Book Review: Anthropocene or Capitalocene?

By Frank Rotering | June 30, 2017

As someone who has long insisted on capitalism’s central role in the ecological crisis, I was fascinated to read Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism (2016). This is a collection of seven essays edited by Jason W. Moore, an associate professor of sociology at Binghamton University in upstate New York.

The book’s aim is to challenge the discourse surrounding the increasingly popular word “Anthropocene”. The authors have no quarrel with this as a proposed geological term, but they strongly dispute the deceptive historical story that has developed around it. This story’s chief claim is that human beings are collectively responsible for the crisis, thereby ignoring all distinctions of role, status, and power. Moore thus notes sarcastically that the motive force behind the crisis is, “Not class. Not capital. Not imperialism. Not even culture. But … you guessed it, the Anthropos: humanity as an undifferentiated whole.” (Kindle location 1750)

The authors are entirely correct in rejecting this claim. Although it is true that Homo sapiens is the planet’s sole ecocidal species, it does not follow that all of its members bear equal responsibility. Since the 16th century the capitalist class has increasingly asserted its dominance over both humankind and nature. It is this class, with its expansionary economic logic and reductionist worldview, that is the main culprit in today’s rampant ecological destruction.

For any environmental thinker who is not completely ensnared by capitalist propaganda this point is obvious and requires little elaboration. I therefore glossed over the book’s core message and focused on the intellectual performance of the academics who expounded it. This is an important issue because concerned academics will be desperately needed to develop the intellectual infrastructure for a sustainable society. The problem is that they are currently trapped in a capitalist institution that severely distorts their vision. My goal in reading the book was thus to determine where such academics can, and cannot, make useful contributions to a post-capitalist future. I begin by pointing out two crucial errors that permeate the book’s essays.

The first is historical idealism. This is the assumption that historical developments are rooted in the ideas that enter people’s heads. It is the opposite of historical materialism, which assumes that history is based on “the production and reproduction of real life” (Engels). In the latter view, important ideas don’t arise spontaneously, but are imposed by those in power. This is succinctly expressed by Marx’s dictum that, “The ruling ideas of each age have ever been those of its ruling class.”

Given that the authors frequently cite Marx, the champion of historical materialism, I found it shocking that they would place ideas in the historical driver’s seat. Moore, for example, refers to “… the thinking that has brought the biosphere to its present transition toward a less habitable world” (loc. 130). Even more explicitly, Eileen Crist tells us that, “… ways of life are, to a large extent, manifestations of concepts – of the ideas they foster and the possibilities of action they afford, delimit, and rule out.” (loc. 519)

Idealism is a convenient stance for academics because it justifies their intellectual efforts: bad ideas caused the crisis, but our good ideas will solve it. Idealism also means that political power can be largely ignored. If history is driven by concepts, it is unnecessary to identify those who assert social control. Instead, the modification of existing ideas will somehow dissolve this control and usher in a new social reality. Having adopted this approach, the authors discuss capitalism and its associated ideas in great detail, but completely avoid the term “capitalist class” and rarely mention the powerful individuals involved.

The authors’ second crucial error is the lack of an independent ecological analysis. Presumably due to their progressive values, they have embraced the progressive view of the crisis. This view, however, is severely skewed by mainstream influences. Progressivism is exclusively a resistance movement within the prevailing order. It cannot move beyond capitalism, and it cannot grasp a crisis that mandates precisely this shift.

My own analysis, which is summarized here, concludes that the ecological crisis has two major components. The first and more fundamental of these is overshoot – the broad-based violation of natural limits. This started in the 1950s when the atmosphere’s CO2 concentration exceeded its long-term maximum level. As overshoot deepened in the second half of the 20th century, it spawned the climate and ocean emergencies due to the rapidly increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases generally.

These two components – overshoot and the resulting emergencies – are in different categories and must be separately addressed. Overshoot is the result of economic over-expansion. It thus requires a massive social transformation: the transition from growth-dependent capitalism to a sustainable economic system. The climate and ocean emergencies, on the other hand, have inflicted a mortal wound on nature that cannot be healed without large-scale technical interventions. It is an unfortunate but inescapable fact that social transformation will not refreeze the Arctic before tipping points are reached, or quickly remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

Because this ecological analysis is missing, the authors conflate the two components, ignore nature’s mortal wound, fixate on social transformation, and trash geoengineering. Elmar Altvater, for example, accuses conventional minds of bypassing social change and offering purely technical solutions to the planetary crisis. (loc. 2879) He’s right, but in response he simply reverses the error: he ignores the required technical solutions and offers purely social solutions. Although it complicates the analysis, thinkers must finally acknowledge that a one-sided approach to environmental decline is no longer tenable. At this late stage both technical and social solutions are required.

The terrible irony here is that the heedless technophiles, if given free rein, would be more effective in tackling the crisis in the short term. They would use geoengineering methods to address the emergencies, thereby giving humankind at least a chance to transform its destructive economy. The concerned Altvater, by contrast, would doom both humankind and the biosphere by overlooking the immediate, existential threats. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Let me now return to my original goal of determining the dividing line between topics that academics can and cannot constructively address.

What they definitely cannot address is a strategy for transitioning to a post-capitalist society. This would require the full recognition of a ruling class and a candid discussion of its forcible removal from the historical stage. With few exceptions, the current university environment forbids such threatening discourse.  This leaves academics with two options: quit the hallowed halls and proceed independently, or remain and carefully pick your topics. For most, the latter is the only realistic choice.

What then are the topics to be addressed? I suggest the following:

  • Analyze the ecological crisis without reference to progressive assumptions and ideas. My contribution is available on this website. See if you can improve on it.
  • Develop a post-capitalist economic theory. Although this is a critical requirement for a sustainable world, it has been consistently overlooked by social thinkers. For my preliminary efforts to construct such a theory, see this introduction.
  • Write proposed versions of the constitution, laws, and regulations for a sustainable society. If the transition does occur, these will be needed on day one.
  • Conceptualize the economic and political institutions that would support such a society. For example, what new institutions will be needed to implement a post-capitalist economic theory?
  • Propose methods for acclimating the populace to the new constraints. The only way to achieve sustainability is to sharply reduce consumption and population. How might this be accomplished with minimal suffering and social conflict?
  • Propose a soft landing for the capitalist class. What happens to these formerly powerful people? How could their efforts at a capitalist restoration be peacefully thwarted? What roles could they play in a business-friendly but non-capitalist economy? There are numerous questions, but currently no answers.

To summarize, Anthropocene or Capitalocene? correctly rejects the claim that humankind as a whole is responsible for the ecological crisis. It is however marred by an idealist interpretation of history and a faulty analysis of the ecological crisis. The idealism leads the authors to focus on the abstractions surrounding capitalism while ignoring the concrete realities of a ruling class. The faulty analysis leads them to dismiss geoengineering, which is the only means available to humankind for tackling the climate and ocean emergencies. Concerned academics such as the authors must now choose between full independence outside academia and partial independence within it. If the latter is chosen, I suggest they address the nature of the ecological crisis and the intellectual infrastructure for a sustainable world.

Edits and Updates: Dec. 19/18

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