The Commons of the Anthropocene


The Commons of the Anthropocene

In a paper just published in PNAS, an interdisciplinary team of natural and social scientists outline how humanity could stabilise the earth system on which it so urgently depends.

We now live in a geological epoch characterised by an increasingly unstable earth system. But the agreements intended to protect this system – such as the Paris Climate Agreement – date from the Holocene, the epoch that made possible the modern world as we know it. The time has come to adapt the planet’s protection to the new age. A team of scientists suggests how this can be done.

Louis Kotzé and Johan Rockström on The Commons of the Anthropocene

Another international climate conference has just come to a close without ground-breaking results – even though the protection of the climate and the earth system as a whole is more urgent than ever.

Unfortunately, this remains as true today as it was after the previous climate conferences. For while the earth system becomes increasingly unstable, humanity has still not managed to reverse the trend in greenhouse gas emissions, it continues to treat rainforests as lumberyards, the seabed as a source of raw materials, and coral reefs as tourist attractions. But none of these are simply resources for us to exploit as we please. They are essential parts of the life-sustaining earth system on which our modern world and our very existence depend.

That is why we – an interdisciplinary team of natural and social scientists, many in the fields of political science and law – have developed the concept of the Planetary Commons, a planetary commons of the Anthropocene. These community goods should include all the earth’s significant biophysical systems and their functions. And the world’s population should care for them cooperatively.

“All significant biophysical systems” refers to much more than just the climate. It would include rivers and oceans, the giant glaciers in the mountains and in the Antarctic, mangrove forests and tidal flats, intact biodiversity, the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, monsoon systems, forests, permafrost regions, and much more.

These interacting areas, spheres, and phenomena comprise the earth system that created the basis for our modern world during the Holocene: since the last ice age the weather has been largely stable, sea level and average temperature relatively constant – a stroke of luck for us humans. These living conditions are the only ones we know of that make our familiar world possible.

But these comfortable times are over – we now find ourselves in the geological epoch of the Anthropocene, marked by unpredictable weather, an increasingly unstable earth system, rising sea levels, and a massive loss of biodiversity. It is thus high time to develop a contemporary approach to the planet’s community goods so that it remains resilient enough to continue to be our home. Even today there are already signs of how inhospitable life could become if we do not stabilise the earth system sufficiently for it to continue fulfilling its life-sustaining functions. If the average global temperature were to rise three degrees above preindustrial levels, more than three billion people would be living in heat that is hazardous to human health. This is more people than live in the world’s three most populous nations – China, India, and the United States – combined.

The benchmark of a stable earth system consists of nine planetary boundaries, six of which we have already overstretched: the climate, the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles; freshwater consumption; altered land use, predominantly through deforestation; biodiversity; and the discharge of new substances such as microplastics. Only ocean acidification and the ozone layer are still – or once again – in an acceptable state. (No planetary boundary has yet been defined for atmospheric pollution by aerosols.)

Various tipping elements are also important for the planet’s stability and resilience. These include huge areas such as the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, permafrost ecosystems and tropical coral reefs, and phenomena like the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation, which includes the Gulf Stream. Within specific corridors they all have stable characteristics, but these change rapidly and above all irreversibly at thresholds corresponding with the average global temperature – like a ruler that can be slid beyond the edge of the desk with impunity until it suddenly plummets. These elements could already tip at the current level of global warming. At 1.5 degrees, boreal forests, mangroves, and seagrass meadows will be under threat as early as the 2030s.

Science knows about the significance of planetary boundaries and tipping elements. But humanity’s protection efforts have not yet sufficiently reflected this. Usually, it is the resource perspective that prevails – who is allowed to use what and how intensively.

The dominance of the global North and the restricted access of the global South thus lead to unjust distribution – within this generation, in relation to future generations, and in relation to other species. Humanity urgently needs to ensure that these community goods and their functions continue to be available at all. In the end these living conidiations are the only ones we know of that make our familiar world possible.

