Pathways in the anthropocene


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AS is well known, professional geologists and many other climate change observers have declared our era to be the Anthropocene, a geological era when human activity has dominated the ecosystems and climate of our planet. Although there are debates about whether the Anthropocene began with the industrial revolution or even with the advent of agriculture, or with the population boom and the discovery of radio nuclides fallout from atomic bomb testing in the 1950s, the date in the marking of the epoch is perhaps less important than the recognition of the accelerating role of anthropogenic activities, especially over the last few hundred years.

I attend to the conceptual and global issues and to a particular understanding of the Chinese experience with regards to environmental futures. As the most populous and still a middle-income country, China is nonetheless a superpower which is undertaking a distinctive approach to the environment that is critical to the global future.

Two questions about the future emerge from this condition. Is it too late to prevent serious climatic and cascading disasters and should we prepare ourselves to seek out a metaphorical and literal ‘higher ground’ to escape from the worst effects? Apart from the worst case contemporary apocalyptic scenarios where the select few colonize another planet (an apocalypse does signal a new beginning), we could argue that the higher ground scenario is already being played out in migration and refugee stories within and across nations. We can classify the responses to this question as activities related to adaptation and the building of resilience since it assumes things will get worse, no matter what.


The other question involves the extent to which we can prevent further deterioration and perhaps even reverse the trend. International agencies and agreements such as the Paris COP21 in 2015 have identified targets and policy recommendations to limit deterioration. The IPCC 2018 report believes it is still possible to keep temperatures below 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, but only if we undertake ‘rapid and systemic changes on unprecedented scales.’ As we have seen, particularly with the four years of the Trump administration and global politics as usual, these goals are unlikely to be realized by most of the world.

This second question which involves complex problems of science and politics has no definitive answer and embeds a demand or imperative more than a question. The human condition is driven as much by hope as by greed or other desires. The struggle for survival is conditioned by the hope of survival and that is why we are left ‘hoping against hope’. Hope may be rooted in what the philosopher Kant calls the ‘pure moral disposition’ of the human mind; the deontic imperative for justice: to do the right thing. As Fiacha Heneghan writes, ‘Moral exhortation, the Kantian argues, is an insurance policy against fatalism.’1


To be sure, while the two questions may be analytically separate, in practice responses to both operate simultaneously out of necessity. With regard to the second question of limiting and reversing, there have been several responses. One is a top-down approach, a system-maintaining set of technologies and policies. Included among these are geo-engineering, market engineering and renewable energy. Another approach is a more ground-up social, political, moral, and even cosmologically alternative movement for systemic change. To be sure, this second mode is not necessarily in the violent revolutionary mode of the past two centuries; it operates through civic and pluralist modalities of systemic change, indicated most clearly in India through Gandhian activism, however one thinks of Gandhianism’s results. Like the former set of questions, these two also function simul-taneously, but they have different goals and there are tensions between them.

Geo-engineering is a response that is gaining traction among some scientists. While some projects such as creating carbon sinks beyond tree planting are certainly possible, several of the other proposed solutions like spraying aerosols of sulphate particles into the atmosphere or refreezing polar regions yield unknown counter-effects and will also encounter political problems. More importantly, they may simply extend fossil fuel use and continue planetary degradation. Renewables such as wind and solar energy are technically preferable solutions although hydroelectricity, especially mega projects have been shown to have enormous costs to livelihoods and the environment.


Economic and market regulatory solutions are faced with several fundamental problems. Amartya Sen has pointed out that the absence of a conceptual framework to bring together ethics and science makes it difficult to have a coherent debate on economic policies to address costs on the environment. Even within the field of economics, he argues, there is no framework to assess the comparative costs of different sources of energy, particularly in terms of the externalities of ecosystem services (consequences lying outside market calculations – e.g. costs to eco-system or of air pollution).2 As Polasky et al, point out, environmental economics and sustainable development are extremely marginal to academic economics in the West. These authors urge economists to collaborate with scientists on the one hand and humanistic studies of society, culture and politics on the other.3

Inspired by the award of the 2018 Nobel prize to William Nordhaus (and earlier to Elinor Ostrom) who has sought to integrate economic and climate models, Polasky and the team of environmental economists believe that it is possible to develop monetary values for natural capital and various eco-system services; they also seek to identify who benefits disproportionately from these services. Additionally, they attend to the wide differences in the ecological footprints between developing and developed economies. While high income countries with stable populations appear to rely for growth less on local ecosystems and more on service and the tech industry than those in developing societies, this is illusory because they export or outsource their environmental impact. For example, the much higher levels of meat eating per capita in these countries creates increased greenhouse gas production, water use, biodiversity loss across the world.4 Of course, representatives from developing economies have long made such arguments.


