Anthropocene raises risks of Earth without democracy and without us

In the Anthropocene, human-driven forces are shaping the planet in ways that may risk the collapse of human civilisation. Damián Bakarcic/flickr, CC BY

This article is part of a series on Biosphere and Energy for the Democracy Futures project, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.

The term Anthropocene has made many democrats nervous about democracy’s future. Earth scientists tell us we have drifted out of the Holocene into the Anthropocene. In this new epoch, humans are the dominant “geological force” shaping the Earth’s systems.

Over the past 11,500 years, the Holocene provided a relatively stable climate conducive to the emergence and development of human civilisation. In contrast, the Anthropocene may be characterised by unpredictable and possibly abrupt and cataclysmic environmental changes.

Scientists warn that human-wrought changes may be creating a climate and a biosphere that will become increasingly inhospitable to human civilisation unless human societies drastically change their ways. That is, within the next few decades societies need to confine their activities within the “safe operating space” of our “planetary boundaries”.

So why do these warnings make democrats nervous?

On the one hand, pundits are warning that if climate negotiations fail to hold warming below two degrees Celsius, democracy will unravel on a hot and lawless planet. Earth will be marked by extreme weather events, ecological collapse, food and resource scarcity, millions of displaced people and increasing conflict and violence.

Some have argued that uncontrollable climate change is already locked in and/or that we can expect an age of authoritarianism.

However, this very prospect of civilisational collapse has been invoked to justify the suspension or truncation of democracy to ensure the protection of planetary boundaries through authoritarianism or technocratic planetary management via geoengineering techniques such as solar radiation management. Either way, democracy loses.

Yet many of those who reject such prescriptions also have little faith in the capacity of existing liberal democracies, environmental multilateralism or proposals for “Earth-systems governance” to usher in an ecological transition.

Beyond time, space and community

The question for democrats, then, is: how might the idea of the Anthropocene be enlisted to expose and overcome the limitations of existing democracies? How might democratic debate and practice be radicalised so that we are better prepared to respond to global ecological challenges?

This requires getting back to basics. We need to reflect critically on the fundamental coordinates of democracy: time, space and community.

The space-time-community co-ordinates of liberal democracies are ill-suited to serving the long-term public good of environmental protection. This arises from not only short-term election cycles but also inequalities of political participation and bargaining power in the policymaking process, low levels of ecological literacy and, in cases of concentrated media ownership, a distorted public sphere.

Together, these features make it easier for well-organised private interests to influence policy at the expense of diffuse and much less organised public interests.

Even if these problems could be fixed, liberal democracies perpetuate a more fundamental democratic problem of accountability to others. Political representatives are not obliged to answer to non-citizens (for example, foreigners, non-human species and future generations) for the trans-boundary and trans-temporal ecological and social consequences of their decisions. This is so even when it is clear that this broader constituency will be seriously affected.

How might the leaders of nation-states be made accountable for the global impacts of their decisions? White House/Peter Souza

Democracy should not be bordered

This problem of accountability follows from the organisation of democracy as an enclosure. It is made up of fixed demos (the democratic political community or “people”) and clearly defined territory. Liberal nationalists and civic republicans would argue that this is as it should be: only “the people”, or “the nation”, constitute the legitimate source of democratic authority.

Yet these claims are vulnerable to the paradoxical “democratic boundary problem”: there is no democratic means for determining the boundaries of the people/nation or the territory of the state for the purposes of self-rule. Modern liberal democracy has simply fastened onto pre-existing territorial boundaries.

These boundaries were determined under non-democratic forms of sovereign authority. They were not, and cannot be, democratically negotiated because that presupposes the existence of a demos, the boundaries of which will always remain democratically disputed.

None of these arguments are likely to undo existing political boundaries. However, they can certainly make them less reified and sacrosanct by exposing their undemocratic and ecologically arbitrary character. And they provide a strong basis for demanding that governments, corporations, investors and consumers publicly justify why they should be allowed to externalise ecological risks onto others in space and time.

Whereas liberal democracies hail citizens as members of a nation, as Ben Dibley has pointed out, the Anthropocene hails Earthlings. Where each of us was born matters less than the fact that we all inhabit a planet that will become less conducive to the flourishing and even survival of ourselves and other species.

Being an Earthling does not require renunciation of national citizenship. It does put citizenship and territorially based democracy in a more critical and less exclusivist light.

An outdated narrative of progress

A common criticism of the Anthropocene idea is that, in seeking to focus on our common fate as Earthlings or humans, it obliterates class, race, gender and other social inequalities.

The new grand narrative of humanity’s new geological agency also deflects attention away from crucial issues of power, geopolitics and the legacy of imperialism. These have produced a world in which the distribution of benefits and burdens is deeply and unfairly skewed. As Malme and Hornborg argue, the causes of global environmental change are sociogenic, not anthropogenic.

This is true. The Anthropocene cannot provide an explanation for the ecological crisis or a political prescription for change. But it can perform critical political work by relocating political and economic history into the context of geological time.

The social forces and institutions that are most implicated in bringing about the Anthropocene (most notably, capitalism and the modern nation state) still depend upon a 19th-century narrative of human progress. That narrative is deeply out of touch with the social relations of risk and responsibility in this new epoch.

Modern democracy developed alongside the Industrial Revolution, the development of fossil-fuel-based economies and the emergence of political parties representing the “producer interests” of capital and labour. These, in turn, were informed by liberal and socialist political ideologies that understood “the environment” as a mere backdrop upon which the human drama unfolded.

As a means to human ends, the environment became a constraint against which individual self-realisation and emancipation, as well as collective self-determination, might be achieved. Liberalism and socialism embraced the ideas of human exemptionalism, human mastery, the appropriation of a bountiful Earth, and a narrative of freedom and progress for everyone (notwithstanding that these ideals have never been enjoyed by everyone).

Can we contemplate an Earth without us?

A critical narrative of the Anthropocene can connect us to the planet and its other inhabitants – all things and forces both living and non-living – in a way that the progressive, modernist narrative of humanity does not. While the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions chipped away at the idea of human exceptionalism/chauvinism, the Anthropocene provides an even more sobering lesson in humility.

It prompts us to contemplate the possibility and meaning of the unthinkable: an Earth without us.

The issue confronting climate change negotiators is that no one-can continue to act as if they are autonomous. Wikipedia/Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores from Perú, CC BY-SA

The Anthropocene forces us to rethink the conditions of human autonomy and progress. We need to debate what kind of autonomy is generalisable for all, including the more-than-human world upon which we depend. Rather than thinking about ecological boundaries or limits as a constraint on human freedom, the Anthropocene helps us recognise that these provide the conditions for our individual and collective freedom and survival.

The Anthropocene also provides a basis for refocusing our attention on hybridity and co-evolution. From an Earth systems perspective, there is no firm ontological divide between the citizen and the foreigner, the human and the non-human, nature and culture, the domestic and the wild, or the natural and the technological.

Hybridity therefore prompts a quintessentially political question for democratic debate: how ought we human Earthlings co-evolve with other Earthlings? What kinds of technological practices, and what forms of resistance to technological practices, are most consistent with democracy and ecology?

In short, the idea of the Anthropocene provides a fresh warrant for exposing the growing democratic crisis of accountability between those who generate and/or benefit from ecological risks and those who suffer the consequences. If we Earthlings are to call our communities and decision-makers to account in this way, then we will need more democracy, and more than ever.