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Get your Whigs out of my Anthropocene

The above video (via) presents a strikingly apolitical and technocentric view of the Anthropocene epoch. The Anthropocene refers to the period of history in which human activity has become a dominant force shaping our world's ecology. While we certainly live in the Anthropocene, and the list of environmental challenges presented in the video is important*, the video overlooks the critical role of political-economic inequality in generating these problems. Despite the superficially negative tone of the video's end, it presents a troublingly Whiggish view of history. The video begins with the industrial revolution in England. The implication, made verbally and even more powerfully visually, is that this was an endogenous development, a technological leap that began in the Midlands and spread to take over the globe. But the industrial revolution was actually built on the back of a thorough reorganization of the world's political, economic, and ecological systems in the preceding centuries. European colonialism began in the mid-1400s, reproducing on a yet greater scale the imperial organization of many other civilizations -- a core subduing and extracting resources from a periphery. Europe was geographically lucky to stumble upon a conveniently located periphery in the Americas, fueling Europe's rise and development of industrial technology. There would be no industrial revolution in England were it not for the extraction of silver, sugar, tobacco, and other products from its colonies around the world. Nor would there be an industrial revolution in England were it not for the massive (and environment-altering) proto-industrial markets of China and India, toward which so much European trade was directed. The video goes on to portray industrialization spreading around the globe in a classic diffusionist model. This too is misleading. Industrialization did not simply spread from one place to the next. Various places around the world were increasingly incorporated into exchange relationships that welded them to the European industrial core. These newly incorporated areas filled very different roles in the new international division of labor. It was far from a situation of simply replicating European industrialism elsewhere -- rather, the success of European industrialization depended on incorporating other regions as unequal partners. While these divisions of labor have continued to shift geographically (consider the re-rise of China), globalization is fundamentally about changing relationships between places, not about the spread of a new characteristic to new places. The video then tells us that industrialization has brought massive benefits in quality of life and lifted millions out of poverty. This is only a partial story. The advances of industrialization brought huge benefits to some -- but they were made possible by the impoverishment, at least for a time, of many others. India was once among the richest parts of the world, but its economy was destroyed by British colonialism and the Indian people reached independence wracked by famine and poverty unknown two hundred years earlier. The slave trade -- which fueled early industrialization through plantation products -- set back African development to a degree only just now being overcome. This is all important because of the very problems the video lists at the end -- pollution, climate change, etc. If we do not understand the political and economic forces that have generated these problems, we have no hope to fix them. No new technology or breakthrough idea is going to make the Anthropocene benign or industrial civilization sustainable if it is still built on a base of economic exploitation. *Though the hole in the ozone layer is actually on its way to being fixed -- it peaked in size in 2006 and is expected to be entirely healed by 2050, due to the restrictions on ozone-depleting gases in the Montreal Protocol.


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