We’re living in the Anthropocene and the end has already begun
The scientific community is starting to use the term Anthropocene
to demarcate the new age of unceasing environmental ravages.
It is distinguished from the current geological age called Holocene—
the roughly 11,650 years of warming following the last ice age—
in recognition of the destructive impact human beings are causing
on the Earth’s ecosystems via the capital accumulation system.
The responses so far to the end of the world as we know it,
apart from simple denial, can be grouped into three categories;
portending the collapse of capitalist-driven consumer-based civilization,
attempting to save it using dangerous geo-engineering measures,
and individual and collective decisions to resist and opt out of it,
recognizing our interdependent relationship with the whole of nature.
Demarcating a new era as Anthropocene because humans have become a force for global transformation on a geological scale has become central in referring to the current socio-ecological crisis.
Anthropocene: the idea of threshold
In diagnostic terms, Anthropocene establishes the idea of “threshold” with respect to already evident problems such as global warming and biodiversity loss. The concept, coined much earlier but popularized in 2000 by the Dutch Nobel Prize-winning, atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, quickly spread not only into the earth sciences but also the social and human sciences, even the arts. This has turned it into a sort of “synthesis category,” a convergence point for geologists, ecologists, climatologists, historians, philosophers, artists and art critics. More critical views see the evidence of major human-originated (anthropic or anthropogenic) planetary changes that are endangering life on the planet as directly linked to the dynamics of capital accumulation and the dominant development models whose unsustainability can no longer be hidden.
For many scientists and other experts, Crutzen among them, we entered the Anthropocene in the early industrial era, around 1780, with the invention of the steam engine and the beginning of extensive fossil fuel use. For others, including the University of Leicester scientists under the direction of paleobiology professor Jan Zalaslewicz, who make up the British Geological Society’s Anthropocene Working Group, the Earth didn’t cross the threshold into a new geological era until 1950. They cite the stratigraphic markings determining that change as plutonium’s radioactive residue following numerous atomic bomb tests in the mid-20th century. In contrast, Jason W. Moore, a Marxist environmental historian, argues that the origins of capitalism and the expansion of trade frontiers through the Middle Ages must be investigated if we are to understand the present phase, which he calls “Capitalocene.”
The very concept of Anthropocene is set in a field of dispute, not so much about the scope of the socio-ecological crisis—whose seriousness is widely accepted—as about clarifying the proposed transition routes or intervention mechanisms for overcoming it.
I would like to explore three contemporary narratives related to the socio-ecological crisis: “collapsist,” technocratic, and anti-systemic resistance, examining their political and civilizatory scope.
The collapse narrative:
Why do some societies disappear?
Literature about the collapse of civilization abounds. Many experts postulate that ecocide is the greatest threat bearing down on global society, even greater than a nuclear war or pandemic.
Collapse narratives tell about the end of the world. Unlike in the past, the current ones aren’t sustained by religious beliefs but by hard data and reasoning from the different earth sciences (geophysics, paleontology, climatology, hydrography, oceanography, meteorology, geomorphology, biology, etc.), and from the environmental sciences (political ecology, ecological economy, environmental history, etc.). They are our new, modern theories about the end of the world, now based on science.
I would like to use three different texts to illustrate this perspective. The first is the 2004 book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by the internationally acclaimed US geographer and environmentalist Jared Diamond, in which he asks what causes a particular culture, once a thriving society, to disappear. Which factors make a society especially vulnerable?
By collapse, Diamond doesn’t mean the disappearance of a given culture or civilization from one day to the next, as depicted in apocalyptic Hollywood movies. Collapse presumes “a drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time.”
Among the factors that led to the collapse of past societies are deforestation, soil erosion, poor water management; overfishing, overhunting, the introduction of allogeneic species, population increase and human impact on the environment.
All these risk factors are present together in our current civilization. There are also other compounding factors, such as climate change and the continuous burning of fossil fuels. Additionally, the impacts are now greater in magnitude: today’s disasters would be on a massive scale and a planetary level.
Industrial civilization has
no plan B for energy
The second collapse text is by the renowned Spanish ecologist, Ramón Fernández Durán, an engineer by profession who died in 2011 leaving an unfinished work in two volumes in which he analyzes global capitalism’s decline and collapse.
In a shorter text, published in the year of his death, Fernández Durán argues that the collapse won’t be sudden, but rather “a slow process with ups and down but significant and unstoppable ruptures.” Industrial civilization’s long decline could take 200 to 300 years. [envío published this text in five parts (in August, October and December 2010 and May and June 2011]. The causes of the collapse are the Earth’s ecological limits and the depletion of resources, especially due to fossil fuels’ incapacity to meet demand. He argues that global capitalism’s major problem is the absence of an energy plan B to sustain today’s industrial civilization.
