We need to talk about the Anthropocene

January 16, 2017

Working out the time-scale of the Anthropocene epoch can not be left to natural scientists, a group of researchers argued in Nature journal last month. Historians, anthropologists and others who study human society need to be brought in to the discussion, they said.

“The Anthropocene” is a now widely-used term, signifying that human welcomeactivity is changing the natural environment so profoundly that it has brought a new geological era into existence.

Among scientists, it is accepted that any precise definition would best be
rubber-stamped by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, an organisation of geologists that has overseen definitions of all geological eras.

It has an Anthropocene Working Group that has since 2009 coordinated discussions of the issue among scientists. In August last year, the group reported to the 35th International Geological Congress that it collectively Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s take Corbyn’s climate proposals seriously

September 9, 2016

Climate change is “the single most important issue facing humanity”, and politicians need to propose “real solutions” to it, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said on Wednesday as he launched a policy document on energy and the environment.

The document (downloadable here) proposes to produce 65% of the UK’s electricity from renewable sources by 2030. It aims to make the UK a world

Anti-fracking protesters at parliament, 2012. Creative Commons licence.

Anti-fracking protesters at parliament, 2012. Creative Commons licence.

leader in renewable technology, and create jobs in renewables equipment manufacture, with a £500 billion investment programme. Labour would set up 1000 local cooperative energy producers with a “right to supply” their local communities.

A Corbyn-led Labour government would ban “fracking” (the controversial natural gas production technique the Tories love), and restore the Department for Energy and Climate Change (which Theresa May axed the moment she got to no. 10 Downing Street).

I can think of reasons not to take Corbyn seriously on this. His team has taken a year to come up with seven pages of policy proposals … which is slow, for “the single most important issue facing humanity”. There are gaps in the proposals – such as a stance on the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, into which May’s government is currently considering sinking several tens of billions of pounds. And with Corbyn fighting off a challenge from Owen Smith for the Labour leadership, cynics may see the document’s shortcomings as evidence that it has been thrown together for the election campaign.

But I think the proposals should be discussed widely.

It may have taken a year to come up with them, but then many political leaders in Read the rest of this entry »

Global warming in the Indian context

June 1, 2016

People and Nature is today publishing Global Warming in the Indian Context, a pamphlet by Nagraj Adve. The pamphlet’s detailed description of the effects of global warming in India should be of interest to readers not only in India but elsewhere too. It also includes a straightforward presentation of the causes of global warming, and proposals for collective action to combat it by communities and social and labour movements. Read the pamphlet here. 1 June 2016.

A huge statue of the god Shiva being washed away during the floods in Uttarakhand in 2013

A huge statue of the god Shiva being washed away during the floods in Uttarakhand in 2013

Let’s face it. Melting ice has passed point of no return

November 23, 2015

Leaders of many of the world’s states gather in Paris next month for climate talks, having promised in advance that any agreement will fall well short of the 2 degrees target for avoiding dangerous global warming.

An army of politicians, PR people and diplomats are working to create the impression that, nevertheless, something positive is being done. This balloon of

thwaites glacier

The Thwaites glacier in West Antarctica. Photo from NASA web site

hype needs to be popped. The precondition for serious action is honesty about the scale, and difficulty, of the problem, and acknowledgement of how far away we are from a solution.

Rising sea levels is a key part of the problem, and recent research on it – that I attempt to summarise and discuss in this article – helps explain the scale of the problem.  The bottom line is this: while governments’ promises lag further and further behind targets for climate action set out by the Read the rest of this entry »

How neo-liberalism used the “limits to growth”

November 18, 2015

In this interview, SARA HOLIDAY NELSON, a PhD researcher at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, USA, who is studying the politics of environmentalism in the 1970s, discusses first-world-centred and Malthusian approaches and some responses to them

Gabriel Levy. Let’s start with your critique of the “Limits to Growth” arguments.[1] And first – addressing ourselves e.g. to people demonstrating about the lack of action on climate change at the Paris talks – a very basic question: you are not saying, are you, that there are no natural limits, or that they are not important?

Sara Holiday Nelson. Yes, that’s correct. First, it’s not that material limits don’t exist, or are not significant, but what they mean at any given moment is a complicated socially- and politically-determined process. The question of what those limits are, and how they might be shifted – not transcended by some techno futurism, but how a different mode of social organisation or economic production might have different limits – suggests that speaking of ecological limits only makes sense if these are considered relative to any particular kind of social organisation. For instance, the idea of “peak oil” – which itself is a dubious proposition, given the recent transformation of shale and other porous

The Ecuador indigenous people’s uprising, August 2015. Photo from IC Magazine. first published on Expresate Morona Santiago

The Ecuador indigenous people’s uprising, August 2015. Photo from IC Magazine. first published on Expresate Morona Santiago

rocks into “oil” resources through new fracking and drilling technologies) – is only a “limit” to an economic system that depends on cheaply-available fossil fuels. I am therefore against an absolute notion of limits, such as for instance a neo-Malthusian view that equates the scarcity of certain resources with a fundamental limit to human life on Earth. This approach still allows us, I think, to talk about a notion of relative limits at any given historical moment.

Second, I think that the way that the limits discourse has been mobilised in the past has not been politically productive. My view is consistent, I think, with the Read the rest of this entry »

The Anthropocene? It’s just inhuman

April 1, 2015

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 Read the rest of this entry »

The Paris climate talks and the failure of states

February 25, 2015

The officials in charge of the United Nations climate talks say that no deal will be done in Paris in December to avoid dangerous global warming.

After preparatory negotiations in Geneva, Switzerland, this month, Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), confirmed that the target set previously, of limiting warming to 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels, would be missed.

Figueres had already said, in December, after a round of talks in Lima, Peru, that “the sum total of efforts [in Paris]

March in Defence of Mother Earth at the climate talks in Lima, Peru, in December. Source: http://cumbrepuebloscop20.org/

March in Defence of Mother Earth at the climate talks in Lima, Peru, in December. Source: http://cumbrepuebloscop20.org/

will not be able to put us on the path for two degrees. […] We are not going to get there with the Paris agreement … We will get there over time.” This month she reiterated that the Paris talks would only “set the pathway for an orderly planned transition over time to a low-carbon society”.

The EU climate commissioner, Miguel Arias Canete, claimed that “you can not say it is a failure” if, collectively, the world’s governments abandoned the 2 degrees target, as long as there is “an ongoing process”.

Diplomats at Geneva put together an 86-page document for political leaders to haggle over in December. (It’s downloadable here.) But it’s already clear that:

■ The approach adopted in Kyoto in 1997 – to require countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions by particular amounts, within specified timeframes under international law – has been abandoned. Instead, negotiators are reported to be saying, the

Read the rest of this entry »