SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 221 September 2018

Epoch making decisions

The Human Planet: how we created the Anthropocene

By Simon L Lewis and Mark A Maslin

Published by Pelican Books, 2018, £8.99

Has human activity had such a huge impact on the planet that the name of the current geological age should be named accordingly? That is a debate taking place among academics over recent years. So, are we are living in the Anthropocene epoch?

Simon L Lewis and Mark A Maslin, from University College London, are members of the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG), formed by the International Commission on Stratigraphy to try and produce sufficient evidence to answer this question. Further, presuming it answers in the positive, it will need to agree on the correct ‘golden spike’ to mark the start of this new epoch.

A golden spike is the term geologists use for an event of global proportions which produces consistent results across different ecosystems around a similar timescale and can, therefore, define a new epoch in earth’s history. The most well-known golden spike is the layer of iridium that appears rather suddenly in rock layers globally. This was after an asteroid collided with earth creating conditions in which the majority of land animals, including the dinosaurs, became extinct – the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction.

The reason Lewis and Maslin felt the need to publish their opinions is that the AWG’s chair announced unilaterally to the media that the group’s proposed golden spike would be the nuclear tests at the end of the second world war. This period is referred to as ‘the great acceleration’, bringing in the current stage of consumer capitalism.

Lewis and Maslin, however, favour the ‘Orbis spike’, caused by the collapse of the empires based on agriculture in Central America, after the massacres and exposure to disease spread by European conquistadors. The catastrophic depopulation and forest regrowth led to carbon dioxide levels falling – and the earth cooled for the last time, to date.

Perhaps surprisingly, this book is not another story of environmental doom and gloom caused by global warming and environmental destruction. It is a clear analysis of the development of history and a sober, yet generally positive, book highlighting the great achievements of human endeavour.

Fundamentally, it is about the relationship between humanity and the planet. Lewis and Maslin make a compelling case that humans are not just a force within nature. They argue that we are now the biggest driver of change to the earth and its ecosystems.

In fact, the first scientist to make use of the specific term Anthropocene was the leading Russian geologist and stratigrapher, Aleksei Petrovich Pavlov (1854-1929). He developed it to reflect his changed worldview after the momentous events of the Russian revolution of 1917, the idea being that humanity’s development was not simply some historical phenomenon but was part of a great transformative geological process.

These ideas became dominant in the Soviet Union as its science developed independently of western academia. In the west, the Holocene – a vague term translated as ‘entirely recent’ – was the name given to the era dated from the end of the last ice age around 11,700 years ago and continuing to the present day.

Although this book was written by academics in the field of geology, at its core it is about politics and has many ideas useful to Marxists’ understanding of the world in the 21st century. Lewis and Maslin divide human society into five distinct stages to provide a framework for the Anthropocene. These are: hunter gatherer societies; agricultural; mercantile capitalism; industrial capitalism; and consumer capitalism.

The authors chose these because they represent leaps in humanity’s impact on the environment. In each stage, not only did the human population expand massively, but so did the amount of knowledge passed on to future generations, and the amount of energy each used. It might be useful to think of them as a geologist’s framework for understanding the development of human society. It complements the theory of historical materialism created by Karl Marx and developed by Friedrich Engels, by concentrating on how and why humanity will continue to influence the planet.

The clearest example is when Lewis and Maslin look at what they call ‘mercantile capitalism’, the period of conquest of the ‘new world’ – new to the colonisers, of course, not to the indigenous peoples devastated by the contact. The opening up of trade routes to the Americas, Africa and Asia, gave a huge boost to the forces of early capitalism, with fortunes made on spices and ‘exotic’ commodities, and the exploitation of lands and peoples. The subsequent, massive development of the slave trade then laid the bloody foundations on which ‘industrial capitalism’ was built, above all, by the British empire.

Within the framework of the Anthropocene, the main significance of this process is what the book refers to as ‘Pangea 2.0’. This concentrates on the long-lasting impacts that the ‘Columbian exchange’ of the mercantile capitalism stage brought about as humanity reunited the continents, plants and animals for the first time in many millennia through the conquest of the oceans.

In the book’s concluding chapter the challenges facing humanity are contrasted with the potential for the development of a new society. Lewis and Maslin emphasise the possibility for positive feedback loops leading towards a new ‘post-capitalist’ society. They consider this to be the most likely outcome. Unfortunately, this chapter makes no mention of socialism. Instead, it focuses on fashionable ideas, such as a universal basic income.

The chapter includes sharp criticisms of the use of bioengineering carbon capture and storage technology to mitigate climate change. This is the method whereby organic material is burnt and later stored underground as carbon. However, it is estimated that the amount of land needed to produce enough organic material to keep global temperature rises to 2°C would be roughly double the size of India. Lewis and Maslin rightly point out that, with the increasing pressures on land use, it would be more likely that capitalism would chose the more ‘economical’ option of sacrificing earth’s natural ecosystems.

Lewis and Maslin also put forward a number of solutions to what they refer to as the ‘Anthropocene conundrum’. This is shorthand for the future pressures facing humanity, such as the human population rising to ten billion and the increasing ‘westernisation’ of lifestyles in the developing world. Some of these are very innovative and represent a good roadmap that a future socialist government could use to help transform the economy and save the environment.

They advocate Harvard biologist and environmentalist EO Wilson’s ‘Half Earth’ theory. This is the idea that half of the habitable land on the planet should be protected from human development and areas left for nature to return. It is argued that this could have widespread positive impacts on ecosystems when combined with re-wilding, exemplified by the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone national park. The concept at its core is that the best way to reverse deforestation and habitat destruction is to allow the natural world to expand again.

The theories proposed by Lewis and Maslin are in stark contrast to mainstream political ideas on how to deal with climate change and human development. Further, they do not let their hopes and the potential they see in science and technology stop them from recognising the role the global elite play in society. They make the point that there are significant ongoing barriers to the development of a new post-capitalist society, such as inequality, and that any major change that takes power away from the elites will have to be fought for.

Fundamentally, the debate over the reclassification of the geological epoch is not random. Capitalism has no real solutions to any of its current or developing problems and cannot hide the vast problems it is storing up.

Ultimately, however, as well intentioned as they are, the solutions proposed by Lewis and Maslin are utopian – because they are not put forward as part of a socialist programme to transform society. Such a programme would point a way forward to how the vast potential of humanity could be freed from the constraints of capitalism, and how a new society and world could be built.

Robert Sharkey

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