Netherlands International Law Review

, Volume 66, Issue 3, pp 441–473 | Cite as

Primal Scene to Anthropocene: Narrative and Myth in International Environmental Law

  • Justin RoseEmail author
  • Margaretha Wewerinke-Singh
  • Jessica Miranda


In recent years much jurisprudential affection has coalesced around the concept of the Anthropocene. International lawyers have enlisted among the ranks of humanities and social science authors embracing this proposed scientific time category, and putting it to work. This essay draws on sources from a range of fields including legal anthropology and critical legal theory in re-examining the reception of the Anthropocene in international law, focusing on its mythical qualities. We demonstrate how the Anthropocene both reinforces and meshes perfectly with the three narrative pillars of contemporary international environmental law: evolutionary progress; universal evaluations of nature and constructions of legal subjectivity; and legal monism. The Anthropocene, like few ideas in modern scholarship, is quite expressly a tale of origins explaining and legitimating its narrators’ place in the universe. Joining signposts such as The Tragedy of the Commons, the Myth of the Anthropocene embeds collective memories eclipsing the need to reconsider complex and contested histories in understanding the contemporary roles of law in mediating people’s relations with nature. In response, we call for a more inclusive account of environmental law that draws on diversity rather than universality, with particular sensitivity to those perspectives that are inadvertently excluded from the Anthropocene discourse.


Anthropocene International environmental law Environmental justice Critical legal theory Legal pluralism 



The authors are grateful to Tejas Rao for research assistance, and to Colin Leo for his contribution to this article.


