A sword age, axe age, shields are cloven, a wind age, wolf age, ere the world sinks
There is no question that anthropogenic activity has profoundly damaged the vast interrelated web of ecological systems that maintain the’ conditions for life on this planet. Similarly there is an increasingly agreement among climate scientists that we are currently in the midst of a sixth geological extinction event that may cause the annihilation of up to 75 percent of species on earth, including humanity. The only question now is how do we conceptualise this fact and of course, how do we intend to address it. The current debates around the use of the term ‘anthropocene’ to describe the impact of human activity on the biosphere is an example of how environmentalists are trying to wrestle with this issue and also demonstrates how the critique of civilisation is a vital issue that has yet to be dealt with substantively by contemporary theorists. Without placing the phenomenon of civilisation at the core of our analysis of the environmental crisis, any conceptualisation will necessarily be insufficient.
In the most recent issue of the Monthly Review Ian Angus remarks that the term ‘anthropocene’ is currently enjoying a degree of exposure and attention rarely granted to scientific jargon. He writes
‘The word Anthropocene, unknown twenty years ago, now appears in the titles of three academic journals, dozens of books, and hundreds of academic papers, not to mention innumerable articles in newspapers, magazines, websites, and blogs. There are exhibitions about art in the Anthropocene, conferences about the humanities in the Anthropocene, and novels about love in the Anthropocene.’
He goes on to summarise debates over the term within the scientific community as well as provide a brief history of the term and it’s usage. Angus’s ultimate concern is to emphasise the need for ecological Marxists to deepen their engagement with the work of climate scientists in order to properly understand and attempt to deal with the unprecedented levels of environmental degradation we now face. The essential argument of the climate scientists who proposed that we have indeed entered a new phase in geological history (an ‘anthropocene,’ from the Greek for ‘man’), one which is defined by humanity’s destructive impact on global ecological systems, has been too often neglected by Marxists as either catastrophism or a distraction from class struggle.
The key question for Angus is how do we understand the timing of the beginning of the anthropocene in the context of the critique of capitalism. Among the scientific community there are two proposals for how to define the anthropocene; one places the anthropocene around eight thousand years ago when large scale agriculture and urban civilisation began (though some even suggest that the entire holocene epoch, which began around 11,000 years ago, after the last ice age, should simply be renamed anthropocene).
Others argue that beginning in 1945 we began seeing a qualitative change in the impact of human activity on the biosphere. Sociological and environmental trends such as population growth, water use, tourism, paper production, fertiliser consumption, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, carbon dioxide production, etc, which had been gradually increasing since the 18th century suddenly experienced a staggeringly sharp upturn around this time. Nobel Prize winning climate scientist Paul Crutzen, along with Will Steffen and John McNeill, proposed that developments since 1950 could be understood by the term ‘the Great Acceleration.’ Later work by Crutzen et al, revised their model to place the Great Acceleration within a second phase of the anthropocene epoch. This conclusion is echoed by former NASA climate scientist James Hansen, who writes
‘Even if the Anthropocene began millennia ago, a fundamentally different phase, a Hyper-Anthropocene, was initiated by explosive 20th century growth of fossil fuel use. Human-made climate forcings now overwhelm natural forcings. CO2, at 400 ppm in 2015, is off the scale … Most of the forcing growth occurred in the past several decades, and two-thirds of the 0.9 C global warming (since 1850) has occurred since 1975.’
The implications of this debate are quite profound. The concept of an early anthropocene is popular among conservatives and anti-environmental lobbyists who would like to demonstrate that the environmental crisis we are seeing now is simply the product of an increase in activities that have been present and consistent with every point in human history. In other words, that this is nothing new and fundamentally does not require new solutions. The recent anthropocene on the other hand is favored by those who place capitalism at the center of the current ecological catastrophe.
Clearly there is a need for synthesis between early and recent visions of the anthropocene. While the qualitative change in human destructiveness within the last half century and the concurrent exponential growth in factors such as technological development and economic disparity are measurably true and must be acknowledged, it is equally true that human beings have been engaging in radically destructive environmental practices for thousands of years. It is vital that we place special emphasis on what has happened in the last fifty or sixty years but it is just as important that we don’t treat capitalism as the root cause of human interference with natural cycles and the healthy functioning of global ecosystems. This is where the critique of civilisation becomes a key element in conceptualisations of the anthropocene.
Ancient Mesopotamians built extensive dams and irrigation systems to grow monoculture crops to feed their exploding urban population. There is also evidence of desertification in north Africa and elsewhere as a result of deforestation by the ancient Romans, Egyptians, and others. Mining was a widespread practice in the ancient world as well and Athenian silver mines were worked by up to 20,000 slaves. We can likewise point to the extinction of numerous species of holocene megafauna following the technological developments of the Neolithic revolution. While Ian Angus argues that the destructive practices of early humans does not constitute a qualitative change from previous holocene activity, when we compare the environmental impact of small, nomadic hunter gatherer communities to that of even the earliest urban, agricultural societies it is clear that we are dealing with a change that is equally if not more radical than what we have seen since the 1950s.
There is another crucial point that Angus’s survey overlooks, does the term anthropocene reinforce anthropocentic attitudes about the division between humanity and the natural world? A landmark essay by Crutzen, Steffen, and McNeil titled ‘The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?’ highlights this problem. The language here is extremely problematic. Humanity may be making the planet uninhabitable for ourselves and a number of other species but ‘the forces of nature’ are incomparably greater than anything human being can do, no matter how suicidal and destructive we are. Humanity does not function according to geological time and a substantial portion of our shared delusion is the idea that we as a species are more important than any other or hold a particular position of dominance.
