Who is responsible for the climate crisis?

It’s not the failure of a species, it’s the failure of a system.

BY Jason Moore


Reposted from Maize magazine

Who is responsible for the climate crisis? For everyone who isn’t a climate denialist, there’s an easy answer to the question: humanity. Who, in their right mind, would challenge the idea that climate change is anthropogenic (made by humans)? Are we not living in the Anthropocene: the Age of Man as geological force? 

Well, yes and no. It turns out that saying “Humans did it!” may obscure as much as it clarifies. A world of political difference lies between saying “Humans did it!” – and saying “Some humans did it!” Radical thinkers and climate justice activists have begun to question a starkly egalitarian distribution of historical responsibility for climate change in a system committed to a sharply unequal distribution of wealth and power. From this standpoint, the phrase anthropogenic climate change is a special brand of blaming the victims of exploitation, violence, and poverty. A more nearly accurate alternative? Ours is an era of capitalogenic climate crisis.

Capitalogenic: “made by capital.” Like its sibling, Capitalocene, it can sound awkward when spoken. That doesn’t have much to do with the word, however – it’s because under bourgeois hegemony we are taught to view with suspicion any language that names the system. But naming the system, the form of oppression, and logic of exploitation is what emancipatory social movements always do. Justice movements unfold through new ideas and new languages. The power to name an injustice channels thought and strategy, something dramatically underscored by labor, anti-colonial, and feminist movements across the long twentieth century. In this respect, mainstream environmentalism since 1968 – the “environmentalism of the rich” (Peter Dauvergne) – has been a complete disaster. The “ecological footprint” directs our attention to individual, market-oriented consumption. The Anthropocene (and before that, Spaceship Earth) tells us that planetary crisis is more or less a natural consequence of human nature – as if today’s climate crisis is a matter of humans being humans, just as snakes will be snakes and zebras will be zebras. The truth is more nuanced, identifiable, and actionable: we are living in the Capitalocene, the Age of Capital. We know – historically and in the present crisis – who is responsible for the climate crisis. They have names and addresses, starting with the eight richest men in the world with more wealth than the bottom 3.6 billion humans.

What is the Capitalocene? Let me begin by saying what the Capitalocene is not. It is not a substitute for geology. And it is not an argument that says an economic system drives planetary crisis – although economics are crucial. It is a way of understanding capitalism as a connective geographical and patterned historical system. In this view, the Capitalocene is a geopoetics for making sense of capitalism as a world-ecology of power and re/production in the web of life. 

We’ll dig into the Capitalocene in just a moment. First, let’s get clear on the Anthropocene, of which there are two. One is the Geological Anthropocene. This is the concern of geologists and earth system scientists. Their primary concern is golden spikes: key markers in the stratigraphic layer that identify geological eras. In the case of the Anthropocene, these spikes are generally recognized as plastics, chicken bones and nuclear waste. (Such is the contribution of capitalism to geological history!) Alternatively, and perceptively, the biogeographers Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin argue that 1610 marks the dawn of the Geological Anthropocene. Deemed the “Orbis Spike”, the period between 1492 and 1610 witnessed not only the Columbian Invasion. The ensuing genocide in the Americas led to forest regrowth and a rapid CO2 drawdown by 1550, contributing to some of the Little Ice Age’s coldest decades (c. 1300-1850). The Geological Anthropocene is therefore a deliberate abstraction of historical relations in order to clarify the biogeographical relations of humans (as species) and the biosphere. That’s entirely reasonable. The Capitalocene thesis is not an argument about geological history. 

It’s an argument about geohistory – something that includes biogeological changes as fundamental to human histories of power and production. Here, the Capitalocene confronts a second Anthropocene: the Popular Anthropocene. This second Anthropocene encompasses a much wider discussion in the humanities and social sciences. It’s a conversation about the historical development, and contemporary realities, of planetary crisis. There’s no neat and tidy separation, and many earth system scientists have been happy to shift from the Geological to the Popular Anthropocene, and then back again!

For the Popular Anthropocene, the problem is Man and Nature – a problem that contains more than a little gender bias, as Kate Raworth makes clear when she quips that we’re living the Manthropocene. This Anthropocene presents a model of planetary crisis that is anything but new. It reincarnates a cosmology of Humanity and Nature that goes back in some ways to 1492 – and in others to Thomas Malthus in the eighteenth century. This is the narrative of Humanity doing terrible things to Nature. And driving those terrible things is, as ever, the spectre of overpopulation – an idea that has consistently justified the violent oppression of women and peoples of color.

 You might notice that I’ve capitalized those words Humanity and Nature. That’s because these are not mere words, but abstractions that have been taken as real by empires, modernizing states, and capitalists in order to cheapen human and extra-human natures of every kind. Historically, most human beings have been practically excluded from membership in Humanity. In the history of capitalism, there has been little room in the Anthropos for anyone not white, male, and bourgeois. From 1492, the super-rich and their imperial allies dispossessed peoples of color, Indigenous Peoples, and virtually all women of their Humanity, and assigned to Nature – the better they could be transformed into profit-making opportunities. The upshot is that the cosmology of Man and Nature in the Popular Anthropocene is not only a faulty analytic, but implicated in practical histories of domination. When the Popular Anthropocene refuses name capitalogenic climate change, it fails to see that the problem is not Man and Nature, but certain men committed to the profitable domination and destruction of most humans and the rest of nature.

Courtesy of Rebecca Hastings.

The Popular Anthropocene’s insinuation that all humans did it, then, is clearly not the case. The American and western European share of CO2 emissions between 1850 and 2012 is three times greater than China’s. Even this doesn’t go far enough. Such national accounting is akin to individualizing responsibility for the climate crisis. It doesn’t consider the centrality of American and western European capital in global industrialization since 1945. Since the 1990s, for example, China’s emissions have overwhelmingly served European and American export markets, and for decades were underwritten by massive foreign investment. There’s a global system of power and capital that’s always hungry for more Cheap Nature, which since the 1970s has meant sharply widening class inequality. Consider the United States, the world-historical leader in carbonizing the atmosphere. To allocate equal responsibility for global warming to all Americans is a grand erasure. The U.S. was, from the beginning, an apartheid-style republic based on genocide and dispossession and slavery. Certain Americans are responsible for US emissions: the owners of capital, plantations and slaves (or today’s private prisons), factories and banks. 

The Capitalocene argument therefore rejects anthropocentric flattening – “We have met the enemy and he is us” (as in Walt Kelly’s iconic 1970 Earth Day poster) – along with economic reductionism. To be sure, capitalism is a system of endless capital accumulation. But the Capitalocene thesis says that to understand planetary crisis today, we need to look at capitalism as a world-ecology of power, production, and reproduction. In this perspective, the “social” moments of modern class rule, white supremacy, and patriarchy are intimately connected with environmental projects aimed at endless capital accumulation. Essentially, the great innovation of capitalism, from its origins after 1492, was to invent the practice of appropriating Nature. That Nature was not just an idea but a territorial and cultural reality that encaged and policed women, colonized peoples, and extra-human webs of life. Because webs of life resist the standardization, acceleration, and homogenization of capitalist profit-maximization, capitalism has never been narrowly economic; cultural domination and political force have made possible the capitalogenic devastation of human and extra-human natures at every turn. 

Why 1492 and not 1850 or 1945? There’s no question that the Anthropocene’s famous “hockey stick” charts indicate major inflection points for carbonization and other movements at these points, especially the latter. These are representations of consequences, however, not the causes of planetary crisis. The Capitalocene thesis pursues analyses that link such consequences to the longer histories of class rule, racism and sexism, all of which form, in the modern sense, after 1492.

By the sixteenth century, we see a rupture in how scientists, capitalists, and imperial strategists understood planetary reality. In medieval Europe, humans and the rest of nature were understood in hierarchical terms, like the Great Chain of Being. But there was no strict separation between human relations and the rest of nature. Words such as nature, civilization, savagery and society only realized their modern meaning in the English language between 1550 and 1650. This was, not coincidentally, the era of England’s capitalist agricultural revolution, the modern coal mining revolution, the invasion of Ireland (1541). This cultural shift didn’t happen in isolation in the Anglosphere – there were cognate movements underway in other western European languages at around the same time too, as the Atlantic world underwent a capitalist shift. This radical break with the old ways of knowing reality, previously holistic (but still hierarchical) gave way to the dualism of Civilization and Savagery. 

Wherever and whenever European ships disembarked soldiers, priests, and merchants, they immediately encountered “savages.” In the Middle Ages, the word meant strong and fierce; now it signified the antonym of civilization. Savages inhabited something called wilderness, and it was the task of the civilized conquers to Christianize and to Improve. Wilderness in these years was often known as “waste” – and in the colonies, it justified laying waste so that such lands and its savage inhabitants might be put to work cheaply. The binary code of Civilization and Savagery constitutes a pivotal operating system for modernity, one premised on dispossessing human beings of their humanity. Such dispossession – which occurred not once but many times over – was the fate meted out to indigenous peoples, to the Irish, to virtually all women, to African slaves, to colonial peoples around the world. It’s this capitalist geoculture that reproduces an extraordinary cheapening of life and work, essential to every great world economic boom but also violent, degrading, and self-exhausting. 

The language of Society and Nature is therefore not just the language of the bourgeois-colonial revolution in its widest sense, but also a praxis of alienation, every bit as fundamental to capitalism hegemony as the alienation of modern labor relations. Society and Nature fetishize the essential alienated relations of violence and domination under capitalism. Marx’s account of commodity fetishism, through which workers come to perceive the fruits of their labor as an alien power looming over them is obviously central. There’s another form of alienation that goes along with this commodity fetishism. This is civilizational fetishism. That alienation isn’t between “humans and nature.” It’s a project of some humans – white, bourgeois, male during the rise of capitalism – to cheapen most humans and our fellow life-forms. If commodity fetishism is a fundamental antagonism of capital and the proletariat, civilizational fetishism is the world-historical antagonism between capital and the biotariat (Stephen Collis) – the forms of life, living and dead, that provide the unpaid work/energy that makes capitalism possible. Civilizational fetishism teaches us to think the relation between capitalism and the web of life as a relation between objects, rather than an internalizing and externalizing relation of environment-making. Everything that Marx says about commodity fetishism was prefigured – both logically and historically – by a series of civilizational fetishes, with the line between Civilization and Savagery its geocultural pivot. The rise of capitalism did not invent wage-work; it invented the modern proletariat within an ever more audacious project of putting natures of every kind to work for free or low cost: the biotariart. Like commodity fetishism, civilization fetishism was — and remains — not just an idea but a praxis and a rationality of world domination. Since 1492, this line – between Civilized and the Savage – has shaped modern life and power, production and reproduction. Reinvented in every era of capitalism, it is now being reasserted in a powerful way – as resurgent authorian populists militarize and secure borders against the “infestations” of refugees driven by the late Capitalocene’s trinity of endless war, racialized dispossession, and climate crises. 

1492 marked not only a geocultural shift, but also a biogeographical transition unprecedented in human history. The Columbian Invasion began a geohistorical reunification of Pangea, the supercontinent that drifted apart 175 million years earlier. This modern Pangea would, in the eyes of Europe’s bankers, kings, and nobles, serve as a virtually limitless storehouse of Cheap labor, food, energy, and raw materials. It’s here, in the Atlantic zone of modern Pangea, that capitalism and today’s planetary crisis originated. In the three centuries that followed, capitalism’s triple helix of empire, capital, and science made possible the greatest and most rapid land/labor transformation in human history. Only the genesis of settled agriculture at the dawn of the Holocene, some 12,000 years ago, rivals early capitalism’s ecological revolution. Centuries before Newcomen and Watt’s steam engines, European bankers, planters, industrialists, merchants, and empires transformed planetary labor/life/land relations on a scale and at a speed an order of magnitude greater than anything seen before. From Brazil to the Andes to the Baltic, forests were mowed down, coercive labor systems imposed on Africans, indigenous peoples and Slavs, and indispensable supplies of Cheap food, timber, and silver shipped to the centers of wealth and power. Meanwhile, women in Europe – not to mention in the colonies! – were subjected to a coercive labor regime more ruthless than anything known under feudalism. Women were ejected from Civilization, their lives and labor tightly policed and redefined as “non-work” (Silvia Federici): precisely because “women’s work” belonged to the sphere of Nature. 

Courtesy of Rebecca Hastings.

The story of planetary crisis is typically told through the lens of “the” Industrial Revolution. No one questions that successive industrializations have coincided with major inflection points of resource use and toxification. (But industrialization long predates the nineteenth century!) To explain the origins of planetary crisis to technological transformations, however, is a powerful reductionism. Britain’s Industrial Revolution, for example, owed everything to Cheap cotton, to the unpaid work of generations of indigenous peoples who co-produced a variety of cotton suitable for machine production (G. hirsutum), to the genocides and dispossessions of the Cherokees and others in the American South, to the cotton gin which magnified labor productivity fifty-fold, to the enslaved Africans who worked in the cotton fields. Nor was English industrialization possible without the previous century’s oppressive gender-fertility revolution that subjected women’s care and reproductive capacities to capital’s demographic imperatives. 

These snapshots of capitalism’s history tell us that this peculiar system has always depended on frontiers of Cheap Natures – uncommodified natures whose work can be appropriated for free or low cost through violence, cultural domination, and markets. Such frontiers have been crucial because capitalism is the most prodigiously wasteful system ever created. This explains capitalism’s extraordinary extroversion. To survive, it has had to enclose the planet simultaneously as a source of Cheap Nature, and as a planetary waste dump. Both frontiers, which allow for radical cost-reduction and therefore profit-maximization, are now closing. On the one hand, Cheapness is a relationship subject to exhaustion – workers and peasants revolt and resist, mines are depleted, soil fertility eroded. On the other hand, capitalism’s enclosure of the planetary atmosphere and other commons for its wastes has crossed a critical threshold. Epochal climate change is the most dramatic expression of this tipping point, where we find global toxification increasingly destabilizing capitalism’s epochal achievements, its Cheap Food regime above all. These two strategies, Cheap Nature and Cheap Waste, are increasingly exhausted, as the geography of life-making and profit-taking enter a morbid phase. The climate crisis is – as Naomi Klein reminds us – changing everything. Capitalism’s world-ecology is undergoing an epochal inversion – or better, implosion – as natures stop being cheap and starting mounting ever-more effective resistance. Webs of life everywhere are challenging capital’s cost-reduction strategies, and become a cost-maximizing reality for capital. Climate change (but not only climate change) makes everything more expensive for capital – and more dangerous for the rest of us. 

This is the end of Cheap Nature. That’s a huge problem for capitalism, built on the praxis of cheapening: cheapening in the sense of price, but also cheapening in the sense of cultural domination. The first is a form of political economy, whilst the other is the cultural domination that revolves around imperial hegemony, racism and sexism. Among the most central problems of planetary justice today is to forge a strategy that links justice across and through these two moments. Consider that the most violent and deadly biophysical results of this toxification and economic stagnation are now visited upon those populations most consistently designated as Nature since 1492: women, neo-colonial populations, peoples of color. 

This is a dire situation for everyone on planet Earth. But there are grounds for hope. A key lesson I’ve drawn from studying climate history over the past 2,000 years is this: ruling classes have rarely survived climate shifts. The collapse of Roman power in the West coincided with the Dark Ages Cold Period (c. 400-750). The crisis of feudalism occurred in century or so after the arrival of the Little Ice Age (c. 1300-1850). Early capitalism’s most serious political crises – until the mid-twentieth century – coincided with the most severe decades of the Little Ice Age in the seventeenth century. Climate determines nothing, but climate changes are woven into the fabric of production, reproduction, governance, culture… in short, everything! To be sure, the climate changes that are now unfolding will be bigger than anything we’ve seen over past 12,000 years. “Business as usual” – systems of class rule and production and the all rest – never survive major climate shifts. The end of the Holocene and dawn of the Geological Anthropocene may therefore be welcomed as a moment of epochal political possibility – the end of the Capitalocene.

To be sure, capitalism continues. But it’s a dead man walking. What needs to happen now is radical change that links decarburization, democratization, decommodification. This will have to turn the logic of the Green New Deal inside-out. Such a radical vision will take the GND’s crucial linkage of economic justice, social provision, and environmental sustainability in the direction of de-commodifying housing, transportation, care, and education – and ensuring food and climate justice by de-linking agriculture from the tyranny of capitalist monocultures. 

It’s precisely this radical impulse that is at the heart of the world-ecology conversation. That conversation is defined by a fundamental openness to rethinking the old intellectual models – not least but not only Society and Nature – and to encouraging a new dialogue of scholars, artists, activists, and scientists that explores capitalism as an ecology of power, production, and reproduction in the web of life. It’s a conversation that insists: No politics of labor without nature, no politics of nature without labor; that emphasizes Climate Justice is Reproductive Justice; that challenges Climate Apartheid with Climate Abolitionism. 

The Capitalocene is therefore not some new word to mock the Anthropocene. It is an invitation to a conversation around how we might dismantle, analytically and practically, the tyranny of Man and Nature. It’s a way of making sense of the planetary inferno, emphasizing that the climate crisis is a geohistorical shift that includes greenhouse gas molecules but can’t be reduced to matters of parts per million. The climate crisis is a geohistorical moment that systemically combines greenhouse gas pollution with the climate class divide, class patriarchy, and climate apartheid. The history of justice in the twenty-first century will turn on how well we can identify these antagonisms and mutual interdependencies, and how adeptly we can build political coalitions that transcend these planetary contradictions.

