Recap: Adam Tooze's Tanner Lecture "Beyond the Unipolar Moment"

Written by
Andrew Hahm
Jan. 31, 2024

Last November, Adam Tooze, the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Chair of History at Columbia University and director of the European Institute, delivered the 2023 Tanner Lectures on "The Last Dystopia: Historicizing the Anthropocene Debate in a Multipolar Age."

Tooze's first lecture, "Beyond the Unipolar Moment," is summarized by Andrew Hahm, a graduate student in the Department of Politics.

One important and distinctive consequence of anthropogenic climate change happens at the level of ideas, and of our self-conceptions as modern human beings. If it is indeed true that we have entered the geological epoch of the Anthropocene, and that humans are now non-negligibly affecting the geophysical earth processes that determine the Earth’s climate, it seems to follow that humans are now collectively exercising an agency which is different in kind than they have in some pre-modern past. As a consequence, the Anthropocene might prompt for us a fundamental shift in our shared social understanding of terms like “freedom” and “history,” as historians such as Naomi Oreskes and Dipesh Chakrabarty have argued.[1]

But what, exactly, is supposed to follow if we accept this claim, that humans are geological agents? Much turns on the details. How exactly have humans become geological agents? Is such agency “distributed” evenly across all humans or do some groups play a bigger causal role than others? And how have the human activities which pushed us into the Anthropocene been legitimized, ideologically, politically, or otherwise? In other words, much turns on how we understand both the history represented by the term “Anthropocene,” and the history of the term itself.

In a rich and wide-ranging first lecture entitled “Beyond the Unipolar Moment,” Professor Adam Tooze sought to lay out a distinctive understanding of the Anthropocene grounded in the economic history of the twentieth century.

In his telling, there were essentially two moments in the development of the idea of the Anthropocene. The first moment took place over roughly the first eight decades of the twentieth century. Tooze defended a broadly Polanyian understanding of this period. On a Polanyian view, the crises of the interwar period were a direct consequence of a radical nineteenth century experiment in subordinating society to the market economy.[2] When the social order was structured in ways more amenable to the operation of perfectly competitive capitalist markets, the sustainability of these orders was undermined, engendering significant social resistance. The various crises of the interwar period are then understood on this view as a re-assertion by various social groups of democratic control over national economies, thereby “re-embedding” the economy back into society.

To tie this general Polanyian story to the idea of the Anthropocene, Tooze added an important additional element. What “powered” this radical nineteenth century experiment and twentieth century retrenchment? For Tooze, the material basis of the Polanyian story lies in the development of the global grain trade and of national coal industries. Grain and coal underwrote the human productivity making the market economies of the nineteenth century possible. And since it takes significant human labor power to harvest grain, mine coal, and ship these resources around the world, they also gave labor unions significant leverage over business groups and the state to negotiate the terms of economic reorganization. Hence, energy production would become nationalized even in capitalist democracies, creating the “energy states” of the twentieth century.

As a result, Tooze argued, we best locate the explosion of carbon production and consumption characteristic of the Anthropocene, the carbon story of the “Great Acceleration,” in the period between 1945 and the mid-1970s. The Great Acceleration was driven by nationalized energy industries in both state socialist and welfare state mixed economies, alongside industrialization in post-colonial, developing countries. Importantly, it is not a story in which the demands of capital accumulation or investment are the primary driver of carbon emissions, as Marxist defenders of the rival idea of the Capitalocene like Jason Moore might suggest.[3] While Tooze acknowledged national differences in actual carbon emissions among these different countries, it also is not a story that is driven by one Cold War bloc or another. Concomitant with this explosion in carbon production was a growing and, importantly for Tooze, universal optimism around the world of the possibilities for economic development and human improvement that carbon sources of energy would enable.

The second moment in Tooze’s history of the idea of the Anthropocene charts the erosion of that optimism and a US-centric turn in the discourse of the Anthropocene. The idea of the “positive Anthropocene,” that unleashing the Earth’s carbon stores can universally help deliver economic growth, becomes replaced by the idea that, not only ought we not pursue state-sponsored economic development through carbon-intensive means, but in fact the United States and its business lobbies are uniquely responsible for the failure of global coordination in addressing climate change.

