Facing the Anthropocene

‘A contribution to a genuinely materialist ecology’

Ian Angus. Face à l’anthropocène: Le capitalisme fossile et la crise du système terrestre. Traduit de l’anglais par Nicolas Calvé. (Montreal: Éditions Écosociété, 2018)

Éric Pineault’s preface to the French edition of Facing the Anthropocene: “Ian Angus offers a critique of capitalist modernity based on a vision of liberation shaped by the recognition of substantial and real ecological limits”


Éric Pineault, a Professor of Sociology at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), wrote the preface to the French edition of Facing the Anthropocene, published this week by Éditions Écosociété. His preface, titled “Ce dont l’Anthropocène n’est pas le nom,” is online here.  Many thanks to Andrea Levy and John Detre for this English translation.


INTERROGATING THE ANTHROPOCENE

by Éric Pineault

The Anthropocene is not an indictment. The Anthropos is not a subject of geological history, and neither does the cene cast some abstract humanity as the culprit in the ecological calamity unfolding before our eyes. The looming climate upheavals and environmental disasters diligently catalogued by scientists will not be borne equally in a spirit of human solidarity. In and of themselves, these disasters lack the power to unite humanity at long last around a shared experience and common cause.

We are not witnessing the dawn of a new epoch in which humanity is compelled to take command – rationally, methodically, and deliberately – of the great biogeochemical systems that make of the Earth what it is. The Anthropocene is not “civilized humanity’s burden,” nor does it herald the long-awaited erasure of the divide between “humanity” and “nature.” There is no good or bad Anthropocene.

The Anthropocene is, first, the name the scientific community is assigning to a proposed new geological epoch that opened in the early 1950s. It represents a suggested change to the geological time-scale established by stratigraphers and geologists to delineate the major phases in the Earth’s geological history. That history has been marked by major discontinuities in biogeoclimatic conditions, and transitions from one phase to another are precipitated by catastrophic events such as new climate regimes, sudden mass extinctions of dominant species, intense tectonic activity, cosmic accidents.

The history of the Earth is divided into chronological units of varying time spans (eons, eras, periods, epochs and ages). We are currently in the Phanerozoic eon, which began 541 million years ago and is characterized by the appearance of the first land and sea animals. The Phanerozoic eon has in turn been divided into eras. We are currently in the Cenozoic era, which began 66 million years ago, following the sudden disappearance of the large dinosaurs. The Quaternary period, which is the most recent period of the Cenozoic era, comprises two epochs: the Pleistocene and the Holocene. The Pleistocene covers what is commonly referred to as the “ice age,” and the Holocene, the epoch in which, theoretically, we are still living, began with the retreat of the last great glaciers some 11,000 years ago.

The term “Holocene” comes from the Greek holos, meaning “all,” and the Latin cænus, derived from Ancient Greek kainos, meaning “recent.” So Holocene means simply what is “entirely recent.” Geologists have learned the history of the Earth through stratigraphy, the science that describes successions of rock formations, identifies them and organizes them into “strata,” distinct layers spread one atop the other. In theory, the deeper we dig the further back in time we go. Certainly, that is the general rule; folds, magma eruptions and other faults are exceptions to the rule. Geologists use stratigraphic markers to identify layers from the same geological time. Fossils are among the most telling. In the early 19th century, their presence in rock formations across Europe yielded the first insights into the geological history of the Earth. Geological periods bearing the suffix “-cene” refer to strata formed after the fifth mass extinction, which wiped out the dinosaurs and paved the way for the rise of birds and mammals.

We have constructed a history of the Earth by dividing it into ages defined by a postulated unity of climate, flora and fauna, and separated, as noted, by discontinuities or major breaks. We therefore use sudden changes in climate regime, including sea level, changes in ecosystem composition, and mass extinctions of animal and plant species as the boundary lines between periods and epochs. Such abrupt changes are usually evident in rock strata.

The argument for an Anthropocene epoch is therefore quite simple. It is a matter of determining whether there is a discontinuity between Holocene rock strata and the strata now forming around the world, a break sharp enough to convince a stratigrapher that the current rocks or deposits belong to a new epoch radically different from the old. We would also need to agree that this discontinuity is evidenced by the presence of signs attributable to human beings, to anthropos (Anthropocene means literally “humanity – recent”), in the sense that markers of anthropic origin are present in sufficient quantity everywhere on the planet where deposits are forming for the human signature to overshadow the signatures deemed typical of Holocene formations or strata.

