Editorial - The Road to Ruin: Making Sense of the Anthropocene
Ours is the age of global environmental collapse. Resources are being consumed at around 1.5 times the Earth’s ability to regenerate them. We are living through the sixth mass extinction and nearly two-thirds of all vertebral life has died since 1970. The stubborn entrenchment of carbon into our economies means that we are highly unlikely to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, increasing the chance of severe climatic disturbance. Meanwhile, the global food system has destroyed a third of all arable land and, at current rates, global top soil degradation means that there may only be 60 global harvests left. In all, human activity has pushed environmental systems into ‘unsafe’ operating spaces, threatening the preconditions upon which life can occur and societies flourish.
It is in this context that the concept of the ‘Anthropocene’ has emerged. All states, markets, welfare systems, major religions, their justifying ideas and the people who fought to create them came about in a uniquely stable epoch that geologists call the Holocene. Characterised by natural systems that were fit for human flourishing, this era is now over. In its place comes the Anthropocene – a new epoch in which humans are the decisive influence on the natural world.
"nature no longer exists outside of us; it is bound up in the endless accumulation of capital, laced through with the hierarchies and inequalities of capitalism"
The Anthropocene is both a geological marker and also a political phenomenon. An accelerating planetary crisis is a crisis of our human systems. The scale of compounding breakdown has been driven not by a universal ‘Anthropos’, but by particular models of economic development and powerful actors. As a result, nature no longer exists outside of us; it is bound up in the endless accumulation of capital, laced through with the hierarchies and inequalities of capitalism. Ecological transformation – Marx’s metabolic rift – is driven by a complex web of capital and power that reflects our political and economic systems.
This edition of IPPR Progressive Review uses the concept of the Anthropocene as a starting point to attempt to make sense of the scale and complexity of the unfolding catastrophe.
“It is time we faced up to the Anthropocene. If we do not, we risk becoming a latter-day Ozymandias, with systemic crisis and the potential for collapse a future monument to our current hubris”
The scale and reach of devastation done to the natural world may come as a shock to those who do not often engage with scientific and environmental groups, though this has started to change, particularly in the case of climate change, where public action has followed growing awareness. We now urgently need to understand natural systems as a whole, what the Anthropocene means, and what to do. As James Baldwin once wrote, ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’ It is therefore time we faced up to the Anthropocene. If we do not, we risk becoming a latter-day Ozymandias, with systemic crisis and the potential for collapse a future monument to our current hubris.
In his essay, the historian Jean-Baptiste Fressoz argues that to do this, social scientists must develop their own conceptions of the Anthropocene, beyond those provided by geologists, to allow for historical reflection on the nature of a crisis whose origins stretch back into the stories of our economic development. Jason Moore takes up the challenge and argues that capitalism is within nature, and not without, with capitalist dynamics amplifying human impacts on the natural world through an expanding cycle of exploitation and appropriation of ‘cheap natures’. The depletion of the planet’s resources now threatens the preconditions upon which capitalism can sustain itself. The ‘Capitalocene’ is exhausting itself; what comes next is a matter for politics.
Doaa Abdel-Motaal explores the impacts of a changing environment on human health, many of which have been brought into focus by the extraordinary number and severity of extreme weather events across the world this year. These are being joined by the spread of tropical diseases and rising seas at a time when efforts to improve public health are trying to keep pace with growing populations and increasing urbanisation. Abdel-Motaal therefore asks that we recognise the inextricable link between human health and environmental health. Riaz Bhunnoo focusses on one particularly important determinant of health – the global food system – and explains how we are in the midst of two acute and interrelated crises: an expanding human population is demanding more food at precisely the same time as soil fertility and climate change are rapidly eroding our ability to grow it. The politics of food, long dormant, is likely to be of growing importance as the twin impacts of Brexit and natural systems change take root.
