A proposal to rename the anthropocene is well-meaning, but misguided
In a recent column, I argued that “while it’s not wrong to describe climate change as anthropogenic, it is abstract and incomplete,” because the term glosses over differences between different human societies and between classes within societies.
Several readers, in comments here and in the Climate & Capitalism Facebook group referred me to a paper by Jason Moore, who argues that instead of Anthropocene, the current epoch should be called Capitalocene.
Moore says that the very idea of the Anthropocene has a “fundamentally bourgeois character,” that is shown by “its erasure of capitalism’s historical specificity and the attendant implication that capitalism’s socio-ecological contradictions are the responsibility of all humans.” He argues that the current epoch should be labeled “Capitalocene” and its start should be dated from the birth of capitalism in England and the Netherlands in 1450.
Attractive as his arguments may be, especially for those who like their Marxism with high polemic content, ultimately they are misguided, for at least three reasons.
First, unlike anthropogenic, which is an adjective applied to various specific phenomena, Anthropocene is a proposed name for a new geological epoch that must meet geological criteria to be approved. The fact that it doesn’t meet economic or sociological criteria is irrelevant to the discussion of what name to adopt, however important that may be to non-geologists. Dialectics does not mean erasing the distinctions between different aspects of material reality, or ignoring the different scientific methods that are appropriate in each case.
Second, although the Anthropocene would not have arrived if capitalism had not achieved global hegemony, it is not the same as capitalism. Capitalism began long before the rise of fossil-fuel based industry, the development that first made a measurable human impact on the geological record. As Dipesh Chakrabarty writes,
“While there is no denying that climate change has profoundly to do with the history of capital, a critique that is only a critique of capital is not sufficient for addressing questions relating to human history once the crisis of climate change has been acknowledged and the Anthropocene has begun to loom on the horizon of our present.”
The appearance of market-oriented agriculture in Holland in the 1400s did not make 21st century global warming or even industrialism inevitable. Capitalism is inherently anti-ecological, but the history that led to this specific form of metabolic rift included many contingencies and historical accidents. Subsuming the complexities of climate and environmental change under an undifferentiated “capitalist epoch” detracts from a scientific understanding of historically specific trends and events.
Third – and possibly most important in practical terms – the left today faces the urgent necessity of building the broadest possible movement to stop the drive towards ecological disaster, a movement which must include the active participation of the scientists who are publicizing the nature and extent of the crisis. As Chakrabarty writes, they are not our opponents: “they are not necessarily anticapitalist scholars, and yet they clearly are not for business-as-usual capitalism either,” so there are opportunities to work with them. Calling their views “bourgeois” and aggressively challenging them on secondary questions like dates and labels can only isolate the ecological left from these potential allies.
In short, while Anthropocene isn’t a perfect name, Capitalocene has problems of its own. As I said in my comments on anthropogenic, campaigning against such a well-entrenched word would be foolish. Let’s focus on content, not vocabulary.