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Facing the Anthropocene reviewed in T-Paine’s Newsletter

Art: "Masque a gaz," by Amani Bodo, 2020, Congo

Art: "Masque a gaz," by Amani Bodo, 2020, Congo

“These features of capitalism, as it is constituted today, work together to produce an economic and political reality that is highly destructive of the environment. An unquestioning society-wide commitment to economic growth at almost any cost; enormous investment in technologies designed with little regard for the environment; powerful corporate interests whose overriding objective is to grow by generating profit, including profit from avoiding the environmental costs they create; markets that systematically fail to recognize environmental costs unless corrected by government; government that is subservient to corporate interests and the growth imperative; rampant consumerism spurred by a worshipping of novelty and by sophisticated advertising; economic activity so large in scale that its impacts alter the fundamental biophysical operations of the planet; all combine to deliver an ever-growing world economy that is undermining the planet’s ability to sustain life.” – Gus Speth, author, UN development expert and environmental advisor to presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, quoted on page 189

In Facing the Anthropocene, Ian Angus writes that the term “Anthropocene” started out almost as an accident, being first popularized by the well known atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen off the cuff at a 2000 meeting of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program in protest of the repeated use of the existing name for our current epoch, the Holocene. Crutzen, who had researched the ozone near-disaster, is quoted on page 28 explaining the need for the new term: “human activities had grown so much that they could compete and interfere with natural processes.”

The term Anthropocene…suggests that the Earth has now left its natural geological epoch, the present interglacial state called the Holocene. Human activities have become so pervasive and profound that they rival the great forces of Nature and are pushing the Earth into planetary terra incognita. The Earth is rapidly moving into a less biologically diverse, less forested, much warmer, and probably wetter and stormier state.

The prefix Anthro- is not inherently negative or accusatory to the human race and our disproportionate impact on otherwise natural processes, only descriptive of our significant capabilities, which could be brought to bear for the cause of sustainability as much as it could be for wanton, thoughtless destruction. As Angus writes in the first several chapters, though, our “stewardship” has overwhelmingly resulted in negative outcomes for the biosphere and therefore ourselves, and the positive actions we have undertaken typically only consist of redresses and reclamation in response to earlier destruction. See for example Angus’ discussion of the ozone layer fix, which on page 87 is described by Crutzen as “lucky” and by Angus as having been motivated in the end by the capitalist profit motive—outright disaster was only narrowly averted by the chance alignment of several interests and coincidences.

The Anthropocene is an accurate summation of the current era and should be understood as justifiably accusatory in light of the ever-increasing, and only occasionally (always insufficiently) addressed, human influence on the environment, the deadly outcomes of which are now spiraling out of even our own control:

“It is a stark illustration of the sort of difficulties many of our species will face if we don’t do more to mitigate rising temperatures and help nature’s survival.

“Weather experts predict that the future will see more torrential downpours, along with very dry and hot summers. We’re going to experience more floods, droughts, heatwaves, extreme storms and wildfires – and they will go from bad to worse, breaking records with ever alarming frequency if we don’t limit our carbon emissions.”

One of the most obvious results of the hot summer were wildfires that devastated heathland areas in Cornwall, Devon and Dorset, destroying habitats for species such as the silver-studded blue butterfly, rare sand lizards and smooth snakes.

The heat also had other unexpected consequences. At the height of summer, rangers in Wallington, Northumberland, found young bats dehydrated and disoriented. They rehydrated the bats using tiny pipettes before placing them in a cooler, dark place where they could rest and recover and fly to rejoin their colony at dusk.

The drought was terrible news for natterjack toads, which need clusters of pools to travel across dune slacks. The ponds at Formby in Merseyside dried up and no toadlets were spotted.

The shorter flowering season caused by the drought also affected pollinators. Many butterfly species had a poor year as a result of depleted food sources over their peak summer period.

The transformations the human animal is in the process of bring about are are both greater in extent and velocity than previous changes incepted by purely natural processes; we are entering a “no-analogue world,” (page 109) which is therefore difficult to predict.

