Facing Left (part 1)

Ian Angus, Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System (New York: Monthly Review Press)

(Full disclosure: Ian Angus and MR Press sent me a review copy of this book, which isn’t otherwise available in the UK yet, and Angus re-posted a piece from Made Ground at Climate & Capitalism the other day.)

Facing the Anthropocene hits nails on their heads over and over again. It should transform the relationship between leftist ecological thought and Earth System science.

It’s easy to praise it here, because Angus’s analysis is in many ways very similar to my own in The Birth of the Anthropocene. There are some differences too, and it’s good to have a chance to clarify my own stance by contrasting it with his. But the connections are so substantial that I’m going to spend at least couple of posts on working through the powerful contribution that Facing the Anthropocene makes.

I wasn’t familiar with Angus’s work for most of the period when I was writing my book. I read, admired, and cited an essay he published in last September’s Monthly Review, but that wasn’t long before I sent my manuscript to the press. And I assume that Angus was unaware of my book (or existence) while he was writing his. Angus was able to include the important Waters et al. paper from the start of this year that came out too late for my book, and which I wrote about instead at the start of this blog, but otherwise they’ve effectively appeared at the same time. So the two books are parallel to but independent from one another.

I think that the great thing about Facing the Anthropocene—and this might sound like faint praise, but it isn’t—is just how sensible it is. It’s learned and principled and exciting and all of that. But most of all it’s wonderfully well-considered. It has a polemical side, but apart from a few stinging asides its polemics are graciously corralled into a couple of brief appendices. Even though much of the debate about the Anthropocene has grown overheated and confrontational, Angus’s tone is  consistently measured and civilised. The book seems to me think deeply through its subject, to make matters “as simple as possible but no simpler,” and to spell out its conclusions in as judicious and well-organised a way as it reasonably could have done.

What that enables, of course, is clarity. The book could be read by anyone, without no prior knowledge required. Angus’s prose is utterly lucid and free of jargon, and evidently designed for the widest possible audience. There are even some textbook-style call-out boxes for long quotations explaining key concepts. That style—unintimidating, unpretentious, and accessible—is a good in itself, but it also seems to have something to do with Angus’s strategic concern “to unite the broadest possible range of people, socialists or not, who agree that the climate vandals must be stopped” (p. 216): it’s a democratic and inclusive sort of a book.

Or it will be inclusive, anyhow, once it’s made available to readers outside North America (US-centrism is something I’ll come back to in the next post on it, incidentally). It’s already been out in America for a while, but the press’s own distributor indicates a UK release date of October 10th. In the meantime, however, and in the same spirit as its welcoming prose style, some large parts of Angus’s argument are available for free at Climate and Capitalism (again, that’s rather like what I’m trying to do here at Made Ground). Here’s a round-up, in a logical reading order:

  • An interview-format summary of the book as a whole;
  • Versions of the two appendices, which pour cold water on (a) the claim that Earth System science publications on the Anthropocene habitually blame all human beings for global change, and (b) the Left tendency get fretful about the mere word Anthropocene (for the record, I agree entirely with them);
  • A polemic against the Breakthrough Institute (for the record, I agree with most but not all of it);
  • A re-posting of the Monthly Review article I cited in my book: a great discussion of the Anthropocene dating controversy, in which Angus comes particularly close to the main topics of my own work;
  • A threepart article that contains a lot of the meat of Facing the Anthropocene’s chapter 6, on recent and imminent climate change, plus a related bit of chapter 4;
  • A longer essay on theories of the Great Acceleration that seems to have fed into various different bits of the book;
  • And more or less the same discussion of the January 2016 Waters et al. paper that appears in the book.

Angus’s goal is to marry recent Earth System science to Marxist ecology, to the benefit mainly of the latter, but perhaps also the former (there’s a hint that a more self-conscious embrace of dialectics would clarify some findings in the natural sciences, pp. 63–66). The earth scientists of the former IGBP (now folded into Future Earth) aren’t discernibly socialists. But because they’ve theorised the workings of the planet as an integrated system, bound together in biogeochemical feedback loops and susceptible to rapid overall state shifts, and because they’ve realised that human activities have impelled it into the early stages of just such a calamitous state shift, they’ve become invaluable—but so far neglected—allies of socialists who likewise believe that Things Can’t Go On Like This. Just as Marx and Engels were fascinated by Liebig and other scientists of their day, so today’s Marxists should learn all they can about the latest Earth System research. The Anthropocene and the Great Acceleration are the crucial historical interpretive categories to have emerged from Earth System science. Ecosocialists’ goal should be to build a majority movement that engages in a struggle adequate to the challenge of the time of the Anthropocene: “there can be no true ecological revolution that is not socialist and no true socialist revolution that is not ecological” (p. 219).