Has humanity thus become an epoch-making geological force? Yes, in a way. That is the conclusion to be drawn from this proposal. On this view, the beginning of the Anthropocene is defined by a shift in climate regime, the sixth mass extinction, and stratigraphic layers dominated by debris specific to human activity (such as radioactive particles from nuclear tests and the fossils of the animals we consume on a massive scale, particularly domestic poultry, which dwarf all other fossilized skeletons).

The Holocene is the epoch that gave birth to human civilizations and is, in a sense, the “normal” state of the Earth from the point of view of our various cultures. Its features include a post-glacial climate regime, relatively stable sea levels and ecosystems of great biodiversity but purged of the megafauna of previous epochs (mammoths and mastodons, sabre-toothed tigers, aurochs, ground sloths and giant beavers). The advent of the Anthropocene therefore spells the end of this “normal” state, a discontinuity which inaugurates an era of ecological and climatic uncertainty and instability that may prove fatal to human societies. Most significantly, it is an epoch in the history of the Earth initiated by the impact of human activity. It is noteworthy that geologists have chosen 1950 as the starting date of the Anthropocene rather than an earlier point. This means that the Anthropocene does not refer to the inexorable rise of that singular animal, the human being, to ascendancy over the history of the Earth, for the bulk of the history of human societies unfolded during the Holocene and, on the whole, our species barely left a trace on its geologic features.

How is it, then, that since the 1950s humanity has been the main agent of geological history? Ian Angus dismisses out of hand the notion that this history is being forged by all humans, when in fact the vast majority exercise so little control over it. Rather, Angus looks to the social forces that have the power to shape the course of events. Among the drivers of history, advanced capitalism as it developed in the 19th century in Western societies, and the spiralling economic growth it triggered after the Second World War, play a central role, in Angus’ view. These are the forces that have plunged history and the planet into an epoch of profound, all-encompassing biogeoclimatic rupture.

* * * *

Most past societies regarded nature, as it existed around them, as an absolute. The climate, the landscape and the beings that populated the major ecological systems formed an immutable whole. For those societies, this was their “Earth.” Culture, social relationships, forms of power, technology and economic arrangements were fragile; they seemed relative, contingent and changeable when compared with the Earth. To seal a treaty or an alliance with each other or with the colonizer, Indigenous peoples in North America pledged to honour their commitments for “as long as the sun shines, as long as the water flows downhill and as long as the grass grows green.” Nature as an absolute, manifest in the biophysical phenomena witnessed every day, serves as a reference point for what is relative, a friendship treaty between societies. As the treaty is the product of an arbitrary historical act, it is not rooted in any necessity. Its present and future existence are contingent. From an Indigenous point of view, it acquires solidity and permanence through its relationship to the absolute that is the Earth: the shining sun, the gushing rivers, the flourishing vegetation.

The well-known song by Québec poet Richard Desjardins, “Y va toujours y avoir,” adopts the same symbolic structure but turns it upside down: the image of immutable nature accentuates the relative character of social relationships.

There will always be
Snow in the month of January.
There will always be a forest fire
In blueberry season.
There will always be wind over the Saint Lawrence.
You can’t change that. Don’t tell me tales.
But will there always be
Water in my wine?
Will there always be
Something in me
When you have nothing more than a slice of bread?
When the wind blows, I know
From whence it comes.
Some have everything and all the others nothing.
Let’s change that.

The lyrics do not depict the climatic and ecological conditions of the Holocene as they are experienced in Québec as a problem. On the contrary, the seasonality of forest fires, the certainty of snow in winter, the blueberries growing in the boreal forest, the river flowing through the Saint Lawrence plain become, in their permanence and absolute character, devices for challenging the naturalness of capitalism and a call to action against its injustices. “You can’t change that.” You can’t change the Earth, at least not to such an extent that there would be no snow in winter and no more blueberries, that the river would run dry or turn into a sea. “Don’t tell me tales.” This song was written in 1981.

The Anthropocene marks the demise of this conception of the relationship between society and the natural world. It is no longer true that “there will always be,” for we now know that we are in fact changing that.

We learn from the philosopher István Mészáros that in societies governed by the logic of advanced capitalism, there is an odd inversion of the relationship between the relative and the absolute. The logic of capital knows no absolute limits – only temporary barriers that it can surmount with sustained effort, whether by investing in new means of production or though pillage and destruction. In this logic, capitalism’s powerful social structures are the absolute which relativizes everything, including that which earlier societies called “the Earth.” In his book Beyond Capital, Mészáros explains that this inversion of the absolute and the relative becomes even more pronounced with the development of the ecological contradictions of advanced capitalism. (István Mészáros, Beyond Capital: Toward a Theory of Transition, (London: Merlin, 1995).

