Module 5: Policy

Summary of Module

To face the challenges posed by the Anthropocene, the policy sector has become a crucial arena for identifying solutions for a better future. However, decisions made in the policy sector have also contributed to the planetary crises we face today. Because of this, people around the globe have organized themselves to push for change. This module explores how environmental policy decisions get made at multiple levels as well as the tensions inherent to them as conflicts over priorities and perspectives emerge.


policy, commons, indigenous knowledge, local knowledge, sustainable development, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, polycentric governance, agency, intergenerational dependence, ecosystems services

Learning Outcomes (beginner, intermediate, advanced)

After completing this module, readers will be able

  • to summarize the limits, tensions, and possibilities inherent to addressing environmental change at the local to global levels.
  • to outline the recent history of environmental policy by the United Nations.
  • to explain how water policy in Bolivia’s recent history demonstrates some of the tensions inherent to global economic and development policies and environmental justice.
  • to compare and contrast current models of governance and policy frameworks and explain how new models of governance might be necessary in the Anthropocene.
  • to chart how our varying notions of accountability, responsibility, and stewardship affect policy decisions.
  • to explain how “polycentric governance” addresses some of the challenges of policy in the Anthropocene.
  • to outline the various models for “ecosystems services” based policy and summarize the various critiques that have been leveled against them.


Beginner Questions, Readings, and Activities
  • What environmental policies have international organizations and governments attempted to implement at the global level? What challenges do they face?
  • How has the United Nations responded to environmental challenges since the 1990s?
  • How do Bolivia’s “water wars” help us better understand the conflicts between notions of environmental justice and global economic and development policies? How do they help us better understand the tensions between local practices, state policies, and international trade agreements?

Identify a water source near your house (e.g. lake, stream, aquifer). Contact your local leaders, government organizations, academics, and librarians to determine who makes policies and decisions about it. Who is responsible for flood control? drought? access to the water for recreation, domestic, and industrial use? wells? pollution? monitoring of chemicals? drainage? fish? wildlife? remediation? What are the state/regional, national, and international regulations each of these groups are responsible for following? Who makes these policies? Who enforces them? Are these groups thinking about the effects that Anthropocenic environmental change might have on this water source?

Create a chart that connects all of the government and policy structures involved in making decisions about the future of the source. Knowing this, how can you work with your community and these organizations to effect responsible practices and policies for this water system?

Intermediate Questions, Readings, and Activities
  • In what ways might the Anthropocene prompt us to imagine new models for governance? What tensions might be inherent to these different models?
  • What does it mean to be an “agent” of environmental change? Is this “agency” individual or collective or both? How do our notions of “agency” affect our concepts of environmental accountability, responsibility, and stewardship? What effects might our notions of “agency” have on our policy decisions?   

Read Rockström, Johan, Will Steffen, Kevin Noone, Åsa Persson, F. Stuart Chapin, Eric F. Lambin, Timothy M. Lenton, et al. “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity.” Nature 461, no. 7263 (2009): 472–75.

What are the practices and policies in your locality that are contributing to the stress on planetary boundaries? What groups in your community are working to limit these stressors? With whom are they working? Consult a local scientist to identify what Anthropocene-related environmental change is likely to look like over the next several decades. Who in your community is most likely to be adversely affected by environmental this change? How is your local government responding to and/or planning for environmental change associated with the Anthropocene?

Contact your local government representatives and let them know what you have found and how you think they should respond.

Advanced Questions, Readings, and Activities
  • What is “polycentric governance” and how does it address some of the challenges of policy in the Anthropocene?
  • What are “ecosystems services,” and how have they been used to frame new policy approaches to the environment? In what ways have scholars critiqued this approach?

Identify an environmental challenge facing your region that has been or will be amplified because of climate change. In what ways is your local and state/regional government planning for these changes?

Create a visual model of current governance and policy regimes that are addressing this environmental challenge. In what ways might a polycentric governance model improve on current practices? What are the gaps that exist? What would be the most effective solutions for addressing these gaps?

Draft a position statement to a local, state or federal agency that encourages the development of a new public policy.