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The ‘Anthropocene’ is now being used as a conceptual frame by different communities and in a variety of contexts to understand the evolving human–environment relationship. However, as we argue in this paper, the notion of an Anthropos, or ‘humanity’, as global, unified ‘geological force’ threatens to mask the diversity and differences in the actual conditions and impacts of humankind, and does not do justice to the diversity of local and regional contexts. For this reason, we interpret in this article the notion of an Anthropocene in a more context-dependent, localized and social understanding. We do this through illustrating examples from four issue domains, selected for their variation in terms of spatial and temporal scale, systems of governance and functional interdependencies: nitrogen cycle distortion (in particular as it relates to food security); ocean acidification; urbanization; and wildfires. Based on this analysis, we systematically address the consequences of the lens of the Anthropocene for the governance of social-ecological systems, focusing on the multi-level, functional and sectoral organization of governance, and possible redefinitions of governance systems and policy domains. We conclude that the notion of the Anthropocene, once seen in light of social inequalities and regional differences, allows for novel analysis of issue-based problems in the context of a global understanding, in both academic and political terms. This makes it a useful concept to help leverage and (re-)focus our efforts in a more innovative and effective way to transition towards sustainability.

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.