Facing Left (part 3)

Part 1; part 2

Here’s the last part of my extended response to Ian Angus’s landmark Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System. In this post I want to offer some of the “amplifications” that Angus solicited from his readers at the start of the book.

There’s always more that could be said. Everybody’s publisher sets them word limits, and the main text of Angus’s book comes in at a crisp 200 pages. Still, I’d like to suggest three ways in which his discussion could usefully be taken further.

Firstly: although Facing the Anthropocene rests on its (compelling) claims about the radical potential of contemporary Earth System science, its history of that science is narrowly institutional. Angus doesn’t touch on the fact that modern Earth System science is, among other things, a child of the Cold War. Geophysics flourished after World War 2 thanks to US military spending, and in many respects its development was a side effect of military and strategic requirements. It’s worth spelling out the main connections.

Missile technology, spy and communications satellites, and techniques for detecting nuclear tests, missile launches and incoming bomber fleets paved the way for the Earth monitoring systems that are now central to the enterprise of viewing the Earth as an integrated system, and necessitated unprecedented studies of atmospheric composition. The prospect of submarine warfare required investment in oceanographic studies and bathymetric mapping. Those studies helped to establish and elaborate scientific understanding of two fundamental Earth system processes, plate tectonics and thermohaline circulation. The Arctic was expected to be a principal theatre of war in any US–Soviet showdown; Cold War efforts to understand polar environments transformed glaciology and initiated ice core drilling programmes. Experiments in the feasibility of weather modification for strategic purposes advanced climatology. The prospect of global radiological, chemical and biological warfare integrated the entire planet for study and observation as a potential battlefield even before systems theorists had grown able to understand it as a self-integrated biogeochemical system. And so on.

Looking to the key intellectual centres for Earth System science, Ronald Doel notes that what’s now the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory “received more than 90% of its income from military research contracts” in its first 25 years of life. Woods Hole and the Scripps Institution, likewise, “were fortified and dramatically enlarged by military patronage in the early Cold War period.” In fact, “such fields as oceanography, atmospheric science, terrestrial magnetism, solid earth physics, and ionospheric studies [were] second only to physics in levels of support [by defence funding]” (pp. 641, 636). There was continuous cooperation between senior US geophysical researchers and administrators on the one hand and military planners on the other; leading-edge geophysical knowledge could often by accessed only by those with security clearance for classified information.

“The military gave a distinct shape to the environmental sciences in the early Cold War US,” Doel argues—and not only that, but military influence has lingered in the shape of the field. It fostered a division between geophysical and ecological knowledge that has only gradually, and perhaps still incompletely, been overcome, meaning that “we ought not be surprised that, at the start of the 21st century [Doel was writing in 2003], we have exquisitely detailed maps of the mid-oceanic ridges but vastly inadequate assessments of the health of marine ecosystems” (pp. 655–56).

And the Earth science research that wasn’t funded by the military was often enough paid for by oil companies.

Hence Mike Davis, at the start of what might be the best essay ever written about geology by a nonspecialist (even though two decades on it’s outdated in parts):

I must confess that as an ageing socialist, who spent the glory years of the Apollo program protesting the genocidal bombing of Indochina, it has taken me half a lifetime to warm to a scientific culture incubated within Cold War militarism and technological triumphalism. Yet it is also the contemporary home of luminous and, dare I say, revolutionary attempts to rethink the Earth and evolution within the new context of other planetary histories. (p. 50)

In his foreword to Facing the Anthropocene, John Bellamy Foster writes of the flourishing of an integrative conception of the biosphere in Soviet scientific culture, most importantly in Vladimir Vernadsky’s work, and the ideological “interdict” under which it was placed in the West (p. 13). US military sponsorship of foundational Earth science is the other side of that coin, and it’s not mentioned in Angus’s work. The connections between nuclear warfare and Earth Systems thinking are exceedingly complex, as Paul Crutzen’s career illustrates. Crutzen was a leading proponent of the nuclear winter hypothesis: before proposing the birth of the Anthropocene, he had helped to show how a nuclear exchange had the potential to reveal the mutual interdependence of Earth system cycles in the most unarguable of ways. But those connections are too important to be neglected.

