The word Anthropocene, unknown twenty years ago, now appears in the titles of three academic journals, dozens of books, and hundreds of academic papers, not to mention innumerable articles in newspapers, magazines, websites, and blogs. There are exhibitions about art in the Anthropocene, conferences about the humanities in the Anthropocene, and novels about love in the Anthropocene. There is even a heavy metal album called The Anthropocene Extinction. Rarely has a scientific term moved so quickly into wide acceptance and general use.… Behind what might appear to be just a trendy buzzword are important scientific discussions that have radical implications for the future of life on Earth.
Four decades ago, when most greens were blaming pollution on population growth and personal consumption, socialist-environmentalist Barry Commoner showed that neither could account for the radical increase in pollutants since the end of the Second World War. In The Closing Circle, he argued that “the chief reason for the environmental crisis…is the sweeping transformation of productive technology since World War II.” In particular, he pointed to dramatic increases in the production and use of materials not found in nature, such as synthetics that do not degrade and therefore become permanent blights on the earth.… Bottles and bags—together with blister packs, polystyrene tubs, foam peanuts, bubble wrap, styrofoam trays, candy wrappers, and a multitude of other forms of packaging—now account for a third of the plastic produced each year worldwide. It is a bizarre and extremely irrational process: producing products that are designed to be thrown away but are made from materials that never die. The second of Barry Commoner’s famous Four Laws of Ecology is: everything must go somewhere.… In his remarkable book Plastic Ocean, Charles Moore (with Cassandra Phillips) reports on the part of the “unstoppable avalanche of nonessentials” that ends up in the oceans, where it chokes and poisons fish, mammals, and birds, and endangers human life.
Ian Angus constructs a strawperson in his article “The Myth of ‘Environmental Catastrophism’” (MR, September 2013), which discusses Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, which consists of essays by myself, as well as Sasha Lilley, David McNally, and James Davis. The book is concerned with the political uses of catastrophe and whether actual catastrophes or catastrophic rhetoric can spur people to action. At the heart of Catastrophism is the question of politicization. My essay, which Angus primarily focuses upon, looks at the indisputably catastrophic and urgent devastation of the environment…and asks why environmental movements in the global North have not been effective at moving people to action by simply evoking the calamity of the situation.
Between October 2010 and April 2012, over 250,000 people, including 133,000 children under five, died of hunger caused by drought in Somalia. Millions more survived only because they received food aid. Scientists at the UK Met Centre have shown that human-induced climate change made this catastrophe much worse than it would otherwise have been.… This is only the beginning: the United Nations’ 2013 Human Development Report says that without coordinated global action to avert environmental disasters, especially global warming, the number of people living in extreme poverty could increase by up to 3 billion by 2050. Untold numbers of children will die, killed by climate change.… If a runaway train is bearing down on children, simple human solidarity dictates that anyone who sees it should shout a warning, that anyone who can should try to stop it. It is difficult to imagine how anyone could disagree with that elementary moral imperative.… And yet some do. Increasingly, activists who warn that the world faces unprecedented environmental danger are accused of catastrophism—of raising alarms that do more harm than good. That accusation, a standard feature of right-wing attacks on the environmental movement, has recently been advanced by some left-wing critics as well. While they are undoubtedly sincere, their critique of so-called environmental catastrophism does not stand up to scrutiny.