These are deep structural contradictions with apocalyptic implications including climate change, the sixth mass extinction, and the imminent prospect of the planetary collapse of the biological productivity of the soil and the oceans. In advanced capitalist societies, the economic logic of capital appears absolute – as a necessity that must and will be maintained at any cost. So it is “the Earth” that must change, and that is, in fact, what is happening. It is the biogeoclimatic cycles and the ecosystems we inherited from the Holocene, along with the forms of life that emerged from it, that have to adapt to the limits and demands of the reproduction of capital. For Ian Angus, this is what signifies the advent of the Anthropocene.

Moreover, human societies, with their different classes, social groups, cultures and institutions, must all become “resilient” in order to adapt to the material changes engendered by the implacable unfolding of the ecological contradictions of advanced capitalism. The problem, then, is not that it is too late to change the mode of production, but rather that from the standpoint of capitalist logic such a change was always unimaginable. The epigrammatic insight popularized by Frederic Jameson that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism sums up the state of contemporary societies in the Anthropocene epoch that Angus is probing.

This “ontological” inversion of the absolute and the relative is not merely an ideological phenomenon, unfortunately. It directs and mediates capitalist economic behaviour and the social practices that stem from it. Thus, in a genuinely material sense, we are sadly locked onto a path that confirms Mészáros’ thesis. Geoengineering to control the earth’s climatic cycle is seen as just another business opportunity. So too are schemes such as the wholesale creation of markets for the right to pollute, market mechanisms for offsetting biodiversity loss in order to regulate the economic relationship between capitalism and ecosystems in keeping with capitalist logic, and the use of biogenetics to produce living entities resilient to climate change.

Where an ecologist or a climatologist sees an absolute limit to human activity, capitalist enterprise sees an obstacle to be overcome or eliminated by a new cycle of accumulation. Although advanced capitalism must come to grips with its ecological contradictions, it does so on its own terms. These contradictions have to be managed within the confines of the logic of accumulation and its reproduction. The paradigm of sustainable development that has informed the environmental policies of states, corporations and civil society organizations since the 1980s evolved precisely to fulfill that requirement.

Confronting the Anthropocene compels us to recognize this historic logic and grasp its implications for any vision of social transformation. The audience for Angus’ book includes all those – especially ecologists and progressives – who decry and resist the ecological and social degradations of contemporary capitalism and who are seeking more ecologically sane and socially just alternatives.

That group of readers will find in this study of the Anthropocene the tools to refresh their knowledge and deepen their understanding of today’s ecological crisis. They will discover a new perspective on the recent development of advanced capitalism, one that breaks with the historical myth of a post-war golden age of capitalism. This myth fuels nostalgia for capitalism “with a human face,” thought to have reigned during the so-called post-fordist period, what the French call the “Thirty Glorious Years” (Trente glorieuses). In this mythical capitalism, the instabilities of the system were counteracted by regulation, mechanisms for redistributing wealth were imposed, and the development of social rights was assured. It was based on a bargain between private enterprise, welfare states and the working class – a bargain dependent on continuing economic growth, which we have only now come to recognize as unsustainable.

In environmental history, the era of particularly strong growth beginning in the 1950s in both the capitalist and so-called socialist countries has been dubbed the “great acceleration.” It was propelled by economic and social processes such as GDP growth, energy expenditure, meat consumption, and so on, and their impact on the biogeochemical processes that shape the Earth.

As Angus explains, the word “acceleration” refers to the cumulative impact of economic growth, whose effects, whether in the form of climate change, for example, or the loss of biodiversity, continue to accelerate. But it is also the capitalist economy itself that is accelerating in various ways. To reproduce itself, advanced capitalism requires ever more energy, mineral and biotic resources. The material footprint of this growth economy is expanding at an accelerating pace. Instead of decreasing with rising productivity, working hours devoted to the reproduction of capitalist society are increasing, with longer work days and fragmented schedules.

Capital reaches into every part of our daily lives. Escalating changes in the standards of mass consumption go hand in hand with the steadily decreasing lifespan of consumer goods. Commodities, people, capital and information circulate at a frenetic pace that demands a greater and greater injection of mental and physical energy. The current pace of financial flows, with transactions occurring at the speed of nanoseconds, is the culmination of this quest for acceleration.

Facing the Anthropocene offers readers concerned with the ecological crisis of our time an account of what is driving this acceleration that has landed us on the threshold of a new era. Ian Angus looks in detail at how the mode of development specific to advanced capitalism depends on the connection between overproduction and socially constructed patterns of overconsumption necessary to growth.