No energy source can replace the “tremendous gap that would be left by the decline in fossil fuels, due to their energy intensity.” Everybody, even the elites, would be affected by this decline, which doesn’t mean there won’t inevitably be winners and losers. Durán also didn’t discount the possibility that the aspiration to conserve the current glamorous hyper-technologized society at any cost could bring about a more abrupt collapse, a systemic crisis with no possibility for transition.
Collapse hypothesized from the future
The third text immerses us in post-apocalyptic science fiction buttressed with hard data. This book, The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future, published in 2014, was written by two US historians of science, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway.
This story takes place in the distant future, 2393, in the Second People’s Republic of China, at which time a Chinese historian wonders about the reasons for the collapse of western civilization, an event that occurred in the mid-21st century called the “Period of the Penumbra.”
in the collapse narratives
The three selected narratives are intersected by fundamental consensuses. First consensus: the collapse is seen as a significant reduction in complexity at different levels (economic, social, political and cultural). The more complex the society, the more vulnerable it becomes and the more dependent on that complexity and the resources (energy) that keep it functioning.
Second consensus: although Diamond talks of “world society” and Durán of “global capitalism,” both agree that civilization’s collapse would also involve the disappearance of the democratic political values we consider fundamental. Thus they talk about strongly authoritarian and conflictive “new regional capitalisms” that would lead to a “re-feudalization of social relationships.”
Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway come to a similar conclusion, adding that the possibility of surviving a major disaster would increase if we have a centralized regime and a strong (China-style) state apparatus, although this would involve an inevitable loss of democratic values.
Over and above the authors’ ideological differences, there are other elements in common. One is that, unlike the old cultures that collapsed and disappeared, ours obviously doesn’t have a problem with lack of information. Rather, our civilization knows and understands the devastating effects of its actions. These consequences aren’t just predictable but have been predicted.
The other, as the patient Chinese historian imagined by Oreskes and Conway tells us, is thatother obstacles could explain the collapse of 21st century’s society. Among them are the “archaic Western convention” that imposed the separate division and study of the physical and social world, and the persistence of a dualistic ontology regarding the relationship between society and nature, also expressed in the field of knowledge.
The capitalist-technocratic narrative:
plan B is geo-engineering
You don’t have to be especially insightful to realize that the results of the last climatic change summits are very discouraging. They seem to be part of a chronicle of a death foretold.
Although the 2017 Paris Agreement was ratified by 171 of the 195 participating countries, it entailed a setback in that it was decided that each country could voluntarily comply with the agreement and its implementation—the reduction of CO2 emissions so as not to exceed a 2ºC increase in average temperature. Furthermore, the US withdrawal by Donald Trump, a notorious climate change denier and supporter of the fossil fuel industries, also had a negative impact within the European Union.
In this context, with the global agreements suffering an increasing lack of credibility regarding controlling CO2 emissions, capitalism prepared its plan B to recycle the capitalist modernity project without having to leave capitalism. This plan is called geo-engineering and is based on the principle that the risks of global warming can be overcome through deliberate climate intervention on a planetary scale.
Geo-engineering arouses expectations among those who seek to maintain current development patterns—the production, circulation and consumption system—and avoid having to reduce CO2 emissions. It’s a path that backs the dominant view of progress and scientific knowledge, and is obviously supported by sectors linked to the fossil fuel industry, among others. The geo-engineering hypothesis began to leave the realm of science fiction and form part of a pro-establishment agenda, a project for continuing capitalism and the lifestyles of the world power’s elites.
The risks and dangers
Geo-engineering methods can be classified into two general groups: solar radiation management and CO2 capture and storage. According to the Spanish environmental biologist Jordi Brotons, geo-engineering includes such hare-brained technologies as covering vast areas of desert with reflective plastics; mega-plantations of transgenic crops with reflective leaves; storing compressed CO2 in abandoned mines and oil wells; injecting sulphate aerosols (or other materials such as aluminum oxide) into the stratosphere to block sunlight and reflect it by whitening the clouds; diverting ocean currents or fertilizing the oceans with iron nanoparticles to increase phytoplankton and so capture CO2; burying massive quantities of charcoal to eliminate CO2 etc., etc.
Since 1996 discussions about these alternatives have cropped up in the different climate summits, stirring up social criticism and resistance. It isn’t just about questioning technocracy or “arrogant reasoning,” geo-engineering entails a manipulation involving huge risks and many side effects that have been publicized in different scientific reports, which conclude that the new technologies are false solutions.
