Introduction to the Brazilian edition of Facing the Anthropocene

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Important steps towards formally defining a new epoch in Earth System history

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Crawford Lake, Ontario, location of the Anthropocene “Golden Spike”

My book, Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and  the Crisis of the Earth System(Monthly Review Press, 2016), continues to be well received worldwide. It has been translated and published in several languages, including French, Italian, German, and Turkish. The most recent edition was released in the autumn of 2023 — a Portuguese translation from the noted Brazilian publishing house Boitempo.

I wrote this brief introduction and update for the Brazilian edition.

Enfrentando o Antropoceno: capitalismo fóssil e a crise do sistema terrestre

by Ian Angus

I am pleased and honored that Facing the Anthropocene is now available to Brazilian readers. Many thanks to Boitempo, and to the editor, Thais Rimkus.

As this edition appears, geologists are making important steps towards formally defining a new epoch in Earth System history.

After studying a wide range of possible indicators of the beginning of global change in the mid-20th century, opinion in the Anthropocene Working Group has converged on the appearance of Plutonium 239 in geological strata. That radioactive isotope, first produced in 1952 when the U.S. military began testing thermonuclear weapons (hydrogen bombs) in the Pacific Ocean, was spread worldwide as wind-borne fallout. Its presence in sediments gives scientists a clear dividing line between the Holocene and the Anthropocene.

Also in 2023, the AWG completed its review of twelve possible locations for a “Golden Spike” — a place where the dividing line is particularly clear and so can be used as a reference point for future research. They selected tiny Crawford Lake, in Ontario, Canada, where a well-defined layer of Plutonium 239 in deep sediment marks the beginning of what scientists have dubbed the Great Acceleration of environmental change.

Despite the strong evidence collected by the AWG, official acceptance of the Anthropocene as a new epoch in the Geological Time Scale is far from certain. It must obtain 60 percent approval from two other geological committees, and then be approved by the large and conservative International Union of Geological Sciences. Some prominent IUGS members argue that it is too soon to formalize a new epoch — alternative suggestions include defining the Anthropocene as an Age in the ongoing Holocene epoch, or just labelling it as a loosely-defined geological event.

But even if the Anthropocene doesn’t pass geology’s rigid requirements, the idea that a new stage in Earth System history is well underway is now widely accepted by scientists from other disciplines — and indeed, the evidence is undeniable. In 2023, global temperatures soared, a direct result of carbon dioxide levels that are higher than any time in human history.

Recent studies predict that even under the lowest likely emissions levels, up to 90% of the world’s people will face the combined effects of heat and drought in this century — and the impact will be disproportionately felt in the poorest regions of the global south.

In the north, unprecedented wildfires have wiped out millions of hectares of forests, killing untold numbers of animals and forcing thousands of people to flee.

Climate change, deforestation and the massive spread of chemical-based industrial farming are driving organisms of all sizes and kinds to extinction. Two-thirds of the world’s insects could go extinct by mid-century, and 49 percent of all wild bird species are in steep decline. It is likely that thousands of animal and plant species will disappear before scientists are able to catalog them.

In the face of this destruction, the governments and corporations responsible make pious statements but continue business as usual. Capitalism’s need to accumulate ever more wealth always takes priority.

The survival of civilization depends, as Marx wrote, on the associated producers rationally managing society’s metabolic relationship with the natural world. More than ever, it is clear that that requires a global movement for social and economic change — change that breaks the polluters’ power and makes restoration of Earth’s life support systems a top priority.

I hope this edition of Facing the Anthropocene contributes to that goal.