This is an important book, an informative and interesting book, and anyone thinking about where we go from here should read it.
The Anthropocene, the new geological era created by human activity, is starting to enter popular thinking. But how we understand it and its causes is a crucial issue for what to do with it, and that’s what Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz address in The Shock of the Anthropocene (translated by David Fernbach).
The authors are rightly scathing about the frequent lack of critical thinking around the concept. Far too often this is presented as some kind of inevitability, a genetic destiny for our species, and a situation in which all individuals are equally complicit.
They demonstrate how it was the elites, certain states, certain classes and business interests that drove decisions made over centuries that got us where we are today, often against passionate, powerful resistance.
And that these choices often made no sense at all not just environmentally but also in terms of human wellbeing and even economic interest.
So there’s the case of English mill owners, who could more cheaply and practically rely on water power, but chose the new coal-fired steam engines, because it didn’t require them to cooperate and coordinate with each other, something that their ideology discouraged.
Extreme inefficiency and illogicality
And the domination of electricity in the America suburbs, enforced by the monopoly power of General Electric, which helped kill off the established solar electricity generation industry of the early 20th century.
This isn’t just history – it feeds into the debates of today. Knowing that the choice to run down public transport in the interests of the individual motor car actually raised transport costs and journey times is a useful fact.
The authors make the powerful point that in a real democracy, it’s unlikely that the roads would have been given over to the domination of cars – something some cities are just starting to repair.
Bonneuil and Fressoz recount many excellent examples of the extreme inefficiency and illogicality of the choices made: maize production used to produce 10 calories of food for each calorie input - but now, in the age of industrial farming, we’re down to three for one.
And they highlight how these were not the choices of ignorance. Even in the 1770s in Normandy, fishermen understood the importance of wrack (seaweed) as spawning beds for their catch, demonstrating that complex understanding in a letter to the Academy of Sciences to protest the weed beds’ destruction for industrial production of glass.
A truly global perspective
Some of the examples you’ll likely have encountered before, such as the automobile interests in the US doing for the street cars. But many of them you won’t: one advantage of getting out of the Anglophile world is visiting new stories and new angles.
And this is a truly global perspective, setting out evidence for the way in which “the driving phenomenon of the Great Acceleration embarked on from 1945-73 was the tremendous ecological indebtedness of the Western industrial countries”.
Lots of the “facts” you learned at school will be challenged. The Shock is particularly good on explaining how the Industrial Revolution was built on innovations in traditional, non-fossil fuel technologies such as animal breeding - American draught horses getting 50 percent more powerful in three decades to the 1890s.
This is an important book, an informative and interesting book, and anyone thinking about where we go from here should read it. It wears its erudition and intellectual depth relatively lightly – unlike some texts I’ve read translated from the French. This isn’t quite a popular book, but it is accessible to anyone with an interest in the future of our planet and the human race.
And crucially, it is an optimistic book. In an age when many are wrestling with despair, its conclusion is uplifting: “To strive for decent lives in the Anthropocene … means freeing ourselves from repressive institutions, from alienating dominations and imaginaries. It can be an extraordinary emancipatory experience.” Or in the terms I use, we can stop trashing the planet and create a decent life for all at the same time.