The problem with ‘capitalocene’

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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.



More from my notebook …

4 Responses

  1. Jeff White September 19, 2014 at 9:21 pm |

    When I made the off-hand comment on Facebook that Anthropocene would be better called Capitalocene, I flattered myself by thinking I was the first to come up with that thought. Thank you, Ian, for pointing out that there are others who agree with me, and who beat me to saying so.

    I will just respond briefly in point form:

    • Anthropocene is, as you say, a “proposed” term. It is not carved in stone. It is not universally accepted. It was not proposed by geologists, and has really nothing to do with geology. Scientists are divided on whether it should have begun 200 years ago, 15,000 years ago, or some time in between. So much for its character as a scientifically objective term, and so much for its application to “specific phenomena”. See Wikipedia. Frankly, it’s more a rhetorical device for pinning the blame for environmental destruction on humans in general. And when it eventually becomes accepted (as I assume it will) by geologists and given a firm start date, it will represent nothing more than an acknowledgement that current changes to the biosphere are caused by humans. Neo-Malthusians everywhere will applaud.

    • Whether the appearance of market-oriented agriculture in Holland in the 1400s made global warming or the Industrial Revolution “inevitable” is beside the point, although I would argue that, given the existence of capitalism as the dominant economic and social relation at the time when both the availability of fossil oil and the technology to employ its energy first arose, the Industrial Revolution was in fact inevitable, and so long as capitalism was permitted to exist, global warming was inevitable as well. The “scientific” controversy over the start date for “Anthropocene” is really not a dispute over science, but over the history of political economy — even if the scientists themselves don’t realize it. In fact, in my book, Marxists have more to say about it than geologists do.

    • The same arguments that you use against “anthropogenic” apply to “Anthropocene”.

    • Although Anthropocene is by no means as well entrenched as anthropogenic, I agree it would be foolish to campaign for the abolition of either term. Both terms, however, obscure as much as they illuminate. In particular, both obscure “the rich totality of many determinations and relations” (Marx) that they comprise.

    • I don’t want to “rename” the Anthropocene. I would prefer that the current official name for our geological epoch remain as it is: Holocene, starting at the end of the last Ice Age, some 12,000 years ago.

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