift so it is unlikely to persist without strong government intervention. Political action is emerging from major nations and regions and on net-zero GHG emissions within decades. Shifts towards renewable energy are taking place in diverse sectors. Carbon pricing through taxes, tariffs, tradeable permits, as well as removal of fossil-fuel subsidies and incentives for renewable energy and carbon sequestration (e.g. CCS techniques) are on the table and increasingly implemented. There are substantial material and emission gains to be made from altered consumption patterns, infrastructure changes, and shifts towards a circular economy. Voluntary climate action among some large corporations is emerging (Vandenbergh and Gilligan 2017). There is general agreement that the pace of these promising changes must rapidly increase in order to meet the Paris climate target (Fig. 10).

Fig. 10

In addition, active biosphere stewardship of critical tipping elements and carbon sinks, as in forests, agricultural land, savannas, wetlands, and marine ecosystems is crucial to avoid the risk of runaway climate change (Steffen et al. 2018). Such stewardship involves protecting, sustaining, restoring, and enhancing such sinks. The existence of connections between finance actors, capital markets, and the tipping elements of tropical and boreal forests has also gained attention and needs to be acted upon in policy and practice (Galaz et al. 2018).

Furthermore, ecosystem restoration has the potential to sequester large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere derived from destroyed and degraded land is roughly equal to the carbon that remains in ecosystems on land (about 450 billion tonnes of carbon) (Erb et al. 2018). The amount of degraded lands in the world is vast, and restoring their productivity, biodiversity, and ecosystem services could help keep global temperature increases within acceptable levels (Lovejoy and Hannah 2018). It has been estimated that nature-based solutions on land (from agriculture to reforestation and afforestation) have the potential to provide over 30% of the emission reductions needed by 2050 to keep global temperature increases to not more than 2 °C (Griscom et al. 2017; Roe et al. 2019).

There is scope for new policies and practices for nature-based solutions (Kremen and Merenlender 2018; Diaz et al. 2018). These solutions will require shifts in governance towards active stewardship of water and ecosystem dynamics and processes across landscapes, precipitation sheds, and seascapes (Österblom et al. 2017; Plummer et al. 2020), reconfiguring nation state governance, empowering the commons through justice, equity and knowledge, and making ownership regenerative by integrating rights with responsibilities (Brodie Rudolph et al. 2020). Also, the so-called “social tipping interventions” towards biosphere stewardship have the potential to activate contagious processes of rapidly spreading technologies, behaviors, social norms, and structural reorganization, where current patterns can be disrupted and lead to fast reduction in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (Otto et al. 2020). The window of opportunity for such shifts may emerge in times of turbulence and social discontent with the status quo (Carpenter et al. 2019). Creating conditions for processes of deliberate democracy may guide such transformative change (Dryzek et al. 2019).

Resilience and biosphere stewardship

Societal development needs to strengthen biosphere capacity for dealing with extreme events, both climate driven and as a consequence of a tightly coupled and complex globalized world in deep interplay with the rest of the biosphere (Helbing 2013; Reyers et al. 2018). For example, the challenge of policy and practice in satisfying demands for food, water and other critical ecosystem services will most likely be set by the potential consequences of the emergent risk panorama and its consequences, rather than hard upper limits to production per se (Cottrell et al. 2019; Nyström et al. 2019; Xu et al. 2020).

In this sense, a resilience approach to biosphere stewardship becomes significant. Such an approach is very different from those who understand resilience as return to the status quo, to recover to business-as-usual. Resilience in relation to stewardship of complex adaptive systems concerns capacities to live with changing circumstances, slow or abrupt, predictable or surprising. It becomes especially relevant for dealing with the uncertain and unknown and is in stark contrast to strategies that support efficiency and effectiveness for short term gain at the expense of redundancy and diversity. Such strategies may work under relatively stable and predictable conditions but, as stressed here, will create vulnerability in periods of rapid change, during turbulent times, and are ill-suited to confront the unknown (Carpenter et al. 2009; Walker et al. 2009). Financial crises and pandemics serve as real-world examples of such vulnerabilities and make explicit the tension between connectivity and modularity in complex adaptive systems (Levin 1999).

In contrast, intertwined systems of people and nature characterized by resilience will have the capacity, whether through strategies like portfolio management, polycentric institutions, or building trust and nurturing diversity (Costanza et al. 2000; Ostrom 2010; Biggs et al. 2012; Carpenter et al. 2012), to confront turbulent times and the unknown. Policy decisions will no longer be the result of optimization algorithms that presuppose quantifiable uncertainty, but employ decision-making procedures that iteratively identify policy options most robust to present and future shocks under conditions of deep uncertainty (Polasky et al. 2011). Resilience provides capacities for novelty and innovation in times of change, to turn crises into opportunities for not only adapting, but also transforming into sustainable futures (Folke et al. 2016).

The immediate future will require capacities to confront challenges that we know we know little about (Kates and Clark 1996). Given the global connectivity of environmental, social, and economic systems, there is no scale at which resource pooling or trade can be used to hedge against all fluctuations at smaller scales. This begs the question of what types of investments may lead to a generalized capacity to develop with a wide range of potential and unknown events (Polasky et al. 2011). One strategy is to invest in global public goods common to all systems, e.g., education, capacity to learn and collaborate across sectors, multi-scale governance structures that enable systems to better detect changes and nimbly address problems by reconfiguring themselves through transformative change. Such strategies, often referred to as building “general resilience”, easily erode if not actively supported (Biggs et al. 2012; Carpenter et al. 2012; Quinlan et al. 2015). General resilience is critical for keeping options alive to face an uncertain turbulent world (Walker et al. 2009; Elmqvist et al. 2019).

Collaborating with the biosphere

Clearly, a shift in perspective and action is needed (Fig. 11) that includes extending management and governance from the focus on producing food, fibre, and timber in simplified ecosystems to rebuilding and strengthening resilience through investing in portfolios of ecosystem services for human wellbeing in diversity-rich social-ecological systems (Reyers et al. 2013; Bennett et al. 2015; Isbell et al. 2017).

Fig. 11

Numerous activities protecting, restoring, and enhancing diversity are taking place in this direction ranging from traditional societies, local stewards of wildlife habitats, marine systems, and urban areas, to numerous NGOs, companies and enterprises, and various levels of government, to international collaborations, agreements, and conventions (Barthel et al. 2005; Forbes et al. 2009; Raymond et al. 2010; Andersson et al. 2014; Barrett 2016; Brondizio and Le Tourneau 2016; Österblom et al. 2017; Barbier et al. 2018; Bennett et al. 2018).

Examples include widespread use of marine protected areas from local places to marine spatial planning to proposals for protecting the open ocean, enhancing marine biodiversity, rebuilding fisheries, mitigating climate change, and shifting towards ocean stewardship (Worm et al. 2009; Sumaila et al. 2015; Lubchenco and Grorud-Colvert 2015; Lubchenco et al. 2016; Sala et al. 2016; Gaines et al. 2018; Tittensor et al. 2019; Cinner et al. 2020; Duarte et al. 2020; Brodie Rudolph et al. 2020). The latter is the focus of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, with 14 heads of state and more than 250 scientists engaged. They aim to stimulate transformative change for the ocean by committing to sustainably managing 100% of their own waters by 2030 (Stuchtey et al. 2020).

There are major restoration programmes of forests, wetlands, and abandoned and degraded lands and even revival of wildlife and rewilding of nature (Perino et al. 2019). Other efforts include “working-lands conservation” like agroforestry, silvopasture, diversified farming, and ecosystem-based forest management, enhancing livelihoods and food security (Kremen and Merenlender 2018).

The world’s ecosystems can be seen as essential capital assets, if well managed, their lands, waters, and biodiversity yield a flow of vital life-support services (Daily et al. 2009). Investing in natural capital has become a core strategy of agencies and major nations, like China, for wellbeing and sustainability, providing greater resilience to climate change (Guerry et al. 2015; Ouyang et al. 2016). It involves combining science, technology, and partnerships to develop nature-based solutions and enable informed decisions for people and nature to thrive and invest in green growth (Mandle et al. 2019).

There are several examples of adaptive management and adaptive governance systems that have transformed social-ecological dynamics of landscapes and seascapes into biosphere stewardship (Chaffin et al. 2014; Schultz et al. 2015; Walker 2019; Plummer et al. 2020). Stewardship of diversity as a critical feature in resilience building is about reducing vulnerability to change and multiplying the portfolio of options for sustainable development in times of change. Stewardship shifts focus from commodity to redundancy to response diversity for dealing with change (Elmqvist et al. 2003; Grêt-Regamey et al. 2019; Dasgupta 2021).

Clearly, the economic contributions of biodiversity are highly significant as reflected in the many efforts to expose and capture economic values of biodiversity and ecosystem services (Daily et al. 2000; Sukhdev et al. 2010; Kinzig et al. 2011; Costanza et al. 2014; Naeem et al. 2015; Barbier et al. 2018; Dasgupta 2021). Inclusive (or genuine) wealth aims at capturing the aggregate value of natural, human, and social capital assets to provide a comprehensive, long-term foundation for human wellbeing (Dasgupta and Mäler 2000; Polasky et al. 2015). Inclusive wealth provides a basis for designing incentives for more sustainable market transactions (Dasgupta 2014; Clark and Harley 2020).

Also, the role of the cultural context is fundamental (Diaz et al. 2018) and biocultural diversity, and coevolution of people and nature is gaining ground as a means to understand dynamically changing social-ecological relations (Barthel et al. 2013; Merçon et al. 2019; Haider et al. 2019). Broad coalitions among citizens, businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies have the power to transform how we view and act on biosphere stewardship and build Earth resilience. Science has an important new role to play here as honest broker, engaging in evidence-informed action, and coproduction of knowledge in collaboration with practice, policy, and business (Reyers et al. 2015; Wyborn et al. 2019; Norström et al. 2020).

