Notes from The Shock of the Anthropocene by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz

Page 69 “Exaggerating a little, we could say that history for the anthropocenologists comes down in the end to the set of exponential graphs. The specificity of historical reasoning, the effort to construct an explanatory account, is eclipsed in favour of a descriptive and quantitative view. But it’s the concordant upward curves are indeed chronological indexes, they are explanatory at the secondary level. Environmental statistics simply measure the results of the historical phenomena that are the prime movers of the crisis. The less undifferentiated and more explanatory history of the Anthropocene that we propose in this book seeks to shift the focus of the study from the environments affected and the biogeochemical cycles disturbed on to the actors, institutions and decisions that have produced these effects.”

Page 73 “The grand narrative of the Anthropocene is thus the story of an awakening. There was a long moment of unawareness, from 1750 to the late 20th century, followed by a sudden arousal. … We can include in this binary narrative the overly simple thesis according to which modernity has established a great separation between nature and society, a separation that allegedly prevented us from becoming aware of ecological issues, and that was only challenged quite recently. As if the thinkers of antiquity have not already established distribution between nature and culture, whether to promote it or question its value and limitations; as if modernity, ever since the Renaissance, is not also constructed around knowledge that emphasized the belonging of human beings to the enveloping order of nature…. The problem with all of the grand narratives of awakening, revelation or arousal of consciousness is that they are historically wrong. The period 1770 and 1830 was marked on the contrary by a very acute awareness of the interactions between nature and society. Deforestation, for example, was conceived as the rupture of an organic link between woodland, human society and the global environment, and the use of coal was promoted as a way to restore forests. … An organicist scientific thought conceived the earth as a living things right to the mid 19th century. … By proposing in 1821 that ‘ it is therefore the planet as a whole that is compromised [ by deforestation and other environmental damages], and not just certain regions’ Charles Fourier reflected on a large number of scientific writings and warnings of his time.”

Page 101 “In Great Britain between 1800 and 2000 the price of light (measured in lumens) fell by a factor of 3000, but consumption increased 40000 times. According to goods and their price elasticity, the rebound effect varies, but on the whole, energy efficiency has been more than out balanced by economic growth.”

Page 103 “The crisis of the 1930s offers some interesting cases: Carbon emissions in the United States fell from 520 to 340 million tonnes, and in France from 66 to 55 million. In the latter case, this reduction was not just bound up with the recession, but also with the differential evolution of prices; that of coal rose by 40% during the crisis, while the general price index stagnating. It was also in the 1930s that wood fuel experienced a peak, before a definitive decline after the Second World War.”

page 105 Gaslighting which appeared in London in the 1810s was extraordinarily inefficient. “It consisted in distilling coal – using more coal to heat this – in order to produce a gas designed to light housing or streets. … A third of the coal was burnt to produce gas, a third of this gas escaped in pipes that massively leaked, and at the end of the day the lie to each day was very poor…. The transition from oil lamps to gas lighting, that is, from an organic and locally applied energy to a fossil energy distribution over a network, while massively increasing energy consumption, above all increased the losses.”

“The ‘ energy consumed per capita’ traced by historians actually corresponds to national production of energy divided by population. It includes example with the energy spent on waging wars, running the navy and controlling the empire, as well as the energy dissipated in inefficient technological systems. What we lack is a history of energy services, which would show the energy actually used by different classes of consumers.”

Page 107 “The ecologists David and Marcia Pimentel, for example, showed that the transition from a traditional agriculture to an intensive and mechanised one led to a fall in energy yield: More calories (basically derived from oil) had to be used in order to produce each calorie of food. In the case of maize, the shift was from a ratio of 10 calories produced for each calorie invested to a ratio of only three to one. The generalisation of this type of analysis, that is, a general history of thermodynamic (in)efficiency (taking up Ivan Illich’s thesis of counter-productivity) would undoubtedly lead to a far more ambiguous account than that conveyed by energy history and its ascendant curves of energy, health and efficiency.”

Page 108 “Historical analysis dissolves many prejudices as to the supposedly indispensable character of certain technologies. For example, in 1914 coal made actually 2.7 percent of French GDP, and 6% of British GDP in 1907. The historian Robert Fogel has also shown that, contrary to accepted ideas, with at the railways the United States could have had the same very rapid economic development that it had in the 19th century. In 1890, the ‘social profit’ of the railways as compared with the best available alternative (an improvement in canals and carting) represented only between 0.6 and 1% of American GDP. Given the rapid growth of the United States at this time, Fogel concludes that the absence of railways would only has slowed the development of the American economy by a few months.”

