Module 4: Scale

Summary of Module

The concept of “scale” is fundamental to how we understand, measure, describe, experience, and respond to the Anthropocene. As a scientific concept, “scale” is a framework for analyzing geographical and temporal processes. It helps provide a frame for studying the dynamics of biological, geological, and social processes. This frame, however, shapes what we see. If our frame focuses on an environmental process at the global level, it might not understand the social consequences at the local level. Likewise, if we limit our strategy for addressing an environmental issue to the national level, we might be miss regional solutions that require international cooperation. This module explores the concept of scale in the Anthropocene, presenting a series of interdisciplinary approaches that both utilize and critique the concept of scale. It also provides examples of research, policy, and activism at household, local, regional, international, and global levels.


global, local, planetary, geological time, level, deep time, Great Acceleration, long Anthropocene, technosphere, planetary stewardship, limits, flow, multiscalar analysis, plastiglomerate, indicator, scale, scaling, resilience, threshold, boundaries, grassroots, environmental justice

Learning Outcomes (beginner, intermediate, advanced)

After completing this module, readers will be able

  • to outline the main geological indicators for the Anthropocene and explain how they operate at a global level
  • to summarize the primary indicators that threaten the stability of Earth Systems
  • to define the concept of “environmental justice” and explain how it links local communities to broader social and environmental systems
  • to demonstrate how our understanding of the Anthropocene changes as we look at it across multiple scales.
  • to outline the ways in which issues of responsibility, stewardship, and governance transform according to scale.
  • to assess the strengths and weaknesses of scalar and multiscalar analysis for both research practice and policy making.


Beginner Questions, Readings, and Activities
  • What kinds of indicators do scientists use to measure the impact of environmental change at a global level?
  • What type of global environmental transformations affect your community?

In the readings above, you have seen several examples of how individuals are organizing to address the effects of environmental change in their communities. Their work to address environmental problems is linked to other systemic problems, such as racism and poverty. All of these issues operate across scales, from the local to the city to the national and international.

Make a list of the groups that are organizing around environmental concerns in your community. How many are there? Where are they located? What constituencies do they serve? What issues are they trying to address, and how are they linking them to other systemic issues, such as race, gender, or class? What issues are they not tackling? To what extent are the challenges they face complicated by structural inequities or policies at other scales?

Intermediate Questions, Readings, and Activities

  • How does our understanding of the Anthropocene change if we think of it as a global phenomenon or as a local experience?
  • What does a scalar analysis of the Anthropocene reveal or obscure? How might this affect policy approaches?
  • Toole, Stephanie, Natascha Klocker, and Lesley Head. “Re-Thinking Climate Change Adaptation and Capacities at the Household Scale.” Climatic Change 135, no. 2 (2016): 203–9.
  • Steffen, Will, Åsa Persson, Lisa Deutsch, Jan Zalasiewicz, Mark Williams, Katherine Richardson, Carole Crumley, et al. “The Anthropocene: From Global Change to Planetary Stewardship.” Ambio 40, no. 7 (2011): 739–61.

Use this table to analyze the ways in which our understanding of the Anthropocene changes across scales. At each level, explain the ways in which our understanding of environmental systems might be modified by different perspectives on how governance/political systems, socio-cultural systems, and economic systems operate.


Political Systems






Advanced Questions, Readings, and Activities

  • In which ways do issues of responsibility and stewardship in the Anthropocene vary according to scale?
  • What are the methodological challenges of multiscalar analysis? What are the potential benefits?
  • Bai, Xuemei, Sander van der Leeuw, Karen O’Brien, Frans Berkhout, Frank Biermann, Eduardo S. Brondizio, Christophe Cudennec, et al. “Plausible and Desirable Futures in the Anthropocene: A New Research Agenda.” Global Environmental Change 39, no. Supplement C (2016): 351–62.
  • Head, Lesley, Chris Gibson, Nicholas Gill, Chantel Carr, and Gordon Waitt. “A Meta-Ethnography to Synthesise Household Cultural Research for Climate Change Response.” Local Environment 21, no. 12 (2016): 1467–81.
  • Verburg, Peter H., John A. Dearing, James G. Dyke, Sander van der Leeuw, Sybil Seitzinger, Will Steffen, and James Syvitski. “Methods and Approaches to Modelling the Anthropocene.” Global Environmental Change 39, no. Supplement C (2016): 328–40.

For your area of expertise/practice, how might a multiscalar approach transform your work (keep in mind that scale might be a temporal, geographical, or analytical category)? How could it be conceptualized or implemented? In what ways could it be valuable? Review work being done in your area of expertise. Who is working on multiscalar analysis? How have they implemented it in their research?