So, what is the anthropocene?
Although in the last few years the term has been incorporated in popular media, and its usage has been part of the vocabulary of a variety of academic and non-academic subjects, still relatively few people understand its true meaning and implications. In general, the Anthropocene is defined as a new geological epoch trigged by human activity and not by natural forces.
The concept of the Anthropocene as it is currently used was originally coined by Nobel Prize Recipient in Chemistry P.J. Crutzen (2002), and again later via the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, along with scientists Will Steffen and John R. McNeill (2002) in a widely-circulated article called, “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?” Crutzen describes the implications of the Anthropocene for the planet, and consequently for the human species, as follows:
The term Anthropocene…suggests the Earth has now left its natural geological epoch, the present interglacial state called the Holocene. Human activities have become so pervasive and profound that they rival the great forces of nature and are pushing the Earth into planetary terra incognita. The Earth is rapidly moving into a less biologically diverse, less forested, much warmer, and probably wetter and stormier state.
From a scientific standpoint, the impact of human activity at a global planetary scale first came into focus in relation to climate change research with the expansion of the ozone hole in Antarctica. According to CO2 Earth and The Global Carbon Project Media Summary Highlights (2014), this ozone depletion was correlated with historically unprecedented emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), affecting the composition of the atmosphere and incrementally increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases around the planet. (For a discussion of the cumulative effects of CO2 and its tipping points, see Bourtai Hargrove’s article in this issue.)
Altering the biosphere
Nonetheless, catastrophic evidence of the human imprint on the planet is not limited to the diminishing of the ozone layer or changes in the earth’s temperature. As a matter of fact, although these two factors point to potentially calamitous consequences for the planet such as rising sea levels, agricultural productivity reductions, extreme weather change, spread of diseases, etc., scientists have also noticed how existing predominant modes of production and detrimental human interactions with nature are affecting other vital natural cycles. Among these negative effects, scientists have discovered radical alterations in the cycles of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur, which are essential for the preservation of life on Earth.
If to this gloomy scenario we add the alterations suffered by the water cycle on its way from the highlands to sea level, and alterations in the vapor flow into the atmosphere, it is not difficult to conclude, as noted by scientists such as Stephen, Grinevald, Crutzen, and John McNeill (2011), that the human factor has been able to alter the biosphere. The biosphere, as Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Kolbert (2014) points out, “Is the summa total of all existing ecosystems — land, sea, and atmosphere — that make life on earth possible”. Human-driven changes to the biosphere are “likely driving the sixth major extinction event in Earth history” according to Grinevald, Crutzen, and McNeill).
Humans as a geological force
From this perspective, the Anthropocene captures two important factors: the modification that has occurred in the relationship between humans and nature, and simultaneously, the new role of human activity “as a geological force” which will have an impact for thousands of years to come. As an example, Steffen, Crutzen, and McNeill (2007) hold that “because of past and future anthropogenic emissions of CO2, climate may depart significantly from natural behavior over the next 50,000 years.” In other words, through its power to alter natural processes, human activity has transcended what once were thought to be the delimitations of our own human condition. Simultaneously, these human-induced changes in nature have begun to alter and condition social processes.
Until its closure in 2015, the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) generated abundant new data and graphs in their multiple yearly reports dating back to 1987. Particularly important is the IGBP’s publication Global Change and the Earth Systems (2014, Steffen et al.), which clearly shows the correlation between human economic related activities, such as gross domestic product (GDP), energy consumption, water use, etc., and radical, human induced changes in the Earth global systems.
Among these anthropogenic changes, we find a long list of ingredients in a recipe for planetary destruction. The list includes atmospheric carbon dioxide increases, stratospheric ozone depletion, nitrous oxide increases, methane increases, surface temperature increases, ocean acidification, coastal nitrogen increases, species extinctions acceleration, and loss of forests. The IGBP study concludes by noting a great transformation in the magnitude and intensity of human activity beginning in the second half of the 20th century, posing the question as to whether human activity has caused irreversible changes to the earth systems, “making adaptation impossible.” One of the last documents of the IGBP (2015) points out that “the last 60 years have seen without doubt the most rapid transformation of the human relationship with the natural world in the history of humankind.”
