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The moral geography of the Earth system.

Schmidt, Jeremy J. (2019) 'The moral geography of the Earth system.', Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers., 44 (4). pp. 721-734.


Human impacts on the Earth system have profound moral consequences. The uneven generation and distribution of harms, and the acceleration of human forces now altering how the Earth system functions, also trouble moral accounts of belonging. This article shows how moral geography can be renewed in this context. It begins by identifying how human impacts on the Earth system are shifting global norms of sustainability, such as in calls to enhance planetary stewardship and to transform social values. These shifts are important in themselves, but also reveal a deeper challenge to moral geography and the counterfactual heuristics traditionally relied on to understand belonging. In response, many critical scholars have rethought the terms and conditions of belonging in the Anthropocene in reference to considerations of novelty, time, ontology, and agency. I argue that these strategies face difficulties that are not only analytical, but which also arise from new practices of belonging that accept critiques yet reach markedly different conclusions. I examine two cases of this kind. The first treats human forces as a geological sphere: the technosphere. The second incorporates the planetary boundaries framework of Earth system science as the basis for a grundnorm (a norm basic to all others) in international programmes of environmental law and governance. Examining these two practices within the broader context of shifts in sustainability reveals a new politics of naturalisation unperturbed by critical scholarship on the Anthropocene. By contrast, a renewed moral geography can identify how earlier norms of sustainable development, especially the promotion of economic instruments to secure environmental relief, now structure the incorporation of Earth system science in sustainability transitions. Retaining the structure of sustainability and accepting critiques of the Anthropocene are now giving rise to a new form of neoliberalism without nature.

Item Type:Article
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Publisher statement:This is the accepted version of the following article: Schmidt, Jeremy J. (2019). The moral geography of the Earth system. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 44(44): 721-734, which has been published in final form at This article may be used for non-commercial purposes in accordance With Wiley Terms and Conditions for self-archiving.
Date accepted:11 March 2019
Date deposited:13 March 2019
Date of first online publication:14 April 2019
Date first made open access:14 April 2021

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