Jason W. Moore rejects the ‘anthropocene’ in favor of the term ‘capitalocene.’ His reasoning is two-fold. In the first case, Moore argues, if we broaden our sense of capitalism to rightly account for events such as the European conquest of the New World, we can understand the most radical changes in the capacity for human beings to alter their environment in terms of the accumulation of capital. Moore thus places emphasis on ‘the long sixteenth century’ as the period when technical innovations marked a new phase of environmental impact. Secondly, and even more importantly, Moore argues that the term ‘anthropocene,’ and indeed our entire conceptual framework for dealing with the current climate crisis, is deeply informed by a false dichotomy between something called ‘nature’ and human society. Moore argues that the separation of human society from the natural world ‘didn’t come about just because there were scientists, cartographers or colonial rulers who decided it was a good idea, but because of a far-flung process that put together markets and industry, empire and new ways of seeing the world that go along with a broad conception of the Scientific Revolution.’ This division, in other words, is inherently a product of specific conceptualisations of what it meant to be human.
This binary has vast consequences and is the root of all the other divisions that theorists have long since sought to understand and dismantle, man and woman, white and black, the West and the rest, capitalist and laborer. Moore urges a reconceptualisation of capitalism and nature to see that the reality of the situation is much more complex than such stark, simple terms allow for. What is needed, in Moore’s opinion, is new language and new ideas to understand the relations between humanity and the non-human world. Capitalism, of course, does not only determine economic relationships. It likewise and inseparably influences environmental relations, as well as psychological, physiological relations among others. Moore states that when we try to push beyond the simple binaries, we can ‘see how Wall Street is a way of organising nature. We see the unfolding of problems today – like the recent turbulence in Chinese and American stock markets – as wrapped up with bigger problems of climate and life on this planet in a way that even radical economists are not willing to acknowledge.’ To see the connection between the economic and the environmental also puts various struggles in solidarity with each other. The struggle for climate justice and economic justice are the same.
Moore’s point is well-taken and coincides nicely with the critique of civilisation. If we overemphasise the role of industrialisation, for example, in the history of human impact on the biosphere, we will fail to see how pre-industrial societies were quite capable of destroying and disrupting ecosystems. Moore is absolutely right that talking about humanity contra nature is unproductive and in fact, facilitates the exploitation and degradation of the biosphere. He is also right when he points out that humanity as a whole cannot be said to have any particular means of relating to the environment. We have to talk about specific communities and societies.
This is also a key point in the anti-civilisation perspective. Humanity, as such, is useless to discuss in environmental terms. We have to talk about specific issues such as agriculture, mining, domestication, technology, etc. We have to talk about communities and their practices. Let’s talk about the practices of hunter gatherer communities, for example. There are to this day a number of communities that live without agriculture or urban settlements, and of course historically this has been the vast majority of human beings on this planet. When we break out of the old binary of human vs nature we can see that it’s not humanity that’s the problem but a specific way of life or specific practices. This recognition also allows us to address particular problems without falling into the trap that somehow and for some reason, usually a religious one, humanity is just destined to have an exploitative relationship to its environment. Again, the majority of human beings historically have lived in a radically non-exploitative way. Which humans are we talking about when we say that ‘humans are destroying nature’? And furthermore, lets be specific about what is being destroyed and how.
If people just hear that humans are destroying the environment, they aren’t given much incentive to act or even think much. We have to remind people that humanity, as a monolith, doesn’t do anything in particular. You have a choice, you are not condemned to exploit the earth simply by being born human. Talking about the environmental crisis in terms of ‘nature’ or ‘the earth’ is likewise insufficient and misleading. The earth is still going to be here and nature is still going to be here, what we are talking about losing is the health and vitality of specific ecosystems, millions of species of animals and plants, and perhaps the extinction of the human race. The planet will keep on turning and new species will develop and grow.
Donna Haraway’s recent engagement with this debate offers further nuance. She cites a paper by Anna Tsing entitled ‘Feral Biologies’, which suggests that we might think about the distinction between holocene and anthropocene in terms of refuge. During the previous epoch its clear that destructive human activity occurred, however, at that point there were still spaces of refuge. This is to say various ecosystems had the capacity to rebuild, species could take shelter and return, biodiversity was largely unthreatened despite attacks against particular species. Haraway writes that ‘The Anthropocene marks severe discontinuities; what comes after will not be like what came before.’ These refuges have all but disappeared. Ecosystems and species, humans certainly among them, do not have the time or the space to replenish themselves. In these terms Haraway argues that our only hope is to do everything we can to make sure that this current period of extinguishing refuge is as short as possible, because it is very clearly here now.
In the context of cultivating new places for biodiversity to flourish Haraway proposes a new term to add to the mix. Haraway’s Chthulucene evokes H.P. Lovecraft’s nihilistic mythology though eschews its racism and misogyny. She stipulates that this term is inspired by ‘the diverse earth-wide tentacular powers and forces and collected things with names like Naga, Gaia, Tangaroa (burst from water-full Papa), Terra, Haniyasu-hime, Spider Woman, Pachamama, Oya, Gorgo, Raven, A’akuluujjusi, and many many more.’ It is a concept that implies the blending of the human and the non-human, an assemblage of multiple species and beings in one. Haraway calls for a paradigm in which human beings and other forms of life come together to recreate a world that can sustain life, to recompose ourselves and reimagine ourselves as being human and non-human. We must act and think from a symbiotic perspective. We have to make kin with the fungi and the bacteria and the myriad species of life. Through this composting mentality, of constantly composing and decomposing, we can rebuild the spaces and time of refuge. Extinction, Haraway reminds us, is not just a metaphor.
Haraway closes by gesturing to Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, which describes our current moment as ‘Dithering… A state of indecisive agitation.’ This may ultimately be the best way to understand human hegemony.
Image: Ragnarök (motif from the Heysham hogback) by W. G. Collingwood, 1908. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.