Book Review

Victor Wallis reviews ‘Facing the Anthropocene’

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‘Ian Angus’s distinctive contribution is to underscore, with his geologically grounded perspective, the need to combine immediate measures of relief with a long-term agenda of transformation.’

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Victor Wallis

Victor Wallis

‘Ian Angus’s distinctive contribution is to underscore, with his geologically grounded perspective, the need to combine immediate measures of relief with a long-term agenda of transformation.’

Noted socialist scholar Victor Wallis is a Professor in the Liberal Arts department at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and managing editor of the journal Socialism and Democracy, where this review was first published. It is republished here with his kind permission.

Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System

by Ian Angus
Monthly Review Press, 2016

reviewed by Victor Wallis

“The Holocene is over. The Anthropocene has begun.
That cannot be reversed. The climate changes already
under way will last for thousands of years….
The question is not whether the Earth System is changing, but how much
it will change, and how we will live on a changed planet.” (212-13)

This book underscores the depth of the environmental crisis and, with its thorough grounding in the scientific literature, situates the onset of the crisis in geological as well as historical time. These two time-scales now converge, signifying the end of the ecological conditions that allowed the human species to flourish.

Herein lies the drama – and, with it, the challenge – that we are now living. Angus eloquently captures the relative suddenness, in historical terms, with which this threshold has been reached. His exposition is patient, but his message is devastating: our species – along with many others – sits on a precipice while the power-holders tighten their grip on the structures that have brought us to this point.

“Anthropocene” is not an arbitrary tag. It is a category that is increasingly accepted by geologists to define a new epoch in which the human impact upon the Earth – including the new substances that human industry has devised (such as plastics) – has brought environmental changes of a magnitude comparable to that of all the previous great geological transitions.

What the Anthropocene replaces is the Holocene – that unique atmospheric and climatic configuration which, with its relative stability and predictability, undergirded, in the brief geological window of eleven millennia, all the achievements of human civilization. The end of the Holocene has come more suddenly than most people realize, but the suddenness is not unprecedented. Relatively sudden climatic change between epochs – abrupt yet long-term warming or cooling within the span of just a few years – has now become recognized as the norm rather than the exception (64). While the buildup of destabilizing factors may be gradual and barely perceptible, their cumulative effects – sped up by feedback loops and tipping-points – crash into our lives without warning, in the heightened severity of atmospheric and climate events.

Such is the progression of geological time. The historical time-scale is incomparably shorter, but is structurally similar, in the sense that each epoch of class-rule likewise entails a gradual buildup of aggravating factors, culminating in some variety of breakdown or explosion – chaos or revolution.

Facing the AnthropoceneThe historical side of the present drama is the accelerating extraction of fossil fuels, in the form of carbon and hydrocarbons (including methane) and their processing either via simple combustion (as energy sources) or via industrial chemistry (to produce synthetic substances – from plastics to fertilizer to napalm to pesticides). This whole petrochemical complex, capped by highways blanketed with cars and trucks, grew exponentially in the decades following World War II.

This was the so-called “golden age” of capitalism – the period in US history in which military might and anticommunism, economic power and abundance, and a widely celebrated “labor truce” sustained by unprecedentedly high wages for union jobs, combined to generate the “American Dream” of lasting personal security and prosperity. Although for most working-class people this all gave way, in the subsequent period, to deindustrialization, union-busting, and neoliberal economics, its ideological aura would survive in the minds of many to inspire lasting credulity – hyped by politicians of both major parties – for the myth of a distinctive American “greatness.”

The point here is not only that this myth reflected a fleeting historical conjuncture, but also that the defining features of that conjuncture – massive energy-waste and the proliferation of privately owned structures and appliances – were what lay at the core of the epochal environmental breakdown (represented by hockey-stick-shaped curves in graphs showing the incidence of toxic substances). These trends were scathingly denounced by biologists Rachel Carson and Barry Commoner at the very time that the curves began their vertiginous rise (in the 1950s and ‘60s).

Angus uses the phrase “fossil capitalism” to evoke the historical links between capitalism and the reliance on fossil fuels. Citing Andreas Malm’s book Fossil Capital (2016), Angus notes that 19th-century mill-owners switched from water power to coal power not because coal was cheaper or more reliable than water-mills, but rather “because it gave the factory-owners better access to and control over labor” (129).The tight symbiosis between capital and fossil fuels would persist, albeit taking different forms. As of early 2016, “global proven oil reserves were worth about $50 trillion. No capitalist would willingly exchange that for the chance to sell green electricity twenty years from now” (173).

Capital’s persistent veto of ecological rescue – epitomized by US obstructionism at environmental summit-meetings – is sharply addressed by Angus in the chapter that he titles “We Are Not All in This Together.” While it is true that environmental collapse ultimately threatens everyone, the struggle against such collapse pits the global majority against the great-power policymakers who, viewing the impending breakdown as a “security” threat, reckon that they can save their own skins – and the lifestyle of their class – by ramping up even further their agenda of domination. As Angus puts it, “they are prepared to bring the world down to protect their power” (216).

Calamity has already struck for many among the poorer populations, whether from floods, droughts, heat waves, or food shortages. Ruling classes, instead of providing relief, tend increasingly to respond with repressive force, as in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Shortages precipitate military confrontations (as in Syria), which in turn generate further scarcity along with the violence, provoking massive migratory movements that then strain the resource-base in other regions. This dialectic of scarcity feeds and is fed by the dialectic of terror, in which large-scale military assaults on poor countries provoke terrorist attacks on civilians in rich countries, with such attacks then taken as pretexts to intensify the very military missions that had brought on those attacks in the first place.

In the last two chapters of his book, Angus outlines his response to this crisis. He offers a concise sketch of the ecosocialist alternative, followed by a discussion of how the various constituencies of our endangered species may come together to fight for it. Within the general framework of ecosocialism, he calls for a science-based, pluralist, and internationalist approach.

The arguments for ecosocialism have been extensively developed over the past generation by writers such as Paul Burkett, John Bellamy Foster, Joel Kovel, Michael Löwy, and Fred Magdoff, and in the pages of Monthly Review and Capitalism Nature Socialism. Ian Angus’s distinctive contribution is to underscore, with his geologically grounded perspective, the urgency of implementing the common vision. Both in this book and with his excellent website Climate & Capitalism, he demonstrates the need to combine immediate measures of relief with a long-term agenda of transformation.

First published in Socialism and Democracy, vol. 30, no. 3, November 2016.