Institutional-Political Scenarios for Anthropocene Society

[We’re pleased to welcome authors Andrew J. Hoffman of the University of Michigan and P. Devereaux Jennings of University of Alberta. They recently published an article in Business & Society entitled “Institutional-Political Scenarios for Anthropocene Society,” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, they reflect on the impact and innovations of this research:]

We have been motivated to write about possible futures in Anthropocene Society because of our dire realization that humankind has entered a new period (the Anthropocene), one where environmental shifts may overwhelm our civilizing efforts on this planet. To us and many in the academic community, it is clear that humans are a key source of this shift and that focusing on just climate change is insufficient for capturing the pervasive and deep change effects manifest in biodiversity decreases, habitat loss, and rising ambient pollution. The Anthropocene is a completely new context for research on organizations and the natural environment.

Given the scope of this fundamental shift in the role of humans in the natural environment, our social reality will experience a concurrent shift in one way or another. We can be fatalistic about such a dark future, or accept our responsibility of re-choreographing it. As Stephen Jay Gould sardonically quipped, 

“we have become, by a glorious evolutionary accident called intelligence, the stewards of life’s continuity on earth. We did not ask for this role, but we cannot abjure it. We may not be suited to it, but here we are.”

In our article (and related book), we have tried to ask “what will Anthropocene Society look like if we do – or do not – respond?” We use an institutional lens to answer this question and derive four different scenarios for Anthropocene Society’s future: collapsing systems, market rules, technological fix, and cultural re-enlightenment. In each, we see a very different cultural and political reality in organizational fields and logics, our units of analysis. Who has voice in articulating our challenges and potential solutions, and what values or “logics” do these people and groups bring to bear for explaining our changing biophysical reality?

Fields may become chaotic and poorly coordinated by institutions, with inequities growing rapidly, or there may be efforts to stabilize certain domains (key markets, such as stock markets or commodity exchanges) or to employ engineering solutions to certain areas (like flooding in Florida or geo-engineering the atmosphere). However, ideally, a more mindful approach to change and adaptation would be taken, one based on re-oriented values that embrace principles of more thoughtful and limited consumption, better distribution, and the creation of more culturally enriched communities.

The tensions that we see in the Anthropocene and the organizations in Anthropocene Society are ones that we wrestle with in our research. Individually and jointly, we oscillate between more dystopian and utopian visions of the future; we have documented more skeptical and more progressive actions in climate change fields; we have read the tea leaves of climate events and have seen more mishaps and community hardship, but we also see fantastic efforts of survival and solidarity. Humans certainly have the capacity to respond to these unprecedented challenges, as we did with reversing ozone depletion. But future adaptations will depend on institutional and cultural processes.

Our exploration, in turn, offers us an opportunity to reexamine some basic tenets of institutional theory, thereby bringing them more closely in line with our changing bio-physical reality. And in the final analysis, our examination seeks to answer Max Weber’s call to bridge the philosophical divide between physical science and social science – e.g., between Naturwissenshaten and Kulturwissenshaften – where nature is understood through the cultural lens of society, not separate from it.

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One thought on “Institutional-Political Scenarios for Anthropocene Society

  1. Pingback: What Does Society Look Like in the Future of the Anthropocene? A Q&A With Andy Hoffman

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