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    Anthropocene and social diversity: an important research agenda

    By Andrea Rigon, on 19 May 2016

    While there are a number of debates on its actual beginning, academics and media have embraced the concept of Anthropocene. The Anthropocene presents humankind as the major geological force contributing to environmental change. This representation of humanity as a single agent produces a compelling narrative about the urgency of global collective action to limit dangerous environmental changes, particularly climate change. This narrative has been effectively used by political leaders to build political capital for global negotiations and efforts aimed at introducing global governance measures on environmental issues.

    Picture Caption 2: World Social Forum 2009: diversity in collective action, Brazil. By: Andrea Rigon

    Picture Caption 2: World Social Forum 2009: diversity in collective action, Brazil. By: Andrea Rigon

    Lovbrand et al. (2015) points out how the merging of social diversity into a single and universal “human agent” produces a ‘post-social ontology’ which fails to analyse unequal social relations. Environmental risk and vulnerability are unequally distributed across the world and so are the responsibilities for ecological destruction and consumption beyond the biosphere carrying capacity.

    Deterministic narratives of apocalyptic futures if no action is taken are coupled with the idea of a unified and single global response led by green economy investments and techno-scientific solutions. This is a paralysing and depoliticised narrative which hides winners and losers, conceals social relations and dynamics, and delegates responsibility even further, resulting in a concentration of power in the name of avoiding a global catastrophe. (Some would say entrusting with additional power those institutions and mechanisms that led to the ecological crisis in the first place).

    By bringing a social diversity perspective into the analysis of global environmental change – which considers gender, ethnicity, class, age, ability, etc. – it is possible to repoliticise the Anthropocene by shifting the focus on the agency of different groups of women and men, the analysis of power relations, and emphasising the centrality of local politics. Critical social science analysing practices and social relations can deconstruct hegemonic narratives, which silences multiple voices, and identify situated practices and the diversity of ways in which women and men engage with environmental challenges.

    Picture Caption 1: Toxic smokes from Dandora dumpsite affects the neighbouring population, Kenya. By: Andrea Rigon

    Picture Caption 1: Toxic smokes from Dandora dumpsite affects the neighbouring population, Kenya. By: Andrea Rigon

    At the same time, the dominant narrative around Anthropocene builds on an epistemology that maintains the nature/humans dichotomy and sees the latter as the masters of nature, separate from it and therefore able to apply a technical fix. Social sciences, and particularly Science and Technology Studies, have criticized this approach, highlighting the social construction of nature and dismantling nature/social boundaries. By highlighting the situated characters of all knowledges, including agroecological, literature on local knowledges in development (Agrawal 1995) has also criticised this distinction. Therefore, a critical engagement with the Anthropocene demands collaboration with other sciences, refuses to see nature as external to society, and calls for a broadening of the “social” in relation to diversity.

    By conceiving social and environmental justice as intrinsically inseparable and by working in an interdisciplinary manner, the DPU is well placed to embark on this agenda and open to more collaboration with other sciences. In particular, the expertise of the DPU’s research cluster Diversity, social complexity & planned intervention is highly relevant. For instance, this new research agenda would benefit from previous analysis of the constraints to the participation and voice of groups and individuals and their unequal access to policy-making spaces. Moreover, it could build upon the insights from the work on relational poverty, particularly the idea that people are poor “because of others” and the need for a wider analysis of the political economy and of the processes that create poverty.

    Being that the Anthropocene is the central conversation of our time, the question is not whether to embark on this research agenda but how. It is about a reflective and reflexive practice in which we cannot escape a critical view of the impact of our behaviours and life choices. The Anthropocene challenges our academic practice and interrogates the legitimacy of a consumption of nature several times beyond our individual fair share (and often hundreds times the one of the communities we co-produce knowledge with). Our ‘professional expertise’ is used to justify our overconsumption (e.g. uncountable intercontinental flights) in the process of knowledge production, implicitly, and perhaps unintentionally, implying the superiority of our knowledge input.


    Andrea Rigon is a lecturer on the MSc Social Development Practice course at the Bartlett Development Planning Unit of University College London. He researches and teaches about social diversity, poverty and inequalities. His recent work analyses how social and political conflicts among different actors shape the implementation of development interventions.