What is to be done? Kate Raworth uses her personal experience of discovering the inadequacy of orthodox economic thought to illustrate the need to integrate an ecological ceiling throughout economics. Raworth’s ‘Doughnut’ model of economics has become popular around the world and she persuasively argues that new stories and pictures are needed to untangle the bindweed of orthodox thought that constricts our collective imagination. Our interview with John Ashton seeks to understand how a praxis of the Anthropocene could develop and what values should drive movements. Global environmental change has an acute intergenerational dimension and so we explore the need for a conversation between generations in understanding and acting in the Anthropocene.
“A neoliberal Anthropocene could win out, hierarchical and undemocratic, imposing unevenly shared costs in a gendered, racialised way”
The Anthropocene really does change everything. The scale and pace of environmental disruption fashioned by human activity require two concurrent responses.
The first is nothing less than a global socioeconomic transformation that brings our impact to within safe limits over the lifetime of the millennial generation. This is not guaranteed. A neoliberal Anthropocene could win out, hierarchical and undemocratic, imposing unevenly shared costs in a gendered, racialised way, operating beyond safe planetary boundaries, and looking to the anti-political ‘moonshots’ of Silicon Valley for salvation. Instead, we require a politics committed to democratic negotiation of the challenges of the Anthropocene, capable of collective restraint where necessary, while mobilising for shared abundance where possible. It will need to be attentive to global and intergenerational equity, capable of remaking economic institutions at scale, and rooted in new models of production and consumption, ownership and governance.
“a global problem requires a global response... Brexit must be one of the last shocks of the Holocene, and Trump its last politician”
The second is a concerted effort to ensure resilience to environmental shocks within and between nations as the impacts of environmental change begin to mount. Natural system breakdown is already feeding into societies and economies around the world. Recent examples include the Arab Spring, with a causal link being established by scientists and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) with storms and droughts, themselves linked to climate change, which damaged crop yields, increasing food prices and placing intolerable stress on an already fragile socioeconomic context across the Middle East and North Africa. Voices ranging from Greenpeace to the World Economic Forum now warn of ‘profound social instability’ and ‘large-scale involuntary migration’ as natural system breakdown feeds into human systems, creating complex feedback loops. Risk in the Anthropocene is non-linear, compounding and systemic. Without resilient governments, markets and leaders, global cooperation could be threatened as countries turn inwards to protect themselves or lash outwards in order to gain advantage over resources. This cannot be allowed to happen; a global problem requires a global response, with the cost of action shouldered by those responsible for our condition. In this conception, Brexit must be one of the last shocks of the Holocene, and Trump its last politician.
These may seem like issues beyond the control of progressive politics in Britain, but we would argue otherwise. Britain has, through its emissions and the spread and entrenchment of a certain model of economic growth, a large historical responsibility for our current predicament. It also has significant capabilities, particularly through its diplomatic and ‘soft’ power, to help other nations understand and act. Indeed, this vision of a productive global role for Britain was shaped over the past 30 years when our diplomats and NGOs helped to build a global movement to combat climate change, and back further, through the vital research undertaken by our universities.
“If we are to avoid a ‘colossal wreck, boundless and bare’, we must act. Time is running out.”
This is fertile ground for progressive politics, as is the imperative to put intergenerational and international justice at the forefront of socioeconomic reform in the Anthropocene. To do nothing risks the natural foundation upon which all human society rests, and unjustly robs generations of a healthy, secure future. The challenges of the Anthropocene must consequently be a trigger for new ideas and new ways to organise economy and society. Tinkering has no place here and the politics of the ‘Great Moderation’ are as inappropriate as that of the post-war consensus – systemic risk implores systemic change. The growing movement to shift our political economy away from the failures of extractive and unequal neoliberalism should put this at the core of its development. This edition of IPPR Progressive Review seeks to contribute to this process. If we are to avoid a ‘colossal wreck, boundless and bare’, we must act. Time is running out.
Mathew Lawrence, Laurie Laybourn-Langton and Carys Roberts are editors of Progressive Review.