“The Anthropocene”: Why all the fuss?

By Alicia Siddons, Commissioning Editor

In 2000, Nobel winning chemist Paul J. Crutzen and marine science specialist Eugene F. Stoermer argued that human activity has left an indelible imprint on the Earth’s biosphere.  From deforestation to carbon emissions to the use of fertilizers and mechanised predation, humanity’s ecological footprint has had so great an impact, they propose, that the planet left the Holocene epoch – formally known as the Recent epoch, stretching back around 10,000 years to the last glaciation – sometime around the 18th century. We entered a new epoch, the scientists suggest, armed with a grand new name: why don’t we call it “the Anthropocene” (Cruzen and Stoermer 17)?

A Working Group on the Anthropocene is still working on a draft proposal for the formalisation of the new epoch. Nevertheless, “the Anthropocene” has captured headlines and inspired countless academic papers across a variety of disciplines – plenty are critical of the name.

So what is it that makes Anthropocene debate so controversial? It is widely acknowledged that the naming and dating of the Anthropocene formalises a narrative that not only registers the fact that human beings have, indeed, altered the biosphere (a nice little snub to climate denialists), but also, why and how we have done so. This, in turn, influences how we seek to remedy the planet’s sorry state. This is where things get highly political.

Perhaps the most prominent criticism of the ‘Anthropocene’ concept is that it essentialises the human species as a destructive, ecological force, without recognising differences in class and culture across history (the ‘Anthropos’, Greek for ‘human being’, is rather tellingly an occidental name.)

Why, for example, should all humanity be blamed for anthropogenic climate change when the Global North has emitted a disproportionate amount of carbon emissions over the past three centuries? In The Shock of the Anthropocene, scientific historians Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz stress the fact that ninety corporations alone are responsible for 63 per cent of cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide and methane between 1850 and 2016 (68).

Critics have proposed various alternative names, including:

  • the “Oliganthropocene”, to recognise the “clique of white British men” who set in stone the foundations of our fossil economy (McAthlee, 69; Bonneuil and Fressoz 71);
  • the “Misanthropocene”, to recognise the negative characterisation of the human species in the ‘Anthropocene’ proposal. Raj Patel, for example, draws attention to alternative stories such as the “wise lesson of peasants and indigenous peoples”;
  • the “Manthropocene”, to draw attention to the glaring underrepresentation of women in the original Anthropocene Working Group set to judge the human species – with 29 members, the group only included one woman. (The group has since increased its numbers to 39 members, including five women; Raworth);
  • And the “Capitalocene”- a heavy-weight contender to the “Anthropocene”; the “Capitalocene” suggests that the main driver of environmental destruction is not the human species as such but rather “capitalism as a system of power, profit and re/production in the web of life” (Moore 606).

As if deciding on a name for the new epoch was not difficult enough, choosing a date to mark its lower boundary causes still more problems.

For instance, the current Anthropocene Working Group seems to lean towards the 1945 as the year that marks the beginning of the “Anthropocene”.

The diagnosis: hyper-consumerism, nuclear weapons and energy, plastic pollution, increased use of industrial chemicals and waste dumps– in short, all those nasty habits we know to be environmentally destructive have turned human beings into geological weapons.
The solution: cut down on consumerism, change a few other habits, switch to renewables and … we will all be fine?

Rewind to the Industrial Revolution.

The diagnosis: the Anthropocene is a problem of scale; the development of the coal-based economy allowed for ever greater consumption of raw materials, the development of lethal weaponry, the production of waste and carbon emissions and so much else besides.
The solution: Decarbonise the economy, for a start.

Nevertheless, the task uncovers some rather thorny issues. Are post-industrial countries indebted to industrial ones? Is reducing carbon emissions compatible with economic growth? Indeed, does our civilisation need to refigure our conception of ‘growth’ entirely?

The Columbian Exchange, 15-16th century.

The diagnosis: Empire and early capitalism.
In what environmental historian Richard Hoffmann calls the “largest global ecological event in post-Neolithic millennia to date”, the exchange of plants, animals and peoples effectively reconnected Pangaea, reconnecting ecosystems broken up by the movement of tectonic plates some 200 million years before (364). The consequences were astounding: the decimation of indigenous peoples, the plunder and pillaging of forests, minerals and communities and the emergence of a globe-spanning economy manged by Europeans (Hoffmann 364-6; Moore 619-20).
The solution: get rid of state capitalism? Perhaps that’s another article for another day.

