Knocking down straw figures

Anthropocene or Capitalocene:

Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism

From 1988 to 2015, the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program (IGBP) coordinated the research of thousands of scientists from dozens of countries in a concerted effort to learn how human activity has changed and is changing the world—not just local environments and ecosystems, but “the planetary life support system as a whole."1

            The IGBP concluded that theEarth System as a whole” is experiencing unprecedented and qualitative change caused by recent human action. Its 2004 synthesis report was explicit: “The second half of the twentieth century is unique in the entire history of human existence on earth.... The last 50 years have without doubt seen the most rapid transformation of the human relationship with the natural world in the history of humankind."2

The Holocene epoch, the past 12,000 years of stable climate in which agriculture, settled communities, and great civilizations first appeared, has come to an end. IGBP vice-chair Paul Crutzen proposed to name the new epoch the Anthropocene—from the Greek anthropos, meaning human beings—and that name has stuck.

A recent paper by scientists from the IGBP identified nine biophysical indicators—climate change is only one—that have “clearly moved beyond the Holocene envelope of variability. We are now living in a no-analogue world."3 As the secretary of the multidisciplinary Anthropocene Working Group says, the Anthropocene is “a step-change from one world to another.... The changes are as big as those that happened at the end of the last ice age. This is a big deal."4

A tool of the bourgeoisie?

Many observers have raised questions about Anthropocene science, but no one has been so harshly critical as Jason W. Moore, an associate professor of sociology at Binghampton University. Despite its title, Anthropocene or Capitalocene? is not a debate but a restatement of his past criticisms, plus essays by six writers who do not challenge him. I will discuss the guest essays briefly, but this review focuses primarily on Moore’s views, as published here and in previous essays.5

Jason Moore adheres to World-System Theory (WST), a school of historical sociology that might best be called marxish—it is influenced by Marxian political economy and uses some Marxist vocabulary, but minimizes essential Marxist concepts such as class struggle and imperialism. There are many versions of WST, but all view capitalism as a world-system or world-economy that was born in the mid-fifteenth century and is defined primarily by commodity exchange and unequal trade relations—not chiefly, as Marx argued, by the exploitation of wage labor.

Moore promotes a variant of World-System Theory he calls world-ecology—a misleading label since, as he admits, it has nothing to do with ecology as ecologists understand it.6 He overlays WST with “a certain destabilization of value as an ‘economic’ category,”7 and liberal borrowings from various postmodernist philosophers, left and right. He seems to think that the result is compatible with Marxism, a view that has been challenged.8

A key element of Moore’s promotion of world-ecology has been repeated attacks on the supposed failings of Anthropocene science—or, as he prefers to say, of “the Anthropocene argument.” In this book, he says it has a “fundamental bourgeois character” and is “analytically anemic.”(83, 88) Previously he has described Anthropocene science as “a conceptual and historical mess,” based on “a neo-Malthusian view of population” and “fanciful historical interpretations.” He has even claimed that “the most celebrated Green concepts of our times—the Anthropocene and the ecological footprint…have become tools of the bourgeoisie.”9 Having made such harsh allegations, Moore should not object to equally sharp criticism of his views.

Is it just about a word?

Moore is not alone in preferring the label Capitalocene, but most people who support that term agree that Earth System scientists have correctly identified a new stage in planetary history: they simply want a name that focuses attention on capitalism’s responsibility for the crisis. For example, when the Marxist historian Andreas Malm says that “a more scientifically accurate designation...would be ‘the Capitalocene,’” he makes clear that he is referring to the “new geological epoch” that will last far longer than capitalism itself.10 I disagree with Malm about the name, but it’s not a matter of principle and certainly doesn’t require a book-length discussion!

Moore’s approach is very different. For him, “the not an argument about replacing one word with another.”(81) Nor is it about Earth System science. He proposes it not as a different name for the new geological epoch, but as the name of something else entirely, of a concept rooted in and totally dependent on his distinctive world-ecology theories. That’s clear from his otherwise unenlightening definition: “The Capitalocene signifies capitalism as a way of organizing nature—as a multispecies, situated, capitalist world-ecology.”(6)

Since Moore also defines capitalism itself as “a way of organizing nature,”11 it seems that for him, capitalism and Capitalocene are identical. Logically, then, this book could be titled Anthropocene or Capitalism?—but that would reveal that Moore is comparing apples to bicycles, a new geological epoch to a centuries-old socio-economic system.