Why? Partly because I fear that their omission opens Angus’s book up to cynical attack. You and I, fair-minded reader, can see perfectly well that the Cold War origins of the science upon which Angus’s work relies don’t remotely diminish the validity or significance of that science. But it’s easy to imagine a snakily insinuating hostile reply to Angus’s Marxist Anthropocene, one that points out how its scientific foundations are historically co-implicated with US military strategies of panoptical control, and tries to damn the whole theme of the Anthropocene by association. Acknowledging those connections up front would defuse that trivial line of attack.

Second amplification: Facing the Anthropocene’s narrative of twentieth-century history—I’m thinking mostly of chapters 9 and 10—could have had a more internationalist flavour. This is a claim about relative emphasis, rather than about something that’s downright absent from Angus’s account, so this is a more tentative sort of amplification. But the book prioritises its startling and powerful history of the resource-hungriness of the United States over an account of the global reverberations of the postwar US “automobile–suburbia boom” (p. 157). Angus is great on the immense leap forward in US corporate concentration and profitability made possible by World War 2, the American state’s overcoming of postwar industrial unrest, the centrality of its permanent war economy to its economic acceleration, and the huge environmental costs of its racialized suburbanization. There are eye-opening vignettes on the carbon intensity of the US military, on cargo shipping, and more. In all those respects, he supplies the taut political-ecological narrative that McNeill and Engelke declined, and I learned an awful lot from those chapters.

But the trade-off (and again: trade-offs have to be made) is that Angus is less globe-trotting than McNeill and Engelke. He discusses the Marshall Plan, and the outsourcing of industry to the Global South over the last quarter-century. But there’s strikingly little about oil politics in Southwest Asia (just a moment on pp. 147–48), or about the Green Revolution, or about the ecological consequences of America’s informal empire in the tropics—the rubber and timber plantations in Southeast Asia, the fruit and cattle in Latin America, the sugar, the coffee, the cotton, the mines.

Angus has a section called “What about the USSR?” in which he explains, reasonably enough, that his subject is “the connection between capitalism and the global ecological crisis,” rather than the “ecological nightmares … [that] occurred in countries that called themselves socialist” (p. 208). But the environmental influence of the US and the other Western powers beyond their own borders is a major part of capitalism’s role in the great acceleration into the Anthropocene, and interested readers will need to follow up that story elsewhere.

Third amplification: one could always go further back as well as further out. Angus’s focus is on fossil-fuelled capitalism from the eighteenth century on, rather than on the early modern period. The amplification that would have been useful here, I think, is not so much a narrative that stretched back another three centuries, but—something there was room for—a bit more exposition of the kind of break or transition that Angus sees as having occurred in the late eighteenth century.

If capitalism has “defined and dominated the economy as a whole” for “the past five centuries,” then why the definite emphasis on its later “epochal shift to a fossil-fuel based economy” (pp. 114, 127)? What’s behind the priority that Angus gives to the eighteenth-century ascent of fossil capitalism over the fifteenth-century ascent of capitalist globalisation in narrating the birth of the Anthropocene?

I ask because I made the other choice. The working model that I’ve proposed for thinking about the turn between geological epochs has an emblematic moment of transition (required for stratigraphic purposes) set in 1952, at the beginning of the worldwide plutonium-239 anomaly brought on by H-bomb testing. That moment is metonymic for the far larger and more gradual process of transition that we could think of as the “end-Holocene event,” by analogy with the “end-Permian event,” “end-Triassic event,” etc., that geologists define at the turns between other stratigraphic intervals. I’ve thought of that event as including both the entire foreseeable future, even for centuries to come (such that future ecological politics can be the process of negotiating the birth of the Anthropocene) and the era of the capitalist world system, certainly including the initial European invasion of the Americas. I think it would be hard to argue that the earth-systemic consequences of the Columbian exchange were any less momentous than the earth-systemic consequences of pre-WW2 industrialization. So why Angus’s greater focus on the rise of coal?

That’s it! Three posts is plenty, even on a book that’s so impressive and so closely overlaps with my own. Next week: something else.