The author describes this collection of articles as “debates, polemics and arguments because although environmentalists, scientists, and socialists share concerns about the devastation of our planet, we frequently differ on explanations and solutions”. The argument Angus repeatedly returns to is a defence of the Marxist method as he understands that, “If our political analysis doesn’t have a firm basis in the natural sciences, our efforts to change the world will be in vain.”
The section Natural Science and the Making of Scientific Socialism shows Karl Marx and Frederick Engels investigating the 19th century’s newest scientific research. This includes chemistry and evolution to understand the world and the place of human beings in it. Discussions with Engels’s great friend renowned chemist and fellow communist Carl Schorlemmer show, Angus says, that they would, “have had no patience with attempts to build political or philosophical walls between the social and natural sciences”.
The next section, Responding to the Anthropocene, opens with an interview Angus gave as his earlier book Facing the Anthropocene was about to be published last year. That book achieved the apparently almost impossible — making complicated earth science clear and memorable to an audience without any particular science education. It explained the history of the Anthropocene Working Group, the implications of various dates suggested for when human activity began to outweigh “natural forces”.
In August last year the Anthropocene Working Group reported that its members had overwhelmingly voted 1950 as the date for the start of the Anthropocene. This is when the changes society was making to the environment became visible in the geological record.
The evidence for a new geological period driven by human activity is so overwhelming that serious defenders of capitalism hardly want to be associated with climate change denial. So they try to shift the ground of the argument. Here Angus describes pro-nuclear and fossil fuel think-tank the Breakthrough Institute (BTI) arguing that the world can have “a good Anthropocene”. This will be achieved with nuclear power stations and fracking if people can get past the idea that the metabolic rift between humans and nature is a problem. So we must be clear about the science behind the Anthropocene precisely because organisations such as BTI misrepresent science.
But this isn’t the only issue. There are people on the left who genuinely want to change the world but take a sectarian approach to the fight against the situation that the term Anthropocene describes. This article focuses on Jason W Moore’s books Capitalism in the Web of Life and Anthropocene or Capitalocene.
Angus takes up the arguments of Moore and others and shows they aren’t based in the scientific reality of the environmental crisis or a clear Marxist understanding.
In the section Numbers are Not Enough Angus returns to the territory of a previous book he wrote with Simon Butler, Too Many People? He argues that populationism — the idea that the world is threatened by the north consuming too much and the south breeding too much — manages to avoid the real issues of environmental degradation and poverty.
Angus quotes Stephen J Gould’s point that “numbers suggest, constrain and refute; they do not, by themselves, specify the content of scientific theories”. In other words, the problem or benefits of a particular number of people can bear different interpretations which change with the outlook or prejudices of the interpreter. The question for socialists, Angus says, is not just about being well informed; it is about applying a method. Some of the technically best informed experts continue to propose solutions that have already failed, or will fail because they are unable to imagine beyond the limits of the needs of capitalism. They apply the same behaviour and expect a different outcome.
This leads us to the section on farming and the oceans where Angus discusses the limitations of solutions to biodiversity and species extinction. He describes a “doomed strategy” where people are seen as the problem and must be excluded from wilderness areas. But then explains how mixed farms can be sustainable and rich in biodiversity. The section on the oceans shows how we got to the plastic crisis and what can be done about it.
Angus argues that the term eco-socialism is more useful than socialism. I would argue that calling it just socialism for simplicity, and to avoid having to tag on other prefixes, is just as useful. The important point is to explain socialism and make clear that it has nothing to do with the ecological crimes of the Stalinist Soviet Union.
This is an extraordinarily useful book, detailed but accessible, sober but not pessimistic. It encourages us to read and think more widely about science because climate change cannot be reversed and we will have to fight for a socially just and sustainable world. As Ian Angus says, “The way we build socialism and the kind of socialism that can be built, will be profoundly shaped by the state of the planet we must build it on.”
It is not enough to be activists. We must engage with Marx’s own method of exploring the world in order to change it.
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