Of tools, discourses and politics: the debate on the Anthropocene and Planetary Boundaries

by Jonas Torrens, SPRU

Last Tuesday, I attended for the third time a debate between Melissa Leach and Johan Rockström on the Anthropocene and Planetary Boundaries as part of the Resource Politics conference. In a year riddled with high-level policy decisions about global sustainability and climate change, the session covered some of the key arguments of the on-going debates in the global change community.

The two talented speakers articulated the findings of various scientific fields in compelling narratives that are a must-watch for anyone concerned with the state of the environment, development, and global governance.

The debate is absorbing given the sheer ambition and scope of the science that it mobilises. It touches on environmental history, earth system science, resilience thinking, resource politics, global governance, development studies, and science and technology studies, to mention a few[1].

In this post, I will reflect on the core disagreements that were raised in the session, as well as my own personal reservations with the state of the debate.

What do conceptual frameworks bring to policy?

Underpinning this debate was a disagreement around the role of conceptual frameworks in policy making.

One of the sides assumes that such frameworks as a way of articulating a contingent and partial perspective about real and ambiguous processes in the world, a perspective that is neither neutral nor unaffected by the conditions of its inception

The other implicitly assumes that, with the appropriate packaging, it is possible to build scientific knowledge into neutral and well-functioning, customisable artefacts that can be widely circulated, while retaining their characteristics in different contexts. If a tool is what we seek, then social science can soften the edges of hard natural science facts. When urgency is in the agenda, we adjust some parameters and update the settings. If we recognise shortcomings, we can develop new extensions…

Following the latter line of reasoning, the ambition goes that such artefacts are to be made universal, complete, and unambiguous. In my opinion, such packaging is nowhere as elaborate in sustainability than in the case of the Planetary Boundaries framework.


In this iteration of the debate, Melissa partly addressed this point by calling once more for both the Planetary Boundaries and the Anthropocene to be recognised and treated as discourses which act as ‘as regimes of truth co-constructed through power, knowledge and institutions’[2], and for a thorough examination of the politics of knowledge involved in the conception of the framework, and its implications.

When asked about the partiality of the framework, Johan briefly conceded this. However, he didn’t address the concern that Planetary Boundaries are being portrayed – whether intentionally or not – as a comprehensive guide for global sustainability.

Fortunately, throughout the conference many had interrogated the fundamental assumptions of these potentially dominant discourses. But despite Melissa’s articulation, they were mostly sidelined by the debate’s rather impervious rhetoric. As one participant later asked, “Why are we not talking about the great appropriation, the great concentration, the great surge in resistance and the challenge of re-existence?” Or why are we content with ‘bullet-point justice’, as Nick Hildyard asked in an earlier panel? In fact, the debate reminded me of Rohan D’Souza’s insightful aphorism that “policy is the art of trying to humiliate politics with good science”.

Despite such concerns, the discussion unfolded in a familiar rhythm, an almost choreographed dance between experienced partners. The result seemed to be a truce: a sense of complementarity between the two academic discourses.

Overall, the Planetary Boundaries framework comes out of this dance intact as an undisputed general comprehensive map to chart “the safe operating space for humanity”. It can be made more palatable with the addition of a social inclusion plug-in, which turns it into the famed doughnut (“a safe and just space”) while preserving its main characteristics. And bringing in the language of multiple Pathways is significant in acknowledging a remaining plurality of responses, and potentially enable the inclusion of marginal voices.

But this joint effort is more a way of easing and salving the inherent tensions around the Planetary Boundaries framework than it is resolving them. Thus absorbing the Sustainable Development Goals discourse, the result – whether optimistically or disingenuously – is to work towards achieving a ‘tipping point’ towards sustainability and resilience, as of the kind Johan Rockström outlined in his opening remarks.

It is clear that this kind of academic encounter between these discourses is only a glimpse of the wider discussions and negotiations taking place this year. Mindful of that, Melissa Leach pointed to how academic discourses align and reinforce existing interests and power structures. Conference participants had done much to investigate, substantiate and critique such alignments, but the debate was surprisingly old-fashioned about them, as was Johan’s response about the implications of the Anthropocene: “grab the term and define it correctly”.

[1] Previous attempts to report such richness can be found in http://steps-centre.org/2014/blog/resilience2014-leach/, https://ideas4sustainability.wordpress.com/2014/05/07/development-and-resilience-vs-development-or-resilience/ and http://seslink.org/2014/05/15/planetary-boundaries-vs-multiple-pathways/

[2] Drawing from quite distinctive assumptions as discussed in this STEPS Working Paper on Resilience and Pathways, p.5

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