‘Anthropocene’ references are now commonplace in the community as the scale of the climate crisis unfolds. The concept has been embraced by many environmental scientists and climate change activists to contest the denial of human-induced global warming. The intent is to encapsulate a stark warning that human – Anthropos – activity is transgressing the ‘planetary boundaries’ that support life on the planet. It reflects escalating concerns as the Earth shifts beyond the relatively stable 14-16 degree Holocene climate band historically conducive to the flourishing of diverse human civilisations.
Scientists representing the International Commission on Stratigraphy are now debating the merit of officially recognising a new Anthropocene Epoch classification to acknowledge this post-Holocene transition. It is a moment in intellectual history rich in irony and metaphor. If nothing else, it is certainly optimistic to follow the 11,000 year Holocene Epoch with a newly designated human-centred epoch. Climate science clearly outlines a grim prognosis for the projected 2-4 degree shift beyond the upper Holocene edge. With continued ‘business as usual’, the planet would likely be uninhabitable in another couple hundred years.
It’s important to pause and consider the deeper implications and potential effects of this proposed Anthropocene classification and community usage. Despite the progressive intent of advocates, the ‘species-level’ conceptualisation of ‘human activity’ ends up obscuring more than it enlightens. Above all, it risks a dangerous slide into a capitalist-driven technological determinism that is diametrically opposed to its progressive roots.
The most common reference point for Anthropocene Epoch origins is the Industrial Revolution from 1750. It pinpoints the dramatically accelerated impacts on Earth systems and ecological catastrophes that have followed. This association also illuminates the techno-centric tendency underpinning much Anthropocene discourse. In this narrative, technological development is overwhelmingly portrayed as both curse and solution to the ecological threat facing humanity – particularly the fossil fueled energy system amplifying this catastrophe. However, this perspective overshadows the extent to which technology is inextricably tied to divergent ownership, control and differential access to the levers of economic, technological and political control that have shaped Holocene civilisations up to this transition point . It is through this prism of political economy that humanity’s dynamic relation to earth systems must be framed and evaluated.
This is especially the case with the Industrial Revolution. It did not arise as a separate process from the expanding forms of money capital already in ascendancy throughout Europe with the rise of mercantile capital. Likewise, pre-industrial ecological degradation was well underway. Colonisation, natural wealth transfer and the post-feudal capitalisation of agriculture transformed vast natural regions of Europe and spread globally. The Industrial Revolution itself was intimately tied to the constrained needs of existing money capital for new sources of investment and markets for accumulation. This spreading accumulation imperative revolutionised labour-intensive craft production and energy systems through the application of technology and science for profit maximisation in relation to employed labour and market competitors. Simple commodity production became transformed into a generalised system of commodity production, exchange and consumption, with an embedded growth imperative to continually invest and create new commodity consumption markets as a self-expanding end of production-based money capital. This likewise increased ecological degradation exponentially. Now, more than ever, technological and ecological impacts of ‘human activity’ cannot be explained ‘outside’ the mode of private ownership and control of money capital, means of production and accumulation priorities of capitalist economy. While most Anthropocene advocates structurally connect the post-Holocene transition with the Industrial Revolution we ignore the political economy driving this accelerated transformation at our collective peril.
Curiously, given the stakes involved, questioning the inherited social and economic relations of the Capitalist Industrial Revolution rarely forms part of the conversation. This frequent omission in Anthropocene techno-centrism can perhaps be explained by its origins within environmental, physical and earth sciences. Many natural scientists shy away from direct engagement with the ideology and politics that mask and sustain global political economy. Economic organisation is as much a feature of historical development and transformation as technology, ecology or science. It is not a platform of pre-ordained, naturally-given social relations that must be embraced in order to address the climate challenge. The capitalist system imperative that requires endless growth on a finite planet is the climate and ecological challenge. For the powerful vested interests and governments that defend this system, capitalist market economies are a sacred universal free from scrutiny. A narrative about an Anthropocene Epoch bursting sustainable ecological boundaries, and that simply accepts or negotiates around this ideological and political-economic structure rather than confronting it, will not save our planet or species.
