Book Club

The Chair read for you The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us from Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz

Published on 28 April 2020

The Anthropocene (“Human Era”) refers to the recent geological era, succeeding the Holocene, which covered the last ten millennia.  It acknowledges the new status of humanity as a telluric force.  Popularized by the chemist Paul Crutzen in 2000, this new era has its origins in the first industrial revolution and is characterized by exponential changes in demography and economic growth since the 19th century that have led to the current climate change and biodiversity collapse.

In “The Shock of the Anthropocene”[1], historians Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz offer a critique of the main story that has been articulated around the Anthropocene.  Indeed, humanity is described as a homogenous force pressurizing the biosphere.  The authors see in this narrative a depoliticizing, Western, but also historically debatable vision.  Moreover, this Anthropocene narrative highlights a humanity that finally admits its destructive power.  Thanks to this environmental reflexivity, it can then give itself the means to stop ecological crises, by converting the forces of progress and modernity to sustainable development.

In order to overcome the limitations of this definition of the Anthropocene, the authors propose a succession of seven alternative accounts of the Anthropocene.  Complementary, each of these narratives revolves around a particular concept: economic actor, socio-political process, intellectual current, social mobilization.  The authors describe the main drivers of the Anthropocene, including the history of the fossil fuel sector (Thermocene), the dynamics of capitalism (Capitalocene) and consumerism (Phagocene), and the historical role of the military-industrial complex (Thanatocene).  The latter, although less expected, nevertheless has a major role due to its massive destruction of ecosystems (collateral or voluntary) and the development of the most emitting technologies, which subsequently spread to the rest of the economic system.  On the other hand, the authors devote several threads to what could have slowed down the progress of the Anthropocene with critical reflections on the driving forces of the Anthropocene (Phronocene) and the social struggles against them (Polémocene).  Finally, an account of the history of the ideologies that allowed these contestations to be marginalized (Agnocene) is proposed.

Both academic and committed, this book warns of the dangers of a disembodied vision of the Anthropocene.  It demonstrates that, in addition to marking a point of no return, the advent of the Anthropocene is not accidental.  It is the result over several centuries not only of a multitude of power relations between nations, economic sectors and ethnic and social groups, but of conscious political choices despite the warnings.  The authors thus invite reflection on the modes of action in the face of ecological crises that have seriously integrated all the paths that led to the Anthropocene.

Quentin Hoarau, Research Fellow «Environmental policies in the automobile sector»

[1] Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz , “The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us”, Verso, 2017.