All of this is an argument for caution, but as Angus writes in chapter 8, titled The Making of Fossil Capitalism, our current postwar (what Angus calls “the Great Acceleration,” described on page 43 as “a descriptive name for the period of unprecedented economic growth and environmental devastation since World War II”) market arrangement depends on limitless growth, which depends on the burning of fossil fuels and concentration of wealth among several companies and individuals, which in turn results in limitless emissions. This arrangement has only been periodically interrupted and continues to be jealously maintained by these monopolistic companies:

As part of its investigation into climate disinformation, the House Oversight Committee subpoenaed documents in November 2021 from four of the world’s largest oil companies; their U.S. trade association, the American Petroleum Institute; and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The chamber did not comply with the subpoena, but the rest submitted a variety of responsive documents, the most salient of which have been published by the Oversight Committee in two batches. The more than 1,500 pages include internal communications about media relations, advertising, and marketing campaigns from 2015 to 2021.

Taken together, they reveal that the industry’s approach on climate really hasn’t changed since scientists first started warning that the burning of fossil fuels was becoming a problem: push “solutions” that keep fossil fuels profitable, downplay climate impacts, overstate the industry’s commitments, and bully the media if they don’t stay on message. It’s the same five-step plan, deployed to the same end: preserving power, subsidies, and social license.

The postwar acceleration of climate destruction coincides with what is typically considered to be the greatest period of prosperity, growth, and family values in US history, with an attendant baby boom and later an attempted cultural revolution against its core consumerist tenets. This is no accident—the illusion of good times fondly remembered by boomers and imagined by their disciples is largely the product of rose-tinted propaganda. A cursory evaluation of the reality of the postwar era reveals that this capitalist windfall was unequally shared and this glorified history was written by the economic victors who put into place a system which would in short order result in massive systemic inequalities (page 176) and set into motion the policy of endless accumulation and expansion with a cynical militarist modus operandi which would define subsequent decades and cement our path toward climate destruction. That this seeming prosperity was not equally shared but portrayed as universal came to define the driving ethos of postwar capitalism as one concerned only with the extent of the victor’s spoils and not the purported “rising tide” benefit for everyone else (page 107: “Immense improvements to the human condition have been made in the capitalist era—in health, culture, philosophy, literature, music, and more. But capitalism has also led to starvation, destitution, mass violence, torture, and genocide, all on an unprecedented scale.”). Psychologically, this lack of concern for aggregate fairness was necessary given the existence of segregation, which would later end as an official government policy but continue to be maintained by the market itself (schools, for example, are even more segregated now than in the 1960s). This drive to privatize oppression was not merely true deregulation, which on its own would have been disastrous, but in reality consisted of the corruption of government for warlike and monopolistic purposes—corporate welfare or reverse wealth redistribution, essentially, the worst of multiple worlds. And the existence of a large standing military, while wasteful and damaging in and of itself (see the impact of military bases in terms of crime and emissions in the US and abroad) often produces by its existence alone environmentally destructive and morally unconscionable wars of aggression. In the current era, military budgets continue to increase at the expense of socially and ecologically beneficial programs meant to address the inequalities created by the system itself, with a war in Ukraine providing the necessary window dressing for increasing an already ponderous budget.

Is this perpetual war necessary for the maintenance of the international capitalist arrangement, or is it coincidental, just one of many examples of corporate make-work designed to ensure that “too big to fail” companies and shareholders can continue to amass gross amounts of wealth? To enforce the arrangement, the military has been used repeatedly, not necessarily against anti-capitalist regimes opposing that arrangement directly (though imperialist economic concerns are always a factor in our conflicts, more overtly so in the Vietnam War but less so in subsequent invasions) but, more chillingly, against anyone who might make a good target. This target of military welfare need not constitute an actual or even imagined threat, only an opportunity to enrich politically connected contractors. This is nihilistic, post-modern war-making, with large standing militaries being brought to bear against the environment itself via proxy.

The coming decades will see wars fought over resources as they always have been, this time with “green” justifications as climate change becomes undeniably dangerous in the popular zeitgeist. One example of a potential source of conflict is phosphorus, which is used in farming and is in increasingly short supply:

Without phosphorus food cannot be produced, since all plants and animals need it to grow. Put simply: if there is no phosphorus, there is no life. As such, phosphorus-based fertilisers – it is the “P” in “NPK” fertiliser – have become critical to the global food system.

