Living in the Anthropocene

22 August 2017

Environmental Apartheid and Barbarism

For those who think the word ‘barbarism’ may be a bit of an exaggeration, examine the statement below, which was made in July 2014:

We understand that by withdrawing this rescue cover [for refugees in the Mediterranean] we will be leaving innocent children, women and men to drown who we would otherwise have saved. But eventually word will get around the war-torn communities of Syria and Libya and the other unstable nations of the region that we are indeed leaving innocent children, women and men to drown. And when it does, they will think twice about making the journey. And so eventually, over time, more lives will be saved.’

So who said this? Was it ex-BNP leader Nick Griffin? Or maybe Nigel Farage or Paul Nuttall of UKIP?

No - it is an extract from a written answer to the House of Lords, made by Lady Anelay, Minister of State for the Foreign Office! She was explaining why the UK government had decided no longer to support a sea-rescue programme designed to save refugees from death at sea.

What makes this particularly ‘barbaric’ is that many refugees are not just fleeing the effects of war and civil war in countries made ‘unstable’ by Western invasions or interference. Many are in fact climate change refugees, forced to escape from the effects of global warming caused, overwhelmingly, by developed countries such as the UK.

Climate change books

Much of what follows is from Facing the Anthropocene, published last year, and written by Ian Angus.

             Facing the Anthropocene               Capitalism v The Climate 

It’s definitely not ‘light’ summer reading! But it is an important book which, in many ways, is an up-date on Naomi Klein’s book on climate change, This Changes Everything, which was published in 2014.

Living in the Anthropocene Epoch

For those not familiar with the term, ‘Anthropocene’ (which first appeared in scientific papers in 2000) refers to the start of a new geological epoch which, according to most leading Earth System scientists, has now replaced the Holocene. In the ‘Holocene’ epoch - lasting approximately 11,500 years - there are rock strata in which ‘fossils are wholly recent’. ‘Anthropocene’ means geological strata deposits will now be - for the first time - massively dominated by those of recent human origin, as opposed to those due to natural changes.

There is evidence that human activities - as opposed to natural causes - have left significant traces in rock strata: mainly the release of carbon and other greenhouse gases as a consequence of increased burning of fossil fuels during the Industrial Revolution. This has led some Earth System scientists to argue that this is evidence of an ‘Early Anthropocene’ period - before the start of a much more ‘Recent Anthropocene’ period.

However, because of unprecedented economic growth - and environmental devastation - since 1945, most scientists have referred to the period after 1950 as the ‘Great Acceleration’. According to them, this is the real start date of the Anthropocene epoch.

These post-1950 developments have led to marked changes in a range of Earth System trends. Data concerning these changes were initially published in 2004, and showed that, from about 1950 to 2000, there had been massive increases in 12 different markers, such as the release of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane. In 2015, more recent research data enabled these markers to be up-dated to 2010:

Tipping Points and Planetary Bounderies

As a result, most Earth System scientists now argue that, since the end of World War II, the Earth has truly entered a new and dangerous stage in planetary evolution and abrupt climate change: the Anthropocene.

Tipping points and planetary boundaries

“The Anthropocene raises a new question: What are the non-negotiable planetary preconditions that humanity needs to respect in order to avoid the risk of deleterious or even catastrophic environmental change at continental to global scales?” J. Rockström et al. Planetary Boundaries, 2009

During the 1990s, various research projects on the Earth System, and on the nature of climate changes in previous geological epochs, revealed that some past climate changes often came rapidly, after certain key ‘tipping points’ had been passed. This relatively recent understanding of such ‘ecological volatility’ owes much to new techniques which allowed deep core samples to be taken from glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica, dating back over 800,000 years. 

The result has been that scientists now know that, in the geological past, relatively small changes/stimuli have driven great qualitative changes in the very delicately-balanced Earth System. Recent studies of earth history have shown that some of these changes have been relatively abrupt - as opposed to climate changes occurring gradually over many centuries or even millennia.

Yet the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change still bases its work on the assumption that climate change will be gradual and that therefore, although the 21st C. will be a warmer, stormier, and less biodiverse version of the 20th. C., it will just be less-pleasant but not fundamentally-different from life in the previous century.

Tipping points or thresholds in the Earth System, once passed, led to rapid climate change and sudden environmental transitions which have been a natural part of the climate system throughout Earth’s history. Some abrupt changes - for instance, a 10 degree C change! - occurred over time-periods as short as decades, or even a few years.

Clearly, such large abrupt climate changes will have huge impacts on ecosystems and societies. In 2007, a study began to identify which of Earths’ processes are most important to maintaining the climate stability of this planet. The first results were published in 2009, and dealt with the relatively-stable climate history of the Holocene epoch, during which humans developed agriculture.

