Institutions for the Anthropocene:
Governance in a Changing Earth System
JOHN S. DRYZEK*
*Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance, Institute for Governance
and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra (email: email@example.com).
These ideas were sharpened in working with Richard Norgaard, David Schlosberg, and
Hayley Stevenson. For helpful comments I thank Andrew Dobson and Jonathan Kuyper.
While I make some gentle criticisms herein, I have learned much from my fellow
participants in the Earth System Governance Project.
The unusually stable Earth system of the Holocene epoch of the past 10,000 years, in
which human civilization arose, is yielding to a more dynamic and unstable
Anthropocene driven by human practices. The consequences for key institutions such as
states, markets, and global governance, are profound. Path dependency in institutions
complicit in destabilizing the Earth system constrains response to this emerging epoch.
Institutional analysis can highlight reflexivity as the antidote to problematic path
dependency. A more ecological discourse stresses resilience, foresight and state shifts in
the Earth system. Ecosystemic reflexivity can be located as the first virtue of political
institutions in the Anthropocene. Undermining all normative institutional models, this
analysis enables re-thinking of political institutions in dynamic social-ecological terms.
INTRODUCTION: FROM THE HOLOCENE TO THE ANTHROPOCENE
The Holocene epoch of the last 10,000 years or so is defined by highly unusual stability
in the Earth system. In particular, the climate system shows little variability compared to
the preceding late Pleistocene.1 The Holocene is now giving way to the Anthropocene, in
which human influences introduce instability in the Earth system of a degree
unprecedented in human history – but common in geological time. This paper addresses
the profound consequences for all political institutions, not just those parts of government
normally classified as environmental.
The International Commission on Stratigraphy is due to report in 2016 on whether
the Anthropocene should be recognized formally as an epoch (in geological time), though
the concept is already being deployed by scientists in many disciplines. The idea was
popularized by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen, for whom the Anthropocene
is first intimated in rising carbon dioxide and methane levels in the atmosphere in the
mid-18th century.2 So we have been living in the Anthropocene for 250 years (without
knowing it). But the departure from the Holocene only really takes off in the 1950s, in
what Steffen et al refer to as ‘the great acceleration’.3 For example, by 1945 atmospheric
carbon dioxide concentration was only about 25ppm above its preindustrial level of 280
ppm; by 2013 it was 120 ppm above the preindustrial level. Similar stories can be told for
many other indicators, such as nitrous oxide and methane concentrations, ozone
depletion, forest loss, land conversion, and biodiversity loss. The net result is ‘an
unintended experiment of humankind on its own life support system’,4 such that humans
1 Steffen et al 2011, 747.
2 Crutzen and Stoermer 2000.
3 Steffen et al 2007, 616-17.
4 Steffen et al 2007, 614.
‘are not just spreading over the planet, but are changing the way it works.’5 The
possibility arises of catastrophic tipping points in the Earth system, perhaps precipitated
by melting of the Greenland ice cap, or wholesale tropical deforestation.6
In light of the absence of fixed reference points in ever-unfolding social-
ecological systems, I will argue that institutions for the Anthropocene are better analyzed
not in light of static criteria (such as efficiency, coordination, robustness, or even
respecting global ecological limits), but rather in dynamic terms. A dynamic approach
can be found in historical institutionalism, which therefore provides an appropriate
starting point. The persistence of dysfunctional institutions can be understood as a result
of their path dependency. Problematic path dependencies established in the late Holocene
point to the need for institutions capable of anticipating ecological state shifts and
transforming themselves accordingly. Reflexivity, the ability of a structure, process or set
of ideas to change itself in light of reflection on its performance, is the opposite of path
dependency. But reflexivity as generally conceptualized does not recognize the active
influence of the Earth system itself. A discourse of resilience, now prominent in global
environmental change intellectual circles, can render reflexivity more truly ecological.
Ecosystemic reflexivity proves to be the primary requirement for institutions in the
I begin with a brief look at how environmental concern has fared in institutions
developed under perceived Holocoene conditions. I then expand on the challenge of the
Anthropocene, and in particular the problematic institutional path dependencies it reveals.
Next I introduce reflexivity as the antidote to path dependency, and add some ecological
5 Economist, 2011.
6 Lenton et al 2008.
content through reference to resilience. The possibility of catastrophic ecological state
shifts is then linked to the historical institutionalist idea of critical junctures, though the
primary need here is foresight in order to prevent such shifts. I then explore the discursive
aspects of institutional practice and the promise that can be found therein, before turning
to the implications of the argument for institutional analysis and design, with a view to
identifying practical possibilities for the advancement of ecosystemic reflexivity.
INSTITUTIONS IN THE HOLOCENE
It is during the Holocene that civilization – and its political institutions – arose, and so
this epoch represents ‘the only state of the Earth system that we know for sure can
support contemporary society’.7 This unusual stability meant that political and economic
institutions could often take for granted the presence of the nonhuman world and the
ecological systems in which human societies are embedded - though local ecological
collapses did spell the end of some societies.8 Of course the nonhuman world was vital
for human existence, and resource-dependent communities often created institutions to
prevent the abuse of commons resources.9 But even in these cases, institutional success
came most straightforwardly in the form of rules or informal arrangements to control
access, rather than in adaptation to ecological dynamism of the sort that could be
expected were stable Holocene conditions to change. And once we move beyond the
local level, Holocene institutions eventually proved adept at simply ignoring ecological
constraints because they were decoupled from local resource limitations.
Above the local level, the main political institution of the modern (late Holocene)
7 Steffen et al 2011, 739.
8 Diamond 2005.
9 Ostrom 1990.
era is the state. As Skocpol points out, early modern states had to do three things: keep
order internally, respond to external threats, and raise the finance necessary for the first
two tasks.10 As states took on more functions – notably for ensuring economic growth and
providing social welfare – the nonhuman world was still ignored. This world was
suppressed by an implicit ‘ecological contract’ that parallels the ‘sexual contract’
portrayed by Pateman and the ‘racial contract’ described by Mills.11 Pateman and Mills
point out that the association of some individuals into the state for their mutual benefit
was made possible by repression of others on the basis of (respectively) sex and race.
