The Anthropocene? It’s just inhuman

Human activity has changed the earth so drastically that we are in a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, says a bunch of scientists. No, it’s “capital, not humanity as such” that’s responsible, writes socialist activist and environmental researcher Andreas Malm in Jacobin magazine.

Malm argues that it’s “the reliance by capitalists on the extraction and use of fossil energy” that is “driving us toward disaster” – and that this is downplayed by the Anthropocene concept.

Malm hits at three targets. First, he defends social movements that take up climate issues from attack by Mark Lynas, whose book The God Species popularised the Anthropocene idea. Second, he takes on scientists who suggest

The use of ammonia-based fertilisers has caused the biggest upset to the nitrogen cycle in 2.5 billion years. Photo from the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand

The use of ammonia-based fertilisers has caused the biggest upset to the nitrogen cycle in 2.5 billion years. Photo from the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand

that human damage to the environment is a function of human productive activity in general. And third, he argues against climate science, politics and discourse that are framed as “species-thinking, humanity-bashing, undifferentiated collective self-flagellation” – “ideological pirouettes that only serve to conceal the driver”.

In my view, Lynas richly deserves the polemical kicking he gets from Malm. Lynas’s rant against the left-wing journalist Naomi Klein, who argues that averting climate change is inextricably linked with the fight for social justice, is both unfounded and idiotic. Unfounded, because Lynas denounces Klein’s realistic-but-optimistic book This Changes Everything for reflecting a “miserabilist and dystopian worldview”, which it clearly does not. Idiotic, because he condescendingly dismisses left-wingers who “fight the good climate fight on the basis of scientific consensus”, because – according to him – they deny “an equivalently strong consensus” about the safety of nuclear power or GM crops. If he bothered to listen, he would hear the large number of voices who understand perfectly well how safe nuclear power is, but think the money poured into it should go to renewable and decentralised systems. And those who understand the science of GM but don’t accept that there’s no alternative to this new stage of corporately-controlled unnatural agriculture.

It is frustrating that public discussion on such important issues is dominated by the likes of Lynas, a bitter, politically conservative man who has packaged up a “moderate” environmentalism that the vested interests who resist and block action on global warming can live with comfortably. Another of Klein’s condescending critics, Paul Kingsnorth, derides her book for focusing on “a small group of baddies”. “We are all implicated” in the threat of climate catastrophe, he claims.

Malm warns that this “we’re all to blame” narrative also finds its way into scientific discourse. He cites an article by the Australian-based climate scientists Michael Raupach and Josep Canadell,[1] who argue that the earth’s carbon cycle enters into the story in two ways. The first turning-point was the discovery of fire, when the ancestors of modern humans accessed energy stored in wood or dead leaves. This “led to massive evolutionary advantages for the human species”, because “energy no longer has to be used as it is gathered or stored within the bodoy of the gathereer, but can be stockpiled, concentrated and used to increase the harvesting of resources and other activities beneficial to evolutionary success”.

Then, they continue, came agriculture; towns and cities and specialisation; and new economic, social and cultural modes of organisation. Finally, a “further critical transition”: the ability to burn not only carbon trapped in biomass, but also carbon trapped in coal, oil and gas. This in turn gave rise to the industrial revolution, which these researchers say is when the Anthropocene started.

Raupach and Canadell conclude that the changes in the earth system that have taken place since then are “a fundamental outcome of the evolutionary advantage acquired by humankind” since the discovery of ways to use fire. Malm accepts that this discovery was “a necessary condition for the commencement of large-scale fossil fuel combustion in Britain in the early nineteenth century”. But, he asks: “Was it also the cause of it?”

Clearly if you compress the history of human economy, from the early use of fire to the late 20th century explosion of fossil fuel consumption, into a single continuum, and ignore the way that the economy evolved within different sets of social relations, you might conclude that an undifferentiated humanity – rather than humanity interacting with nature via specific sets of social relations – is to blame. That’s the implication running through the writing of Lynas, Kingsnorth and others.

In my view, it’s the ABC of a socialist view of humanity’s relationship with nature that – at least since the start of settled agriculture 10,000 or so years ago – it has been conducted through forms of social organisation in which people are differentiated by hierarchical social classes and gendered family relations. Via these social forms, humans’ inhuman treatment of each other have evolved together with their increasingly alienated relationship with nature.

This is close, I think, to Malm’s starting-point both in his Jacobin article and in a longer piece, written together with Alf Hornborg, in The Anthropocene Review last year.[2] I am not so sure as Malm is, though, that all the scientists involved in the discussion about the Anthropocene see things through the same twisted, politically right-wing prism that Lynas does.

