Genocidal Colonialism or Racial Capitalism (or Both): Can Collective Understanding of the Anthropocene Help Avert Life Extinction?

8 min readMar 27, 2024

What we’re reading at r3.0 (11)

By Bill Baue

You may have seen the recent news that the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy (SQS) of the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) rejected the proposal to create an Anthropocene epoch (though the controversial decision is under appeal).

But what does this matter — isn’t the categorization of the Anthropocene as an epoch just a fairly obscure academic exercise, devoid of any practical implications?

Quite the opposite: how humanity understands the Anthropocene carries existential import. In a 2019 Keynote at the New Metrics Conference, I framed the Anthropocene as a double-edged sword: on the one hand, humanity came to realize its collective geologic-scale force through accumulation of adverse impacts; on the other hand, if humanity can have negative geologic-scale impact, it stands to reason that it can also exert positive, beneficial impact at scale, if we only so choose. It’s the “greatest opportunity in human history” I proclaimed!

Here’s how geographer Arun Saldanha framed it, only somewhat more soberly, in a 2019 peer-reviewed paper entitled A date with destiny: Racial capitalism and the beginnings of the Anthropocene:

“Defining the Anthropocene intrinsically carries with it a laying of culpability for the past and a responsibility for the future, while the research on how geological agency is distributed across time and across species cannot but involve the deepest of moral conundrums. Since the processes gathered under the Anthropocene umbrella are almost all self-reinforcing and nefarious for ecosystems, hence possibly jeopardizing the viability of our species itself, the question is properly existential: who or what is to take care of humanity’s survival?”

To illustrate the implications of this question of past culpability and future responsibility, consider the proposal on the table before the ICS SQS: whether to qualify the advent of the nuclear age as the starting point of the Anthropocene. What’s arguably much more interesting, as I explained in a recent LinkedIn post, is the proposal NOT under consideration.

Rewind to 2015, when the scientific journal Nature published a study by Simon Lewis & Mark Maslin that laid out a number of different options for “Defining the Anthropocene” — for example, the origins of farming (~11,000 years ago), or the advent of the Industrial Revolution (starting in 1760). (See the below figure for a full listing of options.)

Based on the geology discipline’s requirement of a physical marker to anchor a shift in epoch, Lewis & Maslin made a compelling case that the strongest geologic evidence favored the demarcation event as the “collision” of Indigenous and European cultures peaking in 1610. That was the year when the carbon record documents a clear dip in CO2 emissions resulting from the genocide of Indigenous populations at the hands of European colonialist settlers (called the “American Holocaust”), as it led to an agricultural collapse that briefly paused carbon emissions.

Geologists call such an event a “golden spike”, or a “location of a global marker of an event in stratigraphic material” known as a Global Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP); Lewis & Maslin labeled this specific 1610 GSSP the “Orbis Spike,” Latin for “world”.

In their 2018 book The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene, Lewis & Maslin further explain their case for the Orbis Spike, connecting it directly to mercantile capitalism, racist genocide, and colonialist imperialism, which carries much different political implications than the choice of the nuclear age.

Interestingly, both Maslin and Lewis engaged with my posts on social media. Lewis responded in a Twitter thread I helped seed:

“The community needs to decide if they are going to define the boundary as the first global geological-level impact of humans (for me the mixing of species across continents, so after 1492) that is detectable in a geological record (for me 1610-ish), with a small signal, or

Or… where the evidence is overwhelming, basically v. close to the present day. I feel the latter is about persuading people, but isn’t that logical in terms of a formal definition based on geological-type evidence (as you end up missing so much that humans did earlier).”

Maslin engaged in more depth in a set of comments on my LInkedIn post:

“The short sightedness of the Anthropocene Working Group — who would only consider a post 1950 start date — meant many of us who want a more inclusive term have suggested the Anthropocene Event — Events can be massive changes in geology such as the introduction of oxygen into the atmosphere over two billion years ago. But it means that the Anthropocene can start in different places at different times — it also means no one is to blame — we are in it and we must decide how to deal with it…”

To which I responded:

“Your ‘no one is to blame’ comment gives pause. It strikes me that an embrace of the Orbis Hypothesis means that ‘someone’ IS ‘to blame’ … or perhaps not someone as much as the entire cultural orientation of modernity / coloniality.”

Maslin replied:

“…I still really like the Orbis golden spike — as I think of it as the start of capitalism, mass slavery, and global colonialism. But the problem I see with picking a single date is that it lets others off the hook. What about the industrial revolution and oppression of the workers, what about the great acceleration and the spread of American consumer capitalism (colonialism) post Second World World. So by acknowledging we are in the Anthropocene Event and certain parts of humanity caused it — we can examine causation in a more detailed nuanced way. And like the Industrial Revolution has four distinct phases, then we can think of dividing up the Anthropocene Event into phases. But thank you for the great post.”

