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SOC 252: Introduction to Environmental Sociology

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Volume 24(3) | Winter 2017 THE ROAD TO RUIN? MAKING SENSE OF THE ANTHROPOCENE Winter 2017 | 175 World accumulation and planetary life, or, why capitalism will not survive until the ‘last tree is cut’ Jason W. Moore Why does it seem easier to imagine the end of the world than to see the end of capitalism? Part of the answer turns on a rift between radical economic and ecological thought. © 2017 The Author/s. IPPR Progressive Review © 2017 IPPR 176 | IPPR Progressive Review | Volume 24(3) H ow does capitalism work through the web of life? How can we begin to understand capitalism not simply as an economic system of markets and production and a social system of class and culture, but as a way of organising nature? I’ve argued that this is a co-produced relation, that capitalism makes nature and the web of life makes capitalism. But how do we come to terms with planetary ‘state shifts’ like climate change – dramatic, abrupt, and irreversible moments of planetary change?1 That is, how do we understand the tendency towards both planetary crisis and accumulation crisis as two moments of a self-forming whole. We have an immediate problem because the way of thinking about these questions in the modern world, after five centuries of colonialism and scientific revolution and everything else, puts society in one box and nature in another. They interact – sort of – but they are very much in different spheres. The answer to these fundamental questions has to begin by acknowledging that the planetary state shift recognised by earth system scientists requires an intellectual and political state shift: a radical shift in how we think about the relations between humans and the rest of nature. CAPITALISM AND THE ‘FOUR CHEAPS’ Crucial to my thinking has been a family of ideas that seek to show how capitalism, from its early modern origins, has been not only a mighty producer of changes in the web of life, but also a product of that web of life, and of the totality of transformations between what is usually called society and nature. This means that modernity never masters or possesses 1 Barnosky AD et al (2004) ‘Approaching a State Shift in Earth’s Biosphere,’ Nature, 486, 52–58 © 2017 The Author/s. IPPR Progressive Review © 2017 IPPR Winter 2017 | 177 nature. Capital not only never subsumes nature, but it has few effective mechanisms for managing its own nature in any given era. The web of life is unruly, rebellious, and has a way of continually upsetting the best laid plans of states, of capitalists, of scientists and engineers. This is important because the new liberal craze for turning over global natures, including human natures, to market-oriented management represents an important break in the history of capitalism. Longstanding patterns of state and imperial governance of nature have produced a set of conditions of production which I call Cheap Nature. The Four Cheaps – labour power, food, energy and raw materials – are necessary to launch and sustain great bursts of capital accumulation. Today, capital is seeking profitable investment opportunities in a world in which there are really no more significant frontiers of Cheap Nature. These are not significant enough, in my view, to relaunch another golden age of capitalism. “the new liberal craze for turning over global natures, including human natures, to market-oriented management represents an important historical break in the history of capitalism” The exhaustion of the Cheap Nature model is happening at a time when, thanks to climate change, the very mechanisms of cheapening labour, food, energy and raw materials are not only breaking down – they are reversing themselves. The reversal will be, like planetary state shifts, dramatic, irreversible – and non-linear. This is most evident in the relationship between climate change and the agricultural model of historical capitalism – the Cheap Food model – based on producing more and more calories with less and less labour time. It’s a model that’s breaking down because we have reached the moment where the enclosure of the atmospheric commons is now supressing yield growth in the world’s four big cereal crops – and because terrestrial enclosures of every kind are now being challenged by agrarian and food justice movements of every kind. How do we reconcile the dynamics of planetary crisis and world accumulation? The essence of capital in the modern world is that it produces more capital than it can reinvest profitably. This is the surplus capital problem. What’s been missed in Marxist political economy is the centrality of Cheap Nature. The truly epoch-making expansions of the modern world have turned on much more than new machines, new markets, © 2017 The Author/s. IPPR Progressive Review © 2017 IPPR 178 | IPPR Progressive Review | Volume 24(3) and new economic organisations; they been able to soak up surplus capital because new domains of Cheap Nature have been opened up by states and empires.2 The resolution of the surplus capital problem, always a temporary resolution, has been fundamentally rooted in the restoration of these Four Cheaps. That’s why great industrialisations and “new” imperialisms have always been joined at the hip – there’s no mechanisation of textiles without the massive expansion of cotton cultivation in the antebellum American South, for example. How can we understand the systemic interrelation between socioeconomic and ecological trends, between something like faltering accumulation and sharply rising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere? Effective answers are going to have to evolve, but to do that we cannot work in the old paradigm of adding up ecology and economy. The relation is much more intimate than such Green Arithmetic allows. We are also going to have to take history much more seriously. Clearly, we are at a moment of fundamental shift in the history of capitalism and in the history of the climate system. We are living through the closing moments of the Holocene, a period of unusual climate stability, which began about 12,000 years ago. Over that time, mild climate perturbations, compared to what we are going to experience, were very important in the histories of civilisations. Roman power in the West crumbled quickly after the end of the Roman Climate Optimum around 300 C.E.; feudal power withered in the face of a perfect storm of climate change, disease, and popular revolt after 1300. This leads to us to ask two big – two really big – questions. Is capitalism capable of surviving through the present climate crisis, which dwarfs the climate shifts experienced by Roman and feudal oligarchs? And what are the ways that capitalism has re-established its conditions for growth and accumulation? A compelling answer begins by recognising just how dependent capitalism has been on frontiers of Cheap Nature: those places where food, energy, raw materials and workers can be drawn for free or low cost. Most radicals – never mind the would-be technocratic managers of a geoengineered climate system – still ignore this history. Somehow it’s easier to denounce the environmental degradation, the mass produced violence and genocide, the dynamics of domination, than it is to see how each of these moments 2 Moore JW (2017) ‘The Capitalocene, Part II’, The Journal of Peasant Studies, online in advance of print © 2017 The Author/s. IPPR Progressive Review © 2017 IPPR Winter 2017 | 179 is linked to the system of Cheap Nature and the endless accumulation of capital. But that won’t do. An understanding of how capital accumulation works, how it unfolds through the web of life, is fundamental to understanding not just why capitalism drives planetary crisis, but how its contradictions compel it to continue down this deadly and self-defeating path. Such an analysis may also reveal capitalism’s weaknesses – it may serve an antidote to the pervasive belief, even among radicals, that capitalism is allpowerful. It also won’t do to keep the ‘social’ and ‘environmental’ separate because the questions of how capital works, how capitalism destroys life, and how modernity requires racialised, gendered, and colonial violence are interpenetrated. That interpenetration is key to how capitalism has thrived in the past, and to how capitalism’s resilience is now in question. Our usual understanding of this planetary crisis comes from a philosophy of history that says “Humans did it!” It’s a philosophy that says the drivers of planetary crisis are anthropogenic. “Humans are overwhelming the great forces of nature” – in the words of the Popular Anthropocene.3 “Anthropogenic implicates an actor that doesn’t exist. There is no Anthropos, no humanity as a unified actor” There’s a big problem with such explanations. Anthropogenic implicates an actor that doesn’t exist. There is no Anthropos, no humanity as a unified actor. So, if not anthropogenic, what? In a word: capitalogenic. Let me be clear about this term, and about the idea of the ‘Capitalocene’. Liberals complain that there’s plenty of responsibility to go around, and that capitalists aren’t the only ones to blame. The Capitalocene doesn’t say that the One Percent are completely to blame for the crisis. (But, just to be clear, the One Percent are completely to blame for the crisis.) The Capitalocene argument isn’t about blame; it’s about identifying the system that has devastated life on this planet.4 It’s about making clear the history of capitalism. The Capitalocene is a way to begin to ask how the accumulation of capital, the pursuit of power and the co-production of nature form an organic and evolving whole. That whole is a ‘world-ecology’. To say capitalogenic is therefore to invoke not just economics – whatever that might mean – but