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Facing the Anthropocene: An Update

Facing the Anthropocene: An Update

Recent scientific work strengthens and extends the arguments in Ian Angus’s pathbreaking book on fossil capitalism and the crisis of the Earth System

I’ve been pleased and deeply honored by the international response to my book Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and  the Crisis of the Earth System (Monthly Review Press, 2016). Now in its fourth printing in the US, it has also been published in India by Aakar Books, in French by Éditions Écosociété, in Italian by Asterios Editore, and in German by Unrast Verlag.

I wrote this Update for the German edition, which was published in August. An article adapted from it appears in the November issue of Monthly Review.

Canada, April 2020

I wrote this book to help bridge the gap between Earth System science and ecosocialism — to show socialists why they must understand the Anthropocene, and to show Earth System scientists why they must understand ecological Marxism. I am honored that Unrast Verlag is making it available in German, and I hope it will expand dialogue at the intersections of science and socialism.

When Facing the Anthropocene was published in 2016, it reflected, to the best of my ability, the state of scientific knowledge and debate at the time. But the world does not stand still, so it may be helpful to outline some important recent developments in Anthropocene science in the two main fields involved: geology, which has mainly been concerned with formally defining the new epoch; and Earth System science, which studies the global biological, chemical and physical changes that are reshaping the conditions of life on this planet.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Triple Crisis in the Anthropocene Ocean.

Triple Crisis in the Anthropocene Ocean.

Part Three: The Heat of 3.6 Billion Atom Bombs

Continuing Ian Angus’s examination of the ‘deadly trio’ of CO2-driven assaults on ocean life. Part three: ocean warming and permanent heatwaves

“Triple Crisis” has been published in three parts

“The world’s oceans (especially the upper 2000 m) in 2019 were the warmest in recorded human history…. The past five years are the top five warmest years in the ocean historically with modern instruments, and the past ten years are also the top ten years on record.”[1]

Until the 1970s, the constant flow of energy that Earth receives from the sun was offset by heat reflected back into space, so the planet’s overall energy level did not change very much over time. The amount of incoming solar energy has not changed, but rising concentrations of greenhouse gases are trapping ever more of the reflected heat, preventing it from leaving the atmosphere. Climate scientists call this Earth’s Energy Imbalance.

The excess energy is not distributed evenly through the Earth System. Although global warming is usually expressed as increased air temperatures, the ocean is actually much better at storing heat than the atmosphere — one degree of ocean warming stores over 1000 times as much heat energy as one degree of atmosphere warming — so it isn’t surprising that the ocean has taken up most of the excess solar energy. Just seven percent warms the air and land and melts snow and ice — 93 percent is absorbed by the ocean.[2]

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Dead Zones: Industrial Agriculture versus Ocean Life

Dead Zones: Industrial Agriculture versus Ocean Life

Worldwide, there are now over a thousand coastal areas where fish can’t breathe. The nitrogen that makes crops grow is also destroying offshore ecosystems.

“Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first.” —Frederick Engels 

Talk about bad timing. This year’s Shelfwide Hypoxia Cruise, the annual scientific expedition that measures oxygen-depleted waters off the Louisiana coast, started on July 25, just after Hurricane Hanna raged through the area. High winds and waves continued through the cruise, thoroughly mixing the water column: high-oxygen surface waters were forced deep, and low-oxygen bottom waters were pushed off the continental shelf.

As a result, the official area of year’s dead zone is 5,048 square kilometers, the third-smallest since surveys began in 1985. Future charts and graphs will require a footnote, explaining that weather conditions produced a misleading result.

Northern Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone after Hurricane Hanna, July 2020.[1]

If the survey had been done a week earlier, or a couple of weeks later, the low-oxygen area would likely have been three or four times as large, because the conditions that deplete oxygen on the continental shelf haven’t changed.

#  #  #

In the summer of 1972, an environmental assessment study for a proposed oil facility off the coast of Louisiana found something unexpected — an area below the surface, where the water contained little or no oxygen. In waters that had long supported a large and profitable fishing industry, there were areas where fish couldn’t breathe.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Nitrogen glut: Too much of a good thing is deadly for the biosphere

Nitrogen glut: Too much of a good thing is deadly for the biosphere

Abbreviations in this article
 UN Convention on Biological Diversity.
CO2 carbon dioxide.
N nitrogen.
N2 dinitrogen (inert nitrogen gas). N2O nitrous oxide.
NH3 ammonia.
NO, NO2, NOx nitrous oxides.
NO3 nitrate.
Nr reactive nitrogen.
O3 ozone.
P phosphorous.
PM particulate matter

Part Two of Ian Angus’s examination of the disruption of the global nitrogen cycle by an economic system that values profits more than life itself.