Malm argues that the very concept of the Anthropocene implies that “some universal trait of the species must be driving the geological epoch”. Scholars who embrace the Anthropocene idea, Malm writes, see environmental degradation as “the result of humans acting out their innate predispositions, the inescapable fate for a planet subjected to humanity’s ‘business as usual’”.

I think that scientists’ opinions are not so uniform.

While ideas about a geological time period dominated by human activity have been around since the 19th century – and the term “Anthropocene” was coined by the Russian geologist Aleksei Pavlov in 1922 (apparently boosted influenced by the Russian Marxists’ profoundly optimistic belief in the transformative powers of human agency) – the current debate goes back to 2002. Then the chemist Paul Crutzen, who won a Nobel prize for his work on damage to the ozone layer, argued that such examples of human influence on nature justified naming a new geological epoch.

A survey of the debate in Nature last month[3] says use of the term has been driven by “environmentally minded researchers who want to highlight how destructive humans have become”. Other geologists say that the debate is more political than scientific, and have compared supporters of the Anthropocene idea to religious zealots. Is that coming from the same place as climate science deniers? I wondered. Steve Cornelliusun, a physicist, commented last month that while the Anthropocene idea would seem to be one of their natural targets, the deniers haven’t spent much energy attacking it yet.

Everyone seems to agree that any formal definition would be decided on by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, the relevant geologists’ association: it has set up an Anthropocene Working Group. Some members of the group reckon the Anthropocene should be recognised as having started in the mid 20th century.[4]

However much some scientists might want to keep this argument out of politics, that’s not likely to happen. Two geographers, Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin, point out in a longer Nature article[5] that “definitions will probably have effects beyond geology”.

They put what seems to be a fairly indisputable case that human activity is transforming the environment in ways every bit as profound as events that marked out previous geological periods. The invention of the Haber-Bosch process for converting atmospheric nitrogen for fertiliser has altered the global nitrogen cycle “so fundamentally that the nearest suggested geological comparison refers to events about 2.5 billion years ago”. The release of carbon into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution has brought the greenhouse gas level to something not seen for at least 800,000 years and caused ocean water acidity to rise at a rate not seen for 300,000 years. Land-use conversion and other economic activity has wiped out non-human species at between 100 and 1000 times the normal rate. And so on.

Lewis and Maslin suggest two possible dates at which the Anthropocene could be said to have started: 1610, that marked the climax of the population collapse caused by the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, or 1964, when radiation from atomic bombs peaked. Choosing 1610 would imply “that colonialism, global trade and coal brought about the Anthropocene”, while opting for 1964 “tells a story of an elite-drive technological development that threatens planet-wide destruction”.

I don’t have a view on whether we are in the Anthropocene, and I don’t have the necessary knowledge of geology to make a decision on the formal criteria. But I think that such discussions about the impacts of human activity on nature, and their causes, are worth having … and need to be taken out of the protected enclosure of academia and conducted in ways that allow participants in social movements, and ordinary people, to participate.

Socialist contributions to this discussion need, in my view, to start from the principle that humans interact with nature not as an undifferentiated mass, but within hierarchically-divided societies that denaturalise the relationships between people, and the relationships between people and nature. Societies, that is, that conduct the human activity of taking what we need from nature in an inhuman way.

The peak of that process is being reached with capitalism’s mad, careering progress towards disastrous ruptures with nature – the leap upwards of fossil fuel consumption and other types of economic activity in the last 50 years, that many of the scientists in this discussion describe as “the great acceleration”.

Malm and Hornborg write about the inhumanity that is integral to this type of human activity as follows:

The affluence of high-tech modernity cannot possibly be universalised – become an asset of the species – because it is predicated on a global division of labour that is geared precisely to abysmal price and wage differences between populations. The density of distribution of technologies that are ultimately dependent on fossil fuels by and large coincides with that of purchasing power. These technologies are an index of capital accumulation, privileged resource consumption, and the displacement of both work and environmental loads. […] Globalised technological systems essentially represent an unequal exchange of embodied labour and land in the world-system.

In my view, it doesn’t matter so much whether you call it the Anthropocene or not. The main thing is to respond to the “blame-humanity” brigade, by developing a human-centred view of how society will be transformed, in order to transform our relationship with nature. GL, 1 April 2015

More on People & Nature

The Paris climate talks and the failure of states

Collapse and sustainability: arguments we should all hear

People and nature: working out a socialist approach

[1] M. Raupach and Josep Canadell, “Carbon and the Anthropocene”, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability vol. 2 (2010), pp. 210-218.

