Géopolitique, Réseau, Énergie, Environnement, Nature
The Fossil Crescent Origins of the Anthropocene
Issue #4


Issue #4


Paul Magnette

Published by the Groupe d'études géopolitiques, with the support of the Fondation de l'École normale supérieure

Twenty years ago, Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, Paul Crutzen, introduced the term Anthropocene to describe our modern era. Since the end of the 18th century, he observed, human action on the environment has become so great that “global climate may depart significantly from natural behavior for many millennia to come”. 1 Two decades later, this concept has become firmly established in discussions around climate change and is slowly entering mainstream language. The term is extremely effective in that it focuses on human responsibility in climate disruption. However, it also has the drawback of diluting analysis with abstract references. Who is this Anthropos that caused climate change, and who are the humans that will most directly suffer its consequences? To this question, Crutzen does not provide an answer. The Anthropocene has no sociology, no geography, and barely the beginnings of a history. And yet, if we look past its causes, and the way in which it materializes in human communities, ecosystems and specific territories, if we ignore the “environmental reflexivity” 2 that it creates, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to gain an in-depth understanding of it, and therefore reorienting the course of human actions. 3

Birth of a new geological age

Establishing the moment of the Anthropocene’s birth is not the most complicated aspect. Crutzen chose 1784 as a turning point, the year that the steam engine was “invented” by James Watt. In retrospect, this machine, fueled by coal, appears to be the symbol of technological power that allowed humans to break free of the yoke that natural limits placed on production and move away from the subsistence economy that they had been confined to since the beginnings of the Neolithic. For some, like American sociologist Jason Moore, the underlying principles of this new era in our planet’s history can only be understood through if we go even further back in time, to the “great discoveries” that ushered in European imperialism, as well as the scientific and intellectual origins of the capitalist system around the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries. 4 Others, like environmental historian John McNeill, instead point to the “great acceleration” of energy consumption and the production of greenhouse gasses that proliferated in the aftermath of World War II. 5

These differences of opinion are more relative than absolute. This is first and foremost because on the scale of planetary time, a few centuries do not make much difference; the previous geological era covers a period whose boundaries are flexible, spanning the last ten to twelve millennia. Secondly, and above all, because what is important is defining the causality of the passing from one era to another, as well as the inherent dynamics of moving into the Anthropocene. By making the invention of the steam engine the symbol of this transition, Crutzen points in a direction. During the Holocene, it was the “Agricultural Revolution”, made possible by a temperate climate, that brought about Neolithic civilization. Our entry into the Anthropocene was caused by the “Industrial Revolution” and gave rise to our productivist and urban civilization. 6 We can therefore trace the intellectual origins of the Anthropocene to the scientific revolution that took place between the 15th and 17th centuries 7 , identify its first material expressions in Europe at the end of the 18th century, and follow its global spread starting in the second half of the 20th century. 8

This timeline points us in the direction of where the Anthropocene originated. Time points to space. If this new era was born out of the extensive mining and consumption of coal, its cradle is without a doubt Great Britain: the transition from water wheels to steam engines in Lancashire’s cotton industry ushered in the intensification of coal mining. 9 Moreover, England was one of the first global imperial powers, a territory living “in a space that is not its own”. 10 Compared to other regions of the world that had reached a similar level of scientific and technological development at the dawn of the Anthropocene, the explosion of European prosperity can be explained by two factors: mining of coal on the one hand, and on the other hand, imperialism. 11 Without coal, Europeans would not have been able to break free from the energy constraints that had condemned them to recurrent famines and epidemics since the spread of agriculture. Without the violence of colonial conquest and exploitation, Europe, which witnessed rapid demographic growth, would not have been able to obtain the vital resources for its own subsistence: wheat, wood, cotton, sugar, tea, coffee, and chocolate produced in the Americas, often through the labor of slaves that had been torn from African soil. These two major historic factors — imperialism and the massive exploitation of fossil energies — have their origins in the political agenda of the English bourgeoisie of the mid-19th century. 12