In this context, work identifying leverage points for anticipated and deliberate transformational change towards sustainability is gaining ground, centred on reconnecting people to nature, restructuring power and institutions, and rethinking how knowledge is created and used in pursuit of sustainability (Abson et al. 2017; Fischer and Riechers 2019). Such actions range from direct engagements between scientists and local communities (Tengö et al. 2014) or through the delivery of scientific knowledge and method into multi-stakeholder arenas, such as boundary or bridging organizations (Cash et al. 2003; Hahn et al. 2006; Crona and Parker 2012) where it can provide a basis for learning and be translated into international negotiations (Biermann and Pattberg 2008; Galaz et al. 2016; Tengö et al. 2017). It includes efforts to accelerate positive transformations by identifying powerful actors, like financial investors or transnational corporations, and articulating key domains with which these actors need to engage in order to enable biosphere stewardship (Österblom et al. 2017; Galaz et al. 2018; Folke et al. 2019; Jouffray et al. 2019). The International science-policy platform for biodiversity and ecosystem services (IPBES), an international body for biodiversity similar to the IPCC for the climate, has proposed key features for enabling transformational change (Fig. 12). These efforts serve an increasingly important space for scientists to engage in, helping hold corporations accountable, stimulating them to take on responsibility for the planet and develop leadership in sustainability. Such science-business engagement will become increasingly important to ensure that companies’ sustainability agendas are framed by science rather than the private sector alone (Österblom et al. 2015; Barbier et al. 2018; Blasiak et al. 2018; Galaz et al. 2018; Folke et al. 2019; Jouffray et al. 2019).

Fig. 12

The rapid acceleration of current Earth system changes provides new motivations for action. Climate change is no longer a vague threat to some distant future generation but an environmental, economic, and social disruption that today’s youth, communities, corporations, and governments are increasingly experiencing. This provides both ethical and selfish motivations for individuals and institutions to launch transformative actions that shape their futures rather than simply reacting to crises as they emerge. Shaping the future requires active stewardship for regenerating and strengthening the resilience of the biosphere.

Given the urgency of the situation and the critical challenge of stabilizing the Earth system in Holocene-like conditions, the pace of current actions has to rapidly increase and expand to support a transformation towards active stewardship of human actions in concert with the biosphere foundation. It will require reform of critical social, economic, political, and cultural dimensions (Tallis et al. 2018; Diaz et al. 2018; Barrett et al. 2020).

Concluding remarks

The success of social organization into civilizations and more recently into a globalized world has been impressive and highly efficient. It has been supported by a resilient biosphere and a hospitable climate. Now, in the Anthropocene, a continuous expansion mimicking the development pathways of the past century is not a viable option for shifting towards sustainable futures.

Humanity is embedded within, intertwined with, and dependent upon the living biosphere. Humanity has become a global force shaping the operation and future of the biosphere and the broader Earth system. Climate change and loss of biodiversity are symptoms of the situation. The accelerating expansion of human activities has eroded biosphere and Earth system resilience and is now challenging human wellbeing, prosperity, and possibly even the persistence of societies and civilizations.

The expansion has led to hyper-connectivity, homogenization, and vulnerability in times of change, in contrast to modularity, redundancy, and resilience to be able to live with changing circumstances. In the Anthropocene, humanity is confronted with turbulent times and with new intertwined dynamics of people and planet where fast and slow change interplay in unexperienced and unpredictable ways. This is becoming the new normal.

Our future on our planet will be determined by our ability to keep global warming well below 2 °C and foster the resilience of the living biosphere. A pervasive thread in science is that building resilient societies, ecosystems, and ultimately the health of the entire Earth system hinges on supporting, restoring and regenerating diversity in intertwined social and ecological dimensions. Diversity builds insurance and keeps systems resilient to changing circumstances. Clearly, nurturing resilience is of great significance in transformations towards sustainability and requires collective action on multiple fronts, action that is already being tested by increasing turbulence incurred by seemingly unrelated shocks.

Equality holds communities together, and enables nations, and regions to evolve along sustainable development trajectories. Inequality, in terms of both social and natural capitals, are on the rise in the world, and need to be addressed as an integral part of our future on Earth.

We are facing a rapid and significant repositioning of sustainability as the lens through which innovation, technology and development is driven and achieved. What only a few years ago was seen as a sacrifice is today creating new purposes and meanings, shaping values and culture, and is increasingly seen as a pathway to novelty, competitiveness and progress.

This is a time when science is needed more than ever. Science provides informed consensus on the facts and trade-offs in times of misinformation and polemics. The planetary challenges that confront humanity need governance that mobilizes the best that science has to offer with shared visions for sustainable futures and political will and competence to implement choices that will sustain humanity and the rest of the living world for the next millennium and beyond.

There is scope for changing the course of history into sustainable pathways. There is urgent need for people, economies, societies and cultures to actively start governing nature’s contributions to wellbeing and building a resilient biosphere for future generations. It is high time to reconnect development to the Earth system foundation through active stewardship of human actions into prosperous futures within planetary boundaries.

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Corresponding author

Correspondence to Carl Folke.

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Cite this article

Folke, C., Polasky, S., Rockström, J. et al. Our future in the Anthropocene biosphere. Ambio 50, 834–869 (2021).


Property in the Anthropocene

J. Peter Byrne

Georgetown University Law Center,
This paper can be downloaded free of charge from:

Human-induced climate change threatens perilous risks for our physical homes. It also poses a serious challenge to our legal institutions. Several scholars already have remarked on the disruption climate change has brought to specific legal areas, such as tort, standing, and national security. This essay argues that climate change will also disrupt fundamental ideas about real property. Prior work has explored the need for fresh approaches to land use regulation and a shift in regulatory takings law. This essay looks at the more fundamental assumptions and principles of property law. It maintains that the growing need for human management of dynamic natural forces, distorted by greenhouse gas emissions, will erode the foundations of physical stability and owner autonomy that shape basic doctrines of property law.
A firm scientific consensus holds that human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, into the atmosphere have been, and will continue, working unprecedented changes in our climate.2 The effects of such emissions are apparent in phenomena such as global warming, rising sea levels, aggravated drought and wildfires, and more extreme storms and flooding.3 Legislative efforts to reduce emissions and rationally address these threats have been stymied at the national level and in many states by a combination of entrenched interests, discounting of future risks, conceptual complexity, and existential fear. Nonetheless, some states and many local governments have begun planning even taken significant steps to reduce emissions and prepare for inevitable environmental changes.4
Courts, too, have begun to alter legal doctrines to address or accommodate the effects of climate change. The Supreme Court arguably expanded its approach to standing in order to allow a state to sue the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) for failing to regulate greenhouse gas emissions,5 and a federal district court recently surely did the same by allowing a group of minors to sue the United States for failing to address climate change.6 Legal scholars have noted that climate change has disrupted established doctrines in other areas of law. Douglas Kysar, for example, has written about tort law: “Built as it is on a paradigm of harm in which A wrongfully, directly, and exclusively injures B, tort law seems fundamentally ill-equipped to address the causes and impacts of climate change .… courts in
all likelihood will agree with commentators that nuisance and other traditional tort theories are overwhelmed by the magnitude and the complexity of the climate change conundrum.”7 Many statutory
areas are straining to meet the challenges of climate change as well. 8