Page 108 “Tony Wrigley calls England in the age of the Industrial Revolution an ‘ advanced organic economy’ oriented primarily to agriculture. The number of horses in fact rose from 1.2 million in 1811 who 3.2 million in 1901. Andrea Malm has similarly shown that the energy potential of English rivers was far from being fully exploited. The switch of the cotton industry to coal that took place in the 1830s was not caused by a scarcity of energy or a simple economic calculation. On the contrary, the 1820s and 30s realised large scale hydraulic projects that combined reservoirs, dams and mills to ensure the industrialists of Lancashire and Scotland a renewable energy at a lower price than steam. Their defeat was due to the industrialists’ refusal to submit to the collective discipline that’s a common management of hydraulic resources would have imposed. … The steam engine, on the other hand, despite being more expensive, constituted a flexible, modular and individual source of energy that matched very well the ideology of English textile capitalism of the 1830s.”

Page 109 “The focus of historians on energy, the Industrial Revolution and fossil fuels obscures economic transformations that were equally important. For example, the demographic explosion of the English-speaking countries in the 19th century was based on a ‘non-industrial’ revolution: on the energies of wind, water, animals and wood. … Thanks to selective breeding, livestock were rapidly improved: The American draught horses of the 1890s were 50% more powerful than those of the 1860s. The trotting record for a mile fell from 3 minutes to 2 minutes between 1840 and 1880.  … In Chicago and New York, in 1900, there was a proximity one horse for every 25 people. Likewise, in 1870, thanks to new turbines, hydraulic power supplied 75% of industrial energy.”

page 110 “At the end of the 19th century, 6 million windmills, operating the same number of wells, played the historical fundamental role opening up the plains of the American midwest to agriculture and husbandry. These windmills were not pre-industrial, but rotors built according to the principles of fluid dynamics, capable of following the wind, and produced on a mass scale. In American farmland, decentralised electricity production (using windmills and battery storage) remained dominant until the great programs of rural electrification of the New Deal in post-war years.”

Page 111 “At the start of the 20th century, in the United States, the Sun Power Company already sold solar engines. The cost may have been higher than that of classic steam engines, but it was far from prohibitive in appropriate conditions: $164 per horsepower as against between $40 and 90 for coal.”

Page 113 “In the 1950s, in the United States, investment in solar energy came to an end with the development of suburbs, the promotion of low-cost prefabricated homes and very aggressive marketing on the part of the electricity companies. In 1968, Congress commissioned a study of these practices. General Electric was even threatening building developers not to connect new estates if they offered alternative sources of power. For such developers, offering only electricity made it possible to reduce construction costs and shift energy expenditure on to homeowners. This was how, in the 1950s and 60s, the thermodynamic aberration of electric heating was promoted in the United States without any technological necessity for it.”

Page 114 “American historians have shown the dismantling of street cars and suburban railways, and their replacement by individual cars and buses running on petrol, did not follow any technological or economic logic, but considerably increased the costs of mobility, and in the medium term even slow this down.”

Page 117 “In 2008, France’s cumulative emissions made up 4% of the world total, while those of Great Britain constituted 10%.”

Page 123 “The Cold War… saw a peak in the environmental footprint of armies. By the late 1980s, military training camps, off polluted with radioactive waste, munitions, etc covered 1% of the Earth’s surface (including 2% of the United States). The maintenance and training of Western armed forces consumed enormous quantities of resources: 15% of West German air traffic, for example, was linked to NATO military exercises. In 1987, the American army was responsible for 3.4 per cent of the nation’s oil consumption, comparable figures being 3.9 per cent for the Soviet Union and 4.8 per cent for the UK, as well as 1% of all coal and 1.6 per cent of electricity. If we add to this the carbon dioxide emissions bound up with arms production, then between 10 and 15% of American emissions during the Cold War were attributable to the military.”

Page 139 “Eisenhower, who has been very impressed by the German autobahn, launched under his presidency one of the most ambitious civil engineering projects of the 20th century: The construction of 70,000 kilometres of three-way in 15 years, at a cost of 50 billion dollars (the total cost of the Marshall Plan was 15 billion dollars). This colossal investment was justified to Congress for reasons of national defence: The freeways would permit evacuation of cities in case of nuclear attack. … The routes of these Interstate highways partly follows military objectives, crossing regions that were thinly populated so as to serve the 400 American military bases. The width of the roads, tunnels and bridges was fixed to accommodate military vehicles.”

