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

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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”[1] 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.”

The papers collected here are mostly studies from the working group Environmental Political Theory, a small but dynamic community of ecological thinkers, moral philosophers, political theorists, environmental activists, and political scientists that has met for nearly fifteen years the day before the Western Political Science Association’s annual meetings. Drawing from writings shared at the 2012, 2013, and 2014 gatherings, these essays were revised and compiled for publication in this issue of Telos. As the papers by Arias-Maldonado, Biro, Bondi, Cox, Lepori, Luke, and Trachtenberg suggest, many cultural contradictions and political pressures play out in today’s rapidly proliferating Anthropocene discourses.

This issue is a critical reconsideration of the current mobilization of the Anthropocene idea as a decisive development for human civilization in contemporary economic, ethical, historical, and political debates. The prevailing mythologies of the moment credit Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer for coining and circulating the term in 2000 at an International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) conference in Cuernavaca, Mexico. During a presentation on the IGBP’s paleo-environmental research in which the scientists repeated the Holocene as a term to define the present, Crutzen vehemently protested from the floor, declaring that the world is now in “the Anthropocene” and not “the Holocene.”[2] Yet, one can find a casual use of this term, strangely enough, in the Proceedings of the USSR Academy of Sciences, beginning in 1960 and 1961.[3] Its use in Soviet-era biological and geological science indicates it is simply another term for the late Quaternary era, which in the West is more commonly labeled as the Holocene.

This brief introduction raises three questions about such Anthropocenic environmental assessments of human economies and societies in the twenty-first century. And, it poses these questions against the backdrop of Timothy J. Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy to reassess the coevolution of fossil-fuel burning with the construction of urban industrial modernity. Ironically, the combustion of fossilized prehistorical life makes high-energy contemporary life more possible, but it also reduces the viability of the biosphere to the extent that many existing life forms will find it increasingly difficult to survive. Most Anthropocene-bound analyses tie themselves to these basic trends in modern industrial ecologies. Even so, their accounts suffer from three flaws.

First, the attribution of this global change to “humanity” as such rather than a small, narrower subset of particular human “deciders”—rulers, owners, managers, and commanders—in modern economies and societies manifests a level of misplaced concreteness, which obfuscates the political economy of energy use as well as the realities of who gains and who loses in the age of petroleum. Second, with these obfuscations, there is such inattention to the levels of analysis where actions are being executed. Hence, for individual, middle-range, and collective levels of decision, the successful macro-level transition of a few richer human societies to fossil-fueled modernity is mystified to the degree that the Anthropocene concept implies that the downsides of these macrological actions are the moral burden of every human being, and that the responsibility for ecological damage must be shared equally. This confusion totally obscures the actual practices of greenhouse gassing in the mesological mechanics of those cities, regions, and nations that are rich and powerful enough to construct the technical assemblages that are powered by coal, gas, and oil. Maybe half of all Indians, and most of them in poor rural areas, do not even own a single pair of real shoes. Over 70 percent of Americans drive to work, and there are more petroleum-fueled motor vehicles in the United States than there are people. Few Indians will ever use much gasoline in their lifetimes, while most Americans burn many gallons every week. And, third, the Anthropocene projects an entirely teleological vision of human history that foresees an unsustainable greenhouse-gassed world to come. The presumption of this dark end to history in the not-too-distant future is used to justify radical economic, political, and social interventions now. Whether it is called adaptation or mitigation, the strategies putatively will allow “humanity” to avoid or adapt to these climate changes. Nevertheless this intervention implicitly maneuvers to justify who can and should manage these emergent changes to protect “the future” from rapid global warming.

These confusions, in turn, come to constitute a meteorological conception of history grounded upon a grand narrative about making the transition to the Anthropocene.[4] It also leads a few to assert certain more enlightened social forces are better suited for discharging the planetarian responsibilities of global eco-managerial imperatives, because this universal history of humanity demands wise leadership to thrive during the precarious life evolving with these chaotically coupled earth and social systems.[5]

To ask if the project of constructing a universal philosophical history is still worthwhile, more or less, is made moot by the proliferating chronicles of the Anthropocene. Strangely interweaving a liberal vision of history as progress with a conservative sense of history as degeneration, the Anthropocene narrative, as a frame for recent universal history, appears to be in high demand, seems quite plausible, and sounds intellectually persuasive for many audiences.[6] Still, it flattens the broad diversity of human histories by turning to basic materialistic foundations—the increasing use of fossil fuel energy over the past 250 years—to sketch its stories. The accelerating output of commercial products for economic progress, rapid urbanization, and global trade during the recent years of rapid industrialization has brought a tremendous flood of new toxic industrial by-products that despoil the Earth to the point of registering in deep geological time as the planetary catastrophe caused by rapid climate changes.

