When did the Holocene end?

Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us comrades.

DFW(ish)

It’s a question worth asking! I ponder this one all the time. 

Usually when things end, we don’t actually notice for a while. The ‘death of’ (god/history/art/metanarratives/the author/the composer) proclamations are always retrospective, in a hindsight already conditioned by and made possible by said death. Particularly notorious here is the case of the Death of God – which happened 2 millennia ago and took us until Hegel/Nietzsche/Darwin/Marx/Freud to really come to grips with. That’s a helluva lag time! We are nothing if not slow on the uptake. 

The end of the Holocene has substantial consequences for our worldview horizons – because these horizons are always influenced by our historical conditions and our understanding of them. Everybody has a theory of history, even if they don’t know it! There just simply isn’t the possibility of personhood without a relationship to the history that generated us.

Thus, historical questions like this are also intrinsically personal, and being about to update and adjust one’s own understanding of history is just as transformative to our world horizons as is the practice of ontology. Your political views depend on answers to questions like this.

In concrete terms, the end of the Holocene is the moment that the metabolism between human productive activity and the natural world became the determining factor in biospheric outcomes. Simply put – it’s the moment that we became the biosphere. This is also the moment that socialism became a historical necessity, rather than just an abstract ontological possibility.

So, we have declared the death of the Holocene. Thus immediately – when? 

1991

The first option we have is 1989-91 – the ‘collapse’ of the Soviet Union. I use the scare quotes because it wasn’t so much of a collapse as it was a deliberate dismantling over the course of the previous decade by both external and internal actors – but libs did the spin and wrote the history books so now here we are I guess. During the endless afterparty over in the ‘free’ world, Francis Fukuyama famously declared ‘the end of history’ – by which of course he meant, the final triumph of capitalism as the last social system left standing, and the beginning of a thousand years of prosperity and peace!

lol. oops.

If we locate the end of the Holocene here, then Fukuyama was in fact correct – just for all the wrong reasons. Instead of an eternal capitalist utopia, the next few decades were marked by gradual socio-economic unraveling, social unrest, new revolutions in the periphery, and increasing environmental devastation – as well as the embarrassing (but quite deliberate and predictable) rise of China, notwithstanding its flouting of all neoliberal assumptions and dogmas. Only a few decades later, poor F.F. was forced to admit “things that Marx said have turned out to be correct”.

No shit F-man. How humiliating.

Retrospectively it is now obvious that the dismantling of the USSR and its international trading network was actually a world-historical disaster of incalculable proportions – the beginning of the end, a vision of all of our futures. The West moved in and ruthlessly plundered the former Union, causing a famine and killing millions. The resulting loss of hope and spread of reactionary triumphalism poisoned the minds of a generation and secured the victory of postmodern apathy and nihilism, leading to three decades of the unfettered rule of Capital that locked in the Event. We all sat around and patted ourselves on the backs for being the winners of history, while simultaneously ensuring that there would be no winners and no history at all ever again. 

It’s a real stinker no doubt, but I still like this option. If 1991 was the end of the Holocene, it means there’s still hope – we still have the opportunity and the capacity to move to a digital 21c economy of direct allocation, which will give us the capacity to put a throttle on growth and carbon emissions, thus significantly delaying the extinction event. All we have to do is realize – if at first you fail, try, try again! Do you seriously think we couldn’t do better than a bunch of Russian bureaucrats with pencils and paper? What do you think the internet is for? Cat memes and porn? 

It’s for overcoming capitalism, nerds! We invented the fucking internet and totally missed the point. We haven’t even tried to use it yet!

Why not try? It’s not like we have anything left to lose.

So even if the Holocene ended in 1991 – there’s still hope. Hooray!

1945

Less hopeful is our second option – 1945. This is when the first nukes were used against civilian populations. It’s impossible to overestimate what a profound shift in geopolitical realities this was – nothing less than the sublation of conventional warfare. Gunther Anders, on the scene and unusually historically perspicacious, realized the following:

“On that day history became ‘obsolete’. Humanity became able to destroy itself, and nothing can make it lose this ‘negative omnipotence’, even a global disarmament or a total denuclearization of the world. The apocalypse is inscribed as a destiny in our future, and the best we can do is delay its occurrence indefinitely. We are in excess. On August 1945 we entered the era of the ‘freeze’ and of the ‘second death’ of all that existed: since the meaning of the past depends on future acts, the becoming-obsolete of the future, its programmed ending, does not mean that the past no longer has any meaning, it means that it never had any meaning.”

Dupuy, ‘The Mark of the Sacred’

There is little room for argument with this pronouncement, and Anders doesn’t pull any punches in extrapolating the consequences. From this day forward, all politicking, all business, all warfare – all of it hangs in the shadow of the doom that we could inflict (and have inflicted) on ourselves. Conventional warfare changed completely overnight – there can be no question of ‘victory’ or ‘defeat’ anymore, there is only this: got nukes?

Without them, you’re just not a real geopolitical entity. You can be wiped off the map like a cockroach at a moment’s notice unless you have the power to fire back. Nuclear armament is now forever the threshold for sovereignty and autonomy. There is no putting this genie back in the bottle. 

