Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptise Fessoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us (Verso, 2016)

What if we have known about our unsustainable destruction of the environment for a long time? Might we learn from our history of conscious ruin, and see more lucidly which institutions, social relations and modes of thought have perpetuated it?

This is the hope of historians Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptise Fressoz, authors of The Shock of the Anthropocene. By giving readers a politicized and longer history of environmental destructions that does not originate in an ‘environmental awakening’ in the 1970s, they are challenging us to pay attention to two and a half centuries’ worth of environmental awareness.

In contrast to understandings of the Anthropocene that demarcate it based on a recent emergent knowledge of planetary change, Bonneuil and Fressoz offer a history of environmental degradation that is bound up in historical relations of power operating through war, empire, consumerism and the deliberate spread of ignorance. The ‘shock’ in the book’s title is perhaps an ironic jab at the absence of real history in many scientists’ presentation of a new epoch, where the story is one of rising curves on graphs.  Instead, they explore seven historical narratives from the vantage of the environmental humanities, emphasizing the idea “that social relations are full of biophysical processes, and that the various flows of matter and energy that run through the Earth system at different levels are polarized by socially structured human activities.”

Too often, we are presented with a depoliticized narrative of the Anthropocene, they say, which privileges the position of scientists, economists and engineers as both the guides and saviours of our planet. In the second meeting of the Anthropocene Reading Group, discussants welcomed this critical reflection on the grand narrative of Anthropocene advocates and on their calls for rational, technocratic (and often market-oriented) management of the environment.

The Shock of the Anthropocene provides an engaging account of who the ‘anthropos’ really is, and the deep historical inequalities that permeate environmental destruction. A wealth of facts punctures the idea that a universal ‘we’ are responsible for climate change. To pick one: just ninety companies are thought to be responsible for 63 percent of cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide and methane between 1850 and 2010. Such facts are given more coherence in a chapter on the ‘capitalocene’, with reference to the concept of ‘world-ecologies’ drawn from the work of Jason Moore, and the idea of ‘unequal ecological exchange’, which reads the long-term development of the world economy through the uneven ecological relations between imperial metropoles and peripheries.

These narratives have important implications for how we identify those responsible for climate crisis and for the action that we might take against them, whether through policy channels, protest or otherwise. Certainly, it gives a different force to principles concerning equity within climate change protocols. More concretely, a powerful chapter on the ‘thanatocene’ outlines the ecocidal force of military technologies, and the productive excesses of war economy that failed to abate in the second half of the twentieth century. Equally complicit, though, are areas of intellectual thought such as neoclassical economics, which have disembedded the economy from ideas of natural constraints or limits to growth. Just as dangerously, the authors argue, is the more recent tendency to bring nature back in to economic calculation in the form of ‘natural capital’, which represents a “radical internalization” that renders ecological and financial value fungible, and presents the environment as a business opportunity.

Much of what ties the multiple narratives pursued in the book together is a corrective to ideas of modernity and progress. Against the notion that our fossil-powered economy is the culmination of inexorable transition towards the most efficient and most desired technologies, they argue that a range of more sustainable innovations had to be actively relegated: cars instead of urban tram systems; steam engines instead of hydropower; and so on. Industrial progress was premised on the creation of demand through advertising, and crucially, had to face resistance from ‘the environmentalism of the poor’ – peasants fighting deforestation, Luddites fighting mass production – whose stories deserve, in the words of E.P. Thompson, to be rescued from “the enormous condescension of posterity.”

This history serves as both a surprising forewarning  – late-eighteenth century worries about the exhaustion of fish stocks are unexpectedly familiar – and a disruption to given assumptions about the powering of industry – the overwhelming prominence of hydraulic, animal and wind power in late-nineteenth century America, for example.

A welter of philosophical, scientific and cultural critiques of industrial progress are referenced as evidence of a long history of ‘environmental reflexivity’: from the roots of thermodynamics and systems ecology in natural theology to the Frankfurt School’s attacks on ‘instrumental reason’. It is unlikely in reading this book that one will come away without having learned something about how humans have conceived their impact on the planet. This is part of the authors’ objective of “rethinking the past in order to open up the future.”

Bonneuil and Fressoz by no means deny the particular urgency of our current predicament and the extraordinary increase in the rate of environmental destruction and climate change beginning with the mid-twentieth century’s ‘Great Acceleration’. They are demanding, however, that we be clear-eyed about who and what we indict for such devastation. Their book is a powerful corrective history designed not to depress but to emancipate our thinking about more sustainable futures.