A Change of Cene (part 1)

Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism, ed. Jason W. Moore (Oakland: PM Press)

This blog is mostly about books and articles that I’ve found helpful for thinking about the Anthropocene. I don’t usually bother writing about books here unless I like them: life’s short. There are things I like about Anthropocene or Capitalocene? as well, along with things that I don’t. But the frustrating thing about it is that it advertises itself as a radical diagnosis of “the problems of Anthropocene thinking.” If someone had heard of it but hadn’t read it, they might well end up with the impression that there now exists a systematic book-length critique of “the Anthropocene” from a critical or leftist point of view. And that isn’t the case.

Heaven knows that the Anthropocene can seem as if it’s everywhere in environmental studies at the moment. Claiming to pour cold water on that enthusiasm from a politically advanced standpoint makes for a good sales pitch. But the reality is that—despite its merits—Anthropocene or Capitalocene? has little to say about the first word in its title, and what it does have to say is very poorly informed about the existing literature.

If you publish a book attacking a theory, or a concept, or even—as in this case—a word, you invite a rejoinder from people who are sympathetic to that theory or concept, or to some or all ways of using that word. I want to spend both this week’s post and next week’s (the one after next, as it turned out) on a fairly detailed review of the collection, mainly so as to try to discourage the idea from taking root that there’s now been a methodical critique of “the Anthropocene” from the left. 

“Anthropocene” or “Capitalocene”? One ungainly neologism or another? That either/or choice might not sound very appealing. But in fact the or in the title isn’t meant to offer a choice between two alternatives at all. “Anthropocene” is the wrong answer, and “Capitalocene” is the right one.

At least, that’s what the jacket copy seems to be saying:

A dynamic group of leading critical scholars … challenge the theory and history offered by the most significant environmental concept of our times: the Anthropocene. But are we living in the Anthropocene, literally the “Age of Man”? Is a different response more compelling, and better suited to the strange—and often terrifying—times in which we live? The contributors to this book diagnose the problems of Anthropocene thinking and propose an alternative: the global crises of the twenty-first century are rooted in the Capitalocene, the Age of Capital.

There’s much to weigh up here. The authors diagnose (sc. “recognise and identify by careful observation”) the problems of Anthropocene thinking. What is this problematic thinking? Is there even such a thing as Anthropocene thinking? Apparently so. In fact, we’re told here that the word is even capable of offering both a theory and a history, a theory and history that deserve to be challenged. Metaphorically, no doubt. Because literally, the Anthropocene is just the “Age of Man.”

“It may be misleading, though, to think of the Anthropocene just as the ‘human epoch,’” Colin Waters, Jan Zalasiewicz, Mark Williams, Michael Ellis, and Andrea Snelling wrote a few years ago, at the start of A Stratigraphical Basis for the Anthropocene. It seemed to those authors that Anthropocene thinking might sometimes be something other than thinking the “Age of Man” after all. As if more than one theory, more than one history, and more than one kind of thinking might be involved. “Misleading,” they said, as if these leading critical scholars might not have led the way to a thorough diagnosis of the problems of Anthropocene thinking after all.

But then, A Stratigraphical Basis for the Anthropocene is never mentioned anywhere at all in Anthropocene or Capitalocene?

Anthropocene or Capitalocene? is the work of seven authors. What did they “recognise and identify by careful observation” when they examined the problems of Anthropocene thinking? What are their seven “distinctive critiques of the Anthropocene argument” promised in the introduction (p. 2)?

Well, for most of those contributors, the answer is pretty straightforward. In four of the seven chapters, there’s nothing that could reasonably be described as a critique of the Anthropocene argument. The occasional sentence using the word “Anthropocene”? Yes. Though to be honest, there aren’t even many of them. But a quotation from, or a recognisable paraphrase of, any book or paper or article that might be said to represent Anthropocene thinking—let alone some such quotation or paraphrase combined with an argument about or against it? No. (And there’s not much about the “Capitalocene” either, to be honest.)

That includes the most rewarding chapter in the book, a chapter by Christian Parenti that’s worth the price of admission on its own. Parenti argues that ecosocialist theory ought to concentrate much more on the role of the state, seen not so much as the Weberian monopolist of legitimate physical force but instead as a practice of controlling territory through which capital and the biosphere are joined together. It’s a great essay. But it never once uses the word “Anthropocene”—and “Capitalocene” only twice, both times casually in passing.

