Scientific evidence indicates that we have entered a new geological epoch, termed the Anthropocene, in which human activities have become a significant geological force. How do we confront this new reality where our relationship with our biophysical environment has changed so significantly? On what basis do we determine how to respond? In The Politics of the Anthropocene, Dryzek and Pickering argue that rather than engaging with these critical questions, the core institutions of our society (like markets and states) instead severely constrain our ability to identify and then answer them.
The authors argue that a “pathological path dependency” in our institutions systematically represses information on the Earth system to prioritize a narrow set of economic objectives. They attribute these behaviors to the critical importance of economic growth to these institutions and their origination in a time when our impact on the Earth system was significantly smaller. To address this problem, the authors propose the notion of “ecological reflexivity.” This concept builds off the established idea of reflexivity and involves confronting the core commitments of our society and changing the response where necessary (Beck et al. 1994). Dryzek and Pickering extend this idea to include the Earth system, so the reflexivity would be of social-ecological systems (the human and nonhuman world), rather than just social systems. Ecological reflexivity, as they outline it, involves a cyclical process of recognizing changes in social-ecological systems; reflecting on the changes occurring and rethinking core values; and then responding to these changes by rearticulating core aims, discourses, and values and reconfiguring practices.
Dryzek and Pickering demonstrate how ecological reflexivity could be applied. They first illustrate how it can shape the way that we understand values in society. For example, “sustainability” can reflect the dynamic nature of the Earth system in the Anthropocene and our role in these changes, rather than serving as a static view of conserving ecological conditions when those conditions may no longer be attainable. In examining how ecological reflexivity could then be implemented, Dryzek and Pickering focus on what they term the “formative sphere,” rather than on institutions. This “formative sphere” is a theoretical domain in which ideas, principles, and values are generated and developed. It operates across, separate from, and potentially within existing institutional configurations, but while it may ultimately inform the collective decision-making of institutions, it is always outside of and preceding these processes. Dryzek and Pickering argue that “formative agents,” which include a broad collection of individuals, groups, and other entities (including norm/discourse entrepreneurs, scientists, and other experts), operate within this sphere, with the potential to create and shape values. Deliberation is essential as formative agents interact with each other and also with citizens, who play a central role in creating and establishing new meanings and values. In outlining ecological reflexivity, while not directly addressing the source of path dependency in institutions, Dryzek and Pickering nonetheless lead us back to the possibility that such reflexivity can indirectly inform the decision-making of our institutions and societies.
The Politics of the Anthropocene is built on strong theoretical foundations, leveraging a range of insights from the authors’ earlier studies (including Dryzek 2000, 2015). It effectively connects these works to provide a comprehensive framework for exploring how deliberative processes can contribute to an understanding of and response to the challenges of the Anthropocene. In this way they identify the role of deliberation as part of a broader process aimed at rethinking core meanings, principles, and values in the Anthropocene, rather than as being limited to seeking views on already well understood issues.
The decision to explore ecological reflexivity outside of institutions, and without focusing on the sources and impacts of path dependency, creates an open theoretical frame. However, it misses an opportunity to understand the form, extent, and impact of the path dependency in institutions that the authors argue systematically represses information on the changing Earth system and a response to it. While analysis of this type may require detailed empirical work, it could examine whether the ecological reflexivity of the formative sphere can be embedded as a core priority in institutions, as the authors argue, or if path dependency would ultimately preclude it. More fundamentally, empirical analysis may indicate whether ecological reflexivity is practically possible or the extent to which the ideas and structures that create path dependency in institutions extend to society as a whole and thus similarly restrict the formative sphere. For example, to what degree are the discourses, knowledge, norms, and/or science the authors describe in the formative sphere also inherently constrained by the path dependency of institutions? It may be that the formative agents that are expected to provide a source of reflexivity actually constitute a continuing source of constraint, whether in the formative sphere or not.
Dryzek and Pickering conceptualize the Anthropocene as not simply a multiplication of environmental challenges, but rather as a more fundamental issue of political economy in a world where human activity is altering the Earth system. Ecological reflexivity provides an important mechanism to call attention to this reality and identify a path by which society can engage with it and determine on an informed basis how to respond. Whether we can or will grasp this opportunity, and then how we might decide to respond, is another issue.