The Holocene Hangover

As a child growing up in the early 1980s, I often daydreamed of space exploration and interstellar frontiers. The leap into outer space seemed tantalizingly close. In the science fiction stories I ...

As a child growing up in the early 1980s, I often daydreamed of space exploration and interstellar frontiers. The leap into outer space seemed tantalizingly close. In the science fiction stories I read, the chronology of the future was also the potential biography of adulthood. One story projected a settlement on Mars in 1995; another depicted the grim labor of asteroid mining a decade later; a third imagined an encounter with alien artifacts in the Alpha Centauri system after 2020. The common thread in these stories, easily intuited even by an 11-year-old, was the lesson that the Earth was not our home.1

Now the science fiction dream of leaving the planet behind appears to be coming true. One of the most striking effects of climate change—often remarked upon by writers—is its power to unsettle our basic understanding of the modern world. Our planet is changing into a strange and unstable new environment, in a process seemingly outside technological control. The fossil fuels that once promised mastery over nature have turned out to be tools of destruction, disturbing the basic biogeochemical processes that make our world habitable. Even the recent past is no longer what we thought it was. Scientists are telling us that the whole territory of modern history, from the end of World War II to the present, forms the threshold to a new geological epoch.

Our new planet is emerging quickly. The global climate is only one of nine earth system processes under threat. Land use is changing rapidly thanks to urbanization, agriculture, and population pressure. The rate of biodiversity loss is increasing in many ecosystems. Acidification is affecting marine biodiversity as well as the capacity of oceans to absorb carbon dioxide. The supply of fresh water in many regions is deteriorating. Aerosol loading and ozone depletion threaten the stability of the earth system’s atmosphere. Industrial agriculture has perturbed the global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles. Finally, chemical pollution may pose a risk not just at the local or regional level but also worldwide. Indeed, the planet’s biosphere bears so many marks of anthropogenic influence that it no longer possible to uphold the age-old distinction between the realm of wilderness and the world of human habitation.

To call attention to this unprecedented danger, the atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and the ecologist Eugene Stoermer in 2000 proposed a new name for the geological epoch we inhabit: the Anthropocene. For the first time, humans have become the prime drivers of the planetary climate. We have left behind the relatively stable pattern of natural variability that governed the environment in the Holocene epoch, beginning some 11,700 years ago. In the original formulation, Crutzen and Stoermer picked 1784 as the origin of the new epoch: the year of James Watt’s patent for a steam engine with a separate condenser. Britain’s early transition into the fossil fuel economy marked the end of the Holocene. More recently, the Working Group on the Anthropocene, established to validate the epoch in formal stratigraphic terms, has shifted the chronology of the Anthropocene from the Industrial Revolution to the Great Acceleration—the economic boom after World War II. One of the members of the Working Group, the leading environmental historian John McNeill, together with the policy analyst Peter Engelke, has now coauthored a short introduction to the new chronology of the Anthropocene entitled The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945. Their book is among the first scholarly works to make explicit use of the geological framework of the Anthropocene for the purpose of rethinking the grand narratives of global economic change.

From a geological perspective, the dating of the Anthropocene turns on the problem of how to identify a stable and durable stratigraphic signal that might be detected by observers in a distant future. What sort of fossils will we leave behind? Geologists sometimes joke about the Coca-Cola layer of modern civilization. Among the plausible candidates proposed by the Working Group on the Anthropocene are microplastics, metal alloys, and artificial isotopes. Such stratigraphic markers must be placed in their historical context. The scientific identification of the Anthropocene with the year 1945 gives us not just a plausible geological end to the Holocene, but also a watershed that fits comfortably with a great body of scholarly work about the historical consequences of World War II. McNeill and Engelke’s work is concerned not so much with the specific stratigraphic signature of the Anthropocene as the broader social, political, and environmental changes that reshaped the world’s economy after 1945.