  1. Alexander S (2014) Wild law from below: examining the anarchist challenge to Earth Jurisprudence. In: Maloney M, Burden P (eds) Wild law: in practice. Routledge, Abingdon, pp 31–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Angelo M (2006) Embracing uncertainty, complexity, and change: an eco-pragmatic reinvention of a first-generation environmental law. Ecol Law Q 33:105–202Google Scholar
  3. Arnold C (2011) Fourth-generation environmental law: integrationist and multimodal. William Mary Environ Law Policy Rev 35:771–884Google Scholar
  4. Barthes R (1972) Mythologies. Hill and Wang, New York (orig pub 1957)Google Scholar
  5. Berry T (1999) The great work: our way into the future. Bell Tower, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  6. Berry T (2002) Rights of the Earth: recognizing the rights of all living beings. Resurgence, issue 214, September/October 2002Google Scholar
  7. Berry T, Swimme B (1992) The universe story. Harper, San FranciscoGoogle Scholar
  8. Biermann F et al (2016) Down to Earth: contextualising the Anthropocene. Glob Environ Change 39:341–350CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Black J (2007) Naval power in the revolutionary era. Defence Stud 7:171–192CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Blaut J (1993) The colonizer’s model of the world: geographical diffusionism and Eurocentric history. The Guilford Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  11. Bosselmann K (1995) When two worlds collide. RSVP Publishing, AucklandGoogle Scholar
  12. Bosselmann K (2010) Losing the forest for the trees: environmental reductionism in the law. Sustainability 2(8):2424–2448CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Bosselmann K (2015) Earth governance: trusteeship of the global commons. Edward Elgar Publishing, CheltenhamCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Braidotti R (2019) Posthuman knowledge. Polity Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  15. Brown M (2008) Cultural relativism 2.0. Curr Anthropol 49:363–383CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Brownlie I (1988) Editor’s preface. In: Smith BD (ed) State responsibility and the marine environment: the rules of decision. Clarendon Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  17. Burdon P (2012) A theory of Earth Jurisprudence. Aust J Leg Philos 37:28–60Google Scholar
  18. Burdon P (2015) Earth Jurisprudence: private property and the environment. Routledge, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  19. Castree N (2014) The Anthropocene and the environmental humanities. Environ Humanit 5:233–260CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Chinkin C et al (2019) Bozkurt case, aka the Lotus case (France v Turkey): Ships that go bump in the night. In: Hodson L, Lavers T (eds) Feminist judgments in international law. Hart Publishing, Oxford, pp 27–52Google Scholar
  21. Clarke A (2018) Introducing making kin, not population. In: Clarke AE, Haraway D (eds) Making kin, not population. Prickly Paradigm Press, Chicago, pp 3–29Google Scholar
  22. Cover R (1983) Nomos and narrative. Harv Law Rev 97:4–68CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Cullinan C (2002) Wild Law: governing people for Earth. Siberlnk, ClaremontGoogle Scholar
  24. Cullinan C (2011) Wild Law: a manifesto for Earth Justice, 2nd edn. Green Books, TotnesGoogle Scholar
  25. Curry P (1998) Defending Middle Earth Tolkien: myth and modernity. Harper-Collins, LondonGoogle Scholar
  26. Dalby S (2014) Environmental geopolitics in the twenty-first century. Alternatives 39:3–16CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Darwin C (1891) The descent of man, vol II. John Murray, LondonGoogle Scholar
  28. Davies M (2005) The ethos of pluralism. Syd Law Rev 27:87–112Google Scholar
  29. de Montaigne (1580) Essays. Millanges Riche, ParisGoogle Scholar
  30. de Schutter et al (2012) Human rights due diligence: the role of states. Accessed 1 Oct 2019
  31. de Sousa Santos B (2002) Toward a multicultural conception of human rights. In: Hernández-Truyol B (ed) Moral imperialism: a critical anthology. New York University Press, New York, pp 39–60Google Scholar
  32. Eliot D (1985) The evolutionary tradition in jurisprudence. Columbia Law Rev 85:38–94CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Esty D (2001–2002) Next generation environmental law. Cap Univ Law Rev 29:183-204Google Scholar
  34. Fitzpatrick P (1992) The mythology of modern law. Routledge, LondonCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Gould S (1978) Sociobiology: the art of storytelling. New Scientist, 16 November 1978, pp 530-533Google Scholar
  36. Grear A (2015) Deconstructing ‘Anthropos’: a critical legal reflection on ‘Anthropocentric’ law and Anthropocene ‘humanity’. Law Critique 26:225–249CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Grear A (2017) Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene: re-encountering environmental law and its ‘subject’ with Haraway and new materialism. In: Kotzé L (ed) Environmental law and governance for the anthropocene. Hart Publishing, Oxford, pp 77–95Google Scholar
  38. Griffiths J (1986) What is legal pluralism? J Leg Pluralism 24:1–55Google Scholar
  39. Griffiths A (2002) Legal pluralism. In: Banakar R, Travers M (eds) An introduction to law and social theory. Hart Publishing, Oxford, pp 289–310Google Scholar
  40. Gunningham N, Holley C (2016) Next-generation environmental regulation: law, regulation, and governance. Annu Rev Law Soc Sci 12:273–293CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Hamilton C (2016) The Anthropocene as rupture. Anthropocene Rev 3:93–106CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Hardin G (1968) The tragedy of the commons. Science 162(3859):1243–1248CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Hart HLA (1961) The concept of law. Clarendon Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  44. Hayman E (2018) Future rivers of the Anthropocene or whose Anthropocene is it? Decolonising the Anthropocene! Decolonization Indig Educ Soc 6(2):77–92Google Scholar
