Metabolisms, Marxisms, & Other Mindfields

The turbulence of the 21st century poses a serious analytical challenge: How does capitalism develop through nature, and not just act upon it? Try drawing a line around the “social” and “environmental” moments of financialization, global warming, resurgent fundamentalisms, the rise of China – and much beyond. The exercise quickly ends in futility. Not because these processes are “too complex,” but because the conventional reckoning of Nature/Society yields the wrong questions – and the wrong answers. Such questions and answers are premised on the idea of humanity’s practical separation from the web of life.

But is not the inverse more plausible?

If “the truth is the whole” (Hegel), then the story of specific totalities – of financialization or climate change or even historical capitalism – cannot be adduced by aggregating environmental and social parts. For the “social” moment of these processes is essentially co-produced and co-productive; it is a product of nature as a whole. Far from blurring the specificity of “social” relations, such an approach enhances our capacity to grasp their specificity. Consider, for instance, the formation of new class, racial, and gendered orders in the centuries after 1492. Could we really explain the emergence of modern racism while bracketing the conquest and depopulation of the Americas? Or while abstracting the sugar planting frontier’s ferocious record of biogeographical transformation? Or nor considering the hardening of the Human/Nature divide in which most humans – women, peoples of color, and  many others – were expelled from Humanity with an uppercase ‘H’? The question of human sociality (difference, conflict, and cooperation) remains at the center of such an alternative, but is now situated within lively and unruly assemblages that enfold and unfold the organic and inorganic, the human and the extra-human, the symbolic and the material (Birch and Cobb 1981; Haraway 2016).

Situating human sociality within historical webs of power, capital, and nature significantly shifts our explanatory problem. Out goes the problem of how humans created Society separate from Nature. In comes a new set of questions, turning on humanity’s patterns of difference, conflict, and cooperation within the web of life. Financialization, in this light, is not a social process with environmental and social “consequences” – consequences which subsequently issue social and environmental “limits” and which might be remedied through social and environmental “justice.” Financialization is, rather, a bundle of human and extra-human natures. Its claims on future wealth involve claims on future capacities of human and extra-human work, and its transmutation into capital.

The contradictions – the “laws of motion” – of such bundled processes are not rooted in an abstract Society (in general) pressing against an equally abstract Nature. They are, rather, rooted in the mosaic of modernity’s “double internality” (Moore 2015, p. 3) – that is, in the ways that power and re/production are specifically bundled within a web of life that makes humans and that humans make. (Hint: when humans interact with other humans, we are – as any careworker and every parent can tell you – dealing with unruly natures that defy the boundary Nature/Society.)

Put simply, humans are a part of nature. The totality of nature is immanent in every human thought, organization, and movement. The statement is hardly controversial. Most environmental studies scholars would agree… at least in principle. It feels good to characterize “human society” as “internal to and dependent upon [the] larger earthly metabolism” (Foster 2013a, p. 8). And for many scholars of global change, such feel-good statements are the end of the line. It is decidedly less comfortable – and considerably more daunting – to rethink our methodological frames, theoretical propositions, and narrative strategies in this light. If not just humans, but human organizations, are products and producers of extra-human nature, a fundamental rethinking of storytelling, concept formation, and methodological orientation follows.

That such rethinking has made little headway until recently – with the explosion of actor-network, assemblage, world-ecological, and multi-species perspectives – is hardly surprising. For to move beyond Green Arithmetic in an analytical-empirical sense is to challenge the very basis of the social sciences and their governing conceit:  that human activity is, for practical analytical purposes, “exempt” from the dynamics of the web of life. In the logic of “human exemptionalism” (Dunlap and Catton 1979; also Haraway 2008; Moore 2015), relations between humans are ontologically independent of nature. In so doing, human exemptionalism allows one to speak of modernity as a set of social relations that act upon, rather than develop through, the web of life. It allows one to assume that history, at manifold temporal and spatial resolutions, unfolds as a kind of ping-pong between “natural forces” and “human agency.”

Foster’s groundbreaking contribution was to use metabolism as a means of putting work – the work of humans and the work of nature – at the center of the question of nature, and therefore the history of capitalism. His formulation of the rift marked a kind of halfway house: between Cartesian and post-Cartesian social science. Within the context of American sociology, Foster consciously aimed at transcending the limits of human exemptionalism and establishing a research program grounded in classical social theory, Marxism above all (1999). The conjuncture was fruitful. The rise of environmental sociology in the 1970s had not changed the discipline. Marxism, too, had yet to find its groove around ecological questions. By the late 1990s, however, the conditions had ripened for the rise of metabolism as a “conceptual star” (Fischer-Kowalksi 1997). A vigorous research program was established.