With an eye set on the current prognosis of our climate crisis, I will stress that, while developments of the 15th century might not have contributed to anthropogenic climate change, medieval societies in Europe nevertheless demonstrated an unsustainable model for ecological praxis. As it turns out, there’s a certain irony surrounding our historic transition to fossil fuel energy: coal was increasingly promoted as a ‘green’ alternative to wood fuel in the 18th century as deforestation and growing wood shortages became cause for alarm (Bonneuil and Fressoz 76; see also Hoffmann 345). Perhaps it is worth digging deeper into our history as we turn to face the ecological crisis of today.

Indeed, ecological devastation can be traced back to ancient civilisations across the world, from the Roman Empire (Thommen 141-2) to imperial China (Marks 56). And if one takes seriously the charges against capitalism, how does one account for the appalling environmental track records of the Soviet Union and communist China (Klein 178-9)?

The imperial projects across the political spectrum have, perhaps, one thing in common. Linking various “developmentalist” civilisations lies an underlying attitude that separates humanity from nature, a belief that humanity can and must conquer nature (Pomeranz 5-19; Klein 169-87; Moore 601). And this is an attitude that is, regretfully, more reinforced by the ‘Anthropocene’ proposal than it is exposed. It is, as Nicholas C. Kawa points out, “the irony of the Anthropocene: people dominate a planet beyond our control”.

So, should we scrap the idea of ‘the Anthropocene’ all together?

Alas, the debate extends far beyond the scope of this article, the discussion engaging some of the best minds from an incredible range of disciplines. The “Anthropocene” proposal has hence inspired a wealth of insight, vigour and imaginative thinking.

And I have a personal fondness for the “Anthropocene” debate, for it has afforded me something no other intellectual challenge ever has yet achieved: a sense of relief that a pristine ‘Nature’ painted by the likes of Wordsworth or Thoreau has not been lost over the course of this past century. On the contrary, the origins of our ecological crisis are ancient, the implications profound.

And at a time when politics isolates and fragments ‘environmental’ issues like climate change, plastic pollution or pesticide use – and at a time when these issues are pitted against ‘social’ or ‘economic’ problems like poverty, obesity, debt or war – the “Anthropocene” serves as a reminder that these issues are all intimately connected – that humanity is part of the biosphere and everything is at stake.

And from this sense of relief I can garner new hope. For if the world’s problems are more complex and deep-rooted then we realised, it is an invitation for us to be all the more radical in our thinking.

Works Cited

Bonneuil, Christophe, and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz. The Shock of the Anthropocene: the Earth, History and Us. Translated by David Fernbach, VERSO, 2016.

Crutzen, Paul J., and Eugene F. Stoermer. “The ‘Anthropocene.’” Global Change Newsletter, 41st ed., May 2000, pp. 17–18.

Hoffmann, Richard. “A Slow End of Medieval Environmental Relations.” An Environmental History of Medieval Europe, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2014, pp. 342–370. Cambridge Medieval Textbooks.

Kawa, Nicholas C. “The Irony of the Anthropocene: People Dominate a Planet Beyond our Control.” Conversation, 4 Oct. 2016, www.theconversation.com/the-irony-of-the-anthropocene-people-dominate-a-planet-beyond-our-control-64948.

Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Penguin Books Ltd, 2014.

Marks, Robert B. ““People Said Extinction Was Not Possible”: Two Thousand Years of Environmental Change in South China.” Rethinking Environmental History: World-System History and Global Environmental Change, by Alf Hornborg et al., Altamira Press, 2007, pp. 41-61.

McAfee, Kathleen. “The Politics of Nature in the Anthropocene.” RCC Perspectives, no. 2, 2016, pp. 65–72. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26241360.

Moore, Jason W. “The Capitalocene Part I: On the Nature & Origins of Our Ecological Crisis.” The Journal of Peasant Studies, vol. 44, no. 3, 17 Mar. 2017, pp. 594–630.

Patel, Raj. “Misanthropocene.” Earth Island Journal, 2013.

Pomeranz, Kenneth. “Introduction: World History and Environmental History.” The Environment and World History, edited by Edmund Burke and Kenneth Pomeranz, University of California Press, 2009, pp. 3–32.

Raworth, Kate. “Must the Anthropocene Be a Manthropocene.” Guardian, 20 Oct. 2014.

Thommen, Lukas. An Environmental History of Ancient Greece and Rome, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2012, pp. 132–142.

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