Meta-Level Environmental Policy

Environmental policy tends to be conceptualized too narrowly, obstructing attention to higher-level policies that set the conditions under which “environmental decisions” are made – often inadvertently. Too frequently, it favors neither environment nor human wellbeing as needed. My scholarship draws attention to higher-level policies affecting how societies understand the environment – how problems and solutions are framed and perceived, and embedded assumptions about agency and responsibility (who can and should act). I particularly draw attention to limiting assumptions and policies bearing on what knowledge is produced by academic researchers [1-4], and to the need for central attention to media and technology policies.

In recent work, for example, I discuss how undemocratic forces intensify existential environmental threats, boosted by rapidly evolving artificial intelligence. I argue that countering these trends requires harnessing information and communications technologies to the global sustainability goals. I discuss how achieving this hinges on overcoming dominant cultural (mis)understandings of mass media as neutral transmitters of information rather than constitutive of reality [13]. This work is a product of engagements under the international research platform Future Earth to stimulate more social science on how to govern digital technologies to increase the potential to harness them to positive transformations towards sustainability. See Future Earth’s 2020 Montreal Declaration on AI, that I  co-authored:

In other work, I urge giving increased space, recognition, and weight to problem- and mitigation-focused research in the environmental humanities and social sciences [2, 5-8]; and for anthropologists to stretch to enhance the relevance and impact of their work [9-12].

In a forthcoming publication, I evaluate the computational “Big Data” turn in media-focused social science research, illustrating why qualitative, meaning-attentive research is at least as crucial for understanding and well-targeted action on sustainability issues [8].




1.           Lahsen, M. and C.A. Nobre, Challenges of connecting international science and local level sustainability efforts: The case of the Large-Scale Biosphere-Atmosphere Experiment in Amazonia. Environmental Science & Policy, 2007. 10(1): p. 62-74.

2.           Lahsen, M., et al., Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability to global environmental change: challenges and pathways for an action-oriented research agenda for middle-income and low-income countries. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 2010. 2(5-6): p. 364-374.

3.           Nobre, C.A., M. Lahsen, and J.P.H.B. Ometto, Global environmental change research: empowering developing countries. Anais Da Academia Brasileira De Ciencias, 2008. 80(3): p. 523-529.

4.           Bennett, E.M., et al., Bright spots: seeds of a good Anthropocene. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 2016. 14(8): p. 441-448.

5.           Lahsen, M., Toward a Sustainable Future Earth Challenges for a Research Agenda. Science, Technology & Human Values, 2016. 41(5): p. 876-898.

6.           Lahsen, M., J. Marcovitch, and E. Haddad, Dimensões Humanas e Econômicas das Mudanças Climáticas, in Mudanças Climáticas em Rede: Um Olhar Interdisciplinar, C.A. Nobre and J.A. Marengo, Editors. 2017, INCT: São José dos Campos, SP, Brazil. p. 247-306.

7.           Lahsen, M. and E. Turnhout, How Norms, Needs, and Power in Science Obstruct Transformations Towards Sustainability. Environmental Research Letters, 2021. 16(2): p. 025008.

8.           Lahsen, M., Evaluating the Computational (“Big Data”) Turn in Media Communications of Climate Change. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 2021, forthcoming.

9.           Lahsen, M., Comment on Susan A. Crate’s paper, ‘Gone the Bull of Winter? Grappling with the Cultural Implications of and Anthropology’s Role(s) in Global Climate Change’. Current Anthropology, 2008. 49(4): p. 587-88.

10.         Lahsen, M., The social status of climate change knowledge: an editorial essay. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews-Climate Change, 2010. 1(2): p. 162-171.



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