The Anthropocene is a term geologists have begun using to refer to a new geological epoch, in which the action of humans has had such a dramatic effect upon the Earth’s climate, land, oceans and biosphere that humanity itself must now be considered a geological force in its own right1. Whilst there is some disagreement over when precisely the Anthropocene began, scientists generally date it to the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, mainly because of the newly-invented steam engine and the enormous expansion in the use of fossil fuels. The evidence adduced for the ‘Anthropocene’ is a series of stratigraphic signals – that is, lithological, geochemical and palaeobiological traces that are measured and interpreted by geologists in the present, or which will be read by imagined geologists in the future2.

Superficially, of course, there is no real problem with this. Within the strict limitations of geology as an academic discourse, the ‘Anthropocene’ is a relatively harmless term. The dangers arise, however, when geologists enter the political arena, calling for collective ecological intervention on the basis of their conception of the Anthropocene. For there exists something like a ‘spontaneous ideology’ of the scientists who have written on the Anthropocene, and whether they are aware of this problem or not, they have produced an implicit philosophy of history. This philosophy has as its theoretical corollary a specific type of abstract, naturalistic materialism, about which Marx himself wrote the following: ‘The weaknesses of the abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism which excludes the historical process, are immediately evident from the abstract and ideological conceptions expressed by its spokesmen whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their own speciality’3. It is just such ‘venturing beyond,’ and the incoherent discourse which inspires it, that I oppose.

At the heart of the Anthropocene lies the Anthropos: the human. But what or who is this ‘Anthropos’ exactly? No clear definition is ever given, and yet the literature on the Anthropocene regularly refers to such phenomena as ‘the human enterprise’. The problem with this is that, as Marx pointed out in his ‘Theses on Feuerbach,’ such a conception of humanity presupposes ‘an internal, ‘dumb’ generality which naturally unites the many individuals’4; this marked ‘a turning point in the history of humanity’s relation with the rest of nature, greater than any watershed since the rise of agriculture and the first cities’5. Thus, inherent to the Anthropocene discourse is a conception of historical causality which is purely mechanical: a one-on-one billiard ball model of technological invention and historical effect, which is simply inadequate to explain actual social and relational modes of historical causation. The fact that technology itself is bound up with social relations, and has often been used as a weapon in class war, plays no role in this discourse whatsoever. Marx’s dictum that ‘[i]t would be possible to write a whole history of the inventions made since 1830 for the sole purpose of providing capital with weapons against working-class revolt’6 is unthinkable within such a purview. To put it bluntly, then, for the Anthropocene technology is not political.

Even from a literary-critical perspective the Anthropocene is problematic.

  • 1. Crutzen 2002; Steffen et al. 2011; Zalasiewicz et al. 2011
  • 2. The temporality of the Anthropocene as a periodising category is bizarre indeed, shifting as it does between the present, a retroactively posited past and an imagined future
  • 3. Marx 1981: 494
  • 4. Marx 1975: 423[/fn], as opposed to a historical conception of humanity as internally differentiated and constantly developing via internal contradictions. To speak of the ‘human enterprise’ is to make of humanity an abstract corporation in which ‘we’re all in this together’ – the David Cameron maxim of 2009 – thus belying the reality of class struggle, exploitation and oppression.

    Moreover, the dating of the Anthropocene to the Industrial Revolution – because of the advent of the steam engine – points to its technological bias. Indeed, the Anthropocene discourse is a prime example of technological determinism: the notion that technological innovation is the motor of history, as opposed to the Marxist understanding in which historical development is driven by class struggle. As Jason W. Moore has observed, the historical roots of the phenomena covered by the term ‘Anthropocene’ lie, not in the invention of the steam engine, but in ‘the rise of capitalist civilization after 1450, with its audacious strategies of global conquest, endless commodification, and relentless rationalization’Moore 2014a: 5

  • 5. bid., 17
  • 6. Marx, 1981: 563