The Shock of the Anthropocene. Or what does it mean to have the future of the planet into our hands?

The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us, by historians Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz.


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Publisher Verso writes: Scientists tell us that the Earth has entered a new epoch: the Anthropocene. We are not facing simply an environmental crisis, but a geological revolution of human origin. In two centuries, our planet has tipped into a state unknown for millions of years. How did we get to this point?

Refuting the convenient view of a “human species” that upset the Earth system unaware of what it was doing, this book proposes a new account of modernity that shakes up many accepted ideas: on the supposedly recent date of “environmental awareness,” on previous challenges to industrialism, on the manufacture of consumerism and the energy “transition,” as well as on the role of the military in environmental destruction.

Through a dialogue between science and history, the authors draw an ecological balance sheet of a developmental model that has become unsustainable, and explore paths for living and acting politically in the Anthropocene.


Photo by Aaron Vincent Elkaim, via Vantage

The Anthropocene is a proposed new geological epoch that recognizes that humanity’s imprint on global environment rivals some of the greatest forces of nature. The authors suggest that the Anthropocene started with James Watt’s improved steam engine designs in the late 18th century which kicked off the industrial revolution and thus the ‘carbonification’ of our atmosphere. From that time on, human activities started to have a significantly damaging impact on the Earth’s ecosystems: high levels of air pollution, ocean acidification, out of control climate, mass extinctions of plant and animal species, modification of continental water cycle, etc. As the authors note, the Anthropocene is a sign of both our power and our impotence.

The book attempts to comprehend this new epoch but also to dispel a few misconceptions. I found particularly interesting the one about the sudden ‘awakening’ to our responsibility in climate change and the one that claims that only scientists possess the knowledge and wisdom necessary to save the planet.

The Anthropocene is often presented as an ‘awakening’ as if we were the first generations that realized the damage that burning fossil fuels, overfishing and other human activities have done to the earth atmosphere. But as the authors easily demonstrate, men knew what they were doing 200 years ago and environmentally damaging actions regularly met with criticism, challenge and struggle right from the beginning of the Anthropocene.

The book also states that today’s scientific knowledge is put on a pedestal. On the one side is a small elite of scientists who appear as the spokespeople for the Earth. On the other is the uninformed mass of the world population awaiting to be saved or at least shepherded in the right direction. If we believe the experts, serious solutions can only emerge from further innovations in the labs, rather than from alternative political experiments in society as a whole. Besides, as the authors write, to position humanity (or just its elite) as a pilot means that the earth is little more than a cybernetic machine that can be dominated from the outside. They conclude that what we need right now is not a rescue plan made of geo-engineering prowess but more narratives, types of knowledge, a variety of civic initiatives and popular alternatives which explores the outlines of living better with less.


Chemical and biological warfare trials during Cold War in 1956. The masks had to be worn to allow the collection of proxy warfare substances that had been sprayed from aircraft (image via The Independent)


A visualization of satellites and other debris in orbit around Earth on Stuff in Space (image via Hyperallergic)

The book also demonstrate convincingly that the responsibility for the Anthropocene doesn’t rest on the shoulders of every single human beings. Fressoz and Bonneuil explain at length the role that the military, capitalism and two hegemonic powers (Great Britain in the 19th century and the U.S. in the 20th Century) play in the Anthropocene. Some thinkers even used the word ‘Oliganthropocene’ to define a geological epoch caused by a small fraction of humanity.

The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us is well written, impeccably researched (the authors quote all the relevant thinkers you might imagine from Marx to Piketty, from Gandhi to Hannah Arendt) and its discourse brings the Anthropocene into a wide historical and societal context. But above all, it is a book that shows that in the time of the Anthropocene, the entire functioning of the Earth becomes a matter of past, present and coming political choices. Even though people running the political sphere seem to royally ignore that fact. I’ve always found it a bit strange to see how low ecological concerns and promises figured in electoral campaigns.

One of the most important lessons the book has to offer is that we should probably all stop talking about an ecological ‘crisis’. It’s too late for that. A crisis can be overcome, the anthropocene can’t. We’ve reached a point of no return.

Photo on the home page by Marco Gualazzini, Coltan mining from R.D. Congo- The War of Minerals.