This conceptual star shaped a significant current within the “environmental humanities” at the dawn of the 21st century. In distinct registers, metabolism strongly influenced both Fischer-Kowalski’s neo-Malthusian “socio-metabolic” school and Marxisante approaches to global environmental change (Fischer-Kowalski and Haberl 1998; Foster 1999). Metabolism appeared to offer the possibility of fording the “Great Divide” of Nature and Society (Goldman and Schurman 2000).

Foster’s early formulation of metabolism suggested how we might realize that possibility (1999, 2000). In emphasizing work, nature, and capital, Foster appeared to propose a new method of bounding human and extra-human natures. Human-initiated processes and relations could be situated within their internalization of particular extra-human natures, and within nature as a whole. At the same time, the biosphere could be understood as internalizing elements of human-initiated process – obviously an asymmetrical relation. Such a method would take seriously a messy process of co-production, one that could move beyond re-branding Society as “human nature” and Nature as “extra-human nature.”  In such a reckoning, the perils of environmental determinism and social reductionism would be transcended. Human “society” could be understood as simultaneously a producer and product of the web of life, unevenly co-produced and symbolically enabled. In so doing, the specific forms of human sociality could be distinguished and analyzed in much more complex and nuanced ways relative to those blunt instruments, Nature/Society. Metabolism, in this potential synthesis, would bridge the Great Divide.

And yet, despite its appeal, such a synthesis never occurred. The bridge was never built. Foster’s elaboration of metabolism and materialism quickly foreclosed the very possibility of synthesis that it suggested. Marx’s “interdependent process of social metabolism” was forced into a dualist frame: “metabolism of nature and society” (Marx 1981, p. 949; Foster 2000: ch. 6, emphasis added). At the same time, Foster encouraged a theoretical rift between historical materialism and critical political economy, underscored by a reluctance to develop the socio-ecological possibilities of Marx’s theory of value. The dualism of Society (humans without nature) and Nature (ecologies without humans) was not transcended.

Criticizing Western Marxism for banishing nature from dialectics, Foster established a new Red-Green canon, and drew a new cognitive map for ecological Marxism. The new Red-Green canon was notable not only for who it included – but also for whom it left out. Including such figures as Richard Levins, Richard Lewontin, Stephen J. Gould, and Barry Commoner, Foster excised many other leading critical thinkers of the new environmental social sciences in the long 1970s: David Harvey, Neil Smith, Michael Watts, Robert M. Young, and Carolyn Merchant, just for starters.[1] Geographers have been unwelcome in Foster’s canon, and especially those closely associated with David Harvey (see Foster and Clark 2016; Foster 2016, forthcoming).[2] The exclusion of geographers – Foster cannot find a single geographer to credit with moving beyond “first-stage eco-socialism” (Burkett and Foster 2016, pp. 3-4) – is important in its own right. (Nor does Foster’s classic 1999 article make reference to a (then) quarter-century of Marxist-influenced political ecology.)

This disciplinary exclusion had two major effects. First, Foster’s expulsion of geographers from his version of ecological Marxism is tightly related to his procedure of abstraction. For Foster, Society (and capitalism) can be conceptualized abstracted from geographical relations and conditions. Just as no historian would accept ahistorical conceptions of social change – say, crude versions of modernization or demographic transition theory – no geographer would accept a conception of Society abstracted from geography. Secondly, the refusal of geographers to accept un-geographical conceptions of Nature/Society relations has led to a broad skepticism regarding dualism (see esp. Watts 2005; e.g. Harvey 1995; Heynen et al. 2007; Peet et al. 2011; Braun and Castree 1998). Foster’s reluctance to engage geographical knowledges combines with a disciplinary insularity that has effectively removed him from meaningful conversations with geographers and other scholars in the humanities and social sciences who have made the “spatial turn” (e.g., Warf and Arias 2008). Among the intellectual consequences is Foster’s unwillingness to discern social constructionist from materialist interpretations that differ from Rift interpretations. The argument for historical-geographical materialism, for instance, privileges the relationality of humanity-in-nature (and nature-in-humanity) in which material and cultural transformations are entwined – without succumbing to idealism (Smith 1984; Harvey 1995; Braun and Castree 1998; Moore 2015a). And yet, for Foster, all deviations from his interpretation of Marx are idealist and constructionist. Critics of the Rift are less-than-truly Marxist – or worse (e.g. Foster 2013a, 2016a, forthcoming; Foster and Clark 2016). The evaluative process is black and white, either/or – interpretative differences are cast into the cauldron of Cartesian rationality, boiling down all difference into binary categories.

