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    4 februari 2013
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Governance and Knowledge in the Anthropocene

The Anthropocene: A new era in the history of Planet Earth in which the human species is a main driver of global environmental change.

Planetary Boundaries: Thresholds in natural systems defining a safe operating space for humanity.

Sustainability: Adapting to global change in the Anthropocene while not exceeding planetary boundaries.

These three powerful concepts have gained strong influence in recent years, well beyond the global change research community in which they were born. And yet despite their richness, they cannot convey a complete picture of the complex system of human-environment interactions. Missing are the human dimensions of global environmental change – the dynamic and rapidly changing interplay between human cultural, societal, economic and behavioural trends and the natural environments they both shape, and are shaped by. It is about the people who are drivers of global environmental change and therefore must be at the heart of any solution. In light of the unprecedented speed and magnitude of global environmental change, equally unprecedented changes in human behaviour are crucial to achieve sustainability – and to address inequity. But changes where to and how?

Given the non-linear dynamics of global environmental change and natural systems outside the range of natural variability, the Anthropocene is mare incognitum – an unchartered sea. Planetary boundaries do help to set a few outer marker beacons to the Anthropocene era, but the challenge for the human dimensions of global environmental change is to navigate the Anthropocene.

Navigating the Anthropocene first requires developing strategies for appropriate action and gaining greater insight into the drivers of global change and the behavioural transitions needed to avoid or respond effectively to possible effects. Understanding the complex mechanisms, dynamics and outcomes of the interplay between knowledge, learning, and societal change will be crucial.

Faced with this wide array of complex and critical issues facing humanity at all levels – from the local to global scale – we need to find new ways of using local and traditional knowledge systems – including governance schema – in connection with formal scientific knowledge, develop broader understanding and communication of our evolving knowledge base, and learn to mitigate, adapt (including equitable governance) in the rapid (and accelerating) changes in our world. The knowledge to address the issues must not only be found, (re)constructed or produced, but it must also be used to design policies for different scales, in order to change the behaviour of individuals, communities, and institutions.

However, merely having adequate and appropriate knowledge does not necessarily lead to requisite actions. In the gap between knowledge and action lie crucial issues not only of how knowledge is produced and by whom, but also how it is framed and communicated; by whom, for what purpose and in what context; and how it is learned and understood by relevant stakeholders. In addition to knowledge systems and learning processes, it is essential to identify and understand cultural and societal barriers to individual and collective action and effective, ethical ways to overcome them.

Addressing these kinds of socially-coupled complex issues requires trans-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary research in which the entire research process from conceptual design to data collection to analysis to communication of conclusions is conducted with the participation of relevant and interested stakeholders.

Engaging with and communicating among stakeholders involves performance, exhibitions, workshops, legacy commercial media, and the increasingly extensive and influential repertoire of social media and ICT. Stakeholders include people from affected communities, corporate and NGO leaders, policy shapers and makers, social and natural scientists, historians, philosophers, and artists.

Navigating the Anthropocene secondly requires a better understanding of governance and the development of policy solutions towards a global, effective architecture for governance of sustainability that can adapt to changing circumstances, that involves civil society, that is accountable and legitimate beyond the nation state and that is fair for everyone. The issues and political dynamics in the 21st century are different from those when most institutions currently in place to govern the human interaction with natural systems were founded. Today’s problems are characterized by temporal, spatial, and sectoral interdependencies; complexity; a multitude of actors; and analytical and normative uncertainty. This poses new questions and might require different answers to old questions related to key concepts in governance including power, scale, norms, and, the role of knowledge. Research on earth system governance, is also research on the role that science and knowledge plays in governance.

The boundary between research-based knowledge and decision-making is not hard and fast, but dynamic and constantly negotiated. Neither is science free from politics nor politics from science. Research thus needs to pay attention to the intersection of power and knowledge and how this shapes the way earth system challenges are framed and potential policy response agendas set – because that is the plotting of a course in the Anthropocene.

Ancient maps often marked unchartered territories with the foreboding phrase “here be dragons”.  With humans as main driving force in the Anthropocene, it will be learning, knowledge, governance, and action that will determine whether dragons indeed await us in the Anthropocene, or if it actually could be a nice place.

This is a revised and shortened version of : Zondervan, Ruben, with contributions from Ilan Chabay. 2012. Governance and Knowledge in the Anthropocene. IHDP Annual Report 2011, 32-35.

  • Reviewed by:
    Editor (articles & opinion)
  • Author:
    Ruben Zondervan
  • Published:
    2012
  • Posted in:
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