The Earth And Us: Ways Of Seeing

Gabriel Levy with a review of a book about the relationship between humankind and the natural world. 

The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us

Think again, and differently, about the relationship between human society and the natural world. That is the challenge offered by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz.

A visual representation of geological time. From the Smithsonian Institution.

They question accepted ideas about “environmental crisis” and “sustainable development”, and urge  us to subvert the “unifying grand narrative of the errant human species and its redemption by science alone”.

But this is not an iconoclastic rant. It is a scholarly discussion of the science behind the Anthropocene concept, and its implications for history, for the study of society, and for our ideas about the world in the broadest sense.

A central theme is the reflection of the terrifying accumulation of damage to the natural world by human activity over the past two centuries in the history of ideas. The dominant trends, to divide natural history from human history and to push the natural world out of economics, have been resisted.

The fact of the Anthropocene, Bonneuil and Fressoz argue, requires a new synthesis of forms of knowledge. They avoid offering any simplistic, pat “solution” to the disastrous rift between human society and the natural world. Instead, they point to new ways of looking at it that, collectively, may help us to change it.

This review summarises the authors’ explanation of the Anthropocene concept; considers their points about the history of ideas; comments on the sketches they have drawn for studying Anthropocene history; and asks what socialists, specifically, might take from this book.

What the Anthropocene is

The Anthropocene epoch has arrived, Bonneuil and Fressoz insist. It is characterised by the fact that “the human imprint on the global environment has now become so large and active that it rivals some of the great forces of Nature in its impact on the functioning of the Earth system”, they write (p. 4), citing a group of Earth systems scientists, headed by Will Steffen, who have pushed the idea.

The main proofs for this are: the dangerous, and rising, level of greenhouses gases in the atmosphere; the degradation of the biosphere and collapse of biodiversity (i.e. the record, and accelerating, rate of extinction of species); the disruption of the nitrogen cycle and the phosphorus cycle (i.e. the ballooning of human-made nitrogen transfers into the soil to twice the level, and phosphorus transfers to eight times the level, of natural processes); changes to the water cycle; and changes to land use. (Widely-quoted summaries of the research are on open access here and here.)

Formally, the designation of our epoch is still under discussion: the International Commission on Stratigraphy, a scientific body charged with agreeing geological definitions, in 2016 accepted in principle that we have moved from the Holocene epoch to the Anthropocene, and put that proposition into a review process that takes a couple of years.

But, Bonneuil and Fressoz point out, while official validation is awaited, “the Anthropocene concept has already become a rallying point” for scientists, historians, philosophers, ecological movements and ordinary citizens, “as a way of conceiving this age in which humanity has become a major geological force” (p. 5).

They survey some of the (important and complex) arguments about when the Anthropocene can be considered to have started. (Previous articles on this here and here.) They reproduce a striking series of graphs published by Earth systems scientists showing the sharp up-tick in human impacts on the natural world from the mid 20th century. (A report of the research is here. The complete scientific article is here, under publishers’ lock and key unfortunately.)

The “planetary dashboard” compiled by Earth system scientists, showing a
sharp increase in impacts on nature from the mid 20th century. From

Bonneuil and Fressoz’s own view: 1945 might present “an appropriate stratigraphic signal” (the first atomic bomb) and indicate “a destructive intensification of the Anthropocene”, but naming such a late  date as the start of the Anthropocene “masks deeper causes and processes, and obscures the major rupture, both environmental and civilisational, of the entry into thermo-industrial society based on fossil fuels” (p. 17). It is this longer period, from the industrial revolution, on which their historical sketches focus.

Bonneuil and Fressoz make compelling arguments against the way that such terms as “environmental crisis” and “sustainable development” are used. This is not about words, but about underlying meanings. The Anthropocene concept means discarding the idea of an “environmental crisis”, they propose. “The term ‘crisis’ denotes a transitory state, while the Anthropocene is a point of no return. It indicates a geological bifurcation with no foreseeable return to the normality of the Holocene” (p. 21).

