The Mortal Illness of the Anthropocene

For the last four and a half billion years, life on Earth has evolved according to rhythms whose slowness is only matched by the speed of today’s industrial processes. In the immensity of time, eons, eras, periods overlap in immense temporal ellipses, punctuated by cosmic accidents, alternations of global warming and ice ages. For stratigraphors*, the current geological era, the Cenozoic, began some 66 million years ago. That is how “recent” is measured in geology.  More recently still is the evolution of bipeds in human form, only two million years ago. These hunter-gatherer nomads sought to escape from the frozen lands of the great glacial periods and were not yet equipped to transform land and build towns. For hundreds of thousands of years, the first humans wandered the frozen steppes in the direction of warmer climates in Africa, the cradle of humanity. It was only during the Neolithic, some 12 000 years ago, owing to the warming of the interglacial period characteristic of the Holocene, that the nomads became sedentary, developing pastoralism and early agriculture. The first great civilisations emerged, like those of the Hittites in Asia Minor five thousand years before Christ, and with them came the first cities, the first cuneiform texts. These were the first complex civilisations, dear to Joseph Tainter, American archaeologist who has decoded the causes of the collapse of societies[1].

That these early human implantations had an influence on local ecosystems is not what we are debating here. What interests us is the exploration of the specificity of the Anthropocene, its unconceptualised material strata, its destructive nature and finally its historical relativity in the long term, because of its dependence on primary resources. The Anthropocene will only be a relatively short period, which will be soon conjugated in the past tense. The great breakdown has begun and its emblem is Fukushima.

As concerns the beginning of the Anthropocene as an era, there is no doubt that it is much more recent than the emergence of the first organised human societies. It is the most recent fraction in the recent Neolithic era, according to Jan Zalasiewicz, geology professor at the University of Leicester and president of the working group on the Anthropocene within the International Commission on Stratigraphy. Traces of pollens and atmospheric pollution dating back to the Greco-roman period and beyond have been recorded by stratigraphors, and the level of carbon dioxide at the middle of the Holocene (6000 years ago) was indeed higher than at the beginning of the interglacial period, because of the first deforestations of the Neolithic. Nevertheless, as Zalasiewicz writes in the journal of the Geological Society of America, “human activity then may help characterize Holocene strata, but it did not create new, global environmental conditions that could translate into a fundamentally different stratigraphic signal.”[2].

It was only at the beginning of the 1800s that the signals evolved. These were the fundamentally different stratigraphic signals which characterised a new type of human influence on the biosphere. The acceleration of erosion, the disruption of the carbon cycle and global temperatures – of which the peak predicted for the 21st century has had no equivalent since the Tertiary – have happened in an extremely short space of time, in less than two hundred years. It may be true that humanity provoked the extinction of animals and plants as early as the late Pleistocene, the glacial period before the Holocene beginning some 2.5 million years ago. However, the contemporary bio-stratigraphic signal emerged because of combined global phenomena: not only the extinctions themselves, but also the migrations of species and the large-scale conversion of land. These phenomena are decoded by the impressive control panel for Earth Overshoot created by the Australian Will Steffen in 2004, where all the warning lights of the biosphere are flashing red – and have been since the great acceleration of the post-WWII era and the 1950s. These indicators include: atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, the acceleration of the degradation of the ozone layer above Antarctica, abnormal temperatures in the northern hemisphere, frequent natural disasters, depletion of fishing stocks, increase in the production of shrimp and the degradation of the mangroves, increase in nitrate flows and alteration of coastal regions, loss of tropical rainforests, conversion of soils for industry, extinction and endangerment of living species.