Imagining the Anthropocene: Evoking an Ecological Occult

Rachel Edelman 

In 2000, atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen coined the term “Anthropocene” to describe the geologic epoch during which human activity (primarily, the burning of fossil fuels) has significantly altered the earth. Geologists formally adopted the term in 2016. And yet, resistance to the fact of human-caused climate change remains rampant. If we are to preserve our species by reversing humans’ catastrophic impact on earth systems, we must facilitate a deeper cultural understanding of our relationship with the planet. The Imagining the Anthropocene series presents books of poetry that imagine humans’ impact on a geologic scale.

Human society is built on superficial impositions of order: government, religion, science, and language attempt to enervate chaos. But for Jane Mead, a poet entrusted with her family’s California vineyard in the midst of a historic drought, there’s no hiding from earth’s mists and windstorms. In Money Money Money | Water Water Water (Alice James, 2014), Mead’s musical polyvocality evokes the hidden worlds beyond humans’ limited paradigms.

Money Money Money | Water Water Water begins with a section devoted to the language of the Magna Carta, investigating the first English-language document of popular government. In the third poem, “Lassitude and Independence,” Mead writes:

The green world enters, introduces its yellows—

(no false reckoning, no plan, no artifice)—

the light as landscape (the specter as shore):


this is the way to know what you know:

the mind gives over its small grave of secrets—.

Color’s crossings begin a catalog of conflict: land against water, intention against “reckoning,” knowledge against what can never be known. Mead’s punctuation exerts the immense control required to present such compressed oppositions. Parentheses enable the quick shifts in tone between attention and deflection, bounding each item like commas wearing armor, while em dashes and commas govern the suspense with which the reader ends a line. I once heard poet Robyn Schiff refer to the end of the line as “the abyss”—the reader’s plunge through white space to the next line. Above, Mead’s em dashes propel and colons delay the emotional cascade from invitation to revulsion to surrender.

Mead’s symphony of voices pursues the dangers and pleasures of dispelling our false security. The book welcomes the occult and the unknowable to every opening of its spine. At the bottom of each of its left-facing pages sits a fragment. Each italicized tercet and monostich looks orderly: they remind me of tanka. In that Japanese form, an upper, three-line stanza often focuses on an image or condition; a lower stanza then turns inward or elsewhere, questioning, responding to, or opposing what’s come before. The result is a tension distilled to its essence:


Now as animal bodies

As the glistening fur

Fur in the rain smells


Let us smell

Mead’s ghostly fragments appear on every spread, even between sections of long sequences. Unpunctuated, they undercut the formal structures relied upon just across the spine. The plus signs that precede these fragments create a sense of multiplicity, suggesting their provenance in other voices or worlds:


The world full of tractors

Is the mystery world

The other world


Is the seasons

Seasons are made “other” and perhaps unknowable, while the tractor holds mystery’s romance. In this case, the fragment begins in a machine-driven setting, then bursts outward into “the seasons,” over which humans have a small amount of influence (as we’ve recently learned), but no chance of control. Through insistent rhymes and haunting refrains, Mead braids techniques from incantation, prayer, and Greek drama to question industry and capitalism’s veneers:


The creation of want

The creation of debt

The creation of the toxic ponds


If they wave wave back

Here, each made thing serves as a warning. The upper stanza lists creations by name, while the lower instructs as if in prophecy. Can the waves see each other and meet in passing? Throughout Money Money Money | Water Water Water, repeated references to waves double as gesture and fluid motion. Mead uses money and water as lines of inquiry; water’s unceasing motion chips away at currency’s notions of control.

From within this network of formal, design, and prosodic structures, Mead’s spare lines pivot between metaphorical and discursive ways of knowing. In “The Length of Life,” she writes:

Mist on the pond where a scene is missing.

This is the forward-marching of history?

Moving from scene to meditation, these lines follow a previously established logic. However, when a version of these words repeats at the end of the poem, its order is inverted, lines slightly changed:

The way may be found to be myth, or be history, —.

(Mist on the pond, where the scene is missing.)

Adapted to account for further unknowing of myth, these lines juxtapose the search for rhetorical resolution against the entirely parenthetical last line. The train of punctuation at the end of the first line asks the reader to pause, then move forward, then stop. After a stumbling journey away from “history,” the final line’s hush is Mead’s ultimate achievement: an empathic connection with earthly loss. Her reversal asks the reader to create, then destroy, an image: “The scene is missing.” With such capacity for simultaneous imagination and destruction, perhaps the speaker, the audience, and others of our species might remake the ways we exist on earth.

From ploughshares blog

The morendo of the Anthropocene

Foundations of Science (2021

The Original Article was published on 31 May 2021


This essay engages with Bernard Stiegler’s discussion with Martin Heidegger in The ordeal of Truth, published in Foundations of Science 2020 (this volume). It appreciates Stiegler’s progressive reading of Heidegger’s work but critically reflects on several elements in his work. A first element is the methodological aspect of Heidegger’s being historical thinking, which is missed by Stiegler and confirms the indifference towards philosophical method that can be found in the work of many contemporary philosophers. A second element concerns Heidegger’s and Stiegler’s remaining humanism and the necessity to move beyond humanism and post-humanism in the era of global warming. A third element of reflection concerns Stiegler’s idea of the obligation of making our being-in-default come true, which shows a hidden metaphysical orientation in his work.

The starting point of The ordeal of Truth is found in Stiegler’s initial discomfort with Heidegger’s opposition between Sorge and Besorgen, Eigentlichkeit and Uneigentlichkeit, Wahrheit and Richtigkeit, which degrades the initial positive notion of the existential technicity of human Dasein in Being and Time to a negative notion of technology as Gestell in his later being historical thinking. He is now critical about his own initial assessment of Heidegger’s notion of Gestell from this oppositional perspective, because it misses the point that according to Heidegger, the essence of technology is ambiguous; this ambiguity of Gestell does not involve its danger within which the saving power grows, which may be read as a prefiguration of Stiegler’s pharmacology, but the experience of the inaccessibility of Ereignis.

This ambiguity can already be found in Being and Time. While—especially French—readers of Being and Time didn’t cease to read his efforts as a call to move from Uneigentlichkeit to Eigentlichkeit, the ambiguity of Eigentlichkeit consists in its inaccessibility. Only in our experience of Uneigenlichkeit, a negative experience of Eigentlichkeit is possible. On the one hand, because human Dasein is included in the tendency to fall (Abfall), Eigentlichkeit can only be achieved within the tendency of Uneigentlichkeit. On the other hand, to the extent that the experience of Eigentlichkeit is dependent on Uneigenlichkeit as its condition, Eigentlichkeit is never achieved and remains inaccessible.

With this, it becomes clear why Heidegger is primarily a methodological thinker, as I have argued in Heidegger’s concept of philosophical method. He does not presuppose the a priori accessibility of notions like Sorge, Eigentlichkeit and Wahrheit and renders the question concerning access the central philosophical problem. Considering the methodological aspects of Heidegger’s being historical thinking is important if Stiegler in his article wants to move beyond his initial oppositional perspective in order to ask for Ereignis as the hidden and wants to engage in an ordeal of truth. But he nowhere in the article discusses the methodological problem of the inaccessibility of Ereignis, and how he as a philosopher is able to have access to this inaccessible phenomenon. Instead of addressing the methodological question of how we can make any legitimate claim about Ereignis as the hidden, he uncritically subscribes to a position that it is “only with the introduction into modern physics … that it becomes possible to think (that is, to take care of [panser]) Ereignis as the destiny of Gestell” (5). This is not a personal omission of Stiegler’s work, but confirms the indifference towards philosophical method that can be found in the work of many contemporary philosophers, ranging from Morton to Harman. It indicates the crisis of contemporary philosophy (Blok 2020a).

Instead of uncritically subscribing to scientism, or to a position that understands itself in terms of taking care (panser), the in-accessibility of Ereignis indicates that it is a phenomenon that we can never take care of, always withdraws from our efforts to take care, and calls for a consideration of the philosophical method before we engage in any ordeal of truth.


Stiegler argues that Heidegger’s notion of Gestell enables us to think the Anthropocene. What Heidegger ignores in his proto-philosophy of the Anthropocene, according to Stiegler, is the question of entropy and negentropy. Stiegler’s connection between the Anthropocene and the notions of entropy and negentropy enables us to reflect on Earth and World in the Anthropocene. We can argue that entropy and negentropy emerge already in Heidegger’s concept of the truth of being as double movement of concealing-unconcealing, namely as the coming forth or rising up of a World in which we are at home, its endurance, and finally its decay in its inclination towards the concealment and self-closedness of Earth from which the World arose. Earth and World are essentially different and at the same time not separated from each other, that is, they are performatively constituted in the strive between negentropy or unconcealing (World) and entropy or concealing (Earth) of the truth of being. Although we have to nuance Stiegler’s criticism therefore, because Heidegger provides in fact a proto-conceptualization of entropy and negentropy, we may argue that Stiegler is also right in a way. The entropic movement of concealing remains in the end unthought in Heidegger’s work because he conceptualizes Earth from the perspective of the World. This is however not a personal omission of Heidegger. Philosophers never thought about the Earth as the extra-ordinary and always thought Earth out of World, matter out of form etc. (Blok 2019).

Be it as it may, Stiegler’s criticism enables us to ask for the role of negentropy or unconcealing of World in the Anthropocene. While post-humanists like Timothy Morton reject any notion of World in the Anthropocene in favour of the enmeshment of human technicity in the natural environment, we argued elsewhere that only the notion of World enables us to understand the meaning of our being-in-the-Anthropocene in contrast with our being-in-the-Holocene (Blok 2020b). We can read Stiegler’s “process of the exosomatization of the functions and faculties of noesis” as a process of World-constitution, in which the World that articulates our being-in-the-Anthropocene is both constitutive and destitutive for contemporary noesis. What is constituted in this exosomatic process is however not only the world of global warming in the third phase of the Anthropocene, which is indicated by Heidegger’s Gestell, but the neganthropy of Earth beyond humanism and post-humanism, which is indeed absent in Heidegger’s thought.

The singularity of the experience of global warming that we face today is that it draws our attention to Earth as ontic-ontological condition of our being-in-the-Anthropocene. The emergence of planet Earth in Earth’s history is a prerequisite not only for the emergence of human being on Earth at an ontic level, but more important, also for humans’ responsiveness to the world around us, that is, for our being-in-the-world at an ontological level. In the Earth’s history, Earth was long before humans emerged on the planet and, in this respect, our being-in-the-world emerges, unfolds, and expands out of Earth in the era of humanity and threatens to go back into Earth again at the end of this era in which humanity is threatened by global warming (Blok 2019). It is the experience of Earth as ontic-ontological condition of the possibility of our being-in-the-world in the era of global warming that confronts us with the Anthropocene on the one hand, and raises questions regarding the ordeal of truth on the other. My hypothesis is that a post-Heideggerian conception of the strive between negentropy or unconcealing (World) and entropy or concealing (Earth) can inform such an ordeal beyond scientism.


Although this ordeal of truth cannot consist in any form of taking care as we have seen, Stiegler’s conceptualization of being-in-the-world as being-in-default, which I would frame as being-in-the-world as being-on-Earth, may be of help here. But in order to make sense, we have to criticize the remainder of the humanistic orientation of Stiegler’s example of Joë Bousquet, and to reframe the human wound beyond humanism and post-humanism. The wound that we bear today is not a personal wound that we bear deep within our body in its eternal truth as a pure event, but the environmental crisis that we as Earthbound creatures bear deep within us. The signal of this ‘wound’ provides us with the experience that the Earth existed long before us, both at an ontic or ‘rock’ level and ontological or pre-individual level, and that I was born to embody it in my being-on-Earth. I embody this pre-individual Earth as morendo in my being-in-the-Anthropocene as operationalization of Gestell, that calls for the constitution of a World as crescendo of a being-in-the-Anthropocene beyond Gestell.

Only from a scientistic perspective, this morendo and crescendo is understood in terms of quasi-causality however. While causality—including quasi-causality and also conditions for the possibility (Möglichkeitsbedingung)—concerns beings, the morendo-crescendo from the pre-individual to the individual concerns being, i.e., our being-in-the-Anthropocene. Morendo is not concealing as dying away, but being as dying away, living a dying life.

I agree with Stiegler that this crescendo does no longer belong to endosomatic phusis but is exosomatically constituted as our being-in-the-Anthropocene, in which noetic tekhnè is at the same time Earthbound tekhnè (Zwier and Blok 2017). It remains open for future exchanges whether an eco-centric concept of being-in-default, substantiated by biomimetic technologies, can be of help in the conceptualization of noetic tekhnè (Blok 2017).


I am hesitant to accept Stiegler’s further argument that the assignment of the being-in-default of noetic tekhnè obligates to “make their (de-)fault come true … as the absence of epoch, as the ‘post-truth era’, as the presence of Nothingness, as the ordeal of what remains hidden, of what does nothing but conceal” (10). On the one hand, why should we feel any obligation to make the default true, to re-present our being-in-default, except in case one adheres to the metaphysical truth as Rectitudo and Richtigkeit for which the ordeal of truth remains closed. On the other hand, we have to accept our human limits in the ordeal of what does nothing but conceal. The ordeal of what does nothing but conceal would lead to a philosophical variety of Cotard’s syndrome. In a strange way, there seems to be a connection between the metaphysical focus on the eye and perception of the present (idein, eidos), Stiegler’s obligation to make default true as re-presentation, and the being of an eye that sees and reflects but is disconnected from the one who sees in case of people who suffer from Cotard’s syndrome and experience they are dead or do not exist. One can argue that being-in-default requires the Cotard syndrome in order to have access to the presence of the truth as “presence of Nothingness” (10). But the price Stiegler has to pay for this experience is death and despair, i.e. the end of his being-in-default. In this respect, the process of exosomatisation of World is a more fruitful way forward, as World provides the meaningful order in which any being-in-default remains connected to his or her being-in-default, and enables us to experience our being-in-default as being-on-Earth, in which each and every being-in-the-World, also our current being-in-the-Anthropocene, remains embedded. But this requires us to accept the limit of human experience. But then it is no longer possible to experience the inaccessibility of Ereignis as the hidden. This is the price we have to pay for the Ordeal of Truth.


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  1. Philosophy Group, Wageningen University, Wageningen, The NetherlandsVincent Blok
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A date with destiny: Racial capitalism and the beginnings of the Anthropocene

Arun Saldanha

First Published September 5, 2019 

Research Article

Volume: 38 issue: 1,  page(s): 12-34

Article first published online: September 5, 2019; Issue published: February 1, 2020

Arun Saldanha, Department of Geography, Environment, and Society, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Minneapolis, MN 55455, USA. Email:

  • Abstract

The Anthropocene names the epoch wherein humans have become the main geological agent on the planet’s surface. But which humans, and since when? Dating the onset of the Anthropocene is a political and ontological as much as a scientific act. This essay argues the Anthropocene is inexorably racial because it flows out of a capitalist system which requires racializing populations and environments from early modernity to the present and into the future. The essay contends that racial capitalism should be a central category in explaining the onset of the Anthropocene. The focus will be on investigating whether it makes sense to take the European discovery of the Americas and the genocide against its original inhabitants as threshold of a new geological epoch. Following the radicalization of Marx in the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari, it will be suggested that though colonization and slavery were essential for modern globalization to emerge, capital embarked on its self-perpetuating destructive trajectory through industrialization. Structural racism was transmuted and continues to characterize the global ecological crisis.

Keywords Anthropoceneracial capitalismcapitalOrbis hypothesisgenocide of Indigenous Americansindustrialization


The Anthropocene names the epoch wherein humans have become the main geological agent on the planet’s surface. The impact of human activity on the planet is such that a hundred millions years from now, hypothetical geologists will be able to notice the earth went through changes that will still be measurable. But which changes do we select as definite, and when did they happen? Which humans? Dating the onset of the Anthropocene is a political and ontological as much as a scientific act, as scientists realize very well, though seldom admit. Defining the Anthropocene intrinsically carries with it a laying of culpability for the past and a responsibility for the future, while the research on how geological agency is distributed across time and across species cannot but involve the deepest of moral conundrums. Since the processes gathered under the Anthropocene umbrella are almost all self-reinforcing and nefarious for ecosystems, hence possibly jeopardizing the viability of our species itself, the question is properly existential: who or what is to take care of humanity’s survival?

Some social science scholars and political activists have sought to debunk the Anthropocene concept altogether, pointing out that only a small proportion of the human population has in the last few centuries caused the discussed immense environmental changes, from the annihilation of Indigenous ecologies and the ever more desperate mining of fossil fuels and rare earths, to overfishing and agribusiness. As Oxfam (2015) pointed out during the Paris climate negotiations, the carbon footprint of the world’s richest 1% could be as much as 175 times that of the poorest 10%. With that 1% owning half the world’s wealth, decisions on how the economy runs are obscenely skewed. Poverty and vulnerability are just like in colonial times concentrated in Africa, South America, and Asia. On a deeper level, the Promethean subjugation of ecosystems and the exploitative division of labor has from ancient times been premised on patriarchy, that is, the usurpation of social power and discourse itself by adult men. Rather than humanity as such, which has been around for hundreds of thousands of years, these critics (e.g. Mirzoeff, 2016) point out that it is the white captains of the capitalist system who have created a new geological epoch.