It stands to reason that property law, which deals directly with the rights and duties of ownership of elements of the natural world, also will be disrupted by climate change.9 This essay will focus on real property law, which historically has assumed stability in the physical world and the capacity of an owner to exercise effective dominion over land.10 Climate change calls both these assumptions into question because many parcels of land will teeter on physical convulsions, and government help will more frequently be needed to keep such forces at bay. The essay considers three types of changes in property law principles: growth of publicly as opposed to privately owned land, greater scope for land use regulation, and government liability for management mistakes. The changes will not occur immediately; the effects of climate change have begun to show themselves, but more dramatic changes lie in the future. Property law is a conservative field, guarding reliance. But over time its tenets adapt to a changing physical and social environment.11 This essay is, frankly, speculative, aiming to stimulate discussion and further research.
First, changes in property law will be brought about because sea-level rise, enhanced storms, and fire will physically destroy or degrade many parcels of land and their improvements. Some coastal areas will simply sink beneath the waves, engulfing the homes built upon them. More properties will be
destroyed by intense storms, such as hurricanes strengthened by climate change—as happened in Hurricane Sandy—or by growing wild fires in the increasingly arid west. Market forces have not yet seriously guarded against these losses.12 The National Flood Insurance Program, 13although insolvent without the backing of the U.S. government,14 continues to provide assistance where the premiums do not cover the risk. Developers build and sell new homes along the shore within shorter timeframes than the timeline for losses from climate change, perhaps even aggravating their incentives to develop coastal land in the fastest possible schedule. Sellers of existing coastal buildings and realtors compensated by a percentage of the sales price retain every incentive to remain silent about the risks of sea-level rise. Mortgage lenders who bundle and sell mortgage-debt packages to investors collect fees and retain no continued exposure to loss. The investors in bundled mortgage-debt instruments have their risks diluted by the scale of other mortgages making up their exposure. Local governments at the coast typically rely on real property taxes and probably hesitate to require warnings that could crash property values. Buyers should attend to risk but often are distracted by more immediate concerns such as securing mortgage funds or keeping insurance premiums low.15 Thus, without strong regulatory intervention, much development could be destroyed, yet regulation has been slow to evolve.
This reality will drive changes in property rules that may have made sense on the assumption that nature was stable but seem absurd in the dynamic context of climate change. Climate change will not amount to a move from one relatively stable state to another; change at a rate faster than historic norms will continue for the foreseeable future, regardless of when emissionsof greenhouse gases can be significantly reduced. Moreover, eventhe rate of change will not be constant but probably will
conti nue to accelerate, as scientists have observed in recent years.16 Thus, rules about land use will exist in a state of physical flux, even though historically land law has assumed, even relied upon, perpetual stability. The entire edifice of estates in land, future interests, and perpetuities, for example, assumes practically that the land lasts forever as, to differing degrees, do the laws of mortgages, prescription, and conservation easements.
Some aspects of land law will not be able to survive the changes. One example is the significant but obscure principle that a property owner enjoys a right of access to the public highway system, and government action eliminating such access amounts to a taking requiring the payment of compensation for the reduction in value of the marooned land.17 Recently, this rule has been found appropriate to support a takings action against a local government based upon its failure to maintain a road connecting a barrier island that had repeatedly flooded.18 As seas rise and floods increase, however, the burden that such a rule places on the public fisc becomes irrational; no government constructs roads and bridges on the assumption that the facilities would have to be continually rebuilt to higher elevations and mounting costs. Also, the traditional rule creates perverse incentives for coastal homeowners who may rationally seek to recover the value of their flooding homes by bringing takings claims. While it may be that courts, appalled by the prospect of sea-level rise, may grow more rigid and formalistic in their application of this rule in the short run, they will need to revise it as cases and costs multiply with losses. Doctrinal change could be applied either to the easement of access or to the takings analysis.19
Not only will sea-level rise physically destroy or damage land and improvements, but private property rights themselves will be terminated. Pursuant to the public trust doctrine, the public owns the beds of tidelands seaward of the mean-high-tide line. As the tide line moves landward, the doctrine of accretion will transform private dry land into public subsurface, wetland, or tideland.20 No taking requiring the payment of compensation is effected, because the transformation is considered to have been accomplished by nature not by the government.21 Then, if the government steps in to restore the sunken land, as when the government rebuilds a beach with dredged sand, the restored beach usually is considered public property.22 This result stems from the doctrine of avulsion, whereby a sudden change in the tide line, even if purposefully brought about by a government agency, does not change the boundary line—though a gradual change would under the doctrine of accretion. The justification for the result under avulsion, however, may be due to the public resources used to rebuild the beach. Pertinently, Professor Flourney has recently inquired whether sea level rise should change the application of the accretion/avulsion approach. Historically, the justice of this rule was based upon the bidirectional and unpredictable movement of the tide line, but now sea-level rise will push the tide line inexorably inland.23 Professor Flourney persuasively shows that both the physical assumptions and policy justifications for the traditional approach have changed significantly because of sea-level rise and argues generally for greater protection for free-access submerged and tidal lands subject to the public trust.
Second, large scale government investments in protecting private property from the effects of climate change likely will increase the scope and weight of the public interest, justifying regulation of private land use. Sea-level rise again provides the clearest instance of this. There are three categories of regulatory responses to adapt to sea-level rise: fight, accommodate, and retreat.24 Fighting involves the public or private construction of physical barriers or drains to keep sea waters away from private property. Thus, sea walls, levees, dune and wetland construction, pumps, and drains can forestall inundation or storm surges (up to a point).25 This approach has obvious attractions, especially if the public will pay for the new infrastructure,because it preserves the current boundaries of the lot and extant buildings and generally allows established land uses to continue. Public infrastructure has an additional crucial advantage over private efforts because it can be constructed across property lines according to the physical characteristics of the site. But there are engineering, environmental, and economic limits to the capacity of government to build such protections.26
Such large-scale public investments, both of money and expertise, must expand the scope of regulatory power that government may exercise over the protected private property. When government has built sophisticated infrastructure at public expense to protect private property, its interest in that property must grow. One cannot consider the private owner as enjoying “sole and despotic dominion”27 when her property would be destroyed without public expenditure and management. One might argue that from an economic perspective, the public has put equity into the protected property to preserve its market value. Moreover, to the extent that government has prevented the tide line from moving landward, it has suspended its future ownership rights over the private land it is now protecting. The public’s right to regulate the use of protected private land for environmental benefits or to mandate forms of public access surely will grow. Of course, it always has been the case that government action has been necessary to secure property rights through judicial and executive enforcement of such rights, but the financing, construction, and maintenance of physical barriers to natural destruction of private property go far beyond any “night watchman” type of state action and toward a persistent “control of nature.”28
Some indication of how courts may reshape property doctrines may be gleaned from the unanimous post–Hurricane Sandy decision of the New Jersey Supreme Court in Borough of Harvey Cedars v. Karan.29 The Borough condemned a perpetual easement over a portion of the Karan’s shorefront lot for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct, largely at federal expense, a dune barrier to storms and erosions. In calculating the compensation to be paid, the trial court permitted the jury to consider the obstruction of the view from the house but not the benefit accruing from increased storm and erosion protection, on the ground that such protection was general to many protected properties. The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed this decision and held that any “reasonably calculable benefits—regardless of whether those benefits are enjoyed to some lesser or greater degree by others in the community—that increase the value of property at the time of the taking should be discounted from the condemnation award.”30 The court rejected as outdated the traditional distinction between specific benefits to the retained property, which can be considered, and benefits general to the community, which cannot.31
Harvey Cedars found absurd the traditional approach, which considers offsetting benefits in compensation calculations, when faced with a large government project to protect private homes from the sea. The Court did not abandon protection of private property; it presumed the right of the owners to compensation for the easement and affirmed the propriety of compensation for impairment of their ocean view. But mandating consideration of off benefits may practically eliminate and certainly will radically reduce payment of compensation for such a project.32 The State of New Jersey is aggressively using Harvey Cedars as a point in negotiating the donation of easements for dune construction. The increase in sea-level rise caused by climate change will greatly increase the risk to shorefront property and the pressure for protective public works, while rendering less persuasive the claims of property owners’ recognition of the niceties of their rights. None of this means that New Jersey’s dune construction project or any particular government property protection scheme is a sensible or fair
response to climate risks. But the logic of such public protection will be to make property more amenable to public control.
There are many things that may be required of protected property owners: public access on dry sand beaches, public access for maintenance of works, owner maintenance of habitats or wetlands, water management, protection of viewsheds, and the like. At a minimum, government’s physical protection of private property against sea-level rise should, as a constitutional matter, authorize any regulation or public access reasonably necessary to realize public benefits from managing sea-level rise.
Government regulations to require property-owner accommodations to climate change could lead to extensive additions to building codes and site plans, but they do not seem constitutionally or conceptually difficult. New houses on lots threatened by sea-level rise may be required to be elevated or placed upon high ground; landscaping or water engineering may be mandated for those threatened by wildfires.33 While these may increase costs, courts are unlikely to take seriously due process or regulatory takings challenges to a wide range of accommodation regulations.
More problematic are regulations requiring retreat. From an environmental perspective, the best response to sea-level rise, drought, and fire threat would be to simply prohibit new development in the areas most at risk. The reasons to mandate retreat from areas at risk from climate change include protection of residents from harm, avoidance of dangerous and expensive rescue efforts, coordination of cessations of public services, and minimization of damage to ecosystem services.34 But the economic effects of such bans could be devastating for investors and even for local government finances. More immediately, they risk triggering the per se rule of Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, that land use regulations that eliminate all the economic value of a parcel constitute regulatory takings.35 The peculiar threat of Lucas is that it requires compensation unless the use of the land would constitute a nuisance at common law. In the case of sea level rise or other environmental threats, however, traditional nuisance law is inapplicable. According to the Restatement, a nuisance arises from an owner’s unreasonable use of his land that causes harm to another landowner or to the public at large.36 Nuisance law can (imperfectly) address environmental harm when the defendant is polluting neighbors from his own land. But it would seem not to address situations where the risk stems from changes in nature that are caused by human activity throughout the industrialized world. In Lucas, where a taking was found from a prohibition of building within a flood zone, Justice Scalia noted derisively that construction of a single family house does not constitute a nuisance.37 In practice, retreat has been limited to generous voluntary buyouts of homes after destruction from floods or fires. 38
So to mandate retreat through legislation, the Lucas facts must be avoided, the doctrine must bend, or nuisance law must expand. In a prior article, I discussed avoiding the factual premise of Lucas through rolling development restrictions, which permit development for time but then prohibit it when the sea rises to within a certain distance of a dwelling or building site.39 In another article, I have described climate exactions, which might permit such development but at a price that reflects the environmental or public costs it generates.40 Here, I briefly want to suggest that at some point maintaining a house in the face of sea-level rise or other increasing climate risks may be considered a public nuisance.
A public nuisance would be the unreasonable use of property that imposes significant harm on the public generally.41 In the era before comprehensive land use regulation, local governments enacted ordinances identifying certain uses in certain locations as public nuisances; public authorities such as attorney generals or corporation councils would bring actions to enforce such ordinances through injunctions.42 In some cases, land uses thought reasonable at one time came to be seen as nuisances when the environs around them had changed. For example, a cement plant in Los Angeles was unobjectionable when settlement was sparse but was deemed a nuisance when a neighborhood of houses grew up around it.43 People building or living in houses could come to be considered nuisances when the risk of inundation, storm surges, or fire reaches a threshold where disaster assistance would become too dangerous or costly, when they threaten failure of septic or sewer systems, or when construction prevents migration inland of environmental systems providing the community with important ecological services. Of course, the actual factual circumstances and the normative meanings that the public attaches to nuisances in the future would be determinative, but climate change could so change which land uses are considered reasonable that such “essential uses” as building a house could become nuisances in many locations. 44
The third category of property law change to be expected from climate change would be an increase in government liability for losses resulting from its environmental management. Currently losses from extreme natural events, such as hurricanes, generally are considered “acts of God,” for which no entity is primarily responsible. If government has no authority and makes no effort to control the forces of nature, there is no legal basis to hold it accountable for natural disasters.45 But when government comes to manage the effects of climate change, through construction of levees, for example, courts may come to hold the government responsible for its mistakes or inadequate precautions. Thus, if reconstructed sand dunes erode faster than estimated and a storm surge destroys houses in the locality, or forests thinned of overgrown or dead vegetation still host raging wildfires that consume homes, the government may be blamed. Lawyers for private owners bearing such losses may seek to hold the government liable.
This tendency is evident in recent court decisions using the Takings Clause to facilitate liability on the United States for its management of flooding on the Mississippi River. Since the 1920s the US Army Corps of Engineers has been tasked with reducing flooding as well as aiding navigation on the river. The legislation authorizing their flood control efforts also contained a statutory exemption from government tort liability arising from such efforts.46 But flooding of private land near the river still results from the enormity of the task, whether from inadequate water management or from agency choices among competing constituents. In recent years, courts have expanded the basis upon which the Corps can be held liable for flooding under the Takings Clause, which cannot be limited by statute. In Arkansas Fish and Game, the Supreme Court departed from prior law in holding that a takings claim can be based upon a single or finite series of flooding events.47 Subsequently, the U.S. Claims Court held that the Corps effected a taking by its construction and negligent management of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, which enhanced the flooding in St. Bernard Parish from Hurricane Katrina.48
Of course, the government has never managed coastlines with the thoroughness that the Corps has managed the Mississippi River. But the vulnerability of coastal property to sea-level rise suggests that government may play a much larger role in defending against rising seas to preserve private property values. In doing so, it would seem to take on a duty to perform its many protective functions without negligence. Because the government would be choosing structures to prevent the risks foreseen by sophisticated scientific analyses, it seems inevitable that sometimes the government would be wrong in its predictions or would engineer inadequately based on mistakes, inadequate findings, or the sheer difficulty of the task. To be sure, government can find some defense in the discretionary function immunity to the Federal Tort Claims Act, but generally speaking this immunity extends only to intentional and not negligent acts of government employees.49
Government will also be threatened with liability for its intentional decisions about protection from climate effects through takings claims. The scale of climate effects and the immensity of affected areas means that government will protect some areas and not others.50 Choices will need to be made
about limited resources and know-how, and likely will be based on the value of protecting different places.51 For example, urban areas are more likely to be protected than rural. Physical characteristics of some places, such as land subsidence or porous bedrock, may make some places much more difficult or expensive to protect. Politics also inevitably will play a role. Thus, government will make imperfect and unpopular decisions about which localities will be protected from flooding, which will be allowed to flood, and which the government will intentionally flood in order to divert flood waters. Losers will seek compensation. Such cases will be brought as takings because the decisions to flood or not protect from flooding will be characterized as intentional implementations of policies.
The structure of such a problem can be seen in the Quebedeaux case.52 There the Corps estimated that high water descending from the Mississippi would overflow levees in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, so it opened the Morganza Spillway, diverting floodwaters into the Atchafalya River basin and destroying numerous farms, homes, and businesses. Affected landowners sued, claiming a taking. The Court of Federal Claims denied the government’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. Judge Allegra relied on the recent decision in Arkansas Fish and Game53 to hold that a single instance of intentional flooding could be found to be a taking and also rejected the government’s argument that a flooding victim who benefited from a flood control project could not recover unless he showed that the cost of the flooding exceeded the benefits from the project as a whole.54 Thus, flood victims who would have had to bear their own losses if the government had taken no action could obtain compensation if the government chose to flood them in order to avoid a greater disaster downstream.
Government engineering may never reach the level of control over coastal flooding that the Corps has reached on the Mississippi, but one can easily imagine that government choices over which areas it will protect against ocean storm surges may result in similar takings claims—for example, government construction or permitting of a seawall to protect residences in one location along the Gulf Coast, knowing that such a seawall may increase the likelihood of erosion or flooding on nearby farmland. There may be subtle issues of causation raised regarding the extent to which the government or nature caused the loss,55 but the breadth of government control we can anticipate to protect owners from the effects of climate change suggests that at some point losses may be attributed to the government. Professor Serkin has put this scenario at the center of his theory of passive takings: “Whether the government prohibits or builds sea walls, its near-total control over the allocation of the inevitable harm serves as a doctrinal hook for passive takings liability.”56

