The Anthropocene, Climate Emergency and International Relations: need for new thinking and Global South perspectives – Fellows’ seminar by Carlos Milani

21 November 2023

What is the Anthropocene? Why does a debate stemming from climate ‘hard sciences’ matter in the social sciences and humanities? What are the theoretical implications of the adoption of the Anthropocene as a concept and diagnosis in the field of international relations and political science? Is there a case to think about the Anthropocene and the climate emergency from a Brazilian perspective? Does a comparison between Brazil and South Africa help us understand the contradictions and challenges ahead?

STIAS Fellow Carlos Milani during his seminar on 14 November 2023

These are the key questions Carlos Milani of the Institute for Social and Political Studies at Rio de Janeiro State University will attempt to answer in his project, partly developed at STIAS and with the support of the Brazilian National Scientific and Technological Development Council (CNPQ) and the Rio de Janeiro Carlos Chagas Research Foundation (FAPERJ).

“The adoption of the Anthropocene as a concept and diagnosis implies a profound rethinking of the role of the state in development models, the meanings and practices of democracy and national political institutions, the governance of multilateral organisations, and the definition of responsibilities of both Northern and Southern powers in multilateral negotiations that favour socially just, economically prudent and pro-climate public policies,” said Milani.

“Climate change is a threat multiplier and amplifier in the Anthropocene,” he added, and then explained that adoption of the Anthropocene as a concept-diagnosis implies redefining basic categories in international relations, including sovereignty, responsibility, territory, development, progress and security. He emphasised that effective climate-policy solutions should not only be framed in terms of collective-action dilemmas and cost-benefit analysis but rather in terms of distributive conflicts, and the tensions between climate justice and the right to development.

Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer defined the Anthropocene in 2000s as the geological epoch during which human activity has become a key driver in the actual functioning of the Earth system. “The idea is not new but what is new is the consensus that  climate change is irreversible and that human activities have unequivocally caused global warming,” said Milani.

Natural scientists outline the key components of the Anthropocene as increasing CO2 levels, melting glaciers and rising sea levels, an increase in the planet’s temperature due to the fossil economy, accelerated loss of biodiversity and deforestation, and an increase in extreme events.

He provided some data: Oil consumption has increased by 3,5 times since 1960; at the end of World War 2 there were 40 million cars but by 1996 700 million; and, we produce more fossil fuels than can be burnt to reduce the temperature increases.

“In 2014 Richard Heede wrote that 90 fossil fuel and cement producers had contributed, though the production, transportation and sale of their products, 63% of all CO2 and methane emissions between 1751 and 2010.”

“The fossil-fuel economy is at the centre of the crisis but is part of our social and cultural imaginaries,” he added. “A fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty has been called by NGOs based on the experience of the non-nuclear proliferation treaty of 1968.”

But it’s not straightforward, and this is where the social sciences and humanities matter in these debates. “Humankind is the main bearer of global responsibility,” said Milani. “But who is the Anthropos? Who is this we and how uniform is humankind’s responsibility?”

It’s an unequal playing field full of different causal responsibilities, contradictions and injustices.

“Understanding vulnerability, and how they are produced, is important as well the role of zones of sacrifice which are often racialised for the development of more advanced regions and countries,” he said. “The Anthropocene is connected with consumption patterns and individual lifestyles. But whose lifestyle is producing the negative impacts?

Debates in the humanities and social sciences about the causes and implications of the Anthropocene have advanced considerably and pointed out these contradictions expressed in categories such as the Capitalocene, Phallocene, Plantationcene and Chthulucene.

The Capitalocene focuses on the capitalist system – inequality, power, dominance, exposure and oppression. The Phallocene emphasises how gender differences are transferred into inequalities in producing harmful effects on the planet. The Plantationcene looks at how extractive labour practices of the past have evolved into the replacement of multispecies production and forests with monocultures. While the Chthulucene emphasises the solidarity between humans and non-humans.

Need for critical Southern perspectives

Although the Anthropocene overall has received substantial attention, Milani points to the lack of theoretical and empirical studies in international relations and political science and specifically a scarcity of critical perspectives from the South.  Paradoxically, it is the Global South that holds the biodiversity of the world as well as minerals of relevance for energy transition and decarbonisation programmes.

The International Relations literature has focused on three narratives – that of an endangered, entangled and extractivist world. Old dualities still persist, Milani explained: “War-peace with a stress on threats and enemies always framed within a martial context; sovereignty-responsibility, where being sovereign does not always related to being responsible to the ecosystems and populations”.

“An exclusive focus on classic security threats means we are not considering the full range of threats on humans, climate stability and ecosystem. We should be considering the rejuvenated duality extinction-survival and within this framework forging solidarity between current and future generations and between human and non-human forms of life.”

“Anthropogenic climate change is spatially transnational and global system-affecting, but lacks international articulation and an effective response by states in an inter-governmental system.”

Some of the tensions Milani believes need to be explored include, firstly, climate justice versus rights to development. “Climate injustice arises from social, historical, economic and political processes that distribute climate injustices unequally. We need to share climate burdens and apply the principle of a fair distribution of sacrifice.”

Secondly, he pointed to the politics of distribution versus climate obstruction. “Distribution conflicts are the main constraint on effective climate policies,” he said. “Policies should focus more on empowering pro-climate groups and neutralising veto players, mainly from the fossil economy, and in some contexts from the agribusiness”.

Thirdly, we also need new sources of inspiration including moving away from the Western nature-human divide to ontologies of difference and alterity such as Viveiros de Castro’s Amerindian perspectivism and Ubuntu’s otherness.

But why Brazil and South Africa?

Milani described Brazil and South Africa as emblematic viewpoints in the Global South for comparison and concept building with both countries able to make substantial scholarly contributions. The two share commonalities in inequality and recent political processes, and are also regional powers and members of the BRICS and G20. But, importantly, both show low performance in reducing Greenhouse gas emissions – Brazil mainly due to land use and South Africa due to fossil-fuel use in its electricity matrix. “South Africa has a huge carbon footprint per capita and is heavily dependent on coal.”

Brazil uses mainly hydropower, but this still generates social and economic conflicts and causes forced migration of indigenous populations and other social groups. In Brazil agribusiness is a key climate-obstruction agent – impacting on deforestation of two important biomes, the Amazon and the Brazilian savannah, the Cerrado. “In Brazil there are ongoing discussions about oil drilling at the mouth of the Amazon,” he added. “The Amazon constitutes almost 50% of Brazilian territory and overall plays a key role in cooling the surface and regulating climate patterns. It’s also the ancestral home of indigenous communities.”

Looking forward

“We have to revisit the meaning of development,” he continued. “We have to think outside the old box of the fossil-fuel economy paradigm. If we don’t adopt a critical Southern framing the next phase of the planet’s history will look like business as usual, which may imply extinction or survival of a happy few.”

“I believe in the social, psychological and political role of fear – more and closer extreme events will play a role along with political leadership which we currently lack,” he added.

But Milani finished on a positive note: “Instead of getting eco anxiety and depression let’s use eco energy to interact with the youth. They have lots of energy to engage with the transformation of development paradigms because it’s about their lives and future. The agents of change are there and yet to come.” In this connection, the Interdisciplinary Observatory on Climate Change that Milani coordinates at the Rio de Janeiro State University trains young students, future scientists and climate leaders.


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu

Share this post:

Share on whatsapp
Share on email
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Subscribe to posts like these:

STIAS is a creative space for the mind.