Convergence: Capitalism, Climate, Catastrophe (with Andreas Malm)

Last fall, I taught a graduate seminar in global environmental history. The focus for the course was the Anthropocene, which was beginning to dominate much of the recent environmental discourse (see my recent podcast conversation with Libby Robin on the Anthropocene here). I opened selected weeks to the larger environmental history community, which attracted an eclectic group of conversationalists for those weeks. None was more vibrant than the session on Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming. It’s a terrific book, and it provoked some interesting discussion. Just as I was settling down to read Malm’s book, I came across this article in Jacobin, which I thought would inspire good debate about the term and its possible misdirections. I was delighted, then, when Malm was amenable to a chat about his book, his sequel, Fossil Empire, and the role of capitalism in the contemporary environmental crisis.

Andreas Malm is a human ecologist at Lund University in Sweden. His work examines the historical power relations of climate change. In addition to Fossil Capital, his next book is The Progress of this Storm: On Society and Nature in a Warming World, which will be published by Verso in early 2018.

Next week: 24 October: “Catastrophic Meanings: Consuming the Great Flood of 1927” (with Susan Scott Parrish)


5 September: “Dysfunctional Relationships: Love Songs for Pesticides” (with Michelle Mart)

12 September: “Catastrophic Environmentalism: Histories of the Cold War” (with Jacob Hamblin)

19 September: “Disaster Narratives: Predictions, Preparedness, & Lessons” (with Scott Knowles)

26 September: “Catastrophe in the Age of Revolutions” (with Cindy Ermus)

3 October: “Histories of the Future & the Anthropocene” (with Libby Robin)

10 October: “Günther Anders and the Catastrophic Imagination” (with Jason Dawsey)

May 28: Barry Commoner Day

Barry Commoner would have been 98 today.

Reflecting on his writings in the context of some more recent work, I was reminded of his talk, “What Is Yet To Be Done,” delivered in 1997 at an event in New York to celebrate his 80th birthday. In those remarks, Commoner argued:

The environmental crisis arises from a fundamental fault. Our systems of production—in industry, agriculture, energy, and transportation—essential as they are, make people sick and die. As the Surgeon General would say, these processes are hazardous to your health. But that is only the immediate problem. Down the line, these same production processes threaten a series of global human catastrophes: higher temperatures; the seas rising to flood many of the world’s cities; more frequent severe weather; and dangerous exposure to ultraviolet radiation. The nonhuman sectors of the living ecosystem are also affected by the crisis: ancient forest reserves are disappearing; wetlands and estuaries are impaired; numerous species are threatened with extinction.

Eighteen years later, we continue to share the same concerns. Further, the vocabulary has evolved. We can talk about an Anthropocene: a new geological epoch driven by human actions. As severe as the environmental crisis confronting us remains, the good news is that this new vocabulary acknowledges that we now live in an age of change and that we must prepare for the inevitable challenges facing us. Breeding resilience in our cities in our food production and in our energy and transportation networks has become a necessity and there are encouraging signs in many sectors.

But spare a thought for the Anthropocene’s social implications. The title of Commoner’s 1997 talk was an explicit reference to Lenin’s famous essay, and the environmental crisis for Commoner was unmistakably a human event: it was caused by human actions, but the ultimate measure of its impact was the threat to human health and well-being. As a concept, the Anthropocene is less good here. We are not all exposed to environmental catastrophe equally. Nor are we all susceptible to environmental vulnerabilities in the same ways.

At a 2014 Earth Day function at the University of Wisconsin’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, the author China Miéville spoke about “The Limits of Utopia,” and noted the devil’s bargain in “Anthropocene”:

The very term “Anthropocene,” which gives with one hand, insisting on human drivers of ecological shift, misleads with its implied “We.”

“We” are not Tuvalu. “We” are not forced into migration by advancing deserts or retreating waters. Many (likely all) readers of this post are among the privileged, relative few who can lament the almost theoretical/hypothetical hazards confronting us and debate their contexts, outcomes, and solutions. The story is always more complicated, but in Commoner I always found an explicit effort to not lose sight of the signal within the noise. The environmental crisis was a global phenomenon and environmentalism was devoted to human welfare. Thus, he concluded his 1997 talk with a missive to tackle the kind of social change that is so often overlooked when we talk about climate change or other “big” environmental problems. Their source is rarely in the air, soil, or water, but in human actions (and, tragically, human inactions). Even in the context of this new vocabulary, I doubt Commoner’s message would have changed:

We, who are environmental advocates, must find a way—for the sake of the planet and the people who live on it—to join a historic mission to end poverty wherever it exists.