Drawing on the theory of advanced capitalism that grew out of the approach to political economy associated with the Monthly Review, Angus emphasizes the structural and functional role of material waste in an economy dominated by monopolistic corporations. We overconsume what we overproduce because what stalks monopoly capitalism is the spectre of stagnation in which jobs disappear and capital accumulation grinds to a halt. The growth pact between capital, the State and labour makes it possible to forestall the fate of capitalism in a state of overaccumulation, but only at the price of shifting the contradiction onto nature and social life. The consequence of this shift and of the continuing consensus around growth – whether it takes the form of “green growth” or remains a dirtier shade of carbon – is environmental and social acceleration, destabilization and destruction.

In addition to his reading of the recent history of capitalism as the great acceleration and the new understanding of the ecological contradictions of contemporary society that emerges from his critical engagement with the idea of the Anthropocene, Ian Angus makes two other contributions in this book that I consider essential in the current context.

First, he incorporates into his discussion certain concepts, findings and theories drawn from the ecological and biophysical analysis of social phenomena that greatly extend the scope of the critical approach that we could classify as “materialist.” The various critical theories of capitalism are generally based on an approach that claims to be materialist to the extent that it explains the economic and political structures of exploitation and domination by looking at concrete social relations, and especially those rooted in the spheres of production and reproduction. The former pertains to work and the latter to productive activities in the domestic realm, including “care.”

The blind spot common to all these critical analyses – Marxist, radical feminist, and anarchist alike – is the metabolic dimension of these spheres of activity. Both wage labour and domestic labour require a constant injection of energy, inert material and biomass. Without this “metabolic flow” no production, reproduction or consumption is possible. It’s one thing to acknowledge the disastrous effects of capitalism and other systems of dominating nature; it is quite another to fully incorporate the biophysical dimensions of social phenomena in one’s analysis. Following the lead of other ecosocialists associated with the Monthly Review, such as John Bellamy Foster, Ian Angus deploys the tools of metabolic analysis to contribute to the development of a genuinely materialist ecology.

In addition to breathing new life into the critical analysis of advanced capitalism, this materialism also casts in doubt the entire range of economic and social alternatives to capitalism. This is the second key contribution of Angus’ book. It shows that we can no longer simply think about how to democratize and dealienate the spheres of production and social reproduction by “socializing the forces of production” as they are currently constituted. We need to look critically at their foundations and their metabolic effects. More precisely, that means that the ecological and social transition cannot be based on a new growth model inspired by progressive principles, whether in the form of Green Keynesianism, “sustainable socialism” or “solar communism.” In the absence of a full analysis of their metabolic impact, all these proposed solutions must be viewed with serious reservations.

In response to the various dire warnings and “catastrophist” critiques of capitalism, especially those issuing from the degrowth movement, certain progressive currents have lately begun to elaborate an approach they call “accelerationism.” In response to contemporary global developments, they embrace the panoply of technological solutions put forward by advanced capitalism: carbon sequestration, industrial production of biofuels from phytoplankton, geoengineering.

This technological approach also proposes to manage the sixth great extinction by selecting the species to accompany us in the Anthropocene (we can hang on to hummingbirds and bid good riddance to wasps and mosquitoes); it envisions uncoupling agricultural production from the soil and the land and consolidating a way of life that is both energy intensive and highly dependent on complex materials; it promises the biogenetic production of resilient life forms. All of this is packaged in a resolutely progressivist and technophile philosophy that imagines taking on the Anthropocene by accelerating acceleration based on the hypothesis that a postcapitalist mode of production, organized rationally, could unleash the potential of the productive forces developed irrationally under capitalism. (John Bellamy Foster has written a detailed critique of this stance: “The Long Ecological Revolution,” Monthly Review, Vol. 69, No. 6, November 2017

In opposition as much to accelerationism as to hopes for “socialist” green growth, Ian Angus offers a critique of capitalist modernity based on a vision of liberation shaped by the recognition of substantial and real ecological limits. Angus’ socialist alternative to the existing economic order can only be the culmination of a long ecological revolution which must begin with far-reaching changes in critical thinking itself. This book is a decisive step in that direction.

When the wind blows,
I know from whence it comes.