  45. Hegel G (1967) The phenomenology of the spirit. Harper and Row, New York (orig pub 1807)Google Scholar
  46. Heglar M (2019) Climate change isn’t racist—people are. Zora Medium. Accessed 4 Oct 2019
  47. Higgins P, Short D, South N (2013) Protecting the planet: a proposal for a law of ecocide. Crime Law Soc Change 59(3):251–266CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Hiley M (2004) Stolen language, cosmic models: myth and mythology in Tolkien. Mod Fict Stud 50:838–860CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Hobbes T (1968) Leviathan. Penguin Books, LondonGoogle Scholar
  50. Hoebel EA (1968) Law of primitive man: a study in comparative legal dynamics. Atheneum, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  51. Humphreys S, Otomo Y (2014) Theorising international environmental law. LSE Law, Society and Economy Working Papers 9/2014Google Scholar
  52. Humphreys S, Otomo Y (2016) Theorizing international environmental law. In: Orford A, Hoffman F (eds) The Oxford handbook of the theory of international law. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 797–819Google Scholar
  53. Ivanova M, Escobar-Pemberthy N (2017) Global environmental governance in the Anthropocene: setting and achieving global goals. In: Kotzé L (ed) Environmental law and governance for the anthropocene. Hart Publishing, Oxford, pp 165–188Google Scholar
  54. Jensen SLB (2017) Putting to rest the Three Generations Theory of human rights. Open Global Rights. Accessed 30 Oct 2019
  55. Johannes B (2002) The renaissance of community-based marine resource management in Oceania. Annu Rev Ecol Syst 33:317–340CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Karp M (2011) Slavery and American sea power: the navalist impulse in the Antebellum South. J South Hist 77:283–324Google Scholar
  57. Kennedy D (2014) Evolutionary narratives: a cautionary tale. Soc Sci Today 1:12–23CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Klein N (2019) On fire: the burning case for a green new deal. Penguin Books, LondonGoogle Scholar
  59. Kleinhans MM, Macdonald R (1997) What is a ‘critical’ legal pluralism? Can J Law Soc 12(2):25–46CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Kohn K (2013) How forests think: toward an anthropology beyond the human. University of California Press, BerkeleyCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Kotzé L (2014) Rethinking global environmental law and governance in the Anthropocene. J Energy Nat Resour Law 32:121–156CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Kotzé L (2017) Environmental law and governance for the Anthropocene. Hart Publishing, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  63. Kotzé L, Muzangaza W (2018) Constitutional international environmental law for the Anthropocene? RECIEL 27(3):278–292CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Le Roy E (1994) Le recours au judiciaire dans le cadre de la protection des jeunes—Mythes et réalités. Recueil des articles de E. Le Roy consultable au LAJP. Quoted in and translated by: Eberhard C (1997) Common humanities and human community–towards a dianthropological praxis of human rights. Master’s thesis in legal theory 1996–1967, European Academy of Legal TheoryGoogle Scholar
  65. Levi-Strauss C (1965) The structural study of myth. Reprinted in: Sebeok T (ed) Myth: a symposium. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, pp 81–106Google Scholar
  66. Lovbrand E et al (2010) Who speaks for the future of the Earth? How critical social science can extend the conversation on the Anthropocene. Glob Environ Change 32:211–218CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Malinowski B (1926) Myth in primitive psychology. Reprinted in: Strenski I (ed) (1992) Malinowski and the work of myth. Princeton University Press, Princeton, p 79Google Scholar
  68. Malm A (2016) Fossil capital: the rise of steam-power and the roots of global warming. Verso, LondonGoogle Scholar
  69. Malm A (2017) The is the hell that I have heard of: some dialectical images of fossil fuel fiction. Forum Mod Lang Stud 53(2):121–141CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Malm A, Hornborg A (2014) The geology of mankind? A critique of the Anthropocene narrative. The Anthropocene Rev 1(1):62–69CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Manderson D (2003) From hunger to love: myths of the source, interpretation and constitution of law in children’s literature. Cardozo Stud Law Lit 15:87–141Google Scholar
  72. Marx K (1973) Grundrisse: foundations of the critique of political economy. Penguin, HarmondsworthGoogle Scholar
  73. McMillen H et al (2014) Small islands, valuable insights: systems of customary resource use and resilience to climate change in the Pacific. Ecol Soc 19(4):Art. 44CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Melissaris E (2004) The more the merrier? A new take on legal pluralism. Soc Leg Stud 13:57–80CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Moore J (2017) The Capitalocene, part 1: on the nature and origins of our ecological crisis. J Peasant Stud 44:594–630CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Morrison K (2015) Provincializing the Anthropocene. Seminar 673:75–80Google Scholar
  77. Morrow K (2017) Of human responsibility: considering the human/environment relationship and ecosystems in the Anthropocene. In: Kotzé L (ed) Environmental law and governance for the Anthropocene. Hart Publishing, Oxford, pp 269–287Google Scholar