With help from renegade Marxists Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, this essay agrees the key agent behind environmental destruction is the capitalist system as fed by European colonization and patriarchy, yet emphasizes the power of those captains depends on the inhuman self-replication of capital, that is, on the most deterritorialized and deterritorializing force of modernity. For sure, in certain corners of critical geography, “capital” accrued such an expansive explanatory force that it became taken-for-granted and perhaps quasi-theological. Even if Marx first formulated a systematic concept of capital, this essay attempts to rediscover this category after the critiques of the sclerotic tendencies of Marxism by poststructuralist, feminist, black, postcolonial, Indigenous, environmentalist, and other left theorists. To offer a starting date for the Anthropocene and explaining capitalism, one cannot but inhabit the productive tensions between Marxism and these cognate critical discourses.

In this essay, I will keep the term Anthropocene, then, precisely in order to wrest it from the mainstream mystifications of how the planet came to this situation. Following the recent suggestion of Françoise Vergès (2017), we can call the Anthropocene an inexorably racial regime because modern society has at crucial junctures had to discriminate populations in order to expand itself. We will see one crucial debate involves the proposition of Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin (2018) that the Anthropocene is based on the decimation of Indigenous Americans. The emergence of capitalism in Europe was built on the displacement and exploitation of others elsewhere, especially but not only across the Atlantic Ocean, a process we will see is captured well by the Marxian concept of primitive accumulation. But I will argue a framework is required to explain racial capitalism’s more recent developments as well, after it abandoned displacement and slave-trade as central features. That the new planetary phase is intrinsically a “racial” phenomenon means that contingently distinguishable human bodies are differentially positioned in relation to not just the state and the city, but the profound geological and ecological transformations which were required for “modern” society to emerge at all. The racializing effects of capital have been intrinsic, though they continually shift.

Hence anthropos as a site of (r)evolutionary thresholds is always already subdivided into subsets which are interpellated in sharply different ways by the earth and by world-history. As Indigenous, feminist, black, and critical race theorists have long since demonstrated, the discursive figure of “man” belies structural injustices so entrenched that upending them requires redefining the basic terms for talking about the social at all (Mbembe, 2017Mirzoeff, 2016Sharpe, 2016Wynter, 2013). Anthropos is fundamentally at odds with itself, and this is what makes it thoroughly political (see also Clark and Gunaratnam, 2017). When the extreme geographic disparities highlighted by the umbrella term “Anthropocene”—of footprints, consumption levels, vulnerability—are explained, the concept of “the human species” loses its humanist innocence. Geographers have long pointed out that what is called development in one place happens within the same global ecosystem making life tougher or impossible elsewhere (Harvey, 2010Yusoff, 2018). The prospect of hundreds of millions of so-called climate refugees follows from the fact that the distribution of mobility and war technologies is already highly racialized, and it has been for centuries (Baldwin and Bettini, 2017). To retrieve a radical potential of the Anthropocene concept is to alert publics of the possibility that imminent catastrophes are to be appreciated on the scale of millions of years, requiring concomitantly epochal forms of responsibility, solidarity, and upheaval. While the left has long pointed out the status quo’s hidden destructiveness, now even the most cautious mainstream science is understanding intergenerational injustices are built into the economic megamachine itself.

When the Anthropocene was first proposed as new geological epoch or era in earth science, it was suggested it started with the initial Industrial Revolution as fuelled by coal-powered steam engines (Crutzen and Stoermer, 2000). The search has since then been for a so-called golden spike or Global boundary Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP), a location and date at which planet-wide signals are sufficiently measurable that a qualitative shift from the Holocene can be inferred. On this criterion of detectability, radioactive fallout from nuclear testing is a clearer marker than changes in the carbon, nitrogen, and other cycles (or presumed future fossils for that matter). As reported by Jan Zalasiewicz et al. (2015), earth science is now leaning towards determining a GSSP in the 1950s or 1960s, but the decision is still to be made. This essay agrees with the initial intuition that the onset of the Anthropocene lies in the later 18th century, not on empirical grounds, however, which are beyond my expertise, but explicitly starting from theoretical principles in the humanities insofar as they are coterminous with understanding the particularity of modern times. Alongside the quantitative empiricism of science, we should remember debates about human–environment relations ineluctably involve concepts which have been discussed for centuries and have recently been given new political salience in various left (feminist, black, Marxist, decolonial, etc.) discourses: market society, oppression, universality, the “New World,” “nature,” technology, and so on. Here, the focus will be on the concept of racial capitalism as elaborated through the nonhuman aspect of capital, and we devote a section to other prevalent approaches to racial capitalism. After introducing the politics of the dating debate, we will consider the analysis of the trans-Atlantic contact event in greater detail. Though appreciative of Lewis and Maslin’s suggestion the mass death of native Americans be taken as indicative of the Anthropocene, and though recent developments in the theorization of slavery and blackness are sharpening our views of the profundity of racist violences, I will suggest industrialization has been, in retrospect, more consequential for the planet, even if mass death and slave labor had prepared for it, and will continue to characterize it into the future.

One or several Anthropocenes?

As an intrinsically temporal concept, the Anthropocene cannot but be dated. Moreover, as it pertains to a geological series, it must abide by or at least engage the methodological rules of that series for its coherence. That is, it must be based on a signal (fossil, sedimentary, chemical, radiometric, geomagnetic, etc.), a condensation in a certain location on Earth representing the planetary average and detectible millions of years from now. In August 2016, the International Congress of the Geological Sciences voted in Cape Town that the Anthropocene is real, but when it followed the Holocene is yet to be decided. Amongst scientists, the debate about the start date, technically called the GSSP, continues to rage (Zalasiewicz et al., 2015). The propositions that an “early Anthropocene” began with the human use of fire between two and one million years ago, which incrementally changed the distribution of vegetation and animals and levels of atmospheric carbon, and the more influential theory that irreversible anthropogenic planetary changes commenced 10,000–8000 BCE, the period of the Neolithic Revolution in agriculture and settlement, are clearly defended by more conservative earth scientists, archeologists, and paleontologists. When we analyze earth science’s premises and methods, it quickly becomes clear it inevitably comprises an ideological struggle, insofar as evidence is interpreted and conceptualized in conflicting ways (see Angus, 2016). For both science and the humanities, it does not make sense to locate the cusp of the new epoch thousands of years ago if the recent changes associated with “modern times” are more consequential. But by asking when the Anthropocene commenced after the medieval period, we are forced to confront some productive tensions.

While there might be broad agreement amongst many in activist circles and the critical humanities and social science literature that a confluence of oppressive social relations lies at the heart of the global environmental crisis, there are many ways of understanding “racism” and “capitalism” and how they relate to colonial settlement, heteropatriarchy, science and technology, and nonhuman entities. Indigenous and decolonial critiques in the Americas have emphasized the arrival of Columbus and the subsequent and ongoing process of eliminating the socioecological arrangements of the original inhabitants (Davis and Todd, 2017). Black and critical race theorists have unearthed the basis of globalization in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and plantation slavery (Wynter, 2013Yusoff, 2018). Postcolonial and subaltern studies focus more on the question how peoples in Asia and Africa could acquiesce to Europeans transforming their economies and ecologies for the profit of the metropoles, a question less of extermination or enslavement than of subordination (Chakrabarty, 2012). Pacifists point out the world’s nuclear arsenal is capable of destroying the entire terrestrial habitat several times over (Schell, 1982), while futurists, both utopian and dystopian, argue the profound dependency of human life on computers should be central to how our common future is to be thought (compare Bastani, 2019 and Berry, 2018). Some radical environmentalists lay the blame with civilization or even humanity itself (Jensen, 2016). Finally, Marxist discourse seeks to provide these relatively newer progressive positions the crucial concept of capitalism, demonstrating how conquest, enslavement, and cultural and technological domination have been intrinsic to Europe’s ascendance into industrial hegemony (Foster et al., 2010). So different thematic foci can correspond to different starting dates for our planetary emergency: the dawn of Homo sapiens, the Neolithic Revolution, 1492, the centuries over which trans-Atlantic slavery was institutionalized, the Industrial Revolution from about 1750, the age of empires and nationalisms, the atom bomb and Cold War, the birth of mass consumption in the 1950s, or the advent of the internet.

Could we not be content with a pluralist approach in which there are multiple Anthropocenes without one exact start date, which would have always in some way accompanied the human species and which have merely intensified with each of these thresholds? If stratigraphy itself requires strict periodization, could “Anthropocene” not mean different things in different discourses, for different political aims? It is true periodization is often a teleological exercise, its Eurocentric totalizing tendencies on a par with those of cartography and Linnaean taxonomy. Just like with the related concepts civilization, progress, evolution, modernity, and globalization, the debate about the Anthropocene’s starting date is ridden with the problem of how to locate places as “further” on a trajectory of change which is then taken to be desirable or inevitable. But the most important argument against the skepticism about the term amongst social scientists (Bonneil and Fressoz, 2016Malm, 2015) is that in sharp contrast to the discourses of modernization and progress, almost all uses of the term are tinged with deep worry about the future. Certainly, the alarmism has a tendency towards ethnocentrism and is increasingly hijacked by racist nationalism and Malthusian pseudo-solutions. But simultaneously, it cannot be favorable to those in power if they can be shown to be maintaining a trajectory possibly leading, if not to the extinction of humans, at least to massive deprivation and uncertainty. As climate activists across the world from a wide range of backgrounds show, the deep worry intrinsic to the Anthropocene concept can be politicized.

Joining the dating debate therefore does not necessarily erect the new geological epoch as monolithic or transcendent, a grand end-point which European men as privileged bearers of history (or even of evolution) led the rest of the world to. It is precisely to demonstrate how the processes that led to the new earthly reality are highly uneven and fiercely contested. Far from allowing the Anthropocene concept to once again reinforce hegemonic sentiments about societal maturation, deciding on a start date could underline the utterly contingent nature of all life if it can be shown to follow from assemblages (of capital, patriarchy, and racism) that could well not have existed at all. Another epistemico-political aim here, however, is to urge critical human geography to engage Western physical science so that they can urge it to become politicized (see also Clark and Gunaratnam, 2017). Even if it turns out the humanities suggest a different start date than scientists do, it will be because the former can lay claim to a more rigorous understanding of what exactly is anthropogenic about the new epoch—what makes the world of anthropos go around.

Primitive accumulation and racial capitalism

The tendency towards orthodoxy in the Marxist legacy has often blocked it from enriching itself with other critical or left discourses. The concept of “racial capitalism” as propounded by Cedric Robinson (1983), for example, is first of all meant to correct Marx’s and socialism’s relative neglect of the physical violence and ideological processes of slavery, racism, and nationalism, which modernity is constructed from. Eric Williams’ classic Capitalism and Slavery (Williams, 1944) had already demonstrated how the wealth amassed from the plantation economies in the Caribbean and the southern United States was directly fed into the burgeoning landscapes of factories and rapid urbanization of Northern England, and then the rest of Europe. We can conclude from Robinson’s wide-ranging historical analysis that capitalism is from the beginning not just transcontinental and transoceanic but a runaway process intrinsically geared to expand itself by exploiting populations deemed less worthy of life, without concern for long-term ramifications. While Marx downplays the role of race in the development of capitalism, his overall framework allows for correcting his own oversight. Something Robinson lays less stress on but what is crucial for my argument here is that once capital was established as feedback loop by the factories of Northern England after some two centuries of slavery, it insinuated itself into one social formation after another. No guild, ethnic prejudice, border, or sultan could hold back the new magic formula of making profits through industrial technologies and wage-labor.

Though manufacturing, credit/debt, and reinvestment had existed for many centuries, the abstract as well as violent force of money could only come into its own with luxury commodities, especially spices and sugar, and textiles, first wool then cotton (Beckert, 2014Eichen, 2019). In the last chapters of Volume 1 of CapitalMarx (1992) famously writes of what the bourgeois political economists before him called “primitive” (a better translation is original or primary) accumulation, the concentration of wealth before and necessary for industrialization. From the later Middle Ages, as trade increased amongst market towns, landowners in Europe gradually consolidated land by both legal and violent means, causing mass impoverishment amongst peasants, whose labor was henceforth available at very low wages and whose itinerancy was often made illegal (cf. Federici, 2004).

The spoliation of the church’s property, the fraudulent alienation of the State domains, the robbery of the common lands, the usurpation of feudal and clan property, and its transformation into modern private property under circumstances of reckless terrorism, were just so many idyllic methods of primitive accumulation. They conquered the field for capitalistic agriculture, made the soil part and parcel of capital, and created for the town industries the necessary supply of a “free” and outlawed proletariat. (Marx, 1992: 895)

In the British Isles especially, the policy of so-called enclosure was often difficult to distinguish from legalized theft. It displaced thousands of small farmers and over some three centuries (14th to 18th) created the propertyless masses which the factories would put to work at new, more efficient machinery. Some Marxist historians like Ellen Meiksins Wood (1999) argue England’s strong economic position was chiefly thanks to these enclosures, a large domestic market, and durable infrastructure. However, the theory of primitive accumulation (even in its mainstream versions) holds that there was already a world-system of transoceanic interactions which industrialization could tap into. The profits amassed in the Italian city-states from maritime trade, and then in the Iberian peninsula from its ruthless plunder of the Americas, especially of their precious metals, was a necessary buildup for the rise of Northwestern Europe, as the latter could benefit from the credit and the geographical connections forged by the former (Arrighi, 2009). Furthermore, as the Dutch, British, French, then Belgians and Germans started colonizing as well, it would become clear how primitive accumulation in the colonies became a sort of enclosure policy continued by other means, a general process of soft and hard coercion David Harvey renamed accumulation by dispossession (see Harvey, 2010). To understand why the capitalist state is intrinsically expansionist and racialized, the concept of primitive accumulation is crucial.

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of black-skins, are all things which characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation. (Marx, 1992: 1147)

Updating these illustrious remarks about modernity’s “idyllic” origins, Silvia Federici (2004) theorizes early-modern misogynous violence like witch-hunting, the origins of the nuclear family, and subordination of women’s labor as entirely implicated in the establishment of the capitalist system. Jason Moore (2015) has added that primitive accumulation also encompasses a belligerent exploitation of slaves both Indigenous and imported as well as nonhuman forces like minerals, energy sources, and fertilizers (what Moore calls “cheap nature”). Racialization can be considered a requirement, seen in hindsight, for capitalism to take hold as intercontinental economic system (Eichen, 2019). Following Robinson and Moore, Vergès (2017) argues for defining the Anthropocene/Capitalocene as deeply racialized, against the natural scientists and environmental historians who often erase systemic violence from their narratives of ecological change. Echoing environmental justice advocates, Vergès points out the adverse effects of global warming and pollution (think of plastics, e-waste, and noise) are felt more intensely by brown and black populations. Just like early-modern Europeans claimed entire continents and oceans and grew powerful from coerced labor, the vulnerability to environmental disaster of some groups today systematically follows from the actions of still mostly white elites.

While the first defenders of the Anthropocene idea in earth science noted a threshold of the earth’s environmental systems was crossed in Britain in the latter 18th century (Crutzen and Stoermer, 2000), they refrain from unpacking why this event occurred at all. In science, capital’s violent logic is obscured just as it is elsewhere. Following the liberal canon, Crutzen takes steam-power to be the driving force of industrialization and 1784, the year James Watt patented his second steam engine, as symbolic of the threshold between Holocene and Anthropocene, even if it cannot be a GSSP because nothing geologically discernible occurred that year. But Andreas Malm (2016) argues the liberal canon is historically inaccurate: the coal-powered steam engine became central to industry only later, and British factories were during their initial boom mostly powered by water. Retrieving Marx’s classic argument, Malm argues it is not steam but the increasing availability of capital and cheap labor which triggered the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Technology is given shape only within the matrix of socioeconomic difference, as are its disastrous effects. Capitalism’s love affair with fossil fuels and the resulting unprecedented changes to atmospheric chemistry were not inaugurated with Watt’s engines, but by capital amassed through primitive accumulation.

It is important to understand how racial capitalism reproduces itself ideologically by masking its systematic violences while providing benefits to those in power. Even if capital is itself an unintentional process, its relentless logic of self-enrichment makes individual capitalists, politicians, and bureaucrats make decisions with increasingly adverse effects on others and the environment. Malm writes in the beginning of his book:

Global warming is the unintended by-product par excellence. A cotton manufacturer of early nineteenth-century Lancashire who decided to forgo his old waterwheel and invest in a steam engine, erect a chimney and order coal from a nearby pit did not, in all likelihood, entertain the possibility that his act could have any kind of relationship to the extent of the Artic sea ice […] Whether one chooses to ignore, suppress, deny or agonise over the knowledge of what is happening, it is there, in the air, heavier by the year. And yet the descendants of the Lancashire manufacturers, whose dominion now span the globe, are taking decisions on a daily basis to invest in new oil wells, new coal-fired power plants, new airports, new highways, new liquified natural gas facilities, new machines to replace human workers, so that emissions are not only continuing to grow but are doing so at a higher speed. […] How did we get caught up in this mess? (2016: 1–3, my italics)

These kinds of observations need to be read with an attention to embodied difference traditionally underplayed in the Marxist literature. Against the hegemonic liberal idea that racism is mostly about interpersonal prejudice, the question whether a cotton manufacturer is “a racist” is moot. What is incontrovertible is that he profits from an overall circuit involving the displacement of Indigenous Americans, the capture of slaves within Africa, brutal labor practices in the plantations, corrupt monopolies in Asia, surplus-labor in his factory, cut-throat competition in London, geopoliticking across European capital cities, warfare everywhere between, and millennia of patriarchy (Beckert, 2014Dunbar-Ortiz, 2014; Williams, 1944). Similarly, in the 20th century, the infrastructures around oil and automobility are steeped in institutional racism, from the demolishment of black neighborhoods for the highways facilitating white flight in the US to Bangladeshi construction workers in the Qatari desert and Chinese-led mineral extraction in central Africa. And it is essential to note the “yet” in Malm’s quote: what motivates humans to continue on the path of obvious destruction of other people, other species? Which tiny groups benefit from a disastrous system? Why do millions vote liars and sociopaths into office? And how long can the facts of geophysics be ignored? Addressing today’s planetary “mess” will require a concept of racial and gender ideology lacking in most accounts of it.

