Launch of Facing the Anthropocene

Last Friday evening I was asked to speak at the international launch of Canadian ecosocialist Ian Angus’ new book Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System. The transcript of my address is reproduced below (spoiler – I really liked this book!):

It’s a great pleasure to speak to you tonight at the launch of Ian Angus’ new book Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System.

When Ian contacted me late last year and asked if I’d be interested in reading his manuscript, I have to say I was somewhat wary. As many of you probably know the term “Anthropocene” has become something of a buzzword de jeure in academic circles. Every day it seems there is a new book released with “Anthropocene” in the title, there are new journals about the Anthropocene, and specialist conferences on the topic. It seems that Anthropocene studies has become something of an academic fashion.

Moreover, there is a lot of entrepreneurship in the “Anthropocene” game and as Ian notes a lot of “overheated discussion” critical of the concept itself. So for instance, some social scientists are highly critical of the concept arguing that physical scientists are seeking to present a homogenised view of humanity and a simplistic “people are the problem” prognosis which ignores the stark inequalities that underpin environmental destruction. Others suggest, “Anthropocene” is the wrong word to use to describe the environmental crisis and that it might be better labelled the “Capitalocene”, linked to the early origins of capitalism in the 14 and 1500s. Of course, these are really distractions and obfuscations that misinterpret the concept that Earth System scientists are proposing: a time in which geological strata are dominated by remains of recent human origin. Hence, the real focus of the Anthropocene is upon the massive and rapid changes that fossil-fuel based capitalism has made to the Earth System over the last 60 or 70 years; the so-called “Great Acceleration”.

From this perspective, the concept of “The Anthropocene” holds truly revolutionary implications for how we understand ourselves and our society at this crucial juncture in human history. Indeed, as Clive Hamilton has argued, the fact that humans have fundamentally altered the atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere and biosphere, reveals not only the precariousness of humanity’s future, but also fundamentally upsets established thinking in the social sciences. Disciplines like philosophy, economics , sociology, and history have assumed a neat separation between humans and a stable and enduring natural environment. Indeed, for many of these disciplines the natural environment was rarely considered at all.

However, the fundamental environmental destruction that global capitalism has unleashed is a change so profound and so all-embracing as to be almost incomprehensible in contemporary political discourse. Humanity’s place in the universe now seems far more uncertain. The Anthropocene emphasises our existential angst in ways that are immediate and fundamental.

So I have to say how pleased I was that in reading Ian’s book. In the opening pages, I immediately recognised that here was an author who actually gets what the “Anthropocene” entails both in terms of the physical science and the political economy of our times and conveys this in such a readable and accessible style.

One of the most significant strengths of Ian’s analysis is the way in which he brings together such an enormous diversity of insights into a comprehensive synthesis of the Anthropocene. His analysis traverses not only the basic science of climate change and other planetary boundaries such as ocean acidification , the nitrogen cycle, and biodiversity decline, but he also links this fundamentally to the history of ‘fossil capitalism’, and the complex political economy which enabled the Great Acceleration of post-Second World War economic growth. Given this multi-disciplinary and broad-ranging analysis, even for those of you like me who are climate change obsessives, there is much to learn in reading this book!

Given his activist pedigree, Ian also does a great job of engaging with the vexed issue of ‘what is to be done’. This is an issue that my co-author, Daniel Nyberg, and I found particularly difficult in concluding our own book; because once you acknowledge the way in which the climate crisis is an outcome of our prevailing economic system, it becomes extremely difficult to imagine other alternative futures beyond the abyss into which we are falling. Optimism and hope is difficult to marshal in the grim prognosis of the Anthropocene!

And yet Ian is forthright in tracing what such an alternative future might look like based around the concepts of ‘ecological civilization’ and ‘ecosocialism’. As he states this requires dramatic and enforced reductions in greenhouse gas emissions (the sort of radical decarbonization that UK climate scientist Kevin Anderson has set out). It also needs to be driven by the types of grassroots mobilizations we are now seeing as local communities challenge the “fossil-fuels forever” imaginary that still grips governments worldwide. This a the type of social activism that Naomi Klein has characterised as “Blockadia” and Ian comments in like vein that:

“We need to slow capitalism’s ecocidal drive as much as possible and to reverse it where we can, to win every possible victory over the forces of destruction…our rulers will not willingly change – but mass opposition can force them to act, even against their will. Our watchword must be: Leave the oil in the soil, leave the coal in the hole, leave the tar sand in the land.”

Of course, what makes the challenge we face so daunting is the way in which fossil fuel based capitalism is also engrained in our thinking and even our sense of self. Dealing with the existential threat of eco-crisis requires material trade-offs that challenge identities and interests, which is why the alternative to “business as usual” is much harder to imagine and much easier to construct as an opponent of social well-being. We (particularly those of us in the affluent West) all take part in appropriating environmental concerns through our everyday behaviour; and that is what makes halting our slide towards the abyss such a hugely daunting prospect.

Facing the Anthropocene argues that we have no alternative but to fight against the forces that are driving the destruction of our world. At the end of the book Ian cites Antonio Gramsci with a particularly apposite quotation that is both a call to action and an appeal to hope:

“It is necessary, with bold spirit and in good conscience, to save civilization. We must halt the dissolution which corrodes and corrupts the roots of human society. The bare and barren tree can be made green again. Are we not ready?”

So, to conclude, it’s a great pleasure to have been asked to help launch this excellent book. It is an extremely readable and valuable analysis of the issue that defines out time. We face an increasingly grim future. The issues discussed in this book detail how we have come to this crisis but also offer a window into an alternative and more hopeful future. I wish Ian and his book all the best – it deserves a wide readership indeed.

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