Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
Anthropocene Self-Consciousness: Response to Critical Naturalism: A
J.M. Bernstein
Krisis 2023, 43 (1): 139-142.
The prior issue of Krisis (42:1) published Critical Naturalism: A Manifesto, with the aim to
instigate a debate of the issues raised in this manifesto the necessary re-thinking of the role
(and the concept) of nature in critical theory in relation to questions of ecology, health, and
inequality. Since Krisis considers itself a place for philosophical debates that take contempo-
rary struggles as starting point, it issued an open call and solicited responses to the manifesto.
This is one of the sixteen selected responses, which augment, specify, or question the assump-
tions and arguments of the manifesto.
Critical Naturalism Manifesto
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC
BY 4.0). © 2023 The author(s).
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
Anthropocene Self-Consciousness: Response to Critical Naturalism: A
J.M. Bernstein
Liberal capitalism is a failed and failing form of life: it is failed in the precise and narrow sense
that it has destroyed the material conditions necessary for its social reproduction, namely, Hol-
ocene nature; it is failing in the stringent moral sense that it possesses the material capabilities
to provide for equal basic human rights to food, shelter, health care, and meaningful work but
consistently and blatantly fails to do so on the contrary “Today, 71 percent of the world’s
population live in countries where inequality has grown” (UN 75: 2020). If we are living in a
failed and failing form of life, then the Critical Naturalism Manifesto is too modest in consid-
eration of providing a platform for the discussion of problems faced by critical theory today:
Critical Naturalism must be conceived as the material a priori principle that provides the ra-
tionally necessary orientating horizon for the intelligibility of the present as a transition mo-
ment between a failed and failing form of life and a form of life to come. Critical Naturalism
is the critical self-consciousness of the emergence of: A.) the Anthropocene as a consequence
of B.) the separation of economic production from social reproduction under capital theses
implicit in the Manifesto (Gregorata, et al. 2022, 140) that, I will argue, demand rational up-
A.) Necessary Naturalism. On May 21, 2019 the Anthropocene Working Group announced
that it accepted that Anthropocene be treated as a formal geological unit, and that its beginning
point be located in mid-twentieth century (circa 1950 the onset of the “Great Acceleration”)
(Working Group 2019). As originally proposed by Nobel Laureate Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene
F. Stoermer, the idea that the Anthropocene should be regarded as a new stratigraphic epoch
turns on the thesis that during the course of industrial modernity “mankind’s activities grew
into a significant geological, morphological force” comparable to the great forces of nature
(Crutzen and Stoermer 2000). Rather than nature being the background to human action, an
indifferent externality that can be relied upon for resources, and rather than it being an auton-
omous system occasionally disturbed by human action, [t]he term Anthropocene suggests that
the Earth has now left its natural geological epoch, the present interglacial state called the
Holocene” (Steffen, Crutzen, and McNeill 2007, 614).
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
The epoch immediately prior to the Holocene was the Pleistocene that stretched back 2.6 mil-
lion years. What distinguished the Pleistocene was that it went through repeated stretches of
glaciations and brief warmings. These fluctuations made for such unstable and generally cold
climatic conditions that nothing approximating settled human life could develop. Human
hunter-gatherers emerged toward the end of the Pleistocene. The Holocene arrived just 11,700
years ago bringing into being a moderately warm and relatively stable set of climate condi-
tions that enabled the biosphere and its biodiverse ecosystems to develop maximally resilient
forms. This is when human living began to be radically transformed from hunting and gather-
ing, following the weather, vegetation, and the animals, to agriculture, which exploded 8,000
years ago. Agriculture makes possible the emergence of cities and with them all the arts, sci-
ences, and technological innovations that are constitutive of what we think of as human civi-
lization. If this is broadly accurate, then it follows that the rational intelligibility of human
civilization is dependent on, and therefore nondetachable from, Holocene nature human
civilization is (was) Holocene civilization. Nature, it transpires, is not a permanent, unchang-
ing, background and resource for human social action; living nature is historical. It is that
historicality, dependence, and nondetachability that constitute the naturalism of Critical Nat-
uralism as the necessary self-consciousness of historical humanity having been constituted
through the environmental beneficence and resilience of the Holocene, and then deposited by
capitalism’s ecocidal actions in the Anthropocene. Said otherwise, humans are not essentially
rational animals, linguistic animals, political animals, cooperative animals, souls, autonomous
