A Review of Facing the Anthropocene

Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System

By Ian Angus

Monthly Review Press

Review by Seth Sandronsky

IjpgIan Angus’s book about humanity and our planet is a must-read. In Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System (Monthly Review Press), Angus makes clear what is happening, why, and where a sustainable alternative can be.

The Anthropocene is not a word in common use. It is a proposed geological term to describe the destructive effects of capitalist industrialization. Its reliance on fossil fuels and the environmental outcomes are not a pretty picture. Angus delivers accounts of recent scientific research which spells out the harm.

To look at, understand, and act on the Anthropocene is a task we must undertake. This is the author’s purpose in writing his book that weds natural and social science, no small task, but vital for improved comprehension to aid collective political action.

Angus’ book has three parts. Part one unpacks the Anthropocene as a biophysical phenomenon. Angus compares and contrasts the recent science about the Anthropocene and the Holocene in terms of Earth as an integrated system, e.g., carbon and nitrogen cycles.

The Holocene epoch is the roughly 11,000 years of human civilization that precedes the Anthropocene. The latter is a tiny fraction of the former, timewise. A major theme Angus develops is that the post-World War II economy in the Global North quantitatively and qualitatively altered Earth’s ecology. He terms that 50 or so years as the Great Acceleration, a blink in geological time, but a radical rift in human society that did and does upend nature’s time with capital’s time.

The latter’s growth imperative rewards the fastest return on commodity investment, from inception to production and circulation, which Angus elaborates on in the second part of his book. Nature has no such imperative, and succumbs to capital’s “grow or die” logic, with the disruption of the climate a clear case in point.

Angus draws in part upon the work of Rachel Carson and Barry Commoner, plus that of more recent scientists with less name recognition. Two leading figures are Paul J. Crutzen (who coined the term Anthropocene recently) and Will Steffen, along with James Hansen, a more recognized scientist who publicly speaks critically on the climate crisis, naming the fossil fuel industry and its political servants as fatal threats to the planetary ecology.

Part two’s focus on the making of fossil capitalism historicizes and politicizes its origin. Here, Angus discusses the Anthropocene as a socio-ecological phenomenon. That is, he addresses the social institution of corporate capitalism, notably the extreme reliance upon war and waste as economic engines for growth that adversely impact the Earth System. Angus’s narrative, free of cant or jargon, is a disciplined discussion.

There is no lumping together of the population that ignores class divisions among and between the Global North and South. Instead, he analyzes the class factors and forces that have propelled us to the current juncture of extreme weather, a part of the ecological unraveling.

His final and third part takes up eco-socialism, human solidarity, and contours of a future movement for human sustainability. Angus’ take on the solidarity activism following Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy is superb. Such recent examples of cooperation in the face of major adversity demonstrate a vital part of human nature. It is about much more than competition.

Angus edits the web journal climateandcapitalism.com. He uses charts and graphs (but no photos) that dovetail with the text in Facing the Anthropocene. The Appendix, Notes, Bibliography, and Index are an education, but I urge you to read the entire book as a guide in the struggle against ecocide.


Seth Sandronsky is a journalist and member of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email sethsandronsky@gmail.com.