Foster’s Red-Green canon has evolved alongside Foster’s new cognitive map of Nature and Society. Thanks to Foster and others, Nature earned a place within Marxism – and even beyond. This was, however, a narrow interpretation of Marx’s thinking about the web of life (Moore 2015). Foster saw nature as Nature, with an emphatically uppercase ‘N.’ Dualism had won the day. Rift as metaphor of separation, premised on material flows between Nature and Society, triumphed. The accomplishment was mighty, but so was the cost. Pushed to the side was a vision of metabolism as a means of unifying humans within nature, unfolding through combined and uneven metabolisms of power, wealth, and nature. In this, the dualist conception of metabolism and its “rifts” influenced a decade and more of critical environmental studies, especially within environmental sociology.

Why should this be a problem? It was perhaps not a significant problem for the first decade of the twenty-first century. New interpretations and empirical analyses poured forth. By 2010, however, it began to look as if Rift arguments had explained about as much as they could within Green Arithmetic’s constraints (e.g. Foster et al. 2010). Rift analysts had largely completed the work of mapping environmental problems within capitalism – but the additive character of that project constrained its ability to explain not just capitalism’s consequences, but its constitution as producer and product of the web of life.

The metabolic rift perspective is not alone in this – Green Thought’s signal accomplishment, from the 1970s, was to fill in and flesh out blank spots in the human exemptionalist cognitive map. Like Green Thought as a whole, Rift arguments were caught in a powerful contradiction: a “double yes” (Moore 2015). Are humans part of nature? Yes. Can we analyze human organizations as if they are independent of nature? Yes. Metabolism-centered studies, like much of critical environmental studies, face an unresolved contradiction: between a philosophical-discursive embrace of a relational ontology (humanity-in-nature) and a practical-analytical acceptance of Nature/Society dualism (dualist practicality). It has been one thing to affirm and explore the ontological and epistemological questions (e.g., Bennett 2009).[3] But how does one move from seeing human organization as part of nature towards an effective – and practicable – analytical program?

About the author

Jason W. Moore, a world historian and historical geographer, is associate professor of Sociology at Binghamton University. He is author of several books, mostly recently Capitalism in the Web of Life (Verso, 2015), and editor of Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism (PM Press, 2016). He coordinates the World-Ecology Research Network, and is presently completing Seven Cheap Things: A World-Ecological Manifesto (with Raj Patel) and Ecology of the Rise of Capitalism, both for the University of California Press. This essay is drawn from “Metabolic Rift or Metabolic Shift? Dialectics, Nature, and the World-Historical Method.”


Bennett, J. (2009). Vibrant Matter. Durham: Duke Univ. Press.

Birch, Charles, and John B. Cobb (1981). The Liberation of Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Braun, Bruce, and Noel Castree, eds. (1998). Remaking reality: nature at the millenium. New York: Routledge.

Burkett, P. (1999). Marx and Nature. New York: St. Martin’s.

Burkett, P., and J.B. Foster (2016). Marx and the Earth. Leiden: Brill.

Dunlap, R.E., and W.R. Catton, Jr. (1979). Environmental Sociology. Annual Reviews in Sociology, 5, 243-273

Fischer-Kowalski, M. (1997). Society’s Metabolism. Pp. 119-37 in M.R. Redclift and G. Woodgate, eds., The International Handbook of Environmental Sociology. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

Fischer‐Kowalski, M., and H. Haberl. (1998). “Sustainable Development. International Social Science Journal, 158, 573-587.

Foster, J.B. (2000). Marx’s Ecology. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Foster, J.B. (2013a). Marx and the Rift in the Universal Metabolism of Nature. Monthly Review 65/7, 2013: 1-19

Foster, J.B. (2013b). “The Epochal Crisis,” Monthly Review, 65(5), 1-12.

Foster, J.B. (2016). In defense of ecological Marxism., retrieved 4 June, 2016.

Foster, J.B., and B. Clark. (2016). Marx’s Ecology and the Left. Monthly Review, 68(2), 1-25.

Foster, J.B. (forthcoming). Marxism in the Anthropocene. International Critical Thought.

Foster, J.B., et al. (2010). The Ecological Rift. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Goldman, M., and R.A. Schurman. (2000). Closing the ‘Great Divide.’ Annual Review of Sociology, 26(1), 563-584.

