Anthropocene vs Capitalocene: a Reflection on the Question, “What Have I Done?”

The International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) has yet to recognize, for scientific reasons, our current geological epoch as the Anthropocene, or “Age of Humans”. The term was coined by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2000 due to the fact that humans are changing the face of the planet, and are clearly responsible for the current 6th mass extinction event and climate disruption. Eco-radicals – black-red-green – might prefer the term Capitalocene, or the “Age of Capital”.

The former implies that humanity is an undifferentiated whole while the latter suggests that capital, and its system of class and power relations, are the real problem, the real driving force that has altered the planet so extensively. I prefer the latter, of course, for political reasons.

There is no substitute for understanding the historical forces of capitalism that has brought us to the edge. The logic of capitalism is grow or die, and we are all being dragged towards the die part. We need targets of accountability, and we need remedies for the dispossessed. There is a biological debt that must be paid by the most rapacious among us.

But yet, I am still sympathetic to the Anthropocene label because it makes me feel personally responsible. The collective “we”. There is something unsettling about it, and we all need to be immediately unsettled. It puts the burden of action on all of us, and counterintuitively, might pull us out of our comfortable anthropocentric worldview. Eco-radicals rightly put the blame at the doorstep of capitalism and the state, but we should all feel personally responsible, in our collective guts.

There are approximately 150-200 species going extinct everyday. The background rate of the normal extinction process is roughly one to five species a year. We are at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate today due to human activities. As far as the last members of a doomed species might be concerned, humans are responsible, not just the capitalist class. To them, it is the Anthropocene. Might your perspective on this issue be determined by which side of the axe you are on?

If I were to anthropomorphize those lost species, they might provide us an analogy to chew on. They might say, “imagine the surviving members of countless families murdered from bombs dropped by Bush, or assassinated with drones sent by Obama. Do you think they would care about the internal political dynamics of the US after such a tragedy?”

From the survivors perspective, it is the US government, the US Empire system, that killed their relatives. Our friends pondering this analogy for us might just make the same argument in regards to the human race: “yes, okay, we understand there are class distinctions. But, from our perspective, you are the problem. You are that system.”

I am reminded of Noam Chomsky’s use of the word “we” when discussing the crimes of empire. I recall feeling defensive when he implied we all had responsibility, because, well, I opposed imperialism! But I think he was right. In his 1967 essay, The Responsibility of Intellectuals, he writes, reflecting on Dwight Macdonald’s question as to what extent the people are responsible for their own government’s crimes,

“We can hardly avoid asking ourselves to what extent the American people bear responsibility for the savage American assault on a largely helpless rural population in Vietnam… As for those of us who stood by in silence and apathy as this catastrophe slowly took shape over the past dozen years – on what page of history do we find our proper place? Only the most insensible can escape these questions.”

Continuing at the end of the essay,

“Let me finally return to Dwight Macdonald and the responsibility of intellectuals. Macdonald quotes an interview with a death-camp paymaster who burst into tears when told that the Russians would hang him. “Why should they? What have I done?” he asked. Macdonald concludes: “Only those who are willing to resist authority themselves when it conflicts too intolerably with their personal moral code, only they have the right to condemn the death-camp paymaster.” The question, “What have I done?” is one that we may well ask ourselves, as we read each day of fresh atrocities in Vietnam – as we create, or mouth, or tolerate the deceptions that will be used to justify the next defense of freedom.”

That is the question we are all faced with today, “What have I done?”, as we observe fresh atrocities committed against the biosphere and all life on this planet. Only those that resist authority and capitalism have the right to condemn our modern death-camp paymasters.

May 2016 Snapshot of the Planet

The loss of flora and fauna on the planet is staggering. It is estimated by the 2014 Living Planet Report that we’ve lost over half, 52 percent, of vertebrates in the last 40 years. It was reported in 2003 that 90 percent of the big fish in the ocean are gone.

In terms of climate disruption, the speed of change is shocking, and appears ubiquitous.

The Paris Agreement is worthless for many reasons, especially in terms of enforcement, but the nails in the coffin to that agreement came in the form of data released by the Japan Meteorological Agency and NASA, as Dahr Jamail recently reported, which confirms that for the first 3 months of 2016 global temperatures were 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the same number the Paris Agreement identified as their target limit.

While the numbers may fluctuate into the future, the fact that they have been reached already is foreboding. March of 2016 leads an 11 month streak of setting the global temperature record.

With respect to atmospheric temperature, Dr. James Hansen and his colleagues argued in a 2013 paper that “our budget is that required to limit warming to about 1 degree C”, a number we have already passed, and that reaching 2 degrees Celsius, according to the authors, would be a “disaster scenario!”

The IPCC is far too conservative and has been accused of “erring on the side of least drama”. In more recent years they have acknowledged that tipping points can cause “abrupt and irreversible” change. In 2007, they compared the irreversibility of abrupt climate change to “irreversible” economic decisions:

“Just as there are risks of irreversible climate changes, decisions to reduce GHG emissions can require actions that are essentially irreversible. For example, once made, these long-lived, large-scale investments in low-emission technologies are irreversible.”