Gambling with Gaia,
manipulating Mother Earth
Back in 2007, the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC) published a report titled “Gambling with Gaia,” in which it denounced the US govern¬ment lobby in the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change for imposing a technical way out, restructuring the Earth through geo-engineering. The ETC argues that any experimentation that alters the oceans or the stratosphere’s structure should not be done without an in-depth and informed public debate on the possible consequences and authorization by the United Nations.
Between 1993 and 2009, 11 governments conducted a dozen geo-engineering experiments in international waters, dumping iron particles into the oceans to see if they could capture and precipitate CO2 on the sea floor. Iron was dumped into more than 31 square miles of ocean and, because there were no results, the experimental area was increased six times. By the end of 2009, more than 186 square miles had been “fertilized” with iron, still without results.
Opposition from civil society sectors eventually forced the cancellation of other ocean fertilization projects and in 2010 led to the establishment of an international moratorium in the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and in the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter, also known as the London Convention. That moratorium, still in force today, was not signed by the US and three other countries.
However, given the weakness of the Paris Agreement, geo-engineering is gaining more ground among the central countries’ politicians and scientists, who are increasingly presenting it as “essential” to achieving the goal that the Earth’s temperature not rise more than 1.5–2 ºC above pre-industrial levels.
A text signed by Bjørn Lomborg, promoter of the 2004 Copenhagen Consensus, states that by spending just US$1 billion on 1,900 marine cloud-whitening ships (spraying seawater into clouds to make them reflect more sunlight) we could prevent the global warming expected for this century.
By comparison, he says that the Paris Agreement would cost the same amount of money annually and would obtain much lower carbon emission reductions. From his perspective, the Paris Agreements are as weak as they are expensive, which opens the door to “solutions” such as geo-engineering, seen as “a prudent and affordable insurance policy” (a phrase initially attributed to Bill Gates).
The cure is worse than the disease
Resorting to geo-engineering not only doesn’t attack the underlying causes, but would mean giving control of the Earth’s thermostat to the major—and most polluting—global powers.
Those who opt for these strategies minimize the real direct impacts, which, depending on the technology employed, could include intense and prolonged droughts in certain parts of the world (solar radiation manipulation), creating dead zones in the oceans (maritime fertilization), or the devastation of millions of hectares (capture and storage techniques of what are called the “negative emissions”).
They can also cause meteorological changes. One of the climate interventions consists of injecting sulphate into the stratosphere. But his technique doesn’t reduce the concentrations of greenhouse gases, it only postpones them. It mimics volcanic eruptions, which reduce the temperature by releasing sulphate as demonstrated in 1991 with the eruption of the Pinatubo volcano in the Philippines. While it discharged 20 million tons of sulphur dioxide and caused a decrease in global temperature of 0.4ºC, there was a decrease in rainfall and a low water influx the following year, showing that the cure could be worse than the disease.
Humanity’s great ethical
dilemma in the coming decade
Worse yet, once any large-scale geo-engineering experiment is underway, canceling it in response to its direct impacts in certain regions of the Earth and the wave of protests they could unleash would trigger intense and accelerated overheating given the concentration of new emissions in the atmosphere.
In anthropological terms, plan B is far from an appeal to self-limitation. On the contrary, in the same way as trends linked to ecological modernization, such as what is today called the “green economy,” geo-engineering favors technological solutions that consider nature a totally manageable entity, marking a worsened continuation of the modern anthropocentric paradigm. In fact, it aspires to “re-do” nature, adapting it to the current development pattern with a post-human perspective, whether in the language of the elites or of the insane minority backing accelera
In short, as Australian public ethics professor Clive Hamilton, who has written extensively on issues related to climate change, maintains, geo-engineering is one of the major ethical, geopolitical and civilizational dilemmas that humanity will be facing in the coming decade. It is clearly aimed at preserving rather than coming to grips with the current development model. It entails large-scale interventions—high-risk experiments with unpredictable consequences—whose implementation should require a global agreement but, in practice, could also be carried out unilaterally. This is far from a fantasy if we consider that other countries, in addition to the US and Europe, are working with geo-engineering techniques, among them Russia and China.
in the North and South
Environmentalist narratives on various issues have existed for a long time. They have been multiplying with the intensification of the socio-ecological crisis and the emergence of local resistance and new eco-territorial movements, acquiring more discursive and symbolic significance in our societies.