Similarly, the implicit ecological contract in liberal societies involves creation of mutual
benefit for humans requiring domination of nonhuman nature. In each case – sex, race,
and ecology – domination long went unproblematized by political thinkers in the Western
tradition and taken for granted in dominant institutions.
Liberal democracies eventually came to do a better job in recognizing ecological
concerns. Recognition of the ecological challenge to the political economy first peaked in
the 1970s with the publication of The Limits to Growth, which tried to show that if
existing global trends in population and economic growth continued, the world faced a
future of economic and social collapse once global carrying capacity was exceeded.12 The
Limits to Growth did contain some policy prescriptions – notably, an endorsement of
John Stuart Mill’s old idea of a ‘stationary state’13 - but said little about how political
institutions would need to change.
Before the 1970s states had of course begun to take on responsibility for natural
10 Skocpol 1979.
11 Pateman 1988; Mills 1997.
12 Meadows et al 1972.
13 Meadows et al 1972, 175.
resource management and (eventually) environmental protection, and the scope of such
concerns did see some expansion around this time, which has continued incrementally
(along with a few setbacks). However, ecological concerns remained subordinate to the
core economic, security, and welfare priorities of states.14 States engage with each other
in attempts to negotiate global environmental agreements but to date they fall far short of
the sort of action that the Limits to Growth implied was necessary. The 1987 Montreal
Protocol for protection of the ozone layer remains the only unambiguous successful
effective collective response to a potentially catastrophic problem.
Existing institutions did not, then, rise to the challenge encapsulated in Limits.
The limits concept has fluctuated in its prominence in global environmental affairs since
the 1970s, but it never quite went away. The concept lingers in the background of the
sustainable development discourse so prominent in these affairs since the publication in
1987 of the Brundtland report to the United Nations, Our Common Future, while treated
in ambiguous fashion.15 It provides a sense of urgency to more radical sorts of green
politics.16 Limits thinking also informs the idea of ‘planetary boundaries’. While
dispensing with the idea of global carrying capacity and careful to frame their efforts in
terms of complex systems (enabling greater sophistication than the 1970s Limits efforts),
Rockström et al identify nine boundaries which together define a “safe operating space
for humanity” in the Earth system.17 Three of these boundaries have already been
transgressed: the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is at 400 parts per
million (and rising), compared to a boundary of 350 ppm. Interference with the nitrogen
14 Dryzek et al 2003.
15 World Commission on Environment and Development 1987, 45.
16 Dobson 1990, 73.
17 Rockström et al 2009.
cycle and the rate of biodiversity loss (as indicated by species extinctions) are also judged
by Rockström et al to have exceeded their associated boundaries.
ENTERING THE ANTHROPOCENE
Recognition of the Anthropocene means that ecological limits or even boundaries no
longer provide a sufficient frame for thinking about global environmental affairs. As we
will now see, the Anthropocene provides a more profound challenge to human
institutions than the idea of ecological limits. The Anthropocene means the nonhuman
world has a much greater claim upon us and our institutions and practices than before –
because that world is so thoroughly inflected with human forces inducing potentially
In the Anthropocene, ecosystems are not just external constraints on human
activity. We are not just in the system; we also help drive its parameters. So what makes
the Anthropocene different is the lack of fixed reference points for collective action given
by the desirable state of key systems, and that includes planetary boundaries (even though
some of the scientists prominent in advancing the Anthropocene concept also helped
formulate the planetary boundaries idea). Boundaries lose precision in the face of the
dynamic and unstable character of the Earth system. Just as for limits, the imagery of
planetary boundaries is static. So for example 350 ppm as the boundary for carbon
dioxide in the atmosphere is fixed, no matter what further change is introduced in the
Earth system by human actions. Consider two extremes: successful geoengineering to
block solar radiation would stretch the 350ppm boundary; catastrophic loss of
biodiversity would suggest the boundary should be tightened. The prescription to stay
within planetary boundaries is actually a plea to maintain (or return to) the conditions of
the Holocene, and prevent humanity entering the Anthropocene.18 Yet if we have already
entered the Anthropocene in a serious way, that is not enough.
Planetary boundaries can however still perform a vital heuristic function by
identifying the aspects of the earth system requiring the most urgent governance
attention. If Rockström et al are right then these are climate change, biodiversity, and the
nitrogen cycle.19 Assuming stable Holocene conditions for governance in other areas has
less immediately catastrophic consequences. Yet even here caution is in order, because
the interconnected nature of complex systems means particular areas of governance
should not be sealed off from one another, so at a minimum should come under common
meta-governance. In addition, good governance should also anticipate potential long term
problems, rather than simply respond to imminent disaster in particular areas.
The Anthropocene does, then, not just amplify existing ecological concerns: it
changes their content by putting humans at the center of causal processes in the Earth
system. In highlighting the vulnerability of the character of the system on which we
depend to human action, it also confirms that this system is not something out there
demanding limited and occasional attention. Rather, human-induced instability means
this system is a key player in how human history will unfold.
Before proceeding to the implications for institutions, it is important to avoid the
pitfall of using the Anthropocene concept simply to legitimate a more interventionist and
controlling approach to the non-human world. Here some recent debates in conservation
biology are instructive. In the United States, the Nature Conservancy in particular is now
18 Dryzek, Norgaard, and Schlosberg 2013, 117.
19 Rockström et al 2009.
associated with an interventionist position that treats nonhuman nature as a repository of
‘natural capital’ that can be cultivated to provide ‘ecosystem services’ quantifiable in
monetary terms, amenable to being traded off against more conventional monetary
benefits from resource extraction. This approach appalls conservation biologists led by
Michael Soulé, who believes this kind of thinking facilitates attacks on biodiversity and
so ‘will hasten ecological collapse globally’.20
How then might we think productively about institutions appropriate to the
PROBLEMATIC INSTITUTIONAL PATH DEPENDENCY
Most definitions of ‘institution’ assume continuity over time. So Goodin refers to ‘the
stable, recurring, repetitive, patterned nature of the behavior that occurs within
institutions, and because of them.’21 Of course the degree of continuity can vary, and as
we enter the Anthropocene, strong continuity looks problematic. The persistence of sub-
optimal institutions (the classic illustration is the inefficient QWERTY keyboard,
originally designed to inhibit typewriter keys jamming) has been illuminated by historical
institutionalists, who point out that institutions are path-dependent.22 Path dependency
means that early decisions constrain later ones, as the costs of changing course become
high, actors develop material stakes in stable institutions, and institutions arrange
feedback that reinforces their own necessity (consider for example how market
institutions punish policy deviations from market orthodoxy). The ideas and norms
generated by an institution’s operation can further solidify the path. What all this means