Actually, “the irreversible break is behind us” (p. 289). We need to think not only in terms of the natural environment being degraded, or “natural resources” being exhausted; rather, that we are launching the Earth into new states that will bring “disorder, penury and violence that will render it less readily habitable by humans”.

Anthropocenology: Will Steffen, a high-profile Earth systems scientist, addressing
an audience in Australia. From the Stockholm Resilience Centre web site.

The Anthropocene “cancels the peaceful and reassuring project of sustainable development”, Bonneuil and Fressoz argue. Since the 1980s, the dominant discourse of “sustainable development” has claimed  that the capitalist economy could negotiate the economic, social and environmental poles. “Instead of a concentric view in which the economy is within the social, itself framed by a thousand feedback loops within the biosphere and the Earth system, the environment became a new column in the bookkeeping of big corporations, which gave themselves new sustainable development divisions” (p. 23).

The implication of Bonneuil and Fressoz’s scepticism about “sustainable development” is spelled out in their third chapter, where they critique the “Anthropocenologists”. That’s their name for the group of scientists, historians and philosophers who have – since a conference in 2000 where Paul Crutzen, an atmospheric chemist and Nobel prize laureate, blurted out “we’re no longer in the Holocene, but the Anthropocene!” – shaped an “authorised narrative” associated with the term, that makes managing the Earth’s systems “a new object of knowledge and government” (p. 47).

Can sharply-turning graphs, like those that illustrate the post-1945 growth of human impacts, by themselves define an epoch? No, argue Bonneuil and Fressoz. For one thing, if you draw the graph on a different scale you see another “great acceleration” in the late 19th century. For another, the slope of the curve “can certainly not take the place of causal historical explanation” (p. 54).

They warn against aspects of the Anthropocenologists’ “grand narrative” that can be incoporated into an ideology of “green economy” that “internalises in markets and policies the value of ‘services’ supplied by nature”. No accident, they argue, that Robert Costanza, one of the leading Anthropocenologists, published a famous article that assessed the value of services rendered to humanity by the biosphere at $33 trillion (twice the world’s GDP). The pricing of so-called “eco-system services” thereafter became central to establishment narratives about “sustainable development”, as though human impacts on the natural world were an unfortunate anomaly that could be solved by market regulation.

The idea of “redemption by science alone”, which overlaps with such narratives, must be rejected, Bonneuil and Fressoz conclude. The Anthropocene means “meticulously listening to scientists and putting their results and conclusions into public and democratic discussions, rather than sinking into a geocracy of technological and market-based ‘solutions’ to ‘manage’ the entire Earth” (p. 288).

The history of ideas about the Anthropocene

Bonneuil and Fressoz dispute at length the idea that damage to the natural world by human activity – mainly, industrial and military activity under capitalism – was done unwittingly, until a grand environmental awakening of the last half century. They illustrate, with quotations from leading Anthropocenologists, just how widespread this fallacy is, and counterpose to it a history of “acute awareness of the interactions between nature and society” in Europe and north America in the period 1770-1830, that was suppressed and undermined through the 19th and early 20th centuries (p. 72).

The hold of dominant ideologies in western society – which divided nature and society, and natural history and social history, from each other – must be undone, Bonneuil and Fressoz argue. The Anthropocene idea, in their interpretation, “abolishes the break between nature and culture, between human history and the history of life and Earth” (p. 19).

In their chapter 8, Bonneuil and Fressoz trace the history of “conceptual grammars” through which understanding of humanity’s relationship with the natural world has developed, including: concern about pollution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries; awareness of climate change in the same period; movements against deforestation; and research in the 19th century on natural cycles, leading to warnings from the chemist Justus von Liebig on one hand, and Karl Marx on the other, about the “metabolic rift” between society and nature.

Bonneuil and Fressoz have set an agenda for study here. I was left with some questions, which hopefully such study would clarify. First, I was not convinced by their chronology. I reckon a case could be made for “environmental reflexivity” in human intellectual endeavour stretching back much further than the mid-18th century, and for a far more complex picture of the forces that developed it, and undermined it. While I would not dispute that the rise of industrial capitalism in western nations in the 19th century deepened the culture-nature divide like never before, there is a case made by some environmental historians – for example Joachim Radkau in Nature and Power – that this was the repetition at a higher level of a much deeper, longer-established rift.

