Organizing in the Anthropocene

Human civilization has now irrevocably altered basic Earth systems. Two centuries of industrialisation and economic globalization based upon the rapacious exploitation of fossil fuels, and the destruction of forests, lands, oceans and cultures has disrupted the Earth’s atmosphere and ice caps and devastated the biosphere. This has occurred at such a scale and pace that Earth scientists argue we are leaving the Holocene geological epoch and entering the more volatile ‘Anthropocene’.

This is a period in which human activity has discernibly affected the Earth’s global functioning to such an extent it is now operating outside the range of any previous natural variability. These changes breach planetary boundaries and reduce or eliminate the ‘safe operating space for humanity’, including: a step-change in the average temperature of the planet this century of around 4 degrees Celsius; the sixth great species extinction in the geological record; the acidification of oceans; the disruption of the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles; and the pollution of air and water with a range of chemical and radioactive toxins. Extreme weather events, sea-level rise, food and water shortages, and accompanying political conflicts and wars suggest that life this century for much of the planet’s population is likely to be increasingly hard, violent and precarious. The implications for organizations and organizing could not be more profound.

Recognising that human activity has discernibly changed the Earth’s global functioning has revolutionary implications for our understanding of ourselves and the globally-integrated, growth-based, fossil-fuelled organizations on which much of the world’s population relies.

While organizational scholars have for some time focused on the natural world as a context for business activities, far fewer have sought to adopt a critical approach to the way in which changing Earth systems affect how we understand organizing and organizations.

Recently, colleagues and I edited a special issue of the journal Organization entitled ‘Organizing in the Anthropocene’ in which we invited scholars to reflect on the huge and diverse implications that the Anthropocene brings to our understanding of organizations and organizing.

The goal with the special issue was two-fold:

  1. to stimulate the organization studies community to engage in discussions about the concept of the Anthropocene, and;
  2. to encourage Anthropocene scholars to think further about the politics of the Anthropocene by considering how organizations and organizing underpin how human societies will respond in this new geological epoch.

You can read our introductory editorial article here, in which we provide a background context on the concept of the Anthropocene, before exploring some of the highly contested debates about the Anthropocene and how we understand its causes and implications.

We set out five different narratives of Anthropocene organizing which the papers in our special issue engage with. We label these:

  • organizing economics – the magical thinking of business as usual;
  • organizing technology – the fallacy of the ecomodern ‘Good Anthropocene’;
  • organizing resistance: climate mobilization and social justice;
  • organizing alternatives: new forms and possibilities of social organization; and
  • organizing culture – the Anthropocene and the imagination.

We conclude the article by demonstrating how organizations and organizing are central to our understanding of a world increasingly altered by human actions. We now live in new and unfamiliar world in which the basic physical features of a stable climate are now unraveling at an increasing pace: welcome to the Anthropocene – an age of consequences!

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