The Anthropocene - an age of risks and uncertainty

The Anthropocene is an era of rapidly changing risks. At first glance, this may look like nothing new under the sun. Theorists of “risk society”, like Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck, have described preoccupation with the future as one of the trademarks of “reflexive modernity”. The notion of risk is a common way of assessing the likelihood of a certain outcome of our future actions. Risk is crucial in understanding technologies and their potential for accidents, for example: the explosion of a nuclear powerplant. Risk has become systemic in the technological settings in which modern societies operate. What does the Anthropocene add to this? The Anthropocene implies that humans are altering the planet. This involves the danger of altering basic functional systems of the earth in unpredictable ways.

One way of looking at this would be to describe this as the next step in the expansion of the modern “risk society” — an expansion that reaches out from the technological systems we have created into natural systems. Another way of looking at this is that it goes beyond the familiar framework of a risk society precisely because Earth itself cannot be guaranteed to provide a safe operating space for human action. In the latter case, we would have to recognize that the earth of the Anthropocene is still bigger than modern society, despite modern societies now being a major geophysical force. One way to describe what that means is what climate scientists call uncertainty. Statistically, uncertainty means that likelihoods cannot be calculated based on the information available. Once the warming of the earth’s climate has reached 2° above pre-industrial levels, it crosses a threshold beyond which many processes become unpredictable. Hence the question: Are we still living in the era of “risk societies”? Or should we describe the Anthropocene as an age of uncertainty? For social scientists and scholars from the humanities this implies another set of questions: What is the relationship between the Anthropocene and modernity? Is the Anthropocene just another step in the history of modernity? Or is it a rupture — a discontinuity? Is it perhaps even a reversal of the trends that defined modernity, as the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh suggests? 

Franz Mauelshagen


Experts: Eva Horn, Franz Mauelshagen, Patrick Sakdapolrak