Re-grounding the human-Earth relationship

April 2015
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| Geoffrey Garver, E4A Project Coordinator

The comforts and conveniences of modern life come with dangerous costs. Humanity has overwhelmed and degraded many ecological support systems on which all life depends. Much of the Earth’s fresh water is contaminated or in short supply — often leading to conflict.  Non-renewable energy sources like fossil fuels are dwindling and environmental impacts of extracting and using them as we do are increasingly just plain unacceptable. Climate change in particular is a very serious threat to the stability of Earth’s life support systems and raises stark questions of justice between those who have caused the problem and those who suffer the costs.  Considering impacts like these, many scientists believe the Earth has entered a human-dominated epoch called the “Anthropocene.”

The Economics for the Anthropocene (E4A) Partnership (, spearheaded by Professor Peter G. Brown, Natural Resource Sciences and McGill School of Environment, was launched in June 2014 to tackle these daunting challenges.  Rooted in ecological economics, the E4A project seeks to revolutionize how the social sciences and humanities respond to scientific information about how modern society affects the ecological foundations it depends on. McGill, York University and the University of Vermont form the partnership’s core.

Altogether, the E4A Partnership brings together 25 academic, government and civil society partners to pursue the project’s four main objectives: first, to build a vibrant international research network; second, to educate  up to 60 doctoral and master’s students to address the challenges of the Anthropocene; third, to engage academic and non-academic partners in applying ecological economics to solve real-world environmental problems that define this new era; and fourth, to reconcile disciplines that help shape individual and societal  choices—such as economics, finance, law, governance and ethics—with an understanding of how ecosystems function and evolve.

E4A focuses on three pressing regional problems: water security, energy supply and climate justice.  E4A students enter the project in cohorts aligned with those challenges. The water cohort will investigate solutions to issues of trans-boundary water pollution and watershed management, using Lake Champlain as a case study. The energy cohort will consider issues of energy supply in Quebec and surrounding jurisdictions, using the perspective and tools of ecological economics to frame and influence public discourse and policy decisions.  The climate justice cohort will address the reality that those least responsible for global climate change often bear the brunt of its impacts.  Poor people living in energy intensive North American cities such as the Greater Toronto Area are less able to afford protection against climate change impacts like extreme heat events, and distant regions in Africa and Asia are subject  to droughts, floods and sea level rise that imperil the lives of countless numbers of people and other species.  All cohorts will help extend the principles of ecological economics into other disciplines.  For each cohort, the project will bring on three Community Scholars, community-based experts whose practical knowledge and experience will enhance E4A’s research and outreach.

Participants at the retreat

Participants at the retreat

The nine PhD and two Master’s students who inaugurated the E4A project in fall 2014 make up the water cohort.  The project’s core faculty and an E4A Community Scholar joined the water cohort for a retreat the weekend of January 30 to February 1, at the Adirondack Ecological Center in Newcomb, New York.  The retreat was a welcome opportunity to come together from Toronto, Montreal and Burlington to focus on E4A activities and priorities for the coming months and to share updates on the students’ research.  A key discussion topic was the upcoming E4A Water Field Course that the water cohort will attend at UVM from May 26 to June 5.  The field course will involve many E4A non-academic partners, with the goal of collaborating on how ecological economics approaches that the students studied this year can be applied to real world problems in the Lake Champlain basin.  But the best result from the weekend was the great team spirit and enhanced focus and sense of mission that the E4A team took away from a rigorous set of discussions on how E4A can help make the Anthropocene an era in which the human-Earth relationship becomes mutually enhancing.


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