the power and violence that has made endless accumulation possible. Where many radicals see only 3 Steffen W, Crutzen PJ and McNeill JR (2007) ‘The Anthropocene: Are humans now overwhelming the great forces of nature’, AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment 36, no. 8: 614–21 4 Moore JW (2017) ‘The Capitalocene, Part I: On the Nature and Origins of Our Ecological Crisis’, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 44, no. 3, 594-630 © 2017 The Author/s. IPPR Progressive Review © 2017 IPPR 180 | IPPR Progressive Review | Volume 24(3) capitalism’s entropy, destruction, and devastation, world-ecology embraces the life-making alternatives forged in resistance to such domination. To say that capitalism creates an ecology of power, capital, and nature in its own image is also to underscore the fragility of capitalism’s ecologies, and the power of a web of life that is continually upsetting the plans of the rich and powerful. This is what world-ecology celebrates: the intimate connections between the life-making resistances, and emancipatory possibilities, of a web of life that incudes humans. CHEAP NATURES AND THE GREAT FRONTIER Much environmental thinking and social theory says that all the troubles started in England with the advent of coal and steam. Such periodisation matters greatly to our politics. For one, this narrative – a very old narrative that stretches back more than a century – reveals a long-held love affair with big machines. The old Anglo-centric reading of capitalism has the disabling effect of rendering slavery, colonialism, and gender secondary: we are back to the old “forces of production” argument and its tragic history of rendering Nature a productive asset. It is not even clear that the steam engine was the key machine of industrialisation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Was not the cotton gin arguably more pivotal? Marx thought so, when he observed that it was only the enormous fall in the price of cotton that made large-scale industry possible.5 This is no mere historical quibble. For the productivist view of Nature lends itself quite readily to the view of race and gender as dependent variables, forgetting, as Federici reminds us, that the violent binaries of race and gender were themselves strategic pivots of accumulating surplus work/energy. Racial and gendered formations were themselves, if one can forgive the old-fashioned language, “forces of production”. Of course, these binaries were not invented in the Industrial Revolution; they were its fundamental preconditions. “The old Anglo-centric reading of capitalism has the disabling effect of rendering slavery, colonialism, and gender secondary: we are back to the old ‘forces of production’ argument and its tragic history of rendering Nature a productive asset” 5 Marx K (1971) Theories of surplus value, Vol. III, Moscow, Progress Publishers © 2017 The Author/s. IPPR Progressive Review © 2017 IPPR Winter 2017 | 181 If not the Industrial Revolution of the long nineteenth century, when should we say that capitalism began? In my view, the origins of capitalism are found in what the great French historian Fernand Braudel called the “long” sixteenth century, more or less the two centuries after 1450.6 But to keep it simple, let’s say 1492, Year Zero of modern power, genocide, and capital accumulation. And let’s call October 12, 1492 the birthday of Cheap Nature. For Columbus was not merely a navigator and conqueror: he was an assessor of Cheap Nature. His diary of the First Voyage expresses a strong desire not merely for gold – mentioned some 70 times – but also to identify what kinds of life could fetch a good price in Europe. Columbus carried forth not merely guns, germs and steel, but the keen eye of an assessor who sensed the New World’s potential riches. Columbus channelled the logic of Cheap Nature from the very beginning. Cheap Nature has never been a bargain. Cheapness is violence; it grows from the barrel of a gun. It’s an utterly irrational system of rationality, one premised on mobilising the work of all natures – humans included – for free, or for as close to free as possible. That’s crucial because capitalism is everything that an efficient system is not. Capitalism’s prodigious waste of life and limb is fundamental to its logic. When Marx called capitalism a system of turning children’s blood into capital, he was making a very important point. Such inefficiency requires and necessitates violence, at once cultural and material. And so Cheap Nature is also necessary because capitalism is not even price-rational. Capitalism pursues Cheap Natures so relentlessly because the ecology of capitalism is its precise opposite: capitalism’s ecology is expensive. And worse still, it becomes more expensive over time, because the fantasy of endless accumulation feeds on the bodies of finite lives and labours. This means that capitalism is not only a system of Cheap Nature but expresses the ethos of the cheapskate: the capitalist system is one where the rich and powerful never pay their bills. They are always too big to fail, too powerful to go broke. That there have been plenty of exceptions should not obscure the world-historical pattern. Capitalism is a system of expensive nature and capitalists are always inventing new ways to avoid paying their debts. Capitalists don’t want to take on the cost of raising families, of reproducing society, and of reproducing fields or forests. So, what do you do? You go to the frontier. 