Part One: Nitrogen Crisis: A neglected threat to Earth’s life support systems

Part One of this article outlined how the metabolic activity of specialized bacteria in soil and oceans drives the nitrogen cycle, by “fixing” inert nitrogen from the air into reactive nitrogen, converting it to forms that plants can use, and eventually returning it to the atmosphere.

As scientists from Germany’s Max Planck Institute explain, the “microbial nitrogen-cycling network” maintained a consistent level of reactive nitrogen in the global biosphere for billions of years.

“There is an astonishing diversity of microorganisms that transform nitrogen, and each of these microorganisms has discrete physiological requirements for optimal growth. As growth conditions in nature are highly variable and seldom optimal, nitrogen turnover by individual microorganisms is bound to be inefficient. However, nitrogen transformations in the environment are carried out by microbial communities that recycle nitrogen more efficiently than single microorganisms. Consequently, very little bioavailable nitrogen escapes to the atmosphere, and the small amount lost as dinitrogen gas is balanced by nitrogen fixation.”[1]

That vital cycle was disrupted in 19th Century Europe, when cities grew so large that the nitrogen and other nutrients consumed in food by the urban population could not return to the land, causing pollution in the cities and reducing soil fertility in the countryside.[2] 

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Nitrogen Crisis: A neglected threat to Earth’s life support systems

Nitrogen Crisis: A neglected threat to Earth’s life support systems

Planetary Boundaries. Nitrogen and biodiversity are farther out of safe limits than any others (Rockstrom et. al, Nature, 2009)

Part One of a discussion of the disruption of the global nitrogen cycle by an economic system that values profits more than life itself.

Continuing our series on metabolic rifts

Nearly half a century ago, in Scientific American, ecologist C.C. Delwiche warned: “Of all man’s recent interventions in the cycles of nature the industrial fixation of nitrogen far exceeds all the others in magnitude.”[1]

Although that is much more true today, nitrogen pollution is one of the least discussed environmental problems.

If you ask green activists to identify their major concerns, climate change and species extinctions will likely be named first, followed by air pollution, deforestation and maybe population growth. If nitrogen is mentioned, it will be way down the list. Although there are many scientific and technical studies on the nitrogen crisis, few popular books on environmental issues have anything substantial to say about it. Organic farmers are concerned about nitrogen in synthetic fertilizers, but there are no anti-nitrogen demonstrations, no international nitrogen reduction treaties, no politicians defending or denying the science.

As the 2013 report Our Nutrient World says,

“While recent scientific and social debate about the environment has focused especially on CO2 in relation to climate change, we see that this is just one aspect of a much wider and even more complex set of changes occurring to the world’s biogeochemical cycles. In particular, it becomes increasingly clear that alteration of the world’s nitrogen and phosphorus cycles represents a major emerging challenge that has received too little attention.”[2]

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Climate change in the Anthropocene: An unstoppable drive to Hothouse Earth?

Climate change in the Anthropocene: An unstoppable drive to Hothouse Earth?

Can the global climate be stabilized before runaway change creates conditions that are too hot for human civilization and deadly for most species?

Leading Earth System scientists warn: “The Earth System may be approaching a planetary threshold that could lock in a continuing rapid pathway toward much hotter conditions. … Incremental linear changes to the present socioeconomic system are not enough to stabilize the Earth System.”

‘Trajectories of the Earth System
in the Anthropocene’

by Will Steffen et al.[1]
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, August 6, 2018

reviewed by Ian Angus

Scientific papers don’t often make front page news, but this one certainly did.

On August 6, the UK Guardian declared that a “Domino-effect of climate events could move Earth into a ‘hothouse’ state.” The New York Times warned of a “World at risk of heading towards irreversible ‘hothouse’ state.” Sky News said that “Earth is 1°C away from hothouse state that threatens the future of humanity.”