Haraway, Donna J. (2008). When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Harvey, D. (1974). Population, Resources, and the Ideology of Science. Economic Geography, 50(3), 256-277.

Harvey, D. (1993). The Nature of Environment. Pp. 1-51 in R. Miliband and L. Panitch, eds., Socialist Register 1993. London, Merlin.

Harvey, D. (1995). Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference. Cambridge: Blackwell.

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Marx, K. (1981). Capital, Vol. III. New York: Penguin.

Merchant, C. (1980). The Death of Nature. New York: Harper & Row.

Moore, J.W. (2011). Transcending the Metabolic Rift. Journal of Peasant Studies, 38(1), 1-46.

Moore, J.W. (2015). Capitalism in the Web of Life. London: Verso.

Peet, Richard, Paul Robbins, & Michael Watts, eds. (2011).  Global Political Ecology. London: Routledge.

Plumwood, V. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. New York: Routledge.

Smith, Neil. (1984). Uneven Development. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Warf, B., and S. Arias, eds. (2008). The spatial turn. New York: Routledge.

Watts, M.J. (1983). Silent Violence. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Watts, M.J. (2005). Nature:Culture. Pp. 142-174 in P. Cloke and R. Johnston, eds., Spaces of Geographical Thought. London, Sage.

Young, R.M. (1979). Science is a Labor Process. Science for the People, 43-44, 31-37.

[1] Representative texts include Harvey (1974), Merchant (1980), Young (1979), Watts (1983), and Smith (1984).

[2] Foster presents Harvey as arguing for nature as an “outer boundary” (2013a, p. 9) – a position that distorts Harvey’s actual position. Harvey holds to a strongly relational view of socio-ecological relations in which “all ecological projects (and arguments) are simultaneously political-economic projects (and arguments) and vice versa” (1993, p. 25; also 1995). An analagous mis-reading is found in Foster’s appropriation of my conception of epochal crisis (Moore 2011), which he describes as the “convergence of economic and ecological contradictions” (2013b, p. 1). These appropriations indicate Foster’s unwillingness to engage the relational critique on its own terms

[3] The critique of nature/society dualism is vast. Classic statements include Smith (1984); Plumwood (1993); Braun and Castree (1998). Descartes is simply one of several possible names for the kind of dualism that emerged with the rise of capitalism in the early modern era (Moore 2015).

Name the System! Anthropocenes & the Capitalocene Alternative

The Anthropocene has become the most important – and also the most dangerous — environmentalist concept of our times. It is dangerous not because it gets planetary crisis so wrong, but because it simultaneously clarifies ongoing “state shifts” in planetary natures while mystifying the history behind them (Barnosky et al. 2012). No phrase crystallizes this danger more than the words anthropogenic global warming. Of course this is a colossal falsification. Global warming is not the accomplishment of an abstract humanity, the Anthropos. Global warming is capital’s crowning achievement. Global warming is capitalogenic (Street 2016).

The Anthropocene’s popularity derives from something more than impressive research. Its influence has been won on the strength of its storytelling power, and on its capacity to unify humans and the earth-system within a singular narrative. How it unifies earth-system and humanity within a singular narrative is precisely its weakness, and the source of its falsifying power. For the unification is not dialectical; it is the unity of the cyberneticist – a unity of fragments, an idealist unity that severs the constitutive historical relations that have brought the planet to its present age of extinction.

In the three years since my initial sketch of the Capitalocene (Moore 2013a, 2013b, 2013c), the concept has gone viral.[1] For me, the Capitalocene is partly a play on words. It is a geopoetics (Last 2015), a counterpoint to the Anthropocene’s extraordinary popularity. It is a means of cutting to the heart of the conversation initiated by Crutzen and Stoermer (2000). That conversation has been twofold (Moore 2017a, 2017b). One is an argument about stratigraphy. In this, the necessary criterion for designating a new geological era turns on a “geological signal” that “must be sufficiently large, clear and distinctive” on a global scale (Working Group 2016). This is the Geological Anthropocene. It begins, we are now told, at the mid-century dawn of the atomic age (Carrington 2016).

The Geological Anthropocene – a useful, “formal concept to the scientific community” – has, however, been eclipsed by the Popular Anthropocene: a way of thinking the origins and evolution of modern ecological crisis. This is debate joined by the Capitalocene – and the stakes are anything but silly (contra Chakrabarty 2016). The Popular Anthropocene poses several daunting questions: 1) What is the character of 21st century ecological crisis?; 2) When did that crisis originate?; and 3) What forces drive that crisis? That conversation, except for a brief moment in the 1970s (e.g. Meadows et al. 1972), was marginal until the new millennium.

