The debate about our ecological predicament is heating up and, as it turns out, the Marxian critique of political economy is at the center of that debate.
Much of the discussion right now concerns the Anthropocene, the idea that the current geological age—overlapping with or, increasingly, after the Holocene—is a period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.
However, as Benjamin Kunkel explains, “two of the most formidable contributions so far to the literature of the Anthropocene come from authors who reject the term.”
Jason Moore in Capitalism in the Web of Life and Andreas Malm in Fossil Capital have overlapping criticisms of what Moore calls ‘the Anthropocene argument’. Its defect, as Moore sees it, is to present humanity as a ‘homogeneous acting unit’, when in fact human beings are never to be found in a generic state. They exist only in particular historical forms of society, defined by distinct regimes of social property relations that imply different dispositions towards ‘extra-human nature’. An Anthropocene that begins ten thousand years ago sheds no light on the ecological dynamic of recent centuries; modern Anthropocenes – usually conceived as more or less coeval with mercantile, industrial or postwar capitalism – either ignore the specific origins of the period or, at best, acknowledge but fail to analyse them. A concept attractive in the first place for its periodising potential thereby forfeits meaningful historical content. Moore proposes that the Anthropocene be renamed the ‘Capitalocene’, since ‘the rise of capitalism after 1450 marked a turning point in the history of humanity’s relation with the rest of nature, greater than any watershed since the rise of agriculture.’
Malm, a professor of ecology in Sweden, locates the headwaters of the present ecological crisis several centuries later, in the global warming set off by coal-burning industrialisation. He complains that in ‘the Anthropocene narrative’, climate change is ‘relocated from the sphere of natural causes to that of human activities’ only to be ‘renaturalised’ a moment later as the excrescence of ‘an innate human trait’. Anthropological invariables like ‘tool use, language, co-operative labour’ and so on may furnish preconditions for accelerating climate change, but do nothing to establish it as a predestined episode in the history of the species: ‘Capitalists in a small corner of the Western world invested in steam, laying the foundation of the fossil economy; at no moment did the species … exercise any sort of shared authority over its own destiny and that of the earth system.’ Nor in the time since has the species en bloc become ecologically sovereign: ‘In the early 21st century, the poorest 45 per cent of humanity generated 7 per cent of CO2 emissions, while the richest 7 per cent produced 50 per cent.’ For both Malm and Moore, capitalism must be recognised as the overriding determinant of humanity’s recent ecological career if the present era of natural history is to become a useful object of analysis, not merely of handwringing.
Kunkel doesn’t consider the terminological dispute—Anthropocene or Capitalocene?—to be particularly important. I do.
As I wrote back in 2011,
Human beings have, of course, transformed the planet from the start of agriculture and the beginnings of class society. But it is as a result of the rise of capitalism that the most significant changes—from rising carbon dioxide levels, population growth, and consumption—have been produced.
The real question for the International Commission on Stratigraphy is, should the geologic timescale be changed to include the Age of Capitalism?
I therefore suggested we might begin using Capitalocene as an alternative to Anthropocene.*
A concept only matters in terms of its effects. As I see it, Capitalocene has a number of advantages. First, it recognises a longstanding literature (which, unfortunately, Naomi Klein, among many others, fails to recognise and credit) on the relationship between capitalism and the remaking of the natural environment—the long tradition of attempts, sometimes referred to as green-red alliances, to develop a relevant intellectual and political program. I am thinking of the line of eco-socialists, from William Morris in the late-nineteenth century and the members of the Proletkul’t movement during the Soviet Revolution to Rudolf Bahro (the East German dissident), James O’Connor (who founded the journal Capitalism, Nature, Socialism), Joel Kovel (who co-wrote with Michael Lowy An Ecosocialist Manifesto and the next year his famous book, The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World?), Vandana Shiva (who writes about and fights for changes in the practices and paradigms of agriculture and food, in India, Bhutan, and elsewhere), and many, many others.
Second, Capitalocene points to the ways capitalism—the particular tendencies and dynamics associated with the appropriation and distribution of surplus-value, the accumulation of capital, and much else—has both made the despoiling of the natural environment (e.g. through the use of fossil fuels) central to the production and distribution of commodities and shifted its effects onto poor people and minorities, who bear higher levels of water, air, and other kinds of pollution than anyone else.
Finally, the term Capitalocene carries with it the possibility of imagining the end of capitalism, and therefore a radical change in the way human beings relate to the natural environment. To be clear, I am not suggesting that global warming and other environmental problems would be automatically eliminated with a radical transformation of the way the economy is currently organised. That’s partly because, as Kunkel explains, “the outsized role of human societies in determining the complexion of earthly existence will persist long after the capitalist mode of production—on even its partisans’ most optimistic assumptions—has expired.” It is also because there is nothing necessarily “green” about other modes of production (including, as we know, the state capitalism of the Soviet Union). Environmental concerns will require particular changes in thinking to be made central to whatever non-capitalist economies are imagined and enacted as we move forward.
I do, however, maintain that eliminating capitalism will be an important step in setting aside and overcoming many of the obstacles to creating a different, better relationship in and with the natural environment.
Therefore, I agree with Kunkel that “the question of modern humanity’s past and future ecological trajectory can’t be intelligently posed except as a question about capitalism.”
*In fact, Moore (p. 5) credits me as being the first to publicise the concept:
The first thing I wish to say is that Capitalocene is an ugly word for an ugly system. As Haraway points out, “the Capitalocene” seems to be one of those words floating in the ether, one crystallised by several scholars at once—many of them independently. I first heard the word in 2009 from Andreas Malm. The radical economist David Ruccio seems to have first publicised the concept, on his blog in 2011 (Ruccio 2011). By 2012, Haraway began to use the concept in her public lectures (Haraway 2015). That same year, Tony Weis and I were discussing the concept in relation to what would become The Ecological Hoofprint, his groundbreaking work on the meat-industrial complex (2013). My formulation of the Capitalocene took shape in the early months of 2013, as my discontent with the Anthropocene argument began to grow.
This post originally appeared on David Ruccio’s blog Occasional Links & Commentary.