The Anthropocene or Capitalocene?

Submitted by Matthew on 26 October, 2016 - 11:57 Author: Neil Laker

In 2008, the International Commission on Stratigraphy created a Working Group on the Anthropocene (WGA) to examine the addition of a new epoch to the geological time scale. In August 2016, all but one of the WGA’s 35 members agreed that the Anthropocene is “stratigraphically real”, and 30 agreed that the new epoch should be formally added to the time scale.

Majority opinion also indicated in favour of the view that globally synchronous changes to the Earth System most clearly intensified in the “Great Acceleration” of the mid-20th century.1

While recognition of recent transformations to the global environment is welcome, this article takes a critical look at the Anthropocene concept, in particular on its ambiguity in relation to capitalism. I argue that this is not merely a debate over a word, but about how we think about ecological crisis, including how it is implicated with the crisis of capitalism and the drive for greater exploitation of labour.

The term Anthropocene suggests a geological departure from the Holocene due to anthropogenic (i.e. human) activity. Linguistically the latter period translates to something like wholly recent, referring to fossil sediment; whereas the former may be translated as a geological era characterised by the remains of recent human origin.

Theorisation of a new epoch, suggests Crutzen, was compelled by the recognition that “human activities had grown so much that they could compete and interfere with natural processes”.2

Resultantly, the Earth “is rapidly moving into a less biologically diverse, less forested, much warmer, and probably wetter and stormier state”.3

Other transformations which give grounds to think that Holocene conditions now no longer exist include the increases in atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane; the resultant reversal of hitherto slowly declining global average temperatures after 1800; the rise of sea levels between 1905 and 1945; radiation from Plutonium 239; and the onset of the Earth’s sixth mass species extinction.4

Such unprecedented rapid change is in stark contrast to the minimal range of variation in conditions over the last 500,000 years.5 Indeed it is feared that “mankind will remain a major geological force for many millennia, maybe millions of years, to come”.6

From the standpoint of environmental science, everything mentioned above is sound. However there is a series of problems with the way that the Anthropocene thesis is framed, its implications, and the role it performs. (This is not to say that there are no critical scholars behind the theory; Marxist ecologists such as Ian Angus and John Bellamy Foster have written extensively in its defence).7

One recurring problem is expressed in the notion that “the earth has left its natural geological epoch” or that “natural processes” have been interrupted by human activity.8

In other words, even though humans are recognised as a geophysical force, distinctions between “human constructions” and “natural constructions” persist.9

Humans are constituted as external to, and separate from nature — an opposition which lends itself to an intellectual bias in favour of “nature”, against “society”, without any acknowledgement of their interdependence, and that humans are a mere part of nature, as Marx noted in 1844.

This problem may also be seen in the manner in which problems are framed by the science: “Are humans overwhelming the great forces of nature?” ask Steffen et al. (2007). Jason Moore has observed that this method lends itself to a writing of history based on arithmetic — “human activity plus significant biospheric change equals the Anthropocene”.10

But a purely empirical approach is insufficient — it encourages an approach to reality as “bundles of quantitative aggregates”, without interrogation of the historical relations from where the sums derive their power and meaning.

For a Marxist understanding of global ecology, relations of class, gender and race under capitalism must be central, alongside and informed by the work of natural science. Yet the reality of Anthropocene thought is not concerned with such questions: much of it is written by geologists and natural scientists with little inclination toward a critical conception of oppression.11

Thus Andreas Malm has suggested that the Anthropocene represents an attempt to conceptually traverse the gap between the natural and the social — already blended in reality — through the construction of a bridge from one side only, leading the traffic, as it were, in a direction opposite to the actual process. In climate change, social relations determine natural conditions; in Anthropocene thinking, natural scientists extend their worldviews to society.12

Anthropocene science therefore tends to eternalise capitalist social relations through its refusal to inquire into them. It resembles the portrayal of capital in bourgeois political economy as a “necessary feature of the human labour process as such, irrespective of the historical forms it has assumed; it is consequently something permanent, determined by the nature of human labour itself” (Marx, Capital vol I).13

The key issue is captured in its name: our entire species is cast against nature. “It is an accusation, a responsibilisation, and a call to action levied upon humankind” (Matthew Lepori)14, with little space for the class conflicts amongst humans in the process of environmental degradation, and nothing of the simultaneous appropriation of nature and exploitation of labour constantly required to make capital accumulation possible.

The Marxist apologists for this have to revert to an argument over narrative simplicity, or in favour of not picking fights with natural scientists. But the logic of the Anthropocene thesis suggests we are collectively responsible for the deposit of nuclear radiation in geological strata; that the impoverished worker of the advanced capitalist states is equally culpable for carbon emissions with her private jet-owning boss; and likewise that one of the 2.6 billion people in the proto-fossil fuel economy who still relied on biomass for cooking as of 2012 is just as culpable for the Earth’s predicament as the petrocapitalist.15

The reality, however, is of a species divided. The advanced capitalist countries comprise 16.6 % of the world population, but were responsible for 77.1% of the CO2 emitted since 1850; they were responsible for 86 of the 107 parts per million by which the CO2 concentration rose from 1850 to 2006.

