The Anthropocene and Fossil Capitalism
The Anthropocene is a term first seriously used in 2000 by climatologists to recognize that human beings have become the primary new geological force affecting the future of the Earth system. The Anthropocene follows the geological epoch of the the last 11,700 years, the Holocene. Some say it started with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and others beginning around the 1950’s, with the “great acceleration” in human impact on the environment. Essential to this concept is the role of capitalism and its use of fossil fuels to drive relentless growth, and the need to move beyond capitalism and private property if we are to save both humanity and the earth. One of many books and articles discussing this change is Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System by Ian Angus, published in 2016.
Key to understanding the concept of the Anthropocene is looking at the earth as an integrated planetary system, utilizing the methods of geology, biology, ecology, physics and other disciplines. Social scientists reject the idea of history, attributed to Winston Churchill as just “one damned thing after another,” but see it instead as a complex progression of dialectical change and development. Similarly, scientists studying the Anthropocene look at the complex web of cycles and interdependence in the world.
Qualitative Leaps and Nine of Earth’s Ecological Processes
Qualitative transformation takes place by sudden leaps and begins with the introduction of a new quality. These leaps take place in ways that are sometimes known, but are often unpredictable, and have long been recognized in the natural world, such as with changes in ocean or air circulation or abrupt extinctions. Adding the effect of human activity dominated by capital makes it likely that such qualitative leaps will be reached so quickly that there will be little time to react. There are nine of earth’s ecological processes which have been identified where these leaps are probably imminent:
- Climate change – the volume of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is higher than it has been for hundreds of thousands of years, averaging 400 parts per million in 2015.
- Biodiversity loss – species are going extinct at a rate 1000 times greater than in preindustrial times.
- Wide use of fertilizers containing nitrogen and phosphorous – Up to 50% of nitrogen ends up in lakes, rivers and oceans. In the Gulf of Mexico, this has triggered algae blooms that choke off oxygen in water, which have created a “dead zone” where marine life can’t survive.
- Stratospheric ozone depletion – scientists accidentally learned in the 1970’s that widely used chemicals were destroying the ozone layer that blocks harmful ultraviolet radiation. This harmful process was reversed by banning those chemicals, and the ozone layer has been essentially restored.
- Ocean acidification – some CO2 emissions dissolve in seawater, making it acidic, which interferes with the survival of coral, shellfish, and plankton; this results in the collapse of food webs and reduction in fish and marine mammal populations.
- Excessive freshwater use by agriculture and industry, which depletes major aquifers; melting glaciers are also eliminating the source water of many rivers.
- Land-system change – 42% of all ice-free land is currently used for farming, eliminating space for grasslands, savannas, and forests. This has a negative effect on earth’s climate and water systems as well as hurting biodiversity.
- Air pollution – This causes 7.2 million deaths per year, and also reduces monsoon activity.
- Introduction of over 100,000 new chemicals, nanomaterials and plastic polymers in commercial use, the effects of which are largely unknown.
Many heat and precipitation extremes have been documented over the past 20 years, anomalies that would not have occurred in the absence of global warming. Examples include Europe of 2003, where the hottest summer in over 500 years killed over 70,000 people; Russia in 2010 which caused 500 wildfires, cutting grain harvests and killing 56,000 people; and India in 2015 when 2500 people died in a heat wave where temperatures went as high as 117 degrees Fahrenheit. Predictions are that in many areas it will be physically impossible for human beings to engage in unprotected outdoor labor.
The Anthropocene is not just a biophysical phenomenon. It is also a socio-ecological phenomenon – a qualitative change in the relationship between human society and the rest of the natural world. Karl Marx said about capitalism, “On the one hand there have started into life, industrial and scientific forces, which no epoch of the former human history had ever suspected. On the other hand, there exist symptoms of decay, far surpassing the horrors recorded of the latter times of the Roman Empire.”
The story of capitalism has been the story of a fossil fuel based economy. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, capital’s need to grow drove the shift to fossil fuels, which are essentially the result of solar energy that has been preserved underground for millions of years. Coal and oil enabled great profits and a rise in some aspects of the standard of living, but as we now know, it also engendered the hidden costs of environmental destruction and the disruption of the carbon cycle. Now that we have this knowledge, and the alarm has been sounding for decades, it is time for a new economic system that puts people and planet first.