Second, Bonneuil and Fressoz are at pains to underline that, given the developed understanding of human impacts on the natural world that they illustrate, we can only conclude that “our ancestors destroyed environments in full awareness of what they were doing” (p. 196, and they underline this point again on p. 291). Yes and no. For a start, “our ancestors” were obviously not a homogenous mass. (Indeed, Bonneuil and Fressoz specifically reject the idea of damage to nature being done by an undifferentiated humanity, in their chapter 4). Moreover, the way that scientific knowledge was used, instrumentalised and/or ignored in the past was driven by power relations no less than it is today.

And finally, while the general picture of human impacts on nature was clear, it is important to trace specific processes of discovery: for example, it has been generally known to scientists since the 19th century that industrial activity contributes to climate change, but the specific relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and global warming – the killer fact that makes it so urgent – only became clear in the 1980s.

That said, Bonneuil and Fressoz are surely right to challenge the a-historical view that humanity, unfortunately unenlightened until the late 20th century, has now been saved by science, which will apolitically guide us to solutions of the “environmental crisis”.

Also, their discussion of the means by which the division between natural sciences and social sciences were deepened in the 19th and early 20th centuries – the “production of zones of ignorance” (p. 198) – is compelling. How are “the damages of ‘progress’ made invisible?” they ask, citing the example of asbestos, the killer qualities of which were known since 1906 and studiously ignored.

Charles Fourier, an early exponent of socialist environmentalism.
(Photo from Library of Congress, Washington DC)

In history, they argue, the shift in the early 19th century from a predominantly wood-fuelled economy to coal “widened the gap between the temporality of the Earth and the temporality of human history” (p. 204). It seemed as if the Earth and its resources stretched back forever; geology helped to reinforce a vision of Earth’s infinite bounty; ideas about society’s ability to “progress” via industrial development, free of any natural limits or constraints, dominated.

At the beginning of the 19th century, political economy had considered the interaction of society and nature; by the end of it, economics viewed the economy as “an object entirely distinct from natural processes”; the economy was largely “disembedded” from natural constraints (p. 211). Economics “naturalised the idea of indefinite growth”, and when challenged by the Limits to Growth report in the 1970s found “new constructions of the world” that incorporated nature into a view of the world in which the market is constant and central.

Chapter 11 of The Shock of the Anthropocene recounts the resistance to the ideological shutting-out of nature, and “explores the existence, since the eighteenth century, of an ‘environmentalism of the poor’” (p. 253). Bonneuil and Fressoz cite the critique of industrialism by the Utopian socialist Charles Fourier as an early articulation of socialist environmentalism, and sketch stories of resistance – albeit unaligned and not unified – to forest clearances and forest mismanagement; to machinery in the service of wealth and power; and to pollution. Let’s hope other historians pursue this fruitful course.

Anthropocene history

The central section of The Shock of the Anthropocene sketches out areas of historical research that, the authors argue, need to be developed if we are to understand the world we now live in. Chapter 5 deals with the huge expansion of fossil fuel consumption, in particular in the economically dominant countries; chapter 6, the role of militarism and war in terms of sheer destruction of the natural environment, and of the guzzling of natural resources; chapter 7, the evolution in rich countries of mass consumption and consumerism. Chapter 10 attempts to integrate these aspects of the Anthropocene into a history of the expansion of world capitalism, seen through a world-systems lens. The chapter title, “Capitalocene”, is borrowed from the Marxist writer Jason Moore, and (p. 229):

signals that the Anthropocene did not arise fully armed from the brain of James Watt, the steam engine and coal, but rather from a long historical process of economic exploitation of human beings and the world, going back to the sixteenth century and making industrialisation possible.

Socialists in the Anthropocene

Socialists, and people involved in labour and social movements, should welcome The Shock of the Anthropocene as a catalyst for rethinking our own narratives about the relationship of people and nature. In those movements, as much as elsewhere, the question marks raised against accepted generalities such as “environmental crisis” and “sustainable development” deserve to be noticed. We should resist the tendency to think that recognition of damage to the environment is something to be conceptually bolted on to what we already knew about changing the world.