The basis for those excited headlines was an article with the distinctly unexciting title “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Normally, PNAS articles can only be read by those who pay high subscription fees, but interest in this one ran so high that after one day the publisher removed the paywall, making it accessible to all.

For once — rarely for a climate change story — the mainstream media was right to focus attention on this paper. The authors, a virtual who’s who of the world’s most respected experts on the Anthropocene and Earth System Science, make a major contribution to our understanding of the planetary emergency. They extend the discussion of global warming beyond the usual narrow focus on greenhouse emissions, incorporating the complex cycles and feedbacks that shape the entire Earth System.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The Keeling Curve at 60: A portrait of climate crisis

The Keeling Curve at 60: A portrait of climate crisis

If you’ve ever wondered what a scientific representation of metabolic rift might look like, check out this graph.

We are approaching the sixtieth birthday of the Keeling Curve.

It is such a stunning example of important and clearly presented science that it has been designated as a National Historic Chemical Landmark. Its creator received the highest US award for lifetime achievement in science, the National Medal of Science, “for his pioneering and fundamental research on atmospheric and oceanic carbon dioxide, the basis for understanding global carbon cycle and global warming.”

In July 1958, Dr. Charles Keeling of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography began measuring the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the Earth’s atmosphere. Using measuring equipment and techniques he developed, he collected air samples daily from an observatory 3,000 meters above sea level, on the remote north side of the Mauna Loa volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island.

He continued doing this until his death in 2005, and his son Ralph, also a climate scientist at Scripps, has continued it since. The result is the world’s longest continuous record of atmospheric carbon dioxide. A recent release is shown above.

In his very first annual report, Keeling noted that the level at the end of the first year was higher than it had been 12 months earlier. That proved to be a permanent trend. The amount of CO2 in the air we breathe has risen from 313 parts per million to 421 — a 33% increase. Keeling’s work disproved the once common view that oceans and other sinks would prevent CO2 from fossil fuels from accumulating in the atmosphere.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The progress of this storm: Nature and society in a warming world

The progress of this storm: Nature and society in a warming world

Andreas Malm’s powerful critique of current environmental philosophies puts historical materialism and cutting-edge science at the center of a call for militant action

Andreas Malm
Nature and society in a warming world

Verso Books, 2018

reviewed by Ian Angus

Anyone who reads contemporary green literature has seen books with titles like The End of Nature, and statements such as these:

  • “There is no such thing as nature.”[1]
  • “Nature is nothing if it is not social.”[2]
  • “Many of us no longer believe in a Nature that is independent of the Anthropos.”[3]
  • “There is nothing in our environment that we have not, in some sense or other, had a hand in producing.”[4]
  • “In every respect the world we inhabit will henceforth be the world we have made.”[5]
  • “The contrast between what is nature and what is not no longer makes any sense.”[6]

In contrast to environmentalists who want to protect nature, in some circles it has become common, even fashionable, to assert that nature no longer exists, that humans have taken over and it is impossible to distinguish between what is natural and what is social. The proponents of such views aren’t just saying that humans are part of the natural world; rather they claim that nature and society literally cannot be separated, in theory or in practice. “For better or worse,” writes Bruno Latour, “we have entered into a postnatural world.”[7]

Proponents of this viewpoint fall into three camps. Ecomodernists see the end of nature as cause for celebration. We should expand and deepen the process, to free humanity from dependence on nature and use whatever of it remains for our benefit. Others mourn the loss of nature but see no way out.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Major study shows species loss destroys essential ecosystems

Major study shows species loss destroys essential ecosystems

Long term research by German ecologists proves that loss of biodiversity has “direct, unpleasant consequences for mankind.”

Two days ago, C&C published a reply to a biology professor who shrugged off species extinction as unimportant because evolution will replace the lost organisms. This report, adapted from a Technical University of Munich news release, thoroughly confirms our view that he was dead wrong.

Due to its breadth, the Jena experiment proves for the first time that a loss of biodiversity has negative consequences for many individual components and processes in ecosystems.

How serious is the loss of species globally? Are material cycles in an ecosystem with few species changed? In order to find this out, the “Jena Experiment” was established in 2002, one of the largest biodiversity experiments worldwide. Professor Wolfgang Weisser from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) reports on two unexpected findings of the long-term study: Biodiversity influences almost half the processes in the ecosystem, and intensive grassland management does not result in higher yields than high biodiversity.

