Facing the AnthropoceneIntroduction

This review is a critique of Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System by Ian Angus. The review adopted a multi-theoretical framework that combines insights from socio-cognitive terminology theory (STT), legitimation code theory (LCT) and critical discourse analysis (CDA) to respond to some claims and a proposal discussed in the book. The review further appraises two essays in the appendix of the book that clarify some misconceptions and confusions on anthropocene discourse, particularly on whether the choice of the term anthropocene is appropriate. The review concludes with an analysis of the terms (climate change) and (global warming) with a view to show that: (a) the terminology of climate change discourse is also prone to variation and (b) the use of the terms (climate change) and (global warming) interchangeably in the book is indexical of growth in disciplinarity.

Background                                                                                             

Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System describes a new geological epoch (the anthropocene) and its impacts on the earth system. The book further identifies the possible cause of the present crisis of the earth system (fossil capitalism) and discusses the effects of fossil capitalism on the earth system (environmental degradation, climate change). The book concludes with a proposal on what needs to be done (eco-civilization and solidarity) to address the environmental crisis caused by exploration of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) for economic gains. The book is a critique of fossil fuel economy that is underpinned with Marxist Ecological Thinking and backed with epistemic inputs from cutting edge research in the sciences (Chemistry, Geology, Atmospheric Science, Geophysics, Hydrology, Marine, Meteorology and Cosmology) and the social sciences (Neo-classical Economics, Geography). The central thesis of the book is that the adverse changes in the physical environment today are caused by fossil capitalism and that humanity needs to evolve an eco-social civilization that can curb capitalist destruction of the earth system.

Overview of the thematic strands

The book has three major parts, with each discussing the different themes discussed in the book. The first part (A No Analog State) presents the scientific evidence for the anthropocene and clarifies some basic concepts related to planetary boundaries. The second section (Fossil Capitalism) examines anthropocene as an eco-social phenomenon and discusses its devastating impacts on the environment. In the third section (The Alternative), Ian Angus proposes an agenda for addressing climate change arguing that ecological issues should be integrated into socialist thinking rather than being viewed as a discretionary practice. The book also has a forward by John Bellamy Foster and a preface by a renowned environmentalist, Barry Commoner. The appendix of the book has two essays (What is in a name? and Confusions and Misconceptions) that respond to claims among conservative green circles that the choice of the term anthropocene is a misnomer and that anthropocene discourse blames humanity for the crisis of the earth system.

Part 1: A No Analog State

Anthropocene as a new biophysical phenomenon with little recognition in mainstream media and environmental discourse

In this section of the book, Ian Angus announces the emergence of a new geological epoch (anthropocene) and denounces how the recognition of this knowledge is lacking in the mainstream media and in climate change discourse. The author presents a range of scientific evidence and biophysical indicators to support his claim that the earth has moved beyond the threshold of its natural variability (in the Holocene with normal balance between carbon, nitrogen and oxygen) to a deadly climate regime (the Anthropocene), which according to Ian Angus is characterised by significant human impact on earth’s geology and ecosystem arising from an unprecedented levels of oxygen and nitrogen. The author concludes the section by outlining the implications of living in an age that is less biologically diverse, less forested, much warmer and stormier and capable of  veering  the earth into an uncharted territory.

Part 2: Fossil Capitalism

Market economies and technological projects are responsible for the earth crisis in the anthropocene

In the second part of the book, Angus identifies fossil capitalism’s drive for profit [and] accumulation of more capital and technological projects (such as) as the root causes of the global environmental crisis. Motivated by Marxist Ecological Ideology, precisely the works of Justus von Liebig and Karl Marx, Angus describes the general features of global capitalism, the specific ways in which it has evolved since the latter half of the 20th century and its impact on the ecosystem from the standpoint of fossil market economy. Citing America’s military spending (of about 130 times what it spent on humanitarian aid in 2013), profits derived from war and military Keynesianism, the author justifies why market economies and technological projects are responsible for the present earth crisis. Angus concludes the section on a catastrophic note cautioning that “…if fossil capitalism remains dominant, the anthropocene will be a new dark age of barbarous rule by a few and barbaric suffering for most’’(Pp.187).