What explains this shift? One set of reasons Tooze points to could be characterized as what we could call the unraveling of the postwar Polanyian alliance between labor, business, and the state. Part of what began this unraveling was a major critique about regulatory capture articulated in the 1960s. Proponents of the critique argued that state bureaucracies managing the economy in welfare state mixed economies had been captured by private interests and no longer spurred economic development in the public interest. Gaining particular force in the mid- to late-1970s, the critique had the political effect of producing major shifts towards neoliberal, deregulatory economic policies. Developing countries soured on the promise of universal economic development, too, as many industrial development programs in these countries failed.

But it seemed that, for Tooze, perhaps as if not more important than the shifts in actual economic policy was the underlying social and ideological context of the unraveling. A key element of that context is signaled in the title of the lecture series as a whole, The Last Dystopia, which riffs on the title of Samuel Moyn’s 2010 book The Last Utopia. Moyn argues in that book that the discourse and politics of universal human rights gained particular currency as a palatable alternative to more controversial visions of politics in a moment of pessimism about political progress during the Cold War.[4] So, too, did Tooze wish to locate the rejection of the positive vision of the Anthropocene, at least in part, in an abandonment of “grand politics,” an abandonment prompted by the social movements and critiques of the 1960s. The American environmental movement, in particular, grew out of this social context, initially suspicious about the use of state capacity for environmental ends prompted by the critique of regulatory capture (despite the movement’s later embrace of, and embrace by, the state).

If neoliberalism and the failure of postcolonial development in the 1970s and 1980s explain a rejection of the positive Anthropocene, the provincialization of the Anthropocene discourse might best be understood as a development of the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union. There are two reasons for the currency of the thought that the United States is exceptionally responsible for impeding global efforts to fight climate change. First, Tooze argued, with the shift to a unipolar world led by capitalist liberal democracies, developing countries whose industrialization programs failed in the 1970s were able to point to their wealthier counterparts directly, without the complications of Cold War geopolitics, as proportionally more responsible for the climate crisis. Second, the United States made it a matter of public policy, beginning with the 1997 Byrd-Hagel resolution, to refuse ratification of any climate treaties which would impose serious costs on the American economy. For many, and particularly for American liberals, it became easy to draw the conclusion that the US and more generally Western liberal democracies played an outsize role in creating the problems of the Anthropocene. It would follow, too, that the catastrophic effects of anthropogenic climate change will continue to unfold unabated without American and Western liberal democratic leadership on the issue.

In the final part of his lecture, Tooze sought to advance a critique of this provincialized argument, and to defend what is, in a way, a more traditional conception of the Anthropocene: that all humans collectively exercise agency on a planetary scale. The core of his critique lay in the state development story of China. In its pursuit of the development goals it and other developing countries failed to achieve in the 1970s, China, from the 1990s onwards, generated carbon emissions considerably larger than those of the United States. Nor can more than a fraction of these emissions be attributed to the production of goods for export to wealthy, Western liberal democracies: Tooze pointed out that a much larger share of those emissions can be traced to the project of rehousing 500 million people over the span of 20 years, a project whose success can be seen in the statistic that 88% of all residential units in China today were built in 1990 or afterwards. It is unlikely on this story, Tooze argued, that the offending clause of the Byrd-Hagel resolution was designed to insulate the United States from any responsibility for the climate crisis. Instead, a second, lesser-observed clause tying ratification of climate treaties to concomitant cuts by developing countries underwrites the more plausible view that the US sought to ensure any cuts in American emissions would be tied to cuts in Chinese emissions.

The world in which we live today is multipolar, Tooze concluded, and collective action to address climate change can no longer fixate on a few companies headquartered in Houston, Texas. Instead, it requires a grand coalition with the state owners of China Coal, Saudi Aramco, Gazprom, and National Iranian Oil, along with all the other countries of the world which are not wealthy liberal democracies. There are some promising signs, like the Paris climate agreement and Chinese and Indian climate policy, that global cooperation and a global collective self-understanding of the Anthropocene is emerging. But there remain challenges ahead, as Tooze promised to show in his second lecture, and it will require a keen sense of geopolitics for us to address them.

