ANTHROPOCENE OR CAPITALOCENE? ON THE ORIGINS OF OUR CRISIS
(Part I: Excerpt from Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital).
When and where did humanity’s modern relation with the rest of nature begin? The question has gained new prominence with growing public concern over accelerating climate change. For the past decade, one answer to this question has captivated scholarly and popular audiences alike: the Anthropocene.
It is, in Paul Vooser’s apt phrase, “an argument wrapped in a word” (2012).
But just what kind of argument is it? As with all fashionable concepts, the Anthropocene has been subject to a wide spectrum of interpretations. But one is dominant. This one tells us that the origins of modern world are to be found in England, right around the dawn of the 19th century (Crutzen and Stoermer, 2000; Crutzen, 2002; Steffen, Crutzen, and McNeill, 2007; Steffen, et al, 2011a, 2011b; Chakrabarty, 2009; Davis, 2010; Swyngedouw, 2013). The motive force behind this epochal shift? In two words: coal and steam. The driving force behind coal and steam? Not class. Not capital. Not imperialism. Not even culture. But… you guessed it, the Anthropos. Humanity as an undifferentiated whole.
The Anthropocene makes for an easy story. Easy, because it does not challenge the naturalized inequalities, alienation, and violence inscribed in modernity’s strategic relations of power, production, and nature. It is an easy story to tell because it does not ask us to think about these relations at all. As a metaphor for communicating the significant – and growing – problem posed by greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, the Anthropocene is to be welcomed. But the Anthropocene argument goes much further than this. For Will Steffen and his colleagues (2011b), the great conceptual inspiration for their analyses of our present conjuncture – and how we have arrived at this unfortunate state of affairs – is not Darwin or Vernadsky, but Malthus. Their Anthropocene is one in which today’s crises are framed through and explained by the neo-Malthusian vistas of resource scarcity (peak everything) and rising population.
From this vantage point, we might all do well to take a moment to step back and ask, Does the Anthropocene argument obscure more than it illuminates?
Almost certainly. Above all, the Anthropocene argument obscures, and relegates to context, the actually existing relations through which women and men make history with the rest of nature: the relations of power, (re)production, and wealth in the web of life.
TO BE CONTINUED….