These basically climatological constructs of everyday life spin around a meteorological conception of history, which postulates an ecological collapse is near. The Earth is being made less and less habitable for humans in the future due to the radical increases in greenhouse gases released by humans burning great amounts of fossil fuels in the present and past.[7] The Anthropocene epoch, which now is marked by 400 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, with that level rising significantly each year, already parallels measures that science finds in the late Pliocene Epoch 2.8 million years ago when carbon dioxide levels were then falling.

The Anthropocenic chronicles of universal history, therefore, are an imprecise metahistory to the extent they reduce humanity to a collective subject with a drive to always indulge in greater energy use to attain material progress. That narrative, however, must be recognized as another Western, or largely Westernized, technoscientific discourse to maintain, or reassert, the West’s technological, political, economic, and cultural dominance by providing a climatological conception for its command-control-communication mastery of climate change adaptation over the near term, and in the long run to justify the basic conditions that these political interests maintain for Earth’s planetary stewardship.

In their own unique ways, the authors gathered for this issue each suggest that the Anthropocene as an idea now far exceeds its use as a contested scientific label. Although it is not yet officially ratified, it characterizes the most recent period in geological time by noting the ways in which the noxious and toxic by-products of human production are becoming embedded in the planet’s stratigraphic records. Enthusiasts are indeed now turning it into the intellectual pretext for a carbon ethics, history, politics, or technics not simply to document anthropogenic changes on the Earth, but rather to mobilize programmatic strategies for a consciously normative and rational anthropomorphosis of the planet. As Christian Schwägerl asserts:

The Anthropocene is more than the sum of the parts of environmental havoc. It can be the arena in which humanity decides to wisely integrate into the planet’s workings, enriching itself by its actions as a result. Smart cities, cultivated life forms and landscapes with a human-induced biodiversity, are examples of how we can create a positive geological record.[8]

As a framework for a new universal ethics, history, or politics, the concept of the Anthropocene plainly is being used to guide not only human but also nonhuman history on the scale of deep geological time.

By accepting the world-historical attainments of human sociotechnical innovation, in part, by celebrating the remarkable sophistication in human beings’ creatively planned products, the history of the Anthropocene stresses a strange universalizing turn. The Anthropocene concept asks for human history mainly to be measured by the unanticipated consequences of urban-industrial and agro-industrial production’s unintended and unwanted by-products. In turn, advocates for the Anthropocene can adopt new interpretative universal standards, like the levels of industrial wastes, greenhouse gases, energy inefficiencies, biodiversity losses, and degraded habitats, as the material pretext for their planned corrective interventions. Rather than building universal histories around humanity’s intentional cultural perfection, as Schwägerl illustrates, the Anthropocene generates a meganarrative of transformative planetary change driven by humanity’s unintended economic irrationalities, social imperfections, and political failures as they register in the Earth’s climate.[9]

These forces, when combined with unrelenting pressures to further urbanize, organize, and industrialize the Earth’s many environments, are putatively creating for the first time powers for humanity that equal, if not exceed, many forces of nature. Like asteroid impacts, massive volcanic events, tremendous earthquakes, erratic solar eruptions, or other major terrestrial (and extraterrestrial) disasters, the collective life of humanity at this juncture in its history is now regarded as a catastrophe unfolding on a planetary scale.[10] And, ironically, life itself, or the biota of the whole Earth, as it has had to do over and over during past millennia, must now adapt to this fresh disaster, the impact of humanity on its existence, in order simply to survive the sixth extinction of plant and animal species that massive fossil-fueled urbanization is causing.

It is a very short step from universal histories of the Anthropocene to the somewhat unabashedly reborn eco-managerialism of “neo-greens,” like that espoused by the members of the Long Now Foundation, the Copenhagen Consensus, or the Breakthrough Institute. These putatively “new environmentalists” wish to direct the new universal history of such Anthropocenarios that are currently unfolding.[11] The politics of these groups at least concedes that only some humans, and not all humanity, are behind the degradation of the planet, but they also believe that “old greens,” who allegedly fetishize wilderness over progress, or traditional “failed environmentalists,” who supposedly endorse statist command-and-control techniques to stake out, regulate, and protect nature in wilderness preserves, national parks, and natural monuments, no longer can be effective political forces.