Let’s start with Dipesh Chakrabarty, a well-known researcher of post-colonial history, who started out as a Marxist. In 2009 he declared, in a widely read article, that Marxist critiques of capital “do not give us an adequate hold on human history” in the era of climate change; they are “not sufficient for addressing questions relating to human history, once the crisis of climate change has been acknowledged and the Anthropocene has begun to loom on the horizon”. In place of such critiques, Chakrabarty advances the category “the human species”, as used by the economist Jeffrey Sachs, the climate scientists Paul Crutzen and the biologist Eugene Stoermer, with a focus on population growth. Bonneuil and Fressoz (p. 67) point out that “placing humanity in the narrative as a universal agent, indifferently responsible” in this way amounts to a “great theoretical reversal” by Chakrabarty.

While Chakrabarty proposes to confront the Anthropocene by abandoning basic tenets of Marxism, other so-called Marxists appear to confront it by sticking dogmatically to what they thought they already knew. So reviews of The Shock of the Anthropocene on some eco-socialist web sites have been laced with dismissive and mean-spirited comments, and paid scant attention to the philosophical and historical questions it asks. Martin Empson on Climate and Capitalism claims, quite untruthfully, that Bonneuil and Fressoz’s approach “explicitly rejects Marxism”. To raise the issue of productivism in Marx’s thinking is a “mistaken concession”, Michael Ware says in International Socialist Review. (More comments on that in the note below.) At least Steve Knight of System Change Not Climate Change managed to recommend that people read the book without first consulting the Marxist canon.

I hope that other socialists who read this book will ask themselves what challenges it presents to their view of the world, rather than with knee-jerk defences of old certainties. For me it raised three issues.

First, Bonneuil and Fressoz’s argument is fundamentally about history. For socialists, history can rarely provide formulas for the future, but without studying it I doubt we will ever be able to remake our future in the way we hope to. This applies to the necessary reworking of socialist ideas about the relationship between people and nature as much as to socialist ideas in general. (Also some interesting remarks on this by Andreas Malm here.)

Second, Marxism, and socialist thought more generally, was not immune from the nature-culture divide that Bonneuil and Fressoz argue was deepened through the industrial expansion in the capitalist countries in the 19th century. They argue (p. 212) that late twentieth century eco-Marxism had to grapple with concepts of metabolism and energy in opposition to the legacy of “mainstream Marxism”, which broadly excluded nature from its understanding of capitalist economy. I think that is right, and that the issue isn’t closed: that legacy still persists and influences the way that socialists understand not only capitalism, but socialism too.

Third, Bonneuil and Fressoz touch briefly on the way that the workers’ movement in the mid 19th century “rallied to the industrial world and machinery”. (See also Note at the end.) Not only do such productivist traditions live on in the labour movement even today, but they are supplemented by new strains of “techno-optimism” that propose a one-sided view of more recent technological changes, as platforms that inevitably hasten a transition to post-capitalism. (See earlier comments on books by Paul Mason and Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams.)

The Shock of the Anthropocene is not the first book about this new historical epoch. But it is the clearest discussion I know of both of the meaning that scientists, historians, environmentalists and others give to the term, and its implications for the study of history. Its great value is that it shakes up preconceptions and assumptions, and demands that we rethink the world we live in.

Note: Marx and the “productive forces”

One socialist reviewer of The Shock of the Anthropocene, Michael Ware, denounces Bonneuil and Fressoz for arguing that “Marx’s acceptance of machinery as an inevitable part of capitalist development laid the basis of the USSR’s destruction of the environment”. He responds that (i) Bonneuil and Fressoz are at odds with discussion elsewhere in their book of Marx’s writings on the “metabolic rift” between economy and nature; (ii) the accusation of productivism against Marx was answered in books written in the 1990s by Paul Burkett and John Bellamy Foster; and (iii) the claim that Marx’s thinking was the source of “the Soviet Union’s horrible environmental record” is “thoroughly idealist”. This is an important discussion, and I don’t think Ware’s dismissive assertions are the right way to pursue it. Here are a few thoughts, not exhaustive. First, let’s be clear about what Bonneuil and Fressoz actually wrote (p. 265):

After the revolutionary defeats of 1848, the majority of the workers’ movement rallied to the industrial world and machinery, both in the trade unions and among the socialists. The challenge to machinery was dismissed as archaic and doomed to defeat by Marx and his successors, opening the way to the socialist productivism that the USSR embodied in the twentieth century.

