Anthropocene or Capitalocene? in Marx & Philosophy

Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism

by Steve Knight
Marx & Philosophy Review of Books
August 30th, 2016

The public’s imagination has been seized in the twenty-first century with the notion that human impacts upon the earth’s geology and ecosystems have been so widespread and profound that they have actually launched a new epoch in the Earth’s history.

Biologist Eugene Stoermer suggested in the 1980’s that this hypothetical new epoch might be called the Anthropocene (literally, “New Era of Man”), a term that was repeated in a seminal paper in 2000, by the atmospheric chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen.

While the Anthropocene has not yet been recognized officially by any of the major scientific organizations that designate geological epochs, and there is considerable disagreement among scientists as to when it might have begun, the increasing weight of evidence pointing to unprecedented anthropogenic impacts upon earth and climate systems virtually assures that “Anthropocene” will indefinitely be fixed as part of the public discourse.

In recent years, however, a group of thinkers trained in the ecosocialist tradition of Marx and Engels have initiated a critique of the concept of Anthropocene, arguing that it implicitly blames all of humanity for creating the deleterious effects of biodiversity and species loss, carbon emissions, ocean degradation, deforestation, and other strains on our biosphere. Instead of blaming all of humanity – which includes billions of the world’s poorest, who consume and pollute little – they contend that it is more accurate to place blame on a globalized system of capitalist relations, which are premised on the assumption that infinite, compound growth is possible on a planet with finite resources. This has locked us into unsustainable patterns of production and consumption, hence, “Capitalocene”. The recent collection Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History and the Crisis of Capitalism, edited by Jason W. Moore, offers new perspectives on this ecosocialist critique that should be helpful to anyone engaged in extending their understanding of the current ecological crisis.

Part One of the collection, The Anthropocene and Its Discontents: Toward Chthulucene?, offers two attempts to evaluate the term “Anthropocene” as a potential normative category. What does it tell us, and what does it leave out of the conversation? Environmental sociologist Eileen Crist writes in On the Poverty of Our Nomenclature, that the problem with calling this epoch the Anthropocene, is that it traps us within the anthropocentric worldview that caused our climate crisis in the first place. “The Anthropocene discourse clings”, she tells us, “to the almighty power of that jaded abstraction ‘Man’ and to the promised land his God-posturing might yet deliver him, namely, a planet managed for the production of resources and governed for the containment of risks” (23). Crist declines to suggest an alternative name for our epoch, but says that whatever we call it, it must convey a more integral, holistic vision of interrelationships between the human and non-human. “Lifting the banner of human integrity,” she says, “invites the priority of our pulling back and scaling down, of welcoming limitations of our numbers, economies, and habitats for the sake of a higher, more inclusive freedom and quality of life” (29).

In the second essay of Part One, Staying With the Trouble: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene, Donna J. Haraway brings her background in fields as diverse as technology, feminist theory and multispecies studies, to bear on positing a new paradigm that might replace “Anthropocene” in our discourse. She laments at one point that “[t]hese times called the Anthropocene are times of multi-species, including human, urgency: of great mass death and extinction…of refusing to know and to cultivate the capacity of responsability…of unprecedented looking away” (39). As a response, she proposes the alternate term “Chthulucene”, based on the eight-legged tree spider Pimoa Chthulu, a creature that learns by feeling with many tentacles. What Haraway calls “tentacularity” (shared by organisms as varied as creepers, roots, fungal tangles, jellyfish, even humans) is a quality of life “lived along lines—and such a wealth of lines—not at points, not in spheres” (36). It is this sort of “string figured” (or “sympoietic,” as per environmental researcher Beth Dempster) thinking, which is multipolar, organizationally open, distributionally controlled, and dynamic, that Haraway believes will lead to better solutions to our ecological conundrum. While Haraway offers some exciting potential avenues for conceptualizing beyond the limitations of the Anthropocene model, I am unsure how her “string figured” mode of thinking might be applied practically to halting the worsening breakdown in our biosphere. I am personally more comfortable with Eileen Crist’s straightforward approach of emphasizing holistic relations between the human and non-human realms.

