Ian Angus, Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System (2016) — a book review

© 2018 Peter Free


06 August 2018



A cogent overview of global warming, its socioeconomic causes — and where we (ideally) could go from here


Facing the Anthropocene is one of few books to cogently indict capitalism as an inevitable cause of global warming.


The book derives its name from the currently proposed idea that the officially still reigning Holocene has been replaced by the planet's first human-initiated geological epoch.


Angus's book is divided into three sections:



The first provides a scientific overview of how human-caused global warming has occurred. And further, why this change (and its associated interferences with the planet's systems) merits a new geological epoch.


The second section of the book persuasively sees capitalism as a cause of what has happened.


And the third proposes an "ecosocialistic" reorganization of economic society in response.



The first two sections are intellectually strong.


The third is too idealized to be practicable, in my estimation. It lacks a list of concrete methods by which to seize power from those who have it. Absent such, we may well be stuck with an Anthropocene that eats most of us alive. So to speak.


This mild criticism aside, the book superbly describes:



climatically where we are,


the economic system that generated these disaster-generating problems,


and even


what a more humanly equitable and planet-sparing (non-capitalist) economic and social system would look like.



The section on climate


Angus does an outstanding job of synopsizing the most persuasive pieces of climatic evidence. For scientifically minded readers, these include a handful of graphs that make the case all by themselves.


First among those graphs, is page 69's representation of how unusually temperature-stable the Holocene has been — as compared with the much longer Pleistocene that preceded it.


The Holocene's uniqueness alone should raise an "uh oh" response. Those roughly 12,000 years — essentially the agricultural age — have been uncharacteristically (and stably) suited to most of humanity's current lifestyles.


Angus moreover reminds us that even the Holocene contained comparatively minor instability blips. Those, quantitatively mild though they were (in comparison to the Pleistocene), introduced very unpleasant times. We can thus surmise that introducing more instability (as we are doing now) is not going to go well for lots of us.


Pictorially, a series of Gaussian distributions follows the Holocene discussion. These begin on page 91. A graph there explains the concept of standard deviations (for those unfamiliar with the term). It shows how increasing instability reduces the frequency of "normal" happenings and increases the numericity of "unusual" events.


Three graphs on page 92 then demonstrate how increased climatic variability and increased weather extremes will look, as the Anthropocene gains steam. To make a bad pun.


People who are not accustomed to interpreting graphical representations of masses of data will benefit from reading Angus's well-presented and scientifically supported explanations.


Taken together, Angus's explanations destroy change-denialists' head-in-sand thinking. No author that I have read does such a good job of pointing out what's obvious to the supermajority of scientifically minded people.


Equally striking in this section — with respect to humanity's generalized wake-up call — is Angus's mention of how fortunate we were in the timing and direction of the ozone-depletion research that fortuitously took place before the global warming battle got fully underway.


If you are the kind of reader who needs narrowly escaped disaster to motivate interest, the CFC (chlorofluorocabon) emissions part of the book will get your attention.





Facing the Anthropocene provides a concisely persuasive explication of how capitalism inherently (a) destroys the commons and (b) impoverishes non-elites.


The core problem is that capitalism enshrines profit as its sole measure of success. This system (based on greed) aggravates its inherent despoilation by tossing in a "grow faster" (shareholder-derived) requirement. Capitalism's go faster and faster structure is completely out of synch with Nature's much slower time scale.


Thus, capitalism extracts planetary resources (and kills species) at a rate that is metaphorically geological eons faster than Nature can replace them.


During this discussion, Angus hits on some points that resonate (with me) with regard to the American contribution to creating the runaway Anthropocene.