Most phosphorus comes from non-renewable phosphate rock and it cannot be synthesised artificially. All farmers therefore need access to it, but 85% of the world’s remaining high-grade phosphate rock is concentrated in just five countries (some of which are “geopolitically complex”): Morocco, China, Egypt, Algeria and South Africa.

Seventy per cent is found in Morocco alone. This makes the global food system extremely vulnerable to disruptions in the phosphorus supply that can lead to sudden price spikes. For example, in 2008 the price of phosphate fertilisers rocketed 800%.

At the same time, phosphorus use in food production is extremely inefficient, from mine to farm to fork. It runs off agricultural land into rivers and lakes, polluting water which in turn can kill fish and plants, and make water too toxic to drink.

Any institution or concept, no matter how superficially it ought to seem opposed to such use, can be exploited in the name of greenwashing, even wars of invasion. Wasteful and unnecessary technology and products, predatory business practices, hidebound religion, resource wars of conquest, unchecked population growth, and soon destruction of the natural world “for its own sake” (say, against invasive species, or ones who might soon become invasive) will all be portrayed as necessary to help the biosphere. Once again, the fascist doctrine of preemption over prevention rears its ugly head—self-defense over the potentiality of future violence, as in the case of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. These efforts are always counterproductive to every aim except for enriching the aggressor and their corporate allies, in much the same way that destroying an invasive species is often more damaging to the environment in the long term depending on methods used—soon, with a rapidly changing climate, many species will become invasive as they migrate away from their newly-inhospitable environments, or perish where they stand. Human migrants will be treated no better.

Facing the Anthropocene is an unflinching and powerful rejection of capital’s potential to reform itself and thereby be employed in any way which does not amplify the same profound wealth inequalities and expansionist growth model that enslaved the unlucky and amplified historical inequalities, many of which may have been driven originally by natural conditions but which have been systematically exploited by greedy colonial nations at all points. Recent disasters such as Hurricane Katrina (see pages 178-179) show that this economic opportunismFacing the Anthropocene has not been left behind previous centuries but continues unabated, leaving honest observers with no indication that anything has changed in the minds of capitalists. Had the market itself ever voluntarily taken steps to correct its externalities beyond adopting as lip service certain fashionable concepts such as inclusion and other socially responsible trappings, there might exist an excusable kernel of hope in its capability to save us. Angus is appropriately pessimistic of our overall chances (page 194): “And given the refusal of our leaders to act—witness the failure of every UN climate meeting for decades to adopt any concrete measures against fossil fuels—it is now unlikely that the necessary changes will be made in time to stop a 2-degree increase.”

In 2023, the need for a genuinely green anti-capitalist revolution is undeniable, but it is not forthcoming. The responsibility for saving ourselves then, for better or worse, falls on us, naturally first and foremost on the shoulders of those who have the greatest potential to effect change. Here is the problem: these influential individuals are by and large those with the least compelling reason to change the system—our history of rewarding and legitimizing predatory behavior has resulted in our leadership belonging primarily to an oligarchy of fools and pretenders who have shown repeatedly that human life holds no inherent value for them (let alone non-human life) and that they will stop at nothing to jealously guard their ill-gotten wealth and hegemony. It must therefore be ripped from them by force, for the sake of our children and their own. This fact has not been lost on them: they will be the last ones to suffer from any environmental calamity, and are currently planning to lethally and knowingly foist the worst of the suffering onto the global south, protecting themselves at the expense of all others. By the natural right of self-defense alone, forceful protest in the service of stopping this murder is already justified—soon it will be widespread and compulsory, but these acts will conveniently not be allowed until they are mostly ineffective and too little, too late, the desperate cries of emaciated and abused populations trying to save themselves rather foment the revolution whose days have long since past.