Actually nothing is said here about the Soviet Union’s horrible environmental record. It’s not what Bonneuil and Fressoz were writing about. They were discussing how people in the nineteenth century – including people in the labour movement – saw “progress”. Right after the paragraph quoted, they write: “It was in the second half of the nineteenth century, in fact, that ‘progress’ imposed itself as the central ideology of the industrial west.” Then a discussion of how capitalism shifted the ecological burden on forests to the global south in that period. Then descriptions of the upsurge in the late nineteenth century of what we would now call environmentalist critiques of capitalism. In the context of this discussion about 19th-century attitudes, I would say:

■ It is self evident that “the majority of the workers’ movement rallied to the industrial world and machinery”. Marx and Engels, too, shared with most worker militants a vision of the future that entailed going beyond – or negating by revolutionary means, as they might have said – the way that productive forces developed under capitalism. The idea of a collision between the development of these forces and the alienated social relations of capitalism is a central theme in Marx’s writings.

■ Why on earth is that statement of the obvious “at odds” with a recognition that Marx, in the discussion about the “metabolic rift”, and in other writings, tried to contextualise his ideas about class struggle and revolution with an understanding of the labour process as the interaction of humans and nature?

■ Marx and Nature by Paul Burkett does indeed respond to claims that Marxism was productivist. I won’t try to sum up Burkett’s long, complex argument. But his main responses to that claim, as voiced by some academics in the 1980s, are that it insufficiently emphasised the contingent nature of Marx’s descriptions of industrial development, and the extent to which Marx’s enthusiasm for industrial development was bound up with his conviction that it would underpin a transition from capitalism to a free association of producers. Did Burkett convincingly close the lid on the issue of Marx and productivism? I don’t think so (neither in Marx and Nature, nor in his exchange with Ted Benton in Historical Materialism journal (bibliographical info here and here)). Moreover, Burkett’s entire focus is on Marx’s texts, and not on the life of the nineteenth century labour movement, or the ideological continuity between it and the Soviet leadership, which is what Bonneuil and Fressoz were talking about. The other book Ware refers to, Marx’s Ecology by John Bellamy Foster, likewise says virtually nothing about the nineteenth century labour movement; it discusses (very usefully) Marx’s writings on natural and ecological phenomena.

■ I don’t see anything in Bonneuil and Fressoz’s book about the Soviet Union’s environmental record. What they say is that the enthusiasm for machinery (or what Marx called “the development of the productive forces”) in the nineteenth century labour movement opened the way for “socialist productivism” in the Soviet Union. It seems obvious to me that the socialism of the Second International, which generally saw developing the productive forces as a good thing, was a huge influence on the Bolshevik leaders who found themselves having to take decisions about economic policy immediately after the Russian revolution. It also seems obvious that they prioritised raising the productivity of labour above everything else, in a country characterised by great poverty and by industrial underdevelopment in comparison to Europe. When, how and why this led to “socialist productivism” being elevated to some sort of state religion in the Soviet Union is indeed worth talking about. Such conversations might actually happen if, when people review books, they make more effort to try to understand what the authors are trying to say. GL, 13 February 2018.

Note (13 February, afternoon). I’ve corrected this (second to last paragraph in the section on “what the Anthropocene is”). Costanza’s number was $33 trillion, not $33 billion (as wrongly stated by Bonneuil and Fressoz).

Also on People & Nature

■ We need to talk about the anthropocene (January 2017)

■ Site contents

Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, 2007. The Shock of the Anthropocene: the Earth, history and us (London: Verso, 2017) ISBN-13: 978-1784785031

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