In the South, the consequences of the socio-ecological crisis are directly connected to criticism of neo-extractivism and the hegemonic development vision, since the globalized periphery is where the commodification of all production factors is fully expressed: the imposing of unsustainable large-scale development models from agro-businesses and their food models, mega-mining and the expansion of extreme energies, to mega-dams, overfishing and land grabbing. All these models pose the challenge of finding alternatives to development, as the Colombian anthropologist Arturo Escobar already proposed when he introduced the classification “post-development.”
In accordance with the approaches of the Ecuadorian economist Alberto Acosta and the German anthropologist Ulrich Brand, transition could be considered via two concepts increasingly rooted in global scale controversy: post-extractivism and degrowth.
From my perspective, these are two multidimensional future-concepts that share different characteristics: they provide a critical assessment of current capitalism, not only with respect to the economic and cultural crisis but also from a more global approach, if it’s understood as a civilization-wide socio-ecological crisis.
At the same time, both concepts connect the critique of our societies’ productivist paradigm and metabolic profile (based on the ever increasing demand for raw materials and energies) with the critique of capitalism. Both emphasize the planet’s ecological limits and stress the unsus-tainability of the existing consumption and food models, globally publicized in both the North and the South. Finally, they constitute the starting point to think of future change and civilizatory alternatives based on another environmental rationale, different from the purely economist one that promotes the commodifying of life.
An archipelago of grassroots
and territorial experiences
In order to reverse the infinite growth argument, we need to explore and move towards other forms of social organization, based on reciprocity and redistribution, that place important limitations on market logic.
In Latin America there are numerous inputs from the social and solidarity economy whose baseline social subjects are the most excluded sectors (women, indigenous peoples, youth, workers, peasants and more), whose understanding of human work is to produce use values or livelihood. As a consequence, the grassroots sectors have a plurality of experiences in self-organization and self-management—i.e. non-alienated ways of working—linked to agro-ecology, the social economy, self-control of the production process and other experiences linked to reproducing social life and creating new forms of community.
Even in a country as soybean-oriented as Argentina, networks of municipalities and communities have been created to promote agro-ecology: encouraging healthy foods without agro-toxins at lower costs and employing more workers. A new agro-ecological network is thus emerging, an archipelago of experiences growing on the fringes of the great soybean continent, as it now seems that the dominant model is based on the export agriculture of this transgenic crop.
Energized by the struggles and social resistances to neo-extractivism, transition in Latin America tends to be thought of as new ways of inhabiting the land. These re-territorializing processes are accompanied by a political-environmental narrative associated with buen vivir (good living) and the rights of nature, communal assets and the ethics of care, whose key is both defending the communal approach and recreating another link with nature.
The concept of degrowth expands
In its contemporary form, the concept of degrowth was proposed in 1972 by the Austrian social philosopher André Gorz and other intellectuals, and reappeared in Europe around 2008.
Far from the literal sense some people associate with the concept (understanding it as simply the negation of economic growth), in the last few decades it has enhanced the assessment of the systemic crisis (the social, economic and environmental limits to growth, linked to the current capitalist model).
It also opens the imagination to a new social and political grammar in which different alternative proposals are emphasized: citizen debt audit, civil disobedience, universal basic income, eco-communities, urban horticulture, job sharing, social currency and more.
Within the energy transition framework, transition towns are being promoted; a pragmatic movement favoring agro-ecology, permaculture, consumption of locally sourced and/or collectively produced goods, degrowth and recovery of life skills, and harmony with nature. Originating in Ireland in 2006, this movement aims to create more austere societies, supported by clean, renewable energy with an emphasis on energy efficiency.
As a hypercritical assessment, it’s clear that the Anthropocene entails the challenge of alternative thinking about the dominant development models, formulating transition strategies involving decolonizing the social self-image and marking the way to a post-capitalist society in an era where there are no macro-social models or real socialisms.
We’ve already crossed the threshold
The three narratives described above currently coexist. Some people may say that capitalist realism will make humanity opt for the technocratic “solution.” This is indeed likely, although it will have to be the northern countries’ elites who make that decision more than those from the South and much less the anti-systemic social movements, which emphatically oppose what they consider such a “false solution.”
It’s likely that, faced with worsening global warming and its consequences, even deniers like Trump will end up supporting geo-engineering. However, alter-civilizatory projects do not see it as a question of looking for deceptive shortcuts through the technocratic solutions proposed by those backing green capitalism, who think human beings are demiurges capable of manipulating or remaking nature.
Nor is it a question of being defeated by the “collapsist” narratives, since the most obvious risk is to remain trapped in a paralyzing logic that annihilates the capacity for the collective action that is vitally necessary at this point in the civilizatory crisis. A not insignificant detail warns us that we have already crossed the risk threshold; the transition, whatever it may be, has already begun.
