While the concept of the Anthropocene reflects the past and present nature, scale and magnitude of human impacts on the Earth System, its true significance lies in how it can be used to guide attitudes, choices, policies and actions that influence the future. Yet, to date much of the research on the Anthropocene has focused on interpreting past and present changes, while saying little about the future. Likewise, many futures studies have been insufficiently rooted in an understanding of past changes, in particular the long-term co-evolution of bio-physical and human systems. The Anthropocene perspective is one that encapsulates a world of intertwined drivers, complex dynamic structures, emergent phenomena and unintended consequences, manifest across different scales and within interlinked biophysical constraints and social conditions. In this paper we discuss the changing role of science and the theoretical, methodological and analytical challenges in considering futures of the Anthropocene. We present three broad groups of research questions on: (1) societal goals for the future; (2) major trends and dynamics that might favor or hinder them; (3) and factors that might propel or impede transformations towards desirable futures. Tackling these questions requires the development of novel approaches integrating natural and social sciences as well as the humanities beyond what is current today. We present three examples, one from each group of questions, illustrating how science might contribute to the identification of desirable and plausible futures and pave the way for transformations towards them. We argue that it is time for debates on the sustainability of the Anthropocene to focus on opportunities for realizing desirable and plausible futures.
This article explores the links between agency, institutions, and innovation in navigating shifts and large-scale transformations toward global sustainability. Our central question is whether social and technical innovations can reverse the trends that are challenging critical thresholds and creating tipping points in the earth system, and if not, what conditions are necessary to escape the current lock-in. Large-scale transformations in information technology, nano- and biotechnology, and new energy systems have the potential to significantly improve our lives; but if, in framing them, our globalized society fails to consider the capacity of the biosphere, there is a risk that unsustainable development pathways may be reinforced. Current institutional arrangements, including the lack of incentives for the private sector to innovate for sustainability, and the lags inherent in the path dependent nature of innovation, contribute to lock-in, as does our incapacity to easily grasp the interactions implicit in complex problems, referred to here as the ingenuity gap. Nonetheless, promising social and technical innovations with potential to change unsustainable trajectories need to be nurtured and connected to broad institutional resources and responses. In parallel, institutional entrepreneurs can work to reduce the resilience of dominant institutional systems and position viable shadow alternatives and niche regimes.
The development of human civilisations has occurred at a time of stable climate. This climate stability is now threatened by human activity. The rising global climate risk occurs at a decisive moment for world development. World nations are currently discussing a global development agenda consequent to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which ends in 2015. It is increasingly possible to envisage a world where absolute poverty is largely eradicated within one generation and where ambitious goals on universal access and equal opportunities for dignified lives are adopted. These grand aspirations for a world population approaching or even exceeding nine billion in 2050 is threatened by substantial global environmental risks and by rising inequality. Research shows that development gains, in both rich and poor nations, can be undermined by social, economic and ecological problems caused by human-induced global environmental change. Climate risks, and associated changes in marine and terrestrial ecosystems that regulate the resilience of the climate system, are at the forefront of these global risks. We, as citizens with a strong engagement in Earth system science and socio-ecological dynamics, share the vision of a more equitable and prosperous future for the world, yet we also see threats to this future from shifts in climate and environmental processes. Without collaborative action now, our shared Earth system may not be able to sustainably support a large proportion of humanity in the decades ahead.