All of the above solutions offered suffer from what I call the first mile and last mile problems. The first mile refers to the philosophical and ethical questions of the goals of life beyond the needs of survival. While the ideals of rationality and justice of the European Enlightenment have pervaded the world and extended and improved material life, the dualism of subject and object, of humans versus nature is fundamental to the Enlightenment conception of the human mastery and conquest of nature. This has brought about great advances in science and technology, but also the risks, the uncertain and unknowable counter-finalities which are contributing to the serious and lasting damage to its life support systems.

By last mile questions, I refer to delivery and the realization of the solutions. While science and economics can offer technical diagnostics and formal solutions, the human condition in the era of rapid climate change is marked by increasing uncertainty and conflict. Religion, culture, narrative, historical memory, and not least, politics and governance form the meaning-making framework through which humans act and seek to manage uncertainty and conflict. The last mile delivery of technical and market solutions depends upon our grasping and deploying the factors in these spheres.


Moreover, even if the production of renewable energy can be increased to the highest levels recommended for the world, it still cannot alleviate our current rate of accelerating climate change and rising ocean levels. Other problems of environmental degradation still remain. Ecological economist Tim Jackson argues that as long as we remain on the treadmill of accelerating production, the reduction of energy inputs – and lower carbon emission per unit of production – will simply increase its use for higher production/profits and greater exploitation of other natural resources. He argues that resource inputs decline relatively to unit of GDP, but not absolutely. Ultimately, we will need some kind of value change that can limit the mentality of increasing GDP and consumption. He looks to goals of human prosperity, or we might say flourishing, other than consumption and profits. These goals would include enhancing the quality of life, recreation, arts and crafts, the simple pleasures of the social and responsibilities to others.5


At the same time, we need to continue to address the problem of poverty. Jackson suggests that the two need not be contradictory. He proposes a normative model of prosperity where incomes across the world need not exceed US$15,000 per capita (ppp) to lead a sustainable life; this could be achieved by de-growth in the developed world and sustainable growth in the developing world. Following a version of Amartya Sen’s argument, he also argues that governments should be oriented to increase not consumption but human capabilities. Capabilities must, however, be construed to enhance freedoms bounded by a world of limited natural resources.

I favour Jackson’s argument. Although it is a normative proposal for an ideal world, its possibilities deserve to be kept alive. Just because the world has been set on the treadmill of increased production and consumption does not mean that all other projects must be put on hold until the GDP treadmill is overthrown. Costa Rica, an admittedly atypical country in size and without a standing army, has gone some way in showing how several of these ideas can work in practice. Despite its small size, Costa Rica has 5% of the world’s biodiversity, 25% of its land is protected and 50% of the land is forested. With a per capital income of US$ 12000 (ppp) in 2012, it has been ranked three times as the happiest and most sustainable country on earth, according to the Happy Planet Index. A recent Gallup poll found the Central American nation to have the highest level of well-being in the world. Much of its success has to do with investments in education and health care and protection of forests and biodiversity.6

More relevant is the case of China. Over the last decade, China has made many gains in the environmental sphere. It has led the world in the development of renewable energy and succeeded in restoring ecosystem services in many regions, particularly through afforestation and greening of the arid stretches. Since 2007 it has declared ‘ecological civilization’ to be a high priority in governance and added it as a constitutional goal. While the achievements are considerable, a recent study reveals that the Chinese campaign mode of ecological governance is producing many counter-consequences, especially under the Xi Jinping regime.


Judith Shapiro and Yifei Li see the party-state conducting not ‘authoritarian environmentalism’, but rather ‘environmental authoritarianism’. What they mean is not simply that environmentalism is conducted by authoritarian diktat, but that environmental programmes represent a means to enhance state power by coercive and top-down projects justified in the name of saving the environment and the world.

