Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History, and Us (book review)

REVIEW: The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History, and Us (2016, Verso), by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz 

The Anthropocene names both a time and a condition: the geo-epoch after the Holocene and the increasingly fragile intertwining of the human and nonhuman. Since being popularized by the chemist Paul Crutzen in 2000, it has frequently appeared in academia and broader culture, especially in articles and books covering climate change. Although the Anthropocene might seem to be just another word for the environmental crisis, it goes further by naming “a geological revolution of human origin” (xi). Many scientists now agree that we no longer live in the Holocene, the previous geo-epoch of 11,500 years that, thanks to its relatively stable climate, enabled the flourishing of human civilizations on five continents. Today, humanity has become a geological force, and not just a biological one. In The Shock of the Anthropocene, historians Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz critically examine the profound implications of this turn to the Anthropocene, “the new age of humans.”

When did the Anthropocene begin? Many scientists argue that it started in the 19th century during the Industrial Revolution with the growing use of coal, which pushed CO2 levels beyond the Holocene maximum of 284 ppm to 290 ppm (currently above 400 ppm). As Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz explain, this marked a “break…of geological amplitude and not simply historical...it was with the power of fossil fuels that human activities so profoundly transformed the Earth system’s biology and geology” (16). Human activity has continued to transform the planet in profound ways: current CO2 levels have not been equaled for millions of years; global warming is predicted to reach levels unmatched for 15 million years; the great extinction of biodiversity now taking place has previously occurred just five times in 4.5 billion years; distributions of species have been hugely modified; evidence of massive urbanization, industrial production, mining, and agricultural activities will likely be inscribed in the stratigraphic record, along with new substances that humans have produced, such as plastics and pesticides. Consequently, millions of years from now, it is highly probable that all of this will leave geological evidence of human activity in ice cores and the sedimentological record.

Bonneuil and Fressoz (hereafter BF) not only provide an excellent introduction to the science, history, and philosophy of the Anthropocene, but they also present a series of powerful arguments against its official narrative. To be sure, they see value in the concept, and ultimately embrace a version of it. The Anthropocene necessarily challenges bifurcating modes of thought that intensified in modernity, because it “abolishes the break between nature and culture, between human history and the history of life on Earth” (19). Such thinking formed “the cultural precondition for the swing into the Anthropocene" by enabling radical anthropocentrism, individualism, and the externalization of nature as virtually infinite – thus rendering planetary limits invisible. As such, modern science became concerned with an apolitical nature while the humanities and social sciences focused on an anatural society/culture

But the Anthropocene overturns these views by signaling “the return of the Earth into the world that Western industrial modernity on the whole represented to itself as being above an earthly foundation.” It magnifies planetary limits, thus giving the lie to economic and political theories that view nature as little more than a place to extract resources and deposit waste. By abolishing the dualism of nature and society, the Anthropocene implies a worldview in which society is shot through with “biophysical processes”, while flows of matter-energy are “polarized by socially structured human activities.” Affirming this worldview, BF note that their perspective is influenced by the philosophies of Whitehead and Deleuze, the science studies of Bruno Latour, and the eco-Marxism of Jason Moore.

Despite the conceptual potency of the Anthropocene, BF argue that its official “narrative of awakening” must be resisted. This narrative goes something like this: humanity is now a decisive geological force, rivaling many of the great forces of Nature in its planetary impact. Scientists are the heroes because they have awakened us to the environmental crisis and our unsustainable ways. While the ‘moderns’ are at fault for initiating this crisis, they did not have our science or awareness that they were destroying the planet. But now we know, thanks to the scientists, and must look to them for solutions.

However, BF argue that this narrative is flawed in multiple ways. First, it implies an abstract conception of humanity, as if all humans are equally to blame for initiating the Anthropocene. They argue that it was “bourgeois and industrial Enlightenment” humans in particular who not only promoted bifurcating, anthropocentric worldviews, but who also erected the extractive socio-economic mechanisms that swung us into the Anthropocene. BF therefore insist on a Marxist and postcolonial grid that emphasizes differentiated human histories (of power, class, etc.). Moreover, just as the causes of the Anthropocene must be differentiated, so the human consequences of the Anthropocene need to be viewed as “common but differentiated.”

