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Our effect on the planet may well mean that we’re entering a new geological epoch, but what really matters is organising to fight for the world we need, finds Elaine Graham-Leigh

The Anthropocene

Christian Schwägerl, The Anthropocene. The human era and how it shapes our planet, (Synergetic Press 2014), 235pp

According to Schwägerl, the term Anthropocene was coined in an incident which is every meeting chair’s nightmare: when someone interrupts the speaker from the floor. In this case, it was at an environment conference in 2000, when scientist Paul Crutzen became ‘visibly agitated’ at speakers’ repeated references to the Holocene as the current geological epoch. Finally, it was too much and he lost his temper. ‘“We’re not in the Holocene any more”’ he spluttered. ‘“We’re in the … the … the …” (searching for the right word) … “the Anthropocene”’ (p.9).

For all its effect on the assembled scientists, who apparently talked of little else for the remainder of the conference, the question of whether we can be said to be in a new geological epoch may seem to be of only academic interest. However, it goes to the heart of a key debate for the green movement. Since the end of the last Ice Age almost 12,000 years ago, the Earth has been in the Holocene, an epoch characterised by the temperate climactic conditions which enabled the development of agriculture and with it, human civilisation. Crutzen’s point was that the effects of that human civilisation have now become so important that they are changing the Earth on a geological scale, tipping the planet into a new, human-created epoch, the Anthropocene.

The idea of a planet entirely shaped by human activity usually conjures nightmare visions of wilderness turned into strip malls, as Schwägerl shows in a quotation from an account of an ‘Out of Eden’ walk, from the site of some of the earliest human activity, in Ethiopia, to the city:

‘Moving north and then east, we abandon the desert and stub our toes on the Anthropocene – the age of modern humans. Asphalt appears: the Djibouti-Ethiopia road, throbbing with trucks. We drift through a series of grubby towns … Miles of industrial irrigation. Canals. Diversion dams. Bulldozed fields. Levees crawling with dump trucks.’ (p.30)

Less emotively, it means an epoch in which there are no reserves of untapped resources, no areas of the planet as yet untouched and ready for exploitation. In the Anthropocene, humanity has to survive on what it already has.

There is considerable debate about the validity of the Anthropocene idea, and about when we should consider it started, with some pointing out that humans have been having a profound effect on their environment since at least the beginning of agriculture. It is true that there was probably not a prelapsarian idyll for the human race, in which we lived in un-invasive harmony with nature, but the quantitative shift in our ability to influence the environment caused by the Industrial Revolution can legitimately be seen as so significant as to have become qualitative. Iron Age humans may have deforested their landscapes with abandon, but we simply have the wherewithal to kill many more trees than they did.

It is possible in fact to argue that the idea of a new, Anthropocene epoch underestimates the scale of what human activity is doing to the environment. Scientists divide the history of the Earth into epochs, but group these epochs into eras, separated from each other by periods of mass extinction. Thus the current era, the Cenozoic, began after the dinosaurs were wiped out at the end of the Cretaceous epoch and the Mesozoic era, 65 million years ago. The Mesozoic itself began after the mass extinction at the end of the Permian epoch, 250 million years ago, in which 95% of all species disappeared. Given the scale of the mass extinction over which we are currently presiding, it is possible that the Anthropocene is not so much a new epoch as the last gasp of the Cenozoic era (although in this scenario, the name of the next era would presumably be chosen not by us but by the rats, seagulls or cockroaches which would inherit the Earth after humans are no more).

The point is that we can no longer assume that the environmental and climatic norms of the Holocene still apply: our effect on the planet has taken us into uncharted waters. For all of us, from ordinary people to oil company executives, this is (or should be) a worrying prospect. For some in the green movement, however, it epitomises the real environmental problem; that human activity impinges on a natural world which should be kept pristine and uninfluenced by us. The only possible response in this view to the dawn of the Anthropocene would be to limit human influence on the rest of the environment as far as possible, from ‘stepping lightly upon the earth’ to the proposal of deep ecologist Paul Shephard that the human race should be confined to coastal settlements, freeing the inner wilderness of the continents for undisturbed and uninhabited nature (p.114).

Against this strand of green thinking, Schwägerl embraces the idea that we have entered the Anthropocene but does not agree that this human-shaped environment has to be disastrous for the planet.

‘Quintessentially, people are learners. So why shouldn’t a planet dominated by living people not evolve well? The human race has produced the most astonishing scientists, artists, spiritual leaders and community organizers. Why shouldn’t it be possible for today’s people to overcome short-term thinking, avarice and economic mismanagement? Resourceful people fill our world with the most amazing machines. Why can’t our machines be calibrated to protect earth’s life systems rather than exploit them?’ (p.83).