20 Soulé 2013, 896.
21 Goodin 1996a, 22.
22 Pierson 2004; Sanders 2006.
is that an established institution may constrain possibilities for future choice across
institutions by its mere presence. So even institutions that fail in the face of changing
conditions may persist.23 Truly powerful institutions may be able to change their social
environment in order to perpetuate themselves and drive out alternatives. Think for
example of the institutions of global finance, which despite their failure as revealed by
the global financial crisis of 2008, positioned themselves as essential (‘too big to fail’)
and so foreclosed alternatives, meaning that after a few bailouts the post-2008 system
looked very much like the pre-2008 one. The United Nations Framework Convention on
Climate Change (UNFCCC) established in 1992 fails to produce a comprehensive global
treaty on greenhouse gas emission limitation – but nevertheless that aspiration remains
the focus for efforts by governments, civil society, and corporations concerned with
Historical institutionalists generally confine themselves to explanation of ‘the
construction, maintenance, and adaptation of institutions’:24 they have little interest in
institutional evaluation and prescription.25 However, their insights can be drawn upon to
illuminate common institutional characteristics that look pervasive in the Holocene, but
become problematic in the Anthropocene. Foremost among these characteristics is path
dependency. Now, if an institution has manifestly good consequences, then strong path
dependency associated with it would not be a problem. But many of the institutions that
developed in the Holocene, such as sovereign states and capitalist markets, were
complicit in generation of the unstable Earth system that now characterizes the
Anthropocene. States have a priority for economic growth that subordinates ecological
23 Young 2010.
24 Sanders 2006, 42.
25 For an argument that they should, see Kuyper 2013.
concerns, and a preoccupation with sovereignty that impedes global collective action.
Capitalist markets for their part are equally addicted to material growth, and only
recognize ecological constraints when forced to do so by non-market forces (such as
High path dependency in institutions for environmental governance (such as a
wildlife protection authority) may be fine if preservation or conservation (of species,
ecosystems, or the capacity of the environment to absorb wastes) are at issue. But in the
Anthropocene, co-evolution may often be a more appropriate metaphor than preservation
or conservation. Co-evolution implies a dynamic relationship in which human influences
on the character of a social-ecological system are unavoidable but should strive to respect
non-human interests.26 Preservation and conservation problematically imply that there is a
fixed target ecological state given by non-human nature.
If Holocene institutions are now problematic to the degree they feature path
dependency by generating feedback loops that avoid ever-changing ecological systems,
how might we think of arrangements in human society more appropriate to the
Anthropocene? We might begin by noting that institutions can vary in their degree of
path dependency, such that we can envisage institutions for the Anthropocene that are
able to adapt to a rapidly changing (and potentially catastrophic) social-ecological
context. For example, markets can adapt to constitute what Newell and Paterson call
‘climate capitalism’ by being stretched to encompass trade in emissions permits, offsets,
and efficient clean technologies, with money to be made by corporations participating in
this new economy.27
26 Norgaard 1988.
27 Newell and Paterson 2010.
Adaptive capacity may not however go far enough, for even institutions that do
adapt can remain significant sources of instability in the Earth system. For example, the
(limited) adaptation of markets to climate change has been accompanied by a host of
problems: the dirtiest polluters may also be those with the power to secure exemption
from emissions trading schemes;28 offsets may simply enable high-polluting activities to
continue, while proving ecologically destructive to (say) the tropical ecosystems where
fast-growing tree species are introduced; and even without such problems of
implementation, such schemes may simply render the material growth imperative of the
political economy (encompassing governments as well as markets) more secure. Even if
greater energy efficiency is secured by and in a market economy, the resulting increase in
disposable income might lead to further stress on ecological systems. In this light,
adaptiveness does not necessarily mean that institutions have freed themselves from the
path dependency secured by their effective response to imperatives generated (and which,
in responding, they help solidify) in social systems that behave as though the ecological
dimension did not exist. It may simply mean that they can perpetuate themselves in a
more unstable social-ecological context – yet in the end do little to reduce that instability,
and indeed continue to contribute to the production of instability.
The opposite of path dependency is actually reflexivity, not adaptiveness. Reflexivity in a
social context means the self-critical capacity of a structure or process or set of ideas to
change itself after scrutiny of its own failures (or successes).29 Reflexivity entails a
28 Spash 2010.
29 Beck, Giddens, and Lash 1994.
capacity to be something different rather than just do something different, which
distinguishes it from adaptive management and governance. Adaptive management is a
response to uncertainty, involving willingness to learn from success and failure.30
Adaptive governance has larger ambitions for the reorientation of government agencies
(or sets of agencies). Both take the structure of government and the goals of policy as
given, and so work within an administrative logic. So for example Folke et al’s exemplar
is a new system for wetlands management in Sweden, which ‘took place within the
existing institutional framework’.31 Camacho’s exemplars from US environmental policy
(the Climate Ready Estuaries and Interagency Climate Change Science programs) were
limited by their inability to find a way to engender the required learning capacity in
At the global level, the most successful example of adaptive governance may be
found following the 1987 Montreal Protocol for the protection of the ozone layer,
involving ‘broad stakeholder participation, revisability of goals, and continuous learning
from the monitoring of performance’.33 Yet ozone presents a relatively easy case where
the benefits of action massively exceed the costs, and only a few non-essential chemicals
need regulating, thus easily resolved within the dominant institutional order. More
substantial capacity for institutional self-transformation may be required for tougher
issues like climate change. So the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate
Change (UNFCCC) makes some sense in the context of an international system whose
dominant actors are sovereign states, and where legitimate collective global action must
30 National Research Council 2010.
31 Folke et al 2005, 457
32 Camacho 2009, 59-64.
33 de Búrca, Keohane, and Sabel 2013, 268.
rest on agreement among sovereign states. The UNFCCC serves some legitimation needs
of that particular social system. But its efforts to produce a comprehensive global treaty
have led to prolonged impasse. A reflexive institution would recognize and learn from
this failure, and try to be something different. In the case of the UNFCCC, that might for
example mean questioning the aspiration to produce a comprehensive global treaty, and
seeing the UNFCCC instead as an institution that oversees and coordinates numerous
(polycentric) emerging governance initiatives on climate change, while still attending to
global targets for climate change mitigation.34 None of these initiatives need be
comprehensive in its membership (ie, would not require participation of all the world’s
states), and they might involve many different configurations of actors, be they national,
regional, or local governments, international organizations, corporations, or civil society
activists and organizations. And if this new role proved inadequate, the UNFCCC would
need to change further.
