Transforming the relations of power

A Reading Note

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.

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This collection of essays explores what we should call this new geographic epoch marked by fossil-fueled climate change.