Crisis in the Anthropocene: Rethinking connection and agency for development

It appears as though the world has moved into an era in which environment and nature are perpetually in a state of crisis and cause of imminent disaster. According to climate science, we are on the brink of a catastrophe that threatens the lives and livelihoods of millions of people, primarily those in the poorest countries of the Global South. Scientists have recently warned climate policymakers that the world is in the midst of other environmental crises, such as air, soil and water pollution, the accumulation of plastic waste, and biodiversity loss. In the realms of microbial ecology and eco-immunology, more disasters loom with nature at the forefront, particularly the emergence of novel viruses and the ‘silent tsunami’ of antibiotic resistance.

Classic debates concerning the relationship between environment and development that began in the 1970s with the ‘limits to growth’, and continued in the 1990s with political ecology, have been far-reaching in shaping understandings of human-nature relationships. However, research has become challenged by the multi-scale complexity of contemporary global environmental problems in which uncertainty, risk and precarity are seemingly the ‘new normal’. Concepts that have become central to development policy and practice, such as resilience, attempt to capture some of this intricacy by taking holistic, systems-based perspectives that incorporate ideas of ‘collapse’ and ‘feedback’. Yet, resilience thinking itself has been critiqued by social science and humanities scholars, who see the approach as depoliticised and antithetical to more established development notions of change and transformation that emphasise structural constraints in unequal economic, social and political relations.

With these issues in mind, what does the notion of the Anthropocene mean for established, but unsettled, ideas concerning connection and agency in development? As both an organising concept and a proposed era in human and planetary development, the Anthropocene is far-reaching and contested. On the one hand, it emphasises how human activities affect Earth system processes in evermore relational and irreversible ways. On the other hand, and more fundamentally, Anthropocene thinking posits that human systems are inextricably connected with natural ones, part of a human-nonhuman ecology in which agency is not restricted to human activity but dispersed across the ‘liveliness’ of material worlds. This is epitomised, by the appearance of SARS-CoV-2 in 2019, a virus that emerged from a conjoined, co-evolved human-animal system and that actively reshaped millions of lives around the world in previously unforeseen and unimagined ways. The Anthropocene—and its conditions, structures and relationships under which we operate—unsettles, and potentially overturns, conventional ways of theorising and practising development that foreground and privilege human intention in the face of an unruly, dynamic and ‘creative’ natural world.

What, then, does humanity’s interconnectedness with the nonhuman world mean for debates about environmental protection, preservation and justice that for so long have assumed human essentialism? If human agency is indeed limited, where does this leave debates on development that for decades have been implicitly grounded in modernisation and the assumption of humanity’s dominance and power over nature? What do the constraints imposed by nature mean for our understanding of the structural, socio-political limits to human action and progress, such as global inequality in all its forms?

These are some of the key animating questions that we will explore during the DSA Conference. In light of the above, we propose examining the following themes and questions:

Development crises, old and new

  • How can we reframe and understand established and emerging crises of environment and development through the lens of the Anthropocene? How do new ideas emerging from development studies and development practice that emphasise uncertainty, risk and precarity impact on more conventional notions and measures such as modernisation, globalisation and poverty?
  • What new crises might emerge in the future and what different approaches are societies taking to anticipate and manage these, if at all? Where do the limits of such anticipatory theories and approaches lie? What new connections across time and space can be fostered to mitigate future crises?
  • How have development studies and the practices of development adapted (or otherwise) during the COVID-19 crisis and how have partnerships and participatory research and empowerment approaches changed as a result? To what extent might these new ways of working and thinking remain in a ‘post-COVID’ world or be developed further to improve them for local communities?

Agency, knowledge and governance

  • To what extent, and how, are established models of knowledge generation, agency, relationality and participation in development breaking down and/or being bolstered in light of the Anthropocene? What are they being replaced with or how might/should they be replaced?
  • To what extent are the traditional institutions of and approaches to development able to affect change in the Anthropocene? What are the implications for existing social and political imperatives to deliver economic resources to meet human needs? Where do the limits lie and how might they be overcome to facilitate more just development practices and outcomes?
  • Given the failures of global institutions to overcome collective problems, such as climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental pollution, what alternative models of multi-scalar governance might we draw upon to tackle new and emerging global crises? How can we address persisting problems, such as marginalisation and the lack of power in communities affected by the increasingly uncertain natural world?
  • How and in what ways does the lens of ‘global development’ provide development studies with the opportunity to understand, analyse and critique development theory, processes and the outcomes of development practices in the Anthropocene? Does the lens of global development provide opportunities to analyse connected problems and solutions or does it paper over inequalities, local contexts and power imbalances?

Connections, care and intersectionality

  • What does the apparent breakdown of human domination and isolationism under the Anthropocene mean for how we understand and manage nature regarding human livelihood improvement and development? How does the de-centering of human domination and agency proposed by the concept of the Anthropocene challenge the theorisations and practices of development going forward?
  • What is the role of an ethics and politics of care—for both humans and the non-human world—in the Anthropocene? How can existing and/or new ethics of care be fostered that work within increasingly diverse and interconnected societies while at the same time respecting ‘planetary boundaries’?
  • What does Anthropocene thinking mean for groups historically marginalised based on gender, race, disability or otherness? How can diverse voices from marginalised groups be more definitively heard, supported and empowered in new and evolving debates? How might the emerging lens of intersectionality within human communities—and across the human/nature ‘divide’—support the creation of just and sustainable lifeworlds and livelihoods?

The organising committee invites submissions for panels on these themes and questions while also welcoming panels on the broad range of subjects of interest to DSA members by Tuesday 6 December 2022. Propose a panel here.