Policy design for the Anthropocene

(Co-contributors: Åsa Löfgren, Sverker Carlsson Jagers & Will Steffen) Nature articles are always solid work, but this one was particularly arduous. Was it worth it? Pleasantries aside, we here reflect on the content's novelty, its methodology, and its potential to affect the literature and policy.

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Policies for the Anthropocene was published in Jan 2019. 28 Authors spent 4 years writing half a dozen pages. Articles in the Nature journals are always solid and well-researched work but this one was particularly arduous. Maybe because we were breaking new ground. It can still be surprisingly difficult to get economists, other social scientists, ecologists and other natural scientists with all their different perspectives to agree at any greater depth. Together, these authors have written thousands of articles – many of them much faster. Was it worth it?  The question is of course tongue in cheek but can perhaps be answered seriously by reflecting on the substantive novelty of the content, its methodology, its potential to affect the literature and its potential to impact policy.

Novel and Important Content

The concept of planetary boundaries, and its implications that we must quickly learn to respect the boundaries that nature sets for society is vital, and still relatively new - although there has, for the last decade, been a vibrant debate on such issues within the natural sciences. A search in EconLit, the main search engine for economics, shows a few articles with this perspective in the journal Ecological Economics but perhaps somewhat surprisingly, practically none are to be found in the more prestigious mainstream journals.

Awareness of our precarious situation varies. A number of crises at the local and global levels are constantly in the headlines, in particular the climate and biodiversity crises. Currently, we could add at least three major crises more: a health crisis and an economic crisis both due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and a political crisis as democracy is increasingly threatened around the globe. To deal with these challenges, it will not suffice to face each crisis separately. They cannot be compartmentalised and the necessary analysis must be multi- and interdisciplinary: These crises cannot be understood without a proper respect for science and without solid research. Moreover we need to merge the understanding and perspectives from many disciplines, such as biology, physics and chemistry to understand the nature of planetary changes and the social sciences including economics to comprehend their ultimate causes and potential solutions. We believe collaborative research is key and it is crucial to build platforms to facilitate such collaboration. One such example is our Centre for Collective Action Research at the University of Gothenburg. The aim of the centre is exactly to provide this type of joint research platform, facilitating the analysis of large-scale collective action challenges such as climate change, antibiotic resistance, ocean acidification, and now COVID-19. For example, recently, researchers from the centre published an article in World Development on Covid 19, Harring et al 2021.

Methodology and Approach

Nature Sustainability is a new journal trying to set the Agenda for a new time. It is driven somewhat more by topic urgency than by traditional disciplinary focus. With its focus on “how to drive spaceship Earth”, our article aligns closely with the journals mission. On the one hand, this assures that many readers will see the topic as important, but it makes us vulnerable with respect to methodology. We have to be eclectic. One of our challenges was to set the topic center stage and let the choice of methodology follow rather than relying on some particular toolbox.

Given the importance of multiple disciplines in tackling the intertwined challenges that humanity faces in the 21st century, an ongoing interdisciplinary approach is absolutely crucial and the mono-disciplinary approaches of mainstream economics can lead astray for these type of complex problems. For example, in Figure 1 of our paper, an array of economic approaches is most effective when synced with the biophysical demands in a closely collaborative, iterative fashion. Contrast this with the mainstream economics approach. As Lenton et al. (2019) noted in their assessment of tipping point risks: “If damaging cascades can occur and a global tipping point cannot be ruled out, then this is an existential threat to civilization. No amount of economic cost-benefit analysis is going to help us”. What can help us, though, is an approach that integrates the underlying biophysical dynamics, such tipping points, with an array of policy approaches that also account for political realities. The breakthrough that this paper represents is that it actually tackles the nuts-and-bolts challenges of realizing this ‘grand integration’.

Potential Effect (academic and real life)

The article has attracted over 70 citations since publication last year. For a new journal and such a short time, this is quite significant. It seems to show that we are having some success in trying to open up a new field. The citations come from good journals including strikingly many from Nature and Science (but still rather few in economics). Taking inspiration from our joint ventures with this article, scholars from CeCAR have continued breaking disciplinary barriers, e.g., by recently publishing two articles in the journal Ambio; one in which several scholars from both the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities are identifying the major negative stressors on human cooperation being generated by the scale of various major collective action problems, such as climate change and antibiotic resistance (Jagers et al. 2020) and another where political scientists, social environmental scientists, biologists and evolutionary biologists are reviewing and analyzing the relationship between countries’ political system and their losses of biodiversity over time (Rydén et al. 2020). 

We are attracting success in terms of publications, citations, new conferences and journals. But the big question is of course whether we will have an effect on actual policy and on the directions taken by our world economy. To answer this, we turn back to our conviction: these complex problems cannot be solved by physicists, engineers or social scientists alone. Collaboration and a joint view of the issues is vital. We hope that opening up this field of research has set a new agenda for a discussion of these fascinating and complex issues that in turn can attract the best minds and researchers from various fields. Because that is what is needed to produce adequate policy advice. A new generation of Phd-students and post-docs who see that they can combine excellence within their fields, with research collaboration with researchers from other disciplines. Only this way can research have real impact on policy design for the Anthropocene.

Authors of this post: Sverker Carlsson Jagers, Åsa Löfgren, Will Steffen & Thomas Sterner.


Harring, N., Jagers, S.C., & Löfgren, Å. 2021. “COVID-19: Large-scale collective action, government intervention, and the importance of trust”, World Development, Vol. 138, February 2021, 105236.

Jagers, S.C., Harring, N., Löfgren, Å., Sjöstedt, M., Alpizar, F., Brulde, B., Langlet, D., Nilsson, A., Carney Almroth, B.,  Dupont, S. & Steffen, W., (2019) “On the preconditions for large-scale collective action”. Ambio.  49, pages 1282–1296

Lenton, T.M., Rockström, J., Gaffney, O., Rahmstorf, S., Richardson, K., Steffen, W. and Schellnhuber, H.J. (2019) “Climate tipping points - too risky to bet against”. Nature 575: 593-596.

Rydén, O., Zizka, A., Jagers, S.C. et al. (2020). “Linking democracy and biodiversity conservation: Empirical evidence and research gaps”, Ambio, volume 49, pages 419–433

Thomas Sterner

Professor, University of Gothenburg

I am a Professor of Environmental Economics and focus on the design of policy instruments to deal with resource and environmental problems. I have published more than a dozen books and a hundred articles in refereed journals, mainly on environmental policy instruments with applications to energy, climate, industry, transport economics and resource management in developing countries. With Gunnar Köhlin, I founded the Environment for Development Initiative. I am a recipient of the Myrdal Prize and a past president for the European Association of Environmental and Resource Economists. During 2015-16 I was elected to an annual Chair at the Collège de France.

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