Part 3: The Alternative

Eco-socialist civilization and solidarity are needed to derail capitalism’s Hell Bound Train

The third section of the book presents an eco-socialist agenda for addressing the environmental crisis caused by an economic system that values profits more than life. The neo-marxist proposal recommends a conscious and collective struggle to derail capitalism’s destructive train. The components of the proposed framework include: the provision of decent human existence for everyone, the elimination of  domination or control of humans by others, the development of  worker and community control of factories, farms and other workplaces, promotion of easy recall of elected personnel, and recreating the unity between humans and the natural systems (Pp.196-197).

Responding to Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System using a multi-theoretical framework

A No Analog State: provision of epistemic access to knowledge on the anthropocene

This section adopts a multi-theoretical framework that combines insights from socio-cognitive terminology theory (STT), legitimation code theory (LCT) and critical discourse analysis (CDA) to respond to some claims and a proposal discussed in the book. From the standpoint of Legitimation Code Theory, discourse on climate science can be described as a field of practice that is dominated by knower codes. This means that, climate change narratives render knowledge invisible to outsiders (non-specialists) [possibly] because of its scientific subject matter. To an extent, Ian Angus can be exonerated of this criticism because he has been able to step down knowledge on the anthropocene to non-specialist readers. He particularly achieves this by employing related concepts on planetary boundaries that are clearly explained to the reader. The author also uses simple language to unpack technical concepts such that anyone could use the knowledge in the book to speak intelligibly about climate science. Furthermore, the discourse is persuasive. In other words, contentious issues in the book are backed with data from cutting edge research in science and social sciences. These discourse strategies not only provide epistemic access to knowledge on the anthropocene but also contribute to shaping knowledge on the crisis of the earth system, which the author decries were lacking in mainstream media and environmental discourse.

Fossil Capitalism: alignment with consensus view on the causes of climate change

The philosophical bias in the book is underpinned by a perspective that the cause of climate change is anthropogenic or man made. This argument runs counter intuitive to other theories linking climate change to effects of  cosmic radiation arising from the successive passages of the planet through the various spiral arms of the Milky Way Galaxy (Shaviv, 2002) or to an Astrophysical Cycle Event (Polar Wander), in which the spin axis of the earth shifts locations relative to the surface of our planet (Woodworth & Gordon, 2018). A critical discourse analysis of the book indicates that these perspectives are missing in Ian Angus’ book. The focus of the book rather is on the consensus claim that fossil capitalism’s destructive role poses a grave threat to the future of humanity and should not be allowed to continue unabated. The non-recognition of these opposing perspectives can provide a basis for labelling Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System as a socialist plot that is aimed at undermining fossil fuel capitalist interests.

The Alternative: A Socialist Realist framework for Addressing the Crisis of the Earth System

Technological projects proposed to tackle the crisis of the earth system in anthropocene discourse are myriad. For instance, Roll Royce-Airbus-Siemens are developing a hybrid plane (known as E-Fan) that could reduce nitrous oxide by 90% and noise by 65 by using a supplemental electric motor to help supply the extra power needed for take-offs. Similarly, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm, Y Combinator, unveiled a radical desert flooding plan that would create millions of 1-acre-square micro-reservoirs to grow enough algae to eat up all of earth’s climate-changing carbon dioxide. Environmental scientists are also proposing an ingenious project that would require the spraying of sun-dimming chemicals into the earth’s atmosphere to reduce the impact of ultra-violet rays that depletes the ozone layer (Delluchi & Jacobson,2012).

While these responses to the environmental crisis are commendable, they appear to be top-down approaches that are championed by technocrats, politicians and NGO’s. Ian Angus however proposes a bottom up approach that is people oriented and fosters participatory capitalism or worker community control of means of production (factories, farms and other workplaces) as was discussed in the 2020 Davos Summit on climate change. The framework is realistic and innovative and does not put its weight behind ameliorative measures (geoengineering, reduction of emissions, adaptation, climate engineering etc.) but is rather an epistemically-​sensitive and coherent response that can foster behavioural change and lays a foundation for subsequent technological interventions.

Response to Ian Angus’ Essays

Is the choice of the term anthropocene  a misnomer?

Ian Angus puts forward a very convincing argument in his first essay (What’s in a name?) to justify the choice of the term anthropocene and why he feels the term is the preferred term candidate that best describes the earth’s senescence. Alternative term candidates proposed in environmental discourse include: misanthropocene, homogenocene, econocene and capitalocene. He compares the appropriateness of each of the terms and concluded that anthropocene is the preferred term. Angus compared the term anthropocene and the most often proposed term that is popular in left wing green circles (Capitalocene) arguing that the choice of the latter would be a category mistake because capitalism is a 600 year socioeconomic system that predates the anthropocene, which is a 60 year old earth system epoch. Angus further argued that treating them as synonyms ‘‘can only weaken efforts to get rid of capitalism and mitigate the harm it has caused to the earth system’’ (Pp232).