Capital as axiomatic

In order to understand the seeming inexorability of the Anthropocene and its devastating racializing effects, the traditional Marxist focus of class and political-economic analysis seems insufficient. Deleuze and Guattari (1987) nevertheless strictly follow Marx when they conceptualize capital as an abstract, altogether inhuman form of exchange. For the “mature” Marx of Capital, the irrational nature of capital is exactly what makes it capable of reorganizing the earth in its own image, regardless of ideology and tradition. At the time of The Communist ManifestoMarx and Engels (2005) still identified the bourgeoisie as the revolutionary subject of modernity, but we should reread its famous passages as conceptualizations of capital instead:

The bourgeoisie [capital] cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois [capitalist] epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie [capital] over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere. (Marx and Engels, 2005: 44)

Capital’s essence is to penetrate, scoop up, and render exchangeable all bodies, things, and landscapes, and meanwhile obfuscate its own workings. Deleuze and Guattari put emphasis on the mysterious power of money to put a value on absolutely anything. But they also follow Marx in insisting that capital requires barriers in order to renew itself, an argument well-known in geography through Harvey’s work (see Harvey, 2010). Capital became the determining factor only because it is hindered by political and traditional as well as geophysical and physiological obstacles. There is no space here to fully elaborate a Deleuze–Guattarian critical-geographical framework, but it starts by radicalizing the Marxian concept of capital and critique of state power (Alliez and Lazzarato, 2018; Sibertin-Blanc, 2016). Against both their faddish reputation in the humanities and a suspicion amongst Marxists, Deleuze and Guattari are far from vitalist mystics unencumbered with geographical injustices. In fact, the attention in their work, especially A Thousand Plateaus (1987), to the unsurpassable fluidity of capital in conjunction with sexual desires, racist imagery (or “faciality”), and mechanization, as well as their idea of “the earth” as factor in world-history, can entwine fruitfully with feminist and decolonial discourses and potentially overcome the tendencies towards philosophical dualism and reductionism which continue to plague the more traditional Marxist critiques (Saldanha, 2017).

The central concept Deleuze and Guattari (1987) propose to highlight the inhuman explosiveness of capital is the “axiomatic.” The capitalist economy continually invents quasi-automatic mechanisms for profit-making they call “axioms.” Far from being in essence linked to liberal democracy, capitalism takes many forms, with authoritarian, criminal, and even state-socialist regimes all procuring ever-new ways of feeding the feedback loop of money. Following world-systems theory (see also Arrighi, 2009), Deleuze and Guattari contend this continual reinvention of capital as it spreads explains the geographic unevenness of the system in which even noncapitalism (economies without banking, cross-border trade, or reinvestment of profits) continues to exist:

the international capitalist axiomatic effectively assures the isomorphy of the diverse formations only where the domestic market is developing and expanding, in other words, in ‘the center’. But it tolerates, in fact it requires, a certain peripheral polymorphy, to the extent that it is not saturated, to the extent that it actively repels its own limits; this explains the existence, at the periphery, of heteromorphic social formations, which certainly do not constitute vestiges or transitional forms since they realize an ultramodern capitalist production (oil, mines, plantations, industrial equipment, steel, chemistry), but which are nonetheless precapitalist, or extracapitalist, owing to other aspects of their production and to the forced inadequacy of their domestic market in relation to the world market. When international organization becomes the capitalist axiomatic, it continues to imply a heterogeneity of social formations, it gives rise to and organizes its ‘Third World’. (1987: 436–437)

Capital’s paradox is that it is both immensely productive and immensely destructive of social formations and ecologies, and that it homogenizes the world by encouraging heterogeneity. But with feminist and decolonial critiques in mind, we should add the renown “creative destruction” neoliberal economists elevate to quasi-divine principle has an intrinsic racial and gender bias insofar as bosses and politicians of the core countries make decisions that cause unemployment, war, famine, pollution, extreme weather, and stressed households in the peripheries, continuing the callousness of colonial days. Men in suits make decisions about arms and mining or food and fuel prices on Wall Street and in the City of London, but also in Hong Kong and Riyadh, driving farmers to suicide in India and refugees to flee Yemen or East Congo. But the men in suits must continually reinvest their profits or they risk being outcompeted: nobody masters capital’s fluidity. The institutional racism inheres in the fact that in the process of fiercely competing with one another, these capitalists can lay entire societies and ecosystems to waste and justify it as bringing “development” or simply “doing business.”

Empires and wealthy merchants have been aggressively expanding their reach for millennia. However, thanks to its enigmatic and singularly effective axiomatic, only capital could have pursued a truly “planetary” agenda. This diffusedness and proliferating reliance on other forces is exactly what amounts to its capacity to create a new phase in the evolution of the earth. Analyses of the role of capital in global environmental destruction show the disaster-prone nature of capital is part of its normal functioning (Angus, 2016Foster et al., 2010Kovel, 2007). The child soldiers, toxic sludge, detention camps, sex tourism, ocean garbage patches, smog, and unfinished ghost cities are the logical result of the self-augmentation of capital as much as the glitzier spaces of airports and cyberspace. All the famous hockey-stick graphs associated with the Anthropocene are ultimately materializations of the exponential spirality of capital, and even mainstream commentators are anxious about where these compound processes are heading. Qua axiomatic capital has no conscience, because it is not conscious. It is a very simple algorithmic process capitalists themselves are caught up in. The Anthropocene could only emerge because of such a runaway process, whereas previous transformations brought to the planet by humans, from fire to polders, all had their geographic limitations built into them. Though Deleuze and Guattari (1987) are in broad agreement with Harvey’s (2010) characterization of capital as the quintessential productive principle of globalization, especially in the form of finance, their concept of axiomatic places more emphasis on capital’s uncontrollable and inhuman aspects while never losing sight of how money enlists consumers’, bankers’, and politician’s desires.

It makes philosophical sense, then, to date the Anthropocene’s beginning to late-18th-century Lancashire and its new wage-labor-powered industrial regime. Certainly, this emergence was no simple “point” because it was made possible by financial inputs from London and the East India Company as well as the Atlantic slave economy set up much earlier by the Iberians and Italians. But what is important to note for understanding our global predicament is that the techno-economic magic which happened there would become planet-wide over the following two centuries. This becoming-global of the capitalist formula only happened because it could not have been invented and commanded by any one state or group in any one ecosystem, yet could overtake them all. But the way in which money pits populations against each other is all too human. That capital is a quasi-automatic process tending toward ubiquity does not mean that it has not been profusely contested at every moment it conjured another commodity-chain and marketplace.

Given the fundamental driver of the Anthropocene is capital, calling our epoch the “Capitalocene” with Jason Moore (2015: chapter 7) could seem attractive. He dates its onset in “the long sixteenth century” because the twin forces of genocide and slavery were then consolidated in conjunction with banking. But aiming to critique geology from the outside, Moore’s term betrays its political color without being able to do much about the spread of the term it deprecates. By emphasizing only capital, it has to underestimate the profundity of the earth processes occurring under and before capitalism, thereby missing the extreme contingency of the capture of flows of matter, energy, and labor-power which capital must continually attempt. The axiomatic comes into existence precisely because this capture is often fraught with tensions and setbacks. Similarly, when Jake Kovel (2007) calls capital the “enemy of nature,” he cancels the possibility of a geohistorical understanding of capitalism as emergent from socioecological assemblages which have to align to create value. In the Deleuze–Guattarian framework, capital is instead fully part of the biophysical world, uniquely able to bend nonhuman forces to its wishes, very friendly indeed to human desire and the generativity of life forms and minerals. Naming capital the sovereign force over and against “nature” swings us back into the kind of determinism in which technology or the bourgeoisie is in control of life, when what is needed is a paradigm shift acknowledging that capital entirely depends on and is ever vulnerable to earthly exigencies. For that, I would suggest the Enlightenment concept of “nature” which Marxism inherited be replaced with Deleuze and Guattri’s ontology of multiplicity and flow.

To conclude, while Marxists are correct to call out the technocratic and teleological biases in mainstream stories about industrialization, Malm (2015) is wrong to call the Anthropocene but a bourgeois “myth.” No doubt the Anthropocene concept potentially reinforces the most Promethean and Eurocentric mythologies ever, but that shows just how important it is to redefine it. There needs to be a modicum of agreement that Earth has indeed gone through a qualitative shift in order for the debate about what caused it to be held convincingly, even if mainstream science habitually ignores racism, capital, and patriarchy as explanatory factors. When the name “Anthropocene” is decried in advance because of its sensationalism or partiality, the opportunity is missed for partaking in what may prove to be the most important naming debate of our lifetime.

Ontologies of blackness and indigeneity

A growing number of theorists are elaborating on racial capitalism, though not always using the term, working broadly in the Fanonian tradition but pushing the ontological envelope on how race pries open the consistency of the notion of humanity as such (from Chakrabarty, 2012 in postcolonial theory to Yusoff, 2018 in new-materialist feminism via Mirzoeff, 2016 in critical race studies). It can be said there is an “ontological turn” in the theorization of race in that long-standing philosophical questions of “man,” being, life, death, temporality, historicity, embodiment, the thing, the earth, language as such, and the limits of knowledge have come to the fore (Wynter, 2013). In black studies, the ontological turn often has implicit and explicit echoes of Heidegger, ethically assuming an “Afropessimist” or even black-nihilist stance in that the hopefulness associated with African American political aspirations is shown to itself perpetuate the structural erasure of the possibility of black human-being as inaugurated in the Middle Passage and the commodification of African bodies, which are continued directly in the present (Sexton, 2016; Sharpe, 2016; Warren, 2018). Antiblackness is in this literature a fundamental feature of both modernity and scholarly thought itself. The erasure of Indigenous peoples has a similar and related profundity, and the category of settler-colonialism has in recent years allowed Indigenous scholars to radically question the legal, metaphysical, and political parameters of the socius (Byrd, 2011Coulthard, 2014Whyte, 2018Wolfe, 2016). While there is no space to do justice to the nuances and sophistication of this new effervescence in black, Indigenous, and decolonial theoretical discourse—in particular their varying relations to Marxism, feminism, ecological thought, and poststructuralism—their growing international influence warrants some brief comments to distinguish the approach sketched here.

First, while the social death imparted on Indigenous Americans and enslaved Africans are certainly two originary catastrophes forming the basis of global modernity and systematically repressed in discourse, the question is not only how they are entwined, but how they interact with later violent as well as ostensibly more benevolent racializing processes, from the European conquest of the Pacific to multiculturalism in Scandinavia and Singapore, from Soviet Union ethnic policies to the exploitation of South Asian workers in the Middle East and Palestinian workers in Israel. Insofar as capital intrinsically “aims” to become-planetary, we cannot limit ourselves to the Atlantic world, or even primitive accumulation, when explaining its racial implications. Following internationalist black feminists like Angela Davis and historians of global settler-colonialism like Patrick Wolfe (2016), racial capitalism can be seen to have from the beginning involved multiple continents at once, potentializing all of the human species and planet for marketization, with varying degrees of annihilatory biopower and differential inclusion.

Second, pointing out that coercion, warfare, and letting die are at the heart of the global system does not necessarily deny the forcefulness of more seductive ideological processes. To put it bluntly, there must be more benignness to the capitalist system or it would have been overthrown long ago. Deleuze and Guattari’s work insists on the immense functionality of consumerism in chaining populations to the very megamachine which oppresses them. When Glen Coulthard (2014) takes aim at Canada’s liberal politics of recognition which slots its Indigenous peoples into a capitalist state while leaving intact the property codes which have always benefited white settlers, he tells Marx(ists) primitive accumulation encompasses not only the violences of genocide but an inculcation of possessive individualism amongst Native populations which continues unabated today (cf. Hartman, 1997 on such individualism amongst legally emancipated African Americans). If Wolfe and Coulthard conceive settler-colonialism (and primitive accumulation) as a “structure” rather than an “event,” they are in effect saying it had to transform itself from a regime of outright elimination and dispossession into a more subtle one of legalistic recognition, exploitation, and sentimental exoticization. This is not to say physical violence against Indigenous peoples is no longer prevalent. Ontologically, however, following Deleuze and Guattari (1987), more than annihilation, it is life, flow, desire, and productivity that racial capitalism feeds off, and this makes it all the more insidious.

In Christina Sharpe’s influential theorization (2016), blackness is a hole in human “being” itself, the reduction of a part of humanity to thinghood. Like others in the Afropessimist idiom, Sharpe (2016: 11–14) challenges the hegemonic assumption that the Shoah embodies modernity’s most radical evil, noting the violences of trans-Atlantic slavery not only include the still-ongoing eradication of sociocultural rootedness but have been neglected and misrepresented. In a move parallel to Coulthard’s on settler-colonialism, Sharpe conceives slavery not as a past event but the anchor of the structure of (Euro-American) society, which is in itself “antiblack” in that it is premised on the total suppression of black subjecthood. She thereby formally emulates a line of European thinkers like Giorgio Agamben on the role that the absolute abjection of Auschwitz plays in constituting the humanist mythology of modernity: if the intrinsic link between modernity and the Shoah must be disavowed for humanity to continue conceiving itself in liberal-progressivist vein, the more unspeakable disaster for Sharpe is that of slavery. But while European Jewishness constituted itself successfully after its near eradication—controversially in the form of Zionism—black being is for Sharpe always already a structural impossibility (black being as written in Heideggerian typography by Warren, 2018).

Rethinking blackness by way of modernity’s effort to extirpate it, Afropessimism’s position is radical, and it is conscious of the risk of repeating the oft-noted exceptionalist manner in which Israel puts the Shoah to use towards settler-colonial ends (see Wolfe, 2016). Black activists including Angela Davis (in a YouTube video, 2018, with Gayatri Spivak agreeing) have taken issue with this exceptionalist tendency, as inscribed in the term antiblackness and the resurgence of a black nationalism (see also Olaloku-Teriba, 2018 amongst others). Notwithstanding Sharpe’s eloquence in tracing antiblackness from the Middle Passage to refugee drownings in the Mediterranean, a Deleuze–Guattarian approach to racial capitalism differs markedly in that it seeks to map the specific modalities, gradients, and absurdities of institutional racism. Comprehending police brutality, for example, requires concepts like gentrification, securitization, and masculinity, and cannot follow directly from a negativity of blackness at the metaphysical level. We thereby avoid the quasi-theological dispute about which group has historically endured the most suffering. And while the global archives of violence against black peoples must continue to be elaborated, is it the case that slavery and racism seek to absolutely evacuate humanity from the enslaved or incarcerated body? Is it not precisely as humans capable of resistance, farming, crime, and sex that slaves were savagely oppressed? While conceptualizing blackness as dehumanized “nonbeing” makes sense in a Heideggerian framework, for Deleuze and Guattari and (broadly internationalist) feminists like Davis and Spivak, there can be no such sweeping binary between black and everything else (another critique of Afropessimist binarization is found in Day, 2015).

Finally, the historical question is how genocide and slavery prepared for capitalism. The integration of the United States of America as a white-majority nation-state and superpower could only be achieved with rapid immigration, urbanization, and fossil-fuelled transport. During the time when “pioneer” families and farmers were moving in, there were still sizeable areas controlled by Native confederations. When we look at specific regions like William Cronon (1991) does with the Midwest, the eradication of Native ecosystems and the concomitant creation of new European-derived ones—what Alfred Crosby (1986) from a more conservative angle calls “Neo-Europes”—became possible with aggressive new urban assemblages and foodways. White farmers and Indigenous populations have lived in constant tension on the Great Plains. What environmental histories like Cronon show, complementing accounts like Coulthard’s, is that there was a decisive shift in the settling of the American interior when banks could supply loans for parceling land and establishing large infrastructure and industry projects. Tellingly, movies and museums fantasize about the fleeting symbiotic relationships which are supposed to have existed between Indigenous and white. In retrospect, however, such fantasies and the ensuing lamentations about the vanishing Indian were but ideological fig leaves hiding how industrialization in Britain, intra-European imperial wars, and mass consumerism conspired to continue genocide by other means (Dunbar-Ortiz, 2014). If Indigenous populations had somehow become resistant to Old World diseases and continued using guns and horses efficiently, it is conceivable a patchwork of white and Indigenous states might have persisted, if it were not for a giant wave of capital and migrants coming over from Europe (and later elsewhere). With Indigenous Americans contained and plantation slavery and its quasi-feudal and patriarchal ways outlawed, capital could wipe the continent clean for a new megamachinic arrangement.

