Freedom In The Anthropocene (George Mason, 10.2.19)
A moderated panel discussion hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society on the interrelation of capital, history, and ecology.
- Ashik Siddique, Democratic Socialists of America
- Ethan Wright, Zero Hour
- Mike Golash, Progressive Labor Party
- Wyatt Verlen, Platypus Affiliated Society
The Dutch atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen has characterized the period marked by the start of the industrial revolution in the 18th Century to the present as a new geological epoch “the Anthropocene”. This periodization is meant to capture a change in the history of the planet, namely that for the first time in Earth’s history its course will be determined by the question of what humanity will become.
While the idea of an era of planetary history driven by humanity was viewed as a great accomplishment by Enlightenment thinkers, it has now come to be associated with the potential demise of all life on Earth. The legacy of the Industrial Revolution has not, after all, led to the opening of human capacities and the flourishing of vibrant ecosystems, but rather the diminishing of both. The onus on humanity to shape the course of history seems only to lead to increasingly unsuccessful attempts to avoid planetary disaster. This event will focus on different interpretations of why the Left has failed to deal with the deepening crisis of the Anthropocene through the 19th and 20th Centuries, and how and if this problem is interrelated with the growing problems associated with ecological systems across the earth.
While Karl Marx would note that the problem of freedom shifted with the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of the working class - the crisis of bourgeois society that Marx would term capital - the idea of freedom seemed not to survive the collapse of Marxist politics in the 20th Century. We seem to live in a world in which the fate of ecological systems seems foreclosed, where attempts at eco-modernization seem to emerge many steps behind the rate of ecological degradation. For many, degradation of the environment appears a permanent feature of modern society, something which can only be resisted or despaired but never transformed.
This panel will consider the relationship between capital and the Left – and thus the issue of history and freedom - and how it may be linked to our present inability to render environmental threats visible and comprehensible, and by extension, subject to their conscious and free overcoming by society.
- Bourgeois society is typically marked as emerging in the 16th century, while the Anthropocene is dated later near the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. Why mark the Anthropocene and the emergence of bourgeois society as distinct periods of natural and human history? What are the stakes? How do you relate these two periods? If you consider these periods to mark a qualitative change in humanity/society/ecology, then what is characteristic of this change?
- A later phase of the Anthropocene is marked by the historically unprecedented economic growth following World War II (what Crutzen called “the Great Acceleration”). Contemporary environmentalism emerged in response to the subsequent destruction in the late 1960s. How do you understand the conditions of possibility of an environmental critique? What, in your view, is the nature of the link between the 1960s origins of environmentalism, the subsequent transformation of state-centric capitalism into neoliberalism, and today’s worldwide ecological crisis in the 21st century? What is the price we pay for neglecting the story of how we got here?
- The late 20th century saw the migration of people originally drawn to Marxism into alternative camps. For example, a figure like Murray Bookchin in the 1960s prefigures the flight from Marxism by people like Joschka Fischer and Daniel Cohn-Bendit (Green Party) in the 1980s. This, by all accounts, stems from their disappointment with the Marxism of the Old Left (1930s-40s) as well as the New Left (1960s-70s). Given this legacy, what, if anything, does Marxism have to contribute to advancing an environmental politics today?
- Early 20th century revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg characterized socialism as “the first popular movement in world history that has set itself the goal of bringing human consciousness, and thereby free will, into play in the social actions of mankind.” Today, by contrast, much of the Left appears to find the very notion of freedom hubristic, preferring to resist the dynamism of contemporary society rather than transform it. Many environmental scholars have reflected recently that environmental radicalism seems less-and-less located in the most advanced sections of capital formation, and more frequently among the displaced who understandably find recourse in resisting. How do you account for this change in focus? Is there a viable future within these movements? What is the meaning of the transition from freedom and transformation to resistance?
- There is a growing discourse of “de-growth”, which, like other aspects of contemporary environmentalism, presupposes concepts such as “limits” and “sustainability”. How do you regard the call for de-growth amid boundless accumulation? Does de-growth provide a promising path towards a reconciliation between ecology and society, or does it fall short of grasping the reasons why contemporary society constantly undermines limits, not only to destructive ends, but also towards generating previously unforeseen possibilities?
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