Crisis? What Crisis?

Eric Paglia, “Not a proper crisis,” The Anthropocene Review 2, no. 3 (2015), 247–61

Should we say that the world is currently experiencing an environmental crisis? Only in a certain sense of the word, Paglia argues.

He gets his title from the Swedish “biochemist, government advisor and environmental advocate” Hans Palmstierna, but it’s not an altogether enlightening one. Paglia’s distinction isn’t actually between crisis in some strict or “proper” sense and in an extended sense. Instead, he wants to distinguish between what he considers a debased modern sense of crisis and an older one that’s closer to the word’s etymological roots. Current ecological transformations don’t constitute an “environmental crisis” in the sense of a discrete, time-bounded calamity, a “passing phenomenon or a short-term condition” that might be susceptible to “corrective measures” capable of restoring a status quo ante. Instead, the crisis is best understood as a decisive moment, just as the word’s etymology suggests: a “period […] of structural transition” or upheaval, an episode of fundamental historical change from which a new order will emerge.

I  agree with all of that, more or less, so Paglia’s analysis of the different meanings of crisis seems to me a useful advance on Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz in The Shock of the Anthropocene (a book that in other respects I admire very much). Bonneuil and Fressoz wrote there:

As for the word “crisis,” does it not maintain a deceptive optimism? It leads us to believe, in fact, that we are simply faced with a perilous turning-point of modernity, a brief trial with an imminent outcome, or even an opportunity. The term “crisis” denotes a transitory state, while the Anthropocene is a point of no return. It indicates a geological bifurcation with no foreseeable return to the normality of the Holocene. (21)

The birth of the Anthropocene as a point of no return, not a mere brief trial: yes, absolutely. But just avoiding the word crisis isn’t enough to make sure that you’ll remember that. Further down the very same page, Bonneuil and Fressoz imagine that, blessed with a more “sober civilization,” “the Earth would take at least centuries if not hundreds of thousands of years to get back [but it would get back, apparently] to the climatic and geobiological regime of the Holocene.” No. Nohow. Another interglacial climatic interval in the remote future? Maybe. A re-creation one day of the specific “geobiological regime of the Holocene,” after the species extinctions and relocations and the geobiochemical cycle shifts of modernity? How? The cream can’t be stirred back out of the coffee.

Contra Bonneuil and Fressoz, “the word ‘crisis’” doesn’t have to imply misguided optimism, and the “geological bifurcation” that constitutes the dawn of a new epoch really is absolute and irreparable no matter how long you wait. Paglia uses the phrase “epochal crisis” to pick out the sense he’s aiming at, “a prolonged period of transition and structural change.” Rather than contrasting this “epochal crisis” with the “proper crisis” that he refers to, though, I’d have thought that the latter might be better named by the word disaster. Critical scholars of “disasters” concern themselves with picking apart the managerial understanding whereby any given “natural disaster” (hurricane, flood, Ebola outbreak) tends to be seen as an sudden disruption of routine lifeways, one that needs to be fixed by the imposition of a disaster management strategy. They try to show instead how slower, structural forms of violence can both bring the disaster about and intensify in its wake. So, I’d say: the birth of the Anthropocene may be best understood as a crisis as opposed to a disaster.

(Then again, the word disaster can itself have an extremely rich significance, as in Maurice Blanchot’s work. Emergency, then? It might sound even more short-termist to speak of an ecological emergency than an ecological disaster. But the sense of the Anthropocene as something that emerges, in the most profound of ways, is one I’d like to hold on to. Perhaps something more demotic would do: the birth of the epoch is a crisis, as opposed to just a balls-up.)

Paglia turns to Fernand Braudel and his “conjunctions” for part of his conceptual framework. What he doesn’t touch on at all, though, is the longstanding and extensive theorization of crisis in the Marxian tradition. In thinking of the coming of the Anthropocene as a crisis, it might be useful to turn to the discriminations made by another world historian, Jason Moore. Moore proposes a three-part hierarchy of socio-ecological crises: “systemic crises that compel a transition from one mode of production to another; developmental crises that compel fundamental shifts within a mode of production; and partial crises that spell devastation for a specific region without necessitating systemwide restructuring” (289). The point of the first-order and second-order crises is that they necessarily give rise to new “ecological regimes.” As Moore describes it, Europe underwent a systemic crisis in the fourteenth century: the crisis of the feudal order, which precipitated the early modern capitalist world ecology. Then, via any number of partial crises, a developmental crisis arose in the mid-eighteenth century: a limit to agricultural expansion and an “accumulation impasse.” The resolution of that developmental crisis is what we know as the Industrial Revolution. A subsequent systemic crisis would have to be the crisis of capitalism itself. Or rather, under capitalism, you’re always experiencing some aspect of either the last systemic crisis or the coming one (“the global ecological crisis is not impending. It is here,” Moore writes.)

That’s another difference from Paglia, then. For him, the world is in the middle of a decades-long environmental crisis that began in the mid-twentieth century and is not yet complete. He’s admirably specific: the transition between the Holocene and Anthropocene epochs takes place “perhaps on a timescale of 75 to 100 years.” I like his willingness to come up with a number, but that does seem like too narrow a perspective. Insofar as it’s helpful to assign it a date range (and perhaps that’s not very far, after all), I would borrow from Moore and the world historians, and say that the crisis of the birth of the Anthropocene is more usefully identified with the post-medieval world system, beginning roughly in the fifteenth century. Of course you can trace back antecedents as far as you please, and claim if you like that the Anthropocene was already gestating many thousands of years ago. But somewhere near the time when “the discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie” (and bearing in mind Moore’s strictures against crediting Columbus with too much agency): that’s where I’d put the inception of Paglia’s “epochal crisis.”

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