Venturing Anthropocene Thinking

Venturing Anthropocene Thinking

European School of Governance, position paper #22  by Louis Klein.

If governing the Anthropocene is the challenge, Anthropocene thinking is the condition for any possible solution. Anthropocene Thinking is beyond post-modernity, post-growth and post-truth. It is unchartered territory. And it does not help to identify what was before. It is a quest into the unknown, where no guide has been. It needs navigators to explore, map and safeguard our venture into the 21st century. Truth will not be an answer. We need new criteria to navigate by. Functional adequacy, resonance and thrivability are candidates for providing orientation. Systems and cybernetics have come far on that endeavour. Integral theory and practice translate systemic insights into a new pragmatism and the theory of resonance provides ultimate access to everyday experience as well as to the emergence phenomena of quantum theory and Vedic wisdom.

We know the Anthropocene as the era when humankind collectively has become so mighty that the future of our planet depends on humankind’s capability to cultivate, civilise and govern itself. The 21st century has reached beyond Gen. 1:28. Humankind has successfully appropriated the Earth. Mission complete! Yet, we have not lived up to the responsibility that comes with this power, as we have not become the stewards of the earth. And while the United Nations launched 17 Sustainable Development Goals to meet the challenges and mitigate the mess, humankind’s consumption of the Earth has turned into a Great Acceleration.

The contemporary discourse on systems change and the future of our planet stretches from the technosphere to the biosphere, conceiving socio-technological systems for integrating the dispersed parts to “make the world a better place”. But more of the same yields marginalising returns and finally flips our global systems into the opposite of what was intended. In response, the challenges of the 21st century have sprouted a lot of activism in all walks of life – but these passionate attempts to correct are disconnected, over-ambitious and show little understanding of a VUCA world, its velocity, its uncertainty, its complexity and its ambiguity.

Anthropocene Thinking is an epistemological challenge. We need an epistemological turn which is more than a mere paradigm shift. It is not only new questions answered by new models, methods and instruments. To change our epistemology is to change the foundation of knowledge and belief – to change the foundations of what we know and how we know. It is changing the conditions of the possibility to conceive anything new, innovative or disruptive. The next epistemological turn does not only yield new distinctions creating new meaning, changing the language and recomposing stories and narratives. It will challenge the very idea of the distinctions as the generic root of any sense making. It will challenge the logic of dualities. It is beyond linear thinking and reductionism. The epistemological turn that Anthropocene Thinking demands is beyond post-modernity.

We need a new Enlightenment, a systemic enlightenment which acknowledges, that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, that the context is always stronger than the system and that neither self-organisation nor the emancipation of the individual is necessarily good. We need a new Renaissance which acknowledge that beauty and simplicity are valid criteria. And we may even need a new Axial Age which challenges the very logic of dualities hitherto perceived as the only viable way of fruitful reason and acknowledges the role of vibrance, sound and colour as carriers of meaning.

Thinking of quantum computing we still operate based on a dual or digital logic. Our entire idea of technology is dual and digital. Yet, what would happen if we would attribute meaning to a vibrance and start to calculate on the basis of vibrations, waves, colours and sound. What kind of world would emerge? How utopian is this considered to be? How far a stretch would this be?

Language is older than logic. And what sounds almost unrealistic as a vision for quantum computing is our everyday experience of language. We attribute meaning to soundbites and call them words, and connect these to build sentences, engage in conversation, tell stories and pass on narratives and legends from generation to generation, creating the social realities that constitute cultures and civilisations. “Probably we should start all over again,” said Marvin Minsky, the American cognitive scientist and Artificial Intelligence pioneer. Minsky did not only blame the feeble attempts to appropriate AI, but explicitly challenged our understanding of what we call intelligence altogether. But where do we start?

The aim of transdisciplinarity is primary conciliation. Venturing the next epistemological turn starts with identifying what we have already at hand. First, there are systems sciences and cybernetics. Since the 1950s they have promoted a non-linear, non-reductionistic science able to meet complexity, emergence and contextuality. They were able to explain order from noise and leverage phenomena like the butterfly effect. And with the idea of second-order cybernetics, they were the first to consistently venture epistemology as an emerging continuum of application of the same thinking that constitute their explanation of the empirical world. What the Austrian-American scientist Heinz von Förster called the “cybernetics of cybernetics” anticipated what the German sociologist and philosopher Niklas Luhmann integrated into his theory of social systems as a claim to universality acknowledging that any scientific practice of observing social systems needs to be an observing and an observed practice at the same time, constituting a rigorous self-observation of society in theory and practice.

Second, integral theory in the 1970s was designed similarly with a profound claim to universality.  Hence, the American writer on transpersonal psychology Ken Wilber called it a theory of everything. The essence of integral theory and practice however remained on the phenomenological side, describing individual and societal self-observation habits and routines as well as their implications rather than explaining them. Nevertheless, integral theory bridged the sociological perspective to a psychological perspective along the works of the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget on cognitive development and the American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development as well as the American developmental psychologist Jean Loevinger theory of ego development. Integral theory accepts epistemological contingency based on individual psychological development and acknowledges societal implications of this very contingency.

Finally, the theory of resonance explores the affective side, not only of social interaction but of individual and collective world access. If everything is connected with everything, we may want to have a closer look at the qualites of these interdependences. The German sociologist Hartmut Rosa does so building on the studies on mirror neurons by the German psychiatrist and neuro scientist, Joachim Bauer, conceiving a sociology of resonance claiming that if acceleration is the challenge of the 21st century, resonance could be regarded as a solution.

Anthropocene Thinking is an invitation to the next epistemological turn based on the transdisciplinary practice of a community of inquiry. Following Aristotle’s insight that the whole is different from the sum of its parts, we may assume that a transdisciplinary venture into Anthropocene Thinking is more and different to the sum of systems theory, cybernetics, integral theory and a theory of resonance. Focusing on epistemological universality allows us to overcome the thinking that created the challenges of the 21st century and venture a new thinking that bears the potential to bring about the solutions allowing for thrivability and real earth stewardship.