The Great Acceleration, like the Anthropocene, is a concept of fairly recent coinage. It surfaced in an interdisciplinary workshop in 2005 and was popularized by Will Steffen in the discourse on planetary change. The name was meant to echo Karl Polanyi’s famous thesis about the rise of market society and the social basis of all economies. But the Great Acceleration takes Polanyi’s approach a step further by suggesting an environmental foundation to economic development. Postwar growth must be understood in not only its social but also its biophysical context. In scientific terms, the Great Acceleration captures the systemic and interrelated impacts of economic development on the biosphere. It is closely connected to the idea of “planetary boundaries” put forward in 2009 by the environmental scientist Johan Rockström and his group of collaborators.2

“Planetary boundaries” represent approximate quantitative values for thresholds of environmental risks beyond which we can expect nonlinear and irreversible change on a continental or planetary level. Most famously, climate scientists have warned that any carbon emissions above 350 parts per million (ppm) represents unacceptable danger to the welfare of the planet and humanity. The big rise in emissions that brought us past this threshold happened in the past three generations. While the origin of fossil fuel burning goes back to the Industrial Revolution (which set us on an emissions path beyond the Holocene’s natural variability of 260 to 285 ppm), the truly dramatic rise in carbon dioxide emissions, from 310 to 400 ppm, has occurred between 1950 and 2015. The concept of the Great Acceleration encourages us to conceive of postwar capitalism as a biogeochemical process: the history of post-Fordism, the triumph of the welfare state, les trente glorieuses, and the rise of the BRIC powers all contributed to the upward trend of emissions and the increasing disequilibrium of the carbon cycle.

For McNeill and Engelke, the quickening pace of economic growth in the postwar era was the outcome of several closely connected forces. Competition between the West and the Soviet bloc created “an enormous incentive to stimulate economic recovery and growth, albeit using very different methods.” The American contribution was of course crucial, but equally important, according to McNeill and Engelke, was the “centrally planned gigantism” of Soviet industrialization. In both cases, “energy use and economic expansion proceeded in lockstep.” Fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas—provided the bulk of the cheap energy required. Throughout the postwar era, energy consumption was “always highest in the world’s richest countries.” Cheap and plentiful energy drove the unprecedented pace of urbanization and the rise of “megacities” after 1950. Fossil fuels were also central to industrial agriculture, with very high inputs of energy for every calorie produced.

McNeill and Engelke’s work is concerned with broad social, political, and environmental changes that reshaped the world’s economy after 1945.

The final chapter of The Great Acceleration is dedicated to cultural change. A common version of the Anthropocene argument adopts a stage-based model of how environmental consciousness evolves: after a long period of blindness about the damage of greenhouse gas emissions, science gradually caught up and sowed seeds of awareness in the postwar era that are now blossoming in a third stage of “planetary stewardship.” The picture painted by McNeill and Engelke is far more ambiguous. They trace a pattern of increasing concern with environmental issues over the postwar period, marked by milestones such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the Torrey Canyon oil spill, and the nuclear disasters of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. But McNeill and Engelke also stress that worries about climate have become significantly widespread only very recently. Not until the late 1980s did anthropogenic climate change become an object of concern beyond scientific circles. Even as scientific certainty has grown, powerful social, economic, and political headwinds have thwarted effective action. With a threat so gradual and so unevenly distributed in terms of damage, it is perhaps not a great surprise that mitigation efforts have been hampered by neglect, indifference, and outright denialism. Our “systems of thought and ideologies,” “customs and habits,” and “institutions and policies” remain “in the Late Holocene.” “Adjustment to the Anthropocene,” the authors note, “has only just begun.”

A still darker picture of the present moment emerges in the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh’s recent book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. The title captures his scathing diagnosis of the condition of literature and culture in the age of the Anthropocene. Why is it, he asks, that the literary world has responded to climate change with almost complete silence? How can we explain the fact that writers of fiction have overwhelmingly failed to grapple with the ongoing planetary crisis in their works? For Ghosh, this silence is part of a broader pattern of indifference and misrepresentation. Contemporary arts and literature are characterized by “modes of concealment that [prevent] people from recognizing the realities of their plight.” By failing to engage with climate change, artists and writers are contributing to an impoverished sense of the world, right at the moment when art and literature are most needed to galvanize a grassroots movement in favor of climate justice and carbon mitigation. Ghosh himself grapples with this question not in a work of fiction but in a wide-ranging essay about the relation of literature to science, history, and politics. The arc of the argument carries him from the birth of the novel to the industrialization of Asia, from the environmental politics of the military security state to, in a move that might surprise some observers, an examination of how organized religion might take the lead in promoting future mitigation efforts.