Hence ontologizing racial capitalism as always already tethered to slavery and/or genocide avoids the question when exactly “modernity” and the Anthropocene started. For the perspective I am developing, industrialization and related transformations like wage-labor, urbanization, motorized transport, and mass communications are fundamental shifts. While the slave trade and the displacement of Indigenous peoples were essential to enriching Europe for global hegemony, it is manufacturing with its intrinsic relation to proletarianization and slums, accelerating technological innovation, and an irrepressible invitation to consume which spread around the planet, which meant that extermination and coerced labor became slower and more covert processes. Doubtless there are work and mobility conditions approaching chattel slavery in all continents, and there is plenty of biopolitical domination approaching genocide even during alleged peace times. But it is difficult to see how multinational corporations, megacities, and mass migration could have obtained were it not for industrial capitalism overcoming the severe limitations built into the mercantile, plantation, colonial, and eliminationist models.

In the US itself, as scholars from WEB Du Bois (1935) onwards have shown, slavery had to be formally abolished for manufacturing and cities to kick off, spurring processes like the Great Migration of African Americans and, more fortuitously, black music. Following Deleuze and Guattari (and Marx), however dire the extraction of surplus-value from the laboring body, racial capitalism involves some degree (and ideology) of “freedom.” Saidiya Hartman’s (1997) excavation of the terroristic, legal, and psychical aspects of slavery living on after legal Emancipation demonstrates there are strong but disavowed continuities in institutional racism and misogyny. But however violent the post-Emancipation United States has been, from lynching to the prison-industrial complex to the war on crack, there was also the slow rise of black subjectivity, as testified by the black radical tradition to which Hartman herself belongs. She presents one of the finest analyses of the libidinal economies and legal codifications precluding a real black liberation from racial capitalism and individualism, hence of the hypocrisy underneath the official nationalist ideology of “we the people.” Yet an overemphasis on abjection deters from appreciating the enduring plasticity of racism.1 Politically speaking, there must be room, as there is for Du Bois, Fanon, Angela Davis, and the Black Panthers, for theorizing how a black elite could possibly emerge against such backdrop of violence and despair, and why it does not dismantle the system of privilege it gains from itself (from Booker Washington to Jay Z). To wit, if blackness is modernity’s quintessential site of abjection, it becomes difficult to explain why the “most powerful man on Earth” has been black. Afropessimists have of course passionately critiqued the deep complicity with an antiblack system shaping Barack Obama and all liberal antiracism, but true to their pessimistic stance consistently eschew formulating where exactly hope for black people (and other minorities) could come from.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can understand why capital was compelled to expunge slavery and feudal territorialities, often pitting itself explicitly against older forms of racism and sexism, as well as colonialism and nationalism. After the Second World War, the system of United Nations and Bretton-Woods explicitly aimed to allow capital to flow planet-wide so as to transcend the genocidal nationalisms and imperialisms which had just led to such destruction, even though the world remained catastrophically divided between East and West. Formal decolonization was on the one hand an egalitarian antiracist project often inspired by Marxism-Leninism, but on the other, it turned out to be a new phase in capital’s expansion under the rubric of development, with China now occupying the strangest systemic role. However hypocritical the reproach of premodern brutalities by industrial capitalism, it has proven tremendously effective.

Following feminist, black, postcolonial/decolonial, Indigenous, and queer critiques, capital cannot be the only system of violence, even if it posits itself as the dominant one. For Deleuze and Guattari, capital is always reconfiguring the “despotic” or “barbarian” assemblages of patriarchy, religion, kinship, cruelty, extraction of resources, and domestication of plants and animals, all with their various racial dimensions (Saldanha and Adams, 2013). There can only be an extreme fluidity of money by virtue of the fixities of borders, commodification, and biopower. And these pseudo-archaic forces, these reterritorializations through the deterritorializing impetus of capital, have their own ecohistories which the multidisciplinary conversations around the Anthropocene are bringing to light. What is required is a nonreductionist ontology which grants that capital strives to bring all of life, in fact all of the thinkable universe, into its preternatural ambit, but it can do so only by virtue of the biophysical and sociocultural characteristics of what it captures. Capital is such a formidable genie precisely because it is conjured from deep within the earth.

The Orbis hypothesis

Two physical geographers, Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin, have recently suggested our new geological epoch be dated to the near-disappearance of the Indigenous societies of the Americas, that is, the beginning of the 17th instead of the end of the 18th century. The link between planetary transformation and the colonization of the Americas has made their 2015 article in Nature an instant classic (the thesis is taken up again in the general-audience book The Human PlanetLewis and Maslin, 2018). Ice core samples reveal that in 1610 a peak occurred in a temporary downward trend in global CO2 levels. The general trend is that CO2 has been increasing steadily since the Neolithic because of deforestation and combustion, and accelerating since the industrial and fossil fuel revolutions. For Lewis and Martin, changes in the composition of Earth’s atmosphere are the best indicators of the new geological epoch because unlike fossilized remains, ice sheets, or deposits, they can be easily averaged and are planet-wide. The greenhouse effect caused by accumulated carbon in the atmosphere has drastically changed biological regimes on Earth before and will do so again this very century, ensuring the Anthropocene’s detectability into the far future.

Looking at this 1610 pike, scientists are asking what massive change happened over the 16th century that could suck up 7–10 parts per million of atmospheric CO2 and buck the general trend. Apparently—an irony in world-history—this carbon sequestration happened a mere century before carbon levels would start increasing exponentially. The only reasonable conjecture, Lewis and Maslin argue, is that the dip is an effect of the reforestation that occurred after the quasi-annihilation of Indigenous ecologies by Europeans. Of a population of between 60 and 100 million, within a century, at least 50 million Indigenous Americans perished from enslavement, warfare, epidemics, displacement, and starvation, a formative event in racist violence which David Stannard (1992) calls the American Holocaust. While violence, environmental injustice, and health disparity continue to characterize the relationship between Native and settler from the Arctic to the Amazon, the genocidal and ecological scale of the disappearance of Native Americans in early modernity remains unparalleled (see Dunbar-Ortiz, 2014). With Indigenous agriculture, hunting, and use of fire abruptly declining across vast stretches of the coastal Americas, vegetation returned and CO2 levels decreased, lowering the greenhouse effect and cooling the planet, hence extending the so-called Little Ice Age (a cooler period following the Middle Ages with more complex causes). As Charles Mann (2005) has summarized, only recently have non-Indigenous historians and ecologists started accepting the extent to which the pre-Columbian landscape was shaped by burning, farming, cities, trade-networks, empires, and their attendant governance and cosmologies. Of course, the same argument from Indigenous activists and writers has for many decades been marginalized by the mainstream.

There is no scientific consensus yet on whether the planetary effects of the depopulation and reforestation of the Americans could have offset those of the increase in the European settler population with their own agriculture and timber needs, not to forget the growing populations in the rest of the world. But what is intriguing about Lewis and Maslin’s line of argument is that just like the extinction events for earlier geological epochs, the mass death of Indigenous Americans might be of measurable environmental significance. Though they obviously risk “naturalizing” the Columbian holocaust as unavoidable implication of the struggle of survival amongst populations, they also show just how profoundly consequential, indeed contemporary, the genocide is. Understanding there is a geochemistry to the American Holocaust and creation of a “New World” through primitive accumulation can be a powerful counterhistorical rejoinder to the hegemonic forgetting of how the current world-order came into existence. The sheer scale of the intoxicating greed and religious self-righteousness of the conquistadores long noted by Indigenous activists and psychoanalyzed by Stannard becomes all the more breathtaking: the newly systematized racism of early modernity will be legible in tree rings and ice cores thousands or millions of years into the future.

There is a lot to be said for taking 1610 as the golden spike for the Anthropocene, the official year it began. Lewis and Maslin’s “Orbis hypothesis” is the only one proposed which takes the interplay of political-economic and geochemical processes seriously as measurable at the global level (orbis, “world”). Their effort is commendable for appreciating that the decimation—literally, with some ninety percent eliminated—of Indigenous America was, in hindsight, a necessary condition for European global dominance and anthropogenic climate change. Even so, some seemingly naive questions alert us to the moral conundrum immediately presenting itself here: if the Columbian holocaust evidently sequestered carbon, were Native Americans not emitting CO2 into the atmosphere? Yes, but more so were Europe, China, and India, whose agriculture and trade were more intense (see Pomeranz, 2000). And is population decline the answer to excessive greenhouse effect? Obviously not, as it all depends on the unequal footprints of sectors of populations. It must be remembered the footprint of Indigenous fire and agricultural regimes pales in comparison to the onslaught on ecosystems unleashed by elites under colonialism and industrialization. What transpires from the Orbis hypothesis is not only that reforestation is indeed essential to climatic equilibrium, as conservative environmentalists have long maintained, but that an exceptionally violent episode of world-history defines our geological present. At the very least, its moral implications would be to shun the thirst for profit which has demonstrably turned genocidal in the past.

In their call to decolonize the Anthropocene concept, Heather Davis and Zoe Todd (2017) welcome the 1610 date above the other candidates. They appreciate Lewis and Maslin’s more-than-geological framework but take another step by critiquing science’s universalism and demanding a place in the Anthropocene dating debates for embodied and Indigenous ways of knowing. Notwithstanding the importance of analyzing the colonialist orientations of science and the role non-Western cosmologies and practices should play in building sustainable economies, however, this effort to pluralize the Anthropocene concept may dilute its epistemic force, which derives precisely from a stringent yet open scientificity heavily debated in the International Commission on Stratigraphy. If Indigenous and embodied ways of knowing, including art and religion, are critical for understanding the versatility and the violences of human–environment relations, the question is how they can enter the stratigraphic debate about which earth signals will be measurable in the far future. It is important to question the legitimacy of science and its intrinsic Eurocentrism and masculinism, but doing so without engaging it on its own terms leaves its hegemonic position intact, which could impede interdisciplinary and international solidarities in face of the problems both scientists and activists chart. The universality of science is its tremendous strength, but “universality” is universalizability, a potentiality not a given. Like cricket or punk rock, that stratigraphy or evolutionary biology has mostly been the business of white men does not mean others do not or should not participate in it. Furthermore, the scientific imagination certainly can and does learn from traditional cosmologies, just as environmental justice advocates use scientific methods. As geologists come to a decision on the Anthropocene’s GSSP, the “-cene” (kainos, “new”) part of the Anthropocene, the humanities, social sciences, and activists can interrogate anthropos as an embodied reality shaped by the ravages of colonization, industrialization, and patriarchy.

Deciding on a date

There is no doubt the post-Columbian genocide is a defining event in human evolution, partly because its still-existing causes and impacts are so systematically repressed. The question is whether it can satisfactorily explain not just trans-Atlantic mobilities but subsequent developments like the East India companies, the Scramble for Africa, two World Wars, decolonization, the ascendancy of the Arab emirates and China, and the revolution in electronics. The missing concept for understanding all these facets of globalization is capital. While it is encouraging to see “capitalism” mentioned repeatedly in Lewis and Maslin’s book (2018) and they show familiarity with world-systems theory, their take-home message is that the environmental consequences of the European settling of the Americas are a fundamental marker of modernity. As can be inferred even from non-Marxist environmental-historical perspectives on globalization’s unevennesses like that of Kenneth Pomeranz (2000), however important the conquest of the Americas was as condition for “the great divergence” between Europe and China, the take-off of industrialization required, in addition, a radically different way of appropriating minerals and labor-power. The genealogy (or stratigraphy) of the shift from mercantilist to monetary biopower offered in Deleuze and Guattari (1987) changes the importance of Columbus. Though epochal in many ways, and though settler-colonialism continues today, 1492 seems less consequential for the subsequent global order than the conjunction of deterritorialized labor-power and deterritorializing money in Britain from circa 1750. While scholars like Sharpe (2016) hypostatize the Middle Passage and its reach into (Atlantic) modernity, there is sometimes an overemphasis on the event of conquest in Indigenous and decolonial literature, which for both comes at the detriment of theorizing how industrial and postindustrial capitalism’s extreme elasticity, indeed seductiveness, perpetuates and exacerbates its racial regimes.

Most earth scientists have now abandoned Crutzen’s focus on the Industrial Revolution and are leaning towards the mid-20th century as golden spike of the Anthropocene. To many physicists, the epoch-defining feature of modernity is the mobilization of the stupendous energy deriving from the splitting of the atomic nucleus, a scientific as much as geopolitical and theological feat. July 16, 1945, when the first nuclear bomb was detonated with the suitably metaphysical name of the Trinity Test, could be considered the Anthropocene’s symbolic starting date, not a GSSP but a Global Standard Stratigraphic Age, a geological marker out of convenience (Zalasiewicz et al., 2015). The obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki happened a few weeks later. (The citation from the Bhagavad Gita at the Trinity Test by theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atom bomb,” is justifiably famous: “I am become death, the shatterer of worlds.”) This frightful arrival of the possibility of instant annihilation of cities and of human extinction by accident or evil intent has accompanied decades of frantic nuclear development, with no end in sight. For the humanities and social sciences, what makes 1945 compelling as contender for the Anthropocene’s start date is furthermore the monetary and postcolonial liberal-humanitarian order around the United Nations and the so-called Bretton Woods system instituted in the wake of massive casualties and the Holocaust, enabling what environmental historians call the Great Acceleration of baby boom, mass consumption, and mobility, with their attendant environmental impacts (McNeill and Engelke, 2016). Since the Trinity Test, over 2000 nuclear bombs have been exploded, and their fallout is planet-wide and easily measurable. Many earth scientists, including Lewis and Maslin, suggest 1964 is a very good candidate for GSSP because of a clearly legible peak in radioactive carbon-14 in sediments and trees that year. While Lewis and Maslin prefer 1610 because of the conceptual link with the colonization of the Americas, there is no doubt radioactive dust will be a clear-cut marker for thousands of years.

The discussion revolves around the practice of geological periodization itself. Either we choose the geosynchronous signal of radionuclides, or we grant that the multi-factor, uneven, protracted modifications by industrialization have been more consequential, even if no one geological signal can be agreed upon to capture those modifications. If it is not the mid-20th century or 1610 or 1492, we have seen why 1784 makes an inadequate Anthropocenic boundary as proposed by Crutzen and Stoermer (2000). From the Deleuzo-Marxist perspective, steam-power and the use of coal (and gas and oil) are secondary to the more fundamental event of capital encountering displaced peasants looking for work, while for stratigraphers that year is meaningless if there is no strong signal associated with it. If we pick “Lancashire in the late eighteenth century” as spatiotemporal threshold of the Anthropocene, this will not satisfy the requirements of a GSSP, but there seems to be no single geologically significant marker that can point to the beginnings of the capitalist system. It might appear this brings us to an impasse: I would like to identify the geological term “Anthropocene” with the planetary state of racializing industrial capitalism, but I cannot suggest how this epoch be measured as demanded by geological method. Interestingly, when Crutzen suggested 1784 as starting date, he too appears to have overlooked the GSSP requirements. It is conceivable earth science decides the Anthropocene, as “our” present geological epoch, is the only one defined by a more fuzzy symbolic starting date instead of a golden spike, but by now unlikely as some will speak of anthropocentrism and demand technical consistency.

Another option presents itself: simply continue using “Anthropocene” in an informal and capacious manner and accept there are many environmental and sociological markers which together point to North England at the end of the 18th century as its beginning. Between earth science and other practices, we can inhabit the impasse instead of ignoring it. If it turns out the Anthropocene officially starts in 1964, those outside earth science will have to accept that conclusion. But explaining the radioactive stratum will still require explaining Mutually Assured Destruction, industrial technology, and empire, and these have their roots in the racializing capitalisms of early modernity. What after all is the Great Acceleration an acceleration of? The destructive apparatuses of the World Wars and then the Cold War are culminations of geopolitical, technological, and legal processes which first took form much earlier (think of the papally backed Treaty of Tordesillas between Portugal and Spain of 1498 dividing the world for colonization). But this essay has argued it is the transition to an economy of perpetual speeding-up that is definitive, more than either the beginnings of colonial arrogance or the mad resort to nuclear arsenals. The military–industrial complex has been spectacularly wasteful and dangerous, but it is instigated by the growth imperative, by the “miracle” of the conjoining of primitive accumulation, gendered wage-labor, and commodification in little North English towns (compare Alliez and Lazzarato, 2018; Jones, 1981). The political upshot is that to avoid this system’s catastrophic exponentialities, it will not be possible to simply slow it down.

Concluding thoughts: Life through the Trumpocene

Since their inception in the Enlightenment, both the humanities and left politics have a lot to offer the science of nonhuman processes insofar as all three study the conditions of possibility of human life itself. The anthropos has always been an open question, a site of fundamental antagonism not a monolithic agent, defined by multi-layered and conflicting temporalities. The most promising premise of the Anthropocene concept is that it comes from such unlikely allies of the left, not just ecologists and epidemiologists but geochemists, paleontologists, oceanographers, astrobiologists, and complexity mathematicians. Few scientists, environmentalists, or diplomats follow a simplistic neo-Malthusian line for which it is overpopulation as such that is responsible for ecological devastation (Angus, 2016). Unwittingly, earth scientists in fact provide the Marxian, decolonial, and feminist critiques their most rigorous and affective impetus ever. Critical theorists have an opportunity for pushing scientists and laypeople further to acknowledging racial capitalism as what explains the Anthropocene and its stark inequalities and technologies of mass destruction. That can be done by co-claiming the term while respecting that the scientific rules governing its definitional procedure have their own consistency. It is true that as part of their habitus most physical scientists are unwilling to interrogate their ideological presumptions, but it also behooves the humanities and activists to be alert to the sharp and reasoned disagreements within science. In any case, stratigraphy can no longer proceed without intervention from the humanities, because the strata discussed can only be fully explained and responded to through the concepts the humanities have so long argued over. Just like with previous debates about human destiny, but unlike with most other geological periodizations, the Anthropocene debate has immediate political implications.

