The Anthropocene condition: evolving through social–ecological transformations

Related GLP Member: Erle Ellis


Anthropogenic planetary disruptions, from climate change to biodiversity loss, are unprecedented challenges for human societies. Some societies, social groups, cultural practices, technologies and institutions are already disintegrating or disappearing as a result. However, this coupling of socially produced environmental challenges with disruptive social changes—the Anthropocene condition—is not new. From food-producing hunter–gatherers, to farmers, to urban industrial food systems, the current planetary entanglement has its roots in millennia of evolving and accumulating sociocultural capabilities for shaping the cultured environments that our societies have always lived in (sociocultural niche construction). When these transformative capabilities to shape environments are coupled with sociocultural adaptations enabling societies to more effectively shape and live in transformed environments, the social–ecological scales and intensities of these transformations can accelerate through a positive feedback loop of ‘runaway sociocultural niche construction’. Efforts to achieve a better future for both people and planet will depend on guiding this runaway evolutionary process towards better outcomes by redirecting Earth's most disruptive force of nature: the power of human aspirations. To guide this unprecedented planetary force, cultural narratives that appeal to human aspirations for a better future will be more effective than narratives of environmental crisis and overstepping natural boundaries.

This article is part of the theme issue ‘Evolution and sustainability: gathering the strands for an Anthropocene synthesis’.