Anthropocene – the age of mankind

In the Anthropocene, the human population and our activities have accelerated to become the dominant force shaping the dynamics of the biosphere and the Earth system as a whole. The speed, spread and connectivity of the human dimension is unprecedented. Humanity and our actions now constitute the major force in the evolution of life on Earth.

Photo: IStock/Dmytro Varavin

Research at the Beijer Institute is based on the understanding that global economy, societies and cultures are embedded in the biosphere. Social conditions, health, culture, democracy, power, justice, inequity, matters of security and even survival are interwoven with the Earth system and its biosphere in a complex interplay of local, regional and worldwide interactions and dependencies.

Risk in the Anthropocene

In this new proposed geological epoch, extreme weather and geopolitical events interact with the dynamics of the food system, and can spill over multiple sectors and cause synchronous challenges that rapidly move across countries and regions. Understanding such complex dynamics was the focus of an earlier Beijer Institute research programme, now the topic spans over several areas of research.

The intertwined dynamics have been exemplified by work on the rise of antibiotic and pesticide resistance and associated governance challenges, published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, and in development of a new concept denoted Anthropocene Risk, presented in the journal Nature Sustainability. Anthropocene Risk integrates risks that emerge from human-driven processes; that interact with global human-environment connectivity; and that exhibit complex interactions from the local to the global and through time. Such risks are exemplified by moisture recycling connections between nations; aquaculture and stranded assets; and sea-level rise and megacities.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility of the tightly interconnected globalised world of the Anthropocene. A study in Nature showed that simplified ecosystems, modified for the production of one or a few harvestable species, combined with tight couplings to international markets and urban areas, have produced a global production ecosystem that is homogenous, highly connected and characterised by low resilience . This enables new and pervasive risks to emerge, interact and spread.

Futures in a new epoch

Crises can also open up windows of opportunity for societal shifts and tipping points for transformative change towards sustainable futures, as illustrated in a paper in Global Environmental Change analysing political shocks and governance transitions.

Evolution in the Anthropocene is another rapidly developing area in which the Beijer Institute is engaged. We are studying how people and planet co-evolve. A review of human-driven evolution in the Anthropocene biosphere, published in 2019, highlighted strategies for governing such co-evolutionary dynamics.

Current knowledge is summarised in ‘Our Future in the Anthropocene Biosphere’, serving as a background document for the first Nobel Prize Summit on Global Sustainability in spring 2021, prepublished in the Beijer Discussion Paper series.

Contact person: Carl Folke


Jørgensen, P.S, C. Folke, P.J.G. Henriksson, K. Malmros, M. Troell, A. Zorzet, and the Living with Resistance Project. 2020. Coevolutionary Governance of Antibiotic and Pesticide Resistance. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 35:484-494.

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Keys, P., V. Galaz, M. Dyer, N. Matthews, C. Folke, M. Nyström, and S. Cornell. 2019. Anthropocene Risk. Nature Sustainability 2:667-673.

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Nyström, M., J.-B. Jouffray, A. V. Norström, B. Crona, P. Søgaard-Jørgensen, S. R. Carpenter, Ö. Bodin, V. Galaz, and C. Folke. 2019. Anatomy and resilience of the global production ecosystem. Nature 575:98-108.

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Herrfahrdt-Pähle, E., M. Schlüter, P. Olsson, C. Folke, S. Gelcich and C. Pahl-Wostl. 2020. Sustainability transformations: socio-political shocks as opportunities for governance transitions. Global Environmental Change 63:102097.

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Jørgensen, P.S., C. Folke, and S.P. Carroll. 2019. Evolution in the Anthropocene: Informing Governance and Policy. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 50:527-546.

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Folke et al. 2020. Beijer Discussion Paper 272: Our Future in the Anthropocene Biosphere: Global sustainability and resilient societies. Beijer Discussion Paper Series.

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Sterner, T. et al. 2019. Policy design for the Anthropocene. Nature Sustainability 2:14–21.

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