The Great Acceleration and Capitalism
In their work, The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945, McNeil and Engelke (2014), provide undeniable and exhaustive evidence of the magnitude of the human induced ecological changes occurring in the twentieth-century. That name, the “great acceleration,” has been given by the scientific community to the dramatic socio- environmental changes occurring after the mid-forties,” suggesting a clear point of historic-geological demarcation which was formally accepted by the majority of the official Anthropocene Working Groups created in 2008 by the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS).
The Great Acceleration is best understood as a consequence of the economic and political coordinates of capitalist expansion after World War II, ending in the current encompassing of the political economy of the world. As Angus observes (2016), “Capitalism has been wrecking ecosystems for hundreds of years, but its assault on the entire Earth System at once is a recent development. That unique transformation requires explanation.”
What’s really being denied by the deniers?
In an often-quoted quip, Frederic Jameson once stated that for many, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Climate change deniers suffer from two extreme afflictions of the imagination. On the one hand—implicitly or explicitly—they are willingly disposed to passively accept a future without hope, therefore unable to imagine anything different for humanity except indifference and docility. On the other hand, possessing an imagination unable to transcend selfish apathy, they appear solely conditioned by indifference to others and docility towards capital.
Nonetheless, the core of their argumentation integrates two main components: The first questions the anthropogenic origins of climate change and the role of capitalism in the “Great Acceleration” after the 1950’s. The second displaces the locus of the debate from the scientific field to the ideological-political media arena (Fang, 2009). By arguing that the current climacteric alterations of the planet constitute part of the normal cyclical movements of nature and not of human agency, they occlude the nefarious role played by the capitalism’s interactions with the environment, as evidenced by the science behind the Great Acceleration data, which puts in evidence the incongruence between capitalist forms of economic development and environmental protection.
The Articulation of Lunacy
Until recently, the combination of anti-scientific spirit and conservative politics linked to specific economic corporative interests has found fertile ground not in serious academic groups, but among conservative philanthropists, foundations, and think tanks. Dunlap and McCright (2011) identify among others the ‘Heritage Foundation’, and conservative think tanks like the ‘Cato Institute’, ‘Americans for Prosperity’, and the ‘Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow’ (CFACT) as “three particularly crucial elements of the denial machine.” These organizations, in turn, have served as disseminators of conservative agendas among public media where academic or scientific rigor is considered boring, to use the words of Marc Morano, also called The King of the Skeptics and one of most notable representatives of this tendency, who functions as chief correspondent for ClimateDepot.com. Predictably, this type of political conservatism is also closely imbricated with the coal and oil industries’ opposition to regulatory efforts to control carbon emissions.
But it wasn’t until the Election of Donald Trump that Climate Change denial reached a higher form of articulation, tightly knitted throughout all the state apparatuses of the administration. This has given the narrative of denial not the scientific aura that it lacks, but the political boost that it needed. The two more ominous examples of this new contextualization are constituted by the voluntary ostracism of the United States from the international community (i.e. the Paris Agreement, and the Bonn Summit), followed by the dismantling of EPA’s environmental protections through a massive proposed budget cut that, according to The Atlantic (May, 24, 2017), “traded historically unprecedented cuts to the EPA for $ 50-billion boosts to defense expending”—the largest cut to any federal agency.
During his latest verbal exchange with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump was called an “old lunatic”, and his Twitter response was, “Why would Kim Jong Un insult me by calling me ‘old’, when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat’. Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend – and maybe some day that will happen!” It did not go un-noticed in his response that what really matters to the president is the reference to his age, not to his mental status. Or paraphrasing Orwell, “the role of being a lunatic did not greatly trouble him.” Interesting enough, a few days later, according to the Guardian (Nov. 14. 2017) Senators and US military commanders expressed concerns about Trump’s decision-making ability regarding a nuclear strike.
When it comes to climate change, Trump’s mind does not get any better. According to him, “ The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.” Nonetheless, Trump is not a minority of one; he is part of a minority of many climate change deniers with political power, like Steve Bannon, an ex- Goldman Sachs investment banker, former White House ‘Chief Strategist’, and chairman of the Breitbart News (a platform for the alt-right according to Bannon) which in a recent article by James Delingpole describes the Environmental Protection Agency in the following terms: “Essentially the EPA is and always has been a communist sleeper cell introduced to the heart of the U.S. government system by Richard Nixon.”
Lunatics, like anybody else, need a place to reside, but they should not be given political power to decide the future of the planet, or be allowed to live in the White House.
Enrique Quintero writes and lives in Washington State.