6 Braudel F (1953) ‘Qu’est-ce que le XVIe Siècle?’ Annales E.S.C., 8, no. 1, 69-73 © 2017 The Author/s. IPPR Progressive Review © 2017 IPPR 182 | IPPR Progressive Review | Volume 24(3) “modernity’s commodity frontiers are not simply about commodities; they’re about the cultural and territorial projects that make possible the appropriation of unpaid work/energy – the work of ‘women, nature, and colonies’” Frontiers are just not spaces “out there.” Frontiers are made. Nature doesn’t exist as a set of pre-fabricated use-values; nature’s utilities and work potential have to be identified, mapped, secured, and legitimated at every step from “raw material” to finished product. We think of this as an economic and technological dynamic, which it is. But it’s also profoundly cultural. So for me, modernity’s commodity frontiers are not simply – or even primarily – about commodities; they’re about the cultural and territorial projects that make possible the appropriation of unpaid work/energy – the work of “women, nature, and colonies”.7 Here we come face to face with what Max Weber called the “the European rationality of world domination”. That rationality has been, like racism and sexism, a powerful force of production, an indispensable lever of what I’ve called accumulation by appropriation. This opens our eyes to the ways that the history of the modern world is not just about the bloody violence of colonialism or the deployment of big machines. It is also about “soft” technologies, like bookkeeping and cartography. If historians today talk about ‘globalisation’ stretching back millennia, there’s no question that modern globalisation began with the invention of the “global” through modern cartography. We think of imperialism as movements of armed commerce and militarised production and plunder, and they were. But the great innovation of early capitalism – the trans-oceanic empire – was possibly only through maps, like the famous and still hegemonic Mercator projection, that allowed one not only to navigate planetary space, but to imagine its subordination to the pursuit of profit and power. It still strikes me as curious that we deify the steam engine while relegating the modern map to a footnote. But was not modern cartography – and its sibling, modern surveying – the very basis of the modern control of space, of global nature, of the creation of capitalism’s most basic real abstraction, property? Here was capitalism’s God trick (to borrow from Haraway): to re-present the world in “objective” form.8 This trick accomplished two big things: it 7 Mies M (1986) Patriarchy and accumulation on a world scale, London: Zed 8 Haraway D (1988) ‘Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective’, Feminist Studies, 14, no. 3, 575-599 © 2017 The Author/s. IPPR Progressive Review © 2017 IPPR Winter 2017 | 183 concealed capital’s desire for domination under the guise of objectivity and, in the same breath, it enabled the practical tasks of world domination. That raises a vexing question for radical thought: How do the practical matters of domination facilitate the practical matters of exploitation, and vice versa? One recent move is to make clear that epoch-making technologies under capitalism are fundamentally rooted in the exploitation of the worker by the capitalist. The history of technology and resources is a history of class struggles between bourgeois and proletarian. That seems to me a valuable insight, but also one easily suffocated by the kinds of formalisms that have so often plagued Marxists, and not only Marxists. Too often, the “working class” has been defined in ways that bear more than a passing family resemblance to the real abstraction, Society. Marxists have too often embraced unduly narrow conceptions of work and “the worker”. For this reason, I’ve emphasised work/energy, because we are dealing with work in a broadly biophysical sense, comprising the activity and potential energy of rivers and soils, of oil and coal deposits, of human-centred production and reproduction.9 At this point, the critics have objected: “Aha! You are flattening all work. Do you not recall how Marx insists that the worst of architects is better than the best of bees?” Which of course misses the point. For starters, there are no architects without bees – a reality that bea…

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