The Near Horizon Collapse, TechUtopia, or Small Is Beautiful
Part Three: Busting the ‘Anthropocene’

Facing the Anthropocene: 
Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System
By Ian Angus 
Monthly Review Press, RRP £15.99

Review by Tim Barton

In the last review, of The Conservation Revolution: radical ideas for saving nature beyond the anthropocene, by Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher, I noted their disdain for the currently popular term ‘Anthropocene’. Much of their criticism was around the hijacking and redefining of it by greenwashers and techno-optimists whose hubristic approach to ‘human exceptionalism’ leads them to embrace the ‘Anthropocene’ as evidence of man ‘taming’ and ‘controlling’ nature.

Ian Angus’s book Facing the Anthropocene deals with the actual origin of the term as a possible ‘new geological era’ or epoch. His book has great and important detail on the extreme changes man is forcing on the global biosphere, and the unarguable evidence that this has been a recent development, one that has, since the late 1940s, seen a Great Acceleration. As this is primarily science-based, the first third of the book should be required reading for any open-minded ‘deniers’ out there.

In the second third of Facing the Anthropocene the nature of the Great Acceleration is examined, looking in depth at both resource- and growth-oriented economic drivers under capitalism, and also at the explosion of fossil-fuel over the last half-century. This too is frankly required reading, and a great pot-boiler of a wide range of literature analysing modern capitalism and its inherent flaw of ‘infinite growth in a finite environment’. It is hard to overstate the importance of realising what that means: capitalism is founded upon a grow-or-die ethic, one that ‘by definition’ denies the possibility of stasis or degrowth. Ideologically, it cannot accept that resources are finite or that growth is not by definition good. Yet, obviously, it is, in a finite resource environment, by definition limited and thus undeniably bad when it cannot recognise those limits.

As we approach a number of ‘planetary boundaries’ and ‘tipping points’, the corporate ‘solution’ is co-option of dissent, and monetisation of environmental assets to ensure milking profit from ‘green’ ventures. Conservationists tend to embrace this, often driven by pragmatism, which one can sympathise with, but must point out is a short-term ‘fix’ that in fact worsens the overall picture. Both The Conservation Revolution and Facing the Anthropocene argue that a massive change in outlook is required here – ‘capitalist’ forms of economy, no matter how entrenched, must be moved beyond. No real long-term solutions are possible within the current system, even if some minor curbing of the accelerated growth of our destructive economy may be.

As the writer Giorgos Kallis puts it: “Capitalist economies can either grow or collapse, they can never de-grow voluntarily’.’ I was pleased to see that Ian Angus included ‘productivism’ in his critique of capitalist economy, recognising (as Marx did, via the concept of ‘metabolic rift’, 150 years ago) that a workers state that seeks the same resource driven material growth as capitalism, but shared more fairly, is just as nonviable. Both books also address, to some degree, the culturally imposed narrative of a ‘bad’ ‘human nature’, and this too is important. No survival scenario exists under the Hobbesian, solipsistic, selfish ‘nature’, in a determinist universe that has been promoted as ‘truth’ in self-aggrandising capitalist nation-states over the last few centuries. Any counter-narrative is by definition fringe or underground, few question the ‘received wisdom’ of our supposed ‘inherent evilness’.

It is at this point that both books begin to introduce some more grounded suggestions for action. In both, these suggestions could be described as effectively a form of ‘socialism’. This, of course, seems to have a large number of definitions, many dubious and simply aimed at discrediting the ideas subsumed under ‘socialist’. The Conservation Revolution and Facing the Anthropocene books look at ‘convivial conservation’, in a ‘polycentric’ model of governance, democratic, and involving ‘local actors’ at ‘centre stage’. Both, though especially Angus, are explicit in discussing the severe risk of ‘solutions’ building lifeboats for the rich and continuing to push the brunt of the crises onto the poorest, and usually least responsible. 

The need for socially just solutions is not simply an issue of fairness, no eco-fascist ‘solution’ can create a long-term sustainable outcome, but rather it creates the conditions for unstable governance. Frankly, non-socially-just methods of dealing with global environmental crises will have the ‘peasants’ ‘at the gates’, brandishing ‘pitchforks’. Environmental apartheid is already happening, and, as can be seen in the UK’s response to migrants, climate refugees are already looked down upon and feared (I suspect it is shame & guilt that creates the ‘fear’).

Democratised methods are argued for in both books, Angus seeing an organised counterforce that can remove ‘the forces that now rule’ only being possible through ‘a majority movement’. Although Extinction Rebellion is ‘on hold’ due to Lockdown, it is clear that movements such as this will be core to changing the narrative at national and international level. Angus argues such movements ‘must be pluralist and open to differing views within the green left’; must respect both social and hard sciences, taking on board and responding to new findings and circumstances; ‘must be internationalist and anti-imperialist’; and require active participation in building ‘environmental struggles, large and small’. It is a starting point – we need to see, and soon, a global revolt like BLM over the assassination of environmental journalists and activists, and native tribal communities, that are taking place daily all over the world, from North American pipeline protestors to those fighting the destruction of the Amazonian rainforests.

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