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Published: January 15, 2014

Anthropocene workshop 17-19 January

News |

A workshop focusing on the underlying social systems driving the Anthropocene will take place 17-19 January in Washington DC. The invitation-only workshop, which will bring together social and natural scientists, has been organised by IGBP and the International Human Dimensions Programme.

Workshop rationale


During the past decade the Anthropocene has emerged as an effective paradigm to capture the relationship of humans with their environment and the Earth system as a whole. The publication of IGBP’s synthesis in 2004 demonstrated convincingly that humans are now the prime driver of change on the Earth. First introduced by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in IGBP's newsletter in 2000, the concept was explored during the programme's first synthesis published in 2004 (Steffen et al. 2004).


That synthesis – via the ‘Great Acceleration’ graphs – demonstrated the near-exponential changes to the Earth’s biophysical variables since the 1950s in response to the unprecedented human influence and accelerated processes of social change. These initiatives approached the Anthropocene primarily through the lenses of the biophysical sciences, that is, in terms of human impacts on the Earth's physical, chemical and biological processes.  They also laid out the importance of considering the consequences of Earth-system changes to human wellbeing and its implications for long-term sustainability of fundamental earth systems processes.  However, limited attention was given to our understanding of the underlying social systems and the regional social-economic manifestation of the Anthropocene and the ‘Great Acceleration’.  In addition, the human drivers of change and the responses to changes have yet to be analyzed using an integrated socio-ecological system perspective.


It is in this context that the International Geosphere Biosphere Programme (IGBP) and the International Human Dimensions Program (IHDP) propose a collaborative synthesis activity catalyzed around the concept of the Anthropocene. Through preparatory writing activities and a writing workshop, the primary goals of this activity are to produce a series of articles that critically examine:


  • existing knowledge of human-environment complex system dynamics as applied to the Anthropocene and 
  • the ability of modeling and integrated assessment scenarios to capture these interactions as they manifest at different scales and regions of the world. The workshop is forward looking. It represents a collaborative activity of IGBP and IHDP as both programs transition into Future Earth. Thus, the products of the workshop also aim at informing research directions of the Future Earth program, and 
  • to produce analyses that speak to the policy implications of our findings in activities 1 and 2.

Key elements:

During IGBP’s first synthesis Steffen et al. (2004) were well aware of the need to comprehend the Earth system as “a fully coupled and interactive system built of tightly interwoven biophysical and human components.” As they underscored, “Putting people into Earth System analysis requires the construction of a single, coherent framework built jointly by social and natural scientists.” But they also acknowledged the difficulty in achieving effective collaboration between natural and social scientists.


In recent years, several approaches and concepts to analyze the complexity of coupled human-biophysical systems have been put forward, from the concept of tipping points, planetary boundaries, plurality of values and cognitive disonance, inclusive wealth, hedonic threadmills, to frameworks for socio-ecological systems analysis and linking ecosystem services and human wellbeing, to multi-scale governance, to various applications of complexity and network theories to analysis, modeling and scenario development.


This synthesis activity represents an opportunity to catalyze these efforts into analyses and frameworks that advance our understanding of the Anthropocene and that contribute to a new decade of research focusing on the integration of earth systems and sustainability sciences. Our intention is to focus primarily on the period marked by the onset of the Great Acceleration and its continuous expansion and emerging manifestations that have direct implication for our ongoing challenges of governance for sustainability. However, we do understand the need to expand our time horizon backwards to better understand the social systems that provided the impetus for the great acceleration.


Workshop themes


A. Conceptualisation from complex system perspectives

Focusing on the Anthropocene through the lens of interconnectedness of socio-ecological systems and complexity theories offers a way to integrate earth system and sustainability sciences within a forward looking research agenda for Future Earth.


Guiding questions for consideration include:

A1. In what ways can complex systems perspectives bring together disciplinary theories to provide deeper insight into the coupled dynamics and feedbacks of the human-environment system in the Anthropocene? 

A2. In the Anthropocene, how do we advance our understanding of the linkages between local, regional and planetary systems and inter-connections of human and natural processes?

A3. Can the Anthropocene as a concept provide an analytical framework that is relevant to policy and decision-making at different levels?


B. Modeling and assessment frameworks for human-environment complexity

This theme is organized around a review of how concepts and approaches from complex systems analysis have been incorporated into modeling and assessment methodologies. This effort also contributes to theme 3 as it is intended to assess the various ways in which we can inform policy making and governance efforts through simulation models and scenarios, and reviews the overall scope and challenges for anticipating the future.

Guiding questions for consideration include:

B1. In what ways are the use of complex dynamical concepts and our understanding of feedback mechanism, interactions, connectivity, and tipping points being coherently incorporated into available modeling and assessment tools?

B2. How are modeling and assessment frameworks able to explore complex and coupled human-environmental dynamics for different:

i) spatial scales and social contexts (global vs regional vs local and the individual vs household vs community)?           

ii) temporal scales (millennia to decadal) – including different reference points?

iii) theoretical assumptions about factors underlying societal and environmental change?


C. Implications for Research and Policy

Understanding the implications of the Anthropocene for the state and future of the planet requires novel ways of developing conceptual frameworks, modeling tools, targets and indicators for policy and stewardship over the next few decades. The above activities are intended to contribute to these efforts in broad and specific terms, such as through new engagement activities envisioned by Future Earth and other research initiatives and by informing initiatives such as the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Guiding questions for consideration include:

C1. What are the implications of the Anthropocene for different regions and social groups?

C2. How can this workshop inform and/or guide policy processes (e.g. SDGs, macroeconomic fiscal and monetary policies) by integrated biophysical and social perspectives within the context of the Anthropocene?

C3. How can we use our growing awareness and improved scientific understanding of the Anthropocene to engage and foster policy integration at the planetary level? What are the institutional and behavioral change implications for societies?


The process proposed for this synthesis combines interactive writing activities through an online platform and a face-to-face writing workshop 17-19 January 2014 in Washington-DC, USA, just preceding a comprehensive meeting of GEC Core Projects organized by Future Earth. Our intention is to produce initial drafts of the proposed articles in advance of the workshop. The workshop will be organized primarily around group writing activities and plenary discussions. Following the workshop, an agreed writing schedule will define the consolidation and review process of the articles to be prepared for submission.


The list of invitees include specialists in physical and environmental (land, atmosphere, ocean) change sciences, including biogeochemistry, biodiversity, and integrated modeling, and historians, anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, economists, ethics, and behavioral sciences. Invitees have been chosen to represent a larger community and as such to bring an inclusive set of conceptual perspectives and literature.


The steering committee members:


James Syvitski          IGBP Chair

Eduardo Brondizio  IGBP and Future Earth Scientific Committees

John Dearing            Past Global Changes (PAGES IGBP Core Project)

Peter Verburg           Global Land Project Chair                                    Arthur Chen             IGBP Vice-chair

Patricia Matrai          IGBP Scientific Committee

Karen Seto               UGEC Co-chair

Frank Biermann       Earth System Governance (IHDP Project) Chair

Priya Shyamsundar  IGBP Scientific Committee

Amy Dahan              IHDP Scientific Committee



Committee members from the secretariats include:


Sybil Seitzinger         IGBP Executive Director

Ninad Bondre            IGBP Senior Science Editor

Anantha Duraiappah  IHDP Executive Director, UN University

Barbara Solich           IHDP Project Officer

Liesl Neskakis             IHDP Academic Officer


Logistical support:     

Ting Yiu                      IGBP Secretariat

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