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What is the Anthropocene?

Inaugurated on 5 September 2023, this series aims to understand and address one of the pressing issues and debates of our time: What is the Anthropocene? The series is comprised of 6 lectures exploring aspects and angles to peer into the current academic debate on this new epoch.

During the lecture series 'What is the Anthropocene? - Exploring transdisciplinary collaboration for sustainable change', speakers and participants discussed how interdisciplinary research can contribute to challenges of the planetary polycrisis that are part of what scientists are debating is the Anthropocene. Each lecture consisted of two expert presentations followed by discussion. The series was organised by the first VU Distinguished Fellow of the Anthropocene, Dr Sjoerd J. Kluiving, in collaboration with the Amsterdam Sustainability Institute.

In addition to the lecture series, two transdisciplinary workshops on the road to the COP28 in Dubai, were organised. During these workshops, stories were developed by connecting science, human health, art and activism. Ellie Domigan brought these stories to COP28 where they were presented on stage at the IUCN Pavilion, in the Blue Zone. Read about Ellie's experience in her blog post. 

VU Distinguished Fellow of the Anthropocene

Sjoerd Kluiving is the First Distinguished Fellow of the Anthropocene. He studies the deep history of landscapes, human-nature relations and transitions into a sustainable society. As a geologist and physical geographer involved in applying earth sciences to archeology in interdisciplinary research and teaching, with emphasis on the Anthropocene.

Dr Sjoerd Kluiving

Dr Sjoerd Kluiving

Sjoerd co-leads the newly established Environmental Humanities Center at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. He received in 2018-2022 Horizon 2020 funding in TERRANOVA and NWO Melting Pot. Sjoerd is (co-)supervising 7 PhD students in the field of science, humanities and social sciences. As of 2024 Sjoerd is the coordinator of the VU Profile theme Connected World. 

Read more about Sjoerd's work

Anthropocene lectures

  • What is the Anthropocene?

    The Anthropocene is a new time period in which we humans currently live, although discussions are still going on delivering sometimes fierce debates among scientists. What is the Anthropocene? Is it a new time unit for humanity on Earth? More than geological questions of time boundaries, Golden Spikes and how to measure those, it is apparent that most other academic branches have discussed and/or embraced the term, signifying that the Anthropocene forms a multi-disciplinary arena of global to local challenges and problems that relate to the 17 UN SDGs.

    In this lecture Sjoerd Kluiving (VU Amsterdam) and Kim Cohen (Universiteit Utrecht) explore the need for a theoretical foundation in addressing Anthropocene challenges through interdisciplinary collaboration and collective action and examine the evolving multidisciplinary understanding and data inclusivity in defining this epoch, highlighting its profound impact on Earth's ecosystems.

    Watch the Lecture - more information here.

  • Transition pathways in the Anthropocene

    What are the transition pathways that will take us out of those unsustainable trajectories (e.g. climate change) that are currently filling the (inter)national news media on a daily basis? Transitions in society may have longtime duration, such as the abandonment of smoking, while the current planetary urgencies require (much) faster progress along different pathways.

    In his lecture, Mathieu Blondeel (VU Amsterdam) discusses the alarming breach of planetary boundaries, particularly in Climate Change. He emphasizes the urgent need for a Global Energy System Transformation (GEST) to combat the climate crisis and advocates for transitioning to low-carbon energy sources. He explores the interconnectedness of energy transformation with other spheres and stresses the importance of addressing challenges for just transitions in the Anthropocene.

    Kristiaan Kok (VU Amsterdam) discusses the urgent need for food system transitions due to environmental pollution, health challenges, and climate susceptibility. Achieving socially just systems requires multi-actor governance and consideration of various justice dimensions. Therefore, Kok underscores transdisciplinary research has crucial for identifying transition pathways for (food) systems change. 

    Watch the Lecture - more information here.

  • Biodiversity and landscapes in the Anthropocene

    Nature is in a bad condition and is currently 5-0 down. Biodiversity losses have been growing disproportionally over the past decades, a lot is currently being debated on national to continental scales regarding a reform of farming as well as urgent restoration of nature. For example, what is sustainable landscape management and how can food security be in harmony with flourishing nature?