Moore doesn’t just want to change a word; he wants to change the subject. In his view, the scientists who have identified unprecedented and dangerous disruptions of the Earth System are asking the wrong questions and studying the wrong things.

Knocking down straw people

Judging by the effort he has devoted to attacking it, Moore sees Anthropocene science as a major challenge to his world-ecology theories. Unfortunately for readers who would welcome a reasoned debate, his arguments consistently misrepresent what the scientists say. He sets up straw people, and then knocks them down.

For example, he argues at length against the idea that the Anthropocene began with the Industrial Revolution, a suggestion that was tentatively made years ago by Paul Crutzen, but that he and most other Anthropocene scientists have long abandoned.

More seriously, Moore spends pages describing “the epochal revolution in landscape change that occurred between 1450 and 1750” and complains that Anthropocene scientists have ignored it.12 This shows that they have misdated “the origins of the modern world,” and incorrectly answered the question: “When and where did humanity’s modern relation with nature begin?”13

But Anthropocene science has never asked that question or pretended to answer it! Rather than trying to date “the modern world,” it studies “fundamental shifts in the state and functioning of the Earth System that are (1) beyond the range of variability of the Holocene, and (2) driven by human activities and not by natural variability.”14 Past environmental changes are important, but Anthropocene science directs its attention to the unprecedented levels of atmospheric CO2 and artificial nitrogen, species extinction, ocean acidification, sea level rise, holes in the life-protecting ozone layer, and other potentially catastrophic disruptions of the Earth System that are happening today.

Then we have Moore’s claim that the “Anthropocene argument” attributes environmental change to “humanity as an undifferentiated whole.”(81) According to him, Anthropocene science “reduces the mosaic of human activity in the web of life to an abstract, homogenous humanity,” and implies that “capitalism’s socio-ecological contradictions are the responsibility of all humans.”(82–3) That sounds devastating, but he provides no evidence, not a single quotation from the scientific literature that supports his claim.15 As I have shown in Facing the Anthropocene, he ignores many passages that say the opposite.16 Social analysis may not be the scientists’ strongest point, but they clearly do not ignore inequalities of wealth and power or say that all humans are responsible for the global crisis.

Finally, there is Moore’s insistence that the concept of the Anthropocene epoch is dualist—that it sees society as an external threat to nature, rather than as part of nature. “The Anthropocene captive to the very thought-structures that created the present crisis. At the core of these thought-structures is Cartesian dualism.”(84) Anthropocene science “locates human activity in one box, the rest of nature in another.”(83)

That dualist charge simply doesn’t apply to the Earth System perspective that underlies the Anthropocene. That is very clear in this excerpt from the definition of Earth System in the IGBP’s 2004 synthesis report:

Human beings, their societies and their activities are an integral component of the Earth System, and is not an outside force perturbing an otherwise natural system. There are many modes of natural variability and instabilities within the System as well as anthropogenically driven changes. By definition, both types of variability are part of the dynamics of the Earth System. They are often impossible to separate completely and they interact in complex and sometimes mutually reinforcing ways.17

It’s hard to believe that Moore isn’t familiar with that definition, since an article he cites several times says the same: “Humans are not an outside force perturbing an otherwise natural system but rather an integral and interacting part of the Earth System itself.”18

Anthropocene scientists are not saying that the new epoch is caused by human society attacking nature from the outside, but by “the phenomenal growth of the global socio-economic system, the human part of the Earth System.”19 Moore’s claim that “the Anthropocene argument shows Nature/Society dualism at its highest stage of development”(3) is just another straw-person argument.20

Deliberate ignorance?

I have no reason to think that Moore is purposely misrepresenting Anthropocene science, but he could have avoided these errors if he had read a few easily available scientific papers and reports.

It seems, to be blunt, that Moore does not consider it important to familiarize himself with the subject he is criticizing. The few scientific papers he cites are mostly examples of what Jeremy Davies calls “the simplest and most sketchily formed version of the concept, the first-draft Anthropocene,”21 not the in-depth reports and analyses published by the IGBP, Future Earth, and the Anthropocene Working Group, the scientific organizations that have done the most to research the Anthropocene. Notably, none of his bibliographies includes the single most important overview of Anthropocene science, the IGBP’s 2004 synthesis report Global Change and the Earth System. Failure to consult that essential volume is, all by itself, prima facie evidence of ignorance of the subject.