That means that the basic conjunction underlying Facing the Anthropocene is similar to, but not the same as, mine in The Birth of the Anthropocene. Angus’s is Earth System science plus ecological Marxism. My first term is narrower, and my second broader: stratigraphic science plus long-run environmental history. So the crucial scientific institution for Angus is the IGBP, whereas mine is the ICS Anthropocene Working Group; and Angus’s theoretical framework comes from John Bellamy Foster and his school, whereas mine comes from, well, Jane Bennett, Stephen Jay Gould, and Alfred Crosby as much as anyone, I suppose, though there isn’t much more to it than the principle of one-damn-thing-after-another. The most important intertext for Facing the Anthropocene is the IGBP synthesis report, Global Change and the Earth System (2004); the most important for my book is the Geological Society of London collection A Stratigraphical Basis for the Anthropocene, published ten years later.

There are other differences too. We both oppose the Early Anthropocene hypotheses of Ruddiman and others, but Angus does so because he sees them as politically quietist, whereas I see them as anthropocentric. Angus sets great store by the Planetary Boundaries hypothesis of Rockström and his colleagues (he sees it as the third leg of the tripod along with the Great Acceleration and the Anthropocene itself, p. 71), whereas I haven’t yet been able to find much more in it than warmed-over 1970s Limits to Growth thinking, and I want to disassociate the planetary boundaries concept from the theme of the new epoch.

But that distinction between the Earth Systems version of the Anthropocene and the stratigraphic version of the Anthropocene is fundamental. Angus is certainly concerned with the AWG, but he sees its work essentially as extending and clarifying the concept of the Anthropocene that arose with Cruzten and the Earth System scientists. Before the intervention of Zalasiewicz and the stratigraphers, for Angus, the scientific usefulness of the term Anthropocene “was limited by the lack of a specific definition based on objective criteria. Loosely defined and even undefined words are widely used in casual conversation, but in science lack of clear definitions can cause confusion” (pp. 48–49). The process of seeking stratigraphic formalization has sharpened up the word’s meaning.

That’s all fine as far as it goes (though heaven knows that a lack of clearly defined terms has caused far too much confusion in political and humanistic debates about the Anthropocene as well). But for me the conceptual break between Crutzen and Zalasiewiecz is the single most generative moment in the entire discourse on the Anthropocene, because I see that as the break from human-centred theories of agency that introduces the concept to the vistas of the deep past and the remote future.

Thus, the biggest difference that would strike any reader of the two books is that Angus isn’t really concerned with deep geological time, whereas the problem of the relationship between deep time and the contemporary crisis is absolutely central to my version of the Anthropocene. Much of my book is taken up with placing the Anthropocene epoch within the immense framework of the Phanerozoic eon, the unit of the geological time scale within which (stratigraphically speaking) it ultimately belongs. Even more of it is taken up with juxtaposing the Anthropocene with the messy, multidirectional history of the Holocene epoch. There’s nothing about therapsids or Natufians in Angus’s book, by contrast. On the other hand, there’s much more about the political economy of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in his book than in mine.

One minor but notable way in which Facing the Anthropocene definitely goes beyond my book is that Angus has been in contact with some of the IGBP scientists involved in various crucial stages of the debate, and so he’s been able to fill in some of the personal details about who did what when. (I took a self-denying ordinance in that respect, and stuck almost entirely to working with the published material.) There are no startling revelations, but there are some interesting little insights. For instance, Angus clarifies the extent of Eugene Stoermer’s involvement in Crutzen’s landmark 2000 article on the Anthropocene:

a literature search found that Eugene Stoermer had previously used the word, so Crutzen invited him to co-sign a short article in the IGBP’s Global Change Newsletter … Stoermer took no further part in Anthropocene discussions. (pp. 33, 234n17)

I’d assumed that was the situation, but I hadn’t been sure (and you can’t downplay a chap’s contribution to an article he co-signed unless you are sure).

Appearing when it has, and written in the way it is, I think that Angus’s book is going to have a major influence. There are signs of that already. The foreword is by John Bellamy Foster, who’s made use of the idea of the Anthropocene in recent essays and talks (like this one). Camilla Royle published a methodical and nuanced introductory essay on the Anthropocene in International Socialism last month, and its conclusion is closely aligned with Angus’s book. (It’s an excellent essay, though I think it misjudges Crutzen. Royle takes a few steps towards thinking about Marx on species-being in relation to the Anthropocene, a topic that Angus doesn’t tackle: that’s definitely something that scholars of Marx should make more of, though when they do they’ll find that Dipesh Chakrabarty has partly anticipated them.) So an explicitly Marxist tradition of work on the Anthropocene is beginning to establish itself, and that’s as valuable a contribution to the field as I can readily imagine.

More to follow!

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