By Greg Godels

September 21, 2022


“Anthropocene” is a twenty-first century word– not that it never appeared before the current century. But its wide acceptance, its broad usage is a feature of the last two decades or so.

Like its late-twentieth-century counterpart, “globalization,” its currency, its popularity in social policy circles, has far outstripped any common, agreed-upon understanding of its meaning.

In a very broad sense, the word “Anthropocene” could refer to the era when the appearance of homo sapiens made an impact upon the earth. That sense of the word, tracing humans back 300 millennia, is of little popular interest outside of researchers in University anthropology departments.

A more interesting sense of the word refers to the era since World War II when the possibility that humans could destroy all life on the planet became a reality– more than mere science fiction. The actual possibility– even likelihood– of a war with nuclear weapons means that a tiny elite holds within its hands the means to reduce the Earth to a lifeless rock orbiting the Sun.

Thus, “Anthropocene” could take on the explicit meaning of “the age when homo sapiens evolved the necessary and sufficient means to destroy all living things on earth.”

Unfortunately, this danger– though real and seemingly horrendous to contemplate– has never generated sufficient alarm in the advanced capitalist countries where the elites wield the power of committing global suicide. Yes, there have been mass movements– often led by Communists and socialists– to wrest these powers and eliminate the option, but they have so far failed to remove the danger.

In this century, the word “Anthropocene” has become popularly attached to apocalyptic consequences of environmental anarchism. That is to say, the Anthropocene era could be, and most often is, construed as the age when human inattention and freedom of action has threatened to make life for almost everyone a living hell with regard to environmental consequences.

The Anthropocene era, understood in this way, is the era when human interaction with the material world produces waste, harmful physical properties of productive processes, and a host of other byproducts of human activity that damage or spoil the environment to a degree that threatens how most living things will survive or even whether they will survive.

It’s a fool’s errand to weigh whether one threat to life (nuclear holocaust) or the other (environmental catastrophe) is worse or more likely. At the same time, it is irresponsible to recognize one but not the other.

Where Marxists and other critics of capitalism have been in the forefront of the struggle against nuclear war, with few exceptions, we have not been as engaged in the struggle for environmental justice. We have not thoroughly brought to bear the unique and incisive Marxist method upon the issues raised by the growing environmental crisis. We have largely conceded that terrain to the liberals and social democrats.

As with all life, human interaction with the world has left a “footprint” on the surrounding environment since hunters and gatherers stripped the prairies, woodlands, and streams of other matter– organic and inorganic– for the food and shelter crucial for human survival.

Human gains have often forced changes on the material world, changes that have had consequences to the environment, both good and bad.

It is easy to forget the medieval and later waves of deforestation of Europe, as an example, that left profound changes of climate, shifted migration patterns, and led to social and economic changes.

Human’s adjusting to those changes and nature’s remarkable resilience compensated readily for these usually unforeseen changes.

But as the productive forces developed rapidly and the social relations shifted, impact on the environment grew accordingly. The advancing productive forces that generated and spurred capitalist social relations created, in a relatively short time, a dramatic and profound impact on the environment, an impact that brought harm to humans as well as other living things. The capitalist industrial system created a man-made environment bringing a host of new diseases, spreading old ones, and even changing universal natural processes like the climate.

These environmental consequences threaten to overwhelm nature’s resilience and humanity’s adaptability.

As people attempt to respond to these new and growing threats, it should be expected that Marxists would point to those factors unique to capitalism that bear on and stand in the way of resolving the environmental crisis: capitalist profit, class inequality, imperialist competition, militarism, and war.

Insofar as only socialism can eliminate these features of capitalism, the environmental crisis cannot be resolved once and for all without revolutionary change.

Unfortunately, we have done an inadequate job of introducing these considerations into environmental debates and struggles.

We have failed to show that since profits are the lifeblood of capitalist productive activity, corporations will always place corporate interests above social goods. Environmental safety and corporate profits will always come into conflict.

We have failed to persuade the movement that the poor and working class cannot be asked to sacrifice living standards, to bear the burden of saving the environment, while elites use their wealth to shelter their lifestyles from those sacrifices.

Similarly, we must make a better case that any answer to the global environmental crisis must not demand that less developed countries remain undeveloped, that the cost of environmental soundness not be borne by those who never participated in causing the crisis, while the beneficiaries of capitalism’s environmental abuse self-righteously point to their sacrifices in banning plastic bottles.

Too often overlooked in environmental struggles is the enormous footprint of the US military and other countries’ militaries. The exposure of the linkage of militarism to capitalism and to environmental degradation is a role for the Marxist left.

Is there anything more insanely wasteful and environmentally threatening than imperialist war? The current war in Ukraine is an orgy of pointless wastage of energy resources, of deadly and costly fires, explosions, and destruction. Marxists should make the connections.

What we don’t need are theories inspired less by Marx or Marxism and more by the cachet of Marx fandom among young people and the understandable desperate search for alternatives by those fearful of environmental catastrophe.

According to a zealous article in the Guardian, a new book is forthcoming from Kohei Saito with the enticing title of Capital and the Anthropocene. The allusion to Capital (Marx’s and Piketty’s?) and the invocation of the fashionable “Anthropocene” will surely have many anxious with anticipation. And the tease is that the Japanese version has already sold a half-million copies. Before publication of the popular book in English, an “academic” text is in preparation by Cambridge University Press, we are told.

So why does the Guardian article leave me– well– guarded?

The Marx-invoking hype raises my gut suspicions. I remember all too well the hype around the execrable Hardt and Negri book, Empire, published in 2000 by Harvard University Press to great acclaim, promising to explain an era of declining nation-state influence and a “new” transnational empire of international organizations and multinational corporations, an explanation bathed in nearly impenetrable prose. Simplified, Empire was a stylized revisit to Kautsky’s “ultra imperialism”, a modern “refutation” of Leninism.

On the heels of its publication, the US (a nation-state) went on an orgy of invasion and occupation worthy of the era of classical imperialism so aptly described by the “obsolete” V.I. Lenin more than eighty years earlier. So much for the new and fashionable.

Alarming is the Guardian article’s attribution of the idea of “degrowth” to Saito. Degrowth– halting or reversing the expansion of economic activity– is a return to Malthusianism– a doctrine roundly rejected by Marx. Degrowth is a surrender to the idea that humans cannot continue to expand the quality and content of our shared life and have a healthy environment. It negates the optimism of a world of greater, more diverse, and more egalitarian opportunities that come with economic growth.

Degrowth places the blame for environmental destruction, not on capitalism, consumerism, militarism, imperialism, war, and inequality, but on the productive forces that have elevated humanity from a Hobbesian brutish state of nature to the safety and security that many know today and the even higher state that all could know in the future.

Hopefully, Saito has not been confused by the distinction between consumption and consumerism. Tens of millions have been denied adequate consumption– the minimal material means to thrive, reproduce, and retire comfortably– by capitalist inequality. At the same time, capitalism promotes consumerism– the vulgar indulgence in false needs, contrived obsolescence, overindulgence, addictive behavior, and a host of other rapacious marketing traps laid by capitalism. Adequate consumption must be a key feature of environmental justice; consumerism counts as an enormous, unnecessary weight on sustainability

Though the Guardian article alludes to a “non-capitalist” solution, it never mentions “socialism,” a curious omission that again triggers my skepticism.

Let’s hope I’m wrong about the new book.