An ecosystem provides humans with natural “services”, such as the fertility of the soil, the quality of the groundwater, the production of food, and pollination by insects, which is essential for many fruits. Hence, intact ecosystems are crucial for the survival of all living things. What functional significance therefore does the extinction of species have? Can the global loss of species ultimately lead to the poorer “functioning” of ecosystems? Professor Weisser from the Chair for Terrestrial Ecology at the TUM has summarized the findings of the long-term “Jena Experiment” in a 70-page article in the journal Basic and Applied Ecology.

“One unique aspect of the Jena Experiment is the fact that we performed our experiments and analyses over 15 years”, explains Prof. Weisser. “Because the influence of biodiversity is only visible after a delay, we were only able to observe certain effects from 2006 or 2007 onwards — i.e. four or five years after the beginning of the project.”

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Anthropocene climate, part two: Four degrees of devastation

Anthropocene climate, part two: Four degrees of devastation

If greenhouse gas emissions aren’t stopped soon, unprecedented and deadly heat waves will become the new normal in most of the world

Part one of this article discussed James Hansen’s demonstration that a relatively small increase in global average temperature – under 1°C – has already produced a significant increase in the frequency and intensity of extremely hot weather. Heat waves that were very rare in 1951-1980 became ten times more likely in 1981-2010. As one of Hansen’s associates pointed out, this was not speculation about a possible future, but actual experience: “this is not based on models or predictions, just on a straightforward statistical analysis of measured temperature data.”[1]

Other studies, using other methods, have come to the same conclusion.

A 2012 paper examined the “exceptionally large number of record-breaking and destructive heatwaves” in the first decade of this century. The authors found that, “many lines of evidence – statistical analysis of observed data, climate modelling and physical reasoning – strongly indicate that some types of extreme event, most notably heatwaves and precipitation extremes, will greatly increase in a warming climate and have already done so…. The evidence is strong that anthropogenic, unprecedented heat and rainfall extremes are here – and are causing intense human suffering.”[2]

A study of extreme weather events between 1997 and 2012 concluded that “the available evidence suggests that the most ‘extreme’ extremes show the greatest change. This is particularly relevant for climate change impacts, as changes in the warmest temperature extremes over land are of the most relevance to human health, agriculture, ecosystems and infrastructure.”[3]

Others have found that global warming made the 2012-2014 California drought significantly worse than it would have otherwise been, and that in Australia, where hot and cold records used to be set in about equal numbers, all-time hot weather records now outnumber cold records by 12 to 1.[4]


…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Anthropocene climate: The new (deadly) normal

Anthropocene climate: The new (deadly) normal

One Degree globeA temperature increase of less than one degree has already disrupted the global climate system, and this is only the beginning. Will the Anthropocene bring a totally new climate regime?

Part One:

Climate negotiators have adopted 2°C as the maximum increase in the global average temperature. that can be permitted if dangerous consequences are to be avoided. Many scientists, and the governments of many small countries, argue that 2° is too high – that the limit should be 1.5°. But according to climate experts, if current trends continue, the average temperature by the end of this century will definitely be 3.5° degrees above pre-industrial levels, and there is a strong possibility that the increase will be more than 4 degrees.[1]

That doesn’t sound like much. When I woke on a recent August morning, the temperature outside was 19°, and by noon, it was 25°. That’s a six degree jump in five hours or so, a pretty common experience in summer in the part of the Northern Hemisphere where I live. So why would we worry about an increase of 2 or even 4 degrees by 2100? Mention that at a party in my neighborhood, and someone is sure to say that they’d be very happy if our Canadian winters were 4 degrees warmer!

It may be counter-intuitive, but 4 degrees averaged over the entire world is actually a big jump. During the last ice age, when kilometers of ice covered areas as far south as present-day Chicago, the average global temperature was only 5 degrees cooler than today.

It’s important to remember that average global temperatures conceal substantial variations in time and place. The atmosphere is consistently cooler over oceans, so to get a global average increase of 4 degrees, continental temperatures would have to would have go up by considerably more. And it’s been estimated that a 4 degree average increase would mean a 16 degree increase in the Arctic.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…




Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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