subjects, or persons; rather, the arrival of the Anthropocene forces us to become aware that the
defining capacities of the human are the means through which human niche constructing prac-
tices (Gregorata, et al. 2022, 140) carry out the requirements for biological reproduction
through historically dynamic social practices. We are innovative niche constructors and engi-
B.) The Necessity of Critical Self-Reflection. Fossil fuel capitalism, with its twin evils of global
warming as caused by the emitting of CO
into the atmosphere from 285ppm in 1850 to
320ppm in 1950 to 420.99ppm in June 2022 and the massive destruction of ecological hab-
itats, are the joint direct causes of the destruction of Holocene nature. But that destruction of
Holocene nature is not a contingent feature of capitalism: as first-generation critical theory and
ecofeminism both argue, the seismic contradiction at the core of capitalism is its structurally
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
mandatory pursuit of profits and wealth without end as configured in Marx’s simple formula
of M–C–M', Money purchases (raw) materials and labour for the making of Commodities that
are sold for More Money than the original investment in systematic detachment from con-
siderations of social reproduction; where, furthermore, the practices and material conditions
necessary for social reproduction are wholly subordinated to the mandatory demands of pro-
duction for the sake of wealth creation. As if this separation were not a sufficient indictment
of capitalism, ecofeminists argue that capitalism has secured social reproduction, to the extent
it does, not through market mechanisms but through a version of what Marx called “primitive
accumulation”. Maria Mies states the thesis this way:
Rosa Luxemburg wrote that Marx’s model of ongoing accumulation of capital was
based on the assumption that capitalism was a closed system in which only wage la-
borers and capitalists existed. She wrote that capitalism always needed “non-capitalist
milieu and strata” for its extension. According to her thesis these strata were peasants,
colonies and the imperialist system. Without the ongoing exploitation of non-waged
workers and of natural resources, and a perpetual extension of markets, capitalism
would not be able to continue its process of permanent “primitive accumulation” [...]
Luxemburg was not a feminist. But her analysis was crucial for us to understand why
women as unpaid domestic workers, the colonies and finally nature’s resources have
to be exploited for the process of ongoing capital accumulation. This process is neces-
sarily based on violence, and finally destroys the subsistence of people and [with the
transition to the Anthropocene] nature. (Mies 2014, xvii).
Inequality under capitalism is more than the market regulated exploitation of nominally “free”
labour; it occurs through on-going non-market mechanisms of domination. The elaboration of
the separation-and-subordination of nature, women, racialized bodies, and colonial bodies first
into an account of social reproduction, and then reconstructing that account of social repro-
duction into a version of primitive accumulation, reveals the deeply violent and contradictory
structure of capitalist accumulation. This analysis follows critical theory in its contention that
it is the domination of nature that finally spreads to become morally egregious human domi-
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
But it is solely this comprehension of the structure of capitalist production which demonstrates
that the Critical element of Critical Naturalism essentially depends on the demonstration of
the deep irrationality and natural objective wrong (Gregorata, et al. 2022, 129, Thesis 4) of
capitalist production. In this respect too, Critical Naturalism is the necessary self-conscious-
ness of humanity’s exile from Holocene nature and its habitation of a new historical defor-
mation of living nature, the Anthropocene, thus practically and morally demanding the con-
struction of a new form of life.
Crutzen, Paul J., and Eugene F. Stoermer. 2000. “Anthropocene,” Global Change Newsletter 41 (17): 17-18.
Gregoratto, Federica, Heikki Ikäheimo, Emmanuel Renault, Arvi Särkelä, and Italo Testa. 2022. “Critical Natu-
ralism: A Manifesto.” Krisis | Journal for Contemporary Philosophy 42 (1): 108-24.
Mies, Maria. 2014 (1986). Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women In the International Division
of Labour. London: Zed Books.
Steffen, Will, Paul J. Crutzen, and John McNeill. 2007. “The Anthropocene: Are Humans now Overwhelming
the Great Forces of Nature?” Ambio 36 (8): 614-621.
UN 75. 2020. “Inequality Bridging the Divide”.
Working Group on the “Anthropocene,” Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy. 2019. http://quater- .
J.M. Bernstein is University Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research. His
writings include: The Fate of Art: Aesthetic Alienation from Kant to Derrida and Adorno (1992); Recovering
Ethical Life: Jürgen Habermas and the Future of Critical Theory (1995); Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics
(2002); Against Voluptuous Bodies: Late Modernism and the Meaning of Painting (2006). His most recent book
is Torture and Dignity: An Essay on Moral Injury (2015). He is completing a book on climate change: Of Ecocide
and Human Rights: Ethical Life in the Anthropocene.