Why has there not been enough action towards sustainability? Reason #2 of many

This mini text series is called: Why has there not been enough action towards sustainability? And to keep it hopeful and solution-oriented: What promising, recent ideas and solutions are out there to make it happen? And as my PhD is about art & the climate: what is art’s role in all of that?

This text will look at Reason #2 – Limited understanding of the origins of crises. Which perspectives offer an understanding of our impact on earth and the origins of crises?

The Anthropocene

Photo: U Hahn

Several scholars label our current time as the ‘Anthropocene’– the human epoch. There exist different views on the beginning of the ‘Anthropocene’: for example, around 1800 with Industrial revolution, or the 1940s with the implementation of nuclear weapon tests. Or even thousands of years ago with the invention of agriculture. Although the term ‘Anthropocene’ is widely used, it has not yet been officially defined as a geological epoch. While a majority of the Anthropocene Working Group, part of the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy, has voted in favour of a new geological epoch, a formal proposal still needs to be submitted. This is planned to be handed in to the International Commission on Stratigraphy by 2021.
Several scholars have criticized particular definitions of the term ‘Anthropocene’ because they disguise responsibilities for and vulnerabilities to environmental impacts. According to these scholars, ‘Anthropocene’ might falsely suggest that humans are equally responsible for (e.g. climate change) causes and effects, when, in fact, the main contributors are known, among them the fossil fuel economy. The ‘Anthropocene’ thesis can, moreover, be prone to the consequentialist bias by focusing on the effects, such as increased temperatures, instead of concentrating on the structural causes.

Or the Capitalocene?

Photo by Public Domain Pictures on Pexels.com

Andreas Malm appears to be (among) the first to propose the term ‘Capitalocene’. Other scholars who concerned themselves thoroughly with the concept are Jason Moore and Donna Haraway. Moore, 2017 (p. 606) in ‘The Capitalocene, Part I: on the nature and origins of our ecological crisis’ argues:

“While there is no question that environmental change accelerated sharply after 1850, and especially after 1945, it seems equally fruitless to explain these transformations without identifying how they fit into patterns of power, capital and nature established some four centuries earlier. From this standpoint, we may ask, Are we really living in the Anthropocene – the ‘age of man’ – with its Eurocentric and techno-determinist vistas? Or are we living in the Capitalocene – the ‘age of capital’ – the historical era shaped by the endless accumulation of Capital? How one answers the historical question shapes one’s analysis of – and response to – the crises of the present.” (p. 596).

The relevance of exploring the term ‘Capitalocene’ is supported by others for its ability to identify the cause of the crisis: capitalism and its “exploitative relations to labor, food, energy, and raw materials” (Demos, 2017, p. 96). Certainly, some elaborations of the term have also received criticism, for instance for misinterpreting and misrepresenting Anthropocene science (see for instance Angus’ book review of Moore’s “Capitalocene or Anthropocene”).

But… isn’t right now the Holocene?
One might think that these terms – ‘Anthropocene’, ‘Capitalocene’ – are not that different or that using one or the other does not make a difference. Officially, we are anyway currently still living in the Holocene epoch. Nevertheless, discussions about terms such as ‘Anthropocene’ and ‘Capitalocene’* direct our attention towards the origins of environmental and social crises and the drastic impact of humanity on earth. Without understanding the structural causes of today’s situation, it appears impossible to adequately address it. The ‘Capitalocene’ lens, for example, allows us to understand that some of today’s practices, power relations and exploitations reach back hundreds and thousands of years, not only to industrialization.

Is carbon our enemy?