 

 

 

 

 

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9 Responses to ‘A contribution to a genuinely materialist ecology’

  1. Gary Severson March 6, 2018 at 11:30 am #

    The world’s foremost scholar of Gnosticism, Hans Jonas, makes the point that human culture is by definition “nature” and not a separate process carried on by an external nature as posited by Descartes. Marxism, in many ways, has functioned as an extension of Cartesian capitalism creating a divorce between material reality & the mental sphere. In a real way, Cartesianism is a Gnosticism as criticized by Hans Jonas. The Anthropocene cannot be anything other than a natural process that nature allows. Nature has allowed 5 mass extinctions with no input from humans. A geologic age based on a human footprint is just one more of nature’s normal process of extinction events. This time It matters because we are the first conscious witnesses to this natural process. As Arthur C. Clark maintained,”humans are in the process of evolving out of a biological mode of existence”. This is the likely meaning of artificial intelligence as a new mode of “human existence”. When we live in linear time vs archaic circular time we have a problem with our own & our species’ extinction. Einstein’s recognition of living in relative time seems to be a better solution to our climate dilemma than replacing ourselves with HALS AI.

    • Ian Angus March 6, 2018 at 2:16 pm #

      As Stephen Jay Gould replied to someone who made a very similar argument:

      “Mass extinctions may not threaten distant futures, but they are decidedly unpleasant for species in the throes of their power (particularly if triggered by such truly catastrophic events as extraterrestrial impact). At the appropriate scale of our lives, we are just a species in the midst of such a moment. And to say that we should let the squirrels go (at our immediate scale) because all species eventually die (at geological scales) makes about as much sense as arguing that we shouldn’t treat an easily curable childhood infection because all humans are ultimately and inevitably mortal.”

      Childhood diseases and nuclear war and bubonic plague and the Holocaust are all, by your Gnostic argument, “natural processes that nature allows,” so we should just accept them while waiting to evolve into non-biological beings. No thank you.

  2. gary severson March 6, 2018 at 4:30 pm #

    I realize the difficulty of making oneself clear concerning a complex topic like materialist ecology. I think if you read my response closer & don’t assume I am making this case or that case for an argument you will see my comment is the opposite of your response. Jonas was a critic of Gnosticism as am I. Arthur Clark didn’t make a case for AI either just as I don’t. I was in the room in about 1970 when he made the observation without espousing AI. I agree with Gould too. The take away from my comment was meant to be the recognition by Jonas that everything is by definition a part of nature, even human technology. The comment is meant to be descriptive for a Spinozoan monism as in “nature is everything”.

    • Ian Angus March 6, 2018 at 5:08 pm #

      I will take your word for it, but that isn’t how I read your comment. I reacted because the argument that “natural equals “good” is an all-too-common, not just from science deniers, but from promoters of so-called deep ecology. Human society can be (and in fact is) simultaneously part of nature and in deadly conflict with it — just as the fact that my organs are part of my body doesn’t prevent them from making me ill or even killing me.

  3. Gary Severson March 6, 2018 at 5:18 pm #

    It seems you are still separating man & nature. If man is nature than we don’t conflict with nature any more than any other part of nature. We could argue that an asteroid is in conflict with Earth’s nature using your comparison. If man is an agent like an asteroid then both are a part of the natural order & nothing is ultimately in conflict. It doesn’t follow in my position that we shouldn’t find ways to eliminate the ruling classes from their hegemony.

    • Ian Angus March 6, 2018 at 5:57 pm #

      The idea that man must be either entirely part of nature or entirely separate is itself a Cartesian conception. On this, I strongly recommend Andreas Malm’s “The Progress of This Storm,” chapter 2. Historical materialism is a Substance Monism (everything is matter) and a Property Dualism (various kinds of matter have distinctive emergent properties).

      “Property dualism, then, admits of only one substance – matter – but considers the human body a species of that substance in possession of uniquely mental properties. … Nature and society are material substances tout Court, but the one cannot be equated with the other.

      “Nature is a soil for society, the fold out of which it grew and the envelope it can never break out of, but just as a tree can be told from its soil, society can be differentiated from nature, because it has shot up from the ground and branched off in untold directions over the course of what we refer to as history.”

      • gary severson March 6, 2018 at 6:18 pm #

        I’ll read Malm, thanks for the responses.

  4. Jeff White March 11, 2018 at 7:48 pm #

    Defining everything as part of nature renders the concept of nature meaningless, as well as papering over the conflicts within it. Extinction events are part of nature, but it is in our interests to avoid them at all costs. The current extinction event is the first one driven by human activity, specifically the capitalist mode of production. As humans, we have the power to limit its extent. Out of our own self interest, if nothing else, we have the obligation to try. If that doesn’t set up a “conflict”, I don’t know what does.

  5. gary severson March 11, 2018 at 8:50 pm #

    Nothing here I disagree with except the contention that calling everything nature is problematic. Nature heals itself after a cataclysmic meteor crash like the one from 65 million years ago. Right now nature is trying to heal itself through the use of its own human consciousness to deal with excessive CO2 generation due to overpopulation which has led to the 6th mass extinction.

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