One of these is the destructiveness of Big Oil and its Military Industrial Complex sidekick. Of both, Angus says:



For the American plutocracy, the Second World War was the most profitable enterprise in its whole career. It made the American capitalists the richest rulers that had ever emerged in human history. (at page 139, quoting J. Thorne)


Military Keynesianism — massive military spending to maintain or increase economic growth — has been a fundamental feature of the U.S. economy, no matter which political party was in office, for over half a century. (at page 141)


At no time since 1929 has American capitalism maintained even a semblance of economic stability and growth without huge military spending and war debt. (at page 143)


The Marshall Plan's purpose was to strengthen U.S. corporations — especially oil companies — in the United States and internationally. (at page 146)


Thus what the Marshall Plan actually did was to enable the biggest American oil company [Standard Oil of New Jersey] to shift some merchandise from one department [Esso Export] to another [Standard Oil Export], collecting two profits on the operation, at the expense of the American taxpayer. (at pages 146-147)


Between 1948 and 1951, more than half of the oil sold to Western European buyers by U.S. oil companies was paid for with Marshall Plan funds. (at page147)


Analysts at the Trans National Institute calculate that global military spending in 2013 totaled $1.7 trillion — "130 times that of planned humanitarian spending and dwarfing any investment in climate change." (at page 160)


Today the U.S. military is the world's largest user of petroleum, and the largest polluter, producing more hazardous waste than the five largest U.S. chemical companies combined, and the largest producer of greenhouse gases. (at page 160)


Vaclav Smil estimates that during the 1990s the U.S. military consumed "more than the total commercial energy consumption of nearly two-thirds of the world's countries" — and that excludes fuel used in the 1991 Gulf War and the 1998 bombings of Serbia and Kosovo. (at page 161)



Regarding capitalism's antisocial effects, Angus has the following (among lots more) to say:



Much of what seems to be a result of climate change is actually driven by policies of racism and exclusion that are embedded in the illogical logic of fossil capitalism. . . .


The best definition was given by Stan Goff in his summing-up of the lessons of [Hurricane] Katrina:


"[Exterminism is] the tacit or open acceptance of the necessity for mass exterminations of die-offs . . . as the price for continue accumulation and political dominance of a ruling class . . . . frequently accomplished by calculated neglect . . . ."


We could see exterminism in action in 2014 and 2015, when thousands of people from the Middle East and Africa drowned while attempting to reach Europe. (at page 180)



Angus goes on to demonstrate that exterminism and neglect are major parts of American strategic planning.


(This can be evidenced by reading publicly available American national security papers, as I have, in depth.)


To this, Angus adds the parallel observation that:



While the military targets climate-change victims as enemies of the capitalist way of life, global elites are preparing for dark times by creating protected spaces for themselves, their families, and their servants in the hope of ensuring that they continue to get more than their share of the world's wealth, no matter what happens to anyone else. (at pages 184-185)



The key point here is this one:



As capitalism has plundered the world, it has made an increasingly large proportion of the population not just "relatively redundant" but absolutely surplus to capital's profit-making requirements. They aren't needed as producers or consumers.


"Deaths from starvation of exposed and vulnerable populations and massive habitat destruction will not necessarily trouble capital . . . precisely because much of the world's population has become redundant and disposable anyway." (at page 187, quoting David Harvey)



This human disposability element should be obvious to anyone who has been paying attention.



An alternative to capitalism — ecosocialism


In demonstrating that capitalism cannot reform itself, Angus begins his concluding section of the book — at pages 189-190 — with a paragraph taken from Gus Speth's 2008 volume, The Bridge at the Edge of the World.


Speth's paragraph provides a brief and persuasive explanation of why American institutions are useless in tempering capitalism's unceasingly destructive effects.


Angus, therefore, addresses what we can do to rectify the situation.


In doing this, I think he heads off into Cloud LaLa Land. For instance, he says that:



Capitalism has driven the Earth System to a crisis point in the relationship between humanity and the rest of nature. If business as usual continues, the first full century of the Anthropocene will be marked by rapid deterioration of our physical, social, and economic environment.