There are, he argues, considerable possibilities in biotechnology to curb wastefulness and environmental damage, while even megacities can be greened, so that we do not have to see urban centres and nature in opposition to each other. The key is that in the Anthropocene, ‘agriculture, cities [and] technology … will have to function as ‘new nature’’, and it is still essentially up to us whether that is a positive or negative development (p.140).

Schwägerl provides important reminders here of how in addressing the environmental damage caused under capitalism, we are faced not by a technological problem but a political one. There is no question but that we have or could develop the technologies necessary to make the Anthropocene the epoch in which we reversed the environmental problems of the end of the Holocene. The real issue is how to get these good ideas implemented on a sufficiently large scale to make a difference.

Schwägerl recognises that the principles he puts forward for a sustainable Anthropocene are antithetical to capitalism:

‘Human communities that generate their own energy and recycle their raw materials, whose fundamental satisfaction is not based on continuous consumption and who take resources from sustainable diversity, are the nightmare of those who are truly powerful in today’s economic system’ (p.146).

This is why, for example, the subsidy for renewables is dwarfed by the subsidy for fossil fuels, and why the Tory government recently announced that they were ending subsidies for wind power a year earlier than planned. The book is, however, less clear about what we should do about this.

As Schwägerl says, ‘it is clear that a brand of capitalism that doesn’t value the functioning basis of existence – planets, animals and people – cannot endure’ (p.184), but it is not just the brand that is the problem. Attempts to tweak capitalism to enable it to address environmental problems by giving a market value to natural inputs have not met with marked success. Market mechanisms such as carbon trading have not managed to reduce carbon emissions, and as Schwägerl admits, the UN’s REDD scheme (Reducing Emission from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries), in which rich countries pay for forest conservation programmes to make up for their carbon emissions, has been likened to a modern day ‘sale of indulgences’ (p.185).

If governments won’t act on their own, and we can’t manipulate the market to make environmental action sufficiently profitable to be attractive to capitalists, Schwägerl concludes that ‘it might be a better strategy to act as if governments didn’t exist, or as if the citizenry of the world were solely responsible for the earth’ (p.195). This means a turn to individual actions such as abjuring retail therapy and comfort eating. There are the usual difficulties with this style of argument, in that it completely ignores the structural reasons why people travel, consume and live in the way that they do. Without significant structural changes, lifestyle greenism is always going to be middle-class pursuit amounting to little more than shopping in more self-consciously ethical retail outlets. In addition, here it leads the book to an optimistic but unconvincing vision of how we might get to a positive version of the Anthropocene.

In this imagined future, people take to the streets of Shanghai to protest against air pollution. The protest inspires a US band to make a song called Kill the Future, which goes viral on YouTube. ‘Panarchists’ start going into supermarkets, removing goods from people’s trolleys and putting them back on the shelves, which enables them apparently to have a dialogue with those people about consumerism and its consequences, rather than simply getting themselves punched. Responding to this new movement, the EU President expresses solidarity with Chinese protestors, while the Pope announces that he is going on a ten-year walkabout to meet the people of the world. China then announces new policy, the G20 pronounce that ‘business as usual’ is over, ‘hundreds of millions of consumers start to alter their behaviour and demands’ (p.213) and the world is saved.

It is perhaps unfair to take the imagined future last chapter in any environmental book too seriously, but this is a particularly clear expression of the problem with a certain type of proposal for how we should imagine system change coming about. In the first place, despite the involvement of the Chinese government and the G20, it is clear that in this scenario, the really key change is when ordinary people change their consumption behaviour. The point at which, inspired by the panarchists’ lectures on whether they really need all those ready meals, they decide to buy less in supermarkets is obviously where the paradigm shift occurs. This therefore indicates that the cause of our environmental problems is fundamentally the consumption, in particular the food consumption, of ordinary people, who simply need to be educated out of it by enlightened activists. Blaming working-class people’s eating habits for all the ills of the world has become surprisingly pervasive (so much so that I wrote a book about it; A Diet of Austerity) but it is not a view of the world’s environmental problems to which we should give any credence.

The second problem with the scenario is its implication that all it takes to change the world is to change people’s minds. The concept of the paradigm shift is often popular in green circles but here this fails to amount to a convincing explanation of how change happens. It also misrepresents what we have to do. The book makes clear that a sustainable future and capitalism are antithetical, but what is missing is an understanding of capitalism as a system, not simply as the collective sum of seven billion people’s consumption decisions. In order to change the system, what we need to do is not simply to change our minds, nor even those of our neighbours and Facebook friends as well, but to organise to fight for that change. The imagined protests on the streets of Shanghai were a good start here, but action in solidarity with the people protesting, whether in Shanghai in the future or in Greece now, does not stop with watching it on Youtube. The real solidarity lies in organising to do our bit by opposing our own government’s role in destroying the planet.

The change we need is to convince people that it is possible to fight back, to change the world. The record of the last few weeks, from the 250,000 strong People’s Assembly demonstration on 20th June to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership campaign, suggests that that change is already underway.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press. 

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