It identified nine ecological processes - or ‘Planetary Boundaries’ - that have maintained the safe operating space for humanity over the past 12,000 years.

Planetary Boundaries

The conclusion was that for 3 of these planetary boundaries - climate change, biochemical flows (especially nitrogen pollution), and biodiversity loss - Earth was already in the danger zone, and for 3 others was nearly there. In 2015, further research showed that the danger zone for land-system change had also been passed.

However, the most important result was confirmation that such planetary boundaries are closely linked - not isolated from each other. For instance, major land-use changes in the Amazon could influence freshwater resources as far away as Tibet. Currently, atmospheric carbon dioxide is over 400 parts per million - compared to a maximum of 280 during the wildest climate swings of the Pleistocene epoch, which preceded the Holocene.

Many of the scientists involved pointed out that abrupt climate change is particularly dangerous, with societies having little or no warning that a forcing factor is approaching a critical tipping point or threshold. Thus if such tipping points are passed this century, there may well be little time for human societies to react and adapt in order to avert a major change.

Fossil Capitalism and Catastrophic Climate Change

“Comparison of the present extent of planetary change with that characterizing past global-scale state shifts, and the enormous global forcings we continue to exert, suggests that another global-scale state shift is highly plausible within decades to centuries, if it has not already been initiated.”. A. D. Barnosky et al. Approaching a State Shift 2012

In Paris in 2015, climate negotiators agreed that keeping increases in global average temperature below 2 degrees C - and ideally,1.5 degrees C - above pre-industrial levels was appropriate. However, many climate scientists were sceptical - even if ALL the 158 countries kept ALL their promises, experts calculated that there was a 90% chance that the temperature would rise by MORE than 2 degrees C by 2100, and a 33% chance that it would rise by more than 3 degrees C.

However, if the Paris COP21 climate agreements were broken - as previous ones have been - then it’s calculated that the global average temperature could be 4 degrees C above the pre-industrial level by 2080. Thus it is clear that ‘business as usual’ is not a safe option for humans or the planet as a whole. Especially as the signs that a transition to a new global climate regime, and/or new regional climate regimes, are already here.

Earth System scientists differ over whether the Anthropocene, and its increasingly-alarming evidence of abrupt and catastrophic climate change, is down to the activities of the entire human species - or, instead, to the particular economic system which has come to dominate global economic and political developments since 1945.

Those who take the latter view argue that the vast majority of these negative changes result from capitalism itself - and especially post-1950 capitalism which has been driven by what has been termed ‘Fossil Capitalism’’. Evidence shows that the changes in Earth System trends since 1950 share remarkably similar-shaped graphs to the main socio-economic trends during the period 1950-2010:

Socio-economic Trends

In 2015, Earth System scientists concluded that, for 9 of the 12 critical trends, the evidence is convincing that parameters have now moved well outside of the range of variability during the Holocene.  They - and ecosocialists - also agree that these fundamental shifts in the state and functioning of the Earth System have been, and are being, driven by human activities since 1950 - not by natural variability.

Ecosocialists in particular see the Anthropocene not just as a biophysical phenomenon, but also as a socio-ecological phenomenon. In particular, it is associated with capitalism’s drive for profit and accumulation - even if that profit comes from unsustainable growth. However, whilst global capitalism tries to expand infinitely, the Earth is not infinite.

From the beginnings of industrial capitalism 200 years ago, it was clear to contemporary observers such as William Morris that capitalism had anti-ecological characteristics. However, the main rift in the Earth’s carbon cycle really began with the great increase in the generalised use of coal. This rift was considerably widened by the invention of the internal combustion engine and then the aeroplane at the turn of the 19th C. and 20th. C - because this led in turn to a rapidly-growing market for petroleum which, previously had only been used for lighting and lubrication.

The new machines used gasoline which, until then, had been seen as a useless and even dangerous component of petroleum. This development led, very quickly, to its widespread use in military machines, and then in the expanding motor car market. At the same time, the chemical industries began developing products - such as plastics - made from by-products of oil-refining. By 1930, over 100 of the 200 largest companies in the US were in the petroleum, chemicals, metals, rubber or transportation: all closely related to the petroleum-automobile complex.

According to Andreas Malm, what he called the fossil economy - ‘an economy of self-sustaining growth predicated on the growing consumption of fossil fuels, and therefore generating a sustained growth in emissions of carbon dioxide’ - became thoroughly entrenched, not only throughout the developed countries, but also established strong footholds in developing countries, in the decades before 1950.

Yet, as Ian Angus points out, the Great Acceleration graphs that directly reflect fossil fuel use (carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, real GDP, primary energy use and transportation) show that fossil fuel had barely begun to achieve its full potential before 1950. As Barry Commoner stated four decades ago:

We know that something went wrong in the country after World War II, for most of our serious pollution problems either began in the postwar years or have greatly worsened since then. B. Commoner The Closing Circle 1971.

