The shock of the anthropocene

Haven’t posted for ages (seem to have said that before), but here’s a brief book review I did a while back for Public Understanding of Science, which is now in print.

Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz (translated by David Fernbach) The shock of the anthropocene. London and New York: Verso, 2016. ISBN 9781784780821

The Anthropocene may not be with us officially yet – a subgroup of the International Commission on Stratigraphy is still deliberating. However, the notion that we live in a new geological era defined by humans’ effects on the planet is getting a lot of academic attention across disciplines. Here, two environmental historians offer a critical take on the idea. They argue that it fits into a simple narrative in which new science reveals a hitherto unsuspected level of human impact, which the same scientists then advise us how to address – whether or not we take heed.

They highlight alternatives to that framing – the basic proposition that we have new scientific evidence sufficient to define a new era seems to be accepted. And the authors also aver that it cre- ates ‘a new human condition’, shaped by imminent changes of state in the Earth system ‘to which the genus Homo … is neither biologically adapted nor culturally prepared’.

Their main effort is to renarrate how this came about. There are many strands to this woven into a short book. But the simplest summary is that it is the emergence of the capitalist world system that has both ushered in the Anthropocene and seen the suppression of a long-succession of efforts to defend the environment, in the largest sense, against capitalist appropriation.

There certainly is a history of such efforts, large and small, and it is fascinating to see conti- nuities between, for example, struggles over European forest management (where management generally means better organised depletion) from the eighteenth century on and contemporary movements in Amazonia or Indonesia. The coverage here is probably too thin to allow a judge- ment on how important they are. However, they certainly document a rich range of responses to the environmental, as well as social, effects of the age of capital. And that documentation takes in a raft of French studies that will be unfamiliar to many Anglophone readers.

The tone is generally measured, with occasional shifts towards polemic, and the translation is excellent. There is a small lapse in symmetry in one respect: narratives of the Anthropocene and its discovery are treated with scepticism, while measures of the ‘global footprint’ are taken at face value rather than, for instance, regarded as rhetorical claims. There is much to ponder here, though, for anyone trying to make sense of the Anthropocene. And, from another point of view, the book would itself be a fascinating production to analyse as a case study in shaping cultural readings of a new scientific term when it is still brand new.

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