Welcome to The Anthropocene, are Environmentalists Equipped to Respond?
Sept 14, 2016 - Capitalism has run so amok, producing so much waste and life-destroying pollution, that scientists now say that Earth has entered an entirely new epoch: The Anthropocene
On September 5 in Cape Town, South Africa, members of the ‘Working Group on the Anthropocene’ presented findings of their research to the annual International Geological Congress. A research paper by the group of 35 scientists, commissioned by the Congress, was published in January of this year, concluding that a new, “functionally and stratigraphically distinct” unit of geologic time has begun.
Scientists term the new epoch ‘The Anthropocene’, meaning that human activity has become the dominant influence on climate and the environment. Earth’s biosphere has been so thoroughly altered by human activity that changes are now permanently inscribed in the rock and fossil record, just as earlier events such as asteroid impacts and the evolution of multi-celled life forms left their records.
The Anthropocene succeeds The Holocene, an epoch of approximately 12,000 years which was marked by relative climate stability. During the Holocene, average global temperatures varied by no more than one degree Celsius. Here are two articles reporting on what the scientists have reported:
* The Anthropocene epoch: Scientists declare dawn of human-influenced age, by Damian Carrington, The Guardian, August 29, 2016
“… The current epoch, the Holocene, is the 12,000 years of stable climate since the last ice age during which all human civilisation developed. But the striking acceleration since the mid-20th century of carbon dioxide emissions and sea level rise, the global mass extinction of species, and the transformation of land by deforestation and development mark the end of that slice of geological time, the experts argue. The Earth is so profoundly changed that the Holocene must give way to the Anthropocene.”
* Expert panel: The Anthropocene epoch has definitely begun, by Ian Angus, in Climate and Capitalism, Aug 29, 2016
“… changes to the Earth System that characterize the potential Anthropocene Epoch include marked acceleration to rates of erosion and sedimentation, large-scale chemical perturbations to the cycles of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and other elements, the inception of significant change to global climate and sea level, and biotic changes such as unprecedented levels of species invasions across the Earth. Many of these changes are geologically long-lasting, and some are effectively irreversible.”
A 12-minute interview with author Ian Angus on the findings and recommendations of the Working Group on the Anthropocene was broadcast on The Real News Network on September 4; watch or read it here.
The scientists are now embarked upon finding an agreed-upon geological marker for The Anthropocene. As the above Guardian article explains:
“To define a new geological epoch, a signal must be found that occurs globally and will be incorporated into deposits in the future geological record. For example, the extinction of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous epoch is defined by a ‘golden spike’ in sediments around the world of the metal iridium, which was dispersed from the meteorite that collided with Earth to end the dinosaur age.”
The most likely candidate for a geological marker is the radioactive fallout from nuclear bombs that were exploded during the 1940s and 1950s. Other candidates are in the trash created by 20th century industrial society–plastics, aluminium and concrete particles, changes to carbon and nitrogen isotope patterns, fly ash particles—or in a variety of fossil-making biological remains. Two possibilities for the latter are fossils from the accelerating rate of species extinction and the massive quantities of cast-off bones from industrialized chicken breeding and consumption.
The culprit? Capitalism
The findings and recommendations of the Working Group on the Anthropocene should serve as a giant wakeup call to human society. They signal that the changes to the Earth’s biosphere by human industrial activity are alarming and a threat to the very existence of the human species as we know it.
The findings should set in motion emergency measures to reverse society’s suicidal march of destruction–despoliation of the air, waters, forests and soils; and global carbon emissions causing rising global temperatures, ocean levels and ocean acidification. But that will not happen because the world’s economy is dominated by the capitalist mode of production, which is the source of the crisis in the first place. Inherent to capitalism is its relentless expansion dynamic, creating endless growth and endless, wasteful production and consumption.
The Industrial Revolution and the subsequent rise of imperialist capitalism have left a terrible legacy of ecological destruction in their wake and now the party is over. A wrenching social revolution is needed to take political and economic power out of the hands of the capitalist classes of the world and begin to plan an alternative, socialist economy based on social and environmental justice. New institutions of popular democracy are needed to ensure that emergency responses do not leave anyone behind and are as thorough as they need to be.
The history of the 20th century has shown that socialism (shared economies) is immensely difficult to achieve. That’s because the capitalists resist violently any encroachment against their power and privileges. Rational, planned economies have eluded the world’s peoples to date with only a few lasting exceptions, Cuba being a rare story of enduring success.
The world has been distracted of late by the promises of international climate agreements to limit warming to 1.5 degrees or two degrees (depending on who is talking). But we are already seeing terribly damaging consequences of changing weather patterns as the world approaches a mere one degree temperature rise (compared to 150 or so years ago). Temperature rises many degrees higher than two degrees (which a BBC writer and others like him foolishly understate as a “gateway to dangerous warming”) are in the offing because there is nothing in the mechanisms of capitalism that would limit final outcomes. The only thing which can stop worst-case scenarios is radical retrenchment of industrial and agro-industrial production as it is presently practiced coupled with a far-reaching, revolutionary shift to a less destructive world economy.
