The geology of mankind? A critique of the Anthropocene narrative

For our third RAD.GE meeting, we selected Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg’s paper titled “The geology of mankind? A critique of the Anthropocene narrative”, which was published in The Anthropocene Review in 2014. This paper critiques the conceptualisation of “Anthropocene”, arguing that it tends to obfuscate the contribution of the ruling capitalist class and technologies mobilised by them to the current crisis of climate change. The authors also imply that “Anthropocene” allocates responsibility for climate change to all of humankind and in that process masks historical and current concerns on intra-species inequality, where the majority of the global population had (and has) very little to contribute to it. They not only face severe consequences of a changing climate but are also held equally responsible for it.

Why did we pick this reading?

Ever since Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen proposed the term “Anthropocene” in the journal ‘Nature’ in 2002, it has gained currency in both natural and social sciences and is considered to be a bridge between the two in framing research on, and response to, climate change. However, this paper was unique as it discusses the politics that constitutes the term and what it connotes and warns about its unquestioning purchase. We felt that as critical social scientists, it was important to understand this critique and engage with it.

Key points discussed

–  Firstly, as some of the members discussed, there is a problem with this kind of a historical materialist approach, as it links climate change with a specific historical event(s), which in this case is the industrial revolution, and specifically, the politics that contributed to the rise of steam. A member of the group mentioned that this is an exercise fraught with risk, as for him personally, it was the discovery of metallurgy itself that triggered the onset of a human-induced ecological crisis. Therefore, evidence can be mobilised for different events and discoveries (e.g. Columbus and America), and in this process, we may end up with a different trajectory to the climate change debate, which may not be useful for addressing it.

– Secondly, the authors tend to focus their entire historical discussion on the 19th century Industrial Revolution in England. However, they do not reflect on parallel developments taking place in Europe, and the role of European colonisation and consumption which also played a significant role in shaping the carbon economy and fossil fuel technologies.

– Thirdly, in their critique of the Anthropocene, the authors show how climate change is denaturalised in one moment, where it is displaced as a natural cause to a socially produced one, only to be naturalised again as an “innate human trait” (pp. 65). However, members discussed the conceptualisation of ‘naturalisation’ as problematic, as climate change is happening within nature, and not outside it.

– Fourthly, is it possible to change things without setting up a villain? Do we always need to identify and ‘enemy’ to solve an intractable problem? The authors have clearly marked out the profiteering agendas of the capitalist class as the central villain in the unfolding crisis. But does that identification help in solving the problem?

– Finally, given the position of the authors on the narrative of Anthropocene allowing for the extension of the natural sciences into the domain of society and human behaviour, does worrying about a ‘one-sided bridge’ being extended foreclose the possibility of engagement between natural and social sciences?

In response to this, it was discussed that:

– The use of the steam engine and Industrial Revolution serves to illustrate how a small percentage of elites reconfigured resource exploitation. This then helps to unpack the universalist construction of the Anthropocene, which (a) holds all of humanity responsible for the Anthropocene and (b) holds the very act of human ability to create fire to be the starting point of the Anthropocene. The authors actually problematize the practice within scholarship on Anthropocene on pushing back historical timelines to locate events that naturalise the innate human nature to burn fossil fuels. They argue that such obfuscates the key events and innovations shaped by the profiteering nature of capital which continues even today.

– The focus on 19th Century Industrial Revolution in England is perhaps warranted. The massive scale of the endeavour completely altered nature-society relationships and set the speed and scale for fossil fuel economies of the future. In fact, the authors argue that the Industrial Revolution was a template for energy and technology choices for the future, as was evident in “electricity, the internal combustion engine, the petroleum complex” (pp. 64).

– The authors’ seem to stress the need to focus on divisions so that the politics that get obfuscated in dissolving dualisms get highlighted. Just like the Anthropocene puts anthropos as one category on which all climate change responsibility is vested, ignoring intra -species equity issues, where a vast majority of the species contribute very little to the problem. The important question here is, what kind of new corrective practices have emerged by dissolving the society-nature boundary? Has it helped us to frame a better response to climate change?

– The idea in the paper is not to identify the villain, but identify how established power structures continue to appropriate resources, intensify a crisis, and yet continue to avoid scrutiny. What emerges clearly in the paper is the unevenness in the (i) contribution of the vast majority of the global poor as against the wealthy and the rich to climate change and (ii) the disproportionate impact of climate change on the global poor vis a vis the global rich. Unless this unevenness and intra-species inequity are recognised, we will continue to hold the poor accountable along with the rich, which is a matter of serious concern for climate justice and equity.

– The intention of the authors is not to burn bridges, but understand if Anthropocene is a one way traffic for a natural sciences entry into the social domain. This paper is not a call for a disciplinary turf war. It seeks to be wary about the agenda and impact of such adventures. As it was discussed, the obsession with aligning economic theory with Newtonian laws of motion in physics, led to the conceptualisation of a number of theories in orthodox economics such as market equilibrium and the Kuznets curve, which has now been found to be flawed. Given such history, natural sciences, as the authors argue, should be wary of such kind of “self-defeating foray” (pp. 66).


Reference

Malm, A. &  A. Hornborg. 2014. The geology of mankind? A critique of the Anthropocene narrative. The Anthropocene Review. 1(1) : 62–69.

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