Paul Crutzen has sought to bring light to this acceleration in transformations in the biosphere caused by industrious humanity, through the notion of the Anthropocene, which he helped popularise in scientific spheres. This Dutch chemist is well known for his work on the ozone layer, which earned him the Nobel Prize in 1995. He felt the need to name this period, our period, in observing systematic anomalies indicated by high levels of carbon in the atmosphere since 1800, and by confirming the hypothesis of the unprecedented rate of degradation of the ozone layer above the Antarctic. During an interview in February 2011, Crutzen said, “The destruction of the ozone layer was mainly discovered above the Antarctic. This is a wonderful example, it is where we least expected it that we find the clearest depletion of the ozone, above the Antarctic, no one predicted it. When this discovery was made, we thought that the instruments were wrong, but they weren’t. Humanity is really capable of destroying the ozone layer far away from where the gases are emitted into the atmosphere. Sometimes science makes strange detours” [3].

The discovery of the depletion of the ozone layer raises the question of the interaction of industrial activities with a stratospheric layer of gases formed some three billion years ago, without which life would not have been able to develop on Earth, outside of the oceans. This unprecedented collision of temporalities provoked by humanity as a geological force was indeed worth a name. What new human subject gave rise to the vertigo of the Anthropocene? Was the awareness of provoking a new geological era likely, at the peak of industrialisation, to produce a new political being?

Transformation #1: Fossil fuelled Anthropocene, oversight of industrial history

In a panorama spanning the saga of the Anthropocene, the post-colonial historian Dipesh Chakrabarty interrogates the taboo concerning humanity as a species in classic historiography and contemporary social sciences. In an essay that is partially reproduced in this edition, Chakrabarty writes, “It is understandable that the invocation of the notion of species, with its biological overtones, concerns historians. They worry that their sharp sense of freedom and contingency in human affairs might have to make room for a more deterministic vision of the world”. Modernity has no comprehension of the geological power of human beings. Yet is it not this geological power unforeseen by the Enlightenment that is the founder of freedom in the individual in modern times?

From the Neolithic civilisations to the great empires of Antiquity, the evolution of the first systems of energy has always been inseparable from the extraordinary complexification of societies. Source of heat and light, necessary for cooking food, fire is constitutive of the growth of humanity itself in everyday life, both material and symbolic. The energy era was inaugurated by the use of fire and wood, a material that remained indispensible for man as a source of thermal energy for tens of thousands of years. Paradoxically, the energetic exuberance of our societies is counterbalanced by the poverty of the understandings of the origins and futures of this energy. It is the result of fire-fuelled machines that emerged in the context of the Enlightenment and the beginning of coal extraction in England. The industrial revolution was then not yet a goal in itself and not consciously pursued as such, as Fernand Braudel wrote, “it did not move towards a goal, but rather encountered it during a great leap of life produced by multiple cross currents which were pushing forwards towards the industrial revolution, but which were also much broader than this framework itself” [4].

Energy remained a barrier for a long time. Braudel retraces the discontinuities in the growth spurts in the West, which, until the industrial revolution, ran up against the “limits of what is possible”. These included the limits of agricultural production, transport, energy, or market demand. If growth fell off between the 13th and 15th centuries, it was because the mills that had sparked it only allowed for a limited momentum and there was not yet a source of energy to take over. It was also agriculture that was unable to keep up with demographics and which found itself falling prey to decreasing production[5]. Hydraulic energy is required to fuel bellows, hammers and wool rollers, but the lack of regularity and driving force in this energy source was significant.

From 1750, England was the centre of the first Anthropocene. From the 16th century the rarefaction of wood in England imposed the large-scale return to coal. The English production of coal went from 35 000 tonnes around 1560 to 200 000 tonnes at the beginning of the 17th century, mainly extracted from the area around Newcastle. The first steam engine was ordered by the Wilkinson forges in 1775, to operate a 60 kilogram hammer at 150 blows per minute. The production of British iron went from 125 000 tonnes in 1796 to more than 2.5 million tonnes in 1850[6]. “With steam everything in the West will be accelerated, as though by magic. But this magic can be explained; it has been prepared, made possible in advance” [7]. Modern growth begins when the limits of the possible recede.