Let us recapitulate the argument about race and capital. This essay has argued globalization is based on racial capitalism as brought about by slavery and genocide, but partially overcoming them through the Industrial Revolution. If colonization was essential to the emergence of capitalism, today’s retrospection allows us to identify a “proto-racist” sense of privilege to others’ ecosystems and cultures that inflected the colonial projects (Saldanha, 2013). Liberal and conservative historians argue it was mutual competition, supposedly an inevitable fact amongst all human groups, that drove Western European powers to expand (Crosby, 1986Jones, 1981). The discords of early modernity are undeniable, of course, but the question is how Europeans could transpose their conflicts anywhere they wanted on the globe, starting with the Crusades and the Treaty of Tordesillas. One can only imagine if competition between China, Japan, and India were to be played out by carving out Europe as Europe did Africa. The aggressive usurpation of land, labor, and resources that colonial capitalism necessarily consists of corresponds with annihilating anthropogenic ecologies that had developed over generations. Following critical race scholars (Wynter, 2013), such annihilation cannot but be termed racist, as it was and is based on the certainty that some people, somehow, have a divine, legal, or rational “right” to appropriate other social formations and landscapes for the enrichment of their fatherland.

Public discourse is changing. Carbon inequality and climate justice are becoming mainstream progressive terms. Even lifestyle magazines like Essence now decry the structural racism inherent in the climate denialism of tycoons like Donald Trump (Sanders, 2017). Indeed, Trump embodies, in however contradictory a fashion, the coming-together of reactionary forces that had been accruing for decades, or rather centuries. As evinced by the spread of the word “Trumpocene,” the president’s cynical selfishness is likely to become more prevalent in the Anthropocene than humanitarian interventionism and the erstwhile calls for universal human rights and cooperation (see Kaplan, 2016Myer, 2016). When Trump designates countries in the Global South as “shitholes,” attacks brown and black Congresswomen, and refuses to criticize white fascists, he provides a lucid formulation of the logic of racial capitalism: the material positionality of a power elite obsessed with self-enrichment, a denial about the US’s own catastrophic levels of gun violence and plutocracy, and a paranoia about immigration from the areas of poverty this elite causes elsewhere, as a kind of excrement of the capitalist system. With the election of Jair Bolsonaro, Trumpism has been replicated in Brazil, its president openly imagining exterminating Indigenous Amazonians to make room for export beef. From Europe’s far-right parties to corrupt elites in the Global South, the global growth of Trumpism will no doubt deepen the racialized dimensions of capitalism.

One should not be blinded, however, by the abrasiveness of authoritarians like Trump and Bolsonaro: they are the condensation of a liberal-democratic order in crisis. An irony of Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” is that just when the most openly racist and sexist US president ever comes to lead the last white-supremacist empire—which, though crumbling, or perhaps because of that, has been most responsible for the world’s catastrophic state—he accelerates that empire’s decline and nefarious effects with as much bravado as ineptitude. The desperate anti-environmentalism and heteronormativity of the US Republicans and Bolsonaro must be seen as part and parcel of a fascist turn which, as history show, accompanies states of profound collective malaise. With the Industrial Revolution, the formal abolition of slavery, the welfare state, mass consumption, neoliberalism, and now a crypto-fascist turn, capital requires drastic axiomatic transformations for its own survival. Trump and Bolsonaro show that Nick Mirzoeff (2016) has a point in calling the Anthropocene “the White-Supremacy-Scene,” but racial capitalism operates through more than violence, and its start date is the late 18th century not the 16th.

The global system of race constantly has to restabilize itself across the centuries and across locations and scales. This article revisited processes whereby capital aggressively remade the earth in its own image and hence posited the white bourgeoisie as explicit standard for the entire species. But capital is a force uncontainable by any one racial or ruling class. If by the year 2120 on a viciously hot planet China turns out to be the dominant superpower, Arab city-states have successfully navigated peak oil, Europe is riven with separatist warfare, and US cities are burnt-out and flooded wastelands, inequalities in life expectancy will most probably still be indexed on phenotypical differences. Sinocentric or Arab-centric versions of structural racism and ecological destruction might be less genocidal than the white-supremacist ones—indeed, the truculent policies of the “emerging economies” often justify themselves as different from Europe’s arrogance even while they import the same methods—but that could render them more effective. Even if in this scenario white supremacy is superseded, it is certain the inhuman vortex of capital would continue to wreak havoc on racialized others, animals, and ecosystems. As a broadening coalition of activists, theorists, and scientists is showing, the time is now for conceiving and struggling for an Anthropocene freed from capital’s axiomatic of growth. Whenever the Anthropocene started, whether it engenders collapse, slow degradation, or a different system altogether is a political question of unprecedented magnitude.


Thanks to the perceptive criticisms of the three anonymous reviewers, special issue editors Bruce Erickson and Andrew Baldwin, and the journal editors, this essay has gone through an extraordinary amount of rewriting. Even while I am sure there remains plenty to argue about, I am immensely grateful for their engagements.

I revised this paper while I was Visiting Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Globalisation and Citizenship, Deakin University, Melbourne, Visiting Professor at the School of Geography, Queen Mary University of London, and Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry, Utrecht University. Many thanks to Nigel Clark and Kathryn Yusoff for ongoing conversations about all this.

Declaration of conflicting interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


1“It is not my intention to argue that the differences between slavery and freedom were negligible; certainly such an assertion would be ridiculous. Rather, it is to examine the shifting and transformed relations of power that brought about the resubordination of the emancipated, the control and domination of the free black population, and the persistent production of blackness as abject, threatening, servile, dangerous, dependent, irrational, and infectious” (Hartman, 1997: 116).

This essay argues the differences between slavery and “freedom” must be theorized. With the emergence of black working and middle-classes and the struggle for civil rights, there were profound shifts in racial capitalism. Recent protest movements have correctly flagged the continuity in the racist tropes Hartman identifies here, but this very gesture sustains the possibility of politics and disproves the identification of blackness with abjection.

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Arun Saldanha is Professor in the Department of Geography, Environment, and Society at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, USA. Saldanha is the author of Psychedelic White: Goa Trance and the Viscosity of Race (University of Minnesota Press, 2007) and Space After Deleuze (Bloomsbury, 2017), and coeditor with Hoon Song of Sexual Difference Between Psychoanalysis and Vitalism (Routledge, 2013), with Rachel Slocum of Geographies of Race and Food: Fields Bodies Markets (Ashgate, 2013), and with Jason Michael Adams of Deleuze and Race (Edinburgh University Press, 2013).

Managing the Anthropocene: Relational Agency and Power to Respect Planetary Boundaries

Pasi Heikkurinen1,2, Stewart Clegg3, Ashly H. Pinnington4, Katerina Nicolopoulou5, and Jose M. Alcaraz6

Article Information

Volume: 34 issue: 2, page(s): 267-286

Article first published online: October 17, 2019; Issue published: June 1, 2021


This article examines how agency should be conceptualized to manage the pressing problems of the Anthropocene in support of sustainable change. The article reviews and analyzes literature on agency in relation to planetary boundaries, advancing the relational view of agency in which no actors are granted a primary ontological status, and agency is not limited to humans but may be attributed to other actors. This understanding of agency can effectively contribute to sustainable organizations; on the one hand, it enables non-anthropocentrism and on the other hand, admits that networks bind actors. We conclude that boundary blurring (between actors) and boundary formation (between actors and networks) are complementary processes. Consequently, relationality is proposed as an applicable means of respecting planetary boundaries, while recognizing that all action flows through circuits of power whose obligatory passage points are the major conduits for intervention. Intervention occurs through regulation and nudging action such as ecotaxation.


agency, Anthropocene, boundaries, power, responsibility, relational, sustainability

1University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland2University of Leeds, Leeds, UK3University of Technology Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia4The British University in Dubai, Dubai, United Arab Emirates5University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK6Munich Business School, Munich, Germany

Corresponding author(s): Pasi Heikkurinen, Department of Economics and Management, Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry, University of Helsinki, 00014 Helsinki, Finland. Email:


The concept of the Anthropocene is now well established in both mainstream natural and social sciences (Biermann et al., 2016Hamilton, Bonneuil, & Gemenne, 2015Latour, 2015). In 2000, Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer proposed that the impact of human beings’ organized activities on Earth is so significant that the current geological epoch can be called the Anthropocene: the age of humans (Crutzen & Stoermer, 2000). The challenges of the human-induced global environmental change have been extensively debated for decades (e.g., Carson, 1962Georgescu-Roegen, 1975Meadows, Meadows, Randers, & Behrens, 1972) but the scale of human agency on Earth systems and related processes are now more evident and quantifiable (Andonova & Mitchell, 2010Liu et al., 2015). The concept of the Anthropocene collects social, material, ecological, and geological realities into one common context: planet Earth (Heikkurinen, 2017Heikkurinen, Ruuska, Wilén, & Ulvila, 2019). While the notion of the Anthropocene may be typical of totalizing narratives (see Lyotard, 1979Parker, 1995), it plays the significant discursive role of promoting global awareness and collective responsibility for unfolding multiscalar ecological crises. In addition, the notion spurs reflection on contemporary axiologies, ontologies, and epistemologies (Cunha, Rego, & Vieira de Cunha, 2008Heikkurinen, Rinkinen, Järvensivu, Wilén, & Ruuska, 2016Hoffman & Jennings, 2015). Latour (2014a), for example, argues for consideration of the so-called metamorphic zone in which natural and material forces amalgamate and act, including Earth itself. From this perspective, all forms of agency inhabit a flat ontology in which human actors and the networks of activities in which they are engaged have no a priori theoretical privilege as actors per se (Collinge, 2006Latour, 1999a1999b2009Pickering, 1995).

The Anthropocene begins with modern industrialization, the Great Acceleration (Crutzen & Stoermer, 2000Hamilton, 2015). In the early stages of the Anthropocene, human agency was largely unbounded in its effects on the fabric of the Earth and human life upon it, as Engels’s (1892) remarkable chronicle of 1844 reveals. Organizations that sprung up in the industrial and capitalist revolution were framing the planet’s fabric in new ways as they created new materialities. Many of these materialities were the effects of untrammeled organizational action, as the widespread degradation that Engels observed, bears testament: Dark satanic mills in which bouts of daily exploitation occurred had as their retreats dank slums in which the majority of inhabitants were housed and whatever they earned in exchange value as rent further exploited. Exploitation was careless of all forms of life as it framed and constructed new social realities premised on a world of indifference to industrially induced disease, detritus, decay, dire pollution and, as scientists became aware late in the Anthropocene, disturbing changes in climatic conditions.1

For most organizations, most of the time, climate change has been just another externality (e.g., Banerjee, 2012Marechal & Lazaric, 2010). The results of contestation concerning responsibility for these externalities among different organizations, such as political parties, lobby organizations, transnational corporations (TNCs), and media, has seen slow improvement, in some places, of some aspects of life on Earth. Major cities, such as London, no longer suffer the killer smog of the 1950s, since the domestic use of coal was phased out. However, externalities travel; as Beck (2009), has noted, we inhabit a global risk society. Environmental degradation and pollution produced in one place does not stay there but mingles with the air, water, and soil of the planet. In consequence, the “safe operating space for humanity” (Rockström et al., 2009; see also Barnosky et al., 2012Steffen et al., 2015) and other forms of life diminishes both here and now and temporally: The future perfect becomes less and less an imaginary Utopia (Bauman, 2017).While the Anthropocene enfolds all forms of life, there are evident power asymmetries not only among these different forms of being but also between different regions, groups, and social classes of humans, the dominant form of life (Malm & Hornborg, 2014Moore, 2017).

It is not humanity as a whole that is responsible for these externalities that threaten life itself, but those central to the circuits of power characterizing human life, argue contemporary prominent feminists (cf. Gibson-Graham, 2011Haraway, 2015). Moreover, the global command of wealth and other organizational resources in organizational and actor networks straddling the globe inscribe some powerful actors with much more in the way of strategic choices over the vast range of organisms, materialities, and imaginaries within which all life thrives and dies (Anderson & Cavanagh, 1996Malm & Hornborg, 2014Ulvila & Wilén, 2017Vitali, Glattfelder, & Battiston, 2011).2The aim of the present article is to outline an understanding of agency with which contemporary managers might organize their activities in relation to ecological limits. The first section positions research on the Anthropocene before reviewing agency in its light. Possible management responses that could delay, if not prevent, further extinctions are considered and policies that could serve as nudges of managerial and organizational action are proposed, centering on an example of ecotaxation.


Agency is not only an attribute of being human, agency, according to Latour (1990), is fundamentally relational and based on processes of becoming through actor–network relationships in which dynamic forms of agency are inscribed. Latour (2014a) suggests thatfar from trying to ‘reconcile’ or ‘combine’ nature and society, the task, the crucial political task, is on the contrary to distribute agency as far and in as differentiated way as possible—until, that is, we have thoroughly lost any relation between those two concepts of object and subject. (p. 17)The principle of irreducibility of agency means “nothing is inherently either reducible or irreducible to anything else” (Harman, 2007, p. 33). As agencies continuously engage, with, mobilize and translate materialities and imaginaries in and out of life’s processes, networks of “human or non-human entities, individual or collective, [are becoming] defined by their roles, their identity, and their program” (Latour, 1997, p. 55). “As long as they act, agents have meaning” (Latour, 2014a, p. 14).Social science studies of agency have tended to overemphasize the role of human actors (Fleetwood, 2005Orlikowski, 2010).

While not reifying the products of human action, one consequence is that anthropocentric worldviews—favoring human agency at the expense of the nonhuman world—became institutionalized (Heikkurinen et al., 2016). The limitations of anthropocentrism in dealing with ecological problems have been reported over several decades (Bonnedahl & Heikkurinen, 2019Ezzamel & Willmott, 2014Gladwin, Kennelly, & Krause, 1995McShane, 2007Purser, Park, & Montuori, 1995). For example, the human–nonhuman divide makes taking the “‘intermediary’ and ambivalent status of animals in a growing number of organizational situations” problematic, note Doré and Michalon (2017, p. 15). An anthropocentric understanding of agency does not “draw a definitive boundary between the objects (them) and us” (Introna, 2009, p. 31). Hence, solving the complex ecological problems that organizations now face (see also Boons, 2013Connolly & Cullen, 2018Heikkurinen et al., 2016Purser et al., 1995) requires research that moves beyond anthropocentrism. One way of doing so is to take the Anthropocene seriously as a context both for theorizing and for practice.Since the 1990s, an increasingly influential group of management scholars have expressed concerns about the roles and responsibilities of business organizations in advancing environmental sustainability. The Academy of Management established an active Organizations and Natural Environment Interest Group in 1991, but the general consensus arising from members’ published work from the outset has been that positive change was occurring far too slowly. For example, within the context of greening organizations, Shrivastava and Hart (1992) noted that despite the rise of environmentalism during the 1970s and 1980s, the majority of organizations were failing to address the major issues. Shrivastava (1995a) criticized traditional approaches to management for their outmoded assumptions based on processes of industrialization during the 19th and 20th centuries, claiming that within numerous industries managers were biased toward patterns of production and consumption motivated by financial risk.

The fundamental epistemology and ontology informing most management systems, Shrivastava argued, was anthropocentric with managers promulgating a “denatured view” of the organizational environment. Deveraux Jennings and Zandbergen (1995) advocated applying concepts from institutional theory to understand how consensus is achieved on the meaning of sustainability and how sustainability practices are developed and diffused in programs for total quality environmental management, life cycle analysis, product stewardship, ecoefficiency, pollution prevention and waste-management strategy, environmental risk and liability management, and environmental banking and investment. Application of concepts from institutional theory continues over 20 years later to be influential in academic debates on the natural environment serving as an informative means of explaining societal and organizational change (e.g., Hoffman & Jennings, 2018Maguire & Hardy, 2009York, Hargrave, & Pacheco, 2016). Shrivastava (1995b) argued that corporations actually have the financial resources, technological knowledge, and institutional capacity for achieving ecological sustainability, albeit sharing responsibility along with governments and consumers. “Nature must be valued for its own sake [. . .]” (p. 957), he asserted, claiming corporations could make an immediate difference through total quality environmental management and by implementing ecologically sustainable competitive strategies.In recent reflexive understandings, distributed networks of diverse entities and complex localized assemblages constituting the Anthropocene produce critical zones and potential tipping points of ecological destruction (Barnosky et al., 2012Hoffman & Jennings, 2018Steffen et al., 2015). Humans have the power to exercise reflexivity toward all other agencies as a result of the communicative competence afforded by various forms of natural and technical language game (Wittgenstein, 2009) in their constitution of what Giddens’s (1984) terms both practical, as in ordinary language as well as theoretical consciousness, as in the elaborated codes of scientific and related fields of practice. Understanding how human agency relates to the agency of nonhuman actors becomes a critical competence (Carolan, 2005Ivakhiv, 2002).