According to Ghosh, the cause of the “great derangement” is a certain kind of rationality. The authors who invented the bourgeois novel relied on probability to win the trust of their readers. Plots and characters were embedded in accounts of material life that gave them the sheen of ordinary experience, reflecting the regularity of middle-class life. This literary strategy rested in turn, at least in part, on the worldview of the Victorian natural sciences. In Charles Lyell’s geology, all explanations depended on a principle of uniformity. Nature acted in the same incremental way in all places and times. Change was always gradual and never catastrophic. The literary effect of bourgeois probability was to banish the account of extraordinary or bizarre happenings to marginal genres like the Gothic tale, romance novel, and science fiction. This externalization of the strange and unlikely explains the failure of modern novels and art to wrestle with anthropogenic climate change.

<i>The Passaic Agricultural Chemical Works. Lister Brothers, Proprietors, Newark, NJ</i> (1876). William Barclay Parsons Collection – New York Public Library Archives

The Passaic Agricultural Chemical Works. Lister Brothers, Proprietors, Newark, NJ (1876). William Barclay Parsons Collection – New York Public Library Archives

Bourgeois reason takes many forms. The uniformitarian geology of Lyell had affinities with classical political economy. In Adam Smith’s economic vision, the natural world was fundamentally stable and benign. There was no room for sudden oscillations of climate. Famine was the product of political meddling with markets, not a failure of natural supply. Indeed, the self-regulating properties of the free market were supposed to reflect the homeostatic balance of the natural order. Here political economists were indebted to 18th-century natural history and the concept of an economy of nature. This conceit about a fundamental fit between the economy and the natural world has enjoyed a long afterlife in classical liberal thought. One way to think about the longevity of these Enlightenment ideas is to see them as ideological manifestations of Holocene stability. The small variability of temperature and carbon dioxide levels for more than 11,000 years has given rise to deep-seated habits and ideas about the harmony of the natural world. In the Holocene, it made quite a bit of sense to idealize the environment as a stable envelope for the economy. The commitment to indefinite economic growth espoused by the economics profession in the postwar era is perhaps its most triumphant expression. Ironically, the new 1945 start date for the Anthropocene implies that such Promethean optimism reached its peak just as the Holocene world came to an end.3

The second part of Ghosh’s book considers the importance of population and empire in the development of the fossil fuel economy. McNeill and Engelke argue against a strong causal connection between climate change and population growth in The Great Acceleration: “The sad truth is that there is no reliable way to calculate the impact of population growth upon carbon emissions over time.” While human population has tripled in the postwar era, demographic growth is not in itself an indicator of high emissions. McNeill and Engelke choose the example of Afghanistan to make this point. Despite sustained population increase, the country has emitted only a fraction of the carbon dioxide of affluent countries.4 In contrast, Ghosh insists that demographic baselines matter as much as rates of growth. Consider a simple counterfactual scenario: if the population of the United States had been 10 times smaller, we would expect a drastically lower pattern of emissions. Conversely, if the large populations of Asia had industrialized earlier, consuming more fossil fuel in the past, we would likely have arrived at the critical boundary for dangerous climate change more quickly. By definition, the carbon footprint of any given nation is a product of the size of the fossil-burning population. Ghosh concludes that European imperialism held back the entry of Asia into the fossil fuel economy, but that when China and India finally adopted coal and oil on a large scale in the 1980s, this proved a decisive turning point for the planet, bringing “the climate crisis to a head.”

Could it be that religious belief might be our best resource in breaking the spell of Holocene thought?