We have separated from the Pachamama
The anthropocenic shift has deep philosophical, ethical and political repercussions. It leads us to rethink the link between society and nature, between human and non-human. As the French anthropologist Philippe Descola says, the Anthropocene forces us to think about the consequences of the major separation between cosmological order and human order. It challenges us use other coordinates to rework the relationship between society and nature, between the earth sciences and the human and social sciences.
Centuries ago, we abandoned the organicist vision of nature—Gaia, Gaea or the Pachamama—professed by our ancestors. We are the children of modernity or descendants colonized by it. We have linked nature with an anthropocentric and androcentric episteme, whose persistence and repetition, far from leading us to respond to the crisis, have finally become an important part of the problem.
In recent decades, critical anthropology has made interesting advances by recalling the existence of other ways of building links with nature, between human and non-human. Not all cultures or all historical times, even in the West, developed a dualist approach to nature that considered it a separate, external environment subservient to humans and our predatory zeal.
The civilizatory crisis forces us to relinquish the pensée unique (single thought) and embrace diversity in both epistemological and ontological terms. There are other matrices of a generative kind, based on a more dynamic and relational vision, as happens in some Eastern cultures, where the concept of movement, of becoming, is the principle that governs the world and is embodied in nature; or in those immanentist visions of the American indigenous peoples, who conceive of human beings as being immersed in and not separated from or confronting nature.
A world populated by mindful beings
These relational approaches, which emphasize living beings’ interdependence and are mindful of other ways humans and non-humans relate, have different names: for Descola it was animism, while in his essay ”La mirada del jaguar,” the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro called it Amerindian perspectivism, conceptualizing the local Amazonian relationship with nature model.
It’s the idea that, first of all, the world is populated by many species of beings (in addition to humans, all endowed with mindfulness and culture, and second that each of these species sees itself and the other species in a rather unique way: each seeing itself as human and the others as non-human, that is, as animal species or as spirits.
Each species sees itself as the central subject. These forms of relationship and appropriation of nature question modernity’s constitutive dualisms.
The ethics of care and conformism
Undoubtedly the ethics of care and eco-feminism opens other possible forms when rethinking our link with nature from a relational perspective. Certainly the idea of interdependence, which in civilizatory crisis code is understood as eco-dependence, is placed at the center in the ethics of care.
Carol Gilligan, the US feminist and ethicist who founded the ethics of care, sees it as a relational faculty that patriarchy had essentialized with respect to women or disconnected with respect to men. She argues that revaluing and universalizing of the ethics of care opens not just feminists but all humanity to a greater liberation process.
At present this seems to be reflected in the actions and involvement of increasingly more women in different kinds of socio-environmental struggles. What are called grassroots feminisms open a dynamic that questions the dualist vision, projecting an understanding of human reality through recognition with others and with nature. They are weaving a different relationship between society and nature by affirming interdependence.
The struggles’ processual dynamics also entail questioning patriarchy based on a binary and hierarchical matrix that separates and favors the masculine over the feminine, often after demystifying the development myth and constructing a different relationship with nature.
The intensity of the struggles affirm other languages evaluating the field; other ways of building the link with nature; other Mother Earth narratives that recreate a relational paradigm based on reciprocity, complementarity and care that indicate other ways of appropriating knowledge and dialogue, other ways of organizing social life. These languages are nourished by different political-ideological matrices, by anti-capitalist, ecologist, indigenous, feminist and anti-patriarchal perspectives that come from the heterogeneous world of the subaltern classes.
What the Anthropocene requires
As a hypercritical paradigm, the Anthropocene requires rethinking the crisis from a systemic perspective. The environmental aspect can’t be reduced to just another column in a company’s accounting costs in the name of corporate social responsibility or to a policy of ecological modernization or green economy, aiming at the continuity of capitalism through the convergence of market logic and defense of new technologies proclaimed as “clean.”
The current socio-ecological crisis can’t be seen as one aspect or dimension of the public agenda, another dimension of the social struggles. It must be thought of from an interdisciplinary perspective and a holistic and integral discourse that understands it as a civilizatory crisis and as an opening to a post-capitalist future.
Maristella Svampa is an Argentinian sociologist and writer. This piece, edited by envío, was published in the November-December 2018 edition of Nueva Sociedad, titled “Imágenes del fin: Narrativas de la crisis socioecológica en el Antropoceno” (Images of the end: Narratives of the socio-ecological crisis in the Anthropocene