The shock of the Anthropocene

The alarming list of planetary thresholds that have been surpassed or soon will be should give anyone chills. Record-high carbon emissions, phosphorus and nitrogen flows into water and air, species extinction, fresh water depletion, chemical pollution and ocean acidification are some of the red flags of a planet in danger. Perhaps this is the “shock” that authors Christophe Bonneuil anda Jean-Baptiste Fressoz are referring to in their invaluable new work, The Shock of the Anthropocene.

One of many valuable arguments put forth by Bonneuil and Fressoz is that none of this should be shocking, and most people, even those in the establishment, are well aware of the scale of environmental destruction. Indeed, holding onto the idea that we just need to educate people and policy makers about what is happening to the Earth is naive. Many in positions of power have long known that the management of natural resources, mining, deforestation, even war, and the burning of fossil fuels in particular were driving Earth systems into crisis.

Addressing it, however, would require radically transforming the current economic system and giving

up billions, if not trillions, of dollars in future profits, something that is not in the profit seekers’ interest to do. For example, Inside Climate News recently exposed that Exxon as early as 1977 recognized that the use of fossil fuels was influencing global climate. They buried the report and kept on drilling. Given the urgency to right these past and current wrongs, we should not accept any pleas for patience, claiming “We’ve only now realized the extent of the problem.”

The Shock of the Anthropocene recasts a range of environmental questions, debunking positions that blame all of humanity uniformly and exposing the staggering role that mass production, consumerism, suburbanization, economic competition, and military conquest have played in mutilating the planet and spreading radiation. For this reason, Shock is not a book for anyone new to the politics of environmentalism. Its usefulness comes from how the book challenges mainstream environmental conceptualizations by delving into history and politics in a way rarely scene in more forgiving or scientific accounts of our current dilemma.

The books opens in the year 2000 with the coining of the term “Anthropocene” as the current geological epoch by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, claiming that the stability of the Holocene had given way to an era of human domination over the Earth. The exact start of the Anthropocene is the subject of a debate, with some claiming it begins with the Industrial Revolution in the mid-eighteenth century, and others that it starts with the atomic bombing of Japan at the end of World War II, with qualitative environmental changes in greenhouse gas levels, ocean acidification, deforestation, and biodiversity—a period know as the “Great Acceleration.” Crutzen himself cites 1784 as the starting point, the year that James Watt received a patent on the steam engine.

Bonneuil and Fressoz begin here also in order to demonstrate the role played by energy consumption, which increased by a factor of forty between 1800 and 2000. The energy mobilization that began with coal has allowed humans to transform the Earth’s surface. We now control 84 percent of ice-free land, and 90 percent of photosynthesis takes place under human management of some kind.

After a slow and somewhat academic start, Bonneuil and Fressoz walk the reader through various positions in the Anthropocene debate in order to analyze them within a unified scientific and social context—the rise of capitalism, its energy-intensive methods of sourcing, production, transportation, and consumption resulting in the rapacious transformation of the physical world. Their analysis of capitalist development in relationship to nature stands in stark contrast to the conventional separation of these issues in most academic disciplines. “In the Anthropocene,” they note, “it is impossible to hide the fact that ‘social’ relations are full of biophyisical processes, and that the various flows of matter and energy that run through the Earth system at different levels are polarized by socially structured human activities.”

Shock picks up steam in its middle chapters, beginning with a strong critique of environmental commentary that blames an “undifferentiated humanity” for the climate crisis. In their chapter, Who Is the Anthropos?, the authors shift our focus onto the capitalist actors, institutions, and decisions that have so profoundly damaged the environment and biogeochemical cycles. They point out that between 1854 and 2010, ninety corporations have been responsible for 63 percent of global CO2 and methane emissions, and yet, “Whole books can now be written on the ecological crisis, on the politics of nature, on the Anthropocene and the situation of Gaia without so much as mentioning capitalism, war or the United States, even the name of one big corporation.”

Bonneuil and Fressoz debunk the myth of energy transitions from one fuel source to another under capitalism. Rather than retire a previous source for a more efficient one, capitalism’s thirst for energy means that a new energy technology augments rather than replaces the old, undermining the notion that the market will eventually punish fossil fuels in favor of renewables. For example, despite the fact that coal is less efficient than oil or natural gas, consumption of it has continued and actually peaked in 2014. As a result the invisible hand of the market is not replacing fossil fuels with renewables. In fact, fossil fuel use has only dropped substantially in cases of economic contraction, like the 1930s Great Depression, in Cuba and North Korea after the fall of the Soviet Union, and during the Great Recession of 2008–09.

They also demonstrate that one of the outgrowths of capitalism—imperialism— particularly the British and American variety, has been the most destructive planetary force in history. The Allied victories in World War I and World War II were won by access to oil (largely American) and the rapid production of planes, vehicles, ships, tanks, and trucks, all requiring huge amounts of fuel. This greatly expanded military industrial complex led directly to the growth of mass production, consumerism, and suburbanization.

More recent American wars like that in Iraq were fought over control of oil. The US military’s current fossil fuel consumption is breathtaking, and a full account of the US military’s record of environmental destruction could fill several volumes. Yet as the authors show, green NGOs usually ignore this record, focusing instead on the military’s strategic use of renewables.

The majority of Shock is devoted to debunking facile or false notions. For example, the authors refute the misconception that environmentalism is a new idea that requires patient explaining to supposedly ignorant masses. By contrast, they show how poor and working-class people have resisted capitalism’s relentless exploitation of their labor and the natural world. They point out that the Luddites of the early 1800s destroyed new machines that threatened their jobs and the environment.

They also show how Karl Marx was first radicalized not by industrial struggle but by the privatization of German forests and the criminalization of communal firewood collection. Unfortunately, however, the authors later argue that Marx’s acceptance of machinery as an inevitable part of capitalist development laid the basis of the USSR’s destruction of the environment. But their argument is at odds with their recognition elsewhere in the book of how soil scientist, Justus von Liebig, influenced Marx’s writings on soil exhaustion and urban pollution in the third volume of Capital.

In contrast with the author’s mistaken concession that Marx’s thinking suffered from an original sin of productivism, Paul Burkett’s book, Marx and Nature, and John Bellamy Foster’s Marx’s Ecology have definitively proved that Marx’s thinking is thoroughly ecological. Their works show how Marx understood that capitalist industrialization and mechanization were the source of ‘metabolic rift’ between human society and the natural world.

The authors’ claim that Marx’s thinking was the source of the Soviet Union’s horrible environmental record is thoroughly idealist. The Russian Revolution of 1917 unleashed the possibility of a global overthrow of capitalism that could have avoided the slaughter and environmental destruction of the next hundred years. But any revolution is a gamble and the isolation and impoverishment of the Russian Revolution led to the Stalinist counterrevolution. Stalin’s regime engaged in state-capitalist development and militarism to compete with Western imperial powers, wrecking the environment in the process. This process had nothing to do with Marx or with socialism except in name only.

While The Shock of the Anthropocene arms its readers with a way to counter conventional arguments, Bonneuil and Fressoz never describe what it will take to save the planet in any detail. In this respect, Shock reminds this reviewer of the amazing depth of knowledge found in Noam Chomsky’s work analyzing US Empire that then offers few remedies. We are called to resistance, but what that resistance must do to get rid of the system that produced the problem, and what new system should be established to replace it, is left unaddressed. Readers who want answers to that question after they’re done with The Shock of the Anthropocene should look to the final chapters of Chris Williams’ Ecology or Socialism and Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster’s What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know about Capitalism.

Issue #63

January 2009

Politics and struggle in a new era

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