You and I have the unfortunate honor of facing down a crisis the likes of which our species has never before seen. Rapid climate change of our own making is transforming every bit of ocean and land, imperiling organisms clear across the tree of life. It’s killing people by way of stronger storms and hotter heat waves and unchecked pollution.
You can and should do your part—fly less if you can, buy local foods that haven’t been shipped thousands of miles, get solar panels and an electric car. But let’s not lose sight of the root cause of this crisis: rampant capitalism. Capitalism has steamrolled this planet and its organisms, gouging out mountains, overexploiting fish stocks, and burning fossil fuels to power the maniacal pursuit of growth and enrich a fraction of humanity. Since 1988, 100 corporations have been responsible for 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
Most of us have probably heard of the anthropocene, humanity’s stain on the geological record through activities like land misuse and plastic pollution. Jason Moore, an environmental historian and sociologist at Binghamton University, calls the problem something else: the capitalocene. WIRED sat down with Moore to talk about what got us into this mess, why capitalism won’t survive it, and what a brighter future might actually look like.
WIRED: What is the capitalocene you’re proposing?
Jason Moore: Capitalocene is a kind of critical provocation to this sensibility of the anthropocene, which is: We have met the enemy and he is us. So the idea that we’re all going to cover our footprints, we’re going to be more sustainable consumers, we’re going to pay attention to population, are really consequences of a highly unequal system of power and wealth.
WIRED: There’s an assignment of blame here, which corporations love to do in particular with their workers—if you don’t meet your goals as a company, it’s not the people in the C suites that are getting laid off, it’s the laborers. The climate crisis strikes me as an extension of that, that 100 corporations are responsible for 70 percent of emissions, but they’re the ones who will say, well you as consumers could do a whole lot yourselves.
Moore: That’s right, and there’s also a shift from looking at production to looking at consumption. Most carbon dioxide doesn’t come from people flying around the world, although that’s a major contributor to it. It comes from production. For younger people there seems to be a kind of cognitive dissonance between yes, we are responsible, and at the same time we know that we are not responsible.
WIRED: Is capitalism compatible at all with any movement on climate change?
Moore: That’s the classic ecosocialist question. It’s very clear that the problem is not technological—there are the technological means to decarbonize very rapidly. Still, if you solarize and go with wind, you have to store all the energy, you have to rebuild the electrical grids. It’s usually costly, and finance capital is really wary of those long-term projects.
What the venture capitalists want is a very narrow version of a technological application that can be used and put on the market right away. Out there in the culture, we think of capitalism as entrepreneurial and risk-taking and innovative, and that sometimes is the case but only within a very, very narrow frame. And we’re talking about huge existential transformations of the earth.
WIRED: Is there historical precedent here? Have, for instance, natural climate fluctuations in the past threatened capitalism?
Moore: Climate changes over the past 2,000 years have been extraordinarily destabilizing to ruling classes. This was the case for the Roman Empire in the west. So drought pushes the Huns, which pushes the Goths, they go into Western Europe. But more fundamentally, the changing climate after the year 400 creates all sorts of economic and political tensions, and in Western Europe the Roman Empire collapses. We now understand that wasn’t a terrible thing, that in fact there was more equality, a lower birth rate. There were peasants reorganizing agriculture so that they depended on many different sources of food and had many different livelihood strategies instead of just growing wheat for the Roman overlords.