What Anthropocene means for social sciences, humanities

We now live in the Anthropocene – a new geological era in which humanity has become the dominant force shaping our planet.

Biodiversity loss, climate change, a disrupted nitrogen cycle and ocean acidification are among the environmental challenges we face in this era.

Entering this period has profound implications for how we think about the world. The degree of responsibility for the future that generations currently alive carry is greater than that of perhaps any previous generation.

The social sciences and humanities can help us understand what is at stake. Contrary to a widely held belief, this moment is not so much about the fate of the planet as it is about the future of humanity, as the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made abundantly clear.

The Earth has been through a lot, and has always pulled through; we have many reasons to believe that life on Earth will survive and keep evolving even if living conditions are no longer conducive to human habitation.

Social sciences and humanities can help us see that addressing the environmental crisis is about self-preservation in a broad sense: if humanity goes, so do all our advances in culture, art, language, science and technology.

Our way of life builds on the achievements of countless civilisations that came before us and we arguably owe it to previous generations to help preserve these rather than allowing humanity – and with it all human ingenuity – to become extinct.

Preventing the most catastrophic outcomes of the environmental crisis isn’t only about saving polar bears; it is about saving ourselves, and the social sciences and humanities are uniquely positioned to help us understand the scale of the impending loss.

At the precipice

Another question that social sciences and humanities can illuminate is how we got to this point. Natural sciences focus on the proximate cause-and-effect relationships in the physical world – such as carbon emissions being the cause of climate change – but what are the cultural and political causes? What is it about our relationship with the natural world that has allowed us to cause so much destruction?

The ideologies of infinite growth, extractivism, speciesism and consumerism, along with de-sensitisation to the impact of our actions on our shared futures, have much to do with this.

Studying human societies can help us understand the ways in which the flaws in our culture and politics have led us to the precipice of a catastrophic environmental crisis.

Grasping what is at stake and recognising the complex origins of the crisis are necessary steps to finding a solution. Our focus on natural sciences in understanding the environmental crisis has led us down the path of technological innovation as the antidote to environmental decay.

But such solutions usually only tackle the symptoms, not the root causes of the environmental crisis. If we are to truly solve the challenges in front of us, we must study political and cultural change; rather than focusing entirely on how to ‘fix’ the planet, we need to find ways to ‘fix’ our civilisation.

This does not mean simply advancing our knowledge of behavioural science to ‘nudge’ ourselves towards different consumption patterns.

We need to go deeper, studying the history of cultural and political change to learn from our predecessors who succeeded in addressing some of the flaws of their societies. We need to find ways to unleash our creativity in reimagining our relationship with nature (and ourselves).

Identifying pathways for radical change

What kinds of solutions might such an approach yield? Some relevant ideas that have been proposed by social scientists and humanities scholars include degrowth and intergenerational justice.

But history teaches us that cultural and political change is complex and that there is no panacea. We need the imaginative and analytical powers of the social sciences and humanities to explore this complexity and identify pathways to radical change.

While the natural sciences are crucial in understanding the extent and nature of the environmental crisis, we need to harness the power of the humanities and social sciences if we are to find the true solutions.

Peter Sutoris is a research associate at SOAS, University of London, United Kingdom. Twitter: @PSutoris.