Reflexivity implies that thinking in terms of institutional models is of limited
utility insofar as a model connotes something fixed and static, rather than reflexive and
dynamic. So the comparative statics of institutions is going to be less helpful than
thinking about open-ended processes of reconstruction. Comparative statics in social-
ecological analysis of institutions appears, for example, in chapter 1 of Ostrom’s
Governing the Commons, where she lays out three normative institutional models,
featuring respectively central control of the commons, dividing the commons into chunks
of private property, and cooperation among commoners, with a view to deciding which of
the three is more likely to maintain the quality of the commons.35 Reflexivity means the
34 Stevenson and Dryzek 2014, 194-5.
35 See also Dryzek 1987, part II, comparing markets, administered systems, and polyarchy
in terms of a common set of criteria. Ostrom 1990, 184 and 214 and Dryzek 1987, 244-5
reference point for processes of reconstruction is where we are now in real situations.
RESILIENCE DISCOURSE AND ECOSYSTEMIC REFLEXIVITY
Reflexivity is normally portrayed as an attribute of human social systems such as
institutions (or of individuals). But in the Anthropocene, consistent with the idea that the
Earth system itself becomes recognized as a key player, the crucial entities are social-
ecological systems, rather than social systems per se. The human components of social-
ecological systems can then respond not just to human voices, but also to the non-human
components of social-ecological systems that have no voice – but to which we can try to
listen better.36 Listening means first recognizing the existence and importance of these
systems, and then organizing information on their condition and trajectory into decision
making. Here, social-ecological systems can be illuminated by the idea of resilience
(which can also apply to ecological systems without human elements). While providing
an essential ecological corrective, resilience proves to have its own ambiguities,
especially when it comes to social institutions, eventually pointing to an enhanced notion
of ecosystemic reflexivity as the main institutional desideratum.
According to the Resilience Alliance, a large global network of natural and social
scientists, resilience is ‘the ability to absorb disturbances, to be changed and then to re-
organise and still have the same identity (retain the same basic structure and ways of
functioning)’.37 This definition would seem to rest on the notion that there is some core
structure that provides fixed reference points: the idea of resilience is to return to these
reference points from a situation of disequilibrium caused by shocks to the system. That
eventually proceed to recognize the limits of models.
36 Schlosberg 2007, 190-2; Dobson 2010.
is why, for historical institutionalists, resilience is actually one of the causes of path
dependency,38 rather than a solution to problems created by path dependency. So in the
Anthropocene we would want social-ecological systems to be resilient, but not want
institutions that generate feedback avoiding ecological systems to be resilient. We can
find examples of long-lived social-ecological systems that are resilient (in the terms of
the Resilience Alliance definition) existing in humanity’s past (for example, agro-
ecosystems that have flourished for hundreds of years) – but not in industrial society.
Resilience was originally conceptualized in terms of a capacity to return to
equilibrium after disturbance.39 Multiple equilibria might also be recognized, where
flipping from one equilibrium to another means that resilience has been stretched beyond
breaking point, and the new equilibrium is a degraded system.40 An example of the latter
might be when catastrophic fires destroy a forest (possibly because natural small fires
have not been allowed to burn). However, if there are no clear equilibrium states, but
rather evolving dynamism in social-ecological systems, then resilience needs to involve
action that is constructive and dynamic, not preservative. In this light, resilience does not
just imply the capacity to absorb stress and return to some status quo ante, as feared by
for example Catney and Doyle, who see it as a way to suppress human betterment.41
Folke et al treat ‘transformability’ as a subcategory of resilience,42 though that conceptual
stretching introduces a tension with the basic Resilience Alliance definition quoted earlier
because it is not clear whether ‘basic structure’ is to be preserved.
Resilience might also seek to preserve some core values (e.g., basic needs and
38 Pierson 2004.
39 Folke 2006, 256.
40 See for example Ostrom and Janssen 2004, 247.
41 Catney and Doyle 2011, 190.
42 Folke et al 2010.
capabilities, biodiversity) while accepting that the structure of social-ecological systems
can change. However, holding on to core values can itself cause social collapse if they do
not adjust to changes in the world. Diamond argues that societies can cling to core values
that eventually contribute to their demise.43 For example, the Greenland Norse clung to
European values and ways of life while resisting Inuit sensibilities and practices that
would have facilitated survival. Thus core values should not be immune to reflexive
scrutiny, though in Diamond’s analysis the key core value of societal survival appears
non-negotiable. When it comes to the core value of justice, some theorists have begun to
re-think what justice can mean in light of ecological concerns.44
In light of its multiple and stretched definitions and concomitant reasonable
disagreement over its meaning, it is better to treat resilience as a discourse rather than a
concept (just as ‘sustainable development’ and ‘democracy’ can be treated as discourses
rather than concepts that can be defined with any precision). The discourse of resilience
sharpens the concept of reflexivity by stressing that the Earth system can be an active
participant in how history unfolds. Institutional reflexivity therefore needs to encompass
the Earth system in a co-evolutionary relationship.45 The resulting ecosystemic reflexivity
(it could be called socio-ecosystemic reflexivity, but that is too much of a mouthful)
differs from simple reflexivity in at least two ways I have discussed: the incorporation
into human institutions of better ways to listen to ecological systems that have no voice;
and an ability to re-think what core values such as justice mean in the context of an active
and unstable Earth system (so Mulgan analyses how justice would look in a ‘broken
43 Diamond 2005.
44 Schlosberg 2007.
45 On the basic idea of co-evolution, see Norgaard 1988.
world’ of insufficient resources and chaotic environment).46
This capacity to re-think social values does not mean that ecosystemic reflexivity
lacks ethical content. For reflexivity implies an inquiring society that is not the prisoner
of historical forces, whose members are autonomous, capable of critical questioning and
jointly able to chart a developmental path. Ecosystemic reflexivity adds a dynamic twist
to Holland’s idea that ‘sustainable ecological capacity’ is a meta-capability necessary for
pursuit of all the other capabilities that constitute social justice.47 This dynamic twist also
fits well with Amartya Sen’s ethics of ‘development as freedom’, given that Sen insists
that the capabilities that constitute justice should not be treated as a fixed list (such as
health, bodily integrity, affiliation with others), but rather subject to continual rethinking
in participatory processes of public reason.48 So while the famous assertion of leading
Holocene political theorist John Rawls that ‘justice is the first virtue of social institutions’
is hard to sustain, justice can nevertheless remain central to the ethics of reflexivity in the
Another key idea from resilience discourse further illuminates ecosystemic
reflexivity – that of state shifts, which can be linked to historical institutionalist thinking
about critical junctures.