Part Two, Histories of the Capitalocene, offers three attempts to give some historical context to capitalism’s increasingly tight grip on Earth’s geology and ecosystems. The Rise of Cheap Nature, by editor Jason W. Moore, reprises many of the key points in Moore’s 2015 magisterial study, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. Moore believes that while the Anthropocene meme can engage questions of how humans make natures, and vice versa, it cannot provide answers. This is because it is trapped in a Cartesian binary of Humanity vs. Nature, instead of recognizing the “double internality” of humanity-inside-nature, and nature-inside-humanity. Moore maintains that the Capitalocene (an epoch he says was initiated by significant transformations in land and labor relations ca. 1450 to 1640) is premised on a “world-ecology” dialectic in which “capital and power—and countless other strategic relations—do not act upon nature, but develop through the web of life” (97). The secret to capitalism’s creation of value, he says, is that it does not actually value most of its inputs; rather it depends on a steady stream of “Cheap Natures”—labor, food, energy and raw materials—to boost accumulation. Much of capitalism’s crisis since the beginning of its neoliberal phase in the 1970’s, Moore suggests, may be attributed to the increasing difficulty of obtaining Cheap Nature inputs.

Justin McBrien’s Accumulating Extinction: Planetary Catastrophism in the Necrocene posits that outright extinction, of species, cultures, languages and peoples, lies at the heart of capital accumulation. McBrien sees the Necrocene, an epoch of “New Death”, coterminous with the Capitalocene, as causing not just the “metabolic rift” between labor and the Earth, as described by John Bellamy Foster and other ecosocialists, but a process necrotizing the entire planet in a headlong rush to subsume all of the Earth under capital. The final section of McBrien’s essay connects the Necrocene to a post-World War Two “catastrophism” promulgated by the military-industrial complex, and embodied most vividly at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “Capitalism found in the atom bomb the dark watery reflection of its own image. It realized that its logic could lead to one thing: total extinction. It realized that it had become the Necrocene” (124).

The third essay in the Histories section, Elmar Atvater’s The Capitalocene, or Geoengineering Against Capitalism’s Planetary Boundaries, takes on the subject of geoengineering, namely proposed large-scale interventions in the Earth’s climate system aimed at limiting or reversing anthropogenic climate change. These strategies are considered risky by most scientists, but have become attractive in a world increasingly reliant on technological solutions; a few prominent scientists, including Google’s Ray Kurzweil and climate scientist Paul Crutzen, have even said that geoengineering is the answer to the climate crisis. Altvater’s critique of geoengineering, however, is rooted in his analysis of capitalism’s inherent irrationality. Classical political economy, he notes, neglects to consider the full web of life’s interdependencies, including most crucially that capitalism relies on a constant “tap” of cheap inputs and a cost-free externalization (“sink”) of waste outputs. Geoengineering promises to address the negative consequences of externalization by pricing in their costs; but Altvater says that this is doomed to fail, because “many interdependencies in society and nature cannot be expressed in terms of prices.” Approaching the problem holistically would be an answer, but this is impossible in capitalism, which Altvater says “is committed to fixing the parts and not the whole” (151).

The collection’s third and final section, Cultures, States and Environment-Making, looks at the crucial aspect of culture in creating the Anthropocene from two entirely different perspectives. In Anthropocene, Capitalocene and the Problem of Culture, Daniel Hartley defines culture as an historically evolving, contingent process, drawing on dialectical relations between land, labor, intellectual activity, the state and other factors. “Cultural history”, he writes, “must incorporate the profound interrelation of historically and geographically specific struggles with their fundamental symbolic components” (163). Hartley’s main problem with the Anthropocene concept is that it does not consider the politics of class struggle as materially determinant, suggesting instead a world where an undifferentiated “humanity” uses technology in a mechanistic “one-on-one billiard ball model of technological invention and historical effect” (156).

In contrast to Hartley, Christian Parenti’s Environment-Making in the Capitalocene: Political Ecology of the State looks at the crucial role played by the state in creating conditions for the Capitalocene. The author asserts that the state does not simply have a relationship with nature; it is a relationship with nature, because its assertion of territorial control—legally, militarily and scientifically—maintains the web of life necessary for societies to function. Parenti reviews some examples of the vital role the state has played in creating conditions for capital accumulation:
Alexander Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures, the Erie Canal, and China’s Grand Canal. He concludes with an impassioned plea to the Left not to forget the role of the state in formulating an anti-capitalist strategy; “[t]o reform capitalism—and to move beyond it—the Left needs to place the state front and center in its strategic considerations” (182).

The essays in Anthropocene or Capitalocene? provide an invaluable contribution to the debate over what we should call this strange new epoch, wrought by centuries of capitalist depredations upon our biosphere. As these ecosocialists so ably tell us, from their individual perspectives, that humanity’s best hope to save the planet (and its species, including our own) relies on finding ways to replace an unsustainable Capitalocene with socialist relations of production and consumption.

Back to Jason W. Moore’s Author Page