In the article The limitations of IR theory regarding the environment: lessons from the Anthropocene, published in the issue 1/2017 (Volume 60 – N. 1) of Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, I reflect on IR’s conventional disciplinary structures, arguing that the planet’s new geological conditions challenge IR’s dominant theory. Thus, I suggest that, by rewriting itself and embracing the Anthropocene concept, IR may enhance its relevance and strengthen its impact.
The article begins with the history of IR as a discipline and the failings of which it has been accused, stressing IR’s enduring definition as a sub-discipline of Political Science (PS). Then, based on the failings, it argues that the mainstream definition of IR limits its capacity to keep pace with the current planetary conditions. Hence, the article exposes the need and benefits from doing IR outside PS, focusing on the challenges that the Anthropocene poses to conventional pathways of scholarship, as well as on their significance for IR. After that, through an empirical analysis of all of the articles published in 20 journals of relevance in the field between 2004 and 2014, it demonstrates that, despite the growing importance of environmental issues in the global arena, IR has been neglecting them as well as the Anthropocene concept. These quantitative data seem to corroborate the idea that IR’s conventional disciplinary structures do neither allow nor prepare this field to address global environmental issues, which may explain the discipline’s distant attitude towards them. Finally, the article presents a set of suggestions for alternative ways that IR might better approach the present world, highlighting the importance of reversing the current path and embracing the Anthropocene concept.
Despite all of IR’s efforts to expand in terms of its actors, theories and methodologies, the discipline has been unable to keep pace with the scale and speed of the 21st century. In my point of view, this occurs because the hegemony of PS structures (that is, state-centrism, rationalism, positivism and monodisciplinary reductionism) persists, undermining IR’s ability to address the conditions of the modern world. In fact, the discipline has a tendency towards adhering to traditional comfort zones despite efforts to renew its horizons.
However, the complexity of the challenges that humanity currently faces and the awareness that discontinuity is an extremely important feature of international interactions form a “cognitive punch” that leads to the need of reinventing IR. The “international” has been constantly expanded, and even if one tries to remain within the statist, political and rationalist domains imposed by PS, the fact that every phenomenon of the “international” is created by a variety of causal structures, mechanisms, processes and fields makes it almost impossible not to transgress those limits; otherwise, one cannot provide real interpretations and strategies. IR should abandon the traditional grounds upon which it is based because the current “international” notion demands not only a holistic conception but also new ontologies, epistemologies and methodologies. In other words, IR should free itself from the restrictive “chains” of PS. Moreover, this path is fundamental for IR to embrace the new geological conditions that confront humanity. Nothing challenges traditional disciplines more than the Anthropocene concept.
The emergence of a new geological epoch entirely dominated by human activity, i.e., the Anthropocene, makes the destinies of nature and humanity inseparable, thus breaking with not only the Cartesian dualism between the natural and social worlds but also the divided discourses between the natural sciences and the social sciences and humanities. The benign epoch of the Holocene, the relatively stable period of Earth’s history when human civilizations prospered, gave rise to a much more uncertain, unstable and dangerous one. Central to the Anthropocene concept is the claim that humans have become a dominant force in global environmental change. Some of these human-produced developments are unprecedented in Earth’s history and operate in complex and uncertain ways. Thus, human interactions are transforming the global environment and by doing so, they are shaping the future conditions for international relations.
The very nature of global environmental issues and the essence of the Anthropocene both disturb and challenge IR’s dominant structure. First, the Anthropocene world is one in which disorder assumes a very important role. IR is unaccustomed to being open to uncertainty, preparing for failure and thinking the unthinkable. IR traditionally seeks to explain phenomena by assuming linearity, using a small number of variables, and aspiring to predict international developments. In the Anthropocene, the ability to imagine multiple alternatives and devise unconventional strategies is mandatory, thus requiring a holistic perspective. The Anthropocene epoch is also a world in which states cannot be the only subjects of analysis and in which the environment cannot be perceived as a stable scenario for states to pursue their interests. The “international” of the Anthropocene comprises the interactions between human, sociopolitical, nonhuman and biophysical elements. Furthermore, environmental security can no longer be concerned with providing security for something “out there” but instead should focus on reorienting human activities because humans are now geological agents, and our common existence is dependent on our actions. This requires a new ontology and ethics of the “international” that entangles humans, nonhumans and objects, and their multiple interactions. Nevertheless, IR remains deeply anthropocentric in its analysis, and this observation generally has not been criticized. Essentially, these are the reasons why the author argues that IR needs to rewrite itself.
The article concludes with lessons that IR can learn from the Anthropocene: identifying and preparing for various alternative futures; providing iterative responses; joining with other social sciences, the humanities and natural sciences; abandoning the nature-society dichotomy; acknowledging environmental instability; adopting a post-anthropocentric perspective; and creating problem-solving theory are the pathways presented for the future of IR.
Read the article
Pereira, Joana Castro. (2017). The limitations of ir theory regarding the environment: lessons from the anthropocene. Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, 60(1), e018. Epub October 23, 2017.https://dx.doi.org/10.1590/0034-73292017001019
About the author
Joana Castro Pereira – Universidade Lusíada, Faculdade de Direito, Porto, Portugal (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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