Industrialism represents a radical rupture with all the energy systems humanity had experienced up until then. It ended the primacy of renewable energy – wood, water and wind mills – and ushered in that of fossil fuels. From the 19th century until the beginning of the 20th, capitalism linked its fate to the course of English coal. The great energy networks built by maritime navigation and railroads created a new global market for energy. The discovery of a shallow oil well in 1859, at Titusville in Pennsylvania marked the beginning of oil. It was at this period that John D. Rockerfeller came into play. In 1870 he created Standard Oil which set about organising the first global oil network. In 1900 Standard Oil alone controlled more than half of all oil sales in the world.

Transformation #2: The Anthropocene, mega-machine losing steam

But the limits were moving closer. As early as 1956, the American geologist of Shell Company, Marion King Hubbert created his bell curve, which announced the fatal decline of oil production in America from the 1970s. But the mega-machine did not stop. Its thirst for oil and primary resources made it deaf and blind. For the industrial structures of developed countries and for the extravagant comfort to which their inhabitants are accustomed, the continuous ample supply of oil is a matter of life or death.

In 2011, the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the geologists of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil sounded the alarm with an almost convergent rhetoric. During the ministerial summit at the Chateau Muette in Paris in 2011, the IEA recognised the reality of peak oil, as a multifarious concept, situated between geology, economics and technology. The erosion of mature oil wells means that each year between 2.5 and 3 million barrels per day are lacking because of the decline of matured oil fields. The IEA therefore predicts that some 38 000 billion dollars of investments will be necessary to cover the energy requirements of the world between now and 2035. But investors hesitate to engage in the colossal funding ventures which new oil perspectives require. The cofounder of the ASPO and geologist familiar with the depletion of the oil fields, Colin Campbell announced the end of the Oil Age in these terms: “Energy and Economics experienced a phase of rapid expansion during the first half of the Oil Age. But the second half of this époque could be marked by a contraction of the economy, as the provision of crucial resources diminishes. The transition between these two époques may well be a period of great tension, as recent events confirm.” [8]

All energy systems have entered into a durable state of crisis. The energy sectors of industrial countries are functioning under the double sign of domination and dependence, against a background of rarefaction. Financial, commercial and technological domination of the major electric and especially oil networks, which allow them to control consumption according to their own interests. Dependence on oil and mining resources, extracted in other parts of the world. The plethora of energy upon which the industrialised nations build their power is mirrored by rarity and penury in most countries of the global South. But growth remains a paradigm that is as illusory as it is insurmountable. It is justified as a state of nature that has become external to humanity and which must be worshiped in order to perpetuate its movement. No official institution yet dares to question this collective belief, which has become a sort of dominant theology[9].

Strangely, the economists haven’t for the most part grasped the extent of the connection between the crisis and the three-figure price of oil, reached for the first time in 2008 ($147 during July 2008). Yet all the economic recessions since the 1970s have been linked to the price of oil. This is the thesis of Jeff Rubin, former chief economist and the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, well-known in North America for its anticipation of oil prices. Will industrial economies, whose growth is founded on cheap crude oil, be able to adapt to the rise in the price per barrel, increased by non-conventional petrol and gases that are increasingly difficult to extract? In his book, Why your World is about to get a whole lot Smaller[10], he predicts a systemic energy crisis and galloping inflation which will drag all economies into turmoil and begin a process of de-globalisation.

Transformation #3: the globalisation of entropy, mortal illness of the contemporary Anthropocene