This has had devastating consequences for classical theories of revolution. For, if you’re going to have a revolution, not only do you have to be able to win over the majority of the hearts and minds of a populace, you also have to split the military in order to take down the state. Can you imagine what would happen if the loyalty of the Western military apparatus actually started to split?

Of course you can. Ka. Fucking. Boom. 

The sublation of conventional warfare by nuclear game theory makes any kind of violent revolution in the Cores impossible – we would vaporize ourselves and several hemispheres worth of shit before this happened. It has to be minimally nonviolent, or it just ain’t happening. Perhaps then the failure of ‘68 was the end of Holocene – no wave in the Cores has gotten as far since. 

This twin couple of ‘45-’68 is pretty grim. While it is still possible to imagine a scenario where a majority of a population ‘wakes up’, realizes they’re actually totally fucked, have nothing left to lose, and the only option left is to overhaul the socius and mobilize against extinction – then sure, maybe there’s still hope.

This would initiate a cultural revolution that could, eventually, perhaps turn the tide without too much bloodshed. Given the current culture of reactionary cynicism and nihilism, this all feels like utopian speculation. The wise among us would all rather enjoy murdering a biosphere than have anything as gauche as a revolution, after all. 

Anders goes way farther than this tho. He proclaims the historical obsoletion of historical obsoletion itself. Which is to say: the world already ended. Everyone else knows it too! This is also why I can speak from the Post-Holocene. History ended a long time ago.

Nothing is real. And nothing to get hung about. We are in excess. We live after.

If ‘45 was the end of the Holocene, we’re probably doomed. A nonviolent cultural revolution in a western military apparatus is exactly what said military apparati are explicitly designed to prevent. You don’t want soldiers who can think for themselves when your goal is to exterminate a biosphere in the quest for number-go-up. The grunts have to buy into the lie of ‘freedom and democracy’, or the death-cult just doesn’t perform its function correctly anymore. 

1867

Third in my list of possibilities is the invention/discovery of historical materialism – let’s call this 1867. The nascent science of history rendered all previous theories of history obsolete, and has yet to be replaced or overcome. It examines and models a socio-economic apparatus that had expanded relentlessly, converting everything into its own image, without regard for human lives or ecosystemic fragility – and that’s really all it’s done since. It’s not that hard to extrapolate the long-term consequences of an economy like this, given a planet of finite capacity for exploitation. That long dead rally call ‘socialism or barbarism’ was really just a soft-ball pitch – it was always just ‘socialism or extinction’ if you bothered to think about it for about 10 uninterrupted seconds.

Which, we didn’t. 

Around the same time as histmat was being explored for the first time, the less controversial science of geology also first noticed the end of the Holocene. In 1864, the American geologist George Marsh analyzed the impact of human activity on the climate, and proposed a new name for a new geological era – the ‘Anthropozoic’. He hadn’t a clue as to what capitalism is or how it works, but nonetheless, it was still possible for a geologist to walk outside and see the end of the Holocene, 1.5 centuries ago. 

This suggests that the Holocene ended earlier than this – before we even noticed. 

If a majority of human beings had become aware of the end of the Holocene and the urgent necessity of capitalism’s overcoming over the course of the next century, we’d live in a completely different universe right now. This didn’t happen – instead we got a astrological cabal of sycophant ‘economists’ deliberately misinterpreting shit that they didn’t even bother to read while they built pretty math sculptures on quicksand, the forced imposition of neoliberal development models by the strong on the weak the world over, and the epistemic collapse of the ‘postmodern turn’. 

The mishandling and misunderstanding of the USSR by its own ruling body didn’t help much either – the point was to never ‘compete’ with the West at all! A society that can do nothing but pump out infinite garbage was never something worth emulating or celebrating. The Soviets bought into the malignant lie of the American Dream in the end, completely missing the point and potential of the experimental socius they had created in the process. They tried to make it more like capitalism, and then it became capitalism.

The point is to be less like capitalism.

(Future-note: I now understand that this is due the MPP – something forced on anyone trying to compete with an entity like capitalism. A socialist world that was dominant might be able to shrink capitalism down with itself).

But it’s not like we weren’t warned. ‘Capitalism forever’ was just never a realistic possibility, and this is so stupidly obvious that even a child should be able to figure it out. 

And indeed, right now, many are! Hey kids! Sorry about your future.

This option is again, even less hopeful than the last. The disconnect between knowledge and practical outcomes has never stopped getting wider since. As long as value dynamics reign supreme, no amount of science or books or activism can do anything – the economic machine has to be stopped before any ameliorative process can even start, and we just won’t.

We’re a civilization of fossil-fueled accumulation cycle addicts.

1858

The first oil drill, by James Miller Williams, in Ontario. The most energy dense fossil fuel, and the one most responsible for our ridiculous population overshoot. The only good thing about this one is that it can’t happen again. Bye bye oil!