A further argument put forward by Ian Angus on the choice of the term anthropocene is that the proposed terms (Technocene, Capitaloscene etc) have not been forwarded to a standard body where they would be formally evaluated. Even at that, Angus seems to be oblivious of the fact that neither the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) and the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) have officially also approved the term anthropocene as a recognised subdivision of geologic time. A consensus on the choice of the term sent to the ICS by the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) is yet to be debated until 2021.

Response to Ian Angus’ Essay on Confusion and Misconception on the Anthropocene

Does the book Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System blame humanity for the crisis of the earth system?

Naomi Klein-a renowned critic of Angus’ thesis on the cause of the crisis of the earth system is of the view that the term anthropocene is unhelpful and suggests that humanity in general, rather than the capitalist system, is to blame for climate change. Ian Angus endorses this view but argues further that the anthropocene does not necessarily lead to such a conclusion. Based on insights from CDA, it can be argued that, although anthropocene discourse actually locates humanity as the geological force behind the climate crisis, Ian Angus identifies the capitalists and the affluent contemporary consumer as the human of the anthropocene epoch. Thus, the social reality of who is responsible for the crisis of the earth system is not obscured in the book.

Term variation in anthropocene discourse: intentional obfuscation or growth in epistemology?

As a final comment, the issue of term variation in discourse on the environment will be discussed with a view to illustrate a further source of confusion and misconception. It can be observed that the term global warming and its variant climate change were used interchangeably throughout the book despite the fact that both terms activate different senses. In climate science, global warming denotes human-caused increase in global surface temperatures projected continuation over time while climate change includes both global warming and its effects, such as changes in precipitation (Wigley, 2006). In the public domain, the terms are contentious and perceived differently. Smith & Leiserowitz (2012) found out that people tend to display a strong negative affective feeling towards the term ‘global warming’ than ‘climate change’. Similar findings were reported in a study by O’Neill & Nicholson-Cole (2009) where respondents seemed to have negative and bleak imaginations of the concept of global warming. This distinction is blurred in the book and might constitutes a further source of confusion and misconception to some non-specialist readers.

The issue of Global warming has also been the subject of controversy in the political sphere, substantially more common in the media than in the scientific literature. For some time now, the legitimacy of global warming as a social problem and its scientific evidence have been challenged on the grounds that global warming was some kind of socialist plot to undermine American capitalism. What then is the motivation(s) for the author’s use of the variants global warming and climate change in his book? I argue in the next section that it is not intentional but indexical of growth in knowledge in the field of climate science.

A meta-analysis of the area which fifteen top most climate scientists have written their doctoral thesis indicates the climate science is a specialised discourse with different points of entry, some of which include: Applied Mathematics, Chemistry, Geology, Atmospheric Science, Geophysics, Hydrology, Marine Geology, Meteorology, Planetary Atmospheres, Physics and Mathematical Theoretical Physics. A cursory look at the bibliography of the book reveals that the author cited some of these scholars in order to provide a nuanced perspective on the crisis of the earth system. For instance, Wallace Smith Broeker, who is often called the grandfather of climate science and some others. It can therefore be argued that the author uses the term variants to possibly accommodate the different perspectives of the scholars whose findings formed the scientific basis of the major arguments in the book. This is consistent with research findings in terminology where multidimensionality and perspectivization (Bowker, 1997; Rogers,2004) are identified as different motivations for the use of term variants in specialised texts.

Conclusion

Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System by Ian Angus synthesises findings from cutting edge research in the natural and social sciences to demonstrate how capitalism’s excessive drive for growth, fostered  by the rapid burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) for economic gains, has driven the earth to the brink of disaster. Taken as a whole, the issues discussed in the different parts of the book are logical and coherent. The first part clearly describes the crisis of the earth system (climate change). The second part identifies what is causing it (fossil capitalism) while the third part proposes what needs to be done to address the problem (eco-civilization and solidarity). The perspectives offered by the author on the crisis of the earth system are nuanced, thought provoking and relevant for anyone who wants to talk intelligibly about climate change and its impacts on the environment.

References

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