For a sustainable development in the Anthropocene, social-ecological transformations are necessary. The pressure to act in the “epoch of humanity” is enormous in view of the unchecked environmental changes with all their consequences for nature and societies. How can the necessary transformations succeed? ISOE scientists have developed an approach for shaping social-ecological transformations in the Anthropocene and translated it into six principles.
These six principles of shaping provide an orientation for a critical sustainability science, which aims to initiate and accompany social-ecological transformations. They also offer a basis for all those who are seeking—both scientifically and practically—alternatives for societal change. The principles of shaping address the questions of how society and nature are to be placed in relation to each other and how the limits of shaping as well as of complexity are to be dealt with. They also address the need to make social-ecological systems resistant to foreseeable environmental changes and to ensure the effective practical participation of all affected actors.
A detailed explanation of the principles of shaping can be found in: Jahn, Thomas/Diana Hummel/Lukas Dress/Stefan Liehr/Alexandra Lux/Marion Mehring/Immanuel Stieß/Carolin Völker/Martina Winker/Martin Zimmermann (2020): Shaping social-ecological transformations in the Anthropocene. ISOE-Diskussionspapiere, 45. Frankfurt am Main (originally published in German in GAIA 29/2 (2020): 93–97)
The principles of shaping are also available as vivid illustrations.
1. Focusing on relations between society and nature
Climate change and the extinction of species are expressions of a crisis in societal relations to nature. One cause of this crisis is the underlying fundamental idea of modernity which regards nature as an object that derives its value solely from its contribution to securing human living conditions and not as an independent counterpart. Therefore, shaping must first and foremost focus on placing society and nature in relation, and it must be guided by the idea of a relation between human and non-human subjects. Depending on the purpose of the shaping process, this can mean perceiving, maintaining, restoring or completely creating such relations in the first place. The degree to which this succeeds must be central to the evaluation of options for action.
2. Enabling coexistence
The present crises are expressed in processes of displacement and subordination as they result from the motive of the domination and economic exploitation of nature. Shaping, in contrast, must enable the preservation or creation of conditions of coexistence. Coexistence initially refers to different social groups, but also includes human and non-human subjects. These conditions include in particular the disclosure and mitigation of claims to power, control, and legitimacy vis-à-vis others, as well as the recognition of difference and conflict, with a mind-set open and willing to learn.
3. Defining and reflecting on limits
An essential characteristic of the Anthropocene is the progressive processes of dissolution of spatial, temporal, and social boundaries. Shaping must therefore adopt a perspective of delimitation, without determining in advance which physical, social, political, or cultural spaces will be defined by it. Accordingly, shaping must reflect on its own boundaries. Its goals must be derived from the needs of the actors involved and their ideas for a better life within the particular concrete borders. At the same time, shaping must take into account social-ecological contexts of function and meaning, which transcend the set limits. This includes above all recognising the consequences of one’s own way of life for others.
4. Dealing with complexity
The Anthropocene stands for an unprecedented degree of complexity in the societal relations to nature. Shaping must therefore understand every intended development as a process that can only be controlled to a limited extent. This includes a reflective and transparent approach to uncertainty, ignorance, and divergent descriptions of problems, the ability to cope with surprises as well as openness towards alternative goals and their implementation. Shaping must also take into account the global scope of local actions and the consequences of the reduction in complexity that is always necessary for decision-making.
5. Strengthening resilience
Societies worldwide are already confronted with devastating anthropogenic changes in their natural environment. Even under optimal conditions, these changes will continue to increase in the coming decades. Therefore, in processes of change, shaping must aim to strengthen the structural and functional resilience of social-ecological systems in the face of the consequences of those environmental changes that are already foreseeable today. At the same time, shaping must take into account the function-preserving transformability of these new systems. This preserves the capacity to act if the extent of the expected consequences or possible future, currently unknown environmental changes exceed the resilience of these systems. Moreover, this keeps options open for any desirable system change.
6. Ensuring participation of all actors
Forms of exclusion, especially of marginalized actors, and the unequal distribution of shaping power are further characteristics of the global crisis of societal relations to nature – a crisis, which is characterized by social and political antagonisms. For this reason, shaping must be conceived as a (grassroots) democratic process and geared towards the practically effective participation of all actors in a context of action. A prerequisite is the translation and mutual recognition of different interests and capabilities for action. In this context, it is particularly important to ensure methodologically sound, and thus transparent, transdisciplinary cooperation between science and society in order to use situated, case-specific knowledge for the definition and processing of transformative endeavours.