chapter  11
4 Pages


Will Steffen, Paul Crutzen and John McNeill argued in 2007 that we are now in a post-Holocene epoch which they have called the Anthropocene, a period that they maintain began around 1800 with the onset of industrialisation. The main feature of the Anthropocene is the enormous expansion in the use of fossil fuels and the resulting rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide. Pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere ranged from 270-275 ppm; today they have reached 400 ppm, with the greatest increase occurring in the last thirty years, and the rate of increase accelerating. Steffen, Crutzen and McNeill refer to this more recent rapid increase as ‘the Great Acceleration’, which is now reaching criticality. They argue that within a few decades, we will pass a tipping point in the evolution of the Anthropocene taking us on a trajectory to an unknown future. Compounding this are the other converging biophysical and social indicators that the planet is in deep crisis. It is too vague and unhelpful to say that humanity has taken us on this trajectory. Here, I have argued that it is a particular, globalised system of political economy that has driven the course of human history to this point. Over the last few centuries, capitalism has transformed the face of the Earth to the point that our planet may not much longer be able to support human life as we know it. Despite this, the capitalist system is still set to engulf the last remaining corners of the planet, guaranteeing widespread human and ecological catastrophe. This trajectory has been examined through the perspective of the political economy of global warming but as has been made clear from the very beginning, global warming is but one product of a system that has many crises and contradictions, is unjust, unstable and destructive and where the manifestations of these characteristics are many. As Harvey (2001: 121) suggests: ‘someone, somewhere has to think about what kind of social system should replace it’. Solutions to global warming require systemic transformational change. However, the momentum of capitalism is great, with considerable ability to adapt, absorb and recon¿gure and to turn obstacles into pro¿table opportunities, all the time expanding and increasing the consumption of material resources from nature, solving problems by using the same tools of capital accumulation that caused the problems in the ¿rst place. The forces of capitalism are immensely powerful, but

we are coming to a fork in the road in human history, where the system of global capitalism is forcing an end to the Holocene Epoch of the last 12,000 years, the geological period within which human civilisation has developed, where we have to decide between ‘capitalism or the planet’. We are not only faced with global warming, but the life and death crises of growing poverty in the face of growing riches, the disappearance of commons, the loss of lands and livelihoods as capitalism expands, that is resulting in increasing numbers of people having little to lose in changing the system (Narain 2011). As Foster et al. (2010: 439) write, ‘the main force for ecological revolution stems from movements in the global South, marked for example, by the growth of the Via Campesina movement, socialist organisations like Brazil’s MST, and ongoing revolutions in Latin America (the ALBA countries) and Asia (Nepal)’. The book also identi¿ed as relevant here the movements that come under the banner of the World Social Forum, a forum of particular signi¿cance to African social and environmental justice groups that lack the visibility of some of their Latin American counterparts. As Foster et al. (2010: 440) write: ‘it is conceivable that the main historic agent and initiator of a new epoch of ecological revolution is to be found in the Third World masses most directly in line to be hit ¿rst by the impending disasters.’ It is however unrealistic to conclude as Foster et al. (2010: 440) would want to do that the ‘weight of environmental disaster is such that it would cross all class lines and all nations and positions leading to a rejection of the engine of destruction in which we live’. Nearly twenty million people were affected by devastating Àoods in Pakistan in August 2010 – and the world stood by; Haiti lost more than 200,000 people in an earthquake at the beginning of 2010 and a year later people were still living without water, toilets, shelter and adequate food and dying from cholera while US business interests maintain a system which continues to impoverish and disenfranchise the people of Haiti (Field and Bell 2010); the 2011/2012 famines of East and West Africa ravage populations largely out of our sight. Solutions to global warming will have to address the gamut of related social and environmental problems arising from capitalism, at the same time as tackling global warming. The criticisms of capitalism used in the book are based primarily on the work of Marx. It is noted, however, that neither Marx, nor his friend and colleague, Friedrich Engels, provided a detailed blueprint for future society. However, their vision does allow the book to develop on the basis of the principle of sustainable human development, drawing on metabolically restorative processes and the dis-alienation of the social relations of production. It is argued that justice and equity will have to prevail as foundational principles for future global society and this will necessarily be expressed through various institutional and cultural arrangements. These principles will, among other things, mean the issue of rights to the very limited capacity for future carbon emissions and the resolution of the issue of historical ecological debt, taking into account historical emissions and involving the contraction and convergence of carbon emissions globally. Future societies will need to build their economies on equitable ecological footprints within the restorative capacities of the Earth’s biosphere.