STATE SHIFTS AND CRITICAL JUNCTURES IN THE EARTH SYSTEM
The dynamism and instability of social-ecological systems in the Anthropocene is
revealed most dramatically in the renewed possibility of state shifts in the Earth system,
46 Mulgan 2011.
47 Holland 2008.
48 Sen 1999.
49 Rawls 1971, 3.
where apparent stability yields suddenly to a qualitatively different system. Gunderson
and Holling suggest that social and ecological systems alike generally feature slow
change with occasional bursts of reorganization.50 The Holocene was a period of unusual
stability in which ecological state shifts were relatively rare, and did not occur at the
global level, in contrast to the preceding Pleistocene, which featured frequent rapid global
warmings.51 So such shifts have occurred in Earth’s deeper history, each attended by
mass extinctions of species.52
Might such a state shift provide the occasion for a reworking of institutional
orders? After all, in purely human affairs, the extreme pressure of what historical
institutionalists call critical junctures can induce institutional transformation. The basic
institutions of the international system have transformed themselves in the wake of total
war, at the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, the Congress of Vienna in 1815, The Treaty of
Versailles in 1919, Bretton Woods followed by the establishment of the United Nations
system after 1945. World War II also demonstrated how quickly states could transform
their economies from consumer-oriented markets to centrally-planned systems with broad
provisions for social welfare to serve war making. These sorts of precedents lead
Biermann et al to call for a “constitutional moment” in global environmental governance
as we enter the Anthropocene.53 Referring more explicitly to state shifts, Young
concludes by recommending ‘that well-crafted options are available when crises open up
windows of opportunity for the introduction of substantial institutional changes.’54 There
are several issues here.
50 Gunderson and Holling 2002.
51 Steffen et al 2011, 752.
52 Barnosky et al 2012.
53 Biermann et al 2012a.
54 Young 2010, 384.
First, there is no guarantee that a state shift will receive any response at all –
witness again Diamond’s argument about societies that collapsed in the face of local or
regional state shifts.55 The possibility that there will be no effective response is increased
by the fact that while some ecological state shifts may look sudden in geological time, in
human time they will seem prolonged, and so not yield the same sort of immediacy as
(for example) reconstruction after total war. Climate change exemplifies this problem
(more local cases such as collapse of a fishery can be sudden in human time).
A second problem is that reworking in the context of crisis may be inadequate if
the product is stable institutions embodying path dependency then contributing to further
social-ecological instability. Consider, in this light, the raft of environmental laws and
agencies established around 1970 in the United States. Created in response to a
legitimation crisis rather than an ecological state shift (the Nixon administration
successfully pulled environmentalists out of the counterculture and into the political
mainstream through its actions), this burst of institutional innovation made the United
States an environmental leader among the countries of the world.56 However, this moment
of institutional reconstruction also established the terms of a standoff between
environmental and development interests that continues to this day, preventing
subsequent reforms. Stuck in this standoff, the US found it hard even to explore, let alone
institutionalize, ideas about sustainable development and ecological modernization that
gained currency and influenced policy practice elsewhere in the world.57 The United
States turned from leader to laggard in environmental affairs, and eventually one of the
primary impediments to effective global action (its last exemplary global contribution
55 Diamond 2005.
56 Dryzek et al 2003, 59-60.
57 Bryner 2000, 277.
was in 1987 with the Montreal Protocol).
These two problems suggest that critical junctures of the sort an ecological state
shift connotes do not guarantee positive institutional response. Moreover, if response
does come, it does not necessarily connote impetus for continuing transformation, as
opposed to renewed and problematic path dependency. Thus recognition of the
opportunities provided by state shifts and critical junctures does not obviate the need for
more permanent institutional reflexivity.
FORESIGHT AND THE ANTICIPATION OF STATE SHIFTS
A further reason why institutional transformation needs to be more than just something
possible in response to a great crisis such as an ecological state shift stems from the
possibility that (dysfunctional) institutions may be complicit in the production of
catastrophic state shifts in social-ecological systems. Relying on institutional
transformation in response to such shifts is therefore not enough. An ecological state shift
is one thing institutions should be trying to avoid or at least ameliorate, given that
historically such state shifts have often been accompanied by catastrophe (such as mass
extinctions). Required therefore is a measure of foresight, which is more than concern for
the future effects of current actions and a recognition that what worked in the past will
not necessarily work in the future. Foresight also has to involve a capacity to anticipate
anthropogenic state shifts and act before the shift occurs. This is a demanding criterion: it
suggests embodiment of responsiveness to early warnings of the sort that at the moment
only science seems capable of providing. We see today that early warnings of the sort
given by climate science can meet with a storm of political opposition, as those who
believe their material interests will be hurt by anticipatory action mobilize against not just
the action, but also against the science that makes action necessary.