Thus, we can anticipate that government will be entrusted with the choice over which private property will be protected at great government expense and which will be flooded. Several property doctrines may protect the government from takings liability in such circumstances. In Miller v. Schoene, the Supreme Court held that a Virginia statute mandating the destruction of cedar trees to protect the state’s apple trees from a contagious plant disease did not amount to a taking because the government had to act to prevent harm in circumstances where the failure to act would have caused more harm.57 From one view, the decision increases the probability that government failure to protect an owner could amount to a taking because the Court seems to treat government action and inaction as equal policy choices that can cause harm. But more fundamentally, the Court expressly stated that “it is obvious that there may be, and that here there is, a preponderant public interest in the preservation of one interest over the other.” Thus even in cases where government action causes harm, as when opening a floodgate, the government may escape takings liability when not doing so could cause a greater harm to the public. The vitality of Miler v. Schoene in modern takings law, however, is questionable, as it relies on a deference to the police power that the Supreme Court has moved away from.58
This essay has considered ways that climate change may push changes in property law. Sealevel rise, flooding, fire, and drought undermine the stability of improvements to land and, indeed, of land itself. Managing these increased risks will lead to greater government construction and management of protective infrastructure. Paradoxically, greater public physical protections will both expand the regulatory reach of government and expose government to increased liability for property damage from events historically considered “natural” but that will become seen as the results of government choice or negligence. This fundamental change in the relationship between government and private property owners will bring significant change to the property law in some ways suggested here and in other ways not yet anticipated.

1 J. Hampton Baumgartner, Jr., Chair in Real Property Law, Georgetown University Law Center. This paper evolved from a talk given at the Brigham Kanner Property Rights Conference in October 2016. Thanks to Lynda Butler for encouraging me to write.
3 See, e.g., Svetlana Jevrejeva et al., Coastal Sea Level Rise with Warming Above 2 °C, 113 PROC. NAT’L ACAD. SCI. 13342 (2016),; John T. Abatzoglou et al., Impact of Anthropogenic Climate Change on Wildfire Across Western US Forests, 113 PROC. NAT’L ACAD. SCI. 11770 (2016),; Asiak Grinsted et al., Projected Atlantic Hurricane Surge Threat from Rising Temperatures, 110 PROC. NAT’L ACAD. SCI. 5369 (2013),
4 See, e.g., S.B. 32, 2015–16 Leg., Reg. Sess. (Cal. 2016), amending CAL. HEALTH AND SAF. CODE § 38566 (2017). On the many efforts at adaptation see GEORGETOWN CLIMATE CENTER, ADAPTATION CLEARING HOUSE, (last visited Feb. 11, 2017).
5 Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497 (2007).
6 Juliana v. United States, No. 6:15-CV-01517-TC, 2016 WL 6661146 (D. Or. Nov. 10, 2016).

7 Douglas A. Kysar, What Climate Change Can Do About Tort Law, 41 ENV’T L. REP. 1, 3-4 (2011). Kysar went on to observe: “[T]he effort to fit the mother of all collective action problems into the traditional paradigm of tort reveals much about how that paradigm more generally needs to shift.” Id. at 44.
8 See, e.g., J.B. Ruhl, Climate Change Adaptation and the Structural Transformation of Environmental Law, 40 ENV’T L. REP. 363, 401 (2010); Richard J. Lazarus, Super Wicked Problems and Climate Change: Restraining the Present to Liberate the Future, 94 CORNELL L. REV. 1153 (2009).
9 See Holly Doremus, Climate Change and the Evolution of Property Rules, 1 U.C. IRVINE L. REV. 1091 (2011). Professor Doremus gives a thoughtful account of how property rules evolve and what forces can delay or prevent change. This essay takes the simple-minded view that courts will eventually change doctrines when physical, social, and economic changes make inherited legal approaches seem nonsensical. Also, it avoids the important question whether changes in property doctrine are better accomplished by courts or legislatures.
10 Water law, another key element of property law, also will need to adapt because climate change will cause regional shortages. See Robin Kundis Craig, Adapting Water Law to Public Necessity: Reframing Climate Change Adaptation as Emergency Response and Preparedness, 11 VT. J. ENV’T L. 709, 724 (2010).
11 See, e.g., Joseph L. Sax, Property Rights and the Economy of Nature: Understanding Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, 45 STAN. L. REV. 1433, 1446 (1993).
12 See Neumann, J.E. et al., Joint Effects of Storm Surge and Sea-Level Rise on US Coasts: New Economic Estimates of Impacts, Adaptation, and Benefits of Mitigation Policy, 129 CLIMATIC CHANGE 337 (2015).
13 42 U.S.C. § 4001 et seq.

15 Ian Urbina, Perils of Climate Change Could Swamp Coastal Real Estate, N.Y. TIMES, Nov. 24, 2016, html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=second-columnregion& region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news.
16 See Chris Mooney, U.S. Scientists Officially Declare 2016 the Hottest Year On Record. That Makes Three in a Row, WASH. POST., Jan. 18, 2017,
17 See, e.g., Jordan v. Town of Canton, 265 A.2d 96 (Me. 1970).
18 Jordan v. St. Johns Cty., 63 So. 3d 835 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2011).

19. There are internal complexities in the law of abandonment of public access, such as whether a private easement of access survives public renunciation. See, e.g., Luf v. Town of Southbury, 449 A.2d 1001, 1006 (Conn. 1982).
20 See Joseph L. Sax, The Accretion/Avulsion Puzzle: Its Past Revealed, Its Future Proposed, 23 TUL. ENV’T L.J. 305 (2010).
21 J. Peter Byrne, The Cathedral Engulfed: Sea Level Rise, Property Rights, and Time, 73 LA. L. REV. 69, 80 (2012).
22 See Stop the Beach Renourishment, Inc. v. Fla. Dep’t of Env’t Prot., 560 U.S. 702 (2010); City of Long Branch v. Jui Yung Liu, 4 A.3d 542 (N.J. 2010).
23 Alyson C. Flourney, Beach Law Clean-Up: How Sea-Level Rise Has Displaced the Accretion/Erosion/Avulsion Framework (Dec. 30, 2016) (unpublished working paper) (on file with author).
24 See J. Peter Byrne & Jessica Grannis, Coastal Retreat Measures, in THE LAW OF ADAPTATION TO CLIMATE CHANGE 267, 269 (Michael B. Gerrard & Katrina Fischer Kuh eds., 2012).
25 See Robert R.M. Verchick & Joel D. Scheraga, Protecting the Coast, in THE LAW OF ADAPTATION TO CLIMATE CHANGE 235, 24–44 (Michael B. Gerrard & Katrina Fischer Kuh eds., 2012). Recent legislation strives to make such new infrastructure as cost effective and environmentally friendly as possible.

26 See, e.g., Elizabeth Kolbert, The Siege of Miami, NEW YORKER, Dec. 21 &28, 2015.
27 2 WILLIAM BLACKSTONE, COMMENTARIES *2 (facsimile ed., 1979).
28 The phrase comes from JOHN MCPHEE, THE CONTROL OF NATURE (1989).
29 Borough of Harvey Cedars v. Karan, 70 A.3d 524 (2013).
30 Id. at 543.
31 Bianca Iozzia, Putting a Price Tag on an Ocean View: The Impact of Borough of Harvey Cedars v. Karan on Partial- Taking Valuations, 25 VILL. ENVT’L L.J. 501, 521 (2014).