A difficult political challenge
The scientific know-how to slow down the pace of global temperature rises and perhaps eventually reverse them is already available. What is lacking is the political will to unleash the science on the part of the governments and captains of industry of the world. Given that state of affairs, a political strategy to overcome inertia and entrenched interests blocking the path to change is urgently required.
The world’s environmental movement is poorly placed to meet this political challenge. The mainstream of the movement recoils from radical retrenchment of industrial activity and associated tasks. The latter includes drastically reducing all the waste and excess; preparing to aid the hundreds of millions of people to be displaced by rising ocean levels and changing temperature and rain patterns; shifting to local and de-chemicalized food production; democratizing and de-centralizing energy production; valorizing science and culture over consumerism; and so on.
Instead, much of the environmental discourse consists of ideas of pasting so-called renewable and sustainable forms of energy production, transportation (electric automobiles), etc onto the existing behemoth of industrial and agro-industrial capitalist production. In reality, nothing in nature is renewable–every form of human industrial and agricultural activity comes at a cost—while creating ‘sustainability’ is a gigantic human task that will take centuries to achieve and defies simplistic prescriptions. The ‘green’ capitalism envisaged by much of environmental discourse would, true to capitalist form, merely open a new stage of reckless and limitless growth.
Much of the ‘ecosocialist’ component of the environmental movement is content to trail along in the wake of radical, libertarian writers and theorists such as Naomi Klein without adding very much original thought, either to what future society should look like or to what political strategy is needed to get there.
Marxian environmentalists make invaluable contributions to explaining the culpability of capitalism for the global warming emergency. The Monthly Review school of environmental study, for example, publishes books and essays showing how the capitalist classes are dragging the world into this emergency and why they are doing so. (Its best-known writer is John Bellamy Foster; there are many others.) These writings demonstrate convincingly that the philosophy and scientific approach (historical materialism) of Marxism is a key tool for understanding the origin and dynamic of the global warming emergency and doing something about it. Marxism, properly understood and applied, is and always has always been synonymous with deep ecological and environmental understanding, the MR writers argue.
But present-day ecosocialist thought lacks a political corollary to its critique of capitalism and the climate emergency, rendering it a largely utopian construct. Specifically, issues of war, militarism and austerity are largely absent from the ecosocialist dialogue and practice. Ecosocialism does not organize in opposition to these scourges. Yet, the climate emergency, properly understood, is but part of the broad consequences of reckless, destructive capitalist production. War, militarism, austerity, denial of national and cultural self-determination, and environmental degradation are all, to use a phrase, dialectically intertwined.
Take the example of the NATO military offensive in eastern Europe which has deepened since the right-wing coup in Ukraine in February 2014. Recall that the lead power in this offensive, the United States, is the world’s leading nuclear weapons power and it is embarked on a vast, multi-trillion dollar program to renew its nuclear arsenal, making that arsenal and those who control it ever more potent and dangerous. Yet ecosocialism, including the left-wing organizations associated with it (many of Trotskyist origin) and one of its principal English-language publishing houses, Monthly Review, are silent! How can progressive forces organize and lead profound societal change on the scale of what is needed when they cannot recognize the nuclear war danger to the world posed by NATO’s reckless actions and organize against this in consequence?
There is a similar blindness operating towards the regime change agenda of the U.S. and its allies for Syria. Many so-called socialists go so far as to deny the existence of such an agenda.
It is particularly galling to observe the extreme prejudices towards the Russian government and Russian people which predominate in many left-wing circles. Russia is the largest combined producer of oil and gas in the world. How can anyone in the environmental movement believe that the world, including Russia, can be won to reasoned dialogue and action on global warming when impunity and indifference reigns so widely over the economic sanctions and threatening military posturing by the NATO countries against Russia?
A critique of capitalist society and the positing of a planned, socialist alternative alone do not constitute a program for societal change. They are little more than utopian beliefs unless they are coupled to a political/economic program and strategy for change. (Elaboration of political strategy, let me remind, is the very heart and soul of Marxism.) That means connecting a critique of capitalism with a program for radical, emergency retrenchment and restructuring of existing industrial and agricultural production, eliminating the scourge of war and militarism and elevating social justice to the top rank of societal priorities.
Even the utopian visions of future socialist society which are described by ecosocialist thought are lacking in substance. Late capitalism is awash in crisis–poor or inadequate housing, public health and public transportation; unemployment and under-employment; inadequate care for the elderly; urban sprawl; second-class status of Aboriginal peoples and other oppressed nationalities; chemicalized food production that is not only unhealthy but also far removed from peoples’ lives. Visions of how a future society could set all of this right is very poorly developed.
