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The moral geography of the Earth system

Schmidt, Jeremy J.

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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.


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

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Mar 11, 2019
Online Publication Date Apr 14, 2019
Publication Date Dec 31, 2019
Deposit Date Mar 13, 2019
Publicly Available Date Apr 14, 2021
Journal Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers
Print ISSN 0020-2754
Publisher Wiley
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 44
Issue 4
Pages 721-734


Accepted Journal Article (273 Kb)

Copyright 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.

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