Australia is an island continent composed of a vast treeless desert edged with a fringe of heavily urbanized temperate bush where the fierce heat of the land is moderated by onshore ocean breezes from the Pacific to the East and the Indian Ocean to the West. Now, areas of this temperate fringe are aflame as hot desert winds fan bush fires amidst a record series of early-summer heat waves. A world audience watches in horror as news reaches them framed in terms of houses destroyed, lives lost, koalas scorched and kookaburras that no longer sing in the oppressive heat. Greta tweets, “Not even catastrophes like these seem to bring any political action. How is this possible?”
But it is indeed possible, probable, and arguably even inevitable because the climate crisis, née global warming, is embedded in a mostly white, liberal, humanist civilization whose peoples, at least since the middle of the fifteenth century, have privileged the appropriation of land, labor and geological resources over an ecological accommodation of the rest of the planet. It is this ideology, rooted in capital accumulation, that now manifests as extreme weather events. Their remediation requires not just political action, but an almost unimaginable civilizational reboot. We refuse to make this leap because making it threatens the accustomed terms of our existence.
Despite conventional green-wisdom, and Greta’s urging, changing our predominant energy source to real-time solar, wind, photovoltaic, and hydro from the harvesting of prehistoric, subterranean stores of fossil biomass does not change the underlying modes of subjugation practiced by the capitalist class hell bent on resource extraction. Alternative energy sources promote an extension of appropriation – the seizure of cobalt and lithium, for instance, in addition to the continued extraction of coal and oil. Having reached the ends of the earth, the territory of depredation is, even now, being technologically extended to the seabed where polymetallic nodules await harvesting deep beneath the world’s oceans to provide copper, manganese, nickel and cobalt –all elements essential to the chimera of new ‘clean’, ‘renewable’ energy. Can we doubt the extractive implications of state-sponsored and commercial space exploration?
The climate action agendas proposed or enacted across the planet, including the Green New Deal, represent opportunities to replace, and potentially to expand energy use – and thus to expand the despoliation of ecosystems, human culture, communities and individual lives. They will do so by continuing to feed the algorithms of acquisition and over-consumption (by some) that Timothy Morton, Jared Diamond and other thinkers source to the beginnings of agriculture.
Kathryn Yusoff, a professor at the University of London, uses the construct of the Anthropocene to frame her critique of colonialism and slavery in service to capital accumulation. In A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, 2019, published on-demand by the University of Minnesota Press, its small pages packed with academic prose, she writes, “The solutions and the proposals are all about the continuance of the current stain of inequality, powered by other means in a future that continues to privilege the privileged. The Anthropocene is the white man’s over-burden.”
She makes the argument that until the global North stops oppressing the global South, in the historic and present binary of a white bourgeoisie subjugating black and brown people in order to extract an economic surplus, there can be no profound healing of the ills that plague the planet. She suggests a response to the climate crisis, more subtly phrased than ‘civilizational reboot’, but with a similar impulse, when she chides her readers “to think about encountering the coming storm in ways that do not facilitate its permanent renewal”. Artfully couched, her words barely conceal the radicalism required by their premise.
A response to a problematic framed by millennia can usefully be built around the armature of the Anthropocene, which demarks the onset of a planetary epoch characterized by human production, rather than the cyclical, deep time, geological impacts that have hitherto served to delineate them. The new construct demands an investigation into its ideological underpinnings. Yusoff establishes a baseline of enquiry by suggesting that, “The Earth is massively geo-engineered, that may be what the word Anthropocene actually means.” She points out that the European program of geologic appropriation, initially and most egregiously exercised in the Americas, was achieved by the enslavement of Africans and indigenous peoples. Slavery, she writes, “…weaponized the redistribution of energy around the globe through the flesh of black bodies”. It is those bodies that, “began the work of the accumulations and which have now coalesced as the Anthropocene as an expression of geotrauma.”