Not surprisingly, the ideology and politics of the climate crisis is heading in a disturbing direction. The ‘species-level’ worldview conceptually embedded in the Anthropocene is far from scientifically impartial and politically neutral. Its descriptive concern and warning over the ecological consequences of ‘human activity’ is rapidly transforming within the contested matrix of competing interests of contemporary political economy. The recent shift to greater public and government acceptance, rather than denial or minimisation, of global warming does not necessarily signal a victory for progressive, democratic public policy. Now the ideology and consequences of the capitalist-shaping of future climate change action need to be carefully scrutinised, particularly their undemocratic control by powerful governments and private corporations. Moreover, broader philosophical and political theories are lurking in the darker neo-conservative corners of this debate. Their ideological re-shaping of Anthropocene discourse to accord with dominant ‘free-market’ interests is well underway.
The impact of a 250 year globalising capitalist economy has qualitatively transformed the scale of human transformation of the lived environment that marked Holocene beginnings. Progressive laments from environmentalists like McKibben about the ‘end of nature’ were a clarion call to curtail this all-encompassing impact before it was too late. Now we are confronting the political/ideological flipside. Perversely, evolving concepts of the Anthropocene now propose that humanity has entered a brave new world where the climatic, ecological and geological ‘pre-history’ of the Holocene is able to be superseded.
Recognising the nature transforming impact of human activity does not logically nor ethically lead to the proposition that humanity could, should, or already has taken effective control over the management of earth systems. Such hubristic scientific claims echo the long religious and philosophical tradition proclaiming ‘Our’ ownership and mastery of the planet. Advocating that the human species is now or soon capable of ‘controlling nature’ suggests a recast ‘end of nature’ perspective that echoes Fukuyama’s neo-conservative ‘end of history’ triumphalism of ‘Western’ society.
One corollary of this neo-conservative worldview and agenda is that technological experts now have the social license and ordained responsibility to manage and modify this hybrid social/natural world on our behalf. The climate geo-engineering projects associated with this stewardship – such as global dimming of solar radiation – will transform the planet into a high-risk scientific experiment with uncertain and irrevocable consequences. If, as Hamilton warns, it is accepted that the ‘human species’ is the ‘Earthmaster’, then fear of survival or that time is running out will compel even progressive experts and policymakers to turn towards high-risk schemes as a ‘last hope’. Geo-engineering (Crutzen), nuclear energy (Monbiot) and genetically-modified foods (Lynas) are gaining increasing acceptance among environmentalists.
The abstracted ‘species-level’ Anthropocene discourse also assumes an illusory species-level consensus and democratic influence. The seductive ideological mantra that ‘we are all in this together’ suggests shared complicity as a species in the current climate crisis and wider ecological collapse. Yet, ‘we’ is a sham collectivity for a 6 billion global majority without access to the prosperity that the prevailing economic system offers to a one billion global minority. Political and economic marginalisation remains a significant reality even in affluent countries.
This affluence, and of the global 1% that own over 50% of global assets, will not and cannot be extended to all countries and peoples: not on a finite planet, regardless of a rapid uptake of sustainable energy technologies. Widespread aspiration to ‘first world’ living standards is swamping the remnant resilience and capacity of planetary carbon sinks and ecologies. Capitalist growth imperatives relish the opportunity to ‘help’ realise these aspirations for emergent middle classes. For most, however, basic survival is the reality of the day and becoming increasingly dire at the margins. As climate and ecological impacts deepen only advanced economies will have the resources to weather the consequences. Further down the track, only the wealthy minority in advanced economies will be insulated.
Much is still able to be contested. However, adaptation, mitigation and survival imperatives will loom large in coming years and stark choices will become more sharply defined. Whether ‘the Anthropocene’ marks the end of ‘our beginnings’ or the beginnings of ‘our end’ one certainty remains: without dramatic socio-economic transformations any designated post-Holocene Epoch will be very short for humanity’s vast numbers. Indeed, it will be Hamilton’s ‘requiem’ for most of our species. Then the future of the Anthropocene epoch will truly belong to the inheritors of the capitalised wealth and power of the current creators.
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