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While the concept of the Anthropocene reflects the past and present nature, scale and magnitude of human impacts on the Earth System, its true significance lies in how it can be used to guide attitudes, choices, policies and actions that influence the future. Yet, to date much of the research on the Anthropocene has focused on interpreting past and present changes, while saying little about the future. Likewise, many futures studies have been insufficiently rooted in an understanding of past changes, in particular the long-term co-evolution of bio-physical and human systems. The Anthropocene perspective is one that encapsulates a world of intertwined drivers, complex dynamic structures, emergent phenomena and unintended consequences, manifest across different scales and within interlinked biophysical constraints and social conditions. In this paper we discuss the changing role of science and the theoretical, methodological and analytical challenges in considering futures of the Anthropocene. We present three broad groups of research questions on: (1) societal goals for the future; (2) major trends and dynamics that might favor or hinder them; (3) and factors that might propel or impede transformations towards desirable futures. Tackling these questions requires the development of novel approaches integrating natural and social sciences as well as the humanities beyond what is current today. We present three examples, one from each group of questions, illustrating how science might contribute to the identification of desirable and plausible futures and pave the way for transformations towards them. We argue that it is time for debates on the sustainability of the Anthropocene to focus on opportunities for realizing desirable and plausible futures.

Since it was first proposed in 2000, the concept of the Anthropocene has evolved in breadth and diversely. The concept encapsulates the new and unprecedented planetary-scale changes resulting from societal transformations and has brought to the fore the social drivers of global change. The concept has revealed tensions between generalized interpretations of humanity’s contribution to global change, and interpretations that are historically, politically and culturally situated. It motivates deep ethical questions about the politics and economics of global change, including diverse interpretations of past causes and future possibilities. As such, more than other concepts, the Anthropocene concept has brought front-and-center epistemological divides between and within the natural and social sciences, and the humanities. It has also brought new opportunities for collaboration. Here we explore the potential and challenges of the concept to encourage integrative understandings of global change and sustainability. Based on bibliometric analysis and literature review, we discuss the now wide acceptance of the term, its interpretive flexibility, the emerging narratives as well as the debates the concept has inspired. We argue that without truly collaborative and integrative research, many of the critical exchanges around the concept are likely to perpetuate fragmented research agendas and to reinforce disciplinary boundaries. This means appreciating the strengths and limitations of different knowledge domains, approaches and perspectives, with the concept of the Anthropocene serving as a bridge, which we encourage researchers and others to cross. This calls for institutional arrangements that facilitate collaborative research, training, and action, yet also depends on more robust and sustained funding for such activities. To illustrate, we briefly discuss three overarching global change problems where novel types of collaborative research could make a difference: (1) Emergent properties of socioecological systems; (2) Urbanization and resource nexus; and (3) Systemic risks and tipping points. Creative tensions around the Anthropocene concept can help the research community to move toward new conceptual syntheses and integrative action-oriented approaches that are needed to producing useful knowledge commensurable with the challenges of global change and sustainability.