I’m reminded of Frederick Engels’ complaint that the socialist movement in Germany suffered from a surfeit of people who “write on every subject which they have not studied, and put this forward as the only strictly scientific method... persons who give themselves airs about ‘science,’ of which they ‘really never learnt a word.’”22

Strange bedfellows

In his “Introduction,” Moore says, without a hint of irony, that the six guest essays he has selected “defy easy summary.” He’s right: the only common features I can identify are that all include the word Capitalocene, and all refer to Moore’s work in complimentary terms. With one exception, they add nothing to readers’ understanding of the Earth System crisis.

Historian Justin McBrien and literary theorist Daniel Hartley, both followers of Moore’s world-ecology, essentially repeat his arguments with minor additions. McBrien wants more emphasis in world-ecology on the “negative-value accumulation” that he calls the Necrocene, while Hartley says world-ecology should “insist on the importance of culture.” Neither addresses the science of the Anthropocene.

Nation columnist Christian Parenti ignores the book’s theme altogether. His discussion of the environmental role of the state uses the word Capitalocene just twice, and Anthropocene not at all. His essay seems to be an attempt to bolster an argument he previously made in the social-democratic journal Dissent, that U S government policies can resolve the climate crisis without system change, so “realistic climate politics are reformist politics.”23

Donna Haraway prefers the word Capitalocene to Anthropocene, but rejects both in favor of the unpronounceable Chthulucene, a neologism she bases on a species of spider. Her essay, which is more like word salad poetry than political analysis, includes passages like this: “The tentacular ones make attachments and detachments; they make cuts and knots; they make a difference; they weave paths and consequences but not determinisms; they are both open and knotted in some ways and not others.” I have read her paper several times and still have no idea what her point might be.

The most inappropriate inclusion is the essay by Eileen Crist. According to Moore, she “cautions powerfully against the Anthropocene argument” because it “tend(s) to reinvent, and at times subtly recuperate, neo-Malthusian thought.” The fact that she calls for population reduction should have warned him against that judgment. A few minutes of research would have informed him that Crist is a well-known Malthusian who thinks environmental problems can only be solved by a global one-child policy. If Moore ever wants to identify someone who actually blames humanity as an undifferentiated whole for environmental problems, he could quote her: “Culpability lies in broad human participation, exceeding any particular group or (at this historical juncture) culture, and crossing class, race, religious, national, ethnic, and gender boundaries.”24

One essay stands apart in this melange. Political scientist Elmar Altvater presents a Marxist view of the history of capitalism and a credible summary of Anthropocene science, identifying recent disruptions of the Earth System and threats to planetary boundaries as defining features of a “new geological and geopolitical era.”(139) He likes the word Capitalocene, but for him it is the “era of fossil energy powering the modern capitalist industrial system.”(145) This is exactly the “Industrial Revolution myth,” that Moore claims “has undermined efforts to locate the origins of today’s crises.”(89) Although he refrains from direct criticism, in most respects Altvater’s account of the global crisis contradicts Moore’s world-ecology schema.

Why does this matter?

Some readers may dismiss all this as an obscure debate about matters of no practical relevance to activists. That’s an understandable reaction, but it’s mistaken. As Stephen Jay Gould wrote, “Science cannot be separated from political change."25

We live in a time when decaying capitalism is destroying our planet’s life-support systems. To prevent political changes that would end their destructive rule, powerful corporations and politicians are actively promoting misinformation about Earth System science. Ignorance and obscurantism are on the march around the world.

But we are also seeing huge advances in scientific understanding of the Earth System and growing awareness that change is urgently needed. Realization that we have entered an unprecedented and dangerous epoch has triggered international discussions in which almost all participants agree that business as usual is a road to planetary disaster. Ideas once held by only a few radical environmentalists are increasingly accepted by scientists worldwide and are creating the possibility of a powerful science-based challenge to the present social order.

In this situation it would be a tragedy if straw-person arguments and fears of ideological contamination were to prevent the Left from engaging with scientists and joining the global discussion. We need to seize this remarkable opportunity to unite the latest scientific findings with an ecological Marxist analysis in a socio-ecological account of the origins, nature, and direction of the crisis—the essential basis of a concrete program for change.