Hence, Long Now Foundation members or Breakthrough Institute consultants embrace the Anthropocene in their efforts to keep already “instituted breakthroughs” behind “the long now” in the hands of a green clerisy proud of championing elitist solar-powered plug-in Prius hybrids, lean locally sourced community-supported agriculturalists, or up-market clean capitalist environpreneurs eager to retrofit current housing stocks, public utilities, and transportation networks to meet the tight LEED standards of “sustainability” required for keeping a good “long now” going and going.[12] If the Earth now has entered the days of the Anthropocene, then these social forces want to claim control over the how, where, why, and when of its soil, water, air, ice, life, and weather in order to guarantee that they are modified by humanity in the most resilient and sustainable manner possible.[13]

Mitchell’s analysis of “carbon democracy” can be pushed beyond nuanced ethnography of the ties between the coevolution of modern democratic governance and the increasing exploitation of fossil fuels: it works as a universal history of the Anthropocene.[14] Modern urban industrial society itself, as other scholars have argued, rests upon modes of economy, new cultural values, and “a form of politics whose mechanisms on multiple levels involve the processes of producing and using carbon energy.”[15] Whether consumers or producers, the leading industrialized, affluent, innovative, and urban countries today are “oil states” that are all “living oil.”[16] As Mitchell observes: “Without the energy they derive from oil, their current forms of political and economic life would not exist. Their citizens have developed ways of eating, traveling, housing themselves and consuming other goods and services that require very large amounts of energy from oil and other fossil fuels.”[17] Ecologically, the Anthropocene is an Age of Petrovores.

Two interlocked challenges arise out of these historic changes. First, are the supplies of oil, gas, and coal sustainable? This question has fascinated ecologists, economists, and ethicists for decades. Predictions of “peak oil” already being attained have been made and revised many times over the past 150 years. The current consensus suggests that most easily accessible oil could be exhausted in a few decades, gas in a few more decades beyond oil, but coal could maybe last for centuries. Nevertheless, the hydrocarbon burn rate is accelerating, since over half of all oil ever brought to the market has been consumed from 1980 through 2010.[18] The second larger challenge also is not a surprise, since early measurements of rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were first detected, and then tracked, during the initial years of the “space race” between the United States and the Soviet Union. These carbon dioxide concentrations have risen 40 percent since the 1760s, and half of that increase has accumulated since about 1980. As the President’s Science Advisory Committee observed fifty years ago, these changes will most like prove “deleterious from the point of view of human beings.”[19]

Becoming deleterious for human beings, on the one hand, might be irrelevant to the new biology of machine or megatechnic assemblages.[20] This vibrant matter allegedly assembles in those thickening clouds of carbonized waste that new materialists celebrate.[21] On the other hand, life itself could be in peril.[22] As Murphy confirms, “concepts like post-carbon society, decarbonization, low-carbon transition, ecological direction of travel, and ecological modernization are premature and should be understood as denoting aspirations rather than facts.”[23] The Anthropocene, if this term is adopted to label today’s pivot point in history, not only raises questions about rampant hydrocarbon energy exhaustion. It also leads one to ask what comes next as an energy source. Yet, there are no definitive answers, since the contestation of such “hard energy” paths has been in play for at least fifty years. Additionally, direct opposition to fossil fuels has been mounting openly in civil society and the state within wealthy countries since the end of the Cold War.

To be frank, the universal history of new materialist posthumanism in the Anthropocene is a grand theory of such empirical abstraction that it makes Talcott Parsons’s structural-functional sociologies of the late Holocene look like the epitome of epistemic elegance. In this setting, then, the contributors to this issue seek to bring a different critical politics based upon conceptual clarity, ethical engagement, and institutional insight into the policy implications of surrendering to the Anthropocene in contemporary intellectual debates.

Andrew Biro mobilizes the insights of Western Marxism and the Frankfurt School to speculate about what “the good life” in the gas greenhouse of the Anthropocene will entail. Is there still time to make the innovations, launch the institutional changes, and reframe social practices enough for human autonomy, substantive democracy, and effective citizenship to continue in the Anthropocene? The ethical nuances of these troubling questions are, in turn, precisely the point of Zev Trachtenberg‘s close reconsideration of the “nature” of nature in the Anthropocene. Ethical thinking about human activity in the environment must change, but the manner in which human activity and nature are still understood make it challenging to propound a new ethics for the Anthropocene. Christopher Cox, on the other hand, takes a path from radical political economy to contest the facile presuppositions and faulty dichotomies embedded in the Anthropocene as an intellectual framework. Questioning the human/nature divide, and then their false fusion in Anthropocene discourses, he turns to Jason W. Moore’s critiques of ecology, capitalism, and nature in modernity. At the end of the day, he stands with Moore, asserting that the Anthropocene is a mystifying misnomer for an era, social formation, or historical turn that might be better tagged as the “Capitalocene.”

