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Review: Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System by Ian Angus

By: 
Kim Scipes

Reviewed by Kim Scipes.

Ian Angus’ book tries to do three things:  (1) establish the reality that we’re in a completely new geologic time period (the Anthropocene), and argues that this means that activities of human beings threaten the continued existence of life on this planet; (2) demonstrate that these changes have been brought about by capitalism, and therefore, cannot be solved by capitalism; and (3) suggest strategies for social change to address these first two issues.  Let’s discuss these in order.

Based on scientifically-established evidence, Angus argues “Earth has entered a new epoch, is likely to continue changing in unpredictable and dangerous ways.”  What is he talking about?

First, he argues that “scientific understanding of our planet has radically changed in the past three decades.”  He points out that instead of just examining the Earth discipline by discipline—i.e., geology, physics, biology, ecology, etc.—scientists are now studying the planet as “an integrated planetary system.”  Further, “human activity is rapidly changing that system in fundamental ways.”  He quotes from Frank Oldfield and Will Stefen, whose 2004 book Global Change and the Earth System:  A Planet Under Pressure summarizes the work of thousands of scientists working together in the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program (IGBP):

In the context of global change, the Earth System has come to mean the suite of interacting physical, chemical and biological global-scale cycles (often called biogeochemical cycles) and energy fluxes which provide the conditions necessary for life on the planet.  More specifically, this definition of the Earth System has the following features:

  • It deals with a materially closed system that has a primary external energy source, the sun.
  • The major dynamic components of the Earth System are a suite of interlinked physical, chemical, and biological processes that cycle (transport and transform) materials and energy into complex, dynamic ways within the System.  The forcings and feedbacks within the System are at least as important to the functioning of the System as are the external drivers.
  • Biological/ecological processes are an integral part of the functioning of the Earth System, and not just the recipients of changes in the dynamics of a physical-chemical system.  Living organisms are active are active participants, not simply passive respondents.
  • Human beings, their societies and their activities are an integral component of the Earth System, and are not an outside force perturbing an otherwise natural system.  There are many modes of natural variability and instabilities within the System as well as anthropogenically-driven changes.  By definition, both types of variability are part of the dynamics of the Earth System.  They are often impossible to separate completely and they interact in complex and sometimes mutually reinforcing ways.

Angus then refers to Hans Schellnhuber of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, who argues this new understanding is comparable to Copernicus’ 16th century discovery that the Earth orbits the Sun.

The IGBP team then examined the history of the impact of humans on the planet between 1750 and 2000.  They created 24 graphs—12 showing historical trends of human behaviors (such as GDP growth, population, energy consumption, etc.) and 12 focusing on physical changes in the Earth System (atmospheric carbon dioxide, ozone depletion, etc.)—over this 250-year period.  “The authors were surprised by what they found:  Every trend line showed gradual growth from 1750 and a share upturn from about 1950.”  In fact, they went so far as to conclude, “The last 50 years have without doubt seen the most rapid transformation of the human relationship with the natural world in the history of humankind.”  (A 2015 update shows a continuation of this rapid acceleration.)  This new period, with these changes collectively being called “The Great Acceleration,” has been named the Anthopocene, indicating a turning point in Earth’s history.

Angus follows this with extensive data and discussion of these changes.  Perhaps most importantly, he also points out who is contributing the most to the problem:  “In 2010, the OECD [developed-KS] countries accounted for 74% of the global GDP but only 18% of the global population.”  Accordingly, he concludes, “most of the human imprint on the Earth System is coming from the OECD world.”

I find his argument well supported and deserving wide consideration.  And while scientists have not specifically denoted when this new period began—they need to decide on a physical “marker” like the spread of nuclear isotopes around the world—it seems clear that it will be sometime in the mid-to-late 1940s or very early 1950s.  There seems to be little disagreement among climate scientists.

 The next section of the book tries to explain how and why this has happened.  Angus is clear:  capitalism.  He argues, “… over the long term the drive for profit, to accumulate more capital, always reasserts itself:  it is a defining feature of the capitalist system and the root cause of the global environmental crisis.”

What I find very interesting, however, is Angus’ argument that this change—from the preceding 11,700-year Holocene epoch to the Anthropocene—takes place shortly after the end of World War II:  “it followed the most destructive, most murderous, most inhumane conflict in all history.”  Further, “World War II and its aftermath created the conditions that have shaped capitalism ever since, and started the Great Acceleration on its environmentally destructive course.”

Angus discusses this post war period, focusing on the profits of war, gains for monopoly capital, military Keynesianism, reconversion and class struggle, converting Europe to oil, cheap and abundant oil, as well as “anticipations from [the environmental] left.”  He writes,

At the beginning of 1950, four key drivers of the long boom were in place:  a powerful industrial base in the United States, concentrated in a few hundred giant corporations and dominated by the petroleum/automotive sector; a large and growing military budget; a disciplined and financially secure labor force, purged of militants and militancy; and a seemingly infinite supply of cheap energy.

From an Earth System perspective, history since then can be told as an account of the expansion of global capitalism into every aspect of life and every part of the globe.

Including this focus on war is important, because it includes something often left out of many Marxist analyses of imperialism:  the impact of power and war on human well-being.  This feature actually strengthens Marxist analysis.

It’s not necessary to delve into this section further.  I find this argument compelling.  And, I find his analysis much more satisfying that found in Naomi Klein’s 2014 book, This Changes Everything, which in my opinion was “mushy” on this issue of capitalism.  Whatever Angus is regarding capitalism, it is not mushy!

So, the situation is clear, the cause delineated; so what do we do about it?

This section, however, is where I think Angus drops the ball.  And it’s a shame.  The clarity of his thinking and writing in the previous two sections had me expecting a coherent program to move the struggle forward—and it’s not there.  Of course, we get this feel good stuff on ecosocialism and human solidarity, and the need to develop movements to get us there, but to be honest, I’m pretty tired of this shit.  It’s the same old stuff I’ve heard for years.  It’s a weak substitute for a coherent program.  And it’s old.  And boring.  And excites no one.

Now, the frustration here gets taken out on Angus, but in reality, the frustration is with the so-called left and that we will accept this.  I’m frustrated at my own inability to come up with something coherent.  But I’m hearing too few voices saying this isn’t good enough:  we want more!  We’ve got to get over smiling and saying, “Isn’t that sweet?”  No, it’s not.  Why will anyone (outside of the left) listen to us, and our serious critique of imperialism, war and capitalism, when we don’t even have an alternative to suggest?

So, it’s time we learn how to build on powerful analyses and push ourselves for something more.  Angus has given us powerful analyses regarding what is going on, and what’s causing it:  these are very substantial contributions, and I thank him for them.  This is a book that I highly recommend and argue that should be read by all.

But understand:  as good as his contributions are, and they are good, we must go much further in proposing solutions.  And we’ve got to get on it.  Now.

Facing the Anthropocene:  Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System
Ian Angus
New York:  Monthly Review Press  ISBN:  978-1-58367-609-7 (pbk)

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Kim Scipes, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Purdue University Northwest in Westville, Indiana.  A long-time activist, he has been teaching a course (recently renamed) on “Environment and Social Justice” since 2006.