The Anthropocene is a Geological and Political Reality

The pandemic highlighted antagonistic politics, competition, and national interest. It is time to rethink geopolitics in terms of the impact of human activity.

Expert comment Updated 22 December 2020 Published 14 December 2020 3 minute READ

It is well-known that existential threats due to biodiversity loss and the rapid transformation of the global biosphere which most basic conditions of human existence depend on are growing, and that the potential crossing of climate change tipping points will have catastrophic effects due to cascading effects.

But 2020 is a real turning point, because the total weight of human-made materials – which has doubled roughly every 20 years since the middle of the last century – is now exceeding that of the planet’s natural biomass. However, there is little sign world leaders have understood the importance of this new reality.

The notion of the Anthropocene – the new geological epoch where human activity is dominating and fundamentally reshaping the planet – is already widely-used in earth sciences, but is now posing new challenges for the international community, becoming a novel theme in international relations scholarship and research.

This is because, if not taken seriously, the dynamics of the Anthropocene will dramatically worsen existing security concerns, such as revolutions, inter-state armed violence, and warfare. And COVID-19 has been named the disease of the Anthropocene because it is the perfect example of how degradation of the natural environment through wildlife exploitation and resource extraction contributes to rising trends in zoonotic diseases which then severely disrupt social, economic and political systems.

With such challenges ahead, rethinking geopolitical strategizing – essentially concerned with the control of territory, resources, and space – is not something that can be put off any longer. Geopolitical trends do not just happen, they are created, so there needs to be an examination of the real existential threats we face, and a consideration of what genuine security looks like beyond conventional binary politics, properly taking human-nature interactions into account.

Geopolitics as planetary stewardship

Using geopolitical theory as a tool of analysis by scholars or a guide to practice by statesmen and policymakers carries huge risks, and one of its biggest limitations is the primary concern with political power being linked to the geographies of nation-states. In the Anthropocene, it is more important to consider planetary boundaries and safe operating spaces, biophysical processes, and feedback loops between human-nature interactions.

The ongoing growth of security issues in the Anthropocene cannot be prevented by the current approaches to geopolitical issues. The key organizing logic upon which much of mainstream security discourse and geopolitical strategies are built – the competition of countries in an anarchic system – only speeds up the Great Acceleration, intensifies risks, and destabilizes the international community.

Leaving behind geopolitical rivalries is the key to successful planetary stewardship, which has profound implications for the future of international relations. Traditional assumptions and approaches such as the focus on dominance, deterrence, and the balance of power get in the way of building transformative alliances and finding collaborative solutions to genuine existential threats.

The reality of the Anthropocene means there should be a focus on the stabilization of human–environment interactions, and the development of practical ways to efficiently share resources on a crowded planet being transformed by human actions. Navigating this complexity cannot be done by focusing on narrow national interests, but requires collaboration to identify common strategic vulnerabilities and counter destabilizing developments which threaten human survival.

Europe, China, and the US can lead together

As the three major economic blocs, the US, China, and Europe have a key responsibility for planetary stewardship. Not only are they the biggest consumers of resources and major polluters, accounting for about 50 per cent of global CO2 emissions, but they also have the most impact on others in a changing world. Geopolitical rivalries between them run the risk of undermining global cooperation efforts to address the threats from global environmental change.

The relationship between the US and China has been described as ‘asymmetric bipolarity’, in that it has become the central factor in every other country’s calculations as the world struggles with the conundrum that everything and anything is interpreted and framed as US-China competition. Many analyses and discussions about a new world order assume it will be dominated and shaped by Sino-American rivalry in which the role of global institutions is limited.

A recent report by the European Parliament on the geopolitical implications of the COVID-19 pandemic asks what role Europe wants to play in a bipolar world shaped by the Sino-American relationship. But, rather than Europe just taking sides, a more optimistic outlook would see Europe – in partnership with the UK – take a leading role in upholding the rules-based multilateralist approach for a sustainable future which addresses the challenges of the Anthropocene.

The EU has already proposed revitalizing a new comprehensive transatlantic agenda to include many green elements, and to jointly lead efforts on ambitious global agreements such as a joint commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050 and a green technology alliance. The EU has also agreed with China to establish a high-level environment and climate dialogue to pursue joint commitments on climate neutrality.

With key sustainability summits taking place in 2021, this is a moment of opportunity to overcome challenges posed by current geopolitics. China hosting the Biodiversity Summit in Kunming gives it the chance to show leadership and demonstrate to the world it is a responsible power which is serious about protecting global goods. The UK and Europe also have key roles to play, not only as co-hosts of the COP26 climate summit, but also as balancing voices of reason, representatives of ‘normative power’, and upholders of rules‑based multilateralism.

Bipolarity threatens the foundations of the multilateral system required for global cooperation and so, in the same way that it is vital to prevent the breakdown of biophysical support systems of the planet, it is crucial to prevent a political bipolar world dominated by an intensifying US-China rivalry, which then prevents the dynamics of the Anthropocene from being properly addressed.