So asleep are many environmentalists that the aforementioned temperature rise limits of 1.5 or two degrees as posited by international agreements (which very few if any governments, by the way, are taking serious action to achieve) are accepted as fait accompli with which we must work.
‘Retrenchment’ corresponds to human and ecological concerns, to healing the metabolic rift between humans and our natural surroundings created by industrial, capitalist society. It does not mean moving backward or retreating into pre-capitalist (pre-industrial) conditions of material and intellectual want; on the contrary, modern society has all the material and intellectual means at our disposal to make an orderly shift away from capitalist ecocide.
Retrenchment also happens to correspond to the demands of Indigenous peoples to stop the wanton and reckless assault on Mother Earth and its natural resources. It can be a powerful vehicle for empowering Indigenous (First Nations) peoples and allowing them to exercise their full rights to national and political self-determination.
Socialism is not on the immediate agenda in most countries of the world. And few theoreticians have given much thought to whether and how socialism will be attained in a world of climate emergency. Unfortunately, it so happens that the theory and practice of Marxism is in poor shape due to decades of ultraleft and utopian distortions and disorientation.
Marxist and socialist theory are needed more than ever to help tackle the most vexing crises that humans have ever faced—the triple threats of global warming, war and militarism, and deepening attacks against social and political rights in the name of austerity. A pre-condition for bringing the theory to bear is to recognize the scope of the hole in which it finds itself.
 The subject of why the capitalist system cannot help but seek expansion is poorly understood and explained in environmental literature. Humans are naturally inclined to improve our conditions of life, including of the natural environment, when conditions make this a rational and attainable goal. But this brings the majority of human society into conflict with the natural inclination of capitalist owners of industry and the land to preserve and extend their own material wealth and advantages. This creates intense class (and national) struggles and it sends the capitalists out in every direction to find new ways to counter encroachments of their privileges and prerogatives. They fight against wage increases and against taxes to pay for social services or environmental protection. And in endless cycles of investment and wealth accumulation, they seek out every possible corner of the Earth to invest their ill-gotten gains, looking for places where resistance to their prerogatives is weaker and the pillaging of land and waters can be more profitable.
 Much of 20th century and 21st century Marxism, including the component which came to be called ‘Trotskyism’, has strong ultraleft impulses issuing from the early experiences of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the practices of the Third (Communist) International in its early years. These impulses became entrenched in theory by succeeding generations of Marxists. I will explore this in future articles.
Three recommended readings on The Anthropocene:
Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System, book published by Monthly Review Press in June 2016, author Ian Angus. 280 pages; paperback ISBN: 9781583676097. Ian Angus is the editor and publisher of the website Climate and Capitalism.
From the website of Monthly Review Press: “Science tells us that a new and dangerous stage in planetary evolution has begun—the Anthropocene, a time of rising temperatures, extreme weather, rising oceans, and mass species extinctions. Humanity faces not just more pollution or warmer weather, but a crisis of the Earth System. If business as usual continues, this century will be marked by rapid deterioration of our physical, social, and economic environment. Large parts of Earth will become uninhabitable, and civilization itself will be threatened. Facing the Anthropocene shows what has caused this planetary emergency, and what we must do to meet the challenge.
“Bridging the gap between Earth System science and ecological Marxism, Ian Angus examines not only the latest scientific findings about the physical causes and consequences of the Anthropocene transition, but also the social and economic trends that underlie the crisis. Cogent and compellingly written, Facing the Anthropocene offers a unique synthesis of natural and social science that illustrates how capitalism’s inexorable drive for growth, powered by the rapid burning of fossil fuels that took millions of years to form, has driven our world to the brink of disaster. Survival in the Anthropocene, Angus argues, requires radical social change, replacing fossil capitalism with a new, ecosocialist civilization.”
“… As is often the case, however, the great strength of Davies’ book is also a weakness. His relentless focus on geology, on what he calls the stratigraphic Anthropocene, is valuable but narrow. The Anthropocene isn’t just a new geological epoch, it is a crisis of the Earth System, which scientists define as the “interacting physical, chemical, and biological global-scale cycles (often called biogeochemical cycles) and energy fluxes which provide the conditions necessary for life on the planet”. The Earth System includes “human beings, their societies and their activities”, which are not outside influences but integral to entire global complex.”
Generation Anthropocene: How humans have altered the planet for ever, by Robert McFarlane, The Guardian, April 1, 2016
“We are living in the Anthropocene age, in which human influence on the planet is so profound – and terrifying – it will leave its legacy for millennia. Politicians and scientists have had their say, but how are writers and artists responding to this crisis?”