We have entered a new geologic epoch, called the Anthropocene, that recognizes people’s effect on the Earth’s ecosystems—harming them in ways that are likely irreversible. So what will Anthropocene society look like in the future?

Erb faculty member Andrew Hoffman and P. Devereaux Jennings, of the University of Alberta, recently published “Institutional-Political Scenarios for Anthropocene Society” in Business & Society, which delves into that question and how sustainability will be redefined in the Anthropocene. It argues for a new way of thinking—and a new approach for environmental and social sustainability research.

Hoffman and Jennings have talked about their research in Business and Management Ink and published a book, Re-engaging With Sustainability in the Anthropocene Era, that discusses how organizational theory and an appreciation for culture change can help us navigate a new course. Here, Hoffman talks with the Erb Institute about rethinking the system we operate in and how to change it.

In your article about institutional-political scenarios, what are you arguing, in a nutshell?

Scientists say that the Anthropocene began in the mid-1800s, with the invention of the steam engine. Then in 1950, with the Great Acceleration, our impact on the environment increased dramatically. But the way I see it, the conversation about the Anthropocene has been dominated by the physical sciences. What Dev and I are trying to do is add the social science component to the conversation. What does Anthropocene society look like? What are the norms and rules that will prevail? Will they bring us to a Re-enlightenment, or will we not adapt at all?

If we don’t come to terms with this new reality, we’re really in deep trouble. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in their last report this past fall, said if we don’t come to terms with climate change in the next 12 years, damage to the global climate will be irreversible. And climate change is just one marker of the Anthropocene; there are eight other “planetary boundaries” that scientists have identified. These are boundaries beyond which we should not go if we want to maintain a safe environment for the Earth. And we’ve crossed three of them already: climate change, species extinction and nitrogen pollution. Another five are being monitored.  Only one is in decline: ozone depletion. Technology, like alternative drive trains and renewable energy, will help us get part of the way in solving these issues, but they must be accompanied by cultural and institutional change both to get us to change our behavior and demand these and other technologies be developed.

What are the three scenarios you envision?

They are “Collapsing Systems,” which is dystopian, the worst scenario; “Cultural Re-enlightenment,” which is the utopian one; and in the middle is “Market Rules,” where the market rules dominate. Market Rules will make some progress, but it won’t get us all the way, because at the end of the day, a Tesla’s a nice car, but it’s still another car. This requires a different way of thinking. If you take the Anthropocene seriously, we now have a collective challenge as a global species to manage the global environment. So how does that manifest itself in values?

I think the Pope’s encyclical starts to do that. There’s a new set of values here: We can’t just worship technology. We can’t just pursue unlimited economic growth. Perhaps we need to have some values of sufficiency—of “enough is enough,” of “material goods don’t define our value.” This is important for recognizing and changing our deepest values. If people connect environmental protection with what they espouse at the church, synagogue, mosque or temple, then society will shift in dramatic and meaningful ways.

How might business leaders start to think differently about some of these things?

Business is a major part of our society. If you look at the major cultural shift of Enlightenment of the 18th century, our conceptions of ourselves and the environment, and the relationship between the two, were fundamentally different before and after. So if we’re going through a Re-enlightenment now, one big difference is that this time, we have a market and corporations. They are a major force in this social shift, so I think this paper and the idea of the Anthropocene could be useful to corporations as they start to think about long-term planning.

Who will drive this shift?

If it’s only corporations, it’s going to be driven by money, and it will not focus on the core of the issue. If it’s only technologists, it’s only going to be driven by technology, and the result will be equally inadequate. But if it’s a full Re-enlightenment, then religious values, community, education, technologies and corporations all have a role to play. And certainly, that’s a more attractive future than just “We’re going to use technology to get ourselves out of this.” We need to have a new sense of ethics, judgment or values to go with it.

For example, we are still a society driven by consumption. We’re 7 billion people, soon to be 9 billion people, and we simply cannot consume in the same way going forward. The market can only get us so far. Somewhere in there, we have to have values and ethics and a shift in our ideas of who we are—and how we are connected to the environment.

Why are a corporation’s efforts to reduce its environmental footprint not enough?

When a company announces they’ll do a 20 percent reduction in C02 emissions by 2030, that’s nice, but it’s not going to solve the problem. You have to go carbon neutral. Reducing carbon is not changing the system, it’s about eco-efficiency—changing out your light bulbs, making your buildings more efficient. It’s just optimizing what you’re already doing. To go carbon neutral, you have to totally change how you think. It has to be a fundamental shift.

Where do you expect to see that kind of shift?

One area that’s going to be fundamentally different is food. The amount of meat we eat will diminish. The environment cannot support 9 billion people who want to eat a big T-bone steak every night like Americans do. It’s just not possible. So how do we think about alternative forms of protein, whether that’s insects, like crickets, or plant-based meat substitutes, like Impossible meat, or vegetarian lifestyles? What will come with that perhaps is a set of ethics. Maybe, in the future, we will look at all animals with the same compassion that we hold for cats and dogs.

No one’s really grasping it, but there are companies trying to figure it out. They are opening that Pandora’s box and asking those deeper questions. Toyota has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050. How are they going to do it? Who knows, but you won’t find the answers if you don’t begin asking the really tough questions.

Also, Patagonia is pushing the boundaries. Through its Common Threads and Worn Wear initiatives, the company encourages people to buy used clothing and teaches them how to repair clothing with its repair kits. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development has been asking the question: Is there such thing as sustainable consumption, and what does that look like? These are the questions we need to ask. That is what the Erb Institute is here to do.