Facing Left (part 2)

Last week’s post was the start of a response to Ian Angus’s Facing the Anthropocene. I think it’s a terrific book, and although there are differences between his study and mine (his book is about the Earth System science version of the Anthropocene; mine is about the stratigraphic version of the Anthropocene) I hope that the two are more or less complementary and mutually illuminating. Still, I want to take seriously Angus’s declaration that he “looks forward to receiving responses, amplifications, and, of course, disagreements” (p. 20). I’ve got two disagreements to point out; they’re disputes with only small moments in the book, but I think they point to deeper conceptual divergences. In another post (given my self-imposed 2000-word limit), I’ll add three suggested amplifications.

The first disagreement has to do with temporality, and it’s centred on a chapter of Facing the Anthropocene called “Capital’s Time vs. Nature’s Time.” That opposition seems too simple to me. Continue reading “Facing Left (part 2)”


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. Continue reading “Facing Left (part 1)”

On Walking to Work

Near the beginning of a book I read as a child—I was sure it was Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, but just now I couldn’t find it there—there’s a passage on topography. The author says that if she (or he) forgot everything in her old age, first losing names and faces, and then losing the events of her own life, the last thing that would stay with her would be the shape of the land she knew best. She’d remember the pattern of the hills, valleys, and slopes after everything else had gone.

That idea impressed me because it was so alien. I realised when I read it that I didn’t have any sense of how the contours around my house or my school fitted together, underneath the roads and trees and buildings. It had probably never previously occurred to me that there was a continuous shape to the land below the pavement, or that people might be interested in or appreciate those curves and gradients. Continue reading “On Walking to Work”

Grief Encounter

Lesley Head, Hope and Grief in the Anthropocene: Re-conceptualising Human-Nature Relations (Abingdon: Routledge)

I’m fairly sure that Australia produces more essays on the Anthropocene per capita than anywhere else on earth. Most (not all!) of that Australian writing on the Anthropocene has a distinctive tone and orientation: a taste for relationality and interconnection, and an emphasis on communality and affective experience. Its ethical touchstones are principles of care and of living-with; it celebrates the embodied and the everyday.

British work on the Anthropocene has tended towards the empirical instead of the highly theorised (a thudding national stereotype, I know). North American contributors have perhaps been disproportionately concerned with the politics of universalism and with conservation issues, though such a high proportion of all work on the Anthropocene has come out of the US and Canada that it’s hard to generalise. But much more than those vague national tendencies, there’s a distinct Australian tradition of writing about the Anthropocene. Continue reading “Grief Encounter”

Thank the Mouse Day

Christian Schwägerl, The Anthropocene: The Human Era and how it Shapes our Planet, trans. Lucy Renner Jones (London: Synergetic)

Here’s my review of Christian Schwägerl’s enjoyable book, originally published in Green Letters, vol. 20, no. 1 (2016), pp. 104–7.


In February 2000, Paul Crutzen travelled to Cuernavaca, just outside Mexico City, for the International Geosphere–Biosphere Programme (IGBP) annual conference. The IGBP was an international organisation coordinating research on Earth system science. Crutzen, an atmospheric chemist and vice chair of the IGBP, was one of the world’s most eminent scientists. He had received a Nobel Prize for his work underpinning the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer. In Cuernavaca, Crutzen listened to researchers from the IGBP’s paleoenvironment project reporting on their work, referring frequently as they did so to the present geological epoch, the Holocene. He found himself suddenly impelled to speak out: “Stop using the word Holocene. We’re not in the Holocene any more. We’re in the… the… the Anthropocene!” (The precise form of his words varies slightly from telling to telling.) The delegates fell silent, but at the coffee break that followed they talked of nothing else. Their excited conversations were the beginning of a process whereby Crutzen’s moment of inspiration has come to shape the course of modern environmental thought. Continue reading “Thank the Mouse Day”

Somewhat New

J. R. McNeill and Peter Engelke, The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP)

John McNeill’s Something New Under the Sun, his environmental history of the twentieth century, is one of the Bibles of work on the Anthropocene—most of all among researchers in the physical sciences, I suspect. McNeill is a member of the Anthropocene Working Group, and he’s been publishing with them for a long time. He was the co-author with Will Steffen and Paul Crutzen of an influential early article (influential in the wrong direction, I think, but that’s for another time) called “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?” But Something New Under the Sun deserves its status independently of McNeill’s later collaborations: it’s an extraordinary survey of environmental change in the twentieth century, in ecosystems of practically every kind. As the AWG has focused more sharply in on a mid-C20th golden spike for the Anthropocene epoch, McNeill’s conspectus has got ever more important to them, and to other researchers concerned with what the AWG is up to.

