Transformative Effects of Global Law: Constitutionalizing the Anthropocene

Project: Research project

Project Details


Catastrophic environmental degradation is the most urgent global challenge for humanity today, and facing it demands major societal transformations at all levels. Ours is the era of the Anthropocene, a geological period wherein humans have altered atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes to such a degree that our Holocenenic legal frameworks have proven demonstrably inadequate to manage the risks that it entails. Indeed, the scale of the changes posed by the Anthropocene are such that they are destabilizing how we distinguish nature from culture, global from local, and public from private, distinctions that have ordered global human society until now. Distressingly little thought has been given to the legal implications of the transformations that the Anthropocene is demanding of us. The purpose of this project is to do just this, to explore how the Anthropocene could be “constitutionalized”.

Our point of departure is that the challenge posed by environmental degradation is not merely existential for law as we know it today; it also has profound conceptual, normative, and institutional dimensions. Acknowledging the human role in the alteration of the Earth’s systems unsettles the very core of our values and social institutions. Our key hypothesis is that it is inadequate to simply and uncritically “globalize” our current understandings of law and governance to face this challenge, and that genuinely addressing catastrophic environmental degradation requires passing from a law of the Holocene to a law of the Anthropocene.
In short, constitutionalizing the Anthropocene will critically transform two key presuppositions of constitutionalism that characterize the Holocene. First, it is necessary to reconsider the concept and dimensions of a decision-making collective that includes Nature and future generations. Doing so will require reimagining the public/private divide in a way that accepts Nature and future generations as subjects, and not only objects, of decision-making about the public good. Second, we will need to reconfigure our Holocene notions of territorial jurisdiction in ways that overcome the simple division between the global and the local by instead positing distinctions in terms of the sustainability of earth systems. To constitutionalize the Anthropocene, thus, is to imagine the political and social conditions under which jurisdictions become terrae-dictions.

This project proposes to plow a fertile interdisciplinary field from which much can be grown. Its immediate benefits will be the generation of new concepts alongside new regulatory and institutional models that will break the intellectual mold of the Holocene and fire new ideas for the Anthropocene. Its second-order benefits will arise from harnessing and developing these ideas within networks of key academic, professional, and policy actors whose links it will deliberately foster. It will also consciously devise ways to educate the next generation of lawyers and legal scholars by developing new curricula for law faculties and other legal study programs in the Anthropocene.
Short titleAnthropocene
Effective start/end date1/08/191/08/25


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