Crutzen and Stoermer’s Anthropocene enjoyed the necessary virtue required of all Big Ideas – timing. It helped that the Anthropocene was one of those quasi-empty signifiers – like globalization in the 1990s – that could be filled with the aspirations and arguments of otherwise radically divergent thinkers (compare Steffen et al. 2007; Davis 2010). Quasi-empty, however, was not completely vacant. The Popular Anthropocene has worked not only because it is plastic, but because it fits comfortably with a view of population, environment, and history governed by food and resource use – and abstracted from class and empire (and not only class and empire).

If that sounds neo-Malthusian, it is. Not for its emphasis on population, but for ignoring modernity’s “special laws of population” (Marx 1967, I, 592) – human and non-human alike (e.g. Seccombe 1992; Weis 2013). In Anthropocenic thought, history is the first casualty; like Malthus in the eighteenth century, its major exponents substitute an abstract time for history, evacuating the very historical perspective that might give real explanatory flesh and blood to their quantitative reckonings. Among Malthus’s greatest errors was his inability to situate the late eighteenth century’s quite real combination of agricultural stagnation and population increase within longer waves of agricultural revolution and demographic change (see Moore 2010; Seccombe 1992, 1995).

The Capitalocene is therefore precisely not an argument about geological history (contra, e.g., Vansintjan 2015). For starters, the ‘Age of Capital’ necessarily precedes and precipitates the ‘geological signals’ necessary to discern a new geological era. That era – the Anthropocene – will outlast capitalism by a great many millennia. The biospheric conditions of the ongoing planetary “state shift” will shape the conditions of human organization for a very longue durée indeed.

The Capitalocene is an argument about thinking ecological crisis. It is a conversation about geo-history rather than geological history – although of course the two are related. The Capitalocene challenges the Popular Anthropocene’s Two Century model of modernity – a model that has been the lodestar of Green Thought since the 1970s (Moore 2017a). The origins of modern ecological crisis – and therefore of capitalism – cannot be reduced to England, to the long 19th century, to coal, or to the steam engine. The Anthropocene’s historical myopia, moreover, seems to be immanent to its intellectual culture. In this respect, the Capitalocene challenges not just the earth system scientists – but also those on the “other” side of the Two Cultures (e.g. Pálsson et al 2013; Brondizio et al 2016; McNeill and Engelke 2016) – who refuse to name the system. The Popular Anthropocene is but the latest of a long series of environmental concepts whose function is to deny the multi-species violence and inequality of capitalism and to assert that the problems created by capital are the responsibility of all humans. The politics of the Anthropocene – an anti-politics in Ferguson’s sense (1990) – is resolutely committed to the erasure of capitalism and the capitalogenesis of planetary crisis.

The Anthropocene helpfully poses the question of Nature/Society dualism, but cannot resolve that dualism in favor of a new synthesis. That synthesis, in my view, rests on rethinking capitalism in the web of life. While it is now commonplace to invoke – quite properly – “system change, not climate change,” we should take care with how we think that system. A critique of capitalism that accepts its self-definition – as a market or social system abstracted from the web of life – is unlikely to guide us helpfully towards sustainability and liberation. We should be therefore wary of views of capitalism reduced to their economic and social moments: the practice of “human exceptionalism” (Haraway 2008). Exceptionalisms are always dangerous; especially so when it comes to Humanity, a real abstraction active in a long history of racialized, gendered, and colonial violence (Moore 2016b, 2017a, forthcoming). The world-ecology conversation has argued the opposite: capitalism develops through the web of life. In this movement, human sociality has been brutally reshaped through Nature/Society as real abstractions, enabling modernity’s successive racialized and gendered orders (Plumwood 1993; Moore 2015a; von Werlhof 1985).[2] This doubly-layered question of nature – as Nature/Society and as web of life – is fundamentally implicated in every moment and movement of modern history.