It is only through the reflexive capacities which predicate the human actor that the interests of those nonhuman agencies that have material effects can be represented.Sociologically, humans and nonhumans are inextricably implicated in acts of agency in which humanity’s reflexive capabilities, by developing new scientific, social, and ethical approaches to living in the world, can work toward the collective good. Being is “inevitably endowed with a moral and political history” (Latour, 2014b, p. 4), one that is earthbound, inescapably tied to this Earth. The Earth’s agential role is to support the standing conditions that enable life on Earth. Humans’ reflexive capacity in grasping how climate interacts with humans in sustaining or threatening forms of life is increasingly channeled through technical discourses of climate science and intellectual discoveries based on detailed research investigations made within multiple disciplines increasingly (Latour, 2014c). Assembled into new sets of actions, these insights and creative ideas have the potential to lead to the development of novel competences and more responsible agency.

Boundaries and Boundedness

Contemporary reflexive capacities in the sciences are increasingly oriented to the planetary boundary (PB) framework as the relevant context for interpreting the Anthropocene (Rockström et al., 2009Steffen et al., 2015). The PB framework encompasses nine Earth system thresholds, the standing conditions for life on Earth, the consequences of crossing which are potentially catastrophic. The PB framework directs academic and practitioner attention not merely to climate change (the topic currently attracting the most attention) but also to other Earth systems relevant to sustainable change: the rate of biodiversity loss (terrestrial and marine), interference with the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles (e.g., from the nitrogen used in fertilizers), stratospheric ozone depletion, ocean acidification, global freshwater use, change in land use, chemical pollution, and atmospheric aerosol loading (see, e.g., Hoffman & Jennings, 2018). Embracing radical ecological relationality, identifying global hotspots, acknowledging interactions far beyond the knowledge of any singular discipline, the PB model sees the role of scientific knowledge in the preservation of the planet as a pragmatic and legitimate process requiring urgent action (Van den Bergh & Kallis, 2012Whiteman, Walker, & Perego, 2013).The PB framework is shedding new light on “the problem of scale” (Perey, 2014, p. 215), providing insights into how to address connections between the different systems or hierarchical scales that constitute the planetary system (Boulding, 1966).

The boundaries of these are framed by strategic devices that bind and divide, through acts of defining, separating, assimilating; that stabilize, through acts of fixing, delimiting, controlling and that make visible, through acts of empirical recognition through technologies of representation and control (after Campbell, McHugh, & Ennis, 2019). In this way, boundaries are constituted that stretch from “ocean basins/biomes or sources/sinks to the level of the Earth system as a whole” (Steffen et al., 2015, p. 2). Steffen et al. (2015) observe that at least four system boundaries (rate of biodiversity loss, climate change, human interference with the nitrogen cycle, and land-system change) appear to have already been transgressed in ways that cannot be repaired or will be extremely challenging to reverse (see also Rockström, Richardson, Steffen, & Mace, 2018). These, in common with the other PBs, entail practices connecting individuals, organizations, societies, and global networks.The science behind the PBs findings is a set of resources for reflexive thinking and application of expert knowledge. The PB framework affords a relational and hierarchical understanding of the world’s systems (Heikkurinen et al., 2016Hoffman & Jennings, 2018) that is limited in its reproduction of an exclusively anthropocentric view in which the agency of nonhuman stakeholders is recognized only insofar as it offers a more or less safe operating space for humans and other forms of life (cf. Waddock, 2011).Natural science-related questions are readily raised, such as how much freshwater from rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and renewable groundwater stores can and should be withdrawn before it constitutes a trespass over the global freshwater threshold (Rockström & Karlberg, 2010Steffen et al., 2015).

We can seek to calibrate the precise contribution of international trade and certain industries, such as tea, sugar, textiles, and fish consumption, to the loss of biodiversity (Lenzen et al., 2012). Comparatively, we can question which agricultural regions contribute most to the biogeochemical flow (phosphorus) boundary and how can agriculture can be reorganized (globally) so that the land-use boundary is not crossed (Foley et al., 2011).These questions are not only a concern for natural science but also for social science: indeed, they are organizational in question. Organizations’ impact on Earth systems (e.g., ocean acidification, ozone layer depletion, and climate change) and on subglobal processes, such as land and water use, is well known as are the consequences of environmental degradation for human organization (Steffen et al., 2015Steffen & Smith, 2013). Transgression of the PBs is evidence of the failure of industrial and of postindustrial societies to recognize the Anthropocene. A group of scholars in business concerned about organizations and the natural environment argue that the past few decades reveal blatant disconnection between problem recognition and positive response (Gladwin, 2012Gladwin et al., 1995Hoffman & Jennings, 2015). The boundary framework seeks to embed reflexive human actors in an ecological network that is ultimately a planetary process (e.g., Heikkurinen et al., 2016Waddock, 2011). Moreover, process implies politics (Hoffman & Jennings, 2018Orssatto & Clegg, 1999); for instance, processes of ecological destruction cause severe problems for earthbound actors the risks associated with which are not equally distributed spatially or in terms of social stratification both globally and nationally.Conventionally, time is represented in sequential process as “flows from past to present” (Latour, 2014a, p. 11). Analytically, we are aware that time’s arrow bends both back and forth; through reflexive capacities humans (at least) reassemble the past from the here and now and project the future backward by thinking in the future perfect, as Schutz (1967) explained.

Human actors have a tendency to reflect on their future plans and predictions as if they are events that have already happened. While the phenomenological instantiation of the future perfect might seem inconsequential, the scale can be changed as we build realistic scenarios of probable futures, as Pitsis, Clegg, Marosszeky, and Rura-Polley (2003) investigated empirically.Different human agencies are capable of different projections, which vary with what Jacques (1971) termed the time span of discretion, the length of the longest task an individual can successfully undertake and take responsibility for, a concept he addressed intraorganizationally in terms of human intelligence and capabilities. Building on the initial idea and transforming it into one capable of more global application, we can refer to the projective reach of strategic decision making. Organizationally, the most senior incumbents of high office with strategic responsibilities have the greatest time span of discretion and thus the greatest projective reach into the future.Temporal capacities provide an in-principle flat ontology in which various actors are capable of different projective reach. At the outer temporal limits, we have the projective reach of a Chernobyl or a Fukushima nuclear meltdown that renders zones of life critical into all foreseeable futures for those actors that occupy them. Nuclear reactors can be powerful autonomous actants (Ellul, 1954/1973Vadén, 2014). It is a matter of strategy, politics, and ethics on the part of human actors whether these nonhuman actors’ powers are unleashed on Earth. In terms of a nuclear plant, the temporal horizon is effectively infinite in terms of generational life spans. One way of capturing the inequality of being is through the notion of projective reach. While all actants exist together in the horizontal and vertical “web of life” (Capra, 1995Waddock, 2011), they do not exist equally in temporal terms: the projective reach of a nuclear plant far exceeds that of a mosquito, for instance.

The mosquito might give one a bite; the bite might produce inflammation at best; at worse it might produce a debilitating virus in a human subject. Should that subject, in a fever, have recourse to fly a plane or drive an automobile, the impact of that small insect might be far greater than one initially might envisage. The mosquito, for all intents and purposes, however, does not aim to cause harm. It has no language game that translates to humans and in which the idea of harm would make sense; instinctually, it merely seeks preferential food. It is the intentional effects of humans’ causal powers and their interactions with the causal powers of other actors that are of concern to us as social scientists seeking an organizational response to the Anthropocene.Pragmatically, if we combine the horizontally broad understanding of flat ontology that recognizes the powers of all earthbound actors with a conception of the projective reach of organizational decision making, strategic managers would become more heedful of the interaction between humans and those other powers that potentially broach PBs. Acknowledgement of the power of all actors and their interactions necessitates more enlightened scientific information gathering, decision making, and practices with respect to an audit of the future perfect impact of actions planned to be undertaken on a diverse range of interests. After all, as Collinge (2006) notes, it is by[p]rojecting a world that is divided not only into a “horizontal” structure (in which similar activities are organized at similar scales in different places) but also a “vertical” structure (in which different activities are organized at different scales covering the same places), that scale analysis acquires its conceptual power. (p. 244)There are appropriate management responses to being in the multiscalar Anthropocene society (Hoffman & Jennings, 2018); for instance, the processes of organizing might become conceived as flat and hierarchical endeavors linking those near to those distant, us to them, we to others, while maintaining pragmatic network boundaries necessary for respecting the uniqueness of all actors and their powers. In other words, apposite management of the Anthropocene would be characterized by an understanding of agency that builds on two key dimensions.

The first one is the horizontal dimension that Latourian flat ontology offers and the other is the vertical dimension from ecology, where all earthbound action is embedded in the biosphere. In terms of flat ontology, flatness is first and foremost the refusal to treat one strata of reality as predominant and superior to all others. As Latour (1988) states, nothing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything else.3Albeit abstract, the conceptual merging of equally existent but distinctively intentional causal powers furthers the vital integration of natural and social sciences in exploring the management of business organizations. The point of the PBs is that crossing their thresholds triggers causal powers that will be extremely difficult to reverse once unleashed. Boundary claims, whether planetary or otherwise (see Latour, 1991;2012ab) as well as claims of boundary absence, have effects that are real in their consequences. It is for this reason that politicoethical reflection and audit, as well as regulatory institutions, become important: What boundaries of future perfect projection are being audited and regulated by organizations for which managers are held responsible and what boundaries remain nonissues in organizations’ strategy?The matter of these boundaries flows down from global initiatives such as the Paris climate accord, through state regulation requiring specific forms of audit, through to initiatives undertaken on the basis of organizational volition. Ideally, at each level of the nine Earth systems identified, systematic audit should be conducted in terms of the construction of a future perfect scenario in which minimization of harm is the purpose to be achieved, cascading through the levels to the organizational and framing of the individual. The causal powers of strategic management intersect with the casual powers of two kinds of matter: first, that which matters, because it is accounted for, audited, and regulated; second, that which does not matter in terms of the intentional agency of any specific strategy as it is not accounted for, audited, or regulated. All matter might potentially be extinguished if not managed, relinquishing its casual powers, including species as well as other forms of life. Importantly, however, organizations’ strategic choices can hasten or hinder processes of extinction and the conditions of being.

Matter matters, mainly because dematerialization is a utopia (see Foster, 2012), but it does not matter with the same immediacy as does a language game in which one’s business is inscribed, irrespective of will, an inscription that enacts an economic calculation of profit and loss that is tightly temporally constrained.As a response to the Anthropocene, Hoffman and Jennings (2018) propose, informed by Perrow (2011), that there is a need for institutional entrepreneurship, social movements, and policy shifts. Theory and practice could be enlightened by more sophisticated ideas of resilience, modularity, and decoupled institutions. Cultural perspectives suffuse proactive social commitments. Managers fostering “stakeholder cultures” can shift the cultural axis from amoral, egoist, or instrumentalist cultures to constituting cultures preferentially concerned with the welfare and rights of planetary subsystems as stakeholders (Jones, Felps, & Bigley, 2007). Due to the nonanthropocentric understanding of agency, such cultures can be highly inclusive. Sophisticated ideas of procedural and distributive justice inform ethical corporate perceptions of fairness and increased contribution to social welfare (Bosse & Phillips, 2016). Ethical human resource management approaches with regard to the treatment of people are also informed by similar ideas (Bergström & Diedrich, 2011Pinnington, Macklin, & Campbell, 2007). Adopted by CEOs and boards of directors as a core aspect of strategic management, these approaches could inform actions concerned with the well-being of nonhuman stakeholders of the nine subsystems.The multidimensional view, accompanied by temporal analysis, opens up new avenues for thinking about stakeholder salience (Bundy, Shropshire, & Buchholtz, 2013) in terms of questions of power and legitimacy (Mitchell, Agle, & Wood, 1997). These questions are deeply cultural: think of the changing treatment of human beings historically. Their instrumental use as slaves is no longer regarded as legitimate nor is the power of bondage any longer a culturally acceptable form of power. Managers always manage in complex circuits of power that are culturally constituted, institutionalized, and legitimated. Increasingly, practitioners’ legitimacy flows from being beholden in an equitable relation with nonhuman actors embedded within those ecological limits that bound action; responsibility is becoming culturally enlarged.Episodically, for responsible management in contemporary times, the precautionary principle needs to be paramount in relation to all stakeholder agencies, in addition to human agents, in various ecological systems.

Dispositionally, in terms of social integration, new sets of rules and meanings in terms of audit accountabilities need to be routinized. Facilitatively, in terms of system integration, the conception of relevant network systems needs expanding from a focus simply on sociotechnic, human and organizational systems to embrace the nine planetary subsystems identified. If multidimensionality is included in the question of agency, we will see that the biosphere as well as social systems, sets normative limits to agency: what can and should be done (see Waddock, 2011). The planetary-level boundaries are examples of the kind of limits that should not be transgressed, of causal powers that should not be triggered, of standing conditions that should not be created.The outlined perspective is likely also to lead to sensitivity toward the needs of nonhuman actors, as all actors will be considered to hold agential capacities in an interconnected web of life. Interestingly, blurring the boundaries between actors in the web can be considered a key means to acknowledging and respecting the relations between actors and their networks, that is, between the parts and the wholes. Furthermore, by cultivating multidimensional understanding, managers will develop broader ethical concerns as they begin to conceive themselves as actors amidst other earthbound beings, rather than as a privileged and dominant form of life. In consequence, organizational decision making that does not privilege egotistical, human-centric approaches will understand human agency as something enmeshed with nonhuman actors, in addition to other fellow humans and organizations.To understand human agency as something enmeshed with nonhuman actors, in addition to other fellow humans and organizations, language games must change; being in the language game and the being in the flat ontology of the Anthropocene require reconciliation.

The reconciliation cannot be one wholly of social construction; if that were the case, climate sceptics would have as much validity as climate scientists, despite the latters’ grounded, modelled, and empirical understanding of materialities’ casual powers. Without a changed understanding of agency, powerful organizations are likely to continue resisting the accountabilities and controls of environmental laws and regulatory conditions that seek to keep them within the PBs.The complexity of the Anthropocene requires more holistic modes of thinking about management (Hoffman & Ehrenfeld, 2014Hoffman & Jennings, 2018Waddock, 2011). Theorizing management to meet the challenges of the new geological epoch requires consideration of aspects of both nature and culture. In addition, materialities such as “partnerships, materials use and supply chains, domains of corporate activity, organizations” as well as the “economic models and the metrics that are used to measure them” (Hoffman & Ehrenfeld, 2014, p. 2), need rethinking. New language games are required because both the materialities and the language games matter. The boundaries of actor networks require collective attention and consequently new language games deploying standards, ideas, tools, and approaches that constitute less destructive collaborations across multilevel networks and assemblages.


In organization theory, for sustainable development to be more than an oxymoron, as Banerjee (2003) argues, organizations of different sizes, forms, and ownership types must share responsibility for restraining action within the boundaries of safe operating spaces. Of course, as Campbell et al. (2019) assert, these boundaries may already be irretrievably breached, in which case pessimism of the intellect must retain hope in the optimism of the will (Gramsci, 1971) in order to learn how organizational forms may operate, while contributing to sustainable change, as we shall suggest. Despite the volume of growing published evidence, the majority of contemporary business organizations and institutions have demonstrated that they are not prepared to take the idea of material boundaries into consideration. Admittedly, the task of connecting causalities on multiple scales is a challenge not limited to the business sector. Institutional legislative and regulatory measures need rethinking (see, e.g., Hoffman & Jennings, 2018): As Giddens (2008) argues, the state has a prime function in tackling climate change, especially in terms of negotiating international treaties and enforcing them, advocating the creation of the “ensuring state” as an enabling state that is “expected or obligated to make sure . . . processes achieve certain defined outcomes—in the case of climate change the bottom line is meeting set targets for emissions reductions” (pp. 8-9). It is important, however, not to fall prey to naivety.

Capitalism is still capitalism and without social democratic limits to its principle of freedom to consume we may well witness the sixth mass extinctions (see Ceballos et al., 2015).The Anthropocene “forms an indeterminate but insidious threshold at which many actions previously normal or insignificant have become, often in all innocence, themselves destructive, simply by virtue of human numbers and power” (Clark, 2015, p. 61). The power of human numbers can be a force for good, however. Human numbers can nudge organizations to better organizational actions but this is unlikely to be achieved without the support of the state regulatory mechanisms. Often, strategic decision makers are not fully aware of the cumulative effects of their everyday praxis and hence many remain unpersuaded of the pressing need for change in management style and organization vision (Tourish & Pinnington, 2002). From the perspective of the Anthropocene, the bottom line to which managers attend needs to encompass at least all nine subsystems in addition to concerns over profit and people.Awareness of the “Anthropocene Society” (Hoffman & Jennings, 2018), often fostered in civil society through the learning that children bring home from school, can make a difference, eroding the pessimism of those intellects arguing against a realignment of causal powers: Sustainable change may then be more evident. Business actors in TNCs have the collective resources, capabilities, and potential power to project knowledge about the Anthropocene through all their endeavors as well as the agency to reduce the rate and extent of ecological damage. Maak and Pless (2009), for instance, have highlighted the new role of “business leaders as citizens of the world” (p. 544). Such citizens assume a disposition focused on the “distant stranger” (Dobson, 2006, p. 182), characterized by “cosmopolitanism” (Delanty, 2006, p. 44).4

In their longitudinal case study research, Wright and Nyberg (2017) note though the failure of corporate environmentalism to galvanize Australian firms into a cosmopolitan, collective reduction of global carbon emissions. They point to the incompatibility of stockholder accountabilities and short-term business pressures with a care for sustainability of the environment in the long-term. Nevertheless, according to Winn and Pogutz (2013), there is recent evidence of an increasing number of corporate initiatives deliberately managing ecosystem functions and monitoring biological diversity and ecosystem services, although practice in this area is well ahead of management research. Related arguments of practice being ahead of theory can be found in some of the research on cross-sectoral partnerships established to implement innovative solutions to deal with the aftermath of events causing environmental crisis (Doh, Tashman, & Benischke, 2019).On the positive side, much of the research work in business management is becoming more responsive to diverse scientific, political, commercial, and community challenges of sustainability and offers many concrete proposals advancing sustainable practice in management and organization. New frameworks are being published to assist corporations and their managers with engaging in deliberative and global governance for responsible innovation (Voegtlin & Scherer, 2017). Business and management theories are now more accustomed than they were 30 years ago to accommodating concepts of social and environmental responsibility.Institutional theory, strategic management, entrepreneurship, system dynamics, network analysis, supply chain management, and social movements are just some of the areas of business and management theory that have examined issues related to the natural environment, although within these disciplines concepts of natural resources remain markedly less prevalent than do other financial, social, and intangible concepts of organizational resources and environments (George, Schillebeeckx, & Liak, 2015).

