Plastic waste has spread all over the world, by 2050 there could be more plastic than fish in the sea. (Picture: Rey Perezoso)

The demand for profit at the heart of capitalism means profound and destructive effects on the environment. Now a group of scientists argue that the current geological epoch should be named the Anthropocene as human activity alters the state of the planet.

In recent years the world has seen a rise in the number of deadly cyclones and hurricanes. There have been devastating forest fires from the US to Greece and Australia and floods in Pakistan, Nigeria, Malaysia and elsewhere. 

Last year was probably the hottest year on record in Britain. This year the ­temperature could soar even higher. 

Under capitalism, agriculture has been developed in ways that expose us to more harmful pathogens, ­threatening health and lives. Covid most likely made the jump from bats to humans as agriculture expanded into previously forested areas. Intensive farming of animals has meant repeated outbreaks of highly infectious viruses such as bird flu. 

An influential group of scientists now argues that the current geological epoch should be called the AnthropoceneThis means they recognise that human activity is altering the state of the planet in many fundamental and interconnected ways. 

Many of these changes can be traced to the middle of the 20th century. At this time there was a “great acceleration” in human population, carbon emissions, deforestation and many other trends. 

Evidence of this is visible in the geological record. So millions of years from now the layers of sedimentary rock that have been created would show when the Anthropocene began.  

For example, a hundred years ago it would have been very rare to find pure aluminium in the soil. It is usually found in the form of compounds or ores such as bauxite. Now there are deposits of aluminium spread throughout the planet as a result of humans mining these ores, extracting the metal and dumping it as waste. 

Similarly, plastic waste has been found all over the world, even in the depths of ocean trenches. Plastic is a relatively recent invention, so it is remarkable how quickly it has spread. The term Anthropocene has become increasingly widely adopted. But it is not officially recognised. 

The current epoch is still called the Holocene. This started around 11,700 years ago at the end of the last ice age. 

In 2019, the Anthropocene Working Group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy decided that the Anthropocene is an appropriate term for the times we live in. They say it began in the middle of the 20th century.

This year the same group of scientists is meeting to place a golden spike where there is clear evidence of a shift from Holocene to Anthropocene. The location chosen could be the layers of sediment at the bottom of a lake in China or the marine sediment in the Baltic Sea. 

As these layers form, they trap residue such as radioactive particles, fly ash from the ­burning of coal and oil, and particles from fertiliser use. Of more importance than the exact location of the golden spike is what it tells us about the nature of human influence. 

It can be sobering to think that there is no part of the world untouched by human activity. But there is nothing unnatural about humans changing the world around us. 

Humans first formed settled societies and practiced agriculture about 11,000 years ago, around the start of the Holocene epoch. The spread of agriculture led to the domestication of animal species. 

As humans changed their environment, this in turn drove changes in society. The development of agriculture meant that people could settle in one place and produce a surplus of food rather than living as hunter-gatherers. 

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels argued that this meant the development of societies divided by class as some people gathered more of the surplus as well as changing societal roles for men and women. The middle of the 20th century, the proposed start of the Anthropocene, saw the end of the Second World War and the growing dominance of the US in the global economy. The US subsidised its own farmers to grow crops in vast monocultures and exported some of the produce and agricultural technology. 

Intensive industrial farming methods were introduced in countries such as India and Mexico in what was called the Green Revolution. Countries that had been colonised by Europe in Asia, the Caribbean and nearly all of Africa gained independence as people overthrew their colonisers. 

Many of these newly independent states followed a model of highly industrialised development facilitated by funding and support from the US or the Soviet Union. 

From the 1980s, neoliberal policies ripped through the fabric of societies. One of the outcomes of these policies in terms of the environment was that countries in the Global South were encouraged to produce crops for export. This lead to land degradation and food insecurity. 

In the 21st century, more than half of the world’s ­population live in cities. Because we live in a global, highly connected society, viral diseases such as Covid are able to rapidly spread. 

But the benefits of increased opportunities to travel are not shared equally. In 2018 only about 4 percent of people took an international flight. 

The point is that humans have always shaped the natural world. At times in ­history there have been revolutionary changes in people’s lives that have gone alongside equally dramatic changes in the environment. 

Environmentalists rightly view the extraction of natural resources, mass species extinction and the pollution associated with capitalism with horror. For some, the conclusion is that we should try to scale back human influence. For example, biologist EO Wilson is associated with the idea that half of Earth’s surface should be kept free of humans to preserve it for nature. 

But Marx took a very different view of human nature. In his book Capital he argued that changing the planet is an essential part of what humans do. 

Humans are not just ­dependent on nature but have a metabolic relationship with nature that means we ­transform it to survive. It’s impossible to disconnect humans from nature. 

Wilson’s plans would mean corralling people into smaller areas of the planet’s surface including removing indigenous people from land that they have managed in a sustainable way for centuries. It is unclear how this could take place without using force. 

It would not be possible or desirable to stop humans from changing the planet. What ­matters is what kind of changes are brought about, in whose interests and at whose expense. 

For example, fossil fuels could be replaced by renewable sources of energy. The problem is that the need for a small group of companies to make a profit is currently driving fossil fuel expansion. 

The middle of the 20th century is very recent in terms of geological timescales. This highlights how ­rapidly climate change is ­happening and how short a window of time there is to reduce emissions. 

The Anthropocene designation also makes clear that the effects humans are having on the planet are numerous and that they are interconnected. Although climate change is the most volatile symptom of a changing planet, it is not the only way that humans are ­altering Earth’s systems. 

Climate scientist Mark Maslin points out that ­calling the current epoch the Anthropocene encourages us to take a holistic approach to issues such as climate change, pollution and the biodiversity crisis. It doesn’t treat them as separate. 

Socialists can go further than that and point to the root cause of all these interlinked crises, a capitalist system that puts its hunger for profit before the needs of people and other species. Recognising that we live in a world shaped by humans could be a wake-up call to us that if we want a safer planet we also need a different kind of society.

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