At this turning point in its history, the Anthropocene of the 21st century is breaking down but the automat continues to run at full speed, like an organism that has lost its legs but has kept a mental record of them: the syndrome of the phantom member. At the turn of the 21st century the Anthropocene has taken a new direction, the great acceleration has been globalised. Increasing demand for oil amongst the dominant countries in the South and in China will practically double additional demand from here to 2035. The rich countries of the OECD no longer have the monopoly on the thirst for energy, the new frontier of the 21st century. The headlong rush forward continues while the alarm bells of the overshoot ring frantically. In addition to peak oil, the world is on the brink of peak phosphorous, a key element along with nitrogen in making the fertilizers which enabled the great acceleration of agricultural production since the 1950s. The demand for fertilisers will continue to grow until 2050 at least, under the effect of the increase in the global population and the evolution of the food habits of the middle classes in India and China. But its peak could be reached around 2030, well before demand falls off[11]. This foreshadows a deterioration of food security and a significant slowing down of the great acceleration in the near future[12]. Like Max Ernst’s Ubu Roi, which depicts the King Ubu turning on himself, on a spinning top in the middle of the desert, the system of the Anthropocene and all the associated systems that feed it – energy, finance and subjugated “human resources” – are in perpetual movement.

Through the Anthropocene, a new individual has emerged: the destructive character. “The destructive character knows only one watchword: make room. And only one activity: clearing away” wrote Walter Benjamin in 1931. Everywhere he must clear paths and tackle mountains. The destructive character considers the whole world worthy of destruction[13]. Disconnected from any limits, he manifests his freedom by his unlimited power. And when he is confronted with signs that disturb him, he produces denial and cognitive charades that offer him reality disguised as a fiction that corresponds to the image that he wants to see. Amongst these fictions is that of the “green economy”, the remedy trotted out on every occasion including at the next Earth Summit in Rio this June. This does nothing to change the fact that current growth is reaching the limits of available resources and leading to an uninhabitable world. The “destructive character” prefers to engage in the “black-market” of entropy to push back the limits. This expression from Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen encompasses the dreams of scientists who seek to manufacture free energy – for example, by water catalysis which would produce hydrogen, by super-generators which produce more energy than they consume, by nuclear fusion which would produce an eternal sun, or by synthetic biofuels made of microalgae, the new Holy Grail to replace petrol. This is the sophistry of perpetual substitution. It is also a conjuring trick of geo-engineering and the products of carbon extraction. The Anthropocene can only slow down under the impact of the breakdown that is threatening it.

Transformation #4 : Fukushima, the end of the Anthropocene ?

Can there be an end to the Anthropocene? The decline in world energy will inevitably deprive humanity of some of its destructive power. The mega-machine will have to amputate part of its global networks. The energy required to keep the system running will be more and more costly. This increase in costs will reinforce the spiral of recession. The growth economy inherent to the Anthropocene will find itself without fuel. Other illusions will be revealed, like that of nuclear energy. Nuclear power is the most representative of Anthropocene energies in the sense that it acts at sub-atomic level to provoke chain reactions inspired by the power of physics that become autonomous in the industrial process. Conducted without precedent, the process of the production of nuclear energy is carried out by direct action on the very structures of matter. This procedure is removed from any democracy, because for once it is science that operates energy production, in the hands of experts from senior civil service. With nuclear power, the appropriation of energy by the State reaches its maximal concentration because of the unprecedented amount of investment required. In Japan, the Yakuzas, a criminal organisation that has infiltrated all national bodies, is allegedly implicated in the corruption of the management of the nuclear industry, according to a Japanese journalist Tomohiko Suzuki.

Unlike coal or oil which can be used for many things, nuclear power is only adapted to the large-scale production of electricity. As a result it is no longer the production of energy that responds to the overall consumption of society, it is society that must obey the movements of production. Nuclear power forces society into energetic exuberance. Habits are formed, and growth is there to absorb the energy released.

In a country that is among the most industrialised in the world, yet singularly close to nature because of its animist faiths, the catastrophe of Fukushima unleashed a wave of awareness of the unsustainability of nuclear energy, not only in terms of risks but also in the costs of dismantling the industry. In Japan, the nuclear reactors are shut down one after another and no jurisdiction wants to take the responsibility for starting them up again. Today, the explosion of the Fukushima power plant teaches us that we have a date with the deafening end of the Anthropocene. Above and beyond the purely technical stakes, Fukushima marks the end of the great acceleration that began in 1945 with Hiroshima. Attempts to render banal this catastrophe, or the radiation that it has left behind will not erase the traces – both individual and collective – of its passage.