Marx and Engels studied and adopted ideas from the scientists of their day—Liebig on soil fertility, Morgan on early societies, Darwin on evolution, and more. We should follow their example and learn from today’s scientists, especially those who are studying the planetary emergency.

If the Left stays out of the discussion, if we condemn it from the sidelines, we will be leaving Anthropocene science and scientists under the ideological sway of neoliberalism, and we will be irrelevant to the most important scientific developments of our time. Adoption of Moore’s approach would do lasting damage to both science and radical politics, and undermine our ability to carry through the radical social and geophysical transformations that are needed in our time.

  1. Will Steffen et al., Global Change and the Earth System: A Planet Under Pressure (New York: Springer, 2005), 264.
  2. Ibid, 131.
  3. Will Steffen et al., “The Trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration,” Anthropocene Review, 2015, vol. 2 (1), 93–4.
  4. Dr. Colin Waters, quoted in Adam Vaughan, “Human Impact Has Pushed Earth into the Anthropocene, Scientists Say,” Guardian, January 9, 2016.
  5. Page numbers in parentheses refer to Anthropocene or Capitalocene? References for other sources are in the endnotes.
  6. “Some of us have begun to call this way of thinking world-ecological. As is probably clear by now, I don’t mean the “ecology of the world.” Our ecology is not the ecology of Nature...but the ecology of the oikeios: that creative, generative, and multilayered relation of life-making, of species and environments.” Jason W. Moore, “Putting Nature to Work: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, and the Challenge of World-Ecology,” in Cecilia Wee, Janneke Schonenbach, and Olaf Arndt, eds., Supramarkt. (Irene Books, 2015), 7.
  7. Jason W. Moore, “The Capitalocene, Part I,” 29.
  8. See, for example, the critiques of Moore’s approach by John Bellamy Foster (, Kamran Nayeri  (, and Martin Empson (
  9. Jason W. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life (London: Verso, 2015) 169n; “The Capitalocene, Part I,” 3, and “The End of Cheap Nature,” 296, both at; “Putting Nature to Work,” 30.
  10. Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (London: Verso, 2016), 391.
  11. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life, 2.
  12. In a recently published discussion, Marxist geographer Judith Watson challenged Moore’s account of early modern deforestation. I’m not qualified to judge, but it seems that the issue is not as clear-cut (pun intended) as Moore suggests. See “Book Review Roundtable: Disentangling Capital’s Web,” Capitalism Nature Socialism, 27(2) 2016, 103–21.
  13. Jason W. Moore, “The Capitalocene, Part 1,” 2, 1.
  14. Steffen et al., “Trajectory,” 93.
  15. He does mention the title of a 2007 paper by Will Steffen, Paul Crutzen, and John McNeill, “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?” (Ambio, Dec., 2007, 614–62) But that title does not say “all humans,” and the paper itself distinguishes between the impacts of industrial, agrarian, and hunting-gathering societies.
  16. Ian Angus, Facing the Anthropocene (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016) 224–30.
  17. Frank Oldfield and Will Steffen, “The Earth System,” in Will Steffen et al, Global Change and the Earth System, 7.
  18. Steffen, Crutzen and McNeill, ““The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?” 615.
  19. Steffen et al., “Trajectory,” 93. Emphasis added.
  20. On a personal note, I was amused to read Moore’s straw person criticism of an article I wrote on the Anthropocene for Monthly Review (September 2015). I wrote that, “My judgments are preliminary and subject to change,” and invited replies. Moore inexplicably describes what I wrote as “a dismissive polemic aimed at closure rather than dialogue.”(81)
  21. Jeremy Davies, The Birth of the Anthropocene (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2016), Kindle edition, loc. 904.
  22. Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring: Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969), 10–11.
  23. Christian Parenti. “A Radical Approach to the Climate Crisis,” Dissent, Summer 2013.
  24. Eileen Crist, “Abundant Earth and the Population Question,” in Philip Cafaro and Eileen Crist, eds, Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012) 142. In Moore’s book, Crist specifically refers readers to this paper.
  25. Stephen Jay Gould, “The Great Asymmetry,” Science, Feb. 6, 1998.

Issue #78

July 2011

Slavery and the origins of the Civil War

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