I asserted:

“The way I read your 2015 paper, you focused on the Orbis Spike because of the demands of the discipline to identify a *specific* physical marker. And you made a compelling case that Orbis was a better spike than any other options.

But I think where we find ourselves now, shifting from Epoch to Event, is in an even stronger position, as it frees us from the shackles of reductionist science focused on single markers. Reality is, of course, much more complex, with entangled causation spanning multiple historical political dynamics that intertwine with natural causation as well.

The key point for me in all this is to realize that, if humans have the collective power to exert geologic force that is ultimately destructive (ie genocidal, imperial, extractive, racist, enslaving etc), then we also have the collective power to exert beneficial, prosocial, altruistic force. It just requires us to realize the inherent alignment between self interest and common interest.”

Maslin agreed that

“…human impacts are unique — as we can increase them, reduce them and we can even decide to repair the damage. And we need to keep pushing the fact that our negative impacts are not inevitable.”

This line of reasoning — that the Anthropocene more relevantly represents a long historical arc of interwoven events with sociopolitical significance than a single event with a discrete discernible geologic impact — aligns with a case made by Saldanha (who we quoted at the outset): “the Anthropocene debate has immediate political implications,” he succinctly summarizes late in his paper.

Interestingly, Saldanha expresses appreciation for Lewis & Maslin’s Orbis case:

“There is a lot to be said for taking 1610 as the golden spike for the Anthropocene, the official year it began. Lewis and Maslin’s “Orbis hypothesis” is the only one proposed which takes the interplay of political-economic and geochemical processes seriously as measurable at the global level (orbis, “world”). Their effort is commendable for appreciating that the decimation — literally, with some ninety percent eliminated — of Indigenous America was, in hindsight, a necessary condition for European global dominance and anthropogenic climate change.”

But ultimately, Saldanha rejects the Orbis hypothesis as insufficient to encompass the full spectrum of causativity:

“While it is encouraging to see “capitalism” mentioned repeatedly in Lewis and Maslin’s book (2018) and they show familiarity with world-systems theory, their take-home message is that the environmental consequences of the European settling of the Americas are a fundamental marker of modernity.”

What Lewis & Maslin’s hypothesis misses, according to Saldanha, is the totalizing and long-abiding impacts of what he calls “racial capitalism” (a term coined by Cedric Robinson in 1983). In a nutshell, Saldanha argues that the expansionist imperative of capitalism requires the creation of racialized hegemony to support the kind of “primitive” (“a better translation is original or primary”) accumulation of capital, the concentration of wealth before and necessary for industrialization. “To understand why the capitalist state is intrinsically expansionist and racialized, the concept of primitive accumulation is crucial,” Saldanha states, before quoting Marx:

“The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins, are all things which characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation.”

Ultimately, Saldanha uses this foundation to make the case that limiting the defining aspect of the Anthropocene to the Orbis Spike falls far short of the much broader historical trajectory of industrialization as the advent of geologic scale impact. But in making this case, he acknowledges its own limitations, butting up against the geologic discipline’s defining parameters.

“I would like to identify the geological term ‘Anthropocene’ with the planetary state of racializing industrial capitalism, but I cannot suggest how this epoch be measured as demanded by geological method.”

Rather than throw in the towel, Saldanha offers a “compromise solution”:

“Another option presents itself: simply continue using “Anthropocene” in an informal and capacious manner and accept there are many environmental and sociological markers which together point to North England at the end of the 18th century as its beginning. Between earth science and other practices, we can inhabit the impasse instead of ignoring it.”

Essentially, Saldanha proposes what Maslin and his colleagues proposed (albeit more expansively) three years later (in 2022): to abandon the goal of defining the Anthropocene as an epoch, thus requiring a golden spike, and instead conceive of it as an “event” stretching over centuries, with a host of “defining” episodes.

Which brings us back to where we began, almost: what Saldanha adds to the mix is a necessary interpolation of the dynamic tension between capitalism and racism as animating factors behind the emergence of human force as a geologic scale impact that will ultimately expand into an existential threat to life on earth.

Understanding these sociopolitical underpinnings of the Anthropocene, far from being an esoteric distraction, serve a vital purpose for potentializing the transformation from aggregate human power exerting catastrophic consequences to collective human agency actualizing beneficial outcomes — with the possibility of averting life extinction.




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