Some countries have already taken a step in the right direction with the Global Commons. They have agreed to protect several essential systems: the world’s oceans and the deep sea, the atmosphere, the Antarctic, and outer space. But these international agreements were clearly negotiated in the spirit of the Holocene: On the assumption that the comfortable conditions in which our societies developed will continue, they focus much more on political interests and the balancing of power than on actual protection.

And the global commons have another shortcoming: They fail to include systems traversing the area of one or several countries, such as the Amazon rainforest. This is why the commons approach is so crucial: The planetary commons belong to everyone – regardless of where in the world they are. It’s like cloud computing: The data should be secure no matter where the server is located.

The planetary commons would thus include all tipping elements as well as the global commons – but would go much further. The planetary commons of the Anthropocene would touch on all spheres: the atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, lithosphere, and cryosphere. From the ozone layer to various monsoon systems, to wetlands and water cycles, from the carbon reservoir of the entire soil to the polar ice regions to mention only a few. It is a matter of nothing less than protecting all the planet’s significant biophysical systems – and their functions.

How must the social and legal framework be constructed to protect something so comprehensive and so tiny, something so global and at the same time so local?

In the spirit of Elinor Ostrom, who studied the administration of community goods, we advocate for a polycentric approach to governance – for a mixture of formal and informal governance and regulation, of state and social actors, of global overview and local oversight. A coordinating body should connect the various levels and ensure that the protection of the earth system is implemented as decided by the global community. The United Nations General Assembly could be a starting point for this body; but it stands in the tradition of an outdated, European political order. A parliamentary assembly or similar new approaches could make the body more representative, legitimate, and just.

Each sphere of the earth system would need a specific governance structure. Some could be derived from existing agreements, for instance from the Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Antarctic Treaty; others would be newly developed. Neo-colonial and neoliberal practices of exploitation must be avoided – we do not want climate colonialism.

It will be crucial to regulate the relationship between local custodians and global beneficiaries of the planetary commons. In the earth system, what people do in one place often has serious global consequences, for example the emission of greenhouse gasses. If humanity were to develop governance rules for the Amazon rainforest or permafrost ecosystems, for example, it would be up to the countries, indigenous groups, and local communities to coordinate them. They would be paid for this task by the rest of the global community – and the global community would need the political and legal ability to sanction potential violations of the conservation goal.

For anyone sceptical of whether the global community would be capable of joining together in this way, there is already evidence that it can: The protective ozone layer is only intact again thanks to a far-reaching and well-conceived cooperation.

We nonetheless recognise the sheer complexity and scale of what follows from our proposal. Designing and implementing a form of cooperation this comprehensive and innovative is an incredible undertaking. And let us be honest: Governing the planetary commons collectively will encounter resistance. Not only would it impinge on countries’ rights of self-determination and freedom of choice, but corporate interests, global power imbalances, and national borders would also be called into question.

But we are convinced: The Anthropocene demands nothing less.

Research Paper

Find out more about the Planetary Commons in the recently published paper “The Planetary Commons: A New Paradigm for Safeguarding Earth Regulating Systems in the Anthropocene”. The publication is the result of an almost two year-long research process involving 22 leading international researchers and was co-led by Prof. Rockström and Prof. Louis Kotzé, Chair of the program “Governing the Global Commons” at THE NEW INSTITUTE.

Johan Rockström is Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Professor in Earth System Science at the University of Potsdam. He is an internationally leading scientist on global sustainability issues and led the development of the Planetary Boundaries framework for human development in the current era of rapid global change. In 2023 he was recognized by Time Magazine as ranking among the world’s 100 most influential people.

| stay informed | stay connected


What is happening at THE NEW INSTITUTE? Step inside by following our institutional newsletter, which ties together the work of our fellows and programs, where the whole is more than the sum of its parts.


We use cookies to measure how often our site is visited and how it is used. You can withdraw your consent at any time with effect for the future. For further information, please refer to our privacy policy.