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The Anthropocene rupture in international relations: Future politics and international life

This article was written by Tom Lundborg
This article was published on

Tom Lundborg discusses the key arguments from his new Review of International Studies (RIS) article. If you'd like to know more you can read the full article - The Anthropocene rupture in international relations: Future politics and international life

The Anthropocene rupture refers to the birth of our current geological epoch in which humans constitute a collective geological force that alters the trajectory of the Earth System. Replacing the previous epoch of the Holocene, which started over 11,000 years ago, the Anthropocene as concept has been used to shed light on the profound impact that the human subject has had on the global environment, and the role it has played in creating the escalating climate crisis. While agreeing that a dramatic rupture in geological history has indeed taken place, there is disagreement in much of the literature on the Anthropocene on when it occurred. Prominent suggestions include the beginning (around 1750) or halfway point (around 1800) of the Industrial Revolution, and, in particular, the post-1945 ‘Great Acceleration’ of global environmental change. Moreover, an important assumption underpinning the very idea of the Anthropocene as a geological epoch relates to how two different forms of history, pertaining to humans and the Earth respectively, which traditionally have been studied separately, now have converged and become parts of the same history.

The implications of taking seriously the notion of an Anthropocene rupture are potentially enormous, not least for the study of International Relations (IR). Most of all, this is because the rupture calls into question the deeply rooted anthropocentrism underpinning IR as a discipline, in which the primacy of the human subject has been seen as a given. Whether it has been seen as such by reaffirming the human subject’s place within a state/state system, or by championing her rights as human beyond that system, it is nevertheless the human subject that has been its core concern. By placing the human individual in the foreground and nature passively in the background, both traditional and critical approaches to IR are inherently anthropocentric.  

Becoming aware of the Anthropocene rupture, and the detrimental consequences of placing the human subject at the centre, has prompted a reconsideration of dominant political imaginaries based on a primary distinction between human culture and nature. It has also presented a unique opportunity to think beyond IR’s modern anthropocentric lens, pointing to nothing less than the promise of a new beginning for a discipline that in the context of ongoing climate change, as well as other related processes of political and economic globalisation, is in danger of becoming outdated and irrelevant. 

My RIS article addresses the problem of using the Anthropocene rupture as a reference point for rethinking IR’s inherent anthropocentrism. In particular, it centres on the problem of formulating new ontologies of  a (post-)Anthropocene world that can take us beyond IR’s traditional focus on the human subject within and beyond an international system of states. The article shows how such attempts remain dependent on modern conceptions of time, which are anchored in particular ways of connecting past, present and future. It is noted how attempts to transform IR into something less anthropocentric and closer to an alternative vision of the world remain tied to modern conceptions of future ideals, which are articulated within the horizon of the human present. I argue that irrespective of how radical the future ideal is said to be, efforts to reach it cannot escape the logic whereby all thinking and action must begin from within a human horizon, while the future itself is pushed beyond that horizon. Trying to overcome a human-centred IR thus becomes an impossible task as it involves transcending a horizon of thought whose end point moves perpetually further away the closer one gets. 

Instead of trying to revitalise IR on the basis of alternative ontologies and future ideals, my RIS article turns to philosopher Jacques Derrida’s understanding of l’avenir, the future to come. For Derrida, this is not a future that can be purposefully worked towards in the hope of one day reaching it. Rather, the future to come points to the arrival of something unexpected that cannot be known, desired or predicted in advance. The future, in this sense, must be encountered as something radically other, or else it no longer has any value as a distinct temporality and merely becomes a reaffirmation of established ideas and traditions.  

Derrida’s understanding of the future to come has important implications for IR. Rather than seeking to overcome an inherent anthropocentrism of IR by aspiring towards an alternative vision of the future, it is argued that a more productive response entails conceptualising the international vis-à-vis a future other. The international, in this sense, can be grasped as a structure that both enables life and itself has a life. While this international life is unavoidably human-centric, it is also conditioned by encounters with a future that is neither human nor non-human, hence a future predicated on no particular ontology at all. It is in relation to these encounters, the article concludes, that the future of international life in the context of the Anthropocene rupture has to be grasped.

While recognising the importance of the Anthropocene rupture for re-thinking IR, my article thus problematises prevailing assumptions of how precisely it should be seen as important, and what potential it really has for a re-invigorated IR. This potential, in my view, relates to how the rupture, rather than guiding us towards a particular future in which the problems we face today have finally been resolved, calls our attention to the struggles we all must face when international life is exposed to forces of anthropogenic climate change. Crucially, while these forces may have emanated from within a human-centred international system, they now clearly exceed it. The notion of an Anthropocene rupture provides an important opportunity to think about what responding to these forces might actually entail, when the object of the response has become disconnected from those who are meant to respond, and when there is an apparent asymmetry marking the relation between human subjectivity within an international context and forces that exceed this context. Grappling with this asymmetry is an urgent task, both for thinking about the continual relevance of IR, and, more importantly, for understanding the very possibility of responding to the global climate crisis in the first place. 

Want to know more? You can read Tom's full article at DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S026021052200050X

This particular article is open access, however BISA members receive access to RIS (and to our other journal European Journal of International Security) as a benefit of membership. To gain access, log in to your BISA account and scroll down to the 'Membership benefits' section. If you're not yet a member join today.

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