Imperialism in the Anthropocene

John Bellamy Foster, Hannah Holleman and Brett Clark

n 21 May 2019, the Anthropocene Working Group, established by the Subcommision on Quaternary Stratigraphy of the International Commission on Stratigraphy, voted by more than the necessary 60 percent to recognise the existence of the Anthropocene epoch in geological time, beginning around 1950. It defined this new “chronostratigraphic” epoch as “the period of Earth’s history during which humans have a decisive influence on the state, dynamics, and future of the Earth System.” Anthropogenic change, beginning in the mid–twentieth century, was designated as the principal force in the accelerated evolution of the entire Earth System. The Anthropocene WorkingGroup will proceed next to the designation of a specific “golden spike,” or stratigraphic location, standing for the Anthropocene in the geological record, with the aim of getting the new epoch officially adopted by the International Commission on Stratigraphy in the next several years.

A strong international scientific consensus is thus emerging with respect to the designation of the new geological epoch of the Anthropocene—a term often said to have been “coined” by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2000, though it first appeared in English decades earlier in “The Anthropogenic System (Period)” in The Great Soviet Encyclopedia. The Anthropocene, in the scientific worldview, stands for both a quantitative and qualitative break with all previous geological epochs. Changes on a scale that can be seen as dividing major geological epochs, previously occurring over millions of years, are now taking place over decades or at most centuries due to human action. In this respect, the Anthropocene represents a sharp break from the relatively stable Holocene epoch of the last 11.000–12.000 years, the onset of which marked the end of the last ice age.

In the view of the Anthropocene Working Group and today’s Earth System scientists more generally, the advent of the Anthropocene epoch is the product of a Great Acceleration of economically driven change in the mid–twentieth century, associated with what is sometimes called by economists the “golden age” of capitalist growth after the Second World War. This led to the crossing of numerous planetary boundaries, generating various “anthropogenic rifts.

Today there can be no doubt about the main force behind this planetary emergency—the exponential growth of the capitalist world economy, particularly in the decades since the mid–twentieth century. Capital itself can be described as a social relation of self-expanding economic (commodity) value. Capitalism, or the system of capital accumulation based in class exploitation and conforming to laws of motion enforced by market competition, recognises no limits to its own self-expansion. There is no amount of profit, no amount of wealth, and no amount of consumption that is “enough” or “too much.” In this system, the planetary environment is not viewed as a place with inherent boundaries within which human beings must live, together with Earth’s other species, but rather as a realm to be exploited in a process of growing economic expansion in the interest of unlimited acquisitive gain, most of which ends up in the hands of a very few. Businesses, according to the inner logic of capital, must either grow or die—as must the system itself.

Capitalism thus promotes a “madness of economic reason” that can be seen as undermining the healthy human metabolic relation to the environment. The mere critique of capitalism as an abstract economic system, however, is insufficient in addressing today’s environmental problems. Rather, it is necessary also to examine the structure of accumulation on a world scale, coupled with the division of the world into competing nation-states. Our planetary problems cannot realistically be addressed without tackling the imperialist world system, or globalised capitalism, organised on the basis of classes and nation-states, and divided into center and periphery. Today, this necessarily raises the question of imperialism in the Anthropocene.


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