This Time, It’s Epochal: The Next ScotGov & The Anthropocene
Three ideas should frame and shape the actions of the new Scottish Government:
Capabilities for flourishing
Debates around “sustainable development” have been enlivened by the proposition that we are living in the Anthropocene. This is defined as an era where the impact of human actions on the earth rival that of geological processes.
It’s uncontroversial to assert that human actions are affecting the global environment. For example, we often cite biodiversity loss, or disruption of the water cycle, or increasing greenhouse gas concentrations.
But the idea that these impacts constitute a new geological epoch is more arresting.
It may be news to you that, officially, we’re not actually living in the Anthropocene yet. The decision that will recognise the Anthropocene as an epoch rests with the International Commission on Stratigraphy (who issued an interim report on this in January 2016.)
What we need for that recognition is a ‘golden spike’ – some evidence in sediments, an ice core or the fossil record, that a global scale ‘event’ has taken place. This also has to be accompanied by an array of associated impacts, indicating changes to the Earth system happening at the same time as the spike.
It may help to show something that isn’t a global spike. For example, the impact of copper smelting by the Romans is detectible in ice cores – but that wouldn’t qualify as a spike, because it did not reflect a global phenomenon (as it was local to Europe). Nor was it associated with an array of other changes.
While there are several candidate dates for the start of the Anthropocene, the early 1960s appear to be favoured for identifying a major spike. This was the peak in radioactive markers arising from nuclear testing, which increased until 1963 when the Partial Test Ban Treaty was signed.
Another potential date is the 1950’s, called in the eco-literature the ‘great acceleration’ – when population levels, resource use and pollution effects all increased exponentially.
Regardless of whether or not we end up naming our current time the Anthropocene from a technical point of view, the idea of the Anthropocene is likely to be influential. Part of this influence is cultural and social.
The election of a new Government, with the energy and impetus this brings, makes this a good time for a revisiting of national purpose. As the Anthropocene comes into (perhaps) formal recognition, we should take another look at what a just and safe economy, where all may flourish, could entail.
For example, how might we think about ourselves if ‘we’ become the clear agents of global environmental change? Does this encourage the hubris of massive projects to “geo-engineer” the planet? Or will it instil a sense of humility in humanity?
Likewise, deciding who exactly is the ‘anthro’ in the Anthropocene becomes a political and ideological question. Some people alive today (and historically) have had more substantive impacts on the earth than others. If we think too “universally” about “humanity” driving us to the Anthropocene, it might obscure how imbalanced some of these human contributions might be.
Living in the Anthropocene, then, represents the first challenge for the incoming Scottish Government. If our collective impacts are driving epoch-scale changes, then we should wish to be more proactive in countering that impact. Here are some creative ways forward.
For example, past ScotGov policies around zero waste have been internationally innovative. As is their recent shift in framing and thinking about waste and resource use, in terms of a circular economy. The Scottish Climate Change Act provides a good context for continuing and accelerating our ambitions to develop a low carbon economy. As the Paris Declaration is signed, the overall global shift in ambition needs to be matched by progress within Scotland.
More difficult for any Government, however, is to be clear about what should cease in a low carbon future – especially where there are difficult trade-offs to be dealt with, particularly in terms of prosperity. The extent to which North Sea oil and gas might be left in the ground as unburnable, while wishing to sustain livelihoods in the oil-making region, is not an easy set of tensions to resolve.
Perhaps the most important first step is to explicitly recognise these as tensions.
Capabilities For Flourishing
Living in the Anthropocene also raises the question of how we might flourish, in what are likely to be more trying times. Two thinkers in this context deserve highlighting: Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. Both of these writers are concerned with how society should be structured so as to ensure that it is ‘just’ for its members.
Their work is called the Capabilities Approach (that is, they lay out what capabilities people need in order to flourish). This might sound prescriptive. But they are also clear that people will seek to flourish in many and various ways, according to what they value in life. (As an example of their flexibility, Nussbaum’s work also deals with the issues of justice for non-human animals).
As we enter the Anthropocene, with its various accompanying stresses on natural, social and economic systems, the ability to ensure the capability of individuals to flourish is a central task. Rather than framing our task as a social contract – a compromise between classes or interests – the Capabilities Approach sets a base from which everyone can flourish. The idea of a guaranteed minimum income would fit into this framing.
Whenever you think of what it means to flourish, the question of economics is not far away. Here economic democracy becomes important. A renewal of interest in what a democratic (and just) economy might entail comes from the consequences of the financial crisis of 2007/08, as well as the social/ecological impacts of economies.
There is much activity going on in this area. It includes workplace democracy (focused on workers rights as well as employee/consumer/producer and community owned organisations). Also, the democratization of finance (via credit unions; local banks; local currencies and trading systems; and crowd sourcing of funding for ventures). As well as broader financial processes (for example, participatory budgeting provides communities with the ability to influence local authority spending).
Across Scotland, there are numerous experiments with forms of economic democracy – participatory budgeting in Leith, community ownership of land/woodlands and a host of employee owned firms – and it’s likely this will continue. I would argue for these types of organization not to be seen as ‘fringe’ experiments far from the economic mainstream, but as pointers to what a just and democratic economic system might include.
A “National Performance Framework” that lets Scotland flourish
These three ideas might seem a long way away from the concerns of a newly elected Government and Parliament. I would argue, however, that they go to the heart of what the central purpose of Government is.
Scotland’s National Performance Framework states that the purpose of Government is to “focus Government and public services on creating a more successful country, with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish”. It is, therefore, a flourishing framework, even if it does not explicitly reference the Capabilities Approach.
Likewise, any flourishing is only achievable in the longer term if ecological integrity is maintained (in the face of the Anthropocene). The “purpose of Government” goes on to describe the means by which flourishing is to be achieved, that is through “increasing sustainable economic growth”.
At this stage there is a disjuncture, with a lack of clarity about what economic growth would meet this description. The phrase looks like a grand oxymoron. We need a more explicit and nuanced position on what sort of economic activity might be fit for flourishing. A serious treatment of the social and environmental costs of its activities has to be revisited for the purpose of Government to be realised.
The next five years will take us past the year 2020, with all the hopes that are held for that date. By 2020 the first reduction target within the Scottish Climate Change Act will have to be met, and the EU’s Biodiversity strategies also have key aims for that year.
The election of a new Government, with the energy and impetus that this brings, makes this a good time for a revisiting of national purpose. As the Anthropocene comes into (perhaps) formal recognition, this is the right time to take another look at what a just and safe economy where all may flourish could entail.
Jan Bebbington is a Professor of Accounting and Sustainable Development in the School of Management at the University of St Andrews. She was formerly the Scottish Chair of the Sustainable Development Commission. She is also a green woodworker. @JanBebbington