Anthropocene or Capitalocene?

Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism

This collection of essays explores what we should call this new geographic epoch marked by fossil-fueled climate change. The book argues convincingly against the term “Anthropocene,” which, while catchy, serves to disperse the blame for climate change across all humans when in reality only a small percentage of us are responsible. Editor Jason Moore argues for the clunky but more accurate “Capitalocene,” while Donna Haraway proffers the inventive “Cthulucene.” Regardless of the name, there’s smart thinking in here about the origins and responses to climate change.

Reading notes

The poverty of our nomenclature

In Anthropocene or Capitalocene?, editor Jason Moore collects a number of essays that interrogate what to call this new epoch. In the first essay, Eileen Crist writes:

The Anthropocene? Such is the poverty of our nomenclature to bow once more before the tedious showcasing of Man. To offer a name which has no added substantive content, no specific empirical or ethical overtones, no higher vision ensconced within it—beyond just Anthropos defining a geological epoch. If a new name were called for, then why not have a conversation or debate about what it should be, instead of being foisted (for a very long time, I might add) with the Age of Man as the “obvious choice”?

Moore, Anthropocene or Capitalocene?, page 27

There are several things I take from this (and the rest of Crist’s excellent essay): that the failure to acknowledge the gendered nature of the “Anthropos” is one of many flaws with the term “Anthropocene”; that the idea of the Anthropocene is one that looks to the past, even though it purports to name an epoch that is only just beginning; and that whatever naming choice we make now will impact our understanding of the world for perhaps thousands of years. It’s possible even to imagine this as the last epoch—since there’s no guarantee humans will even be around in ten thousand years’ time.

To the book’s titular question, I can only answer: neither. A new epoch may be upon us, but I don’t think we’re yet qualified to name it.

We are at stake to each other

Donna Haraway rejects both the term “Anthropocene” and its lesser-known cousin “Capitalocene,” proposing instead we refer to this new epoch as the “Chthulucene.” The Chthulucene has, by my estimate, a less than zero chance of becoming a widely adopted term, but as usual, Haraway’s argument is cogent.

[T]he Chthulucene is made up of ongoing multispecies stories and practices of becoming-with in times that remain at stake, in precarious times, in which the world is not finished and the sky has not fallen—yet. We are at stake to each other. Unlike the domininant dramas of Anthropocene and Capitalocene discourse, human beings are not the only important actors in the Chthulucene, with all other beings able simply to react. The order is rather reversed: human beings are with and of the earth, and the other biotic and abiotic powers of this earth are the main story.

However, the doings of situated, actual human beings matter. It matters which ways of living and dying we cast our lot with rather than others. It matters not just to human beings, but also to those many critters across taxa which and whom we have subjected to exterminations, extinctions, genocides, and prospects of futurelessness. Like it or not, we are in the string figure game of caring for and with precarious worldings made terribly more precarious by fossil-burning man making new fossils as rapidly as possible in Anthropocene and Capitalocene orgies. Diverse human and nonhuman players are necessary in every fiber of the tissues of the urgently needed Chthulucene story. The chief actors are not restricted to the too-big players in the too-big stories of Capitalism and the Anthropos, both of which invite odd apocolyptic panics and even odder disengaged denunciations rather than attentive practices of thought, love, rage, and care.

Both the Anthropocene and the Capitalocene lend themselves to cynicism, defeatism, and self-certain and self-fulfilling predictions, like the “game over, too late” discourse I hear all around me these days, in both expert and popular discourses, in which both technotheocratic geoengineering fixes and wallowing in despair seem to co-infect any possible common imagination.

Moore, Anthropocene or Capitalocene?, page 59

The precariousness she discusses here is also a theme in Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s excellent book, The Mushroom at the End of the World, as is the notion that we need to decenter humans from ecologies—without excluding them. We are of nature not apart from it, and by no means the heart of it. What’s interesting about both Tsing and Haraway’s writing is the implicit and explicit feminism of their positions. Which is also another knock against the Anthropocene: it neither foregrounds equality nor rejects the “age of man” that chokes its roots.

Transforming the relations of power

Stipulating that a new geological epoch has begun—and sidestepping, for the moment, whether we call it the Anthropocene or the Capitalocene or the Chthulucene or some other hard to pronouce term—the next question we have to answer is, when did it start? Some have argued that the invention of the steam engine—and the coal pits it engendered—mark the beginning, since it was then that economic growth took off with the help of fossil resources and started us on the path to the currently disastrous amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Others argue the beginning should be marked from the invention of capitalism, which itself gave rise to the conditions that made the transition from water to steam power appealing. Moore considers both options:

The difference speaks to divergent historical interpretations—and also to differences in political strategy. To locate modernity’s origins through the steam engine and the coal pit is to prioritize shutting down the steam engines and the coal pits, and their twenty-first century incarntions. To locate the origins of the modern world with the rise of capitalism after 1450, with its audacious strategies of global conquest, endless commodification, and relentless rationalization, is to prioritize a much different politics—one that pursues a fundamental transformation of the relations of power, knowledge, and capital that have made the modern world. Shut down a coal plant, and you can slow global warming for a day; shut down the relations that made the coal plant, and you can stop it for good.

Moore, Anthropocene or Capitalocene?, page 94

I’m not sure I’m any more convinced by 1450 as a beginning as I am by 1750 or some other date, but I think Moore’s point here is spectacularly important: determining the beginning of this new epoch isn’t merely a matter of locating a pivotal point but of structuring our response to the entire period. That is, this is a political decision as much as it is a historical or scientific one.