Page 161 “The crisis of the 1930s reinforced this movement for a reduction in working hours. In Europe, trade unions demanded the 40-hour week, which was voted into law in France in 1936. In 1932, the American Federation of Labour called for a 30 hour week with reduction of wages. A law imposing a 30 hour week was even adopted by the US senate in April 1933 but rejected by the House of Representatives. The world crisis seemed to have discredited the hymn to consumption of the 1920s.”

page 167 “In 1947, the Rockefeller Foundation sent a team of researchers to study European nutrition. The people of Crete, despite being relatively tall, were described as suffering from deficiencies on account of the consumption of meat and dairy products that was insufficient by American standards. This study formed part of a broad movement of imposing on Europe after 1945, and on the whole world in recent decades, a new dietary model high in meat and sugar and dominated by industrial foodstuffs. This model, actively constructed by the major agricultural and food corporations, has gone hand in hand with a degradation of the planet’s ecosystems… A sharp rise in chronic diseases such as cancer, obesity and cardiovascular illness … And now nutritionists explain to us the virtues of the Cretan diet.”

Page 168 “The malleability of regulations, and particularly the notion of thresholds, has authorised the proliferation of substances produced by synthetic chemistry since the Second World War. In the late 1940s, toxicologists warned governments that even at the lowest doses, certain of these molecules increase the risk of cancer, and a consensus formed to ban such substances from food. In 1958, in the United States, the Delaney Clause prohibited the presence of pesticide residues in foodstuffs. But in the 1970s, regulatory bodies turned to deploying a cost-benefit analysis that allowed risk to be accepted in view of economic importance, along with the definition of thresholds.”

page 181 “In Normandy… When a controversy broke out in the 1770s on the management of foreshore resources, the Fishermen’s Guild complained about the stripping of wrack (seaweed that was burnt for ash used in producing soda for glassworks) precisely by appeal to its role in the survival of young fish and the natural economy of the marine world. In a memoir sent to the Academy of Sciences, they explained that fish came to spawn in the wrack, as the seaweed holds the fish eggs together, protecting them from tides and currents and increasing the density and chances of fertilisation. Such popular knowledge of environments, despite being little formalized and thus generally invisible to historians, is very important it is the basis of the communal management of resources.”

Page 249 “Among the three great countries rich in resources, the USSR reached 100% of its biocapacity in 1973, and China reached this level in 1970 (and has continued to grow since, arriving at 256% in 2009) whereas the US footprint was already 126 percent in 1961 and reached 176% in 1973…. [when Britain was] 377% … many Asian, african and Latin American countries had a ratio below 50% at that time, showing that the driving phenomenon of the Great Acceleration embarked on from 1945-73 was the tremendous ecological indebtedness of the Western industrial countries.”

Page 277 “The motor car… Was far from arousing unanimous approval. In the early 1900s, after a series of accidents, the communes of the Canton of Graubunden passed decrees prohibiting automobile traffic. No less than ten referendums between 1900 and 1925 confirmed the ban on individual motor cars on cantonal roads (ambulances and fire engines remained authorised). The arguments against the individual car at the time were chiefly economic: increased considerably the cost of maintaining the roads , and above all came into competition with the public rail network, which would sooner or later have to be subsidised out of taxation.”

“The monopolization of the public space by motorists aroused lively opposition everywhere. During its first decade, moreover, motoring only benefited a narrow fringe of bourgeois … The car imposed a new urban discipline and made many other uses of the street impossible, in particular children’s games. Children were perhaps the greatest losers from motorisation: in 1910, they made up 195 out of 376 victims of fatal traffic accidents. Would the car have been accepted in a genuine democracy?”

Page 291 “These histories invite us to take a political grip on the institutions and oligarchies, the powerful symbolic and material systems, that lead us into the Anthropocene: military apparatuses, the system of consumerist desire and its infrastructure, the gaps of income and wealth, the energy majors and the financial interests of globalisation, the technoscientific apparatuses when these work in commodity logics or silence criticisms and alternatives. To strive for decent lives in the Anthropocene therefore means freeing ourselves from repressive institutions, from alienating dominations and imaginaries. It can be an extraordinary emancipatory experience.”

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