There Is No Anthropocene: Climate Change, Species-Talk, and Political Economy

Anthropocene scholars push a new universal history and subject: we (the “anthropos”) are digging our grave as a species. Though this rhetoric is effective for drawing attention to the ecological crisis, the Anthropocene concept is dangerous for social theory. By generalizing responsibility and guilt for our contemporary ecological crisis to the point that it encompasses the human species, the concept and discourse elide the particular people and structures responsible for creating it. Rather than clarify the origins of the contemporary crisis—the history of capitalism, colonialism, and simplistic ideas about nature—it occludes them through forays into “deep history” and tales of technology disembedded from their social context. Lacking this history, the Anthropocene operates as an empty cosmopolitanism. Rather than provide a ground for a new political ecology, the Anthropocene removes it. Worse, the concept may prove useful for global actors who wish to hide their climate debts, using the rhetoric of collective responsibility that the Anthropocene makes possible.

Continue reading →

Gaia and the Anthropocene; or, The Return of Teleology

The Gaia hypothesis was formulated for the first time in 1979 by James Lovelock. According to this conception, the Earth should be seen as a macro-organism whose purpose is to keep constant some conditions that are necessary for the presence of life on its surface. However—often with the consent of Lovelock himself—this scientific hypothesis has gone beyond its limits, transforming itself in a sort of anti-humanistic pseudo-religion: the Earth becomes a kind of divinity (Gaia) with a purposive will. This process of “personification” is quite paradoxical: Nature acquires features that are denied, at the same time, to the single man. In fact the human being, in this conceptual framework, is only a part of the Great Whole, the Mother Nature; he cannot be “her” guardian at all, he has to abandon any pretense of ontological superiority and to “believe” in the infinite potential of Gaia, who always finds a way to restore the threatened balance. On the ontological level, there is no difference between the single man and the natural ambient that surrounds him; so, on the moral level, this metaphysical conception ends to justify the indifference of the person to the impact of his own actions on the ecosystem. Not surprisingly, Lovelock has recently been deployed in favor of nuclear power.

Continue reading →

Faulty Presuppositions and False Dichotomies: The Problematic Nature of “the Anthropocene”

Critiques of the Anthropocene abound, but few adequately challenge the argument’s historical weaknesses. This essay is meant to engage them. The Anthropocene argument relies deeply upon the false dichotomy that human reality is not geological reality; that individual and collective human behaviors are of more importance than the systems in which those behaviors are manifested. The violent ontological notion that humans are extra-natural and nature is extra-human, the human/nature divide, set the stage long ago for the systemic exploitation and appropriation of nature. Unlimited accumulation of capital is a holographic-like reality, only plausible if humans are seen as the beneficiaries of nature’s “bounty,” and extra-human nature as the beneficiary of humanity’s waste. My argument unfolds in three pieces: First, these problematic ontologies are laid out and retreated with historical relationality. Second, I utilize some key theses from the work of Jason W. Moore to take seriously the notion that “nature” is not in fact ontologically divided from the human, but is always already co-constitutive of both the human and the extra-human. This framing allows us to see that carbon intensive social engines are only possible under specific organizational regimes of power. Capital, not the Anthropos, is at the heart of what the Anthropocene is most concerned about, carbon, and therefore the Anthropocene is a misnomer. It is in this sense that I argue, in solidarity with Moore and others, that this new epoch we have entered is more aptly called the Capitalocene.

Continue reading →

Telos 172 (Fall 2015): Political Critiques of the Anthropocene

Telos 172 (Fall 2015) is now available for purchase in our store.

Rapid climate change today is attributed to the profligate use of fossil fuels, and this consumption of hydrocarbon energy has worldwide, albeit uneven and discontinuous, cultural and economic patterns to it. Nonetheless, it is more than plausible to spin up the frameworks for a universal history of humanity based upon modern society’s increasing combustion of the planet’s biotic prehistory as fossil fuel energy. As the carbon of antediluvian plant matter is burned to light homes, run factories, and propel vehicles, the history of the present becomes materially universalized as the exhausted energy of the distant past released along with its soot, smog, and smoke.

Thus, noxious by-products of production and consumption ironically become the crown of commodified creation at the end of history, whose ultimate historical ends, as Fukuyama reaffirms, are tied to the “endless accumulation” of wealth. Little did he know, this outcome also would entail nonstop increases in greenhouse gases and rapid climate change; but, environmentalists, historians, sociologists, and technologists are more than willing now to seize upon this curious outcome for the crisis narratives of a universal history framed by the concept of “the Anthropocene.”

Continue reading →