Finally, the Capitalocene embodies world-ecology’s rejection of two frames that dominate environmental social science. On the one hand, it seeks an alternative to concept-indicator approaches characterized by influential metaphors such as the “ecological footprint” and the “metabolic rift.” Such approaches conceptualize human organization – respectively markets and capitalism – independently of the web of life, then mobilize indicators of the “degree-of or amount-of” stress or degradation (Hopkins 1982, 201; e.g. Wackernagel et al. 2002; Foster et al. 2010). A relational approach, in contrast, follows part-whole movements in successive determinations and juxtapositions – through which the “whole” in question (capitalism, imperialism, industrialization, etc.) undergoes qualitative transformation (Moore forthcoming). This logic of inquiry opens analytical pathways that emphasize capitalism’s extraordinary flexibility through its socio-ecological conditions. The Capitalocene argument consequently trods a different path from the governing procedures of global environmental change research: it is not a quest for “underlying [social] causes” of environmental change, nor for connecting “social organization” to environmental consequences (respectively, Brondizio et al. 2016; Dalby 2015).

On the other hand, in arguing that climate change, for instance, is capitalogenic, world-ecology argues against the view that climate change is sociogenic. That may seem a fine point. It is in fact anything but. The conflation of human sociality with Society is a conceptual move indebted to a long history of gendered, racialized, and colonial violence (Moore 2017a). The Capitalocene pursues a different approach, privileging a triple helix of environment-making: the mutually constitutive transformation of ideas, environments, and organization, co-producing the relations of production and reproduction (Moore 2015a; Merchant 1989; Worster 1990; Seccombe 1992). This challenges a vulgar materialism implicit in many global environmental change studies, for which ideas, culture, and even scientific revolutions have little traction – a problem besetting radical as well as mainstream accounts (e.g. Foster et al. 2010; Steffen et al. 2011). Even that, however, does not go nearly far enough:

The challenge for us may then be to use descriptive tools that do not give to Capitalocene the power to explain away the entanglement of earthly, resilient matters of concern, while adding that no Capitalocene story, starting with the ‘long sixteenth century’, can go very far without being entangled with the on-going invention-production-appropriation-exploitation of… ‘cheap nature’. In other words, we should not indulge in the very Capitalocene gesture of appropriation, of giving to an abstraction the power to define as ‘cheap’ – an inexhaustible resource that may be dismembered or debunked at will and reduced to illusory beliefs – whatever escapes its grasp (Stengers 2015, 142; also Haraway 2016; Moore 2015a, 2016a, 2016c).

The Capitalocene, then, is a key conceptual and methodological move in rethinking capitalism as “a historically situated complex of metabolisms and assemblages” (Haraway et al. 2015, 21). This complex includes – but cannot be reduced to – capital’s circuit of expanded reproduction. The concept’s virtue, in relation to alternatives, is its historical-relational focus. Alternative naming has proliferated – a hopeful and positive indicator of flourishing discontent with the Popular Anthropocene. The equally ungainly terms offered as complementary, even alternative, to Anthropocene/Capitalocene frequently reveal innovative thinking. Some are oriented towards Braudel’s “very longue durée” (2009, e.g. Pyne’s Pyrocene [2015]); others to modernity’s phenomenal forms of production (e.g. Tsing’s Plantationocene [2015]); still others to violent abstractions created by the past century’s colonial developmentalism (e.g. Growthocene, Econocene [Chertkovskaya and Paulsson 2016; Norgaard 2013]). The argument that the Capitalocene elides the experience of Communist projects is framed by a concept-indicator epistemology – a surprising critique when offered by otherwise relational thinkers (e.g. Morton 2016). But the Capitalocene is a dialectical – not “generalizing” – claim (Moore 2017a, 2017b). In contrast to positivist generalization, dialectical arguments proceed through, not in spite of, variation. The Capitalocene names a historical process in Marx’s sense of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (1981): as a general law constituted through counter-acting tendencies. To what degree either the Soviet or Chinese projects represented a fundamental break with previous waves of capitalist environment-making is an important question but beside the point. The question is whether or not such partial moments overwhelmed the “developing patterns of history” established and reproduced in the capitalist world-ecology over the longue durée.[3]

A politics of nature premised on degradation rather than work renders the radical vision vulnerable to a powerful critique. This says, in effect, that pristine nature has never really existed; that we are living through another of many eras of environmental change that can be resolved through technological innovation (Lynas 2011; Shellenberger and Nordhaus 2011). Of course such arguments are rubbish. The counterargument – for the Capitalocene – understands the degradation of nature as a specific expression of capitalism’s organization of work. “Work” takes many forms in this conception; it is a multispecies and manifold geo-ecological process. This allows us to think of technology as rooted in the natures co-produced by capitalism. It allows us to see that capitalism has thrived by mobilizing the work of nature as a whole; and to mobilize human work in configurations of “paid” and “unpaid” work by capturing the work/energies of the biosphere.