Manuel Arias-Maldonado explores the idea of the Anthropocene as a crucial concept for rethinking the place of humans in the world, while at the same time discussing the entanglements of human beings with nature as well as nature with humanity. His careful mapping of these relations is an important contribution to how political theory must now proceed if the Anthropocene idea is widely adopted. Matthew Lepori takes a different path to contesting the Anthropocene by worrying about how dangerous it is to use species-talk to focus on the relations of humanity and nature. It eclipses the history of power relations within the human species, occludes the specific political economies that degrade the entire planet, and mystifies how those who have, and have had, the power to pollute aim to keep it during and after international climate deliberations by placing the blame for rapid climate change on the “Anthropos” rather than on those minorities in a few places with the most to win.

While Damiano Bondi argues the Gaia cult of the Earth could still block the planetarian projects of global governance through Earth System Science’s various schemes for geoengineering, Schwägerl’s enthusiasms suggest that the times for revering Gaia are long gone. Even so, Bondi challenges the embedded teleological reasoning at the core of James Lovelock’s models of Gaia along with the cult of nature that the Anthropocene concept simultaneously rebukes and embraces.

Timothy Luke recounts the politics of the Anthropocene as a scientific-technical concept, the premise for rethinking human/nature relations, and an alibi for a grander articulation of green governmentality on a global to local scale. In many ways, the Holocene already was the early Anthropocene, and the political economy of human urbanization, industrialization, and globalization appears to capture more concretely in particular times and specific places what the Anthropocene reduces to the work of human species-being.

The voices raised in favor of the Anthropocene project in most contemporary discourses speak at very high levels of misplaced concreteness. This tendency is not unknown in universal history. To this extent, Anthropocene advocates are sustaining a grand tradition of intellectual mystification in their arguments. The “Man,” or human being, who constitutes the “Anthropos” is never made definitive, and so too is how “recent” the time of this epochal “cene” actually is. Assuming what has yet to be ratified in stratigraphic taxonomies as already granted in fact is a considerable drawback in these arguments, even though neo-greens and new environmentalists already made that rhetorical jump many years ago. Giving this much concreteness to humanity without much nuanced qualification leads down a trail of fallacious misinterpretation.

The reanimation of notions like “species being” in dark universal histories of humanity made possible by the Anthropocene concept moves Dipesh Chakrabarty to raise “a question of a human collectivity, an us, pointing to the figure of the universal that escapes our capacity of experience the world.”[24] Similarly, Slavoj Žižek asserts, “with the idea of humans as species, the universality of humankind falls back into the particularity of an animal species: phenomena like global warming make us aware that with all the universality of our theoretical and practical activity, we are at a certain basic level just another living species on the planet Earth.”[25] On one level, these eco-managerial observations are truisms; but, on another level, they occlude exactly who is this “we” as well as who can be counted among this “us” that escapes suffering rapid climate change across the world.[26]

Homo sapiens are indeed just another living species establishing their niche in the world ecosystem, but the universal histories being written about greenhouse gassing as the greatest expression of humanity’s species-being ignores the less than universal, and quite particular, beings who have the power, position, and privilege to burn fossil fuels. Such mystifications fit well within the planetarian ethics of Earth System Science, because they mystify the might of a few powerful and rich “deciders” whose being all others must endure.[27]

All too often, the operational assumptions of Earth System Science as well as the practical engagements of corporate and government decision-making agencies, as they approach economic and environmental policies, are another misplaced iteration of positivist science being mobilized in the wrong sites and situations with ill effects. Here Rafael Winkler points out the methodological flaws in positivist analysis, and shows why experts who look uncritically at the past during the present in their efforts to govern the behavior of people in the near future quickly can go astray. Winkler strongly contests the claims made by positivist analysis, and argues that the past has few lessons for the future due to the ever-shifting complexities of the present. Trying to hide these realities by masking them with methodological assumptions about social data, behavioral causality, and historical generalizability, according to Winkler, will only make matters worse. Mario Bosincu‘s review of Ernst Jünger’s The Forest Passage strikes a similar chord, highlighting Jünger’s opposition to totalitarian social engineering through science and technology as well as his commitment to an ascetic turn to an ethics of care for individuality amidst the tumultuous transformations of continuous economic and technical change.

As the following papers indicate, systems of immense unequal exchange shape collective choices organized by a few individual players whose individual payoffs always outweigh those enjoyed by much of humanity. Their actions are not identical to a conscious campaign to direct the species being of humanity. Still, blaming human species-being, or “human-driven processes,” in foreboding universal tallies of excessive greenhouse gassing also marvelously mystifies the moves of a few people, or the few “process-driving humans” who accrue great power and/or material gain by blaming all human beings as the “we” responsible for rapid climate change in the Anthropocene. These are tough political challenges, and the following essays all work hard to provide some hard-hitting critical responses to them.