I truly wonder what future generations will make of that quote, if there are future generations.

There are now 60-plus tipping points related to climate disruption, which are often referred to as non-linear positive feedback loops. A tipping point can be thought of as a threshold beyond which you get an abrupt and potentially irreversible change, but defining that exact threshold is difficult. The danger of surpassing a tipping point is that it might grow exponentially, and affect other tipping points in the system (though not all, due to spatial and temporal distance).

Dr. Hansen, for example, has famously argued that the tipping point for CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere is 350 ppm, one we have clearly passed. We are now at 409.3 ppm, a number not seen since at least the Pliocene, approximately 3 million years ago. Pre-industrial CO2 levels were at 280 ppm. For humans, we are in uncharted territory.

A simple example of a tipping point process is when high CO2 concentrations heat up the Arctic, which in turn melts the ice and lowers the albedo of the region, in turn increases the absorption of solar radiation, in turn heating the Arctic waters, in turn melting the methane hydrates, and in turn releasing methane, a far more effective greenhouse gas.

This is oversimplified because there are more variables involved. But the point is that a change in one variable can lead to a change in several: the synergistic effects of tipping points are cascading towards runaway climate disruption.

Latest studies show that methane is approximately 100 times as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2 over the first 10 years, 86 times over a 20-year period, and 34 times over a 100-year period. Quoting Jamail:

“A study published in the prestigious journal Nature in July 2013 confirmed what Shakhova has been warning us about for years: that a 50-gigaton “burp” of methane from thawing Arctic permafrost beneath the East Siberian sea is “highly possible at anytime.” That would be the equivalent of at least 1,000 gigatons of carbon dioxide. (Remember, for perspective, humans have released approximately 1,475 gigatons in total carbon dioxide since the year 1850.)”

In the late 90s, early 2000s, it was common to hear that the loss of Summer sea ice in the Arctic, the canary in the coal mine, would not be seen until 2100 based on models at the time. It’s possible we may see this in the next few years as rapid changes outpace all previous predictions. Although models have improved, there is no substitute for on the ground data collection.

Other tipping points include ocean acidification and deoxygenation, coral reefs, tundra permafrost, snow and sea ice cover, ocean circulation patterns, vegetation and marine productivity, Amazon forest density, the Greenland ice sheet, the West Antarctic ice sheet, the Indian Summer Monsoon, the jet stream, bee and butterfly populations, forest fires, and many more.

I should note that the Great Barrier Reef is on the verge of extinction, the Fort McMurray fires are fueled by climate change, as are the ongoing heatwaves in India/Thailand.

These processes, and others like them, have changed so dramatically that it is shocking the scientists that study them. This small list alone should illustrate how complex and inter-related the eco-system is. The recognition and impacts of many of these feedback loops change weekly, and dramatically. We can expect to see the number of tipping points increase in the near future.

And a quick mention must also be made about the lack of attention being paid to the animal agriculture industry. It is arguably responsible for half of all greenhouse gas emissions, surpassing the fossil fuel industry. It pollutes air, water, and soil, destroys biodiversity and is the leading cause of rainforest destruction. The single biggest direct action a person can take to address climate change is to stop eating meat and adopt a plant-based diet.

I don’t have space to address the frightening prospects of geo-engineering, but suffice it to say that it is incredibly dangerous to treat the earth as an experimental laboratory (not that capitalism hasn’t for the past few hundred years!). I suspect we will be seeing these mad scientists trotting out their justifications for one scheme after another when things get really bad. The arrogance is astounding.

We must be prepared to fight the sick logic of addressing the symptoms rather than the cause, especially in this case, and demand that the precautionary principle be invoked, as it should have been against those that use science for corporate profit, as in the case of GMOs.

The Theoretical Extraterrestrial Anthropologist

Chomsky often likes to tell the story of a debate between Carl Sagan, the astrophysicist, and Ernst Mayr, the biologist. Mayr argued that there is unlikely to be intelligent life in the universe if we are to judge from the one example we know of: Earth. Mayr argued that human intelligence is a kind of lethal mutation since it is very rare and not very successful evolutionary speaking, considering that of the billions of species that have existed, we are the only ones that apparently “succeeded.” Not a great track record. And if judging by our current circumstances, our time could be up pretty soon.

Ironically, Noam suggested that an extraterrestrial observer might conclude that Mayr was correct given our self-destructive behavior. Presuming that the extraterrestrial observer was an anthropologist, I would imagine they would be well educated on our history, from feudalism to capitalism and all the intracacies of class struggle and revolution.

Reflecting back for a moment on the question, “What have I done?”, what if our anthropologist could communicate our good intentions to other species on the planet? You know, explain who the “good guys” are. Explain that there is this thing called the one percent of humanity that is choking the rest. What might other species say?

