Trend is clear

Strong on analysis, but …

Simon Wells reviews: Ian Angus, 'Facing the Anthropocene: fossil capitalism and the crisis of the Earth system', Monthly Review Press, 2016, pp280, £14.40

On August 29 of this year the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) recommended to the International Geological Congress (IGC) that the ‘Anthropocene’ - the epoch when human activity has had a significant impact on the ecosystem - should have formal recognition. Ian Angus’s book is therefore highly relevant - the AWG hopes that recognition will be forthcoming at the next IGC, which will take place in Delhi in 2020. Angus tells us that the term was coined by Nobel prizewinner Paul Crutzen, a participant at the meeting of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program (IGPB) in February 2000, and the word has since stuck.

The book is split into three sections: a history of the events leading up to the Anthropocene; the current period of “fossil capitalism”; and proposed solutions. But basically the book can be divided into two parts: the human impact on the environment and what we should do about it. The final section discusses the politics and Angus’s political trajectory, which is what I am really interested in.

He argues that the middle of the 20th century should be identified as the time when the planet entered a new geological epoch - a “great acceleration” occurred in the human impact on the environment, in contrast to the gradual increase from 1750. In 1962 Rachel Carson’s book, Silent spring, brought to our attention the deleterious effects of the chemical known as DDT, used as an insecticide. But more pertinent were the warnings about global warming, which were first made in the 1960s by both Soviet and US scientists.

It is only in the last 20 years, though, that the dots have been joined, and it has largely been recognised that “a new and dangerous stage in planetary evolution has begun” (p17). At the same time, Angus says, ecosocialists (more on them later) have rediscovered “Marx’s view that capitalism creates an ‘irreparable’ rift”. What he wants to do is bring Marxism into the debate to aid understanding about what the new epoch means.

Angus takes it as a given that climate change is an established fact - those who deny its science are plain liars, in his view. However, he does not dwell too much on the detail, such as biodiversity loss and freshwater depletion. Angus quotes the environmentalist, Barry Commoner, who is referenced many times throughout the book, as saying: “The environmental crisis reveals serious incompatibilities between the private enterprise system and the ecological base on which it depends” (p20).

Angus points out that a crystallisation of the environmental sciences has gone unnoticed by most people and ignored by the mainstream media despite the fact that the Earth has been “qualitatively transformed by human action” (p28). Therefore the term ‘Anthropocene’ should be used to group together the new synthesis of the sciences involved. What Crutzen and his colleagues at the IGPB had been measuring were trends in human activity, such as GDP growth, population, energy consumption and water use. They had identified a major turning point in Earth history. Scientists can therefore now make more confident predictions of “a permanent transition to an unprecedented heat regime” and the signs are not good (p79).

For those who do not understand geological time scales and the meaning of the Anthropocene, it is worthwhile briefly quoting Angus:

Geologists divide Earth’s 4.5 billion-year history into a hierarchy of time intervals - eons, eras, periods, epochs and ages - called the geological time scale. We live in the Quaternary Period, the most recent subdivision of the Cenozoic Era, which began 65 million years ago. The Quaternary in turn is divided into two epochs - the Pleistocene, which began 2.58 million years ago, and the Holocene, from 11,700 years ago to the present (p41).

He is unequivocal in declaring that the Anthropocene - a third epoch in the Quaternary - has just begun.

However, scientific recognition that this is the case is the responsibility of the International Union of Geological Sciences. It was the IUGS which convened the Anthropocene Working Group for that purpose and it was the AWG which made the recommendation that the new epoch should be acknowledged during the 35th International Geological Congress in South Africa last month. The importance of the decision, as palaeontologist Anthony Barnosky says, is that “it would also underscore that people have become a geological force every bit as powerful as the kinds of forces that turned an ice-covered Earth into a warm planet, or that wiped out the dinosaurs” (p44). But this is only half the battle.


Of course, notes Angus, these discussions among scientists are clouded by politics. Essentially the argument is about the starting date of the Anthropocene. The ‘early adopters’, who he contends are the climate change deniers, are those who say that the starting date is in the distant past. They argue that there has been no recent qualitative change and therefore no need for a “radical response” (p45).

There is no doubting that Angus makes a persuasive argument in terms of highlighting the urgency of the crisis facing humanity. For example, we are told that four out of the nine acceptable “boundaries” have been crossed already. These are biosphere integrity, interference with the nitrogen and phosphorous cycles, climate change and land-use change. However, he notes that we had a further sign of things to come with the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer in the 1980s. It took a British Antarctic survey, which had been measuring the ozone layer since 1957, to persuade the scientific community that action was necessary.

The effects of global warming are many. Already we have had reports of localities - in the Middle East, for example - where it is just too hot to work. Furthermore, there is the impact on crop yields, which decline sharply when the temperature passes a certain tipping point - Angus concludes that this is rapidly approaching, making urgent action imperative (p81). However, the prospects look worrying. According to the author, there is virtually zero chance of limiting global warming to the 2°C above pre-industrial levels that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change insisted was necessary in 2005. Angus says that we must see the Anthropocene as “a socio-ecological phenomenon - a qualitative change in the relationship between human society and the rest of the natural world” (p85).

Angus discusses several arguments which attempt to explain why we humans have been trashing the planet. It could be our ‘human nature’: we are “homo economicus” and we cannot contain our desire to acquire things. Or could it be that there are just too many people? However, the real reason is capitalism’s drive for profit - “the ecological tyranny of the bottom line” - where ecological cycles that evolved over millennia are disrupted by the constant revolutionising of capitalist production (p89). Angus quotes Engels’ phrase about humanity being the “squanderer of past solar heat”, thanks to capitalism (p98). And fossil fuels are misused not just by industry, but by the military, with its oil-powered tanks, airplanes and destroyers, meaning that “Any serious effort to stop global warming will have to overcome the resistance of the US military (p125).

We have moved to such extremes that, perversely, “It now takes more energy to produce food than we obtain from eating it: every calorie of food energy requires 10 calories of fossil energy” (p122). While “the west” thinks it can sustain this, in order to maintain profits corporations are driven to campaign for weaker environmental protection, while at the same time outsourcing to parts of the world where such protection is already lacking.

The final section of the book is perhaps the most disappointing, dealing with Angus’s proposals to ease the crisis. For example, the people of “the north” should aid “the south” in a global transition. Ecosocialism is, of course, the answer - “there can be no true ecological revolution that is not socialist and no true socialist revolution that is not ecological” (p154). And he comes out with the usual tropes, such as a reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases and free public transport - which, obviously, I am not against. But Angus’s answer - to “impose on the powers-that-be”, by which he means “governments, corporations, international institutions”, some “elementary but essential immediate changes” - is vague and insubstantial (p158). It seems that we should look to bodies like the Global Justice Movement and the World Social Forum - not to mention personalities such as Naomi Klein - to lead the way.

For Angus, “the challenge for socialists is not to proclaim the revolution from every street corner, but rather to unite the broadest possible range of people, socialists or not, who agree that the climate vandals must be stopped” (p165). In other words, build a large coalition of like-minded people and put Marx, Engels and Lenin to one side. The ecosocialist movement should bring together “socialists, liberals, deep greens, trade unionists, feminists, indigenous activists and more”, he contends (p169).

Although Angus’s practical political proposals are rather lacking, the book is nevertheless useful. It is well researched and contains much essential information, plus an extensive bibliography for further reading.