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Geoscientist Online

The Shock of the Anthropocene

gufh,.jMore and more books are appearing about the Anthropocene: whether it is a useful term, how it should be defined, and what we might learn from it. This one is written by two French historians, and as such it offers an interesting and different perspective from many of those presently available. 

The Anthropocene is the age of man, in that the human imprint on the global environment now rivals natural forces. This book sets out to comprehend the Anthropocene through the narratives that can be made of it. It argues that the Anthropocene is not a crisis, in the sense that it is not a transitory state; rather it is a point of no return. It is not about being able to detect human influence in stratigraphy - it reflects a change in the Earth system.

At the core of the book is the argument that the Anthropocene has not come about unexpectedly, many of the consequences of changes, from deforestation in the late 18th Century to the atomic bomb, were discussed at the time. It argues that there is a grand narrative in which we all became geological agents without knowing it, and then élite scientists revealed to us the dramatic and uncertain future of the planet. 

In such a narrative scientists are thought to be in command, and serious solutions can come only from experiments and above, not from below. Yet the case is made that we entered the Anthropocene despite very consistent warnings and knowledge, and that sustainable change happens from below, not above.

The notion that nature was always there and there was little we could do in our short human timescale to disturb it, separates the two views in the 19th Century.  The history of Earth and life was the domain of natural scientists, and the history of man that of historians and social scientists. This constructed a great ‘external nature’ - slow, immense and undaunted - that made invisible the limits of the planet and the unequal socio-economic relations of nascent fossil-based capitalism. 

The rise of geology reinforced this gap between the temporality of the Earth and the temporality of human history. It marked a shift from an understanding of the energy available on the surface (four hectares to make a ton of iron for example) to underground fossil energy that was sufficiently poorly constrained that it could be regarded as infinite. Geology had in a few decades transformed Malthus’ ‘dismal science’ into grounds for limitless growth.

The Anthropocene reverses this separation between nature and society that had widened in the 19th and 20th centuries. Nature is no longer viewed as the static scene of our exploits. The authors encourage us to take the measure of the forces of industrialisation and commodification, to challenge the unifying grand narrative of an errant human species, and to abandon the hope of emerging from a temporary environmental crisis.  This is our new condition. What histories must we write as we learn to inhabit the Anthropocene? This book offers an excellent starting place. 

Reviewed by Chris Hawkesworth

THE SHOCK OF THE ANTHROPOCENE by CHRISTOPHE BONNEUIL & JEAN-BAPISTE FRESSOZ, Trans. David Fernbach. Verso (2016) ISBN-13: 978-1-78478-079-1 (pbk).  List price: £16.99