32 The Karans eventually settled for $! in compensation, and subsequently a jury awarded another couple three hundred dollars for a similar taking to construct a protective dune. Press Release, N.J. Att’y Gen., Acting Attorney General Hoffman Announces Legal Victory for Beachfront Easement Acquisition Efforts in Harvey Cedars: Owner Sought Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars; Jury Awards $300 (June 30, 2014),
33 On building codes requiring freeboard and other measures to accommodate to sea-level rise, see Adaptation
Toolkit: Sea Level Rise and Coastal Land Use, GEO. CLIMATE CTR., (Feb. 11, 2016), sea-level-rise-and-coastal-landuse/building-codes.html.
34 See Byrne & Grannis, supra note 24, at 268–70.
35 Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council, 505 U.S. 1003 (1992).

37 “It seems unlikely that common-law principles would have prevented the erection of any habitable or productive improvements on petitioner’s land; they rarely support prohibition of the ‘essential use’ of land.” Lucas, 505 U.S. at 1033 (quoting Curtin v. Benson, 222 U.S. 78, 82 (1911)).
39 Byrne, The Cathedral Engulfed, supra note 21, at 109–12.
40 J. Peter Byrne & Kathryn A. Zyla, Climate Exactions, 75 MD. L. REV. 758 (2016).
42 See John E. Bryson & Angus McBeth, Public Nuisance, the Restatement (Second) of Torts, and Environmental Law, 2 ECOLOGY L.Q. 241 (1972).
43 Hadacheck v. Sebastian, 239 U.S. 394 (1915).
44 The plausibility of this prediction may be enhanced when one recalls that the essential use of land protected against regulation in the case cited by Justice Scalia in Lucas, was the driving of cattle over roads through Yosemite National Park and grazing them on a private enclosure within the park. See Curtin v. Benson, 222 U.S. 78, 86 (1911) (“The right of appellant to pasture his cattle upon his land, and the right of access to it, are of the very essence of his proprietorship.”). No one could doubt that the National Park Service today has authority to prohibit driving cattle through and grazing them on private land within a national park.

45 Government does provide assistance to affected persons and businesses under disaster relief statutes and through ad hoc legislation. The Stafford Act provides the statutory authority for most Federal disaster response. 42 U.S.C. 5121 et seq (2016).
46 33 U.S.C §§ 701–709b (2016).
47 Ark. Fish & Game Comm’n v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 511 (2012).
48 St. Bernard Parish Gov’t v. United States, 121 Fed. Cl. 687 (2015).
49 Amy M. Hackman, The Discretionary Function Exception to the Federal Tort Claims Act: How Much is Enough?, 19 CAMPBELL L. REV. 411, 413 (1997).

50 The public needs to have the authority to regulate or prohibit the private construction of sea walls to protect neighboring properties as well as tidelands. Byrne, The Cathedral Engulfed, supra note 21, at 100-04. A common law rule, already weakened, that sea-level rise should eliminate is the “common enemy” rule permitting landowners to fend off flood waters in any direction without liability to neighbors injured by the redirected waters. See generally Daniel H. Cole, Liability Rules for Surface Water Drainage: A Simple Economic Analysis, 12 GEO. MASON L. REV. 35 (1990).
52 Quebedeaux v. United States, 112 Fed. Cl. 317 (2013).
53 Id., at 324-25 (discussing Arkansas Fish & Game Comm’n v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 511 (2012)).
54 Id., at 321.
55 See Teagarden v. United States, 42 Fed. Cl. 252 (1998) (rejecting takings claim on the ground that the forest fire caused destruction of the plaintiffs’ trees rather than the United States Forest Service’s choice to not protect the
plaintiffs’ property).

56 Christopher Serkin, Passive Takings: The State’s Affirmative Duty to Protect Property, 113 MICH. L. REV. 345, 394 (2014).
57 Miller v. Schoene, 276 U.S. 272 (1928).
58 See Lucas v. S.C. Coastal Council, 505 U.S. 1003, 1022–23 (1992) (“The ‘harmful or noxious uses’ principle was the Court’s early attempt to describe in theoretical terms why government may, consistent with the Takings Clause, affect property values by regulation without incurring an obligation to compensate—a reality we nowadays acknowledge explicitly with respect to the full scope of the State’s police power.”). Another obscure corner of takings law that will come into play when the government assumes control of nature are cases of actual necessity, such as when government blows up buildings to prevent the spread of fire. See, e.g., Bowditch v. Boston, 101 U.S. 16 (1880). This exception to takings liability is narrow and has not been revisited in many years.

How the term ‘Anthropocene’ jumped from geoscience to hashtags – before most of us knew what it meant

Though its use has grown in the last decade, the Anthropocene concept has been around since the 19th century.

  1. Duncan Cook Senior Lecturer in Geography, Australian Catholic University

Dr Duncan Cook receives funding from the Australian Research Council.

Australian Catholic University provides funding as a member of The Conversation AU

Republished from the Conversation

Disastrous firesongoing drought, and heat extremes have refocused Australians’ attention on the human contribution to climate change.

For decades experts have known (and warned) of the consequences for Australia, but for many, there is a realisation that our environment has shifted beyond “normal” boundaries, and that humans have played some part in this. This is fertile ground for the idea we occupy a new human-dominated phase of planetary history: the Anthropocene.

Use of the term Anthropocene (the root “anthropo” means human, the suffix “-cene” signals a geologic time epoch) has been growing for more than a decade. No longer the exclusive domain of geoscientists, it has jumped from academic journals to pop culture while many are still asking “the what now?”

A very short history

It has been 20 years since Dutch Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen and colleagues used the term to describe the human modification of the planet since the industrial revolution. However, the concept dates back to at least the mid- to late-19th century when Italian Catholic priest, geologist and palaeontologist Antonio Stoppani proposed an “anthropozoic era”.

There has been a push in the last decade to have the Anthropocene formally recognised as the current piece of Earth history.

Last year, the Anthropocene Working Group of the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) agreed to a proposal for a formal Anthropocene period with an onset marked by the distinct chemical signatures of mid-20th century atomic bomb fallout that we can detect worldwide.

Some scholars have questioned the need for an Anthropocene epoch at all. Others recognise its usefulness but debate when between the mid-18th and mid-20th century AD the period started.

While there are good arguments for such a recent start date, it potentially excludes the impact of thousands of years of human deforestation, agriculture, and building that are the environmental antecedents of the world we see today (a so-called Early Anthropocene, or a Palaeoanthropocene model).

Though there is argument about its starting point, the Anthropocene concept of human geological impact has taken hold. UnsplashCC BY
Re-writing the past

One issue here is that our knowledge of human impacts in the distant past is being rapidly re-written. Take the Maya lowlands of Central America, where our research team used the term Mayacene to describe early Anthropocene deforestation, agriculture and urbanisation. In a new paper, my colleagues have shown Pre-Columbian Maya wetland agricultural systems in present-day Belize were five times larger (and older) than previously thought.

We are only now beginning to understand the long history of human modification, in tropical forests and elsewhere, that may have increased greenhouse gas emissions and altered climate long before the industrial revolution.

History tells us trying to pin down when (and where) major human disturbance first occurred is a great challenge. The stratigraphic (and historical and archaeological) evidence suggests an Anthropocene that is time-transgressive, with many different beginnings (and some declines) globally. We can say it had transformed much of the planet by 3,000 years ago.

Can we reverse millennia of human impacts? Kelly Sikkema/UnsplashCC BY
Escape from acadaemia

An undecided start date has not prevented the Anthropocene idea spreading rapidly through many academic disciplines.

Highly regarded journals, such as Anthropocene and Anthropocene Review, publish an expanding body of human-impacts research.

Across the humanities and social sciences, the Anthropocene has become an important frame for re-examining human-environment relationships. Historian Dipesh Chakrabarty’s 2009 essay, for example.

Offshoot Anthropocene ideas have sprouted, including the Technoscene (the influence of technology), the Capitalocene (the influence of economies), and (my favourite) the Chthulucene that imagines a future re-worlding where multispecies groups learn to live in harmony with nature.

Despite the viral spread and mutation of the term, what remains is the recognition of the enormity and permanence of human environmental modification, and the (usually) negative consequences.

The 2010s were marked by important Anthropocene books, documentaries and movies, marking the spread of the term into the public discourse.

Musician Grimes’ new album will be called Miss Anthropocene. Illustration by Charlotte Rutherford/Instagram

In 2014, Anthropocene was added to the Oxford English Dictionary; six years later, Google’s search engine shows some 6.4 million internet hits on the term. In The Atlantic last year, science writer Peter Brannen wondered whether the concept was an arrogant human folly:

The idea of the Anthropocene inflates our own importance by promising eternal geological life to our creations.

The cultural impact of the Anthropocene is seen in major art projects and museum exhibitions, and you can now find the word (and the ideas) in many songs and albums. Canadian musician Grimes’ announced her upcoming release Miss Anthropocene is a “concept album about the anthropomorphic Goddess of climate change”.

On social media, Anthropocene has become a byword for the severe human impacts on the environment we see around us – in posts about bushfire smokeplastic beach flotsam, and expanding farmlands.

Lasting impact

It’s not often ideas and terminology from the geosciences escape and find a home in society, so the journey of the Anthropocene, from neologism to global catch phrase and environmental rallying point is fascinating.

The Anthropocene is not (yet) a formally defined geological unit, and so for now, we continue to live in the Meghalayan Age of the Holocene epoch.

The Anthropocene has arguably become a “charismatic mega-concept”. It brings together the sciences, humanities, and the public realm, stimulating ongoing debate and new research.

Perhaps this is the “global awareness” ANU’s Will Steffen and colleagues anticipated in their 2007 Anthropocene model?

