Book cover of The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us

Two French authors, Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, take you on a historical journey that shows how humans altered the planet. Their 2016 book, The Shock of the Anthropocene, is disappointing, despite the excellent translation by David Fernbach.

Around 11,500 years ago, Earth entered an interglacial period during an ice age that has lasted for 2.5 million years. Interglacial periods last roughly 10,000 years, so we're due for another glacial period. Instead, the planet is warming. 

Welcome to the Anthropocene. 

In Greek, antropos means human being, while kainos means recent; hence, we're in the Age of Humans.

The Anthropocene began in 1784 when James Watt patented the steam engine that signaled the start of the Industrial Revolution.

The Shock of the Anthropocene documents some of the events since the start of the Anthropocene:

⦁ Carbon dioxide has increased 43% - from 280 parts per million to 400 ppm.

⦁ Methane has gone up 150%.

⦁ Nitrous Oxide up 63%.

⦁ Acidification of the oceans has increased by 26%.

⦁ Human population has gone from 1 to 7.5 billion.

⦁ Energy consumption has increased 40 times.

⦁ The extinction rate is 100-1,000 times greater than the geological norm.

⦁ By 2030, 20% of all species will be extinct.

Indeed, the Anthropocene has another name: the Sixth Mass Extinction.

The Shock of the Anthropocene warns that "future warming will lead the Earth to states unknown for 15 million years." 

It's nice that the authors admit this, but unfortunately, they don't elaborate. So I will. 

Many climate change doomsday prophets say things like, "Never before has the temperature been so hot!" Or, "This is unprecedented!" 

As the authors point out, it isn't unprecedented. We're still below the temperature levels of 15 million years ago. 

What they don't mention is the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum, which was 55 million years ago. It lasted 170,000 years, more than the existence of homo sapiens. The average world temperature back then was 23 degrees Celcius.

Today, it's 14 degrees. 

The highest estimates among climatologists are that Earth will warm 5 degrees by 2100. I'm not suggesting that it's fine if Earth reaches 19 degrees. I'm simply pointing out that such a rise isn't unprecedented.

The Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum also saw 35-50% of species went extinct. We're on track of duplicating that.

Here's another thing that few climate fearmongers rarely mention: it's likely that the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum started and ended abruptly. Moreover, it's certain that abrupt climate change happened at the end of the Carboniferous Rainforest Collapse, the Younger Dryas, the Dansgaard-Oeschger events, and the Heinrich events.

Consider the Younger Dryas. Temperatures soared 10 degrees in just a few years (a couple of decades). Even the scariest climate change predictions don't predict such a drastic and rapid change for us. 

The point of these facts isn't to prove that the Anthropocene isn't serious or dire. It's simply to prove that it isn't unprecedented. We need to get over this idea that "this has never happened before" or that "Earth is doomed." 

It's not. Earth has suffered far worse and in far less time. Besides the various cataclysmic events mentioned above, the KT Extinction Event (which took out the dinosaurs) took out more species than humans have and did it far more quickly. 

The Permian Extinction took out up to 96% of all marine life and 70% of all terrestrial life. After each mass extinction, Earth and biodiversity bounced back.

Again, this isn't to belittle the Anthropocene (or this book), but simply to put it in context and not to succumb to hyperbole. Fortunately, The Shock of the Anthropocene has a calm, scientific tone, not a hysterical one. 

Let's review the pros and cons before the verdict.

 

Pros

+ There's a section called "Rethinking democracy in a finite world" that is promising, but not developed. The Shock of the Anthropocene doesn't explicitly spell out democracy's fundamental flaw: that future voters can't vote. If you knew you would be born in 2100 or 2500, you would probably vote for a candidate who advocates draconian measures to preserve the environment. Instead of developing this concept, the authors skirt it. 

+ France isn't perfect. France gets 80% of its energy from nuclear. "Despite the colossal public investment, French CO2 emissions continued to rise from 90 million to 110 million tons per year." 

+ They observe that our obsession with GDP is harmful. Why is a fuel-efficient car for $30k worse than a gas-guzzler for $60k? From an economic point of view, the $60k car is "better," since it boosts GDP. We need to move away from that thinking.

+ They encourage the mobilizing of political radicalisms such as degrowth and eco-socialism, although they don't expand on those ideas.

 

Cons

- One of the worst covers ever. Sorry, I like nice covers.

- There's an annoying number of -cenes that the authors invent. For example, there's the Thanatocene (military), Phagocene (consumer society), Phronocene (environmental warnings), Agnotocene (denying planetary limits), Capitalocene (capitalism), and Polemocene (socioecological struggles and damages of industrialism). It's buzzword mania! Each buzzword highlights a force that made the world the way it is today. The exercise feels gimmicky.

- The Shock of the Anthropocene says that instead of calling our current age the Anthropocene, we should consider calling it the "Oliganthropocene," named after the oligarchs who are to blame for all our environmental woes. The logic for blaming the rich is that the richest one percent control much of the wealth, so they ought to get much of the blame. That seems like an easy scapegoat for the "Anthropocenologists."

- It's Eurocentric and academic. They cite many European scholars and follow European history, which is fine and well done. My main gripe is that the prose is too academic.  Christophe Bonneuil is a historian at the CNRS and edits the ‘Anthropocène’ series for Éditions du Seuil. Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, formerly a lecturer at Imperial College, London, is now a historian at the CNRS. They write like dull historians.

- Like so many non-fiction books that are about some crisis, The Shock of the Anthropocene spends 99% of the time reviewing history and pointing out all the stupid things we did in the past that got us into this mess. It spends just 1% of its pages offering and detailing solutions. Why can't they reverse that ratio? Because the details to the solutions are undesirable and painful. So it's better to stay vague and general.

In fact, saying that 1% of The Shock of the Anthropocene discusses solutions is generous. That would mean that it devoted 3 pages to solutions. It's not even 3 paragraphs. 

 

Verdict

The last sentence of The Shock of the Anthropocene demonstrates the "meh" feeling I had about the book:

"To live in the Anthropocene therefore means freeing ourselves from repressive institutions, from alienating dominations and imaginaries. It can be an extraordinary emancipatory experience." 

If that means something to you, then buy The Shock of the Anthropocene. Another reason to buy it is if you want a historical review of the Anthropocene, especially the last 200 years. For that purpose, this book gets 5 stars.

However, for my purpose, I give it 3 out 10 stars, because I was hoping for more forward thinking solutions, rather than historical analysis. 

Whether you buy The Shock of the Anthropocene or not, watch these three videos:

1. This sums up the book

2. Stewart Brand offers some solutions:

3. Consider this talk about De-Extinction:

DISCLOSURE: The publisher sent me this The Shock of the Anthropocene with the hopes that I would review it.

Your comment will be deleted if:

  • It doesn't add value. (So don't just say, "Nice post!")
  • You use a fake name, like "Cheap Hotels."
  • You embed a self-serving link in your comment.