John S. Dryzek and Jonathan Pickering, The Politics of the Anthropocene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 208pp.

Reviewed by: Simon Dalby, Balsillie School of International Affairs, Wilfrid Laurier University

The “great acceleration” in the use of materials and energy since the middle of the twentieth century has transformed the earth system in dramatic ways that policy makers and politicians have been very slow to appreciate. The rich and powerful parts of humanity have unleashed a planetary scale transformation of ecological systems that is accelerating the extinction of many species and causing increasingly severe disruptions in the climate. Rising sea levels and severe storms, droughts and floods are becoming more obvious by the year, and yet the institutional responses by states and international organizations are, as yet, failing to muster a response remotely adequate to tackle the accelerating disruptions of the earth system in this new geological period now widely called the Anthropocene.

People’s Climate March, New York
(Photo Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten)

The authors make it very clear in the opening chapters that these disruptions are the new circumstances within which political discussions and policy actions must take place. In very readable prose, this book poses the question of how politics might be directed to stabilizing the earth system, albeit in a configuration that will be somewhat different from that humanity has long known. If things are to turn out well for the bulk of humanity, then things have to be done differently. How political institutions are remade, and policies crafted require fundamental rethinking.

The key questions now are how to transform politics so that these urgent issues, only most obviously the climate crisis, are tackled effectively. We no longer live in the relatively stable set of circumstances, the recent period of the Holocene, that gave rise to human civilizations. New institutions and crucially new modes of thought are needed to grapple with the new circumstances of a disrupted climate and a global extinction event caused by industrial systems and the mode of economy that encourages ever larger extractions of resources and literally covering substantial parts of the planet with concrete. At the heart of these struggles is the matter of politics, of who decides what gets made, how land is used, what resources are exploited, and which parts of the earth and its peoples are protected.

Rains in 2012 Flood Cap-Haïtien
(Photo Credit: UN Photo/Logan Abassi)

In terms of geological scale, change implies a much larger set of issues than traditionally encompassed by discussions of environmental protection. Slowly, such insights have begun to change global debates about appropriate policies, but as this volume emphasizes repeatedly in its eight cogently written chapters, rethinking has to take into account that we live in a much more dynamic earth system than has been understood until recently. Thus, the central aim of this volume “is to specify how political institutions and practices should respond to the challenges posed by the Anthropocene” (p. 12). This is no small agenda, and much of the volume is a call to social scientists in particular to attend to these new circumstances. The Sustainable Development Goals are framed as matters of transformation and, as the key aspirational agenda in the United Nations system, this is important. Transformation is about more than business as usual; economic growth has not dealt with major matters of inequality and poverty in many parts of the world. Now the Anthropocene discussion adds a key dimension of urgency to these discussions; some key things, like ending fossil fuel use in coming decades, simply cannot be postponed in hopes that solutions appear in the future or that technical innovations fix problems eventually.

A key formulation at the heart of this book, that is especially useful in thinking through the implications of our new circumstances, is the idea that our problems are caused by the persistence of “pathological path dependencies”. The continued growth in the exploration and exploitation of fossil fuels, despite the clear evidence that the global economy has to be moved off these quickly, suggests that economies and political institutions are locked into modes of thought, administration and regulation that perpetuate the processes that need to be changed. Hence the crucial necessity of thinking differently and finding modes of governance that can challenge such dependencies. Key to this the authors argue – they are after all social scientists – is how to think differently and to formulate governance in terms of learning and adaptation, rather than administrating things in the traditional fashion.

While much of this volume is an attempt to address fundamental issues, and indeed it offers repeated warnings against jumping to conclusions, much of the book addresses matters traditionally understood in terms of national policies; only a few parts of it explicitly address the United Nations system. Given the scale of the Anthropocene challenge, and its engagement explicitly with the earth as a whole as an integrated system, this might appear to be an oversight. However, given that the authors are leery of jumping to conclusions quickly about what kind of institutions are needed, this is consistent with their overall argument. In Chapter Three, they explicitly warn that assumptions that either enhanced international institutions, whether explicitly part of the United Nations systems or in conjunction with it, or a focus on decentralized initiatives that work on local innovations, is the answer must be avoided. It is precisely such premature assumptions that are in danger of leading to further pathological path dependencies.

Solely institutional models are, they argue, not enough in these circumstances. A greater emphasis on building reflexivity, and hence, crucially the abilities to learn, adapt and reconfigure as circumstances require, is needed. This requires a shift from assumptions of permanence to ongoing adaptation and flexibility. In terms of traditional notions of Holocene politics, and the implicit, and sometimes explicit, assumption that things like states are permanent fixtures, this is a major intellectual and political challenge. But if one takes the insights of the Anthropocene seriously, and recognizes the scale of the earth system disruptions set in motion by the great acceleration, then nothing less is an adequate response.

Readers seeking blueprints, answers or precise policy suggestions will be disappointed in this volume. Its purpose is precisely to warn against such things and insist that policy formulation, and institutional design will not work in the new circumstances if they are wedded to assumptions of stability and predictability. While such modes of administration may have worked in the Holocene, they have, by locking the global economy and its political institutions into pathological path dependencies on fossil fuels and ever larger resource extractions, been a crucial part of the causes of current, and given what is in play already, future disruptions.

This is a salutatory warning for social scientists who study international institutions and the United Nations system, but one that needs to be taken seriously especially when it runs against the overwhelming impetus to be “policy relevant” to generate solutions to what are presented as solvable “problems”. The Anthropocene requires more fundamental thinking, and as such this volume is a useful antidote to technocratic assumptions that there are simple solutions to issues that are better coped with reflexively as sets of interconnected complicated changing circumstances.