An intelligent species would have immediately taken the long term consequences of oil into account – the only point of energy dense fossil fuels is to build a clean energy circuit that can reproduce itself without them. This would be a huge, long-term, not-all-that-profitable endeavor – so capital didn’t do it. Didn’t even think of it. Sacrificing the future for the present is the only thing it can do.

1575

The first real coal mine was built by Sir George Bruce of Bannock in Scotland. Coal had been used for thousands of years previous, but we were all just playing around with the stuff on the surface. What if there’s lots more under the ground? I bet Number would like that!

~1400

Let’s get super bleak. I’m gonna just use an approximate for start of capitalist accumulation cycles. The first waves of accumulation and proletarianization were jumpstarted by brutal dislocation, enclosure, rape, and pillage, initiating a cycle of limitless violence that has continued uninterrupted until now, expanding to encompass the entire globe. 

This date has hyper-deterministic consequences. If the Holocene ended when capitalist accumulation cycles first started, then we’ve just been on rails to extinction this entire time. There’s almost no room for agency or freedom here, and the last 500 years of our history have turned out to be just a colossal misstep!

This one really sucks. It leads to extreme reactionary politics – this is all the excuse any fascist has ever needed to try to flee to the past. It also leads to nihilism and the leering death mask of cynical wisdom.

I hate it but I can’t discount it. For some contemporary strands of histmat research, it is possible to understand capitalism not as a mode of metabolic regulation, but as the only one, as nothing but the continuing dissolution and destruction of all previous social orders. If this is the case, then not only have we been just circling the drain for 5-6 centuries, all the narratives of ‘progress’ go up in smoke too. The height of the Islamic Empire was thus the Golden Age of Humanity, and the Catholics are right – the Protestant Reformation was a mistake!

If the invention/discovery of Capitalism was the end of the Holocene, the inscription on our tomb needs read only this –

Material relations between people became social relations between things.

…cuz that’s the last thing that ever happened, humanwise.

Even if this option is true, it’s still worthless for navigating our times and our future. A historical analysis that is open to contingency and human agency has to discount it. Even if capitalism is an algorithmic society, we also could have stopped it and done something else. Some of us certainly tried, and many of those attempts contained possible Post-Holocene survival pathways. Capitalism has never had a survival pathway. It has always had a pre-determined end, built right into the structure of social reproduction.

12,000 BCE

Our final option flips around from grim into funny. The Holocene never even happened! We were fucked since we came down out of the trees. Agriculture was a mistake!

At first I thought this was just silly, but it turns out there is some grounds for it – agriculture (also a terraforming practice) has never been all that great at producing excellent eco-outcomes. That being said – it was never practiced on a scale large enough to trigger a biosphere phase shift before capitalism, or in the particular forms that capitalist agriculture has taken.

Once we get back this far, we’re not really lookin for a Holocene-destabilizing moment, as the Holocene itself was defined by the agricultural practices that are now swiftly becoming obsolete. What eco-reactionaries and doomers are looking for here is a ‘fall from grace’, a moment where we lost paradise and the nightmare of history began. This never happened, because – there’s no such thing as nature! There was never a state of innocence to fall from in the first place. We caused extinctions of many large megafauna before we invented agriculture.

Nature has never been harmonious or equilbrious – it is a war of all against all. Everything overshoots with no checks. Rather than the emergence of fire, agriculture, and language being mistakes – they were, when used intelligently and with foresight, tools that allowed us to be the only organism that has the ability to consciously choose to not overshoot their carrying capacity.

All of these emergences are often used as landmarks for the ‘fall’ into the nightmare of history, a metaphorical conceptual structure that we inherited from theology. Thanks to the sciences, we are now able to think our history without recourse to these kinds of pre-modern assumptions.

Which is to say – there was never any fall, because there was nothing to fall from!

There have been plenty of social projects since fire, agriculture, and language that haven’t caused geological mass extinctions or biosphere phase changes, so going this far back to search for the end of the Holocene is a mistake.


So that’s what I’ve got, Holocene-deathwise. With my first drafts of this piece, I was hanging around 1945, but I’m quite a bit more fatalistic now. Due to the vastly increased amounts of energy that capital was able to wield with fossil fuels, it became increasingly impossible to fight the beast without, well – also doing capitalism and fossil fuels. Possible survival pathways and alternate social modes ended up having to compete with existing capitalist structures due to the Maximum Power Principle, and ultimately nothing can beat an economic machine that has no internal energetic limits – except itself.

’91 is simply far too late – we had been on extinction track aleady long before. ’45 was an absolutely crucial pivot point, and with nuclear deterence both sides of the cold war could have concievably found a way to commit to a steady-state or degrowth survival track – but the possibility was outside the respective ideologies at play.

So, it’s the moment that capitalism met fossil fuels that’s my date for Holocene-death now. It can’t have been later than this. Capitalism without fossil fuels would still be an exterminatus machine, but it would be wielding far less energy and growing way slower. It might never be able to cause a mass extinction event without fossil fuels. Other modes of metabolic regulation with fossil fuels, well – that had the potential to be a survival track, if managed right.

But both? God, Aliens, AI, time-travel – or a global revolution. That’s what it would take to stop or even slow down our inevitable extinction trajectory.

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