A substantial body of work in communicating climate change can be drawn upon
here to inform institutional design that would receive – and possibly respond – to such
early warnings more effectively. To summarize radically, most people (including
politicians) accord low priority to climate change. Those who do care (at least in the more
problematic Anglo-American countries) process scientific claims about climate change
through ideological filters, and certainly not through dispassionate assessment of the
science.58 This means that communicators such as Al Gore, who received a Nobel Peace
Prize for his efforts, can reach those ideologically disposed to act upon climate change,
but not those ideologically opposed. We also know that more knowledge does not
necessarily lead to change in behavior or political action, that frightening people with
disastrous scenarios is generally counterproductive, and that asserting the authority of
science has no effect.59 Based on studies that show what does not work in communicating
climate change, and what does work in public health, Moser and Dilling conclude that
‘people in a democratic society are best served by actively engaging with an issue,
making their voices and values heard, and contributing to the formulation of societal
responses’ as opposed to being seen as the target of mass media messages.60 Of course
the science as such will continue to be produced by the scientists, but broader
participation involving ordinary people in face-to-face communication about climate
change with experts and advocates could help establish the agenda of questions for
scientists that need answering, prioritize problems that need to be addressed, interpret the
58 McCright and Dunlap 2011.
59 Moser and Dilling 2011, 164-5.
60 Moser and Dilling 2011, 169.
importance of scientific findings, and reconcile scientific findings with lay knowledge. In
short, this agenda would involve the deliberative democratization of climate science.
While there are plenty of examples from around the world of citizen deliberations that
hear from experts (especially on climate change; most ambitiously, the Alberta Climate
Dialogue, running from 2010 to 2015), they have all been oriented to public policy rather
than science. But many scientists themselves recognize the need to engage more
effectively about the science with citizen deliberators.61 The more general point is that
ecosystemic reflexivity requires a capacity to seek, receive, interpret and act upon early
warnings as provided by science.
DISCURSIVE CONTRIBUTIONS TO ECOSYSTEMIC REFLEXIVITY
This invocation of deliberation in the context of foresight points to the relevance of
discursive institutionalism,62 which allows human agency to disrupt structural historical
forces. Now, the discursive realm is not entirely immune from such forces; as Hay
argues, ideas that underpin institutions too can be subject to path dependency, as actors in
institutions benefit from the persistence of those ideas.63 However, recognition of this
realm can help identify points of leverage that can be put in the service of reflexivity,
especially if ‘path-shaping institutional change is not merely seen as a more-or-less
functional response to exogenous shocks’.64
Deliberation is one of those points of leverage. Some very large claims have been
made for the efficacy of deliberation in social-ecological contexts,65 with some empirical
61 Dietz 2013.
62 Schmidt 2008.
63 Hay 2006, 65.
64 Hay 2006, 65.
65 Smith 2003; Baber and Bartlett 2007.
support. So for example World Wide Views ran citizen deliberations on climate policy in
38 countries on the same day in 2009 using the same model; in just about every country
participants favored stronger action than their governments were prepared to undertake.66
The claims include deliberation’s ability to integrate the interests and perspectives of
diverse actors (scientists, public officials, activists, and others) concerned with different
aspects of complex issues, promote public goods and generalizable interests, enlarge the
perspectives of participants by bringing to mind those not physically present – such as
future generations and nonhuman nature,67 and organizing feedback on the state of social-
ecological systems into political processes. While earlier I pointed to the danger of
relying on transformation amid crisis, deliberation does increase the likelihood of positive
response to (e.g.) legitimation crisis of the sort that occurred in the United States around
1970, or even something like an ecological state shift. Ackerman’s analysis of three
transformative moments in the history of the United States provides some clues.68 These
occasions were the Constitutional Founding, the civil war amendments to the
constitution, and the New Deal. What characterized all three moments was intense
deliberation encompassing all the institutions of government – and much of civil society
– simultaneously, in response to a great crisis of the state. This kind of intense
engagement, featuring deep reflection about what constitutes the common good (though
nothing like unanimity in how that good should be defined), was on Ackerman’s account
very different from politics as usual.
Institutions are in large measure discursive constructions: they work because of a
66 Rask, Worthington, and Lammi 2012.
67 Goodin 1996b.
68 Ackerman 1991.
convergence of expectations and understandings, not just formal rules.69 So for example
market liberal globalization is so powerful in large measure because it permeates the
understandings of actors in the political economy.70 Policy deviations from its orthodoxy
are punished not just by impersonal market forces, but because people in key positions in
financial and economic institutions believe those deviations will have negative economic
consequences, and so (for example) disinvest in the deviant state. In global financial
affairs, this set of understandings has so far been largely impervious to being shifted by
deliberative scrutiny, rhetorical interventions, or anything else, but that is not necessarily
the case in other areas. For example, the invocation of the idea of sustainable
development by Brundtland was an attempt to show that environmental concern (and
social justice) did not have to challenge conventional material growth;71 Brundtland did
not prove or really even argue that such reconciliation was possible, but rather asserted it
with great force. Thus was the rise of the discourse of sustainable development on the
world stage secured. The net environmental effects of its rise to global prominence
remain debatable, as the years since Brundtland have seen sustainable development
become ever more reconciled to conventional ideas about economic growth.72 A less
ambiguous success story can be found in connection with the 1987 Montreal Protocol.
Litfin demonstrates the rhetorical force that the idea of an ‘ozone hole’ in the Southern
hemisphere advanced by scientists and environmental activists had on negotiations,
dramatically raising the standing of what she calls a ‘precautionary’ discourse and so
making agreement on effective global action possible.73 The Montreal Protocol
69 Schmidt 2008.
70 Hay and Rosamond 2002.
71 World Commission on Environment and Development 1987.
72 Parr 2009.
73 Litfin 1994.
eventually yielded a good example of what de Búrca, Keohane, and Sabel call
‘experimental global governance’, featuring ‘deliberative, joint rule making’.74
At an extreme, the importance of the discursive realm in social-ecological affairs
has been highlighted by those who speak of the ‘end of nature’ as an unproblematic
reference point. According to Cronon, environmentalists and so environmental policy had
often erred in their identification of what was to be preserved, conserved, or restored.75 In
particular, their images of pristine wilderness either picked one point from the past, or did
not actually correspond to any historical state. The historical role of indigenous peoples
in constituting ecosystems often went unrecognized. Postmodernists could run with this
kind of thinking to argue that ecology is only a social construction, one that serves the
power of some (scientists and administrators) against others.76 There is indeed a sense in
which the Earth system in the Anthropocene is a human construction; but that sense is
material as well as symbolic, as human activity strongly affects the workings of the Earth
system, not just the way we interpret its workings. But as the ‘end of nature’ argument
makes clear, such interpretations (whether or not they are of ‘nature’) have major
implications for what institutions do.