There’s an essay called “Geoengineering against Capitalism’s Planetary Boundaries” that makes only a handful of passing references to the word Anthropocene (e.g. “the Anthropocene is a plausible name for the new planetary era”). More oddly, it also scarcely refers to geoengineering, which is only mentioned in three paragraphs across its fifteen pages There’s a chapter by an early career scholar that has some similar issues. And there’s a highly associative and idiosyncratic piece by Donna Haraway. Here, for instance, is what Haraway has to say about Eugene Stoermer and Paul Crutzen, co-authors of the well-known paper that coined the word “Anthropocene”: “also, swimming in too hot seas with the tentacular ones, their eyes were the optic-haptic fingery eyes of marine critters in diseased and dying coral symbioses” (p. 71).

“The chapters in this volume defy easy summary,” Jason Moore writes in the introduction (p. 5). He’s not kidding. But at least one thing that most of them have in common is their lack of interest in offering “a critique of the Anthropocene argument.”

That leaves only three chapters in which to “challenge the theory and history offered by the most significant environmental concept of our times.” Or actually, rather less than that. Eileen Crist’s chapter more or less sticks to its polemical guns. There are six pages on the Anthropocene at the start of Jason Moore’s chapter, and a handful of scattered references later on. There are three pages on the Anthropocene at the start of Daniel Hartley’s chapter. Moore’s introduction has a few relevant remarks. And that’s your lot.

It’s a bit like Monty Python’s cheese shop. It’s the finest book-length critique of Anthropocene thinking in the district, because it’s so uncontaminated by references to the Anthropocene.

Still, there is something about the Anthropocene here. So let’s sift through it.

Hartley first. His chapter is a version of an essay that’s online in Salvage. As I say, it has three pages on the Anthropocene (“The Anthropocene Discourse: Five Problems,” pp. 155–57), then the rest of the chapter is about other things. I admired the rest of the chapter, actually: a tightly argued case for the importance to ecological Marxism of thinking about “culture” with “historical specificity.” But his opening gambit— “Danger arises … when geologists enter the political arena”—made me twitch with its frank recall of a million attacks on climate scientists who “enter the political arena,” even though he offers the authority of Marx’s comments on the native “abstract materialism” of natural scientists.

After that, he at least presents his attack on the Anthropocene with commendable clarity, as a numbered list of those five supposed problems. Here they are:

  1. “Ahistorical, Abstract Humanity.” Evidence? A three-word quotation (“the human enterprise”) from this paper. Are “Anthropocene scientists” really united in blaming environmental change on “humanity in general,” as if “we’re all in this together”? No. Does Hartley do pretty much the same thing he’s complaining about with his hostile generalisations about “Anthropocene scientists”? Yes.
  2. “Technological Determinism.” Evidence? “The dating of the Anthropocene to some time around 1800.” Evidence for that? None given. Actually, recent group publications by AWG members pretty consistently suggest a mid-twentieth-century starting date for the Anthropocene. Next!
  3. “Annihiliation of the Time of Praxis.” Hm? “Even from a literary perspective the Anthropocene is problematic.” Go on? A quotation from that same paper as before: “Pre-industrial humans, still a long way from developing the contemporary civilization that we know today, nevertheless showed some early signs of accessing the very energy-intensive fossil fuels on which contemporary civilization is built.” That’s a reference to coal use in Song China. Hartley thinks that, phrased that way, that sentence sounds a bit teleological. Which I suppose it does, a little bit. Next!
  4. “A Whig View of History.” Evidence? Two quotations from—surprise!—that same paper as before again. First: “Migration to cities usually brings with it rising expectations and eventually rising incomes, which in turn brings an increase in consumption.” Hartley’s objection? “Seems almost wilfully blind to the history of mass urban poverty, gentrification and accumulation by dispossession.” But I don’t know anyone who’d disagree that urbanisation and consumption levels were on balance (cf. “usually”) positively rather than negatively correlated from the mid-1960s to 2014 (the dates being referred to here). Next!
    Second: “The onset of the Great Acceleration may well have been delayed by a half century or so, interrupted by two world wars and the Great Depression.” Objection? “Seems to claim that the bloodiest century in human history … is a mere blip on the rising line of progress.” I don’t see how it claims or even implies that at all. Next!
  5. “Apolitical Technical and Managerial Solutions.” Evidence? None. No quotations, no citations, no nothing.

And that’s it for Hartley’s diagnosis of the problems of Anthropocene thinking. Five chapters down; two to go.

More to follow!

[Go to part 2]

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