Book Reviews

The Shock of a Politically Emancipatory History

Christophe Bonneuil & Jean-Baptiste Fressoz: The Shock of the Anthropocene


The Anthropocene.

The Anthropo-what?

It’s too big of a concept for most of us mere mortals to understand. Sure, the climate is changing – we’ve seen some graphs around. Sure, we’ve decided to call it a new geological epoch. Sure, we were the ones who did it. Now what? The mind balks.

One of the resounding messages of The Shock of the Anthropocene is that the concept itself is too big to be useful. Although Bonneuil and Fressoz don’t doubt that we’re entering a new era, they want to deconstruct this enormous linguistic Trojan Horse and show us what’s hiding inside: technocratic managers who, intentionally or not, will anesthetize politics and replace it with either authoritarian management or deeper and wider markets-in-everything.

This surely sounds a bit overblown for a debate about geological nomenclature, but it’s justified. And this book makes these fears palpable.

An important first step in this project is noticing that Anthropocene is a very different kind of name than Holocene or Pleistocene which mark the historical periods with certain kinds of climates. Unlike those names, Anthropocene has its causal origin built right in – the Anthropos did it. So, more than dry nomenclature for temperature records, the name entails our understanding of how we got here and whose fault it is.

Now, since we are assigning blame, Bonneuil and Fressoz think The Anthropos is a pretty evasive culprit. Do we really think that climate change is caused by ‘people, generally’? Do we think that blame extends to all humans equally – to Brazilian tribespeople just as much as the Koch brothers? No, obviously not. The causes of climate change are concentrated in certain times and places, and are embedded in certain kinds of political and economic institutions. Disassembling the huge and faceless Anthropos into particular times, places, and peoples is then important for both descriptive accuracy and for a more proper assignment of blame, which is needed to figure out what we do next. Such a disassembly is the largest part of the book and along the way we are treated to explorations of such helpful descriptive treats as the ‘Thalocene’ (war), the ‘Phagocene’ (consumption), the ‘Agnotocene’ (ignorance’), etc. We also get a bewildering cornucopia of historical snapshots to make the descriptions feel real.

But the most important part of this project runs above and throughout all of these games of historical dress-up.

By trying all these stories on for size, what rubs off is the sense that history matters. By which I mean that, like any good history, this retelling makes our current situation look like the contingent result of choices which could have taken us in other directions. It places the explanatory burden squarely on us and not some purported laws of history or progress. For example, many of us live in suburban cities and are dependent on cars, but a reflection on the history of this situation reveals that it’s a consequence of choices we’ve made – partly as a security measure in the Cold War, partly as a deliberate strategy to encourage private property and individualist (non-communist) society. But it could have been otherwise; there are no laws of history which necessitate this kind of life – only structures we have inherited, and can change if we have to.

But history also matters because we can see that we’ve been on this merry-go-round for a while. One of the strongest messages of the book is that, in spite of scientistic narratives, we are emphatically not in some sacred ‘new age’ of heightened awareness about our environmental impacts. Various forms of this awareness have been around for a good while: concerns about the finitude and polluting nature of coal go well back in the 19th century, worries about deforestation – even further, anxieties about depletion of soil nutrients, awareness of industrial pollution, and even knowledge about the threat to the climate stretch far back in time. But these periods of awareness coincided with periods of industrial pollution, coal mining, ballooning trade, and deforestation. The mystery, then, is why awareness coexisted with destruction. In failing to reflect on these histories, our current obsession with ‘finally getting the science right’ and our confidence that such knowledge would bring solutions ends up looking like the height of hubris.

The most interesting part of the book lies in the shadows around this observation. Although they don’t say it directly, Bonneuil and Fressoz seem to suggest that our environmental abuses continued not just in spite of our knowledge about them, but because of it. This seems paradoxical, but a couple of examples are helpful.

First, in fisheries off the American west coast there was a conflict over the possibility of depletion. In their infinite wisdom, regulators imposed legal requirements not to exceed the “Maximum Sustainable Yield” – an estimate which reduced the fish population to a single aggregate number and a replacement rate. Result: explosive increase in harvesting and fishery collapse. We are not given a clear explanation of why this happened, but it’s safe to say that the complex, local relationship with a fish population (that was sensitive to all kinds of ecological interactions) was reduced to a single dimension and revalued as a stock or flow of commodities. Alternatively, we could explain collapse by dubious motives of the people who estimated the sustainable yield – maybe they used inflated representations for their own short-term gain. This certainly still happens in many fisheries, and it sounds a lot like letting kids decide the price of candy.

But in the second case of coal, this manipulation of representations is more salient. At a time of British anxieties about the sustainability of continued coal use, certain Panglossian geologists entered the scene with what we now take to be wildly inflated (by six times) reserve estimates. Result: full steam ahead with coal-fired industrialism and the development of fossil-fuel-dependant infrastructures to which we are still beholden.

In both of these cases, I think our authors would want to say that the choice in the matter – which legitimately belonged to the people – was usurped by a class of technocrats, that power was transferred from political process to the purported experts who wielded ‘representations’. Worse still, Bonneuil and Fressoz argue that these representations encouraged certain kinds of social and economic developments, changing the way we interact with nature – and probably for the worse. This way of thinking about representations locates their anxieties about the possible depoliticizing effects of science and it motivates their warnings about the scariest possible future: a cabal of experts which seeks to quantify and price all the so-called ‘ecosystem services’, thereby commodifying nature and turning it into a market. This is a viable fear – if you don’t believe me, read an environmental economics textbook.

Not only is this possible future technocratic (and so manipulable by those with the power to influence the technocrats), but it promises to be an unmitigated ecological suicide. For a thousand reasons – not least of which being our ignorance about how ecosystems work – natural processes are not reducible to financial measures. This argument doesn’t even require moralizing about commodification, though there is also that.

But these arguments are really beyond the scope of the book. The authors’ focus is, first-and-foremost, to sketch the various historical contexts of our increased environmental destruction and then use them to show that we are not immune to the kinds of technocratic take-overs which have occurred in the past.  Moreover, they suggest that highly abstracted talk of ‘The Anthropocene’ may be just this kind of political anesthetic. By deconstructing this conceptual behemoth into a number of smaller ‘cenes’ they aim to relocate our environmental influence within the realm of choice – decisions we made, for better or for worse. By doing this, they hope to achieve a kind of political emancipation and give us all the sense that we can get a political grip on our future.


One heavy and departing qualification: this project all hangs rather tenuously with our belief that the scientists are right; that they are experts, and that their representations of nature have epistemic authority. On the one hand, Bonneuil and Fressoz enthusiastically accept current science “with open arms”. On the other, they demonstrate this deep suspicion of anti-democratic ‘experts’ and they explicitly caution against the fantasy that only the scientists can save us. In their conclusion, they admit that our challenge lies in “meticulously listening to scientists and putting their results and conclusions into public and democratic discussions” (288). Although reassuring, the reader gets little more advice for how we move forward. But that’s not really the point; it’s better if we read the project as a mostly one-sided corrective to the heretofore unchallenged managerial and technocratic ethos which threatens to consume us. In this effort, The Shock of the Anthropocene is a huge success and I recommend it enthusiastically.

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