Barbarism and environmental apartheid

“The tens of millions of dead in the two World Wars brought about trillions of profitable investments in the huge reconstructions of destroyed homes and industries and ongoing rearmament: a million dollars or more per dead body.” D. Suvin In Leviathan’s Belly 2013.

This review of Ian Angus’s book began with an extract relating to today’s thousands of refugees, fleeing war, civil war and climate change from various developing countries.

But, before dealing with this issue of environmental apartheid, it’s worth remembering that the barbarism of fossil capitalism is also evidenced by its predilection for the massive profits large corporations make from war. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 is just one of the many more recent examples of war as business opportunities.

Oil and War

Of particular importance since 1900 has been the growing role of oil - it was important in World War I, and absolutely decisive in World War II. Six out of every seven barrels of oil used by the Allied forces 1939-45 came from US wells and were refined by US oil companies.

Concerns about future supplies of oil led the US, as early as 1943, to increase its control of Middle Eastern oil, beginning with an agreement with Saudi Arabia to give exclusive oil rights to a consortium of US oil corporations. At the same time, chemical companies became increasingly important - as a result of massive US government subsidies, post-1950 saw the rapid rise of what’s been called the ‘Age of Plastics’. Other important developments were the massive growth of corporations manufacturing cars, and those producing pesticides and artificial fertilisers for industrialised agriculture.

Oil Wells on Fire

Both US oil and chemical corporations were given a huge boost after 1945 via the Marshall Plan for European reconstruction. The Standard Oil Company, the biggest US oil company, benefitted most of all. This, and the discovery and exploitation of massive sources of cheap crude oil in the Middle East triggered off what became known as ‘The Golden Age’ from 1950 to 1973.

It was this which made the Great Acceleration possible: between 1976 and 1973, the world consumed more commercial energy than had been used in the entire period from 1800 to 1945.  History since 1950, as far as the Earth System perspective is concerned, has largely been an account of the expansion of fossil capitalism into every aspect of life and every part of the globe.

We are NOT all in this together

Many environmentalists - such as Al Gore - claim that we are all on the same planet and face the same dangers. However, this is not true - if we are all passengers on ‘Spaceship Earth’, it is clear that a minority travel first-class, whilst the majority of the world’s population are travelling third-class and are exposed to the elements with very little or even no protection at all.

The gross inequalities arising from global neoliberal capitalism are not just economic - they also relate to unequal exposure to the dangers of climate change and its resulting extreme weather events. Globally, 99% of weather disaster casualties are in developing countries, and 75% of them are women. The Global South suffers far more than the Global North, and within the South, the very poorest countries are hit hardest.

Even within the North, the same climate-change inequalities hold true - as shown by the impacts and aftermaths of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, or Hurricane Sandy in 2012. No billionaires numbered among the casualties in the North, no corporate owners or executives in the South have to witness their children dying from malnutrition.

Apart from extreme weather disasters, the poor in the Global South are increasingly victims of droughts and desertification as a result of global warming. They will also be the main victims of rising sea levels as the polar ice caps melt. As Oxfam reportedly recently, ‘The world’s most food-insecure regions will be hit hardest of all’ by climate change. By 2050, it is estimated that the number of people at risk of hunger is likely to increase by 10%-20% more than would be expected without climate change.

Facts on Desertification

Yet the 1%, who own 50% of the entire world’s wealth, show no real signs of taking on board the COP21  ‘agreements’ reached in Paris in December 2015. In fact, the US has just informed the UN officially that it is pulling out of those agreements. Some observers see this as an example of ‘exterminism’, whereby there is a tacit (if not open) acceptance of the necessity for mass exterminisms or die-offs as the price for the continued wealth accumulation and political dominance of the small neoliberal elite.

As is still dramatically clear, the first signs of serious climate-change impacts can be seen in the increasing numbers of people displaced by droughts, water-shortages, desertification and starvation. Incredibly, these mass displacements - and the much worse effects of climate change still to come - have led the US in particular to identify global warming as a threat to Western security.

Refugees on Boat

In 2003, the Pentagon commissioned a study relating to abrupt climate change - the conclusion was that wealthy nations such as the US would need to build ‘virtual fortresses’ to avoid consequences such as skirmishes, battles and even wars over increasingly scarce resources such as energy supplies, water and food. In particular, borders would need to be militarily defended against ‘unwanted starving immigrants’ from poorer countries seeking places of greater safety.  That is the stark scenario of the environmental apartheid which is already emerging.

We are coming to a fork in the road in human history, where the system of global capitalism is forcing an end to the Holocene Epoch of the last 12,000 years, the geological period within which human civilisation has developed, where we have to decide between ‘capitalism or the planet’. D. Weston The Political Economy of Global Warming: the Terminal Crisis 2014.

Allan Todd







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