Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon May 27 16:27:52 MDT 2013


When and where did humanity’s modern relation with the rest of nature 
begin? The question has gained new prominence with growing public 
concern over accelerating climate change. For the past decade, one 
answer to this question has captivated scholarly and popular audiences 
alike: the Anthropocene.

It is, in Paul Vooser’s apt phrase, “an argument wrapped in a word” (2012).

But just what kind of argument is it? As with all fashionable concepts, 
the Anthropocene has been subject to a wide spectrum of interpretations. 
But one is dominant. This one tells us that the origins of modern world 
are to be found in England, right around the dawn of the 19th century 
(Crutzen and Stoermer, 2000; Crutzen, 2002; Steffen, Crutzen, and 
McNeill, 2007; Steffen, et al, 2011a, 2011b; Chakrabarty, 2009; Davis, 
2010; Swyngedouw, 2013). The motive force behind this epochal shift? In 
two words: coal and steam. The driving force behind coal and steam? Not 
class. Not capital. Not imperialism. Not even culture. But… you guessed 
it, the Anthropos. Humanity as an undifferentiated whole.

The Anthropocene makes for an easy story. Easy, because it does not 
challenge the naturalized inequalities, alienation, and violence 
inscribed in modernity’s strategic relations of power, production, and 
nature. It is an easy story to tell because it does not ask us to think 
about these relations at all. As a metaphor for communicating the 
significant – and growing – problem posed by greenhouse gas emissions 
and climate change, the Anthropocene is to be welcomed. But the 
Anthropocene argument goes much further than this. For Will Steffen and 
his colleagues (2011b), the great conceptual inspiration for their 
analyses of our present conjuncture – and how we have arrived at this 
unfortunate state of affairs – is not Darwin or Vernadsky, but Malthus. 
Their Anthropocene is one in which today’s crises are framed through and 
explained by the neo-Malthusian vistas of resource scarcity (peak 
everything) and rising population.

 From this vantage point, we might all do well to take a moment to step 
back and ask, Does the Anthropocene argument obscure more than it 

Almost certainly. Above all, the Anthropocene argument obscures, and 
relegates to context, the actually existing relations through which 
women and men make history with the rest of nature: the relations of 
power, (re)production, and wealth in the web of life.


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