Since the biblical summer of 2022 and the recent failed COP, it has become increasingly clear that we will not be able to revert back to the conditions of the Holocene, a period of relatively stable temperatures and relatively stable climate. We have now shifted to a new era that many call the Anthropocene. An era marked by increasingly unstable and disastrous weather patterns and a drastic decrease in the health of ecosystems around the world. Derived from the Greek words “anthropos” (human) and “–cene” (new), the term defines as the era in which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.
With this critique of the concept of the Anthropocene and the idea that “it’s human activity destroying the planet”, I am going to focus on how the general idea of the Anthropocene obscures the structural power imbalances that have led to the current environmental crisis. This post is part of my current effort to put down my POV on certain political topics I regularly encounter.
The idea of the Anthropocene has become increasingly popular in recent years as the effects of human activity on the environment become more and more apparent. Climatologists, geologists, and other scientists have been studying the effects of human activities on the environment for some time, but the concept of the Anthropocene has gained traction lately due to its implications for the future of humanity and the planet. Additionally, the popular media has picked up on the idea of the Anthropocene, and it has become a frequent topic of discussion in news articles and documentaries. As more people become aware of the concept and its implications, the idea of the Anthropocene has become more mainstream and accepted.
The Anthropocene is a term used to describe the current geological epoch, in which human activities have had a significant global impact on the Earth’s ecosystems and climate. The term was coined in the year 2000 by ecologist Eugene F. Stoermer and atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, who argued that human actions have created a new geological epoch that is distinct from the Holocene epoch that began approximately 11,700 years ago.
The idea that humanity is destroying the planet has been gaining traction in recent years as the effects of climate change have become increasingly visible and devastating. While this is a valid concern, a critique of how the Anthropocene frames this idea highlights the need for a broader analysis that considers the underlying power dynamics.
One of the main criticisms of this idea is that it reduces the planet to a resource and ignores the complex interconnections and relationships between humans and the environment. Focusing on the notion of humans as “destroyers” ignores that humans are also creators, innovators, and stewards of the environment. It also fails to recognise that humans are only one part of a complex ecosystem and that other species and forces contribute to the state of the planet.
This idea also ignores that there is a large amount of variability across different cultures regarding how they interact with the environment and that some cultures may be more sustainable than others. Failing to consider this variability reduces the complexity of the problem and fails to account for the fact that different cultures have different approaches to environmental stewardship.
“Humanity is destroying the planet” is an oversimplification of a much more complex problem. This notion ignores the larger systemic and structural forces contributing to environmental degradation, such as the capitalist system, which incentivises the profit-driven exploitation of natural resources. This idea is a convenient way of deflecting blame from powerful elite structures and onto citizens and consumers.
The idea that “Humanity is destroying the planet” is indeed often used as an attempt to place the blame for environmental destruction on the shoulders of the working-class consumer. However, the idea that working-class people are irresponsibly overconsuming is inaccurate and fails to consider the systemic inequalities in our current economic system. This form of class contempt rejects the fact that most working-class people are not making the decisions to overconsume but are struggling to make ends meet and make choices within the confines of a limited budget.
Similarly, this idiom is also deeply rooted in racist ideas of overpopulation and often used to unfairly blame populations in developing countries who are simply trying to live better lives. This narrative conveniently ignores that industrialised countries in the global north are the main contributors to emissions while simultaneously holding the global south responsible for the worldwide climate crisis. This neocolonial false narrative perpetuates a dangerous double standard in which affluent countries can continue their unsustainable practices while the global south is held accountable. In reality, the irresponsible practices of the global north are the main drivers of climate change, not overpopulation.
This ignores that wealthier Western countries are the most significant contributors to global emissions, waste, and other environmental destruction. Instead of holding these nations accountable, this rhetoric shifts the blame onto the world’s poorest and least powerful. It ignores the systemic inequalities that prevent them from making more sustainable choices.
By portraying the working class and global south countries as the main culprits behind environmental destruction, those with the most power and influence can avoid accountability and maintain the status quo. Additionally, this narrative serves to further entrench systemic oppression and inequality by creating a false dichotomy that pits the working class and the poor against the environment when the reality is that both are inextricably linked.
Additionally, by broadly attributing responsibility to humanity as a whole, the concept of the Anthropocene ignores the specific histories of colonialism and the oppressive neoliberal system that have enabled the current state of the environment. It ignores that particular populations, such as Indigenous peoples and people of colour, have been particularly impacted by environmental destruction due to their historical marginalisation.
Finally, the concept of the Anthropocene naturalises and obscures the fact that the current environmental crisis is a direct product of political, economic, and social decisions made by powerful systems of actors. This is a limited and ultimately harmful perspective, as environmental destruction is a complex problem that requires a complex solution. It is not a problem that can be solved simply by individuals alone but requires collective action from individuals, groups, businesses, institutions and governments.
Humanity is not destroying the world; a system is.
To replace the Anthropocene, a different term is slowly gaining traction: “the Capitalocene”. It is believed that the Capitalocene began in the late 18th century, when industrialisation began. Since then, industrial and productivist activity has had an increasingly devastating effect on the environment, leading to climate change, species extinction, and the disruption of natural ecosystems.
The term ‘Capitalocene’ was coined by the environmental theorist Jason W. Moore in his book Capitalism in the Web of Life. Moore argues that the current ecological crisis is the result of the capitalist system, and that the only way to prevent further environmental destruction is to fundamentally rethink our relationship with nature.
This includes transitioning to a more equitable and sustainable economic system, one that puts the needs of the planet and its inhabitants first.