Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Capitalocene

Benjamin Kunkel, in the London Review of Books, reviews three titles concerned with the Anthropocene; the review demands attention.

Useful background is provided.  Whilst critically informed Kunkel clearly appreciates the main narratives arising from the three books:"the vogue for the Anthropocene makes sense" he says:  "It expresses, first, an awareness that environmental change of the most durable significance is taking place as we speak, with unaccustomed speed. (Little besides a giant asteroid or a nuclear war could alter the surface of the earth faster and more completely.) Second, the Anthropocene gathers all disparate environmental issues under a single heading, from global warming down to the emissions of a trash incinerator in a poor neighbourhood of Birmingham; it takes in the sixth extinction as a whole as well as the starvation of sea lions off California, as fishermen with bills to pay deplete the stocks of sardine on which the sea lions depend. 

In short, the Anthropocene condenses ‘into a single word’, as Davies says, ‘a gripping and intuitive story about human influences on the planet’."

These conslusions are similar to those reached in an event I organised  in Hanover during 2015 to explore the issues of 'Governing in the Anthropocene' the details from which can be found here.

Kunkel draws on American writer and professor of law Jedediah Purdy who said: ‘The Anthropocene has to be named before people can try to take responsibility for it’.  He goes on to say:

"The ecological reality, once acknowledged, can become a political imperative, leading to collective environmental decision-making where for now there is only collective vulnerability to ecological change as a consequence of collective inertia. 

Purdy contemplates ‘the ideal of Anthropocene democracy’: ‘Self-aware, collective engagement with the question of what kinds of landscapes, what kind of atmosphere and climate, and what kind of world-shaping habitation to pursue would all be parts of the repertoire of self-governance.’"

These claims have great resonance with our decision at the Open University in the mid-1990s to create a new post-graduate programme in Environmental Decision Making (EDM) with the concerns expressed by Purdy as central elements. Unfortunately, under the influence of dubious marketing advice, the EDM programme was later renamed as an Environmental Management programme; this in one fell, conservative, swoop, took atttention away from our human responsibilties in decision making that systemically accounts for the environment, to a frame-maintaining concern for an independent external environment that has to be managed.  Fortunately some of the good teaching material remains in the new degree despite the rebranding.

As was clear from our 'Governing in the Anthropocene' event in Hannover, not all agree that the term Anthropocene is the right one:

"Two of the most formidable contributions so far to the literature of the Anthropocene come from authors who reject the term. Jason Moore in Capitalism in the Web of Life and Andreas Malm in Fossil Capital have overlapping criticisms of what Moore calls ‘the Anthropocene argument’. Its defect, as Moore sees it, is to present humanity as a ‘homogeneous acting unit’, when in fact human beings are never to be found in a generic state. They exist only in particular historical forms of society, defined by distinct regimes of social property relations that imply different dispositions towards ‘extra-human nature’."

In an attempt to diffuse what could become a distracting debate I proposed that we should resort to metaphor theory to consider the various new names (neologisms) being offered.  For example some of the naming proposals include:

"Moore proposes that the Anthropocene be renamed the ‘Capitalocene’, since ‘the rise of capitalism after 1450 marked a turning point in the history of humanity’s relation with the rest of nature, greater than any watershed since the rise of agriculture.’"

As I have posted before, Richard Norgaard who has similarly worked in this intellectual territory for some time, favours the term 'econocene' which, unlike the 'capitalocene', starts much later - just after world war two and the rise of  a particular form of capitalism.

Writing last year in relation to metaphor theory, and paraphrasing George Lakoff,  I said: 

" All thinking and talking involves ‘‘framing.’’ And since frames come with metaphors, or metaphor clusters, with revealing and concealing features as well as theoretical entailments, a single word typically activates not only its defining frame, but also much of the systemic set of relations its defining frame is in".  

My proposal is to accept the creativity that comes with different naming attempts, but to do so whilst taking responsibility for their revealing and concealing features as metaphors, and to appreciate their theoretical entailments. The last thing we want is a time-wasting contest over names:  but the creativity that goes with scholarship associated with bringing forth new names is to be welcomed as long as it does not curtail meaningful, transformative understandings and practices that lead to effective actions.  Our challenge is in 'governing' in this period new in human history (in that it has dramatically new features including, now, our awareness that we as a species are a 'force of nature' affecting whole earth dynamics). 

Exploring the theoretical entailments of the three authors' naming commitments is something Kunkel does well in his review.  He argues that: "neither Capitalism in the Web of Life nor Fossil Capital is a work of political strategy, and Moore and Malm both refrain from arguing what each assumes: namely, that a new and better ecological regime can come about in the 21st century."   In the world with Donald Trump and backsliding in the UK, Australia and some other nations this is unfortunate.

Unfortunately there is little new in the review as to what purposeful responses to the naming of the Anthropocene are systemicaly desirable and culturally feasible.

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