All that remains is the legacy of the Anthropocene. The Earth’s temperature will continue to rise, even if the motors stop immediately. The carbon produced by the one billion three hundred million automobiles in circulation in the world will last between 100 and 150 years in the atmosphere. The plutonium wastes produced by nuclear fission will remain toxic for several hundred thousand years. Twenty four years after Chernobyl, caesium 137 is still entering the bodies of Belorussian and Ukrainian children.

Will the current energy crisis be resolved by a new Prometheus? This is the question posed by dissident economist Nicholas Goergescu-Roegen[14]. The nuclear reactor is not a promethean gift; it will not provide unlimited energy and only enlarges the source of heat, just as the discovery of oil did around 1860. Humanity has no more discovered a source of unlimited and selfperpetuating power today than it had when Georgescu-Roegen wrote those lines. If the Anthropocene had to be illustrated by a new type of consciousness, it would come in the form of a realisation resulting in the economists and acephalous leaders of industrial societies understanding that all that remains is to plan the inevitable energy decline of an era destined to end in its current form. Instead of worrying exclusively about economic growth, economists would look for optimal criteria to plan degrowth, so that it might be bearable and equitable and the weaning of society might be conscious and well-informed. At the end of a conference in 1966, Georgescu-Roegen asked: “would humanity want to pay attention to any program that implied limiting its attachment to exosomatic comforts (derived from detachable organs)? Perhaps the destiny of man is to have a brief life but a feverish, exciting and extravagant one, rather than a long, vegetative and monotone existence.” Of course there is an energy crisis, but the true crisis is one of human wisdom, he concluded. After all, as Nabokov wrote, the future is only the opposite of the obsolete. And the great acceleration is a parenthesis is the history of the Earth, of which we are privileged to be observing the first death throws.

Article published in Entropia, April 2012.

*    Environmental journalist.

**  Geologists who study the layers of the Earth’s crust to establish the order of layering and relative age.

[1]    Jospeh Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press, 1988.

[2]    Jan Zalasiewicz, « Are we now living in the Anthropocene ? », GSA Today: v. 18, February 2008.

[3]    Interview between Agnès Sinaï and Paul  Crutzen conducted at Mayence (Germany), in the context of a documentary for Arte.

[4]    In Civilisation matérielle, économie et capitalisme, Le Temps du Monde, Armand Colin, 1979, p.509.

[5]    Ibid., p. 512-513.

[6]             Jean-Claude Debeir, Jean-Paul Deléage, Daniel Hémery, Les servitudes de la puissance. Une histoire de l’énergie, Flammarion, Paris, 1986.

[7]    Fernand Braudel,  Civilisation matérielle, économie et capitalisme, Les Structures du quotidien, p. 326.

[8]             Colin Campbell, introductory speech at the international conference of the ASPO, Brussels, April 2011.

[9]             On this point see Gilbert Rist, L’économie ordinaire entre songes et mensonges, Presses de Sciences Po, 2010, Chapter 10, « La science économique comme religion ».

[10]  Jeff Rubin, Why your World is about to get a whole lot Smaller, Random House, 2009.

[11] Cordell, D., Drangert, J.-O. & White, S. 2009 The story of phosphorus: global food security and food for thought. Global Environmental Change 19, p. 292–305.

[12]  Cf. Will Steffen et alii, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, « The Anthropocene : Conceptual and Historical Perspectives », n°369, February 2011, p. 842-867.

[13]  Walter Benjamin, “Le caractère destructeur “, published in Frankfurter Zeitung (1931), in Oeuvres II, Gallimard, 2000.

[14]  Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, La Décroissance. Entropie-Ecologie-Economie, Presentation and translation by Jacques Grinevald and Ivo Rens, Sang de la Terre, 1995.