Within “Anthropocene Society” a prima facie justification arises for scholars of organization, management, and business to enrich their theoretical, conceptual representations of the natural environment. Hoffman and Jennings (2015) remark that the distinctive contribution of much institutional theory is it “emphasizes environmental problems as being not primarily technological or economic in character but behavioral and cultural” (p. 9). In addition to institutional entrepreneurship and social movements, regulative measures on corporate actors and networks are also needed for sustainable change, as proposed by Hoffman and Jennings (2018). Owing to the power of commercial actors, the enactment of these reforms requires multilevel collaboration beyond sectorial boundaries (Bonnedahl & Heikkurinen, 2019). In business and government decision making, it is often the natural environment that loses out to finance and economics in the competition for resources (Nyberg, Wright, & Kirk, 2017); thus, its increased theoretical status and representation in the social sciences, especially those of applied business, is therefore a critical issue for theory and practice.Currently, there is both abundant information as well as management tools that are available for reducing the use of natural resources and climate emissions (e.g., Lenzen et al., 2012), but management thinking and action has not demonstrated the required will to overcome the cultural constraints across their networks of activities. The language games of temporally short term and tight profitability prevail over those of irreducible causal powers vested in materialities. Effective action in response to the challenges of the PBs requires not only highly collaborative and insightful ways of enacting responsible agency (rather than merely publishing attractive reports on corporate sustainability) but also political will and direction, a strong public sector, and an ensuring state (nationally and internationally), although there are no guarantees that knowledge about how to manage a business in the Anthropocene will lead to responsible action.

That actor networks are tightly interconnected affords reason for optimism of the will. Business leaders are astutely aware of the power of their cooperation since “ . . . nearly 4/10 of the control over the economic value of TNCs in the world is held, via a complicated web of ownership relations, by a group of 147 TNCs in the core, which has almost full control over itself” (Vitali et al., 2011, p. 36). They appreciate that often “strength arises [exactly] when an entity manages to assemble as many allies as possible, while weakness emerges when it is isolated or cut off from alliances” (Harman, 2007, p. 33). In close connection with state actors, the elite group of global business organizations has successfully strengthened their agency and power across the scales. While some individual members of this group are taking sustainability action with the support of, for example, multiregional input–output models (Lenzen et al., 2012), these perform inadequately as a network in relation to the Anthropocene. Establishing an effective management response to the Anthropocene requires a collective effort, through which business actors gain momentum by assembling alliances whose agency demands changes in the industry and supports democratic mechanisms to ignite change at large (Heikkurinen & Mäkinen, 2018). While acknowledging the limits of state-oriented solutionism (e.g., Scott, 1998), there must be limits to capital and it seems that only the state could ensure them.


Responsibility necessitates pursuit of future perfect conditions that explicitly demonstrate care directed toward multiple stakeholders, including ecosystems (cf. Heikkurinen and Bonnedahl, 2013). Approaches analogous to actor–network theory, we propose, are supportive of increasing transdisciplinary thought and education, an area that Latour repeatedly emphasizes. Based on ideas of networks and assemblages, actor–network theory offers principles for reflexive thinking and responsible action consonant with multistakeholder partnerships incorporating the needs of ecosystems. Diverse global and local community collaborations constituted on broad and representative participation will have to be instigated and nurtured by powerful elite groups in politics and business. Many of the cross-sectoral partnerships and voluntary initiatives in soft regulation and inclusion have been characterized to-date by immediate rather than elaborated interests.Latour (2014b) asserts, “the ‘anthropos’ of the Anthropocene is not exactly any body, it is made of highly localized networks of some individual bodies whose responsibility is staggering” (p. 6). It is important to ascribe responsibility for the Anthropocene “to whom and where it belongs” (Latour, 2014, p. 7). There are Common But Differentiated Responsibilities in the Anthropocene (cf. Latour, 2009). Despite existing in webs of relations, actors (whether human or not) are never fully defined by their relationships with others (Harman, 20022009Pierides & Woodman, 2012) but embody different kinds and degrees of agency (Heikkurinen, 2018Heikkurinen et al., 2016), with consequently different responsibilities.

Latour’s work on the Anthropocene offers a variety of intellectual and cultural approaches potentially incorporating ecological modes of perception and reasoning.Owing to anthropogenic ecological damage humans have a distinct responsibility in the Anthropocene. Nonhumans, such as organizations with fictive legal personality, might well ignite changes in the biosphere as a result of their agency but it will take human initiative in the first instance. The multidimensional perspective on agency prepares a new role for humans to be more responsible and ecologically sound (Bennett, 2010). To assign responsibility solely to corporate networks is risky, even though their potential power to make a difference is great. Political action (Heikkurinen, Lozanoska, & Tosi, 2018) and activism (Niazi, 2019) as well as grassroots innovations (Seyfang & Smith, 2007) can supply the initiative.Evidently, action by multinationals can be channeled positively or negatively. In terms of the Anthropocene, there are “obligatory passage points” (OPPs; Callon, 1986) that represent strategic devices (rhetorical and material) channeling and framing the “conduct of conduct” (Dean, 2013). Actors seek to maintain, gain, or deny strategic advantage by controlling or contesting the meaning and control of these OPPs. How these OPPs are configured also fixes, for a while, the rules guiding actors’ actions and constraining available possibilities. When successful, OPPs lead to a (temporary and partial) stabilization or fixity of rules, though one that is permanently challengeable as actors continuously deploy their strategies of and for power. The OPPs can be configured while the materialities are more difficult: Their casual powers are ontologically inherent but the standing conditions through which they are triggered are not: These are a matter of social construction. Where and how actions flow is largely dependent on those language games in which they are embedded and framed. Power always entails responsibility, as Lukes (1974) makes clear.In Clegg’s (1989) framework of “circuits of power” depicting three circuits of flows these responsibilities are variously assigned. First, the episodic circuit captures visible exercises of power by actors in particular, day-to-day encounters, seeking to obtain outcomes favoring their definition of interests, for which they are responsible. These exercises depend on the configuration of the network of relations stabilized through the other two circuits.

The circuit of social integration captures prevailing rules of practice shaping actors’ dispositions to behave in certain ways and includes rules of meaning and membership defining taken-for-granted responsibilities: These are encapsulated in specific language games whose rules guide actors in making sense of the world, events, others, and themselves, hence shaping the actors’ knowledge which, in turn, underlies their (re)actions. Considerations about actors’ appropriate action, in the context of identity assumptions and claims, given their (actual or desired) status as members of certain groups, follow. “Material conditions,” based on the application of techniques of production and discipline to materialities, through production machinery, information systems, organizational structures, and business processes, convey power as facilitative, productive, positive, in the circuit of system integration, assigning material, social, and knowledge responsibilities. Together, language games and their techniques of production and discipline positioned as OPPs frame the institutional field in which actors episodically exercise power in specific interactions, as Hoffman and Jennings (2015) acknowledge. In a nutshell, organizations need strategically to first reposition the language games they are involved in because these offer the primary point of inflection in terms of addressing the thresholds of the causal powers inscribed in the PBs. For organization to contribute to sustainable change, it must play its part in these new language games implementing collaborations across assemblages of multilevel social and physical networks supporting human development that are consonant with flourishing ecosystems. Managing in the Anthropocene demands openness to a wider set of resources for reflexive thinking. Ensuring the sustainability of future generations on Earth places greater onus on business leaders because it obliges them to demonstrate higher standards of politicoethical reflection and action than hitherto.One example of repositioning can be seen in Wiesner, Chadee, and Best’s (2017) study of leaders of small- and medium-size companies who have reputation in their industries for environmental sustainability and commit to continuous learning and improvement, influencing others and becoming “ES innovators.” Bennett (2010) notes that “corporate regulation is one place where intentions might initiate a cascade of effects” and wonders whether, perhaps “the ethical responsibility of an individual human now resides in one’s response to the assemblages in which one finds oneself participating” (pp. 37-38). Following this line of argumentation, it is not meaningful to discuss morality as separate from nonhuman objects or the “material” world of technology (Ivakhiv, 2002Latour, 2002).

In circuits of power, the technical and the moral are inseparable because together they constitute the OPPs (see Clegg, 1989).While the blurring of boundaries between human and nonhuman actors must be acknowledged, this must not happen at the expense of losing those relations that make actors different. For example, it is commonly accepted that the reflexive qualities of intelligence expressed in a complex sign system of language and the exosomatic technological systems of humans are something that characterizes humankind. Consequently, only humans are able to project something like a future perfect. Empirical analyses of sustainable entrepreneurship have identified a group of cognitive, emotional, and relational competences, under the rubric of strategic management, that promote diversity, systems thinking, normative, foresight, and interpersonal relations (Ploum, Blok, Lans, & Omta, 2018). These are reflexive qualities for future perfect construction. In short, human actors have the capacity to engage in innovative forms of socioecological agency (Boons, 2013). One need not rely on the voluntarism of individual acts of entrepreneurship, however; for capacities to become practicalities, corporate networks require normative encouragement and this is where, for instance, the proposal for states’ implementing ecotaxation becomes relevant, as a nudge that may be required.The role of the state as an actor is crucial. The powers of the state include the monopoly of the right to taxation. The rate and principles of taxation are a piece of social construction in which various imaginaries can be encoded. As such, taxation changes become exogenous environmental contingencies with which organizations are obliged to deal. At present, some jurisdictions, including the United States and Australia, extend the right to tax profits globally. Taxing the foreign profits of TNCs on a global basis could be extended in a number of ways.First, it could be recognized, as the French government has proposed, that companies lacking physical presence in a country in which they are accruing profits through large numbers of online users or customers should be taxed at the same rate as bricks and mortar businesses. If this proposal were adopted by various national governments then the beginnings of a global tax scheme would be in place. Such a scheme could be extended to include ecological taxation—ecotax—that could be levied as an excess and additional tax on those business actions whose activities anywhere in the world were breaching any of the nine PBs. The state is also the only actor that could establish caps on production either directly or through Pigouvian taxes, which Alcott (2010) sees as necessary to guarantee policy success for sustainable change. The Global Resources Dividend (GRD) proposed by Pogge (2001) might be a base model. Businesses would pay a tax on any services or resources that they use or sell rated proportionately to the harm that they create in extraction or production.

Those business organizations that could establish that they had enacted policies that minimized the harm to the lowest rated harm decile of the tax register would pay a disproportionately lower tax than those businesses that could not so demonstrate that they qualified. Proportionality would vary with the demonstration of performance. Those organizational actors that could demonstrate commitment to circular economy principles would clearly be advantaged. Our line of argument is supportive of Landrum’s (2017) stages model of sustainable development where the aim is to move away from weak sustainability typical of compliance and business-centered corporate approaches toward regenerative and co-evolutionary sustainability, where the emphasis is on absolute reductions of production and consumption activities (Bonnedahl & Heikkurinen, 2019).The onus is on business organizations to demonstrate why they should not be taxed at the highest band. Tax will act as a nudge to the adoption of policies with transformative potential. Implementing some version of such an ecotax would entail not only discussions about practicality but also a normative affirmation of the power of projective reach. Again, the onus is on companies to demonstrate the precautionary principle in practice; those that fail to do so would be subject to highly discriminate taxes. If the majority of organizations were paying their GRD, the tax benefits of doing so would help deter deviance as self-interest drove responsible action. There would be added pressure on each country to enforce the gathering of GRD funds within its borders because of the tax advantages of so doing; the hosting of rogue businesses by noncompliant states could lead to these businesses being singled out for preferential and discriminatory tax treatment in the more developed states that implemented the ecotax principles.


In this article, we have examined how agency should be understood in order to overcome the persistent management challenges in the Anthropocene. We commenced by defining the Anthropocene not only as a geological epoch but also as a metamorphic zone in which boundaries between actors are increasingly blurred. We noted that this sets major challenges to the classic perspectives on agency; consequently, we drew on relational perspectives to meet the needs of the present age where planetary boundaries are being transgressed. Based on the observation that the boundaries between actors are increasingly unclear and that action is not predetermined, we chose to expand conceptions of agency beyond their normal locus of being situated only in humans.A multidimensional understanding of agency that could support executives in managing their business networks through compliance with systematic audit and institutions in relation to ecological limits and hence contribute to sustainable change was proposed. In the horizontal dimension, a key means of respecting nonhumans is to blur the boundaries between earthbound actors. Different forms of life unfold in a complex conjoint genesis with humans. In the vertical dimension, hierarchical relations are of central importance in defining boundaries between networks of actors in ecosystems. An analysis of the state of biodiversity would be impossible to conduct without some idea of boundaries between species as part of certain ecosystems.

Boundary blurring (between actors) and boundary formation (between actors and networks) are complementary processes. Boundaries are not simply here and now; they are also temporal in that where the boundary is drawn today has potentially profound effects on the boundaries of tomorrow—the essence of the case for action against global warming. Establishing boundaries is of crucial importance in highlighting the uniqueness of actors and acknowledging responsibilities. To the extent that the boundary blurring between human and nonhuman actors signifies a retreat from anthropocentrism, the chances of life remaining within planetary boundaries increases. In other words, if the needs of nonhuman stakeholders are taken into account and met, the rate of biodiversity loss may begin to diminish and climate change slowed. Similar desired effects might be expected in terms of the other ecological boundaries.Future studies on the Anthropocene and organizations could complement current ontological, epistemological, and axiological premises with novel positions that do not center on the human but are more inclusive in terms of actors and networks. Theoretical lenses that extend beyond anthropocentrism and empirical analysis of human and nonhuman interaction (not limited to the human point of view) will be required. To ignite sustainable change, studies could identify the powerful actors in society and connect them to their responsibility for our common earthbound future. In practice, the process of rethinking agency leads to greater consideration of the realms of actors and their interlinkages, implying greater attention on the part of those agencies with reflexive capabilities and command of key OPPs in circuits of power, the TNCs (Clegg, Geppert, & Hollinshead, 2018). Human agents, particularly managers in the most powerful TNCs, have distinct responsibility for the Anthropocene as a result of a concentration of circuits of power in their networks. Managers in TNCs can be motivated in terms of enlightened self-interest; for instance, global trajectories of action can be nudged in more ecologically responsible directions through devices such as ecotaxation.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Grant (Agreement No. 707652).


1.Although relatively early in the process one prominent social scientist saw the dependence of this new form of industrial capitalist form of life on the exploitation of nature: Weber (2013) concluded his investigations of the spirit of capitalism with the observation that the Puritan ethos, on which capitalism’s primitive accumulation was founded, “‘wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so.’ For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt” (pp. 182-183).

2.These actor–network relations have been traced across disciplinary fields from politics and discourse theories (Luukkonen, 1997Venturini, 2010) to managing organizational change (Blomme, 2014Ezzamel, 1994Lee & Hassard, 1999), learning (Fox, 2000), routines (Bapuji, Hora, & Saeed, 2012), responsibility (Helin & Babri, 2015), work (Houtbeckers & Taipale, 2017), and the environment (Magnani, 2012Ogden et al., 2013). Critical reviews of the idea of actor–network relations have appeared in the work of McLean and Hassard (2004)Alvesson, Hardy, and Harley (2008)Whittle and Spicer (2008), and Alcadipani and Hassard (2010), among others.

3.That this is the case does not preclude the irreducible difference between a concept and an object. Language games, signifiers, signs, and sensations exist in conjunction with human actors and nonhumans.4.It is noteworthy that these are the very terms in which a recent significant retreat from cosmopolitanism has been conducted: Brexit; see Alcaraz, Sugars, Nicolopoulou, and Tirado (2016) for relevant discussion of “cosmopolitanism or globalization.”


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Author Biographies

Pasi Heikkurinen in a senior lecturer at the University of Helsinki and Visiting Lecturer at the University of Leeds.

Stewart Clegg is a distinguished professor at the University of Technology, Sydney.

Ashly H. Pinnington is a professor at the British University in Dubai.

Katerina Nicolopoulou is a senior lecturer at the University of Strathclyde.

Jose M. Alcaraz is a professor at the Munich Business School.