Photo: U Hahn

Is it carbon that is our enemy, or the systems that have created socio-ecological crises? Along the lines of the ‘Capitalocene’, one would not focus on carbon or shutting down a coal plant, but on addressing the relations that have created fossil capitalism. What is required then, is systems thinking and systems change. Instead of superficial or ill-diagnosed solutions (e.g. focusing on renewable energies but continuing the exploitation, colonization, injustice), informed, adequate solutions are needed: democratic practices, environmental and social justice, a challenge to growth paradigms… This requires changes to our social, environmental, economic and political systems, which is a complex endeavour, and sometimes considered impossible. Can capitalism be reformed, can it be compatible with sustainability, or do we need an entire new approach? Can circularity concepts, such as Cradle to Cradle (Braungart & McDonough), Blue Economy (Pauli) and Doughnut Economics (Kate Raworth) offer solutions? (see Calisto Friant et al., 2020 for Circularity discourse typology or Wiedmann et al., 2020, for solution approaches).

It remains interesting to analyse the formal proposal regarding the ‘Anthropocene’ and how the discourse on the ‘Capitalocene’ will evolve.

What is art’s role in all of this?

Photo: U Hahn

Artists have long engaged with environmental topics. Multiple artists and art groups address topics of the ‘Anthropocene’ and ‘Capitalocene’. There are entire books written, showing examples of and discussing art in the Anthropocene, e.g. see Davis & Turpin’s (2015) “Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies”. And publications, such as Demos’ (2017) “Against the Anthropocene: Visual Culture and Environment Today” that discuss artists exploring structural causes of un-sustainability.

Artists – through their artworks and/or statements – address, protest and visualize the colonization of nature and suppression of indigenous rights (e.g. see the video and installation Forest Law by Ursula Biemann and Paulo Tavares), the unsustainable funding of cultural institutions (e.g. see initiatives, such as Liberate Tate, Art Not Oil, BP or not BP? in the UK or Fossil Free Culture in the Netherlands), the influence of multinationals (e.g. see the Climate Games, co-founded by artists Isabelle Frémeaux and John Jordan), finance (e.g. see art by Femke Herregraven), and energy and transport (e.g. see art by Tomás Saraceno).

These are just a few examples. Can they make a difference? If we define “making a difference” as making major headlines, one could say: yes, some of the artistic practices indeed receive widespread press coverage and attention in social media. Some contributed to the ceasing of unsustainable sponsorship of cultural institutions by fossil fuel companies, e.g. in the UK. Certainly, the potential and impact of art is much broader and also quite complicated to define and “measure”. More on that in another post…

The next text in this series “Why has there not been enough action towards sustainability?” will look at reason #3: the ‘slow violence’ of environmental problems.

* The ‘Anthropocene’ and ‘Capitalocene’ are not the only terms being suggested (although the former might, at the moment, be the closest to receiving official consideration). There is the ‘Chthulucene’ proposed by Donna Haraway (“not named after SF writer H.P. Lovecraft’s misogynist racial-nightmare monster Cthulhu (note spelling difference), but rather after the diverse earth-wide tentacular powers and forces; Haraway, 2015, p. 160), the ‘Gynocene’, a feminist environmentalism, ‘Plasticene’, the age of plastic, and others.

Some of the literature

Art & Anthropocene and Capitalocene

  • Davis, H., & Turpin, E. (Eds.). (2015). Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters among aesthetics, politics, environments and epistemologies (First ed., Critical climate change) [First ed.]. London: Open Humanities Press.
  • Demos, T. (2017). Against the Anthropocene: Visual culture and environment today. Berlin: Sternberg Press.

Discussions of Anthropocene, Capitalocene

  • Haraway, D. (2015). Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin. Environmental Humanities, 6(1), 159-165.
  • Moore, J.W. (2017). The Capitalocene, Part I. On the Nature and Origins of our Ecological Crisis, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 44:3, 594-609.

Circular Economy Concepts and Growth Paradigms

  • Calisto Friant, M., Vermeulen, W. J. V., & Salomone, R. (2020). A typology of circular economy discourses: navigating the diverse visions of a contested paradigm. Resources, Conservation & Recycling161.
  • Wiedmann, T., Lenzen, M., Keyßer, L. T., & Steinberger, J. K. (2020). Scientists’ warning on affluence. Nature communications, 11(1), 1-10.

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