Facing the Anthropocene

Issue section: 

The idea that we are in the Anthropocene — a geological epoch defined by human activity — is now catching the interest of activists. It is becoming clear that human activity affects the Earth system in multiple, interconnected ways and potentially to such an extent as to be detectable in the geological record for years to come.

Some on the left, including This Changes Everything author Naomi Klein, say that the Anthropocene concept is unhelpful as it suggests that humanity in general, rather than the capitalist system, is to blame for climate change. However, Ian Angus endorses the idea. He agrees with Klein that not all humans are responsible but feels that the Anthropocene doesn’t necessarily lead to such a conclusion.

Instead he contends that the scientific arguments are compatible with a Marxist analysis of capitalism’s destructive role. As John Bellamy Foster argues in the foreword, its major achievement is to integrate understandings from the social sciences and the natural sciences.

The book is in three parts: the first sets out the scientific evidence for the Anthropocene and the related concept of planetary boundaries for a non-specialist audience. The second section explains the Anthropocene as a “socio-ecological phenomenon”, a qualitative shift in humanity’s relationship with the rest of the natural world.

Here Angus explains Marx’s own ecological thinking and the work of later Marxist thinkers on the environment. He argues that we need to understand not just the general features of capitalism but the specific ways in which it has changed since the latter half of the 20th century. For example, he shows the centrality of the military to government spending, particularly in the US (with a military budget 130 times what it spent on humanitarian aid in 2013). The US military doesn’t just cause direct damage to human life; it also burns up fossil fuels at an alarming rate.

The third section of the book demonstrates that there is not much time left to deal with climate change and that it will have catastrophic consequences. Angus makes a strong argument that ecology should play a central role in socialist thinking rather than being viewed as an optional extra. He puts forward an agenda for the kind of social movement we need.

It’s impressive that some of the scientists most closely associated with the Anthropocene have endorsed this book. This not only shows that Angus has got his facts right, but also suggests that climate scientists are being pushed towards more radical conclusions. This doesn’t mean that they are all calling for revolution, but some at least are willing to engage with an explicitly socialist argument.

Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us; it is becoming obvious that keeping the capitalist system in place is not an option.