Some say that overpopulation is the root cause of the problem, and often blame high birth rates in countries with a low standard of living. Yet the fact is, if the poorest 3 billion people on the planet disappeared, it would make virtually no reduction in ongoing environmental destruction. Why is this?
The capitalist mode of agricultural production has contributed to many of the points listed above. 16% of U.S. energy is used in food production from farm to table, including the manufacture of synthetic nitrogen (half of which, as noted above, ends up in the water). Agribusiness also uses wasteful watering practices, for example the lucrative practice of growing almonds for export to China in the deserts of California. A major U.S. weed killer crisis for farmers has arisen in Arkansas and Missouri, where the use of the herbicide Dicamba in some locations has drifted over and killed crops such as beans, peaches and vegetables. (The manufacturer Monsanto had prevented important testing on Dicamba for volatility).
Today the U.S. military is the world’s largest user of petroleum, the largest producer of greenhouse gases, and the largest polluter, producing more hazardous waste than the five largest US chemical companies combined. In addition to the dreadful direct human toll of warfare, Patricia Hynes writes in “Pentagon Pollution” her seven part 2011 series published in Truthout, “Modern war and militarism have a staggering impact on nature and our lived environment – by the kinds of weapons used (long-lived concealed explosives, toxic chemicals, and radiation); the ‘shock and awe’ intensity of industrial warfare, and the massive exploitation of natural resources and fossil fuels to support militarism.”
The victims of extreme weather events and other environmental disasters are not the wealthy, the CEOs, or the politicians that they control. Many developing countries are especially vulnerable to rising sea levels, drought or other climate related issues. Of the more than 1800 who died in Hurricane Katrina, most were the poor not only of New Orleans, but also many rural Louisiana parishes. It was the poor and elderly who were trapped during Superstorm Sandy in New York’s high rise buildings. In addition to Flint, Michigan there are 2000 water systems in the U.S. suffering from high lead levels, affecting 6 million people. Along the Alabama coast where the BP oil spill took place, there has been a significant uptick in cancers, neurological disorders, and respiratory illnesses. West Virginia suffers from buried PCBs, mountaintop removal, strip mining and fracking.
The last 40 years of technology driven economic globalization have seen a weakening of the protections for workers and their unions, as well as for the environment they live in. One of the leading forms this takes are trade agreements such as NAFTA and the proposed TPP, in which corporations can sue sovereign governments when they take steps to protect local natural resources, or economies in need of assistance.
Looking to the Future
Make no mistake – in spite of the disingenuous protestations that climate change is either non-existent, or can be dealt with by by ineffective gestures, such as market-based solutions or the Paris Accords, the ruling class is preparing for it. Insurance companies are calculating what it means for their bottom line and adjusting their practices. The United States military is making plans to deal with the global and domestic unrest that would come, when millions are starving or their homes and livelihoods are destroyed.
The purpose of sounding the alarm is not to discourage us or paralyze us with fear, but to add urgency to the work we are doing. Credible studies from a wide range of environmental groups argue that a full transition to renewable, non-carbon based energy sources is physically possible. But in the same way that profit-driven capitalism and the system of private property cannot be reformed to provide a life where we can all live and thrive, fossil fuels cannot just be plucked from capitalism, leaving the system intact; they are embedded in every aspect of the system.
So what kind of movement then do we need? We have to show that it is not just an optional issue, but that human survival and planetary survival require the same future of a cooperative society. We have to fight for environmental justice that recognizes the disproportionate effects of these damages on the poor. We have to fight for “just transition” measures that deal with peoples’ legitimate concerns for stable employment, and for instance, the righteous fears of current and retired coal miners for their jobs, their pensions, and their health care. (Even now, almost 2 ½ times as many people are employed in solar energy as in coal.)
The astounding technological advances of our times don’t have to be the cause of economic inequality and the engine for mindless, ecological destruction as they are now. In the hands of the people they can be the force to provide a decent life for all, which also insures the kind of environmental stewardship that heals and maintains the planet’s life systems. This will only happen with the abolition of private property and the move towards communism, where we all share in the common good.
November.December 2017 Vol27.Ed6
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011