Human organizations are at once producers and products of the web of life, understood in its evolving mosaic of diversity. From this perspective, capitalism becomes something more-than-human. It becomes a world-ecology of power, capital, and nature (Moore 2003, 2011, 2015a, 2016a; Altvater 2016; Bolthouse 2014; Camba 2015; Cox 2015; Deckard 2015; Dixon 2015; El Khoury 2015; Gill 2016; Hartley 2016; Jakes forthcoming; Marley forthcoming; McBrien 2016; Niblett and Campbell 2016; Oloff 2016; Parenti 2016; Taylor 2015; Weis 2013; see World-Ecology Research Network, Essays). This incorporates geological history but does not substitute for it. World-ecology refuses naturalism and constructivism – not in favor a balance between the two but in pursuit of their transcendence. It incorporates geobiophysical processes and social and economic history within a relational field. That wider field is crucial. It allows world-ecology to situate the histories of culture and knowledge production, frequently excised from the historiography of capitalism (Moore 2015a, 193-217; 2017b; Hartley 2016). The Capitalocene therefore contests social as well as environmental reductionism, and resists any periodization of capitalism derived from the mythic category of Society (humans without nature).[4]

biographical sketch

Jason W. Moore is associate professor of Sociology at Binghamton University. He is author of Capitalism in the Web of Life (Verso, 2015) and editor of Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism. He is coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network. This essay draws on “The Capitalocene, Part II: Accumulation by Appropriation and the Centrality of Unpaid Work/Energy,” forthcoming, The Journal of Peasant Studies.


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Haraway, D.J., et al. forthcoming. “Anthropologists are Talking — About the Anthropocene,” Ethnos.

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[1] I chart the genealogy of the Capitalocene elsewhere (Moore 2016b). The term originates with Andreas Malm. The use of the Capitalocene to signify capitalism as a system of power, capital, and nature is broadly shared with Haraway (2016). Haraway and I began experimenting with the concept independently before discovering each other in 2013.

[2] Real abstractions “are not mental categories that ideally precede the concrete totality; they are real abstractions that are truly caught up in the [socio-ecological] whole” (Toscano 2008, 274-75).

[3] It is difficult for me to read the Soviet project as a fundamental rupture. The great industrialization drive of the 1930s relied – massively – on the importation of fixed capital, which by 1931 constituted 90 percent of Soviet imports. The Soviets were so desperate to obtain hard currency that “the state was prepared to export anything and everything, from gold, oil and furs to the pictures in the Hermitage Museum” (Kagarlitsky 2007, 272-73). If the Soviet project resembles other modes of production, it is surely the tributary, not socialist, mode of production, through which the state directly extracts the surplus. Nor did the Soviets turn inwards after 1945. Soviet trade with OECD countries (in constant dollars) increased 8.9 percent annually between 1950 and 1970, rising to 17.9 percent a year in the following decade (calculated from Gaidar 2007, 14) – a trend accompanied by sharply deteriorating terms of trade and rising debt across the Soviet-led zone (Kagarlitsky 2007). Need we recall that the 1980s debt crisis was detonated not by Mexico but by Poland in 1981 (Green 1983)?

[4] Although this is how Malm (2016) uses it.



Jason W. Moore

Fernand Braudel Center and Department of Sociology

Binghamton University

Among Nature/Society dualism’s essential features is the tendency to circumscribe truth-claims by drawing hard-and-fast lines between what is Social and what is Natural.[1] Here is a rift: an epistemic rift.[2] At its core is a series of violent abstractions implicated in the creation and reproduction of two separate epistemic domains: Nature and Society (again in the uppercase). The abstractions are “violent” because they remove essential relations from each node in the interests of narrative and theoretical coherence (Sayer 1987). Dialectical abstractions, in contrast, begin with historical movement and decisions about strategic historical relations – something conspicuously absent from Nature/Society.

The procedure of abstraction is central to Marx’s method, with implications that go far beyond philosophical differences (Ollman 2003). How we abstract reality into semi-fixed categories shapes our interpretation; analytics in turn shape politics and policy. This is why Foster’s defense of Nature/Society as appropriate abstractions – strikingly at odds with Marx’s method – is so curious (2013). Nature/Society are undialectical abstractions. They are no more dialectical than, say, “the market” and “industry,” or “population” and “environment.” At best, these are chaotic conceptions, as Marx would say (1973, pp. 100).