1. See Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992), p. 227. Here Fukuyama notes this goal has, does, and always will drive modern capitalist economies.

2. Christian Schwägerl, The Anthropocene: The Human Era and How It Shapes Our Planet (Santa Fe, NM: Synergetic Press, 2014), p. 9. Interestingly, one must ask why the same set of developments received comparatively less interest as “the events of the late Holocene.” Once “Man,” however, is fingered as the key difference, the Anthropocene’s terminological turn refocuses the discursive tenor of many academic and scientific debates. The intellectual propensity to celebrate human progress, while simultaneously finding reasons to condemn those celebrated advances, is captured perfectly in the Anthropocene meme.

3. Here, one can return to the Doklady Akademiia Nauk SSSR, vols. 132–35 (1960) or vols. 133–35 (1961). The Anthropocene also appears earlier in the West in a 1978 study by Leslie G. Freeman, Views of the Past Essays in Old World Prehistory and Paleo Anthropology (The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1978), but it takes off in common use only after Paul Crutzen’s terminological tantrum at the IGBP conference in Cuernavaca during 2000.

4. Timothy W. Luke, “Developing Planetarian Accountancy: Fabricating Nature as Stock, Service, and System for Green Governmentality,” Current Perspectives in Social Theory 26 (2009): 129–59.

5. See, for example, Al Gore, Jr., The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change (New York: Random House, 2013).

6. At least three major new academic journals have been launched to document these discourses, including Anthropocene Review, Anthropocene, and Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene made the cover of the Economist in 2011, and it regularly appears now in many elite and mass market publications, from minnesota review to National Geographic. Moreover, dozens of academic conferences and lectures have adopted the Anthropocene as the meme of the moment to frame a wide range of challenges facing many cultures, economies, governments, and societies in the twenty-first century.

7. Timothy W. Luke, “Climatology as Social Critique: The Social Construction/Creation of Global Cooling,” in Steve Vanderheiden, ed., Political Theory and Climate Change (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), pp. 121–32.

8. Schwägerl, The Anthropocene, p. xiii.

9. See Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2 (2009): 197–222; and J. R. McNeill, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001).

10. Jan Zalasiewicz, Mark Williams, Will Steffen, and Paul Crutzen, “The New World of the Anthropocene,” Environmental Science and Technology 44 (2010): 2228–31.

11. See, for example, the websites for: the Long Now Foundation,; the Copenhagen Consensus Center,; and the Breakthrough Institute, http://the

12. See, for example, Raymond Murphy, “The Emerging Hypercarbon Reality, Technological and Post-Carbon Utopias, and Social Innovation to Low-Carbon Societies,” Current Sociology 63, no. 3 (2015): 317–38.

13. Timothy W. Luke, “The System of Sustainable Degradation,” Capitalism Nature Socialism 17, no. 1 (2006): 99–112.

14. Timothy J. Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (London: Verso, 2013), p. 9.

15. Ibid., p. 6. Also see Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2010); and Paul Virilio, The Art of the Motor, trans. Julie Rose (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1995).

16. Stephanie LeMenager, Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century (New York: Oxford UP, 2014).

17. Mitchell, Carbon Democracy, p. 6.

18. Ibid.

19. R. Revelle, W. Broecker, H. Craig, C. D. Leeling, and J. Smagorinsky, “Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide,” in Restoring the Quality of Our Environment: Report of the Environmental Pollution Panel (Washington, DC: The President’s Science Advisory Committee, 1965), A28.

20. See Kevin Kelly, Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World (New York: Perseus Books, 1995); and Manuel DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society: Assembly Theory and Social Complexity (New York: Continuum, 2006).

21. For more discussion, see Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2009); and Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2013).

22. Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times (London: Verso, 2010); and George Wuerthner, Eileen Crist, and Tom Butler, eds., Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of the Earth (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2014).

23. Murphy, “The Emerging Hypercarbon Reality,” p. 338.

24. Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History,” p. 22.

25. Žižek, Living in the End Times, p. 332.

26. Timothy W. Luke, “Training Eco-Managerialists: Academic Environmental Studies as a Power/Knowledge Formation,” in Frank Fischer and Maarten Hajer, eds., Living with Nature: Environmental Discourse as Cultural Politics (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999), pp. 103–20.

27. See Joel Kotkin, The New Class Conflict (Candor, NY: Telos Press Publishing, 2014).

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