Time will tell if this shared terminology and understanding can translate into action, to repair (or at least slow) millennia of human impacts on the Earth …

The Anthropocene -The Earth in Our Hands

Reinhold Leinfelder

Freie Universität Berlin*

1 Introduction

An outstanding characteristic of the human species is its ability to think ahead into the future. However, such foresight is a major challenge if it is to go beyond one’s own personal environment. The future is therefore difficult to grasp – also depending on which temporal and spatial scales are adopted. Geologists predict probable Earth plate constellations even up to 250 million years in advance.1 Paleontologists may agree to “what if” future scenarios based on plausibility conditions, such as in the BBC fiction “The Future is Wild”, produced with the participation of paleontologists, in which, in 20- 200 million years, fish could actually have conquered the air and octopuses the land2. In general, science fiction films often shape our ideas for the future – in fact, they have anticipated technical developments, such as tablet computers, 3D visualizations or ‘intelligent assistants’. However, many think of the future in terms of socio-political and environmental challenges on a local, regional and global scale or of many euphemistic promises of the industry. Hence, it is no surprise that very often fears of the future prevail or the topic future is simply ignored. We do not want that robots take over our work, nor do we want to be made personally responsible for all these problems. The complexity of the closely interlinked challenges seems too much for us: The future seems cloudy, pixelated, not an integral picture. The usual, especially western dualistic, dialectical approach of discursive categorization into close vs. strange, good vs. evil, beautiful vs. ugly, right vs. wrong, nature vs. culture, human vs. technology etc. is counterproductive and does not help (Schwägerl & Leinfelder 2014, Leinfelder 2017a). Cheap, psychologically quite comprehensible self-excuses promote populist attempts for splitting societies, which are currently experiencing an alarming boom (Leinfelder 2013a, 2018, Levandowsky et al. 2018). Can a new scientific concept derived from the Earth system and geosciences, the Anthropocene, help here? Does it have the right name? Doesn’t it promote an apocalyptic, fatalistic attitude or, quite contrary isn’t it a gateway for positivistic, technocratic delusions? And how is a concept that has grown out of the “deep past”, i.e. the history of the Earth, supposed to have any relevance for the future? Once again we seem to be trapped in our simplifying, dualistic “either-or” ideas, into which we want to categorize new concepts as fast as possible.

The purpose of this article is to present the concept of the Anthropocene also with regard to its potential for a systemic sustainability analysis and the resulting responsibilities, commitments and design options. Perhaps the most exciting thing about the Anthropocene concept is the challenge of abandoning dualisms in favor of a diverse spectrum of graduations, new approaches and new solution pathways. However, the different levels of the Anthropocene approach should be distinguished, so that it is always clear what we are exactly talking and debating about.

2. Paul Crutzen – the Father of the Anthropocene

Atmospheric chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen first used the term “Anthropocene” at a large conference of the Earth system sciences in Mexico in 2000. Earth system scientists are trying to understand the processes of the Earth system and thus the interplay of the lithosphere, pedosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and atmosphere. Recently the influence of humans (sociosphere or anthroposphere, sensu WBGU 1993) on these natural spheres and thus on the stability of the Earth system has also been evaluated. Crutzen was horrified by the extent of human intervention in the Earth system and – emotionally moved – claimed in an interim remark that we would no longer live in the Holocene, but in the “Anthropocene”. Since then, the new term has entered the scientific and public discussion.3 Following the conference in 2000, it was Crutzen who, together with the ecologist Eugene Stoermer (who had been using the term Anthropocene in his lectures for some time), published a short concept of the Anthropocene in the newsletter of the International Geosphere Biosphere Program (IGBP) that hosted Mexico Conference (Crutzen & Stoermer 2000). This was followed by his highly regarded article “Geology of Mankind” in the renowned journal “Nature” (Crutzen 2002). Crutzen thus implicitly put forward three theses: First, that today’s Earth system does not correspond to the Holocene Earth system anymore, so humankind has become a crucial factor of the Earth system. Second, by using the term in linguistic analogy to the more recent geological epochs (Paleocene, Eocene, Oligocene, Miocene, Pliocene, Pleistocene and Holocene) he hypothesized that these interventions were also geologically detectable, permanently manifested in new sedimentary characteristics, and thus required the formal definition of a new geological epoch. Third, he did not stop at this analytical approach, but also formulated that its outcome must have consequences for future human action, and that not politics alone, but also science and technology must make a significant contribution to this. The Anthropocene concept can therefore best be described by these three levels, a) the Earth system level, b) the geological stratigraphic level, and c) the consequential meta-level (Leinfelder 2016a, 2017a, b).

3. The Multi-Level Approach

3.1 The Earth System Level of the Anthropocene Concept

Human intervention in the environment has reached dimensions that are difficult to imagine – quantitative estimates of this can illustrate this: so far, humanity has reshaped more than three quarters of the ice-free solid Earth – a “pristine nature” no longer exists here4 . Today’s natural landscapes are therefore mostly cultural landscapes. The situation is similar in the oceans, where overfishing has reached enormous proportions and where temperature increase, acidification, overfertilization and other pollutants endanger coral reefs, plankton and other marine life5 . Overall, the situation of biological diversity is critical. Although only about 0.5-2% of vertebrate species have become extinct since the beginning of the 18th century (Waters et al. 2016), this is still 100-1000 times faster than before the beginning of human influences happens (Barnosky et al. 2012, Ceballos et al. 2015).

When monitoring 16,704 populations of 4005 vertebrate species, their population size has declined by 60% since 1970 (Grooten & Almond 2018). The change is even more dramatic when considering the ratios of biomass proportions. For example, despite the large number of individuals (almost 7.5 billion), humans only represent 0.01% of global, carbon-based biomass – most of it, namely 82%, is contained in plants and, in turn, in tree trunks. However, humans and their mammalian livestock, in particular cattle, sheep and pigs, represent 96% of the biomass of all living mammals (humans 36%, livestock 60%). All wild animal species together therefore represent only 4% of the carbon biomass of all mammals. In birds, even 70% of the biomass is accounted for by breeding poultry (Bar-On et al. 2018).

The extent to which non-renewable resources are used also plays a very special role. Humans use fossil fuels, which have accumulated over hundreds of millions of years from biomass. Their combustion causes today’s anthropogenic climate change within a very short time. In addition, we also use vast quantities of other raw, non-renewable materials such as sand, limestones, clays, iron ore, other metals or rare earths to produce buildings, infrastructure, machinery and appliances, the construction and operation of which in turn requires enormous amounts of energy. Our scientific estimate of the magnitude says that humankind has so far produced the unimaginable amount of 30 trillion tons of technosphere. 40% of this technosphere is located in and under the cities of the world (Zalasiewicz et al. 2017a). Other technical products, such as plastics in particular, are spread all over the Earth. Humans have produced a total of about 8.3 billion tons of plastics (Geyer et al. 2017). While pre-war production was minimal and only about 1.5 million tons were produced in 1950, annual production has now risen to around 400 million tons, which is more than the biomass of all living humans (cf. Zalasiewicz et al. 2016, Leinfelder & Ivar do Sul 2019, Fuhr et al. 2019). 2.5 billion tons of the total plastic produced are currently still in use, but only a very small part is recycled or incinerated worldwide, while about 4.9 billion tons, i.e. about 60% of all plastic produced up to now, has been released into the environment, either still dumped in geologically non-permanent landfills or directly distributed on land and in the sea (Geyer et al. 2017).

The construction and operation of technical machines from such non-renewable resources then in turn enabled other resources, such as phosphates, to be extracted. The majority of the mined phosphates are added to agricultural land in the form of artificial fertilizers in order to generate renewable biological resources. Between 1910 and 2005 the human-made share of the net primary plant production (NPP) doubled from 13 to 25% of global vegetation, which led to a doubling of the input of reactive nitrogen and phosphorus into the environment and which also required huge amounts of fossil energy for agricultural production. In 2014, 225 million tons of fossil phosphates were mined and 258 million tons are projected for 2018. The scenarios for the human share of total primary crop production by year 2050 amount to 27-44% NPP. 6

Humans are thus removing whole mountains, cutting new valleys, allowing lakes to flow in or out, determining where and what is sedimented, which organisms live where and where they do not, raising sea levels and changing the climate. 7 Humankind has not only changed the Earth system qualitatively and quantitatively, but also made these changes at an enormous and increasing speed. The sciences refer to this as the coupled “Great Acceleration” of geoecological and socioeconomic processes (Steffen et al.2007, 2015). The danger of tipping over into a completely new Earth system status is great, especially if it is not possible to limit anthropogenic global warming to a maximum of 2° C globally, although even a warming of “only” 1.5-2° C is already well outside the range of the Holocene (Leinfelder & Haum 2016a, Steffen et al. 2016).

In summary, the Earth system hypothesis of the Anthropocene concept states that humanity has already changed the Earth system in a way that is not only comprehensive, but that also makes these changes largely irreversible. Unfortunately, all of the available data now seem to confirm this. However, it depends upon our future actions, how far the new Earth system actually will differ from that of the Holocene. Can it still be designed in such a way that it can support human societies and that these societies can develop as freely and democratically as possible? Or do we fall into a “hothouse” phase, with in detail unpredictable tipping point cascades, in which humanity will only be able to survive in the reaction mode (Steffen et al. 2016, 2018)?8

3.2 The Geological-Stratigraphic Level of the Anthropocene Concept

The enormous anthropogenic changes in the Earth system are also permanently documented in the present and future sediments as geologically detectable signatures. Caused by water regulation, agriculture, infrastructure, construction and mining, sedimentary processes today differ largely from natural processes. Adding to this, characteristics of the sediments have also changed, now showing completely new geosignatures and components. The Working Group set up by the International Stratigraphic Commission on the ‘Anthropocene’ (AWG) 9 includes geologists together with other Earth system scientists, as well as representatives from many other disciplines. This group has been investigating for several years to what extent the changes in the Earth system are also manifested in altered sedimentary signatures that are characteristic of the Anthropocene.

