The Shape of Things to Come

From the formal and universal intergovernmental bodies characteristic for the 20th century UN system, to an increasing number of smaller country clubs or subnational initiatives such as the Alliance of Small Island States, the notion of the Anthropocene blurs the distinction between the public and private sector. Hence, the increasing fragmentation of global environmental governance can be seen as an institutional mirror image of the material complexity inherent to the Anthropocene.

This implicitly poses the question: which are the institutional, governmental, non-governmental & civil structures and subsequent modus operandi for the Anthropocene? How can their responses be pre-emptively designed in the face of interconnected phenomena such as climate change, species extinction and rapidly growing urbanisation?

Collie, Keith. Untitled.
“How are we supposed to react when faced with a piece of news like this one from Le Monde on Tuesday, May 7, 2013: “At Mauna Loa, on Friday May 3, the concentration of CO2 was reaching 399. 29 ppm”?”
Bruno Latour, Agency at the time of the Anthropocene

Shifting Worldviews

In 1966, Stewart Brand started a campaign for the release of satellite images of the Earth that he believed NASA was in possession of. One of them, known as the Blue Marble became the cover of the Whole Earth Catalogue, project which examined the planetary perspective on the world as a whole. A basic trope of the Anthropocene view of the world, the image was appropriated in two distinct ways: on one hand, by green movements searching for the connection between man and nature within the cosmic unity, while on the other hand it was used as anti-Soviet propaganda, marking the beginning of the lifestyle industry which ultimately commodified the original values and attitudes as marketable goods.

The famous images taken by the Apollo8 and Apollo 17 missions constitute a philosophical paradox of viewing the whole Earth system from the outside for the first time, while simultaneously being part of it. This signified a change of direction, with the outwards-driven frontier imaginary folding back on itself in a 180 degrees turn. This moment in time marks a conceptual shift on how humanity perceived itself. In a process similar to the one of individuation, the Anthropocene came to embody the realisation that over the last centuries humankind has put processes in motion that led to developments for which we no longer have standards by which to judge them — hence becoming itself a natural force.

Coined by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in the 1980s, the Anthropocene is a new debated geological era where the world system dominates and impacts the Earth system (notion derived from cybernetics) at new and unprecedented scales and intensities, opening up new divisions of time and space. Adding to the debate, Félix Guattari argues that the traditional environmentalist perspectives obscure the complexity of the relationship between humans and their natural environment through the dualistic separation of human (cultural) and nonhuman (natural) systems.[1]

These conditions are understood today through the notion of neo-ecology: a new “natural state”, a milieu created by people and machines that has replaced virgin nature as the habitat of the human being. Neo-ecology “no longer knows subjects nor objects, but only actors: everything is linked to everything else”.[2] The arising overlaps question the political possibilities in this new communality between human being and machine, growing urbanisation, extinction of the species and climate change. So far, institutionalised knowledge production has been carried out in disciplines that have established their own methodologies and ways of approaching the world, while the organisational and physical manifestations of the institution dutifully followed. However, the shift in field conditions over the last 300 years has led to a rapid reformation of cause and effect, which now requires new forms of interrogation, driven by material interconnections and processes.

Bernd & Hilla Becher. Youngstown, US. Steel, Ohio, USA 1981-83

Historically, large-scale spatial interventions such as railway projects or the global submarine cables created the need for an administrative authority comparable to the one of the state, becoming the operating field of nested forms of sovereignty, where domestic and transnational jurisdictions collide. Infrastructure space is thus the medium of what could be referred as extrastatecraft — ‘a portmanteau describing the often undisclosed activities outside of, in addition to, and sometimes in partnership with statecraft.’[3]

Institutions of Extrastatecraft

For many, the first meeting of the International Telegraph Union in 1865 may only seem an obscure historical footnote. Noted as “the first international agreement concerning most of Europe since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648”[4] , it was intended to prevent telecommunications misunderstandings which were often the cause of war. Rather than the ceremonial procedure of signing a peace treaty, the delegates at the convention had the more practical task of regulating a number of technological incongruences. Keller Easterling argues that such infrastructure has been often portrayed through several meta narratives: as an apparatus of nation-building, closely tied to the state and the military; as the torch-bearer of economic liberalism, or as a universal platform for rationalising global exchange.[5] The ITU delegates can be thus seen as a type of emerging power at the end of the nineteenth century, advocating the idea that international issues are a matter of nation-states coming together. This understanding of governance formed the basis of what we understand today through the notion of intergovernmental organisations (IGO).

Currently, the agency and relevance of these institutions is being challenged by the growing complexity and interconnectedness of the issues they originally set out to address, alongside questions about fairness, accountability, justice and allocation.

Edward Burtynsky. Navajo Reservation Suburb. Phoenix, Arizona USA, 2011.

The reshaping of the present-day global governance architecture, driven by the national desire of securing resources versus the question of global agency in addressing planetary challenges, is marked by shifting mandates of international organisations, institutional interactions and overlaps. The degree of these changes has brought some scholars to ask if we are seeing the fragmentation of global governance architectures, and whether or not that fragmentation is ‘beneficial — e.g. increasing responsiveness — or conflictive, thus reducing the system’s effectiveness and fairness.’[6] The increasing fragmentation of global environmental governance can be seen as an institutional mirror image of the material complexity inherent to the Anthropocene and has seen multiple pleas for drastic change. The 2012 State of the Planet Declaration, called for ‘fundamental reorientation and restructuring of national and international institutions.’[7] It is fundamental, the Declaration continues, ‘to overcome barriers to progress and to move to effective Earth-system governance. Governments must take action to support institutions and mechanisms that will improve coherence, as well as bring about integrated policy and action across the social, economic and environmental pillars.’ [8]

Future Storytelling

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) embodies the web of intricate conditions so far exposed. Set up in 1988 by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), it is comprised of representatives of 195 governments who peer review scientific literature from across the world. Despite having won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, limitations to the current organisational model have surfaced. The underlying linear model of policy-making, which assumes that more knowledge and scientific proofs will lead to better political decisions, is in direct conflict with the fact that governments pursue different, if not opposing goals. This puts the IPCC in a gridlock situation, further slowed by the time-consuming scientific review process required, and creates a serious shortcoming in a body that is widely regarded as the ultimate authority in the field. Despite the interconnectedness of the issues it tries to address in the 21st century, the IPCC follows the same organisational, physical and institutional practices as the International Telegraph Union.

From an expansionary modernist world-view to contemporary knowledge production and action on climate change through Earth-Systems modelling, how can we tackle the interwoven implications of the Anthropocene?

FOOTNOTES

1. Félix Guattari, Remaking Social Practices. In: Genosko, Gary (Hg.) (1996): The Guattari Reader. Oxford, Blackwell, S. 262–273.

2.http://www.hkw.de/en/programm/projekte/2014/anthropozaenprojekt_ein_bericht/enzyklopaedie/neo_oekologie.php. Accessed Jan 2015.

3. Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft : The Power of Infrastructure Space (Brooklyn: Verso Books, 2014), pg. 15.

4. Ibid., pg. 55.

5. Ibid., pg. 138.

6–8. Co-chair of the Planet under Pressure Conference (2012) State of the Planet Declaration. London, 26–29 March 2012. Supported by the Conference Scientific Organizing Committee.

9. http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/rival, Accessed Jan 2015.