While there are undeniable successes especially in wind and solar production, Shapiro and Lee identify the costs of bureaucratic quota filling, short-termism, and non-participation of local communities and experts which have resulted in large-scale human displacement and environmental counter-finalities. In their view, even with its enviable environmental achievements, China remains the world’s greatest polluter unable to overcome the continuing challenges of soil and water contamination, cancer villages, dangerous mining, big dam construction, among others.7

While this view may be rather one-sided and neglects the problems of over-democratization in other societies, the top-down, non-participatory dimension has worrying consequences. During the first decade of the 21st century, China witnessed the flourishing of the ‘green public sphere’. Many thousands of environmental NGOs in collaboration with Southeast Asian and transnational counterparts and agencies served as watchdogs against violations of environmental laws and degradation. They even succeeded in halting the thirteen mega dam projects proposed on the Nu/Salween rivers and declaring the Eastern Himalayan region as an UNESCO protected zone. Also, China’s most notable success in afforestation which covered 5% of the Loess plateau, was a result of participation by communities, experts, in addition to UN and Chinese officials. Later similar projects which were bureaucratically mandated have witnessed many more failures as a result of mono-cropping and ignorance of local conditions. The annulment of the Nu dam projects was also rescinded as the Xi regime came to power in 2013.8


In a recent study of the Belt and Road Initiative, I noted that Chinese contracts tend to be non-transparent. While the rhetoric is full of win-win proposals and many countries are happy to see massive investments, the environmental (together with the debt and digital surveillance) effects of such investments are consequential. Between 2014 and 2017, six Chinese banks participated in US$143 billion worth of syndicated loans to the BRI region’s energy and transportation sectors. Almost three-quarters of the total volume of this finance went to the oil, gas and petrochemical industries. Of the finance that went to the power generation sector, more than half financed fossil fuel power plants, including US$10 billion for the coal plants in places as diverse as Turkey, Kenya and Tajikistan.9


In societies where civil society groups are more active and demand transparency, Chinese state-owned enterprises do respond to environmental concerns. Nonetheless, there is a growing perception that China which is a global leader in the production of renewable energy and more recently, in conserving its environment, is doing so by outsourcing its natural resource requirements. Given that China’s water and soil conditions are highly compromised and need to be conserved, it is seeking to draw on those resources abroad. The acquisition of vast tracts of agricultural lands in different parts of the world as much as the extraction of minerals and other natural resources appears to repeat a pattern we have seen before where developed countries export their carbon footprint or out-source their exploitation of nature. Many countries, particularly in the developing world, look to Chinese leaders as having the capacity and intention – however ambivalent – to address the global environmental crisis. If China is to rise to such global leadership, it will have to address the problems of top-down modes of governance in addition to the outsourcing of its resource needs.

Thus, while government policies and campaigns are critically important, they have to be conducted in concert with community, civil society and expert participation. Moreover, they cannot be undertaken without a radical change in the vision of the good life that equates prosperity with economic growth. While developing countries like India still need to eradicate absolute levels of poverty, better quality of life can be achieved by spending on social and environmental factors.


The transformation of the goals of life and the meaning of prosperity will need a revolution or trans-valuation of values across the world. Without such change we risk falling into the same trap as that produced by accelerating anthropogenesis – a runaway techno-sphere that has no braking mechanism. The problems generated by this techno-sphere – comprised of human and technological systems, including infrastructure, transportation, communications, power production, financial networks, and bureaucracies – are not limited to carbon emissions, but to the exhaustion and ravaging of the earth and the continued maldistribution of its transitory benefits.

That revolution requires a world-view based not on a subject-object, human-nature division which has facilitated the capacity and conceit of humans to master and conquer nature to satisfy their endless consumption needs, but a vision where humans and non-humans, organic and inorganic can coexist sustainably. Such a view may appear unrealistic under present conditions, especially from an economic and global politics perspective. Nonetheless, we can find movements in such a direction in various undercurrents.


Over the last few decades there has been considerable civil society activism regarding the environment that is converging – albeit from radically different and even conflicting perspectives and interests – upon a holistic philosophical attitude that rejects the God-world, subject-object, human-nature dualistic assumptions of the Enlightenment project. These movements represent widely different communities and civic associations, from the world’s marginalized precariate whose livelihood is most directly threatened by climate change, to modern civic, youthful, religious and scientific groups and agencies committed to environmental protection and justice.

Forest dwellers, indigenous peoples, small island societies, threatened rural communities, among others often turn to their more holistic cosmologies and religious resources and leaders to resist corporate and state expropriation of the commons upon which they depend. They are often joined by – or coalesce with – NGOs and other civic groups of professionals, scientists and various local and transnational agencies in an effort to protect the environment. While this is a weak historical force, it is poised on something globally significant.

