Seminar Philosophical perspectives for the Anthropocene 2023

Organized by Vincent Lam and Georg Brun

Mondays, 16:15-18:00, Room F-121, Unitobler, Lerchenweg 36 (in-person only)

Program (PDF)

2023-09-25 Introductory meeting

2023-10-02 Keith Smith (ETHZ): Operationalising complexity of societal tipping processes towards sustainability: Criticality and critical agency

Slides (PDF)


Rapid societal transformations are necessary to mitigate risky anthropogenic climate change and maintain human systems within Earth’s planetary boundaries for continued sustainable development. Recently, societal tipping processes have received increasing focus as a potential transformation mechanism. Yet, generalisable solutions towards intentionally transforming societal systems remain elusive. We argue for shifted focus away from individual social tipping points and interventions and towards uncovering the systemic conditions enabling tipping from a complex adaptive systems perspective. In this perspective, we introduce two concepts to advance the emerging field of social tipping points research: criticality, the likelihood that a system will experience tipping processes, and critical agency, human capacity to intentionally arrange conditions towards shifting systemic criticality. Criticality is a necessary condition for societal transformation, and can serve as a crucial compass for policy makers, entrepreneurs, and activists, illuminating how critical agency can be used to instigate desired ‘positive’ societal tipping.

2023-10-09 Julia Steinberger (UNIL): Living Well Within Planetary Limits, and Preparing Post-Growth Economies

Slides (PDF)


The Living Well Within Limits project investigates the energy requirements of well-being, from quantitative, participatory and provisioning systems perspectives. In this presentation, I will communicate individual and cross-cutting findings from the project, and their implications. In particular, I will share our most recent results on the international distribution of energy footprints by country, consumption category, and income classes, as well as modelling the minimum energy demand that would provide decent living standards for everyone on earth by 2050. I will show that achieving low-carbon well-being, both from the beneficiary (“consumer”) and supply-chain (producer) sides, involves strong distributional and political elements. Political economy research is thus necessary to diagnose reasons for poor outcomes, and identify the most promising avenues for positive change. I thus argue for the active (as in activist) engagement of the research community.

2023-11-20 Kari De Pryck (UNIGE): The global science-diplomacy interface as trading zones. The case of the IPCC AR6


The science-diplomacy interface between the IPCC and the UNFCCC is often presented as a model of expertise. In practice, however, there is nothing more complex and controversial than the relationship between the IPCC and the UNFCCC - to the point that the Bonn Climate Change Conference in June 2023 nearly derailed because of disagreements between Parties about how to acknowledge and use the main findings from the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) in the negotiations. IPCC knowledge rarely flow neatly to the UNFCCC. Against the common idea that scientific expertise fosters learning and cooperation, this article analyses contestation about what constitutes 'policy-relevant' and 'useable' knowledge for the UNFCCC. Doing so, we highlight increasing risks of unlearning in the climate regime. This paper is based on ethnographic work (direct observation, interview, document analysis) at the IPCC (2019 - 2023) and in the UNFCCC (2022 - 2023).

2023-11-27 Christian Arnsperger (UNIL): The Existentialist Anthropocene: Looking at Climate Change Blindness through the Lens of the Fear of Finitude, Fragility and Mortality


This presentation will focus on the usefulness of what I call “existential economics” to understand some aspects of climate-change blindness and, more broadly, the continued focus on economic growth and “decoupling” as alleged solutions to environmental problems. I will suggest that concepts such as the Environmental Kuznets Curve as well as “green growth” are rooted in a quasi-religious faith in undetermined – and, in fact non-existent – possibilities to collectively attain “immortality” by never having to acknowledge the increasingly hard facts of finitude – our planet’s finite boundaries as well as our finite lives in a frighteningly entropic universe. Existential economics, so I will suggest, may help shed light on the tenacious blindness most of us bring to the table when we discuss – and express doubts about – such ideas as degrowth and the ultimate fading-out of the human species over millions and billions of years. It may also offer some solace as to why philosophy (in the sense of a set of practices for living and dying, and finding meaning) may be of help in finding a new, more existentially adequate, path through the Anthropocene.

References Arnsperger, C. (2022). How Deep Time Can Help Shape the Present: Existential Economics, “Joyful Insignificance” and the Future of the Ecological Transition. Text Matters, 12: 97-115. Full text

Arnsperger, C. & Soltysik Monnet, A. (2023). Envisioning the Ecological Future: Three Perspectives off the Beaten Track. Text Matters, 13.

2023-12-04 Alexandre Le Tiec (CNRS, Paris): Questioning Modernity in the Anthropocene

Slides (PDF)


The Anthropocene is a proposed geological epoch giving a name to human-caused, global environmental changes. Alternative perspectives emphasize the major historical roles played by fossil fuels (Carbocene), the capitalist socio-economic organization (Capitalocene), the technical means of economic production (Technocene), colonialism and enduring racial hierarchies (Plantationocene), or a small group of wealthy and powerful people (Oligantropocene), among other analyses. In this presentation, we shall adopt a cultural perspective and emphasize the historical responsibility of industrialized Western nations in the current ecological disaster (Occidentalocene). In line with the philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright, we will first discuss the role played by the enduring 'Myth of Progress' that characterizes the Western Modernity. We will then complete this idealist perspective by a materialist, socio-historical analysis of the sources of power in human societies, based on the work of sociologist Michael Mann. Finally, we will ask how far back in time a radical analysis of the current situation must go to reach the roots of the Anthropocene.

References Murphy Jr., T. W., Murphy, D. J., Love, T. F., LeHew, M. L. A. & McCall, B. J. (2021). Modernity is incompatible with planetary limits: Developing a PLAN for the future. Energy Research & Social Science, 81: 102239.

Hornborg, A. (2023). Beyond civilisation: How far are we prepared to go in parochialising 'progress’? In K. Mondal (Ed.), Staying together: Natureculture in a changing world, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Bouveresse, J. (2011). Wittgenstein, von Wright and the Myth of Progress. Paragraph, 34: 301-321.

2023-12-11 Anne van Valkengoed (Groningen): Climate Anxiety: Mental Health Threat or an Outbreak of Sanity?


While scientists have been warning about the dangers of climate change for years, progress in reducing CO2 emissions has been frustratingly slow. While many people are worried, some experience genuine anxiety, distress, and terror about climate change, which is referred to as ‘climate anxiety’. In this talk, I will introduce the concept of climate anxiety, discuss current developments in the literature, and address some critical questions surrounding this topic. For example, is climate anxiety the right response to climate change, or is it indicative of mental health problems? ? Is climate anxiety caused by media reporting on climate change? And should we try to reduce or increase people’s levels of climate anxiety?

References Fyke, J. & Weaver, A. (2023). Reducing personal climate risk to reduce personal climate anxiety. Nature Climate Change, 13: 209-210. Full text

van Valkengoed, A. M. (2023). Climate anxiety is not a mental health problem. But we should still treat it as one. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 79: 385-387. Full text

van Valkengoed, A. M. & Steg, L. (2023). Climate anxiety is about more than just personal risks. Nature Climate Change, 13: 591. Full text