This is the basis for the further assessment of whether the Anthropocene should be formally defined as a new geological epoch, and if so, where the lower limit of this epoch should then be positioned. The fact that the Anthropocene should be considered as a new epoch is meanwhile largely undisputed within the AWG. Various proposals are discussed within and outside the AWG, such as the anthropogenic changes in the Neolithic, the “upsurge” of the Industrial Revolution after the perfection of the steam engine around 1800, or the enormous increase in sedimentary geosignals due to the “Great Acceleration” (sensu Steffen et al. 2007, 2015a) since the mid-20th century. The AWG now favors the latter by a large majority, since both synchronicity and worldwide detectability are given for the first time. This lower limit would be characterized in particular by 1) the radioactive fallout of the atomic bomb tests in the 50/60s, 2) the strongly accelerated increase of “technofossils” such as plastics, elementary aluminium, industrial ash particles, concrete fragments since 1950, and 3) relics and geosignatures of our “grow-use-dispose” societies, with are constantly embedded in the sediments. 10

3.3 What’s Next? The Consequential Meta-Level of the Anthropocene Concept

From a physician treating us we not only expect that his examination methodology is adequate and that his diagnosis is correct, but also that he presents this diagnosis in an understandable way, suggests further action, monitors the treatment and, if needed, urgently advises us to change our life style (if necessary with emphasis on the risks if we do not follow). In the same way, the social relevance of the Anthropocene analysis requires further attention and care, including scientific support, as well as recommendations for urgent behavioral change. This needs translation, dialogue and discourse skills, communicative interaction, ethical discourse, transdisciplinary cooperation with all social groups as well as scientific monitoring of all implementation processes. This is referred to here as the consequential metalevel of the Anthropocene concept.

In fact, not only researchers from the Earth sciences, but also from ecology, archaeology, sociology, philosophy, education, environmental, historical, literary, political, design, technical, architectural and other cultural studies and the arts are increasingly using the term “Anthropocene” and are thus discussing all aspects of the immense environmental change caused by humans (“Anthropos”) as well as their effects and potential consequential reactions to it11. This consequential metalevel of the Anthropocene can be formulated as a further hypothesis: Humans, which have become an immense geological force – albeit to a very different extent and responsibility (cf. Allen et al. 2018) – has brought the Earth system to the brink of a possible tipping. For ethical reasons and on the basis of its now very comprehensive knowledge, humanity should also be in a position to help shape the Earth in a “knowledge-gardening”, sustainable manner and in compliance with the precautionary principle in such a way that we humans become an integrative part of a permanently functional, Anthropocene Earth system that is habitable for humanity and all other diverse life. In the best case, this would create the basis for fair and just development opportunities for present and future generations worldwide.

In the following, five conceptual approaches to solving this problem are briefly outlined.

Interdisciplinarity approach: A complex science challenge such as the full analysis and monitoring of the Anthropocene and its resulting transformative relevance can hardly be achieved with the prevailing scientific method of confining scientific studies to small, manageable problems, which are then studied in great detail and depth. Multidisciplinarity, which only means that certain research objects are examined by different disciplines in their respective disciplinary context, also cannot create the necessary cross-linkages. Only full interdisciplinarity, in which different disciplines analyze problems together under a common objective and develop joint proposals for solutions, can achieve the necessary systemic analysis and enable transformative research and transformative education (sensu WBGU 2011).

On the one hand, the Anthropocene concept is thus a science-based analytic and monitoring instrument which, first and foremost, underlines the need to expand systemic and interdisciplinary research. The necessity of interdisciplinarity begins with the analytical inventory of human-made changes. This integrated approach makes it possible, for example, to correlate historical data from archaeology and historical research closely with the sedimentary archives. Since not all historical facts have been recorded by humans, there is a great added value here: An Anthropocene sedimentology and stratigraphy makes the spread of crops, the introduction of invasive species, the distribution of hazardous substances, the warming of the climate, or the omnipresence of plastics traceable regardless of historical records and thus allows to complements them.

On the other hand, the concept is also a docking point and an ethical imperative for a major social transformation in which science and education systems jointly research and teach in an interdisciplinary and transformative manner and in which dedicated groups from civil society, science, authorities, business and politics work on sustainable solutions in a transdisciplinary manner, from the municipal to the national, multi-national and UN level (WGBU 2011). In order to ensure that this social contract not only remains virtual, but also has the prospect of political implementation, the legal systems, again at all levels, i.e. from private law to municipal regulations to international law, must be reconsidered from this perspective and, if necessary, adapted or supplemented (Leinfelder 2017a).

Systemic sustainability approach: The integrative view of the Anthropocene also requires a complete rethinking of the concept of sustainability. The concept used in politics and business up to now is based on the three-pillar model of the Brundtland Report (UN 1987) and defines sustainability as the intersection between economic, social and ecological sustainability. Unfortunately, in most cases, both the ecological and the social aspects are subordinated to the economic aspects, often with the argument that otherwise there would be social hardships. Very often, the social factor is largely atrophied, resembling the “mitochondrion of the economy”, while the ecology is only considered as an “environment” surrounding (ie environing) us at a certain distance (in the sense of a world just “around us”, also ref. to the German expression “Umwelt” for environment). Though being valued by many, for most it only functions as a “nice to have” or “perhaps worth protecting” addition (cf. Leinfelder 2018). Fortunately, the theme-based Sustainable Development Goals – as adopted by the UN in 2015 – now interlink areas of life and environmental issues, which is a step in the right direction (UNSDGs 2015). However, it does not yet adequately show how all our activities, productivity, nourishment, security and well-being is strongly dependent upon a functioning Earth system. The approach known as “Wedding Cake”, linking Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with a concentric model of sustainability (cf. Griggs et al. 2013, Rockström & Sukhdev 2016) is a further step forward, but it embeds economic and social issues only in the biosphere and leaves the rest of the Earth system largely unconsidered. Also, the term “environment” (“Umwelt”) itself assigns to ecology just this excluding, distanced area, and does not show how much our livelihoods depend on it. Possibly the metaphor of an “Usworld” (in German: “Unswelt”) could be an eye-opener here, pointing to the need to rethink that the economy must serve the social/cultural system, and both, economy and social/cultural spheres have to be seen as an integrated, embedded part of the Earth system (Leinfelder 2011, 2013b, 2018).

Ethics Approach: Rethinking our embedding in the Earth system and our strong dependence on the history of the Earth not only requires to redesign the concept of sustainability, but also increases the “responsibility imperative” for action even further: If there is hardly any untouched nature left and if we have become a dominant Earth system factor as well as a geological force by our cumulative actions, then there is no real difference between nature and culture. Humankind should therefore see itself as being an integral part of the Earth system (see above: “Usworld”). Living a human life only from the Earth system, not with the Earth system is impossible, at least in a permanent, sustainable way. The main challenge of the Anthropocene concept is actually the insight into a completely new ethical relationship with the Earth: Everything I and others do has an effect on the Earth system, often in a completely unexpected and unforeseeable way. Each individual and all communities are therefore responsible. Politics or even the economy cannot be discharged from their responsibility, but alone they also cannot guarantee our Earth system integration. The use of the Earth by everyone also obliges everyone to a compatible, sustainable, and possibly even in a resource-augmenting behavior. The contrast between human necessities and the intrinsic value of nature (i.e. anthropocentric versus bio-/physicocentric) would then also resolved in an interdependent, integrative way. If the well-being of humanity depends on the well-being of nature, and vice versa the well-being of nature depends on Earth-system-compatible behavior of humans, then anthropocentric “parasitism” would transform into a genuine “mutual symbiosis” of humans and nature – this could then be described as an “anthropocenic” view (Leinfelder 2013b, 2016).

Design approach: Our knowledge society is complex, it is based not only on scientific knowledge, but also on experiences and convictions. Thus, a multimodal approach should be chosen for sustainability communication, in which facts are not only described but are also interwoven with metaphors, narratives and real images. Through narratives and visualizations, emotional access and insights can be enabled, and motivation can be generated (see following section). Facts should also be provided simultaneously in order to prevent any manipulative character (cf. Leinfelder et al. 2015, Leinfelder 2014, 2016b). Personal participation, which could start with individual trial and error approaches might further extend to active participation in environmental Citizen Science monitoring, school laboratories, maker fairs, future workshops, or artistic environmental and design projects. All this supports the necessary “permanence” of approaches and strengthens fundamental and goal-forming mental resources (cf. Hunecke 2013). In the context of the Anthropocene, a combination of narrative, participatory and creative approaches should hence help giving meaning to individual and societal future life histories that can still be shaped in a spirit of solidarity and sustainability, and should also strengthen personal experiences of self-efficacy and corresponding cooperative behavior and action through active participation (cf. Leinfelder 2018).

In this context, it is extremely gratifying that the responsibility of science and higher education is increasingly being expressed through public dialogue forums. The University of Coburg is exemplary in this respect, where 16 experts/lecturers from all six faculties plus experts from the science and culture centre have initiated an interdisciplinary, problem-oriented discourse on the Anthropocene. In this way the university consciously and exemplarily assumes responsibility for the “Future of the Earth” both internally within the circle of scientists and for students in higher education. In doing so, it also visibly demonstrates – and hopefully encourages followers – that the education of university graduates is seen as the key to shaping the future.

Narrative approach: How could such a reflection of the human being on the necessity for repositioning as an integrative part of the Earth system be achieved? An interesting approach for a new connection with nature is to use images, metaphors and narratives that – far from any false eco-romanticism – make us aware that not only renewable resources, but also fossil fuels and other raw materials such as limestone, sand, iron, manganese, copper, rare earths, phosphates etc. are finite. Such resource limitation is real for quite some substances owing to nearly complete exploitation of reserves in the foreseeable nearer future. However, most resources are not scarce per se at present, but owing to immense mining costs and negative externalities their availability is, or should be, extremely limited, particularly for environmental reasons. Apocalyptic narratives are certainly no solution, they promote powerlessness rather than motivate for action. Culture, education, science and entrepreneurs should therefore use new optimistic narratives, locations, interventions, experiments and prototypes to help politicians and society as a whole to develop new and diverse solution approaches12.


One example is the Anthropocene narrative “Machines must also be fed”: Of the 30 trillion tons of technosphere generated since about 1950 (see Section 3.1), each living human being accounts for about 4000 tons, consisting of buildings, infrastructures, vehicles, machines, appliances, gadgets, human-made soils, etc. If these materials were evenly distributed on the Earth’s surface, there would be 50 kg of these substances per square meter, both on land or at sea. For comparison: Although we are currently almost 7.7 billion people, each of us, statistically speaking, has an average of about 7 soccer fields (again, related equally to land and sea). We often forget that it is not only the raw materials necessary for our technical products that we explore, mine, transport and assemble into products with a high energy requirement, but that the buildings, machines and equipment created by this process also require other resources, in particular energy, in order to become comfortable (houses) or to do work for us: They drive, fly, swim, transport, calculate, illuminate, rinse, sew, wash, store, heat or cool for us. This narrative could help to underline the need for renewable energies and the importance of improved efficiency and, above all, the permanent recycling of resources.