Still, Something New is a decade and a half old now. A lot has changed, both in environmental historiography and IRL. The obvious question, in the context of this blog: does this new book, with “Great Acceleration” and “Anthropocene” right there in the title, supersede the earlier one for researchers working on the Anthropocene? If you wanted to read just one book to give you a survey of the years when (you might be inclined to believe) the Holocene ticked over into the Anthropocene, should it be this one instead of Something New Under the Sun? The answer is… no. But it’s a useful supplement. Continue reading “Somewhat New”

Lights Out

Friday 24 June

No proper post this week: just sleep-deprived first thoughts. There is a half-plausible Left case against the European Union (for the member states in general, not for Britain in particular). But this afternoon, Farage’s victory feels absolute—victory “without a bullet being fired” as he shouted this morning, overlooking in the heat of the moment the assassination of Jo Cox. In comparison to Farage, even Johnson seems to me almost diminished rather than conquering—among the political class, at least, if not necessarily with the voters. Johnson was generally taken to be the leader of the Out campaign; his great gamble has (in a sense) paid out against the odds; and he may well be Prime Minister in a few months’ time. And despite all that, just now both he and the souverainiste ideologues—Redwood, Cash, Hannan, Carswell, Gove, Rees-Mogg (all of them linked by that same curious closely studied masculinity)—seem secondary to Farage’s achievement. Continue reading “Lights Out”

On Terra Incognita: Crutzen’s “Geology of mankind” (part 1)

As I write, Paul Crutzen’s “Geology of mankind” has 1727 citations on Google Scholar. There have been eighteen new citations already this month. If anything, they’re appearing with increasing frequency, fourteen years after the paper was published. “Geology of mankind” has become the essential point of reference in debates about the Anthropocene.

Two of the positions that Crutzen takes there have become famous, or in some circles notorious, among writers on the Anthropocene. Firstly, that the start of the Anthropocene might be placed “in the latter part of the eighteenth century,” a choice that has something to do with “James Watt’s design of the stream engine in 1784.” Secondly, that one appropriate response to the new conditions might be “large-scale geo-engineering projects.” Those two (far from dogmatic) proposals aside, Crutzen’s paper is most often cited, I think, simply as the representative source for the concept of the Anthropocene in general. It’s become a landmark, an indispensable part of the ancestry. Continue reading “On Terra Incognita: Crutzen’s “Geology of mankind” (part 1)”

Kiln Time

Nigel Clark, “Fiery Arts: Pyrotechnology and the Political Aesthetics of the Anthropocene,” GeoHumanities 1, no. 2 (2015), 266-84

A decent rule of thumb: in anthropogenic ecosystems, the angels are on the side of pluralism and diversity, as against monoculture and industrial uniformity. Instead of miles of genetically homogeneous wheat and corn, or thousands of near-identical pallid pigs crammed into a feedlot, a genuinely functional food- or resource-producing landscape needs something more layered: multiple pollinators, multiple varietals, mosaics of planting, an element of mess. That’s the most basic principle of agroecology, and something like an article of faith for the green movement. In fact, I’ve argued that that instinct for pluralism can make a good starting point for green politics as a whole. Clark’s lovely essay draws attention persuasively to another, minor realm in which that same pluralist instinct is wanted. If we need plural ecosystems, we need plural pyrotechnic systems too. Continue reading “Kiln Time”

On Fossilization

Roy E. Plotnick, Felisa A. Smith, and S. Kathleen Lyons, “The fossil record of the sixth extinction,” Ecology Letters 19 (2016), 546–53

I’d like to go back to the thought experiment that’s at the heart of the stratigraphic Anthropocene: if alien geologists arrived to study the earth in some tens of millions of years, what traces of present-day ecological upheavals might they find? One of the most evocative characteristics of contemporary strata—albeit not the most immediately visible thing about them—would be the last-ever appearances of some species in the fossil record, the indicators of their extinction. But how many species would even leave such a record behind, and how many would simply vanish without a trace? Continue reading “On Fossilization”