The only way to avoid that is with methods that are anathema to capitalism. Profit must be removed from consideration; all changes must be made as part of a democratically created and legally binding global plan that governs both the conversion to renewables and the rapid elimination of industries and activities, such as arms production, advertising, and factory farming . . . . (at page 191)



In fairness, Angus follows these paragraphs with more precise formulations of what our goals should look like.


Those lists and paragraphs are too lengthy to quote or synopsize in this review. However, the above quoted paragraph is representative of their (arguably) "and then a miracle happens" tone.


To be clear, I do not quarrel with Angus's desired (debatably utopian) end points.


What I do quarrel with are his radically optimistic assumptions:



First, what magic is going to remove the profit motive?


Second, which student of history, or psychology and sociology, thinks that democracy is reliable antidote to displays of abysmal ignorance and stone-headed stupidity?


Third, how does one come up with a workably unified global plan — given the disparity in wealth, resources and interests of the world's populations, population subsets, and their leaders?


Fourth, what mechanism could possibly enforce even a "legally binding" agreement? As it is, for example, the United States runs rampant over international law whenever it and wherever it wills.


Fifth, and more generally, does anyone think that Elites and Powers that Be are going to meekly surrender their abilities to pillage and enslave — without first facing an immediately enforceable threat of being killed and turned into dog food?



The figurative Chairman Mao in me recoils from wishful foolishness.


There is nothing in History that provides a geographically universal alternative to the Mao's observation that "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun."



The "barrel of a gun" issue — expanded


Proposing concrete steps (to achieving Angus's arguably utopian ecosocialism) will probably require more violently inclined sensibilities than his and mine.


In that regard, I think that Paul Street's recent comment about revolutionary tribunalslike Cambodia's and those of the French Revolution — is probably more realistic. Change almost always comes through violent chaos.


Even Mahatma Gandhi's India does not disprove the point. Getting rid of the Brit invaders was qualitatively different than overturning the endemically destructive system that brought them to India. If it were not, India would be a human paradise. It is not.


I suppose (in Ian Angus's defense), it is possible that the unpleasantness of the deepening Anthropocene may motivate billions of people to revolt. Perhaps, by then, they will have nothing left to lose. And maybe, by sheer force of numbers, they will succeed in taking down some of the existing system.


Certainly, as Angus says, substituting ecosocialism would be an admirable step in a more humanitarian and planet-preserving direction. Provided, of course, that one could achieve and maintain that idea's generosity of spirit, while working with real (rather than imaginary) people.


My pessimism — as to the vaguely set out achievability of Angus's ecosocialist vision — stems from the historical record:



For example, Noam Chomsky once explained the rather vague concept of "anarchism." Portions of which are not far — in terms their emphasis on democratically run worker cooperatives — from ecosocialism.


But all Chomsky could come up with as an example of successful attempts at anarcho-syndicalist organization were very briefly lived worker takeovers during the Spanish Civil War. Those did not last even a year.


Once the capitalists in charge (under Franco the facist) took aim, they vanished.


See Chomsky on Anarchism — editor Barry Pateman, AK Press, 1969, 2005 — at pages 43-55.



As I said, barrel of a gun.


The key to peaceful societal change (as Angus, Chomsky and virtually every other kind-hearted Leftist proposes) is either to:



(a) get guns away from capitalist warmongers




(b) persuade those who carry them not to use them.



Given that the planet-wide Military Industrial Complex exists precisely to squash the likelihood of both those possibilities — good luck with that.



The moral? — Facing the Anthropocene is highly recommended


Sections one and two of the book are invitingly cogent. No matter your political philosophy.


Section three is flawed as a "do this and go there" map. But it nevertheless provides a reasonable description of a more fairly constructed and planet-preserving society.


In other words, the book explains a bad situation and provides us with a description of an end-state that very slowly "damps" it out. Angus, however, just does not provide convincing explanations of the explicit steps necessary to unseat the capitalist ethos — as well as its innumerable and armed minions — that are in the way.


This mild disappointment (if one can even fairly call it such) aside, Facing the Anthropocene is a superb book.