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Since the pivotal summer of 2022 and following the recent failed COP, it has become increasingly clear that we cannot revert to the conditions of the Holocene—a period characterized by relatively stable temperatures and a stable climate. We have transitioned into a new era, commonly referred to as the Anthropocene. This era is marked by increasingly unstable and disastrous weather patterns, alongside a drastic decrease in the health of ecosystems worldwide. The term Anthropocene, derived from the Greek words “anthropos” (human) and “-cene” (new), signifies an era where human activity is the dominant influence on climate and the environment.

This critique of the Anthropocene concept, alongside the notion that “human activity is destroying the planet,” aims to focus on how this general idea obscures the structural power imbalances leading to the current environmental crisis. This post is part of my ongoing effort to articulate my point of view on certain political topics I encounter regularly.

The Anthropocene concept has gained popularity as the impact of human activities on the environment becomes increasingly evident. Climatologists, geologists, and other scientists have long studied these effects, but the concept of the Anthropocene has gained traction due to its implications for the future of humanity and the planet. Moreover, popular media has embraced the idea, making it a frequent topic of discussion in news articles and documentaries. As awareness of the concept and its implications grows, the idea of the Anthropocene has become more mainstream.

The term Anthropocene describes the current geological epoch, in which human activities have significantly impacted Earth’s ecosystems and climate. Coined in 2000 by ecologist Eugene F. Stoermer and atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, it argues that human actions have ushered in a new geological epoch distinct from the Holocene, which began approximately 11,700 years ago.

While the concern that humanity is destroying the planet is valid, a critique of the Anthropocene frames this idea, highlighting the need for a broader analysis that considers underlying power dynamics. A primary criticism is that it reduces the planet to a mere resource, ignoring the complex interconnections between humans and the environment. Labeling humans as “destroyers” overlooks our roles as creators, innovators, and stewards of the environment. It fails to recognize that humans are part of a complex ecosystem, where other species and forces also contribute to the planet’s state.

This perspective also overlooks the significant variability across cultures in their interactions with the environment, with some cultures adopting more sustainable practices than others. Ignoring this diversity simplifies the problem and fails to account for the fact that different cultures have distinct approaches to environmental stewardship.

The notion that “Humanity is destroying the planet” simplifies a complex issue, overlooking systemic and structural forces contributing to environmental degradation, such as capitalism, which incentivizes the profit-driven exploitation of natural resources. This idea conveniently shifts blame from powerful elite structures to citizens and consumers.

Furthermore, the narrative that working-class consumers are overconsuming is inaccurate and disregards the systemic inequalities in our current economic system. This form of class contempt fails to recognize that most working-class individuals are not making decisions to overconsume but are trying to make ends meet within a limited budget.

Additionally, this narrative is rooted in racist ideas of overpopulation and often unfairly blames populations in developing countries who seek better lives. It overlooks that industrialized countries in the global north are the primary contributors to emissions, holding the global south responsible for the climate crisis. This neocolonial narrative perpetuates a dangerous double standard, allowing affluent countries to continue unsustainable practices while blaming the global south.

Wealthier Western countries are the most significant contributors to global emissions, waste, and environmental destruction. Instead of holding these nations accountable, this rhetoric shifts blame onto the world’s poorest and least powerful, ignoring systemic inequalities that hinder sustainable choices.

By framing the working class and global south as primary culprits in environmental destruction, those with power and influence avoid accountability and maintain the status quo. This narrative further entrenches systemic oppression and inequality by creating a false dichotomy between the working class, the poor, and the environment, despite their interconnectedness.

Moreover, attributing responsibility to humanity as a whole overlooks the specific histories of colonialism and the oppressive neoliberal system that have facilitated the current environmental state. It ignores the disproportionate impact of environmental destruction on marginalized populations, such as Indigenous peoples and people of color, due to their historical marginalization.

Finally, the concept of the Anthropocene naturalizes and obscures the fact that the current environmental crisis is a direct product of political, economic, and social decisions made by powerful actors. This perspective is limited and harmful, as it suggests environmental destruction is a problem solvable by individuals alone, rather than requiring collective action from individuals, groups, businesses, institutions, and governments.

Humanity is not destroying the world; a system is.

To address the limitations of the Anthropocene, a different term is gaining traction: “the Capitalocene.” Believed to have begun in the late 18th century with industrialization, the Capitalocene highlights how industrial and productivist activities have increasingly devastated the environment, leading to climate change, species extinction, and the disruption of natural ecosystems.

Coined by environmental theorist Jason W. Moore in his book Capitalism in the Web of Life, the term “Capitalocene” argues that the current ecological crisis results from the capitalist system. To prevent further environmental destruction, we must fundamentally rethink our relationship with nature, transitioning to a more equitable and sustainable economic system that prioritizes the needs of the planet and its inhabitants.

In light of this, the Anthropocene, while spotlighting human influence on the planet, fails to adequately account for underlying drivers, indiscriminately attributing blame across humanity and overlooking disparities in responsibility and impact. This broad generalization masks the significant role systemic inequalities play, particularly those fostered by capitalist systems, in driving environmental degradation. The Capitalocene offers a necessary corrective, pinpointing industrialization and capitalism’s ascendancy as key factors propelling our planet towards its current ecological brink.

Adopting the Capitalocene goes beyond mere rebranding of the crisis; it demands a deep reevaluation of our economic and societal frameworks. It urges a shift towards a future where environmental relationships are governed not by exploitative economic practices but by sustainability, equity, and respect for all life. The Capitalocene as a concept advocates for systemic change, moving past individual actions to target structural reforms essential for mitigating the ecological crisis.

This perspective shift is crucial for spurring collective action that addresses not only the environmental destruction’s symptoms but also its capitalist underpinnings. It calls for a move to economic models that prioritize planetary and inhabitant well-being over profit, pushing for policies that foster environmental justice and diminish inequality. By framing our situation within the Capitalocene, we can navigate towards more sustainable and equitable living on our evolving planet, underscoring the urgency of collective, systemic responses to environmental devastation.