Second, BF argue that the official narrative of the Anthropocene falsely asserts that moderns lacked environmental warnings. In fact, “Our planet’s entry into the Anthropocene did not follow a frenetic modernism ignorant of the environment but, on the contrary, decades of reflection and concern as to the human degradation of our Earth” (76). Early modern societies were not uniformly guided by mechanistic worldviews, the authors claim. Perhaps surprisingly, organicist cosmologies and “environmental prudences” that opposed industrial exploitations were apparently quite common. Even so, one must ask: how truly widespread were these “prudences”? And were these worldviews not still anthropocentric in viewing nature as instrumentally rather than intrinsically valuable? Yet the authors are persuasive in their argument that to ignore earlier environmental sensitivities is to depoliticize the Anthropocene. In other words, we must acknowledge that earlier environmental discourses not only existed, but were actively repressed by those in power – many of whom knowingly destroyed the environment. Shockingly, the authors demonstrate that moderns continued their industrial projects despite knowing that they were environmentally disastrous. For example, upon recognizing that humanity faced a choice between “a brief greatness” with dirty coal or “continued mediocrity” without it, economist William Jevons argued for the former in 1866 (195). As the authors write,
“The conclusion that forces itself on us, disturbing as it may be, is that our ancestors destroyed environments in full awareness of what they were doing...The historical problem, therefore, is not the emergence of an ‘environmental awareness’ but rather the reverse: to understand the schizophrenic nature of modernity, which continued to view humans as the products of their environment at the same time as it let them damage and destroy it.” (197) 
The third critique that the authors make of the Anthropocene narrative is that it tends to assume a generalized “modernity”, which needs to be differentiated more carefully. Throughout the book, BF present historically detailed arguments to show that the real roots of the Anthropocene are, more specifically, the forces of industrial modernity: capitalism (“Capitalocene”), modern warfare (“Thanatocene”), consumerism (“Phagocene”), and American and British imperialism. These structural forces and industrial processes have been uniquely powerful in transforming the Earth, which is why the authors insist on pluralizing the Anthropocene narrative that too easily becomes the basis for an apolitical “view-from-nowhere.” Merely critiquing a generalized “modernity” is thus unhelpful and inaccurate. The authors’ call to further investigate how power differentials and social inequalities have enabled the destruction of environments ought to be taken with full seriousness.

Finally, by elevating a small group of scientists above the uninformed masses, BF worry that the official narrative of the Anthropocene could legitimize a “technocratic”, “oligarchic”, and “marketoriented geopower” (49, 288). Without criticizing this grand narrative, which utilizes seductive rhetoric of epochal rupture and novelty, scientists will “hold a monopoly position in defining what is happening to us and in prescribing what needs to be done” (80). Although B&F affirm the importance of contemporary science, a democratic “politics from below” must also be maintained so that other voices can be heard. They argue that we cannot leave all debates about solutions to the “geocratic experts”, especially when so many of them support dangerous geo-engineering projects. Such proposals view the Earth in radically instrumental terms, thereby denying its alterity “in order to occupy it entirely and transform it into a techno-nature, an Earth entirely permeated by human activity” (61). Furthermore, these “techno-fixes” ignore the really crucial questions about the “basic industrial structure of modern society” (94) and its exploitative capitalist system – which are precisely what need to be challenged and revolutionized for the sake of the planet.

This is an important and challenging book that will undoubtedly become a central point of reference in ongoing debates about the Anthropocene. As an interdisciplinary text that impressively blends science, history, and philosophy, it deserves to be widely read. General readers might especially benefit from the first section of the book, which discusses the origins and various interpretations of the Anthropocene. It will also be valuable for philosophers and theologians who are interested in environmental ethics, political theology, and eco-theology.

[This review is not to be cited without permission from the author.]