4. Future? Futures!

How could the obstacles to dealing with the future described at the beginning of this article be overcome conceptually? Our culture of discussion about future solutions often suffers from the fact that possible future scenarios and possible pathways to get there are usually hard to imagine and are therefore immediately discarded – here, too, it usually feels better to remain caught in the familiar than to get involved in something that is difficult to imagine (Leinfelder 2015). Desire research shows that we wish above all for what others already have, i.e. what is therefore conceivable (cf. Helbig 2013, Fischer 2016). Since it is easy to outline and easier to update, the sciences – and then also media, film and pop culture – tend to use business-as-usual scenarios, i.e. explorative, probable, thus imaginable futures. Far too little attention is paid to possible alternative futures and even less to normative, desirable futures. In the Anthropocene context, desirable futures should be compatible both with the planetary boundaries and with SDGs. Nevertheless, the window of opportunity is wide enough to design different possible future pathways and thus to increase their imaginability, to strengthen the capacity for discourse, to then distill desirable futures and, based on that, to develop mixed solution portfolios to reach there.

For such purposes the author proposed a set of possible ideal-type future scenarios, and distinguishes – besides the usually undesired 1) Business-as-usual path (BAU) – between 2) a reactive path, 3) a lessis-more path, 4) a bio-adaptive consistency path and 5) a path characterized by innovative high-tech elements (Leinfelder 2014, 2016b). These pathways or “futures” can then be used to illustrate possible future everyday life settings such as energy supply, living, mobility, work, health and nutrition. In the field of nutrition, for example, the BAU scenario would correspond to a further increase in the consumption of meat and further extension of resource-intensive agriculture. A reactive scenario could include the optimization of sewage treatment plants, further end-of-pipe solutions and possibly an increase in productivity through new breeding and biotechnologies. A sufficiency scenario is based on local and seasonal, preferably vegetarian or even purely vegan diets, and avoids packaging and artificial fertilizers. A bioadaptive scenario tries to take nature as a model and redesign it. Food could be produced worldwide where this is best possible in a very resource-saving way. Energy for processing and transport would come from renewable energies, packaging would be completely compostable or even edible. Alternatively or additionally, nature’s closed water and nutrient cycles could be mirrored and automated locally, e.g. by combining vegetable and fish farming (Kuhlemann 2017). In animal breeding, a switch could be made to insects, which are already consumed by two billion people and can be bred in a very resource-saving manner (Huis 2017). If this is not desirable for our culture, at least the aquaculture of carnivorous fish could be switched to insect feed. A nutritional high-tech scenario could include meat from the laboratory, “functional food” made of synthetic components and the 3D printer, or food production in farm scrapers in the middle of the cities, where most of the people will live anyway in the future. 13 Further examples on the subject of nutritional futures as well as other living world futures can be found in Leinfelder (2014, 2016b, 2017b) and Liebender et al. (2017).

5. Conclusions

The Anthropocene concept is a comprehensive conceptual “toolbox” for systemic analysis, interdisciplinary monitoring and a new understanding of the gigantic current impact of human activities on the Earth system. At the same time, it neither implies a fatalistic acceptance of an apocalypse, nor does it promote a simplistic “everything will be fine” positivism, but rather allows differentiated observations from different perspectives. Precisely because of its systemic and interdisciplinary approach, the concept does not narrow possible pathways for the development, propagation and application of future options. On the contrary, the Earth system sciences, social sciences, cultural studies and the humanities together and very clearly express that in order to achieve global development goals such as justice, food security, health, peace and other goals for sustainable development (SDGs) (UNSDGs 2015), we keep on needing “assessable” and predictable conditions of an Anthropocene Earth system (Steffen et al. 2016). In order not to completely switch from the relative stability of the Holocene to incalculable risks, but rather to transform the Anthropocene Earth System into a different, but permanently habitable Anthropocene, it is necessary not to exceed planetary boundaries (sensu Rockström et al. 2009, Steffen et al. 2015b) and to see the SDGs as a compass. For this purpose, continuous monitoring of the state of the Anthropocene Earth system is indispensable. Only then both safe shelter spaces and a creative leeway for shaping the Anthropocene remain guaranteed. Within this framework, and depending on the region, the culture, the social requirements and the sociopolitical goals, it should be possible to negotiate very freely where the future journey should go. Necessary for that is a generally more holistic, systemic view of the integration of humankind into planetary processes, which means an integration of all societal groups, i.e. politics, science, business, administration, civil society groups and individuals. Another prerequisite is the improvement of future literacy via education in schools, universities, companies etc., with the goal to develop skills for better imagining alternate futures, depicting desirable futures, and designing solution portfolios for them.

Dichotomous “right or wrong” solutions, or even simple “silver bullet” solutions do not exist. Thus, even for “ideal-type” solution scenarios sensu Leinfelder (2014, 2016) there are not only various transitions and mixed forms, but these scenarios are even explicitly intended to generate such mixed solution portfolios. None of these ideal-type solution approaches has a fundamental advantage over the others, as they can also be implemented differently in terms of their temporality. Reactive solutions can be implemented directly in some cases, while complete recycling management and other innovative high-tech systems will only be available in the future, not only because of technical, but also of social, legal and cultural challenges. On the other hand, reactive solutions that can be quickly implemented today must not prevent the further development of complex recycling management or other high-tech systems. Mixed portfolios can also include an experimental trial character and should be open for continuous recomposing whenever new solutions become available. This will make it possible to shape the future Anthropocene in a more open, but also much more creative and innovative way.

The proclamation of the Anthropocene alone will definitely not solve any environmental and social problem of the Earth. But it would result in a strong impulse for rethinking our role as part of a single and unique Earth system, which for this very reason should not be seen as an exploitable resource, but rather as a functioning overall system, similar to a foundation. In an ideal world all nations would take on the role of trustees for the functioning of the entire Earth system (cf. WBGU 2013, Leinfelder 2017a). But even in an imperfect world it holds true that if every part of our society – from politics, business, administration, science, designers, the education system, civil society groups to the individual – would participate in the necessary “anthropocenic” transformation, we would be on the way to a future-proof Anthropocene epoch that could permanently carry, support and protect humanity. It is high time not to shy away any longerfrom this, but to start now with this transformative design in a creative, inclusive and future-oriented way.


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Prof. Dr. Reinhold Leinfelder is Professor of “Invertebrate Paleontology and Geobiology” at the Freie Universität Berlin. His teaching and research include coral reefs, geological history, the Anthropocene, future transformation and new methods of knowledge communication. After studying at the LMU Munich, he did his doctorate and habilitation at the University of Mainz. He held professorships at universities in Stuttgart, Munich and Berlin, as well as directorships for various museums and natural history collections, including the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin. From 2008-2013 he was a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Federal Government on Global Change (WBGU). He has been a member of the international Anthropocene Working Group since 2013. From 2012-2014 he was founding director of the Future House / Futurium, Berlin. Since 2018 he has also been a lecturer at the Institut Futur of Freie Universität. In addition to scientific publications, Leinfelder’s portfolio also includes exhibitions, participatory projects and knowledge comics

* This article is based on a keynote talk given by the author at the Coburg Design Days 2018, and originally has been published as Leinfelder, R. (2019): Das Anthropozän – Die Erde in unserer Hand.- In: Schwinger, E. (ed.) Das Anthropozän im Diskurs der Fachdisziplinen, pp.23-46. Weimar bei Marburg (Metropolis-Verlag, ISBN 978-3-7316-1394-7). This is a partly modified and slightly shortened English version of Leinfelder (2019b), to make it available to a wider audience.

For citation please either cite the original German paper (Leinfelder 2019b) or cite this english version as: Leinfelder, R. (2020): The Anthropocene – The Earth in Our Hands.- Refubium Freie Universität Berlin, (

Author’s address: Prof. Dr. Reinhold Leinfelder, Freie Universität Berlin, Institute of Geological Sciences, Malteserstr. 74-100, Haus D, D-12249 Berlin, Germany. Email:

 1 See Scotese C.R. (1998ff.), Pangea Ultima: (as of Feb 2020).

2 See Dixon / Adams (2016) and (as of Feb 2020).

3 The history of ideas from the Anthropocene dates back to the 19th century when the Italian geologist Antonio Stoppani spoke of an “anthropozoic era”. The Russian geologist V.I. Vernadsky took a similar view in 1926 by referring to the “Noosphere”, introduced by Teilhard de Chardin as a world of thought, in order to emphasize the role of human thinking in shaping one’s own future and one’s own environment. The biologist Hubert Markl spoke of a “change into the Anthropozoic era” in the early 1990s and described “nature as a cultural task”. Science journalist Andrew Revkin used the term “anthrocene” in one of his books (Leinfelder 2012, Trischler 2016).

4 See Ellis / Ramankutty (2008), Ellis et al. (2010), Ellis (2011).

5 WGBU (2013), Leinfelder / Haum (2016a, b), Leinfelder (2019a).

6 Williams et al. (2016), Leinfelder (2017b), reference also for additional literature.

7 Waters et al. (2016), Leinfelder (2017a, b, 2018), reference also for additional literature

8 Further in-depth resources on Chap. 3.1. see e.g. Barnosky et al. (2012), Brown et al. (2013), Ellis et al. (2013), Leinfelder (2017a), Steffen et al. (2015a, b), Waters et al. (2016), Williams et al. (2016)


10 See e.g. Waters et al. (2016, 2018), Zalasiewicz et al. (2017b, 2019a, b) for detailed recent statements, also for the further process. Current results of the voting in the AWG on May 21, 2019 see http://quaternary. working-groups/anthropocene / (as of Feb 18, 2020).

11 For example, articles in Möllers et al. (2015) and in Renn / Scherer (2015), see also Hamann et al. (2014), Leinfelder et al. (2016); for discussions and criticisms – including terminology – see the author’s Anthropocene blog at

12 For more on narratives, including other examples, see Leinfelder (2017a, b, c, 2018), Leinfelder et al. (2015, 2017).

13 From Leinfelder (2017a). For information on the future of nutrition, see also Leinfelder et al. (2016, 204f.), Krausse et al. (2017).