• Louie Roberts

What the pandemic has shown about Capitalism in the Anthropocene

What Is the Anthropocene and what does capitalism have to do with it?

For the purpose of comprehension, geologists have long divided the nearly 4.6 billion year lifespan of Earth into hierarchical chunks of time. This hierarchy, from largest to smallest, includes eons, eras, periods, epochs, and ages. These are measured by identifiable changes in the Earth’s geology, reflecting interconnected shifts in climate and ecosystems. Typically, epochs last around 3 million years.

However, after just ~11,700 years since the most recent began, the Holocene, a wide range of environmental proxies have pointed towards the beginning of a new epoch: the Anthropocene.

For the first time in Earth’s history, major climatic change has not been the result of natural phenomena such as orbital forcing and tectonic movement, but rather human activity, including anthropogenic emissions, environmental exploitation, and mass extinctions, which have all occurred in the geological blink of an eye.

So why is it that after ~300,000 years of humans living on Earth, that this anthropogenic impact is concentrated in the last few centuries? Unfettered capitalism is undoubtedly a driver, a system requiring perpetual expansion and often ecological exploitation. The coronavirus pandemic is a clear example of the consequences of this economic structure.

Coronavirus: a product of capitalism or an external shock?

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) has not only produced the largest global public health crisis since the Spanish flu, but fuelled economic, political, and social crises that continue to exacerbate intersecting, structural inequalities, both social and geographical.

Though labelled an external shock, the threat of zoonotic diseases is neither external nor shocking. The emerging diseases paradigm is rooted the new environmentalism of the 1980s, combining growing concerns of rising CO2 emissions and HIV/Aids. This offered a new reality of the interconnectedness of the natural and social world.

Four decades on, globalised agricultural practices provide a source of new threats. Wuhan’s exotic food market, for example, has enforcedly become connected to mainstream, capitalised agricultural systems. As industrial agriculture has expanded deeper into the forests and hinterlands of rural China, exotic species and farms have been forced into new, tighter spaces of interaction.

It is important to stress here that this is not a unique process, but an agricultural trend present across a variety of geographies. With the destruction of their primary environments, previously isolated species are forced to live – that is if they survive – in close proximity, creating breeding grounds for harmful pathogens. From here, deep agricultural pipelines connect these replugged ecologies to (mega-)cities, facilitating pathogen spill overs into urban human populations, which quickly spread around the world due to the interconnected nature of our hyper-globalised existence.

As Rob Wallace puts it, every effort has been made to modify all aspects of agriculture, except for the economic model of mass production. Monoculture farming, for instance, has helped to provide epidemiological momentum that would have otherwise not existed. Capitalist prioritisation of profit over safe practice has provided key conditions for the pandemic.

As for its spread, one must turn their attention to the way capitalism has contributed to the rural-urban organisations of human beings. It is simply more profitable for institutions to supply their services and demand labour in densely populated urban spaces, rather than be faced with the diseconomies of scale that exist with selling to sparsely populated rural communities. The positive feedback loops of institutional presence to provide greater job opportunities, higher incomes, superior public services, and exciting, cosmopolitan lifestyles drive humans to become a largely urbanised species in search of the – often fictitious – offerings of the city.

The dense organisation of highly interconnected urban nodes provides unparalleled conditions for the spread of coronavirus. Comparing the temporalities of the spread from East Asia to the UK of coronavirus (weeks) against the Black Death (~17 years), which peaked in the 14th century, clearly highlights the vulnerabilities that have come to accompany our profitable and efficient, global economic system. This is the same system which turns a blind eye to the rapidly degrading health of the Global Commons in exchange for the highest possible returns on investments. Though globalisation, driven by free-market desires, has undoubtedly brought vast benefits to humans, one has to question a system which concomitantly harms our home: Earth.

Unequal experiences of the pandemic

It is not just our planet that suffers in the Anthropocene. Capitalism drives human inequalities both between and within countries and the pandemic has exposed this systemic prioritisation of elite interests.

At the national level, everyday experiences of the pandemic are inherently different between classes. In the UK for instance, with the backdrop of a decade of austerity, stark contrasts exist between the upper class who are able to retreat to spacious home(s) and their private gardens in comparison to that of the lower class and homeless. Intersectionality is also an important consideration here, as the pandemic hits marginalised social groups and disadvantaged territories the hardest.

At the international scale, the problems of a privatised pharmaceutical industry have once again come to the foreground. Wealthier countries have greater infrastructural, technical, and financial capacity to both produce and import vaccines and the majority of their citizens are able to protect themselves by retreating to private spaces and adhere to social distancing. Africa’s top public health officials have strongly contested these international inequalities, questioning why countries with larger levels of poverty and weak infrastructural resilience to a pandemic be the last to access life-saving vaccines. It is this free-market prioritisation of profit over life which has been made so visible by the pandemic. Paradoxically however, national lockdowns represent a rare halting of economic processes in favour of life. This is why Adam Tooze labels the pandemic the first economic crisis of the Anthropocene, as it has upended economic prioritises and highlighted the limitations of unfettered capitalism.

Nonetheless, the pandemic has offered a glimpse of future governance required of an epoch that brings both gradual change and external shocks.

Unequal governance in the Anthropocene

The Anthropocene will present increased frequency and intensity of storms and droughts, global warming, changing precipitation patterns, eustatic sea level rise and so on. These do and will affect both the Global North and South, with the potential to rid hundreds of millions of people of their back necessities, livelihoods, and everyday ways of life.

The need for a new politics presents complex challenges. How can the tension between democracy and entrenched fossil fuel interests be shifted? How can the moral hazard of leaders who are least likely to be affected by natural disasters be overcome? How can governance of the Anthropocene become more equitable for the present and future global population?

Perhaps part of the solution lies on frontloading the cost of preparation. The trial-and-error approach to containing the coronavirus has resulted in millions of deaths worldwide. Though underlying capitalist drivers incentivise against such costly preparation, the pandemic has shown that the financial costs of not preparing outweigh the former, exemplified by the trillions of dollars spent globally on stimulus packages. Versus comparatively small amounts on vaccines.

Time for change?

Marx suggests economic crises are inevitable and necessary to reset the system back to an equilibrium state. Perhaps it is time for contemporary political ecologies and anthropogenic ways of life to also be reset, to restore Earth’s own equilibrium.

In the past, spatio-temporal fixes of capitalism to move its crises elsewhere or elsewhen have been problematic, but only in a socioeconomic sense. However, this pandemic is the first of many environmentally-related external shocks that expose the connection of capitalism to exploitation of the Global Commons.

After several centuries of linear development, it may be time to rethink capitalism if we are to avoid an avalanche of global catastrophes. Whilst labels of sustainable development and green capitalism seem oxymoronic, they move us in the right direction. However, they do not deliver on radical shifts needed to limit anthropogenic emissions and halt ongoing mass extinctions. If we are to avoid a macrocosm of the inequalities produced by the coronavirus pandemic, capitalism in the Anthropocene must be reconsidered.

Images by Georgie Jackson