Capitalism catastrophe and the coming of the Anthropocene | The Triangle

Capitalism catastrophe and the coming of the Anthropocene

Photo by Money Bright | Flickr

It’s a good thing the universe is so big (and probably a lot bigger than we know), because it is so full of violent action, from subatomic particles in collision to galaxies millions of light-years wide ramming each other, that we need all the space we can get. Our baby planet has endured its share of it, routinely from cosmic rays that pass harmlessly through us to asteroids that can reshape continents, exterminate species, and alter climate for millions of years. There’s no such thing as a quiet day on Earth, and once in a while the fact is forced on our attention, as from the big shake that tore up southern Turkey and northern Syria a few weeks ago. Fortunately, we have a lot of time too, and with luck we can get through the short span of a human life or a civilization with a certain sense of continuity. We depend on recurrent cycles called seasons that sustain the complex event called life, no two quite alike but sufficiently similar to enable reproduction and growth, and the individual terminus called death. Time, of course, is relative: some species live a day and others for thousands of years. Each fulfills its own sense of the cycle, aphids have one and elephants another. We humans have our own. 

Homo sapiens, if growing to maturity and living out its programmed biological span, seems to have been planned to live for about forty years, long enough to reproduce and nurture its young. That was the cycle shared with other creatures. Instinct, as we call it, told them when and how often to propagate to maintain the species population. But humans, creating their own environments, could create and experience different cycles too. The biggest such creation to date has been agriculture, which tied humans to the soil, created new social relations, and ultimately civilizations. That occurred near the beginning of what we identify as the most recent geological epoch, which we call the Holocene and date from about 11,700 B.C.E. The Holocene coincided with the end of the so-called Ice Age, a period not favorable to agriculture but one which forced small groups to shelter in caves and may have contributed to the socialization processes that made agriculture possible, including the invention of art — the first imaginative reshaping of the human environment.  

Humans were about a million in number at the beginning of the Holocene. By the mid-seventeenth century C.E., they had reached a billion, an extraordinary increase for a sizable mammal. Now, we stand at eight billion, with the average life expectancy in more advanced societies roughly doubled. That population appears to have stabilized in certain places, but continues to rise in others. It has already risen enough, however, to reconfigure much of the planet’s surface and to extinguish or radically diminish many of the species on it. Given that we are only beginning to understand the interaction and interdependence of life forms in the ecological whole, we have little comprehension of the likely effects of this on the planetary balance. Until now, the species balance has been reshaped by the creative and adaptive changes we call evolution, about which we as yet know little, and occasionally by catastrophic astrophysical events. For the first time, however, a different factor has come significantly into play as well, which we self-flatteringly call human intelligence. We have introduced species variants through breeding, and are on the cusp of creating new ones altogether through genetic manipulation.

More evident than what we may create is what we have already destroyed. The scale of this destruction, known and unknown to us, is already so large that Elizabeth Kolbert, in The Sixth Extinction, places it among the half dozen greatest die-offs known to geological history. Such events have typically been caused by periods of volcanic eruption, oxygen impoverishment, or increased carbon dioxide load. Carbon dioxide, largely produced by human activity, is the chief culprit of our present crisis, which includes recurrent episodes of extreme climate events. We know these are man made because extinction periods typically last into the millions of years. The species extinction rate in our present crisis is tens of thousands of times faster than in any other known era. The only factor that could produce this effect is humanity. The activity responsible for it is industrialization, including agricultural industry and nuclearized warfare. Of these factors, of course, nuclear warfare has the greatest potential for mass extermination in the briefest period. An all-out nuclear war could devastate the planet within hours, although its longer-term effects would unfold slowly and of course agonizingly. No nuclear-armed power has as yet renounced its arsenal with the exception of Ukraine. The result has not encouraged others to disarm.

At present, scientists are debating whether to recognize a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, as superseding the Holocene. Some would place its arrival with the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth century; some with that of the Atomic Age in 1945. It may be, however, that capitalism deserves the honor. Market economies long precede industrialization, and mechanized production the advent of nuclear weapons. What distinguishes capitalism, however, is its ceaseless quest for concentrated wealth — capital accumulation, as Karl Marx described it in the nineteenth century. Earlier social elites expressed this drive in terms of the possession of precious metals, whose rarity made them desirable. This rarity made them translatable into the objects and symbols of wealth —landed acres, great palaces, prized works of art. Possession was one mode of exhibiting this wealth, spectacle and display another, consumption beyond need or private enjoyment yet another. Finally, the reduction of wealth to its barest token, negotiable paper or plastic, a thing of no value or utility in itself, became its ultimate signifier, the nothing that represented everything (Bitcoins, with their arbitrary conditions of production and the immense expenditure of energy required to create them, may be seen as the attempt to restore materialization, and with it the image of labor that, according both to Marx and Adam Smith, was the only true source of wealth).      

The reduction of the market from the exchange of actual products and services to their mere monetary symbols has come to be called financialization. As a symbol, it is infinitely extensible, but at the same time, susceptible to precipitous devaluation — the boom and bust cycles characteristic of the capitalist “market.” After World War II, Hungary’s currency, the pengo, fell to a trillion to the dollar, and so ceased to be a medium of exchange; in 2023, there is talk of our federal government minting a trillion-dollar coin to forestall a default on its securities. There is, in fact, no relation in either to actual value, but only to the relativized abstractions of less and more. What capitalism wants is, simply, more. And that more, applied to the limited and interconnected resources of our actual world without limit or restraint, is what, wittingly or not, is bent on destroying it.