She further argues that the coal mined in Britain during the nineteenth century and used to fuel that country’s industrial revolution, often cited as the proximate cause of anthropogenic global warming, was mined by men inured to their task by the pre-eminent colonial drug crop of sugar, first harvested by slave labor starting in Madeira in the middle of the fifteenth century, and later in the Americas. Tea and tobacco, produced by black and brown field workers in conditions that varied from slavery to serfdom, are similarly implicated in the bio-chemical support of the drudgery endured by Britain’s industrial working class, and thus in the creation of deleterious climate impacts. But she notes that, “While Blackness is the energy and flesh of the Anthropocene, it is excluded from the wealth of its accumulation. Rather Blackness must absorb the excess of that surplus as toxicity, pollution, and the intensification of the storm. Again, and again.”
In the United States, slavery was embraced (until it wasn’t) by white liberal society as the cost of doing business. In the event, Jim Crow ensured a continuation of the subjugation of black bodies, their humanity nullified, based not on the overt cruelties of slavery but on the implicit degradations of racism. Today, we live with that legacy, which runs deep in the minds and bodies of Americans. We live in a materiality that is often wrought by black and brown bodies, their work shadowed in the mined mineralogy of our land and oceans, the production of our farmlands, and the infrastructures of our industries and transportation systems. Prison labor and inmate fire-fighters are but the most visible evidence of an exclusionary humanism that, as Yusoff suggests, “Renders Blackness always belated in time and therefore never fully now and human”.
The precise calendrics of the golden spike, the marker that delineates the beginning of the Anthropocene as a geological epoch, remain highly contested. The invention of the steam engine in the late eighteenth century, the onset of the British Industrial Revolution in Britain, and the Atomic Age, located in the mid-twentieth century, have all attracted support. Yusoff emphatically states that, “The Anthropocene is a project initiated and executed through anti-Blackness and inhuman subjective modes, from 1492 to the present.” Columbus worked to bring African slaves to the Portuguese sugar plantations on Madeira before voyaging to the Americas and initiating the enslavement of its indigenous peoples. He thus arrived in the New World well practiced in the colonial arts of appropriation and subjugation.
The 1619 Project published in The New York Times, August 18, 2019, attempts to establish the arrival of more than twenty enslaved Africans, subsequently sold to the Virginia colonists – four hundred years ago – as the true foundation of this country. Nicole Hannah-Jones, who inspired the project, declares, “America was not yet America, but this was the moment it began.”
Whether the choice is 1492 or 1619, the territory we now call the United States is deeply implicated in the entwined histories of slavery and the Anthropocene. Yusoff demonstrates that the geological construct is as much the product of a billion nameless black and brown bodies subjugated by white Europeans as it is of the time-stamped deployment of innovative technologies. Slavery in America can be seen as a strange, bio-mechanical conflation of the two: historian Edward Baptist makes the point that it was the ‘whipping machine’, methodically operated by white overseers, that drove the productivity of the plantations in the southern states. While the natality of both the Anthropocene and ‘the idea of America’ remain contested, it is now abundantly clear that the colonial project that began in the Americas in 1492 substantiated a modernity based on the appropriation of land, labor, and geological resources in service to capital accumulation. It made a world that must now end, if, as Yusoff writes, “another relation to the earth can begin”.
As Australia burns, and Greta fulminates, it is the dark histories of race, subjugation and violent appropriation that must be reconciled before we can begin the work of repairing the planet. David Hammons, the New York and Los Angeles artist, notes in an interview with Calvin Tompkins, published in the December 9, 2019, New Yorker, that, “Trump is the truth about America, because America has been like this forever. White people haven’t seen it, but we have.”
Nicole Hannah-Jones and Kathryn Yusoff may differ on the precise meaning of Hammons’ ‘forever’, but along with the artist, they are all agreed that America is held hostage by its underlying racism. A resolution of the exclusionary practices of white liberal humanism is fundamental to the solving of America’s and the World’s climate crisis – unless we adopt Hammons’ nihilistic fatalism expressed in his subsequent remark that,
“You know, the reason we never see aliens is that everyone in the galaxy knows that this planet is a bad planet. They all know to stay away.”
We do not have that choice.