The Anthropocene is likely to be the last era to feature highly intelligent life on this planet, as the human race represents the culmination of a process of natural selection which has proved itself to be conducive to birthing species which become apex predators incapable of resisting or modulating the base rapaciousness underlying their evolution, with the goal of creating a sustainable or even livable future for all of their members. Human beings are at once feral and instinctual, yet so numerous and counterproductively intelligent that we have thoughtlessly “reasoned” our way into an unnecessary extinction. The free market as Angus sees it represents this dark Id, the modern manifestation of this underlying shortsightedness and selfishness which at once created and destroyed us. The Anthropocene is a fitting name, representing both the culmination of humankind’s many achievements and their ultimate hollowness and perversion in retrospect. To fully know the world, we had to develop a level of technology which required its destruction; to fully know ourselves, we had to debase our better natures and allow the bullies among us to guide our path. At least, this will be what we tell ourselves—none of this was ever necessary for our development into an advanced civilization. Even up until recent decades, the path was yet to be set in stone, and we could have had the best of both worlds had socialism prevailed. We instead chose to latch onto the best of one world, one which was guaranteed to preclude the possibility of all others. This was all undertaken because any attempt at mitigating our destructive tendencies was successfully portrayed by the bullies in control of our destiny as hysterical, unfounded, and weak.

We owe the natural world our honesty and a full reckoning of our crimes at the very least, despite the pain of knowing the trauma our actions have brought about. This is our punishment and our responsibility, to repay our unkindness in understanding and to work toward minimizing future harms. That we refuse even this concession in this late hour akin to denying our part in the crime even as we stuff a bloody knife into our pockets.

A crucial passage on page 115: “If nothing stops it, capital will try to expand indefinitely—but Earth is not infinite. The atmosphere and oceans and the forests are very large, but ultimately they are finite, limited resources—and capitalism is now pressing against those limits.” This unbounded avarice is the true desire underpinning proposed capitalist solutions to the climate and biosphere crises. Space exploration for colonies, aerosol dimming to lower temperatures, carbon trading and offsets (rejected completely by the author)…all of these are attempts to continue the infinite expansion rather than lift a finger to slow it or cease it entirely. That these technological solutions are all such unrealistic pipe dreams or greenwashed boondoggles is a testament to the unrestrained desperation underpinning capitalists’ desire to continue down the same destructive path. One recent example of this desperation:

A startup claims it has launched weather balloons that may have released reflective sulfur particles in the stratosphere, potentially crossing a controversial barrier in the field of solar geoengineering.

Geoengineering refers to deliberate efforts to manipulate the climate by reflecting more sunlight back into space, mimicking a natural process that occurs in the aftermath of large volcanic eruptions. In theory, spraying sulfur and similar particles in sufficient quantities could potentially ease global warming.

It’s not technically difficult to release such compounds into the stratosphere. But scientists have mostly (though not entirely) refrained from carrying out even small-scale outdoor experiments. And it’s not clear that any have yet injected materials into that specific layer of the atmosphere in the context of geoengineering-related research.

That’s in part because it’s highly controversial. Little is known about the real-world effect of such deliberate interventions at large scales, but they could have dangerous side effects. The impacts could also be worse in some regions than others, which could provoke geopolitical conflicts.

Worse, none of these solutions would fix the fundamental problem of endless expansion, only postpone the worst of its outcomes (again, for some). Even if successful for a time, these plans would only buy a fixed amount of time and space in which to stretch; soon the moon or mars would be similarly sullied and used up by our presence. If this is our only option to survive into the future, it is best that we do not make it.

Angus concludes with a glimmer of hope and solidarity-building with his blueprint for an “ecosocialist” movement, consisting of four main points:

“We must be pluralist and open to differing views within the green left.”

“We must constantly extend our analysis and program in the light of changing political circumstances and scientific knowledge.”

“We must be internationalist and anti-imperialist.”

“We must actively participate in and build environmental struggles, large and small.”

Page 223, a good summation of the climate realist perspective: “We know that disaster is possible, but we refuse to surrender to despair. If we fight, we may lose, if we don’t fight, we will lose. Good or bad luck may play a role, but a conscious and collective struggle to stop capitalism’s hell-bound train is our only hope for a better world.” The major criticism of this statement would consist of a reminder that the fight may be counterproductive in itself if it is insufficiently revolutionary, but in rejecting the possibility of half measures and compromises, Facing the Anthropocene stands with The Value of a Whale as a crucial document in the necessary joining of the environmentalist and anti-capitalist movements and should be compulsory reading.

Read the review at T-Paine’s Newsletter

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