EVALUATING AND DESIGNING INSTITUTIONS FOR THE ANTHROPOCENE
The idea of ecosystemic reflexivity can shed light on existing approaches to the
evaluation and design of institutions for the Anthropocene, and indicate how we might do
better. Folke et al, key figures in the Resilience Alliance, suggest that ‘The attributes of
transformability have much in common with those of general resilience, including high
74 de Búrca, Keohane, and Sabel 2013, 780.
75 Cronon 1995.
76 Latour, long associated with this view, eventually retreated; see Latour 2004.
levels of all forms of capital, diversity in landscapes and seascapes and of institutions,
actor groups, and networks, learning platforms, collective action, and support from higher
scales in the governance structure.’77 Yet such generalities actually tell us very little;
exactly what kinds of ‘diverse institutions’ should enter into the mix? If it is a diversity of
(say) capitalist markets, low-visibility financial networks, and sovereign states, subject
individually and jointly to problematic path dependencies, the mix may well be worse
than any of its components. ‘All forms of capital’ require scrutiny rather than
endorsement: social capital78 may actually impede reflexivity if it is solidified by
avoidance of contemplation of controversial issues that threaten social cohesion (as
suggested by Eliasoph in her studies of political culture in the United States79).
A very different institutional prescription for the Anthropocene was published in
Science by Biermann et al, members of the Earth System Governance Project.80 This
Project was established in 2008, and constitutes the world’s biggest network of
environmental political scientists. Essentially Biermann et al recommend stronger and
more coordinated institutions of global governance. But there is no real argument in this
piece that this is what the Anthropocene truly requires; indeed, though ‘Navigating the
Anthropocene’ is the title of the article, the word ‘Anthropocene’ does not appear in its
text. We might for example ask why something with a modest record – central
management of environmental affairs – should be picked out from the repertoire of
available collective human responses and given a task far harder than it has shown itself
capable of accomplishing so far.81 The real significance of the Biermann et al article lies
77 Folke et al 2010.
78 Further stressed by Folke, Hahn, Olsson and Norberg 2005, 449-52.
79 Eliasoph 1998.
80 Biermann et al 2012a.
81 On the shortcomings of environmental management and administration, see Ostrom
not in the content of its argument, but in the fact of its publication by 32 social (mostly
political) scientists in the world’s highest-profile scientific journal (this short article does
not do justice to the richness of the work undertaken by members of the Earth System
Governance project). Biermann elsewhere develops a more nuanced argument to the
effect that the global institutional problem is ‘lack of integration of economic and
environmental policies’, along with ‘institutional fragmentation and weakness of the
environmental pillar of sustainable development’.82 If that is the problem then more
integration and institutional centralization are indeed obvious answers. But Keohane and
Victor argue that the devolution of the global climate regime into a more fragmented
regime complex is actually positive because at least it moves the world beyond impasse
in the multilateral UN negotiations.83 Moreover, the discursive dimension stressed in the
previous section suggests that the core problem might not be incoherence and
fragmentation in formal institutions, but rather the relative weight of different discourses:
notably, subordination of sustainability discourse to economic discourse (market
liberalism in particular). As noted earlier, sustainability discourse has been progressively
de-radicalized in ways that make it more business friendly, such that development comes
to look a lot like conventional material growth.84
Folke et al and Biermann et al come from the two most prominent scholarly
networks that have contemplated governance in the Anthropocene, respectively the
Resilience Alliance and Earth System Governance Project, and their positions appear
quite different. Rather than rush to conclusions about appropriate institutional
and Janssen 2004, 243-5; Paehlke and Torgerson 2005.
82 Biermann 2012b.
83 Keohane and Victor 2011.
84 Parr 2009.
configurations for the Anthropocene, the prior task is surely to establish more secure
foundations for institutional analysis, design, and experimentation. Particular experiments
could though be informed by ideas of the sort generated in the Resilience Alliance and
Earth System Governance Project, and much could be learned from how they played out
In this paper I have explored path dependency, reflexivity, resilience, and
foresight, enabling identification of ecosystemic reflexivity as the primary desideratum
for institutions in the Anthropocene. I have also argued that it is not possible to reach
conclusions based on the comparative statics of institutional models: be it markets versus
hierarchies versus networks versus cooperative arrangements, polycentric versus
centralized governance, or consensual versus adversarial politics. So while (for example)
the debate between decentralists such as Ostrom and Hoffman,85 critics of fragmentation
such as Biermann et al,86 and those such as Abbott who stake out some middle ground87
can be instructive, it does not yet operate in quite the right territory. Instead, it is more
productive to start from where we are now and think in terms of the dynamics of
institutional change and available opportunities for overcoming problematic path
dependency and enhancing ecosystemic reflexivity. This in turn requires context-
sensitive empirical analysis and evaluation of existing institutions and practices before
thinking about prescription.
The preceding sections of this paper offer examples of what is possible in these
terms. There I argued (among other things) that the adaptive capacity of capitalist
markets in unstable social-ecological contexts such as that presented by climate change
85 Ostrom 2009; Hoffman 2011.
86 Biermann et al 2009.
87 Abbott 2012.
may actually reinforce path dependency and inhibit reflexivity, that there are ways to
think about particular multilateral institutions (such as the UNFCCC) responding to their
own failure through reflexive contemplation of a different kind of role, that we should be
wary of particular transformational opportunities (such as that which occurred in US
environmental affairs around 1970) yielding strong and undesirable renewed path
dependency, that foresight could be enhanced through deliberative democratization of
earth science, that discursive moves (such as that accompanying the 1987 Montreal
Protocol) can have transformational consequences when it comes to the discursive
aspects of institutions. Together these examples do not provide comprehensive
institutional analysis, evaluation, and redesign; but they do suggest what is possible in
This framework can also be deployed in scrutinizing institutional proposals. For
example, if indeed a ‘constitutional moment’ as envisaged by Biermann et al did come to
pass in global environmental affairs,88 we might ask of any centralized response directed
at global institutional coherence whether or not it would embody strong path dependency
of the sort we see in the Bretton Woods and United Nations institutions established after
1945. Or we could ask of the components of the ‘polycentric’ approach to global climate
governance advocated by Ostrom89 whether they contributed, either individually or
jointly, to global ecosystemic reflexivity beyond local contributions to (say) reduction of
greenhouse gas emissions in cities or states such as California. A partial answer can be
gleaned from Hoffman. In treating multiple new forms of climate governance (such as
voluntary emissions trading schemes, or networks of global cities) as an ‘experimental
88 Biermann et al 2012a.
89 Ostrom 2009.
system’, Hoffman hopes that new material interests (for example, carbon traders) will
become increasingly powerful constituencies, and different actors will be socialized by
their experience in the new forms.90 Countervailing material interests to powerful fossil
fuel corporations would surely be beneficial. At the same time we should be wary of
renewed path dependency based on either material interest or ideas impeding future
transformative capacity, however much this new path might seem to solidify more
effective response to climate change in the short term.