After Tooze’s lecture, two distinguished scholars gave comments in response.

In her remarks, Professor Deirdre McCloskey articulated two primary objections she had to Tooze’s account of the Anthropocene. The first targeted Tooze’s Polanyian framework. For some readers of Polanyi, his argument in The Great Transformation, that the social and political crises of the interwar period were a response to a radical experiment in rendering markets autonomous, relies on the claim that land or labor markets did not exist in England until the nineteenth century. McCloskey argued that, on the contrary, markets have existed for millennia prior to the Industrial Revolution, that Polanyi was wrong to make such an assumption, and that therefore we should reject the view on offer in The Great Transformation.[5] At the same time, McCloskey surmised, a rejection of Polanyi might make little difference to Tooze’s argument because the claim that the economy is embedded in society is perhaps more self-transparent than a sophisticated theory of political economy might make it appear.

McCloskey’s second objection picks up on an implicit premise in Tooze’s lecture. If the climate politics of a multipolar age necessarily requires grand, global coalitions to address climate change, Tooze’s conception of the Anthropocene must reverse the anti-statist current which led to the rejection of the positive, postwar vision of the Anthropocene. McCloskey expressed suspicion of the embrace of state power this entails, and of the characterization of climate change as a crisis which justifies this embrace. As she argues at length in her sweeping Bourgeois trilogy, it is for her liberalism as an ideology, the social valuation of bourgeois virtues of prudence among others, the equal permission and opportunity to innovate, and free markets which “trade-test” these innovations, which form the basis of modern human prosperity.[6] Against Tooze, who rejected the self-conception of liberalism according to which it alone holds the social, economic, political, or intellectual tools to address the climate crisis, McCloskey argued for a return to liberal fundamentals to find a way out of our current moment.

Professor Peter Hall focused his comments on three points. The first point prompted Tooze to say more about what his account of the Anthropocene in a multipolar age spells for the US-China relationship. It seems that tensions in the US-China relationship need to be further defused in order for a productive dialogue about climate to move further. What would that take?

His second point turned to Tooze’s comparison between the environmental movement and the human rights movement in the 1970s. Hall argued that Tooze may have drawn too close a comparison between the two. While it may be in principle possible for human rights groups to be in perpetual resistance to state power, it seems unlikely that this can be the case for environmental movements: state power is often a necessary tool for the protection of public goods like the environment. In making the comparison to Moyn, then, Hall thought that Tooze underplays the challenge that environmental movements will face in figuring out how to deploy state power for environmental ends.

Finally, Hall worried that Tooze, in rejecting the idea of the Capitalocene, may have underplayed the significance of capitalism, particularly in the political challenges it poses to substantially addressing anthropogenic climate change today. Hall pointed out that political solutions to climate change involve the imposition of serious costs on capital and some workers. Without an account of class mobilization in climate politics, what other kinds of social mobilization are possible for electoral coalitions in liberal democracies seeking to implement such costly solutions?


[1] See for example Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35, no. 2 (January 2009): 197–222.

[2] For a more detailed overview, see the accessible introduction by Fred Block in Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 2014).

[3] See for example Jason W. Moore, “The Capitalocene, Part I: On the Nature and Origins of Our Ecological Crisis,” The Journal of Peasant Studies 44, no. 3 (May 4, 2017): 594–630; Jason W. Moore, “The Capitalocene Part II: Accumulation by Appropriation and the Centrality of Unpaid Work/Energy,” The Journal of Peasant Studies 45, no. 2 (February 23, 2018): 237–79.

[4] Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010). See also more recently Samuel Moyn, Liberalism against Itself: Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Times (New Haven London: Yale University Press, 2023).

[5] See also Deirdre N. McCloskey, Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016), chaps. 57–58.

[6] For a summary, see the exordium to McCloskey, Bourgeois Equality.