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Environmental Policy and the Anthropocene

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The current disarray in environmental policy is, in part, a result of a failure to connect it to a coherent and scientifically-based worldview with a related ethics. This failure contributed to slipping from the relatively safe Holocene of the last 10,000 years into the unstable and much more hazardous Anthropocene where humans have profound effects on Earth's systems. Many of the assumptions on which our inadequate environmental policies are based derive from political liberalism, which is itself being destabilized. I suggest six areas where the implications of a scientifically based worldview need to be developed so that an ecological political economy, respectful of the Earth and the life on it, can be envisioned and brought into being. Nothing short of a complete rethink is essential as we enter the Anthropocene.

In the movie The Magic Christian, Peter Sellers plays the richest man in the world. In one magnificent scene he is conducting a board meeting in the parlor car of a train. It is apparent that his enterprises are being mismanaged and his assets are in steep decline. He tells his managers that they are all fired. The train stops and they are all handed maps as they disembark. But none of the maps are maps of where they are.

To me this metaphor sheds considerable light on our circumstances. Many of our conceptual maps of the world do not track with current scientific understandings of reality. This is particularly true of our normative perspectives. Neo-classical economics, many of our ethical systems, much of philosophy and theology, law, finance, and politics are a-scientific. Environmental policy in our time is made up of an amalgamation of the ideas from these systems; and these have achieved modest successes in areas as diverse as air quality and protected areas. But each of them individually and all of them together have failed to stem, or in most cases even to call into serious question, the well-documented and escalating mayhem of our time. The result has been moral and conceptual bewilderment and the enthusiastic dismemberment of the Earth's life support systems.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2011

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