In the early 21st century, the poorest 45 % of humanity generated 7% of current CO2 emissions, while the richest 7% produced 50%.16

The problem is again epitomised through how much of the research recognises that something radical and unique was taking place from the early 19th century onwards – but there is a conspicuous reluctance to name these transformations as capitalist. Rather they prefer to blame “industrialisation” from 1800, and the “great acceleration” after 1950.17

This latter period of dramatic environmental transformations in the postwar era has consensus in the WGA as the starting point for the Anthropocene.18 Malm has criticised the association of industrialisation and humans as a whole, given the latter “did not figure as an actor on the historical stage”.

Rather the industrial revolution and the spike in environmental degradation it produced were defined by private ownership of industry and the formation of a dispossessed, waged labouring class.19

A better focus is offered by Jason Moore’s objection to the focus on the industrial and nuclear revolutions, emphasising instead the global reorganisation of nature in “the rise of capitalist civilisation after 1450, with its audacious strategies of global conquest, endless commodification, and relentless rationalization”. This reveals the “relations of power, capital, and nature that rendered fossil capitalism so deadly in the first place”.20

This must be qualified by recognition of the spikes in pollutant activity with the exponential growth of fossil fuel machines and transport, while maintaining focus on the regime of exploitation and appropriation which make this possible (and guarantee further, deepening ecological crises). To his credit, Ian Angus — a prominent pro-Anthropocene Marxist — acknowledges that the absence of critical theory from Anthropocene theory “has been particularly damaging for Earth system science, which now has a clear view of the physical, chemical, and biological threats to our world, but offers little insight into the underlying causes of the postwar explosion of environmentally destructive activity”.21

Yet later in the same article, he hits back at those critics “carping from the sidelines about the scientists’ lack of social analysis”, suggesting that “ecosocialists need to approach the Anthropocene project as an opportunity to unite an ecological Marxist analysis with the latest scientific research, in a new synthesis — a socio-ecological account of the origins, nature, and direction of the current crisis in the Earth system.”

Yet the starting point for doing so cannot be to concede that the oppressed are responsible for the planetary crisis. We must take on board environmental science’s findings, but we must do so critically. This means rejection of those theories when they are associated with the obfuscation of capital’s overwhelming role in producing the crisis. The term Anthropocene, says Angus, must be accepted as it follows the pattern and Greek form set by geological institutions.22

The point however, is that the notion of “recent human origin” is not one that should be accepted by those who understand those remains as capitalist, rather than simply human — whatever the tradition amongst geologists. As Malm has noted: “More than ever, class divisions will become matters of life and death: who gets to drive out of the city when the hurricane approaches; who can pay for seawalls or homes solid enough to withstand the coming flood.

“The capitalist class is evidently not very worried… a more scientifically accurate designation, then, would be ‘the Capitalocene’. This is the geology not of mankind, but of capital accumulation.”23


1. Report to International Geological Congress. 2. Cited in Ian Angus, 2015, ‘When Did the Anthropocene Begin…and Why Does It Matter?’ Monthly Review no. 67 (4). 3. Steffen et al., 2007, ‘The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?’, Ambio 36, no. 8. 4. Waters et al, 2016, ‘The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene’ Science 351. 5. Crutzen and Steffen, 2003, ‘How Long Have We Been In The Anthropocene Era? An Editorial Comment’, Climatic Change 61. 6. Steffen et al., 2004, Global Change and the Earth System: A Planet Under Pressure. 7. See Angus, 2016, Facing the Anthropocene, Monthly Review Press. 8. Steffen, 2007, emphasis added 9. E.g. Zalasiewicz, et al., 2011, ‘The Anthropocene: A New Epoch of Geological Time?’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society no.369. 10. Jason W. Moore, 2015, Capitalism in the Web of Life, Verso. 11. Moore, 2015: 169. 12. Malm, 2016, Fossil Capital, Verso. 13. Marx, 1976. 14. Lepori, 2015, ‘There is no Anthropocene: climate change, species-talk and political economy’, Telos 172. 15. Malm, 269 16. Malm, 268. 17. Steffen et al., 2007. 18. See Steffen et al., 2015 ‘The Trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration,’ Anthropocene Review 2, no.1. 19. Malm, 2016. 20. Moore, 2015. 21. Angus 2015. 22. Angus, 2016, ‘Entering the Age of Humans – An Interview with Ian Angus’, Socialist Review. 23. Malm, 2016