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THE AGE OF THE ANTHROPOCENE: Is transnational environmental law the answer?

By Vaishnav Rajkumar

Human beings today are many things — artists, lawyers, authors, politicians and diplomats, to name a few. A lesser-known description of humans today, however, lies in the phrase “geologic agents” (1). As geologic agents, our activities, from agriculture to construction, result in “human-induced erosion” made possible by a “state of human geomorphic dominance” over the last few centuries (2). Complex terminology and jargon aside, this effectively implies that we are living in an era where human activities are not only closely linked to the land and the environment that surround us, but also heavily impact and dominate the degradation of these entities. This era, an age of man-made environmental destruction, has come to be known as the Anthropocene.

It was in 2000 that biologist Eugene Stormer and chemist Paul Crutzen came up with the term ‘Anthropocene’. This was the first time that the destructive patterns of human activities, ranging (3) from deforestation for construction to the exploitation and depletion of natural resources for unnecessary and surplus production over the last few centuries, were recognised as a single protracted period of man-made environmental degradation. Identification of a problem often being the first step to a solution, it would follow that this term would give rise to a variety of new policy ideas and platforms to backpedal on this age of human dominance and degradation. Yet, two decades later, scholars and researchers continue to debate how best to tackle this problem, and alleviate the environmental pressure wrought by the human activities that comprise the Anthropocene. At the point where the problems of the Anthropocene are caused by human activity that is indiscriminate of national borders and territories, the solution must also equally transcend borders. The reason behind the continued debate among scholars, therefore, is simple: the required collaboration between governments and regimes in the hope of rising above the (here) arbitrary considerations of man-made borders has repeatedly failed to materialise. Interestingly, there is a legal foundation to solving this conundrum.

Recently, especially in the last two years, numerous scholars have begun looking at transnational environmental law as the key to mitigating the harmful impacts of the Anthropocene. With the realisation that the issues to be tackled are global problems comes the understanding that the solution calls for greater global collaboration, not only between countries but also “across legal instruments and regimes”. By its very definition, transnational law (legal concepts and frameworks (4) on issues that transcend national borders) would be precisely the right approach to the problems thrown up by the Anthropocene. The most important new consideration adopted by transnational environmental law is that the global environmental problems of today, and the resultant need to govern human actions, is the responsibility not just of states but also non-state actors. This belies (5) an approach that highlights the fact that the road to solving environmental crises can no longer be paved with inter-state squabbles on jurisdiction and proportionate responsibility.

International calls to action regarding the environmental crises of today have, on numerous occasions in the past, stressed the need to rise above narrow governmental differences in policy and legal approaches. It is therefore heartening to see that the identification of the correct nomenclature for the period of man-made environmental destruction we are presently embroiled in has resulted in the formulation of a potential solution grounded in transnational law. The central question, however, remains: are we too late?

(1) Wilkinson, 2005, 163.

(2) ibid.

(3) National Geographic Society, 2019.

(4) Lim (ed.), 2019, 2-3.

(5) Kotzé, 2017, 331.

Kotzé, Louis J., editor. Environmental Law and Governance for the Anthropocene. Hart Publishing, 2017.

Lim, Michelle. Charting Environmental Law Futures in the Anthropocene. Springer Singapore, 2019.

Mai, Laura. “(Transnational) Law for the Anthropocene: Revisiting Jessup's Move from ‘What?’ to ‘How?’” Transnational Legal Theory, vol. 11, no. 1-2, 11 June 2020, pp. 105–120., doi:10.4324/9781003152590-7.

National Geographic Society. “Anthropocene.” National Geographic Society, National Geographic, 5 June 2019,

Webster, Emily, and Laura Mai. “Transnational Environmental Law in the Anthropocene.” Transnational Legal Theory, vol. 11, no. 1-2, 19 June 2020, pp. 1–15., doi:10.1080/20414005.2020.1778888.

Webster, Emily, and Laura Mai. Transnational Environmental Law in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the Role of Law in Times of Planetary Change. Routledge, 2021.

Wilkinson, Bruce H. “Humans as Geologic Agents: A Deep-Time Perspective.” Geology, vol. 33, no. 3, Mar. 2005, pp. 161–164., doi:10.1130/g21108.1.


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