This coalescence converges on a loose notion of the sacrality of nature with social, discursive and legal underpinnings. While for many of the threatened subaltern communities this sacrality is part of the ecology of life and livelihood, for the more disenchanted moderns, the sacrality of nature is expressed through the notion of legal protection as the ‘common heritage of humankind.’ Legislation and judicial decisions of this kind have often been initiated, advocated and pushed through by civic groups. I call these natural spaces sacred because they represent an inviolability arising from the elemental urge to protect the sources of life. There are over 160,000 legally protected areas in the world (national and international), including almost 1000 World Heritage sites (cultural and natural), which cover over 12% of the land area of the world.


On several occasions, these expressions have begun to converge, for instance in the Eastern Himalayas protected zone in Yunnan which is the home of many minority groups as well as the cradle of NGO activism in China. In India, New Zealand, Ecuador, to name a few countries, indigenous communities have initiated movements to protect the commons that have succeeded in securing legal ‘rights of nature’ sanctioned by the highest courts in the land.10

As is evident, this conception of sacred nature mobilizing older conceptions, fragments and inventions, is an emergent one and depends to a considerable degree on the contemporary national and transnational legal institutions. It cannot but mobilize the classic Enlightenment ideal of rights. Although we will want to transcend and transvalue the Enlightenment ideal of the conquest of nature, we cannot do without the means that it provides us to overcome these problems. Hence it is necessary to join the most ethically defensible elements of Enlightenment cosmology with the alternative futuristic visions to secure a participatory and sustainable world.



1. Fiacha Heneghan, ‘Is There a Limit to Optimism When it Comes to Climate Change?’ Aeon, 13 April 2020.

2. Amartya Sen, ‘Global Warming Is Just One of Many Environmental Threats That Demand Our Attention’, New Republic, 22 August 2014.

3. Stephen Polaskya, Catherine L. Kling, Simon A. Levina, Stephen R. Carpentera, Gretchen C. Daily, Paul R. Ehrlich, Geoffrey M. Heal, and Jane Lubchencoa, ‘Role of Economics in Analyzing the Environment and Sustainable Development, PNAS 116(12),19 March 2019, pp. 5233-5238. Downloaded

4. Graeme S. Cumming and Stephan von Cramon-Taubadel, ‘Linking Economic Growth Pathways and Environmental Sustainability by Understanding Development as Alternate Social-Ecological Regimes’, PNAS 115(38), 18 September 2018, pp. 9533-9538. 1807026115

5. Tim Jackson, Prosperity without Growth: The Transition to a Sustainable Economy. Sustainable Development Commission UK, March 2009.

6. Ilmi Granoff, Monica Araya, Philipp Ulbrich, Sam Pickard and Caroline Haywood, Bridging Costa Rica’s Green Growth Gap: How to Support Further Transformation Toward a Green Economy in Costa Rica. Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH, 2015.

7. Judith Shapiro and Yifei Li, China Goes Green: Coercive Environmentalism for a Troubled Planet. Polity Press, Cambridge UK, 2020.

8. Prasenjit Duara, The Crisis of Global Modernity: Asian Traditions and the Crisis of Sustainability. Cambridge University Press, UK / New Delhi, 2015.

9. Prasenjit Duara, ‘The Chinese World Order in Historical Perspective: The Imperialism of Nation-states or Soft Power’, China and the World: Ancient and Modern Silk Road (CWSR) 02(04), 2019. See also Lihuan Zhou, Sean Gilbert, Ye Wang, Miquel Muñoz Cabré, and Kevin P. Gallagher, ‘Moving the Green Belt and Road Initiative: From Words to Actions’, Working Paper, World Resources Institute, Washington, DC, 2018, pp. 1-44. See also Sean Gilbert et al, ‘Will China Seize the Biggest Green Opportunity of the Coming Decade’, Chinadialogue, 14.11.2018. John Hurley, Scott Morris and Gailyn Portelance, ‘Examining the Debt Implications of the Belt and Road Initiative from a Policy Perspective’, CGD Policy Paper, Center for Global Development, Washington, DC, (for Kenya, p. 10) examining-debt-implications-belt-and-road-initiative-a-policy-perspective.

10. A fuller version of the discussion in this section can be found in Duara, Crisis of Global Modernity (chapter 7), op. cit.