[2] Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg, “The geology of mankind? A critique of the Anthropocene narrative”, The Anthropocene Review 2014, Vol. 1(1) 62–69

[3] Richard Monastersky, “The human age”, Nature, 12 March 2015

[4] Jan Zalasiewicz et al, “When did the Anthropocene begin? A mid twentieth century boundary level is stratigraphically optimal”, Quarternary International (2014).

[5] Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin, “Defining the Anthropocene”, Nature, 12 March 2015

6 Responses to The Anthropocene? It’s just inhuman

  1. What a great article! I have been thinking about such things for some time. As Ani DiFranco said, “every tool is a weapon if you hold it right” – this is about values and perceptions. It’s not ‘that’ we live but ‘how’ we live.

    You are right to point out the alternative view to the term ‘the Anthropocene’ reflecting some inevitable process of human development. To me, this term indicates, rightly, how destructive humans have become. But not all humans – it is a cultural ‘choice’ to live as we do. As I say in this piece on equity, “Many cultures have lived and developed in ways that persisted for millennia – they were sustainable.”

    As for when the Anthropocene should begin, perhaps we are in the unique position of being able to watch (and record and discuss/ignore) the start of this ‘transition’ between geological periods. Perhaps there will be a sudden, cataclysmic event, as is often associated with the passage from one Era to the next, after which we will be “in the Anthropocene”. Maybe these pre-calamity signs are all we will ever know and it will be for archaeologists of the far future to work out what the hell we were up to.

  2. Gabriel Levy says:

    The geologist Steve Drury has also been writing – very sceptically – about the idea of the Anthropocene, on his Earth Pages blog:

  3. Steve Drury says:

    As a geologist I think I can distinguish a scam from an advance in my branch of the sciences, and I am sure the ‘Anthropocene’ is a bit of agitprop from a small section of the geoscientific community. They want to create a trope or motif with a scientific pedigree and name to embellish their own engagement with reformist politics. There is much to applaud about a political battle that engages scientists in a far wider movement to halt and reverse the massive impact of capital on the world and to haul humanity back from a catastrophe, but that is not helped one iota by grandstanding a new geological Epoch in a thoroughly unscientific and somewhat silly way. And nor is it going to happen by some hoped for ‘reforms’ of capital

    The most recent, and apparently most authoritative work on the ‘Anthropocene’ is that of Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin in a recent issue of Nature [your ref 5], which propose two dates in the Common Era (1610 or 1964) to mark the base of the proposed new Epoch. If a global catastrophe does emerge from what Trotsky called the ‘Death Agony of Capitalism’ it will happen very, very soon in geological terms. Similarly, replacing capital with a complete transformation of human’s relationship with nature – to my mind a matter of extreme urgency – will also make the Anthropocene somewhat shorter than any previous Epoch or, for that matter, geological Age (the shortest worldwide time division recognised by geologists), which endured from hundreds of thousands to millions of years. It would span at most a thousand and more likely a few hundred years. And I don’t believe that geologists have ever given the future a name.

    In his sensible review of Lewis & Maslin, in the same issue of Nature, Richard Monastersky [your ref 3] notes that the present Anthropocene record in naturally deposited geological materials accounts for less than a millimetre at the top of ocean-floor sediments. In any future geological record no doubt late-capital will have a record, but only as a boundary, in the manner of a similarly thin record of the global extinction that did for the dinosaurs – and a great deal more – about 66 million years ago, which divides the Mesozoic Era below from the Cenozoic Era above it.

    I’ll give Marx the last word in this: ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it’. A new stratigraphic Epoch doesn’t really seem to measure up to that. Unless they call it the Plutocracene (the Oligocene is already taken, I’m afraid). How about the Gadarene?

  4. […] The Anthropocene? It’s just inhuman Human activity has changed the earth so drastically that we are in a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene.  Humans’ inhuman treatment of each other has evolved together with their increasingly alienated relationship with nature. Gabriel Levy People and Nature […]

  5. Great piece. As Naomi Klein points out in her book, fossil fuels were a hard sell for industrialists and capitalists initially. They couldn’t understand why they should pay for energy that they could get for free from hydro power e.t.c. It was when they discovered its potential to undermine labour by being able to move production around that it really took off. The constant need for capital to undermine labour in the capitalist system has driven the overuse of fossil fuels.

    On another point I would like to hear more about your opinions on Nuclear energy that you touched on in this. I just finished reading James Hansen’s book and he makes a pretty compelling case for 4th generation nuclear power. He doesn’t however address the point you make about decentralisation. Can you elaborate?

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