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How should IR deal with the “end of the world”? Existential anxieties and possibilities in the Anthropocene

This article was written by Dahlia Simangan
This article was published on

Dahlia Simangan discusses the key points from her new Review of International Studies (RIS) article. The article uses existentialism to investigate International Relations' responses to the existential anxieties and questions raised by the Anthropocene, as a way of finding a path toward theorising the "end of the world".

Since the first publication of the UNDP Human Development Index (HDI) in 1990, most countries have recorded increasing levels of human well-being. Shifting away from economic growth-driven development, HDI considers having a long and healthy life, being knowledgeable, and having a decent standard of living as more important indicators of development.

In 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, UNDP adjusted the HDI in cognisance of the planetary pressures of human development. The new index painted a less optimistic picture, with more than 50 countries dropping out of the very high development level after measuring their carbon and consumption footprints. People and the planet are on a collision course, according to the lead author of the 2020 UNDP Human Development Report, which for the first time embraces the term Anthropocene, a new geological epoch proposed by earth scientists to mark the planetary impact of human activities. The report raises the following questions:

“What do we do with this new age? Do we choose in the face of uncertain futures to embark on bold new paths that expand human freedoms while easing planetary pressures? Or do we choose to try—and ultimately fail—to go back to business as usual and be swept away, ill equipped and rudderless, into a dangerous unknown?”

In a recently published article for the Review of International Studies I argue that these questions signify three types of existential anxieties heightened in the Anthropocene: (1) physical anxiety about threats to human survival; (2) spiritual anxiety about the meaning of the Anthropos; (3) and moral anxiety about humanity’s planetary stewardship. These anxieties were earlier elaborated by Paul Tillich and later informed Bahar Rumelili’s theorisation of existential anxiety to explain international security. I contribute to these discussions by expounding these anxieties as conceptual links between existentialism, International Relations, and the Anthropocene.

Existentialism offers insights into the underlying (sources of) anxieties behind various responses to the ecological and socio-political challenges in the Anthropocene. And these insights could inform how International Relations as a discipline should deal with the end of the world as we know it. As a discipline that is primarily concerned with security and survival, IR informs the linear theorisation and state-centric organisation of the world, including current liberal institutionalist approaches to global environmental change. These conventional IR framings are being challenged by the anxieties that the Anthropocene brings.

Existentialist understanding of anxiety explain the anthropocentric, universalist, and hubristic responses to the challenges in the Anthropocene: how the environment is externalised as a threat to be securitised in response to the uncertainty of humanity’s survival; how populism and nativism rise when identities are homogenised in response to the uncertainty about humanity’s place in the Anthropocene; and how moral hazards are created by plans for a depoliticised re-engineering of the planet in response to humanity’s contentious relevance in a changing Earth system. IR has tackled these dilemmas, but existentialism can help it further explain the roots and pitfalls of both conservative and radical political responses to mass extinction, multiple identities, and the moral ambiguities in the Anthropocene.

While existentialism unravels these anxieties, it also prompts the re-imagination of other worlds (and other modalities of living) in the Anthropocene and beyond. For instance, the physical anxiety about extinction, which is indeed the destruction of beings, could also be the opening to future life forms and of becoming that are less anthropocentric, Western-centric, modernist, racist, and oppressive).

To deal with the spiritual anxiety about the meaning of the Anthropos, International Relations must continue engaging with the possibility of other worlds—where a different meaning for the Anthropos could emerge—while confronting humanity’s troubled histories. Finally, rather than theorising power over nature, moral anxiety could be channelled toward theorising power with nature, coupled with an acute understanding of the inequalities and injustices produced by the former.

Existentialist questions about the threat of extinction, the meaning and role of agency, and the dilemma of choice and responsibility offer the freedom to explore possibilities, albeit with uncertainty, for reimagining the place of humanity and of International Relations as a discipline in the Anthropocene. These questions also serve as reminders of human-nature entanglement, the remnants of historical injustice, and the moral hazards of saving the planet. These anxieties about uncertainties must be considered as invitations for navigating the challenges and prospects of emancipatory well-being in the Anthropocene.

What, then, is our choice in this new age of uncertainty? Should we try “bold new paths” or “go back to business as usual”? We might as well start by imagining and charting a safer, more inclusive, and just world.

Want to know more? You can read the full article at DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0260210523000220

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This summary was first published on the Planet Politics Institute and we thank them for their kind permission to reproduce it here.

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