How is the Anthropocene helping you rethink the contemporary issue of environmental degradation?

In our latest masters students' blog series, Ralph Green explores the question 'How is the Anthropocene helping you rethink the contemporary issue of environmental degradation?'

Buried, decomposing waste and plastics

Environmental degradation has been a key concern for international development for decades, with early references recorded in the UN’s Brundtland report in 1987, calling for a need to protect “Our Common Future”. These commitments to sustainable development were reprioritised in the establishment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, which made it clear that development could only occur sustainably – unlike the preexisting Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These incorporated a range of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) goals (17), but it appeared to recentre the importance of ecological protection particularly. However, in practice, this wasn’t as effective as first hoped with environmental goals being deprioritised and underfunded – despite UN rhetoric about the goals being indivisible. 

With de-prioritisations like this in mind, many scholars have called for new theoretical perspectives for viewing environmental degradation, framing it less as an unfortunate circumstance of life and more as a direct result of human (in)action (Steffen et al., 2007, p. 614). To formalise this, scholars have developed the term ‘Anthropocene’, loosely from the original notion of an “Anthropozoic era” in the 1800s. The essential tenet of this concept is that humans have enjoyed a period of environmental stability for around 10,000 years, called the Holocene. The Anthropocene denotes a new current geological era, where ecological stability is threatened by human activity; with humans becoming their own distinct and detrimental geological force.

Viewing environmental degradation through the Anthropocene lens illuminates the role humans have played in bringing about contemporary ecological crises through damaging processes, such as deforestation, mining and burning fossil fuels. By recognising that humans are responsible for environmental degradation, it becomes intuitive that one situates solutions in human (re)action. For many proponents, this means faith should be bestowed upon scientists and engineers to dictate the future of environmental management. Consequently, introducing the Anthropocene into environmental politics has prompted large-scale investment into ‘green’ technologies, influencing technocratic perceptions of environmental degradation mitigation.

The Anthropocene also serves a distinct unifying function by attributing the state of the world to the scaled-up activity of humanity. This has led to the international community accepting some level of shared responsibility, compelling nations to collaborate on addressing the transboundary consequences of environmental degradation. By appreciating humanity’s responsibility for environmental degradation, institutions like the UN can set transnational goals, like the SDGs, to be pursued by all nations. With humanity situated as both a subject of environmental degradation and a cause of it, states prioritise environmental protection; enabling them to address their collective impact, whilst mitigating the impacts they will face. The Anthropocene has provided a new perspective on international development, with a clear shared goal: pursuing and stabilising of a world with Holocene-like conditions for all.

Whilst the Anthropocene illuminates that human activity is a large driver of environmental degradation, it does not consider the characteristics of the relationship between humanity and nature (Parenti, 2016). This is why many scholars have adapted the Anthropocene, to instead view issues of environmental degradation through the Capitalocene lens. This perspective suggests that it is a generalisation to equate environmental degradation to the actions of all humanity detached from the significance of capital, class and empire (Moore, 2016). The Anthropocene, therefore, diverts attention away from interpersonal and interspecies relationships, favouring a reductive view of ecological history as a series of relations between human technologies and natural resources. This causes users of Anthropocene thinking to potentially ignore the exploitative and profit-driven character of these complexes that drive environmental degradation. 

The Anthropocene views environmental degradation through a binary cause-and-effect relationship. The Capitalocene addresses how environmental degradation is related to human action, not just that it is. This differing scope of perspective is illustrated in Figure 1:

Figure 1 [Author’s works]: Based on the arguments outlined by Moore (2016, pp. 84-85).

The relationship exists through capital, which has enabled the quantification of the environment and its subsequent exploitation for profit. Without addressing the systems and structures that have enabled environmental degradation, humans will likely continue to act with indifference towards the natural world in a way that will continue to have profound consequences. Moore (2016, p. 94) illustrates this well when he states: “Shut down a coal plant, and you can slow global warming for a day; shut down the relations that made the coal plant, and you can stop it for good”. Without challenging structures, the Anthropocene lens consolidates post-colonial production dynamics. The Anthropocene urges people to view the Global North as sustainable, even though the ‘green’ technologies, resources, and capital they use have been derived from environmentally degrading sources

It should be noted that, whilst the Anthropocene has limitations in scope, it has opened a whole new dialogue for how the world and planetary boundaries are perceived. Furthermore, whilst the Capitalocene can be more insightful, it isn’t perfect and has been scrutinised in the academic world. For example, many scholars have suggested that there needs to be an explicitly reimagined Racial Capitalocene. This is because environmental degradation, necessarily, involved (and involves) the “organisation of a ‘cheap’, racialised, disposable workforce” (Vergès, 2017, p. 73). For some activists, this expands the lens of the Capitalocene to cover issues surrounding policing and other racialised structures (Gonzalez, 2019). Some scholars have created their own alternative conceptions, such as the Plantationocene and Chthulucene. The Plantationocene centres the relevance of agriculture and empire for environmental degradation, whereas the Chthulucene argues for solutions to environmental degradation that utilise natural processes. However, the Chthulucene has been critiqued for using elaborate fantastical metaphors and veering from feasible reality into science fiction.

To conclude, the Anthropocene provides a lens to understand environmental degradation as the direct result of human activity. For international development, this has prompted collaborative approaches to environmental impact mitigation, as it is deemed a shared goal and responsibility. Conceptual refinements of the Anthropocene have produced new ways of viewing environmental degradation – namely, the Capitalocene. This lens encompasses a greater scope of understanding, as it considers the exploitative, profit-driven nature of the human-environment relationship, and the significance of class structures and colonialism. 


González, A. (2019). Racial Capitalism and Nature, American Quarterly, 71(4), pp. 1155-1167. DOI:

Moore, J. (2016). ‘The Rise of Cheap Nature’, in Moore, J. (ed.) Anthropocene or Capitalocene?, Oakland: PM Press, pp. 78-115

Parenti, C. (2016). ‘Environment-Making in the Capitalocene: Political Ecology of the State’, in Moore, J. (ed.) Anthropocene or Capitalocene?, Oakland: PM Press, pp. 166-184

Steffen, W., Crutzen, P. J. and McNeill, J. R. (2007). The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?, Ambio, 36(8), pp. 614-621. DOI:

Vergès, F. (2017). ‘Racial Capitalocene’, in Johnson, G. T. and Lubin, A. (ed.) Futures of Black Radicalism, London; New York: Verso, pp. 72-82

Ralph Green - International Develop Masters student

Author: Ralph Green

Course: MSc Environmental Change and International Development 

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