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 a new paper that has appeared online first with Global Environmental Change, 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 new 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. The article is part of the synthesis process of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme and the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change. The full text is open access.