What Does Society Look Like in the Future of the Anthropocene? A Q&A With Andy Hoffman

Apr 17, 2019 12:00 PM ET

We have entered a new geologic epoch, called the Anthropocene, that recognizes people’s effect on the Earth’s ecosystems—harming them in ways that are likely irreversible. So what will Anthropocene society look like in the future?

Erb faculty member Andrew Hoffman and P. Devereaux Jennings, of the University of Alberta, recently published “Institutional-Political Scenarios for Anthropocene Society” in Business & Society, which delves into that question and how sustainability will be redefined in the Anthropocene. It argues for a new way of thinking—and a new approach for environmental and social sustainability research. Hoffman and Jennings have talked about their research in Business and Management Ink and published a book, Re-engaging With Sustainability in the Anthropocene Era, that discusses how organizational theory and an appreciation for culture change can help us navigate a new course. Here, Hoffman talks with the Erb Institute about rethinking the system we operate in and how to change it.

In your article about institutional-political scenarios, what are you arguing, in a nutshell?   
Scientists say that the Anthropocene began in the mid-1800s, with the invention of the steam engine. Then in 1950, with the Great Acceleration, our impact on the environment increased dramatically. But the way I see it, the conversation about the Anthropocene has been dominated by the physical sciences. What Dev and I are trying to do is add the social science component to the conversation. What does Anthropocene society look like? What are the norms and rules that will prevail? Will they bring us to a Re-enlightenment, or will we not adapt at all?

If we don’t come to terms with this new reality, we’re really in deep trouble. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in their last report this past fall, said if we don’t come to terms with climate change in the next 12 years, damage to the global climate will be irreversible. And climate change is just one marker of the Anthropocene; there are eight other “planetary boundaries” that scientists have identified. These are boundaries beyond which we should not go if we want to maintain a safe environment for the Earth. And we’ve crossed three of them already: climate change, species extinction and nitrogen pollution. Another five are being monitored.  Only one is in decline: ozone depletion. Technology, like alternative drive trains and renewable energy, will help us get part of the way in solving these issues, but they must be accompanied by cultural and institutional change both to get us to change our behavior and demand these and other technologies be developed.

What are the three scenarios you envision?   
They are “Collapsing Systems,” which is dystopian, the worst scenario; “Cultural Re-enlightenment,” which is the utopian one; and in the middle is “Market Rules,” where the market rules dominate. Market Rules will make some progress, but it won’t get us all the way, because at the end of the day, a Tesla’s a nice car, but it’s still another car. This requires a different way of thinking. If you take the Anthropocene seriously, we now have a collective challenge as a global species to manage the global environment. So how does that manifest itself in values?

I think the Pope’s encyclical starts to do that. There’s a new set of values here: We can’t just worship technology. We can’t just pursue unlimited economic growth. Perhaps we need to have some values of sufficiency—of “enough is enough,” of “material goods don’t define our value.” This is important for recognizing and changing our deepest values. If people connect environmental protection with what they espouse at the church, synagogue, mosque or temple, then society will shift in dramatic and meaningful ways.

How might business leaders start to think differently about some of these things?   
Business is a major part of our society. If you look at the major cultural shift of Enlightenment of the 18th century, our conceptions of ourselves and the environment, and the relationship between the two, were fundamentally different before and after. So if we’re going through a Re-enlightenment now, one big difference is that this time, we have a market and corporations. They are a major force in this social shift, so I think this paper and the idea of the Anthropocene could be useful to corporations as they start to think about long-term planning.

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