From the outset, the dual movement that preceded the Anthropocene took place across a territory that went well beyond the United Kingdom’s natural borders. This encourages us to broaden our focus. When historians and anthropologists were setting out at the beginning of the previous century to pinpoint the Neolithic’s origins, they set off to explore the territories of the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations. There, on the banks of the Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile rivers, they discovered the first traces of cereal cultivation, vestiges of the first forms of writing and accounting, and the first traces of urbanization. Relying on this work, American Egyptologist James Henry Breasted, proposed delineating the cradle of this civilization and baptized it the “Fertile Crescent” in 1914. He wrote that it was in this “arable desert zone”, irrigated by the Nile, the Jordan, the Tigris, and the Euphrates that agriculture was “invented”. 13 This is where wheat cultivation was born before making its way to Mediterranean Europe, and then the rest of the world. This was the foundation on which writing and measuring instruments were developed, and it was the combination of these discoveries that gave rise to urban civilization and the first states. 14 If, as Crutzen suggests, the Industrial Revolution is to the Anthropocene what the Agricultural Revolution was to the Holocene, then coal is to our era what wheat was to Neolithic civilization: a total social fact. 15 We can therefore delineate the geographical cradle of the Anthropocene by identifying a “Fossil Crescent” that spans the entire length of the European coal seam, from northern England to Silesia, through Picardie and Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Wallonia and the Ruhr. This is where, beginning in the 18th century, coal was mined, in ever-increasing quantities and where Watt’s steam engine became a powerful force. It was here that a particular geological fact, the presence of vast quantities of exploitable fossil energy 16 , gave rise to a new mode of production, the famous extractivist-productivist model. This was the birthplace of a civilization that, like the one that emerged from the Neolithic period, eventually spread to the four corners of the planet. 

Coal, total social fact

What strikes visitors when they travel through the regions that make up the Fossil Crescent, from the Midlands to the Ruhr, is their uncanny similarity. Ken Loach’s films could be shot in Seraing or Marchiennes, and the Dardenne brothers’ films would not be out of place in Newcastle or Manchester. Through his actions, man has so profoundly transformed the landscape, and so profoundly transformed himself, that he has erased even the memory of nature and previous social relationships. To explain the origins of the city where I live, Charleroi, I usually refer to two maps. The first is the map produced by the Austrian Netherlands, drawn up by the Count of Ferraris around 1775: Charleroy is a small town on the banks of a river, composed of a few hundred houses, about ten leagues away from other identical hamlets and villages. The primeval wilderness has almost completely disappeared, replaced over the centuries by fields and pastures carved out of ancient forests. But the landforms are unchanged, the rivers follow their natural course and the villages and roads built by humans, following the meandering landscape, take up only a tiny fraction of the space. 

The second map was made one hundred and thirty-five years later for the World’s fair in 1911. In this time, Charleroi had become one of the wealthiest and most technologically advanced cities in the world and one of the Anthropocene’s capitals. On maps from this time period, the once winding river can be seen channeled in a straight line; the small towns are buried in a series of anarchic conurbations; the entire region is crisscrossed by railways, canals, roads, bridges, and electrical lines; dozens of black symbols indicate coal mines and metallurgical and glass factories. The Anthropocene made the natural environment unrecognizable, ripping tens of thousands of people from the countryside and cramming them into shacks built near mine shafts and factories. 

And when the surrounding countryside was no longer able to supply industry with enough manpower, workers were imported from the north and south of the Mediterranean, leaving lasting marks on the region’s demographic dynamics and human diversity.

Coal did not just transform the landscape; it also shaped social and democratic life. The strong concentration of mines as well as iron and steel works in the Fossil Crescent gave certain segments of the working class a strategic role. Miners, steel workers, railway workers, dockworkers and sailors lived and worked in densely populated areas, where direct contact allowed them to recognize their shared struggles and organize their efforts. As a result, they won the trade union and political rights for the entire working class which underpin our democracies and laid the foundations for a civic community culture. Mass democracy was born in the heart of the Fossil Crescent in the wake of the “great transformation” that radically transformed nature and social relationships. This was also where the foundations of European unification were laid. The old cosmopolitical dream of bringing the peoples of Europe together had been shattered a hundred times over by the imperialist desires of the great powers and the failures of traditional diplomacy. In the aftermath of the Second World War, it was the idea of mutualizing coal and steel resources, once again at the heart of the Fossil Crescent, that led to the founding of the first institutions of which the European Union is the distant descendant.


