The Intellectual Origins of the Anthropocene
New York got a taste of the Anthropocene in the spring of 2023. Canadian forest fires turned the skies a hideous orange. Millions of lungs burned with acrid smoke. The apocalyptic weather was so shocking that it moved some observers to hope that the smoke cloud would produce a tipping point in public attitudes about climate change. Yet so far, the jolt of the forest fires seems to have produced no meaningful shift in public opinion or political action. This is perhaps not so surprising. For decades, fossil fuel corporations and their political supporters have actively undermined meaningful action on climate. And behind the vested interests of the oil companies lies an even bigger obstacle: the addiction to economic growth across the fossil fuel countries of the Earth.
Scientific warnings of planetary emergency are all too familiar by now. Fossil fuel burning is overloading the atmosphere with carbon. If business as usual persists, extreme heat waves will ravage economies and ecosystems, causing death and suffering, crop failure and biodiversity loss. At the same time, polar ice melt will accelerate, raising sea levels and disrupting oceanic circulation. Humanity faces a fundamentally altered earth system. We have collectively entered into a new geological epoch, provisionally named the Anthropocene.
The concept of the Anthropocene helps us see the present and future in a new light, but by centering the narrative on the economic and environmental changes after World War Two, this framework limits our understanding of the deeper historical causes behind the planetary emergency. Crucially, this is not just a technical problem for specialists to debate but a major concern for anyone interested in diagnosing the driving forces behind the climate crisis and the threat to biodiversity.
In their original dating of the Anthropocene, Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer picked 1784 as the historical origin of the new epoch – the year of James Watt’s patent for a steam engine with a separate condenser. Britain’s transition into the fossil fuel economy thus marked the end of the Holocene. More recently, the Anthropocene Working Group, established to validate the epoch in formal stratigraphic terms, has shifted the chronology of the Anthropocene from the Industrial Revolution to the Great Acceleration after 1950. From a geological point of view, the postwar period is the moment when new man-made particles become apparent on a global scale in the Earth’s sediments, including the widespread presence of plastic, concrete, and nuclear fission materials. Such stratigraphic criteria provide a powerful way to track anthropogenic effects at the planetary level, but they should not be mistaken for an adequate model of historical explanation. 1
To grapple with the roots of the Anthropocene, we need to look at developments that preceded the Great Acceleration. This means wrestling with Europe’s long history of capitalism and empire, stretching back to 1492, if not farther. Long before the planetary impact of the Great Acceleration, there were seismic social shifts within Western society, including the rise of agrarian capitalism, the European colonization of the New World, and the energy transition into the fossil fuel economy. To understand these social transformations, we must also attend to the history of ideologies and ideas. Without a guiding intellectual framework, the capitalist system of the West could never have become a dominant force in the world.
We locate the intellectual origin of the Anthropocene in the historically distinctive world view we call Cornucopianism. By exploring the historical emergence of Cornucopian ideology, we can a deep understanding of the social and political maladies of the present moment, including the strange apathy of so many in the face of the unfolding planetary emergency. The thinly veiled reason for this inaction is our addiction to exponential economic growth, fostered by the world view of modern economics. 2
Even though exponential economic growth is an historical anomaly – for 99,9993% of the time Homo sapiens has roamed the earth there has been no sustained economic growth – people across the Global North and the developing world take it for granted. Indeed, a continuous improvement in the material standards of living is the main selling point of capitalism.