    Louise Vet (WUR, Deltaplan Biodiversiteit) advocates for utilizing Nature’s economy through energy, circularity, and diversity to mitigate the biodiversity crisis. Her lecture highlights the Anthropocene's planetary boundaries breach, emphasizing the urgent need for biodiversity conservation. The lecture stresses the correlation between economic growth and declining natural capital, urging a shift towards eco-centric thinking and nature-inclusive approaches. 

    Niels Debonne's (VU Amsterdam) lecture on land use in the Anthropocene is divided into four parts, in which he first explores how land use drives transgressions of planetary boundaries. Secondly, he delves into humanity's toxic relationship with nature, tracing its origins and evolution. Then examines how this toxic relationship has intensified in recent years, driven by global agricultural practices and land acquisitions. Lastly, he considers the potential for land to mitigate Anthropocenic problems and advocates for a shift towards traditional communal management strategies and the importance of caring for the land.

    Watch the Lecture - more information here.

  • Inequality and colonialism in the Anthropocene

    Inequality is becoming the most important urgency of the 21st century and is rooted in colonial histories. Gross atrocities against humans that took place are gradually evaluated more and more. Victims of past wars and genocides still reflect on existing inequalities that also are exemplified by a growing number of climate refugees, especially when coming from post-colonial areas.

    Pepijn Brandon (VU Amsterdam) discusses the historical roots of inequalities of the Anthropocene linking it to colonial histories. He frames the discussion with three definitions. Firstly, in the context of the Anthropocene, he questions whether it's solely white Western men overwhelming the forces of nature and who will bear the burden. Secondly, capitalism is viewed as a system prioritizing profits over the planet, but Brandon argues it's more complex, involving the ordering of human beings and nature. Finally, he introduces the Plantationocene, highlighting its intimate connection to the history of slavery and colonialism.

    Luisa Steur (University of Amsterdam) speaks to how this topic relates to inequality in the 21st century providing insight from her field work in Cuba and Kerala. Due to the sensitive nature of Luisa's research, a recording of this lecture is not available. 

    Watch the Lecture - more information here.

  • Health and justice in the Anthropocene

    What is the relationship between health, ethics and law in the Anthropocene, and how do these three academic domains collaborate to achieve an improved understanding? What effect do human rights have on a healthy and safe environment? Knowledge about law, research integrity and ethical reflection skills are essential for studying human health in the Anthropocene.

    In this lecture, Petra Verdonk (Amsterdam UMC) explores the Anthropocene as a determinant of health, highlighting the deep impact of climatic hazards on infectious diseases, cardiovascular health, and mortality. She emphasizes the uncertainties surrounding long-term exposure to environmental factors and calls for longitudinal studies across academic domains. Additionally, Petra discusses the connection between the human right to a clean environment and broader social ecological crises. 

    David Rossati (VU Amsterdam) then shares on what the law can do for future pathways to environmental justice.  In the lecture, he distinguishes between instrumentalist and constitutive approaches to understanding law's role.  International climate change law in addressing issues like loss and damage, highlights how legal processes often lag behind the urgent needs of the Earth system. David calls for a nuanced understanding of law's constitutive power and its potential to promote ecological justice.

    Watch the Lecture - more information here.

  • New economy in the Anthropocene

    The society of the Anthropocene will move forward along the pathway of the current economy of which we can question whether it is causing or solving the poly crisis of the Anthropocene. In this final lecture series alternative economy scenarios are presented, such as regenerative, circular and degrowth economies that will be compared and discussed with the neoliberal capitalist system that is (still) governing our economy today.

    Steven Poelhekke’s (VU Amsterdam) lecture, 'Green Economy', examines the notion of a new economy, focusing on its definition and the need to prioritize environmental sustainability. It advocates for a shift towards a greener economy that values finite natural resources, challenging traditional economic approaches. Steven discusses challenges of implementing such changes, including altering human behavior and global coordination. He ultimately emphasizes the importance of collective action and policy intervention in driving sustainable economic growth.

    Maarten Nijman (VU Amsterdam) explores economic theories from past to present. The discussion contextualizes history before examining the current polycrisis. Maarten focuses on the role of economists, traces key historical milestones, and highlights the dominance of mainstream economics in education. Amidst emerging economic frameworks, he stresses the need to integrate these approaches into education systems to address contemporary challenges effectively.

    Watch the Lecture - more information here.

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