For Ghosh, the entry of Asia into the Great Acceleration drives home a bitter truth about the environmental foundation of the modern economy. As a latecomer on the stage, Asia has “unwittingly stumble[d] upon the secret that is the key to the plot.” By driving up worldwide demand for energy and resources while at the same time increasing the amount of waste and pollution in the system, Asian growth is pushing the economy closer to the critical boundaries that must be maintained in order to keep the planet habitable. The lesson of this “revelatory experiment,” Ghosh insists, “is that the patterns of life that modernity engenders can only be practiced by a small minority of the world’s population.” The promise of the Great Acceleration cannot be universalized: “Every family in the world cannot have two cars, a washing machine, and a refrigerator—not because of technical or economic limitations but because humanity would asphyxiate in the process.”

If this is a correct assessment, then the basic aims of economic development and social justice will need to be redefined in order to accommodate the realities of growth on a finite planet. In theory, a transition to renewable energy and sustainable agriculture would provide much-needed ecological relief, yet the task of scaling up new technologies to meet growing demand is truly monumental. Despite the lip service given in the Paris Agreement to a maximum of 2.0°C, emissions are likely to exceed this goal by a significant amount. To make things worse, the calendar of emissions leaves little time for popular mobilization. Ghosh admits that the “horizon in which effective action can be taken is very narrow.” On the political side, we also have to reckon with the power of entrenched interests. Ghosh rightly suggests that fossil fuel growth is at the heart of the dominant system of power. Will the richest nations voluntarily give up their positions of preeminence in the name of climate justice? Defenders of the modern state have for centuries embraced economic growth as the key to maintaining territorial and military power. An “equitable regime of emissions” aimed at “contraction and convergence” directly challenges this global distribution of power and wealth. Far more likely than voluntary degrowth and climate justice is a strategy of “open-ended counter-insurgency, militarized borders, [and] aggressive anti-immigration policing”—what Christian Parenti calls the “politics of the armed lifeboat.”5

But despite Ghosh’s dark sense of realism about our political options, he still manages to find hope in surprising places. “The very speed with which the crisis is now unfolding,” he notes, might save many parts of the world from the destructive social and cultural consequences of the Great Acceleration, thereby preserving vital cultural resources—“traditional knowledge, material skills, art, and ties of community”—that will in turn help people cope better with environmental change. Still more provocatively, Ghosh proposes that religious traditions might offer the most effective social basis for popular resistance. Ghosh observes that religious movements could “mobilize people in far greater numbers” than secular organizations. Religious belief reaches beyond the boundaries of nation states and embraces “intergenerational, long-term responsibilities” that “do not partake of economistic ways of thinking.” Indeed, the “idea of the sacred” involves an “acceptance of limits and limitations” that strongly resembles the ethos of stewardship and simple living central to radical forms of climate justice. Could it be that religious belief, with its appreciation of “nonlinear change” (i.e., apocalypse and planetary disaster), might be our best resource in breaking the spell of Holocene thought?

Some of us might worry that religious tradition is just as likely to subvert earth system science as it is to support it. But I take Ghosh’s broader point to be salutary. The magnitude of environmental change we now face will demand a fundamental reorientation of modern politics, economics, and culture. This is the only way to make a home on our new planet. icon

  1. The idea of settling a new planet is the departure point for Bill McKibben’s Eaarth: Making a Living on a Tough New Planet (Times Books, 2010).
  2. Johan Rockström et al., “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” Nature, vol. 461 (September 2009), pp. 472–75.
  3. For the “economy of nature,” see Donald Worster, Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas, 2nd ed. (Cambridge University Press, 1994); Margaret Schabas, The Natural Origins of Economics (University of Chicago Press, 2005); Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, Enlightenment’s Frontier: The Scottish Highlands and the Origins of Environmentalism (Yale University Press, 2013).
  4. McNeill and Engelke see the biggest environmental impact of population increase in the realm of food production, which is itself a major contributor of greenhouse gases.
  5. Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (Nation Books, 2012), p. 225; also cited in Ghosh, The Great Derangement, p. 143.
Featured image: Lamma Island, Hong Kong (2008). Photograph by Justin Gaurav Murgai / Flickr