There are other ways in which this framework can be deployed, notably in
technology assessment. The failure of the world to curb greenhouse gas emissions has led
to serious exploration of geoengineering technologies.91 Among the many possibilities,
the most popular proposal currently involves injecting sulfate aerosols or fine titanium
dioxide particles into the upper atmosphere to help block solar radiation. Once this
technology has been chosen, there is no going back: given the aerosols or particles
eventually return to earth, the machines must keep running in perpetuity. If they were
ever switched off, that would mean catastrophic rapid global temperature increase. The
required institutions of geoengineering governance would need to be global, paramount
and permanent: meaning the efficacy of the institutions and so the technology rests on a
path dependency of a scope and strength unprecedented in human history, foreclosing
other institutional options, and shutting down reflexivity.
Contemplation of the draconian politics that would have to accompany
geoengineering drives home the intensity of the political challenge of the Anthropocene.
The bitter politics of climate change that we see in the Anglo-American countries
90 Hoffmann 2011.
91 See for example Lomborg 2010.
(capable of blocking global progress) offers but a foretaste. Getting the requisite qualities
embedded in existing dominant institutions (such as states and international
organizations) is going to be a struggle. So the proponents of polycentric, pluralistic, and
experimental governance may be right about at least one thing: it is easier to start with
sites of politics at some distance from these established centers of power (and their
associated path dependencies).
Existing dominant institutions are, then, highly problematic in the terms I have
established. Yet haste to institutional prescription is also problematic, threatening to
short-circuit the kind of learning process necessary in the novel and complex conditions
accompanying the challenge of the Anthropocene. One solution to this conundrum lies in
the experimental exploration of discursive structures and processes embodying the
listening, learning, and anticipation that help constitute ecosystemic reflexivity. We can
find intimations in existing institutions and practices, such as the experimental
governance associated with ozone layer protection mentioned earlier.
If these developments are on issues that potentially challenge the core of the
political economy, the more deliberative among them are at present often confined to
scientists and professionals – for example, the Millennium Ecosystems Assessment
whose deliberative qualities are celebrated by Norgaard,92 or the Intergovernmental Panel
on Climate Change. These scientific endeavors generally diagnose problems and make
recommendations for targets and timetables (such as ecosystem conservation, or
reductions in greenhouse gas emissions), without contemplating the policies that might
enable those targets to be met. However, these exercises could be extended to collective
decision by being linked more effectively and deliberatively to the efforts of non-
92 Norgaard 2008.
governmental organizations representing a variety of relevant discourses (such as
sustainability and environmental justice), corporations who seek to flourish in a ‘green
economy’, and sympathetic governments and international organizations. There is an
emerging literature on deliberative systems which can be put to good use here in
identifying deliberative pathologies and blockages, and pointing to the sorts of initiatives
that can promote transmission, accountability, and learning.93
There have also been some targeted efforts to involve participation in governance
on the part of ordinary citizens, such as in the World Wide Views processes run on
climate change in 2009 and biodiversity in 2012.94 While the numbers of people involved
in such processes are tiny, they do involve a critical and questioning input into existing
governance processes – largely ignored by governmental negotiators in the case of
climate change, accepted in principle in the case of biodiversity.
Discursive institutional innovation need not of course be confined to the global
level. There are many local initiatives such as the transition towns movement, which
explicitly bills itself as a response to the failure of higher levels of government to
confront resource constraints and climate change. Networks across localities – such as the
International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives cities network – also provide
sites for deliberation.95 Burgeoning networked environmental governance is however
often a low-visibility affair, and dominated by moderate discourses such as ‘green
economy’ or a technocratic version of ‘ecological modernization.’ Reflexivity in
networks could benefit from more contestatory and critical voices (from science, citizens’
forums, or social movements).
93 Parkinson and Mansbridge 2012.
94 Rask, Worthington and Lammi 2012.
95 Bulkeley, Broto, Hodson and Marvin 2010.
In networks and elsewhere, the institutional challenge can be captured in terms of
the need for more productive deliberative systems combining moments of decision and
moments of contestation, which in turn ought to contribute to the capacity of such
systems for productive self-transformation. In short, while there are no easy recipes for
institutional innovators, there are plenty of instructive initiatives from which to learn and
ways to think about their connection.
Recognition of the Anthropocene connotes a powerful challenge to human institutions, as
the non-human world becomes impossible to ignore as a central player in human history.
This challenge merits more than response from environmental governance conceived as a
niche area to be consigned to a government department or an academic sub-discipline, or
even the ‘mainstreaming’ of ecological concerns into all areas of government. By
confirming the causal force of human social processes in driving the character of the
Earth system, whose instability in turn becomes a larger force, the Anthropocene forces a
re-think of social-ecological systems and the place of political institutions therein (along
with deep commitments about what constitutes rationality in these institutions and
beyond). The depth, novelty, dynamism, and complexity of the challenge call into
question the rush to prescription of the (few) existing institutional analyses of the
Anthropocene. I have identified ecosystemic reflexivity as the first virtue for political
institutions in the Anthropocene. The ecosystemic dimension of reflexivity involves
listening more effectively to an active Earth system, capacity to reconsider core values
such as justice in this light, and ability to seek, receive, and respond to early warnings
about potential ecological state shifts. I have shown how this framework can be applied in
institutional analysis, evaluation, and design in a way that is true to the dynamic nature of
the Anthropocene, and so avoids the temptation to think in terms of static institutional
models. Taking the Anthropocene seriously suggests an evolving institutionalism joining
inquiry and practice, in the face of existing dominant institutions that fall so far short of
the requirements of this emerging epoch.
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