While climate scientists have sounded the alarm about the dangers of carbon emissions for the past thirty years, economists have relentlessly proselytized for economic growth. The discipline of economics has, for the most part, completely ignored climate change and global warming – these terms appear in only thirty-two abstracts of nineteen thousand articles published in the top five economic research journals from 1957 to 2019. The most famous economist to write on climate change, Nobel Laureate William Nordhaus, disregards the warnings made by climate scientists, insisting that it is more important to protect the sanctity of economic growth. He argues that economic growth will continue to improve standards of living while at the same time promoting technological improvements that are likely to enable humanity to resolve the environmental damages caused by economic growth. 3
Nordhaus won the Nobel Prize for a model recommending a ceiling of 3.50C increase in global temperatures by 2100. This is, he argues, the optimal level of global warming in terms of balancing the benefits to consumer and the costs incurred by the damages to the environment – note that Nordhaus sees both costs and benefits from an anthropocentric point of view – entirely disregarding the fate of other species. 4
Climate scientists shudder at the thought of 3.50C. The latest report by the IPCC outlines a nightmarish scenario, with massive species extinction, disastrous reductions in agricultural yields, and extensive loss of human life from heat alone, not to mention fires, hurricanes, and flooding. What is more, scientists like Johan Rockström, predict that various tipping points will soon be reached, after which the effects of increased earth system change will be non-linear and irreversible. While the destabilization of the earth system might make human life on earth impossible, it definitely will make additional economic growth impossible, undermining the very foundation of Nordhaus’s model. 5
Why are mainstream economists so wedded to economic growth that they are willing to gamble on the habitability of the earth itself? Why do they feel comfortable disregarding or downplaying the findings of climate science? Some economists claim that climate scientists do not understand the power of economic growth to generate substitutes, others suggests that the IPCC is too pessimistic, or that climate scientists are untrustworthy.
We argue that the obsession with growth in economics is grounded in their choice of first principle – the idea of scarcity. Anyone who has taken an ECON 101 course would have had it drilled into them that everyone, regardless of their wealth, is constantly facing scarcity. It is, of course, a truism that everything is scarce – after all, both time and space are limited. Yet, the definition of scarcity that economists use is based on the peculiar idea that consumers have insatiable desires. To satisfy as many of these desires as possible, the consumer must maximize the use of all resources. If some of these resources start running low, economists assume substitutability, that science and markets will come up with replacements. This led Nordhaus’s mentor, the legendary MIT professor, Robert Solow, to proclaim: “the world can in effect get along without natural resources, so exhaustion is just an event, not a catastrophe.” 6
In the theoretical world of modern economics, in which everyone always wants more (insatiability), anything can be turned into anything else through the market (fungibility), and everything is replaceable (substitutability), it is perfectly sensible to maximize the use of all resources and to promote as much economic growth as possible.
The idea of infinite growth has a long history, dating back to the seventeenth century. In the midst of the Little Ice Age, the Thirty Years War, and the English Civil War, a small group of scholars, experimentalists, and intelligencers launched an audacious program to foster infinite improvement. The Hartlib Circle sought to operationalize Francis Bacon’s vision of using knowledge to commandeer nature, to turn it into economic wealth. Drawing on Millenarianism, alchemy, and science, they sought to unlock nature’s storehouse of riches and harness the invisible energies inherent in nature. They envisioned the improvement project as a collaborative endeavor, in which all citizens shared insights derived from their experiments. With nature conceived as infinitely expanding, the Hartlibians also began to think of desires as unlimited. While at any given point desires outstripped available wealth, both desires and wealth were expanding indefinitely, creating a double helix of infinities.
While the boundless optimism of the Hartlib Circle did not survive intact, Enlightenment philosophers retained many of their assumptions. This Cornucopian philosophy persisted until the nineteenth century, when it was challenged by various Finitarian movements, including Malthusianism, Socialism, and Romanticism. Intent on developing a theoretical paradigm that cast capitalism as a system of liberty, the marginalist economists, including Stanley Jevons, Carl Menger, and Leon Walras, offered a radically different way of conceiving of the nature-economy nexus. They theorized people as utility-maximizing and firms as profit-maximizing, each constantly wanting more. Against the backdrop of high imperialism and the second industrial revolution, they insisted that nature must be exploited maximally at all times, so as to generate as much consumer welfare as possible. After World War Two, neo-classical economics expanded on this program by developing a growth theory, which assumed that all resources would be used as efficiently as possible while the agents of the economy generated the optimal level of economic growth. Together, the general equilibrium approach and the new growth theory contributed to the vast post-war expansion of the world economy. Nature became little more than a storehouse of resources, to bolster consumer society and the economic goals of the democratic welfare states.
Unfortunately, humanity can no longer afford to act in the manner encouraged by the economist’s worldview. Our never-ending quest to turn nature into wealth has led to disastrous unintended consequences. We have entered an age of Planetary Scarcity when pollution is threatening the stability of the system by overfilling carbon sinks and endangering ecological resilience. Simply put, there is too much coal, petroleum, and natural gas in relation to the limited capacity of the earth to absorb excess carbon. Instead of chasing endless consumer desires, we need to reimagine the relation between nature and the economy, placing the earth system at the center of economics.
