Incubating ideas on how southern Africa can manage the Anthropocene

A market in Zambia. The Anthropocene in this case looks at the world positively and how to overcome challenges. Shutterstock

The Anthropocene, or the “Age of Man”, is the name given to the current geological epoch. This is an acknowledgement that humanity has become a dominant global force reshaping the geological, biological and atmospheric dynamics of the earth.

Previous epochs have included the Cretaceous period, which was following by the Cenozoic era. The extinction of the dinosaurs marked the transition that ended the Cretaceous period and marking the beginning of the Cenozoic era.

The earth is 4.5 billion years old. But modern humans have only been around for approximately 200,000 years. Human civilisations have really only thrived during the epoch known as the Holocene that started 12,000 years ago and continues to the present. During this comparatively short time, agriculture was invented, large cities were built, and humans started using energy from fossil fuels.

There is an ongoing debate among scientists about when the transition from the Holocene into the Anthropocene occurred. Some scientists argue the transition happened in the 1950s.

Whatever the actual date of the transition, the Anthropocene brings with it new and diverse challenges related to biodiversity loss, increased inequality as resources become more scarce, and climate change. Considering these negative trends, scary views of the future dominate. This makes it difficult to conceptualise a more sustainable and just future society.

We have been involved in a project to develop possible scenarios for southern Africa that start with existing positive things happening in the region. The idea was to start thinking about possibilities that broke with a business-as-usual approach and employed more creativity in thinking about how to overcome the challenges facing the region and the world.

Seeds of good Anthropocenes

Many equate the concept of the Anthropocene with a group of people called eco-modernists who advocate that technology should be improved to help manage the planet meet human needs.

But this view is countered in a new global project called Seeds of Good Anthropocenes. The aim of the project is to explore positive futures that are socially and ecologically desirable, just and sustainable. It is done by exploring and developing a suite of alternative visions for good Anthropocenes.

The project starts with the idea of “seeds”. These are initiatives that represent alternative ways of thinking, doing, technologies or institutions that exist in experimental form, but are not dominant features of today’s world.

We have collected these seeds – 500 so far – from all over the world through a questionnaire available on our website. The next step is to see whether more positive future visions can be built from them.

A radically different southern Africa

To explore this idea in practice we convened a diverse set of people from across southern Africa. They included artists, social entrepreneurs, researchers and policymakers who were taken through a three day visioning process that was more science fiction than science.

To build a scenario we adapted the Manoa approach, which is designed to maximise difference. Each group started with three “seeds” to build their future world.

Initiatives were chosen based actual representatives being present. They either had strong knowledge of the seed, or were directly involved in its development. To be as diverse as possible, we brought together seeds that were more technological alongside those that emphasised the environment through social entrepreneurship of civil society.

Seeds of Good Anthropocenes in southern Africa visioning workshop. Centre for Complex Systems in Transition, Author provided

Each group had three seed initiatives to begin with and were asked to describe what the world would look like if these ideas were the dominant way of doing things. The next step was to find creative similarities between the ideas. For example, if artificial intelligence (AI) was a widespread technology, how would it interact with a seed that emphasised the importance of reconnecting people to their food?

One of the groups decided that it would be possible to download knowledge of food from the AI for a day and use it to create a Michelin-quality meal from local ingredients.

From these connections, the groups went on to create stories describing what their world looked like. These were extremely interesting.

In the scenario entitled “Post Exodus”, for instance, the foundation was laid by initiatives representing three very different “seeds”: Open Streets Cape Town, Knowledge Pele and gene editing. This scenario described a world where humans live long, healthy lives in millions of small village ecosystems, connected through a global virtual knowledge collective.

The scenario that we called ‘Rhiz(h)ome’ was developed from seeds of cryptocurrency, Tyisa Nabanye an urban agriculture organisation, and Massive Small. This led to a decentralised world characterised by empathy where work, leisure and community service are much less distinguishable.

The stories that emerged exceeded the research team’s expectations and were as diverse as the people who were gathered for the process. But there were some underlying commonalities that may be useful for decision-makers in the region to start thinking about southern African futures.

Southern African futures

All the visions contained aspects of a decentralised governance structure that emphasised the need to reconnect societies to their local environment and to embrace diversity. But this emphasis on local connections with humans and the environment was balanced by technological advances that made it possible for everyone to communicate and interact globally.

Focusing on southern Africa allowed for the potential to inspire new interventions in planning for the future of the region. What emerged was less emphasis on the individual and more of a focus on the common good, collaboration and empathy. This resonates with spirit of the collective or “Ubuntu” that is imbued within the indigenous cultures of the region.

These elements force a re-evaluation of how current policies in the region are helping to create a more desirable future or whether they are stifling it. The South African National Development Plan is a good example of an agenda setting policy that could be evaluated against these visions to see whether it is guiding us toward a more positive future or whether it is more business-as-usual.

As the project progresses, we aim to analyse longer-term planning documents based on the content of these scenarios. Participants will also be using the scenarios in their own work in the region and to run similar scenario processes with other groups. We will track the uptake of these scenarios to see how influential they will be in helping southern Africa to move towards a more positive future.