  78. Nash R (1990) The rights of nature: a history of environmental ethics. Primavera Press, SydneyGoogle Scholar
  79. Oldfield F (2016) Paradigms, projections and people. Anthropocene Rev 3:163–172CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Palumbo DE (2014) The monomyth in American science fiction films: 28 visions of the hero’s journey. McFarland, JeffersonGoogle Scholar
  81. Petersen N (2011) International law, cultural diversity, and democratic rule: beyond the divide between universalism and relativism. Asian J Hum Rights 1(1):149–163Google Scholar
  82. Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos A (2017) Critical environmental law in the Anthropocene. In: Kotzé L (ed) Environmental law and governance for the Anthropocene. Hart Publishing, Oxford, pp 117–135Google Scholar
  83. Rajagopal B (2003) International law from below: development, social movements and third world resistance. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Robinson N (1998) The ‘ascent of man’: legal systems and the discovery of an environmental ethic. Pace Environ Law Rev 15:497–513Google Scholar
  85. Robinson N (2014a) Evolved norms: a canon for the Anthropocene. In: Voigt C (ed) Rule of law for nature: new dimensions and ideas in environmental law. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 46–71Google Scholar
  86. Robinson N (2014b) Fundamental principles of law for the Anthropocene? Environ Policy Law 44:13–27Google Scholar
  87. Rose J (2008) Community-based biodiversity conservation in the Pacific. In: Jeffery M, Firestone M, Bubna-Litic K (eds) Biodiversity conservation, law and livelihoods: bridging the North–South. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 193–223Google Scholar
  88. Rouland N (1994) Legal anthropology. Athlone Press, LondonGoogle Scholar
  89. Ruddle K et al (1992) Marine resources management in the context of customary tenure. Mar Resour Econ 7(4):249–273CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  90. Russell E (2014) Coevolutionary history. Am Hist Rev 119(5):1514–1528CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  91. Sacks O (1997) Island of the colorblind and Cyclad Island. Knopf, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  92. Said E (1994) Culture and imperialism. Vintage, LondonGoogle Scholar
  93. Sands P, Peel J (2012) Principles of international environmental law, 3rd edn. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  94. Schroeder J (2009) Totem, taboo and the concept of law: myth in Hart and Freud. Wash Univ Jurisprudence Rev 1(1):139–191Google Scholar
  95. Serres M (1995) The natural contract. MacArthur E, Paulson W trans. University of Michigan Press, Ann ArborCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  96. Steffen W et al (2011) The Anthropocene conceptual and historical perspectives. Philos Trans R Soc 369:842–867CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  97. Stein P (1980) Legal evolution: the story of an idea. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  98. Stephens T (2017) Reimagining international environmental law in the Anthropocene. In: Kotzé L (ed) Environmental law and governance for the Anthropocene. Hart Publishing, Oxford, pp 31–54Google Scholar
  99. Tamanaha B (2001) General jurisprudence of law and society. Oxford University Press, OxfordCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  100. Todorov T (1992) Nous et les autres—La réflexion française sur la diversité humaine. Seuil, ParisGoogle Scholar
  101. Tolkien J (1954) Fellowship of the Ring. Book II. Allen and Unwin, LondonGoogle Scholar
  102. Vasak K (1977) A 30-year struggle: the sustained efforts to give force of law to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UNESCO Courier: A Window Open on the World XXX(11):29–32Google Scholar
  103. Vermeylen S (2017) Materiality and the ontological turn in the Anthropocene: establishing a dialogue between law, anthropology and eco-philosophy. In: Kotzé L (ed) Environmental law and governance for the anthropocene. Hart Publishing, Oxford, pp 137–162Google Scholar
  104. Vidas D et al (2015) What is the Anthropocene—and why is it relevant for international law? Yearb Int Environ Law 25(1):3–23CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  105. Viñuales J (2016) Law and the Anthropocene. C-EENRG Working Paper 2016-4. Accessed 12 Oct
  106. von Benda-Beckmann K, Turner B (2018) Legal pluralism, social theory, and the State. J Leg Pluralism Unoff Law 50(3):255–274CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  107. von Hendy A (2002) The modern construction of myth. Indiana University Press, BloomingtonGoogle Scholar
  108. Werell C, Femia F (2013) The Arab Spring and climate change. Center for American Progress. Accessed 1 Nov 2019
  109. Williams E (1944) Capitalism and slavery. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel HillGoogle Scholar
  110. Wordsworth W (1807) The world is too much with us. In: Poems, in two volumes. LondonGoogle Scholar
  111. World Bank (2010) World development report 2010: development and climate change. World Bank, Washington, DCCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  112. Yusoff K (2015) Anthropogenesis: origins and endings in the Anthropocene. Theory Cult Soc 33(2):3–28CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© T.M.C. Asser Press 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Justin Rose
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Margaretha Wewerinke-Singh
    • 1
    • 3
  • Jessica Miranda
    • 3
  1. 1.University of the South PacificPort VilaVanuatu
  2. 2.Australian Centre for Agriculture and LawUniversity of New EnglandArmidaleAustralia
  3. 3.Leiden UniversityLeidenThe Netherlands

Personalised recommendations