Would we be surprised if they said, “To All Human Scum: Fuck Off and Die!”, or “Hey! Hey! Humani-tay! How Many Species Did You Kill Today?”, “Species of the World Unite! You Have Nothing to Lose but Everything!”, “Who’s Planet? Our Planet!”, “Support Human Devolution!”, “Eat the (rich) Humans!” or “We are the real 99.9999999 percent!” (humans are one out of ~10-30 million species – humans are the 0.0000001 percent).

Here is an interesting question: if that theoretical alien observer was able to act to save the millions of doomed species, what action would be appropriate?

One answer has already been provided by Hollywood in the last incarnation of The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008): wipe out the humans! The aliens, upon reflection, instead decided to shut down the entire electrical grid, and presumably all fossil fuel plants and industry that supported it. Not bad.

But this writer was left with the nagging question of what happened to the ruling class, their psychotic military leaders, the big green-capitalist environmental groups, and their enablers that profited from the destruction of the planet? Maybe the sequel will show them all sitting at some intergalactic Nuremberg trial awaiting an opening in the gallows.

One could only hope.

What Is An Anti-Capitalist To Do?


We must prioritize social movements over technocratic solutions. We are on the modern version of the Titanic, but our advantage is that we have a good idea of what is coming. To paraphrase Mario Savio, should we put our bodies upon the gears and wheels and prevent the machine from running at all? Or should we storm the bridge and stop the ship?

Movements like the Global Justice Movement, Zapatista solidarity movement, Indymedia, Idle No More, and Occupy Wall Street spread like wildfire precisely because they were autonomous, decentralized, anti-authoritarian, and rejected official hierarchies. Local organizers embraced the message, and ran with it. For the many critiques I might have of each movement, especially around process and decision making, they demonstrate, some better than others, that they are a significant threat to the 1%.

Having a clear vision and principles of unity are essential ingredients to the growth of our movements. Sitting around expecting imperialist governments, wholly owned subsidieries of corporate power, to act in accordance with the scope of the problem is a fool’s errand. We have to force them to act. We have to raise the social cost of them not acting.

I want to recognize the early and visionary work of the late Murray Bookchin on social ecology, libertarian-municipalism, bio-regionalism and communalism. During a time when left-radicals were chained to the proletariat-as-the-only-viable-means-to-revolution school of thought, Bookchin was thinking about the dynamics of ecology and capitalism. He wrote many books including Our Synthetic Environment(1962), The Spanish Anarchists (1977), The Ecology of Freedom (1982), Remaking Society (1989), and Social Ecology and Communalism (2007). His work, interestingly, is being read extensively in the Rojava region of northern Syria, where YPJ/YPG military units are fighting off ISIS.

As an anarchist Bookchin analyzed and embraced ideas from many sources to think about ecology, power, decision-making, and revolution. Now that the climate crisis has forced the issue, the quesiton of how we organize gets even more profound because the stakes have never been higher. One thing is for sure, our movement must be global. Borders must be crossed daily, both literally and figuratively.

If we take the “Capitalocene” label seriously, then the climate justice movement is a movement against capitalism and all of it’s related pathologies: classism, racism, xenophobia, statism, discrimination based on age, sex, gender or creed. Social justice must be at the core of any climate justice movement.

You may not have organized the exploitation and destruction of the biosphere, but now that you are here at no fault of your own, and whether you like it or not, you are a part of an historic struggle, and your actions may very well determine the outcome.

And the big question now is, how are you going to act going forward? The biggest stage in human history has been set and our actions will determine the fate of all life on this planet.

The poor didn’t organize industrial fishing, logging or mining, and they don’t start wars. Billions of impoverished people don’t consume endless amounts of animals and useless consumer goods, like many in the global north. But the poor have always fought back heroically in revolutionary struggles throughout history, so whomever we are and however we can act, we must.

We are responsible for our own actions, and going forward, those actions may still have a chance at mitigating the coming disaster. Arguably, doing nothing is a crime against life. All life. Those in power will not save us. Indeed, they are engaged in an insane theater of the absurd. Paris 2015 was pure propaganda, and green capitalism is a farce.

I think the answer lies in both a spiritual and political revolution from below. We must not see ourselves as separate from the natural world, and we must re-envision a radical democracy on a global scale, working across borders in solidarity with social movements everywhere.

But the key is empowerment, and empowerment comes from direct participation in social movements. We must reject top down movements, cult like movements, and any movement that seeks to retain power for themselves.

Let’s create and sustain networks of mutual aid, distribution, communication and action. Direct action campaigns are being organized against polluting industries. We should call for the seizure of all assets of the fossil fuel and animal agriculture industries, and we must challenge the notion of private ownership over natural resources.

The more we are prepared as communities of resistance in solidarity with each other, and the more we give ourselves over to the collective struggle for humanity, for all life on earth, the better our chances will be. Real hope comes from people looking at each other from side to side, not from bottom to top.

Chris Burnett got his degree in chemistry, specializing in earth science, from the University of California, San Diego, worked at Scripps Institution of Oceanography for a number of years, and was a bargaining representative for UPTE-CWA Local 9119. He hosts the weekly radio show “Indymedia On Air” on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles, and has been a long time organizer in anti-authoritarian movements. You can email him:


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