In our book, Scarcity: A History from the Origins of Capitalism to the Climate Crisis (Harvard University Press, 2023) we explain how past philosophers, economists, and novelists have conceptualized the economy-nature nexus. Although none of these ideas can be simply transplanted to the age of Planetary Scarcity, they can inspire us to imagine different futures. For example, there is a long tradition of thinkers who resisted the idea of nature as an inexhaustible cornucopia. There is also a rich alternative history of desire that does not associate human welfare with never-ending material consumption. Many of these ideas have already been resurrected. Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ revives the Christian ideal of restricting desire and flourishing within limits. The American environmentalist Bill McKibben, founder of the 350 Movement, espouses notions of self-sufficiency and degrowth that harken back to Rousseau and the Romantics. On the left, a new generation of radicals looks to Marx and his critique of capitalism for a deeper understanding of how we can avoid the climate apocalypse.
We end our book by proposing a new economics centered on ecological repair. Since cornucopian ideology got us into this mess; we must reorient human creativity and labor away from infinite growth towards a more modest and more realistic approach that recognizes the danger of unintended consequences from economic growth and respects the integrity of the biosphere. Ecological repair in this sense involves a mixture of intervention and retreat. Decarbonization requires new labor-intensive infrastructure and land intensive energy sources. But to succeed, we must balance this priority against the protection of biodiversity. In fact, decarbonization depends on safeguarding our natural carbon sinks.
Consider the role of phytoplankton in the earth system and the human economy. Phytoplankton are single-cell organisms that float on the currents in the surface layers of the oceans. They have the power of transforming carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and carbohydrates through photosynthesis. This ability makes phytoplankton the primary producers in ocean food chains as well as critical players in the carbon cycle. About half of the oxygen in the air comes from phytoplankton. Oceans have absorbed about 40% of the carbon dioxide emitted by fossil fuel economies so far. 7
Yet despite their absolutely central role in maintaining the current state of the earth system, phytoplankton remain mostly unknown and ignored outside scientific circles. They have no cultural representation, no economic value, and no political agency. A new economics of ecological repair will have to find a way to incorporate the action of phytoplankton and other carbon sinks. We need economic models that protect phytoplankton from harm and ensure that they continue to flourish. Most difficult of all, we need to rethink what we mean by work and creativity in economic and technological terms, moving beyond the shallow anthropocentrism of modern economics, towards a new vision of partnership between human and non-human forces in the earth system.
- Paul J. Crutzen, P.J. and Eugene F. Stoermer, E.F., “The ‘Anthropocene,’” Global Change Newsletter (200), 41, 17; Colin N. Waters, Jan Zalasiewicz, Mark Williams, Michael A Ellis. Andrea M. Snelling (eds), “A Stratigraphical Basis for the Anthropocene,” Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 395 (2014), 1–21.
- Fredrik Albritton Jonsson and Carl Wennerlind, Scarcity: A History from the Origins of Capitalism to the Climate Crisis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2023).
- Michael Roos and Franziska M. Hoffart, “Importance of Climate Change in Economics,” in Climate Economics: A Call for More Pluralism and Responsibility, 19–34 (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave, 2021), 23, 29.
- Nordhaus, William D. (2017): Revisiting the social cost of carbon. In Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 114 (7), pp. 1518–1523. Available online at https://www.pnas.org/content/114/7/1518.
- IPCC, 2023: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2023: Synthesis Report. A Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, H. Lee and J. Romero (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 1-36. Available online at https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/syr/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_SYR_SPM.pdf.
- Robert Solow, “The Economics of Resources or the Resources of Economics,” The American Economic Review, May, 1974, Vol. 64, No. 2, Papers and Proceedings of the Eighty-sixth Annual Meeting of the American Economic Association (May, 1974), 11.
- Paul Falkowski, “The Power of Plankton,” Nature 483, no. 7387 (March 1, 2012): S17–20.
Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, Carl Wennerlind, The Intellectual Origins of the Anthropocene, Jan 2024,
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