Earth scientists now know that the history of our planet has been set for some time in our current geological age, the Anthropocene. According to leading experts Will Steffen, Paul Crutzen and John McNeill, in this era, “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 era.” We are living in a “no-analogue state” in which “the Earth system has recently moved well outside the range of natural variability.”
The new earth epoch bearing its species’ mark and name is nothing for Homo sapiens to hold up with pride. The unprecedented changes introduced by humanity are ecologically unsustainable for decent life on the planet. Thanks to the Anthropocene, the world is now in the middle of “its sixth great extinction event, with rates of species loss growing rapidly for both terrestrial and marine ecosystems. The atmospheric concentrations of several important greenhouse gases have increased substantially, and the Earth is warming rapidly,” according to Steffen et al., bringing us ever closer to the precipice of ecosystem collapse and putting prospects for a decent future at grave risk. The signs are clear to those willing to look: the melting of polar ice and Arctic permafrost, the acid bleaching of global coral reefs, the pronounced warming of the oceans, the drying out of the Amazonian rain forests. All this and more are moving at an unexpectedly rapid pace. Marked by now-predictable epic forest fires and floods, 2016 is the hottest year on record. So was 2015. So was 2014.
The terrible trends and data have led the venerable progressive political scientist and social-justice advocate Susan George to introduce what she calls “a new phenomenon in the history of humankind.” In a recent lecture to the International Centre for the Promotion of Human Rights in Buenos Aires, she names it “geocide,” meaning “the collective action of a single species among millions of other species which is changing planet Earth to the point that it can become unrecognisable and unfit for life.” Humanity, George says, “is committing geocide against all components of nature, whether microscopic organisms, plants, animals or against itself, homo sapiens, humankind.” George is unstinting in her denunciation of the human species: “Homo sapiens has only existed for roughly 200,000 years. The time we’ve spent on this planet compared to its total age is infinitesimally short, just the tiniest sliver of geological time. It amounts to a mere 0.00004 percent of Earth’s existence. And although any given species of plant or animal—vertebrate or invertebrate—tends to last on average about 10 million years, our species seems determined to cause its own extinction, along with the rest of creation, long before its allotted time.”
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It’s a hard to imagine a more terrible crime. Geocide is bigger than genocide.
But is the culprit really Homo sapiens as a whole? The concept of the Anthropocene has rich scientific validity. It holds welcome political relevance in countering the carbon-industrial complex’s denial of humanity’s responsibility for contemporary climate change. Still, we must guard against lapsing into the historically unspecific and class-blind uses of the term “anthros,” and project the recent age of capital onto the broad 100,000-year swath of human activity on and in nature. As the brilliant and prolific environmental historian and political economist Jason Moore reminded Sasha Lilley during a KPFA radio interview in 2015: “It was not humanity as a whole that created … large-scale industry and the massive textile factories of Manchester in the 19th century or Detroit in the last century or Shenzhen today. It was capital.” It is only during a relatively small slice of human history—roughly the last 500 years, give or take a century or so—that humanity has been socially and institutionally wired from the top down to wreck livable ecology.
A compelling case has been made by Moore and other left environmentalists that it is more historically appropriate to understand humanity’s earth-altering assault on livable ecology as “the Capitalocene.” Capitalism has ruled the world since 1600 or thereabouts (by academic calculations), and only during this relatively brief period of history has human social organization developed the capacity and compulsion to transform earth systems. “Geocide” is a capitalist crime, not a transgression of humanity over its long and mostly noncapitalist history.
The Not-So-Golden Age: Capitalism at Its Regulated Best
But when did the Capitalocene really begin? The Industrial Revolution (the starting point for most Anthropocene thinkers) launched in the early 19th century, and capitalism (Moore’s deep culprit) is 500 years old. But it was during the post-World World II era of U.S.-led global corporate monopolies and emergent multinational capitalism that humanity forever altered earth systems in ways that pose grave and fundamental threats to life on the planet. The latest research indicates massive quantitative acceleration of human economic activity around 1950, including “an explosive growth of fossil fuel use,” according to environmental-sciences professor James Hansen and co-authors in an article in Science. This created a qualitative transformation in Homo sapiens’ impact on earth system trends: levels of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, stratospheric ozone, surface ocean temperature, ocean acidification, marine fish capture, coastal nitrogen, tropical forest depletion, land domestication and terrestrial biosphere degradation. Leading earth scientists increasingly see what they call this “Great Acceleration” in the post-World War II era as not a new stage but instead as the actual onset of the Anthropocene.
“The brutal truth,” the dauntless ecocide chronicler Robert Hunziker writes in Counterpunch, is “that the prevailing tenure of political, economic neoliberalism, which revolves around profits, is screwing things up.” But the underlying malefactor behind geocide isn’t merely the neoliberal, deregulated and so-called free market capitalism of the last four decades. It’s the profit system itself. The years of U.S.-led global capitalism that locked in the geocidal Anthropocene emerged from a high-growth, mass-consumerist profits system operating at its regulated, high-functioning, middle class-expanding and vaguely social-democratic, Keynesian best. That not-so-Golden Age brought us to the onset of a grave ecological crisis, what the great left eco-socialist Barry Commoner warned about in his book “The Closing Circle,” written at the end of the postwar boom. It pushed us into an environmental calamity that some leftists, even today, treat as the dysfunctional obsession of doomsday “catastrophists” and as “just one of many concerns and possibly a diversion from the ‘real’ class struggle”—the incisive Australian eco-socialist Ian Angus’ accurate and critical characterization of such horrible reasoning.