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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.

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.