  1. Paul J. Crutzen, “Geology of Mankind : The Anthropocene”, Nature, 3 january 2002, n°415, p. 23.
  2. Cf. Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, L’événement Anthropocène, La Terre, l’histoire et nous, Paris, Points Histoire, 2016.
  3. Cf. Bruno Latour, « Quel Etat peut imposer des « gestes barrières » aux catastrophes écologiques ? », Esprit, 2020, n° 466, pp. 159-168.
  4. Cf. Jason W. Moore (ed.), Anthropocene or Capitalocene ? Nature, History and the Crisis of Capitalism, Oakland, Kairos/PM Press, 2016.
  5. Cf. John R. McNeill, Peter Engelke, The Great Acceleration, An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945, Cambridge (MA), The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014.
  6. Crutzen notes that the first analyses of air trapped in polar ice, showing the beginning of an increase in carbon dioxide and methane concentrations, also date from this period. It’s worth noting – and this is far from being a detail – that in the first case, climate change leads to a profound transformation in modes of production and social relations, while in the second, the causality is reversed.
  7. Cf. Carolyn Merchant, La mort de la nature, Les femmes, l’écologie et la révolution scientifique, Paris, Editions Wildproject, 2021.
  8. The date of 1850 is chosen by medievalist Lynn White Jr. who wrote in 1967 that “The emergence, as a widespread practice, of Francis Bacon’s creed that scientific knowledge means technical power over nature, can rarely be dated before about 1850”, Lynn White Jr, The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis, Paris, PUF, 2019, p. 25.
  9. Cf. Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital, Londres, Verso, 2015 ; Andreas Malm, L’anthropocène contre l’histoire, Le réchauffement climatique à l’heure du capital, Paris, La Fabrique éditions, 2017 and Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, « The Coal Question Before Jevons », The Historical Journal, 2019, vol. 63, n°1, p. 1-20.
  10. Pierre Charbonnier, Abondance et liberté, Une histoire environnementale des idées politiques, Paris, La Découverte, 2020, p. 124.
  11. Cf. Kenneth Pommeranz, Une grande divergence, La Chine, l’Europe et la construction de l’économie mondiale, Paris, Albin Michel, 2010.
  12. Cf. Charles-François Mathis, La civilisation du charbon, En Angleterre, du règne de Victoria à la Seconde Guerre mondiale, Paris, Vendémiaire, 2021.
  13. On the genesis and uses of this concept, see Vincent Capdepuy, “Le croissant fertile. Naissance, définition et usages d’un concept géohistorique”, L’information géographique, 2008, vol. 72, n°2, pp. 89-106.
  14. Cf. James C. Scott, Homo Domesticus, Une histoire profonde des premiers Etats, Paris, La Découverte, 2020.
  15. Borrowing the concept of “total social fact” from Marcel Mauss, American historian Steven Kaplan applies it to the role of wheat and bread in European civilization, and particularly in the French 18th century, Steven Kaplan, Raisonner sur les blés. Essais sur les Lumières économiques, Paris, Fayard, 2017. Fernand Braudel spoke of wheat as a “plant of civilization”, which is to the Mediterranean and Europe what rice is to Asia and corn to the Americas. Cf. Fernand Braudel, Civilisation matérielle et capitalisme, Paris, Armand Colin, 1967.
  16. Cf. Elena Esposito, Scott F. Abramson, « The European Coal Curse », Journal of Economic Growth, 2021, vol. 26, n°1, pp. 77-112.
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Paul Magnette, The Fossil Crescent Origins of the Anthropocene, Jan 2024,

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