Writing in Jacobin earlier this year, Andreas Malm launched a broadside attack on “the Anthropocene narrative” about climate change. In this polemical essay, Malm makes some essential points about the distortions, evasions, and hidden complacency in the most “serious” and urgent-sounding climate talk. What he is describing, though, is only one strand of Anthropocene thinking, the neo-liberal one. There’s also a left Anthropocene that is essential to engaging planetary crisis in a way that doesn’t give up on egalitarian and emancipatory aims.
“Anthropocene,” a portmanteau word meaning roughly “the age of humanity,” refers to the fact that human impacts on the earth now amount to a geological force. Exhibit One is that the global atmosphere, and so all the weather and the regional climates, are now parts of a Frankenstein hybrid. Mass extinction, toxicity, synthetic hormones in marine environments, and the agricultural-urban-suburban surface of a densely inhabited planet are all supporting details.
Malm slams the Anthropocene for what he calls “species-level thinking.” He means two things by this, and he’s right about both. For one, simply talking about “humanity” as the agent of global change conceals difference and conflict among people. It wasn’t humanity that put most of the greenhouse gases into the atmosphere over the last couple-few centuries, but the industrial economies of the rich countries. There are still vast differences between the richest and poorest populations in carbon impacts. And the effects of climate change and other environmental disruptions will intensify inequality: they promise, at least for the first couple of centuries, intensifying inconvenience for the rich, accelerating catastrophe for the poor.
Second, some scientists have treated the Anthropocene as part of natural history in very dubious sense: by tracing it to allegedly permanent human qualities. These, conveniently, are often the same qualities that are often used to prove that there is no alternative to a certain style of market capitalism, including infinite acquisitiveness. Malm objects to these in particular, and he also to the idea that any invariant human nature can account for, hence naturalize, the economic order that is driving the present crisis.
Universalizing the Anthropocene as simply a “human problem” encourages two kinds of pernicious response. One, which Malm emphasizes, is moralizing about how “we” caused this crisis and now “we” have to overcome it. Since there isn’t a “we” that caused it, this simply adds symbolic insult to structural injury for the world’s poor and exploited. Moreover, being willfully blind to actual avenues of cause and potential response, this universalizing approach fosters a spuriously individualistic kind of lesson: “we” must improve our consumer behavior. Besides ignoring inequality, this kind of non-program vastly exaggerates the autonomy of individuals living within systems of energy production, transport, shelter, food provision, and relations of production that all presuppose cheap, profitable fossil energy and an extractive relation to the planet (and, often enough, to other people). Only a democratic engagement with these systems themselves can provide the pivot to shift to an economy that does less damage – off all kinds. And that implies conflict, since some people are doing very well in the present economy. But there is no room for conflict in a moralized “we.”
There’s also another neoliberal response to the Anthropocene, which Malm doesn’t really address, but which is just as inadequate as the first and probably more influential. This is the managerial attitude that proposes that a certain kind of market-minded technocracy needs to take over the problem. On the one hand, this means geo-engineering measures such as changing the atmospheric mix or limiting the amount of sunlight that reaches the earth (and so reducing warming from the greenhouse effect). On the other hand, it means the “green bottom line” approach of economists, corporate sustainability officials, and business-oriented conservationists such as the Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist, Peter Kareiva. They propose to build a higher valuation of “natural capital,” or “ecosystem services” into corporate accounting so that profits, at least, will be sustainable in a thoroughly monetized and privatized world. This, approach too, embeds the current economic order more deeply than ever and hurries political alternatives off the table. Its practical effect is a market-based confirmation of inequality – for instance, in the contracts committing decades of agricultural production in parts of Africa to Chinese consumers (at least as long as the Chinese can pay). This response uses the Anthropocene story to say, in effect, If we are remaking the world in our image anyway, then we might as well be intentional about it.
Malm does not distinguish between these neoliberal uses of the Anthropocene and its democratic potential. He writes as if there were only one Anthropocene. But that is not so. Calling this age the Anthropocene means recognizing that the shape of what used to be called the natural world is, increasingly, a product of political economy. This fact expands and gives an ecological dimension to the process that Marx described in the Communist Manifesto: global capital involves all of humanity for the first time in a single system, with rules and relations that span the planet. The point of the famous exhortation – “Workers of the world, unite” – was to turn a new material reality into a basis of self-conscious political activity. It was present people’s new reality to their minds so they could reclaim it as theirs by remaking it. This remaking was, of course, ultimately concrete material work, but a critical step was an insight into how the world had changed, in the ways that it bound people and in the ways it bound them together. To borrow a somewhat clunky distinction, Marx presented workers with the reality that the world economy had made them into a class in themselves – they objectively had the same relation to capital, wherever they were – so that they might become a class for themselves, aware of their situation and able to act without illusion.
The Anthropocene idea does the same kind of work. It points to a condition that binds every region and people of the world – not so much in a common humanity as in relations of unequal contribution to the planet’s changes and unequal vulnerability to those changes. In this respect, invoking the Anthropocene issues a challenge to construct a political humanity that is commensurate to the scale of our unequal and often terrible material commonality. This is “species thinking” – hence that anthropo- - in the sense of what it points toward trying to build, not for sentimental reasons or because “humanity” sounds heroic, but because the global material scale of unequal interdependence requires a global political scale for any reconstruction of interdependence along egalitarian lines. This ambition marks the difference between a neoliberal Anthropocene, which naturalizes and reinscribes inequality in a global material order, and a democratic Anthropocene, which aims at making the future of a shared condition into a question for common decision among equals. Nothing in the idea of Anthropocene requires the neoliberal version, or fosters sentimental blindness to the real conflicts present in a transition to a democratic approach to global ecology as a problem of political economy, emphasis on political.
This is all frustratingly imprecise, but so is the “environmentally responsible socialism” that Malm cites as his alternative to today’s capitalism. That is the condition of alternatives now. And making the political economy of the Anthropocene a democratic question – is certainly a precondition of Malm’s alternative. For now, a democratic Anthropocene is mostly likely to begin, like the labor movements Marx was addressing, in local, national, and regional politics, the self-organizing of hopeful – and just desperate – protest and alternative that Naomi Klein calls Blockadia. Even with a blend of local motives and internationalist vision, such movements are still likely to have their most important forum in national governments, because these, for all their failings, are still the best institutional approximations of anchoring real political power to some kind of popular will.
One of the most important political projects is to press against austerity, neoliberal changes to labor law and social provision, and economic inequality and insecurity. The effectively limitless appetite for material things that has become a strut of political stability from the US to China is one of the major barriers to the plausibility of a democratic transition to a fairer and greener world. But this appetite is a political artifact of economies that produce insecurity at every point in the human life-cycle, and so force human appetites into ever-more intrusive (and profitable) incursions on all the other life-cycles that are entangled with ours.
It’s true: talk of the “global” and the “human” can be soporific and hazardous all at once, and that the impulses to conceal inequality while naturalizing market capitalism are so pervasive that those who do it are often quite unaware. Malm’s frustration with all of this is well taken. But a democratic politics, aimed at a democratic political economy, now has to include humanity and the globe among its problems. This isn’t about a choice among narratives, but about how to begin making history in circumstances that we didn’t choose.