Facing the Anthropocene

We are facing a planetary emergency – this was one of the alarming conclusions Ian Angus drew from his research on the Anthropocene. How to face this new geological epoch was the topic of his talk at a joint seminar of the EIS department and the Contemporary Marxist Theory Seminar Series. 

By Camilla Royle, PhD Candidate, Department of Geography

Ian Angus defining the anthropocene. photo: Pradella

Ian Angus defining the Anthropocene. photo: Pradella

It is one of the currently most discussed concepts in the social sciences – and not only there: the Anthropocene, the idea that human influence created a new geological epoch. Ian Angus, a writer and ecosocialist activist based in Canada, spoke at King’s about the approach: Angus’s new book, Facing the Anthropocene, is a contribution from a Marxist perspective to current environmental debates. As he pointed out at the start of his talk in a seminar co-organised by the Department of European and International Studies and the Contemporary Marxist Theory Seminar Series, Marx and Engels themselves took an interest in the natural sciences, both corresponded with scientists and took part in the scientific debates of their day. Their socialism was not abstract but aimed at a “concrete materialist understanding of how our world works and how it is changing”.

The Anthropocene: A contested concept

As Angus explained, the word Anthropocene, a proposed geological epoch defined by human influence on Earth system processes, was initially coined at an academic conference in the year 2000 by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen. But the word has now entered common usage and become widely accepted – it has even featured in a Dilbert comic strip. But Angus feels that the Anthropocene has often been misunderstood. For some it is simply a synonym for the present, while others think of the Anthropocene as the time period since humans first started to modify the natural environment thousands of years ago. For others it implies that humans are now in control of the Earth system; that we should be able to collectively manage the situation in order to produce more desirable outcomes.

The impact of the human species on the planet is huge as the example of CO2 emissions shows. photo: Pradella

The impact of the human species on the planet is huge as the example of CO2 emissions shows. photo: Pradella

Human activity raises carbon dioxide levels to unknown heights

By contrast Angus refers to a situation where humanity is facing an uncertain future. Scientific research based on analysing polar ice cores is demonstrating how closely linked global temperatures are to atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and how finely tuned the system is. The Holocene (which started around 11,700 years ago) was characterised by a warm and stable climate. These conditions allowed agriculture and settled human societies to develop and are the only conditions in which we know these societies can survive. It was a sharp contrast to the repeated ice ages and wild swings in carbon dioxide concentration and temperature of the earlier Pleistocene epoch. Now it seems that the Holocene is over. Human activity is raising carbon dioxide concentrations to levels never experienced before by humans, even in the Pleistocene, with dangerous and unpredictable consequences: “what we see is not management or control but chaos and destruction…a no analogue situation”.

Can capitalism solve the climate crisis?

Questions from the audience discussed the implications of Angus’s talk. One point raised was whether climate change can be solved in a capitalist society but this also raised the issue of the kind of solutions that society might come up with: market mechanisms? Attempts to make money from mitigation? Authoritarian measures? In Angus’s words: “capitalism can solve the climate crisis but you are really gonna hate the solution”. Also discussed were the international dimensions of climate change; the role played by imperialist countries in shifting polluting industries to other parts of the world. Other audience members asked about the role of the humanities in making sense of environmental catastrophe and about how to raise awareness. Angus has sometimes in the past been criticised for “fearmongering” or for using “apocalyptic” discourses but he answers that we really are facing a planetary emergency – no one can ignore a crisis of this magnitude.

The seminar was hosted jointly by the department of European and International Studies and the Contemporary Marxist Theory seminar series. Ian Angus’s book Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System is published by Monthly Review Press.


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