Such chaotic conceptions are violent in Sayer’s sense of the term – but also in a more practical sense. The language of Nature and Society is hardly value-neutral. Environmental sociology, in particular, has yet to experience its Bourdieu-ian moment, “reflexively” grasping the degree to which Nature/Society embody arbitrary yet patterned relations of power (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992).  While a distinction between humans and the rest of nature antedates capitalism by millennia (Arnold 1996), the elevation of Nature/Society to a civilizational organizing principle did not occur until the “long” sixteenth century (Braudel 1953; Wallerstein 1974; Moore 2016a). This is no mere quibble over terms. Cartesian dualism as a system of thought – and as a conceptual vocabulary – has been a quite palpable force in the making of the modern world. They have been real abstractions – abstractions with operative force in the material world (Sohn-Rethel 1978; Toscano 2016). Nature/Society – and manifold cognate terms, clustered in early modern Europe around “civility” and “barbarism” or “savagery” – implicated a new ways of thinking… and a new civilizational praxis: Cheap Nature

The birth of these real abstractions, Nature and Society, was consolidated in early capitalism (Merchant 1980; Moore 2015a). In the centuries after 1450, the entanglements of capital, science, and empire enacted a series of socio-ecological and symbolic revolutions aimed at the creation of an “external” nature as a source of cheap inputs (Moore 2014, 2015a). What is crucial to understand is that “Nature” in the rise of capitalism came to include the vast majority of humans within its geographical reach.

Nature – again our uppercase ‘N’ – was fundamental to capitalism from the beginning. The Columbian rupture of 1492 marked not only the “discovery” of the Americas, but the “discovery of Mankind” – and with it, Nature (Albuafia 2008; Mumford 1934). For the Columbian conquests were not merely exterminist and plundering; their epochal significance derives also from ambitious imperial projects to map and catalogue productive natures of every kind (Bleichmar et al. 2009). The project proceeded through the assumption that Nature included indigenous peoples. The overseas empires, beginning with the Iberian powers, “collected, harnessed, and ordered (natural) things as they tried to construct and control (knowledge about) the natural world.” These “practices included the collecting of humans, that is (savage) bodies, as fungible commodities to be classified and exploited” (Modest 2012, p. 86).

The newly-discovered Mankind was of a piece with early modernity’s epistemological and ontological revolution, creating Nature as external to civilization and subordinating it to new “measures of reality” – above all the primacy of visual knowledges embodied in the cartographic gaze and new procedures of quantitative rationalization (Crosby 1997; Mumford 1934). At best, the paired discovery of Mankind and Nature was less anthropocentric than it was Manthropocentric – to borrow Raworth’s apt turn of phrase (2014; see Federici 2004; Merchant 1980). At its core was an always-contested boundary between which humans counted as Human, and which would be forcibly resettled into the zone of Nature. The conquest of the Americas and the paired “discoveries” of Nature and Humanity/Society were two moments of a singular movement.

Colonialism, ethnic cleansing, and the emergence of Nature as a violent and real abstraction co-evolved from the very beginning. During the protracted conquest of the Canaries, Portugal’s King Duarte put the issue starkly (1436): Canarians are “nearly wild men… living in the country like animals” (quoted in Hulme 1994, p. 187). The same discourse characterized English rule in Ireland a century later (Rai 1993). Ethnic cleansing – typically in the name of “taking away their inhumanity” (Sued-Badillo 1992) – was the order of the day in the three great military campaigns culminating in the Columbian invasions. The final waves of conquest of the Canaries (1478-1490s) and Granada (1482-92) – which cash-strapped Castile and Aragon financed largely through slaving – were key moments in an emergent capitalism installing and reproducing a Humanity/Nature binary through an equally emergent racialized and gendered order (Nader 2002; Kicza 1992).

The earliest moments of conquest were effected through a radical inversion of land/labor arrangements – underscored by the overnight reinvention of the encomienda, from a medieval land grant and to a preciously modern labor grant. Indigenous peoples became de facto slaves, while the booming sugar plantation complex pioneered modern slavery de jure – tentatively at first in Madeira, and reaching critical mass in Brazil after 1600. An African slave was part of Nature – not Society – in the new order. Here Patterson’s characterization of modern slavery as “social death” receives a post-Cartesian twist (1982). Most human work was not labor-power and therefore most humans within capital’s gravitational pull were not, or not really, Humans. This meant that the realm of Nature encompassed virtually all peoples of color, most women, and most people with white skin living in semi-colonial regions (e.g. Ireland, Poland, etc.) (von Werlhof 1985; Rai 1993). Not for nothing did Castilians refer to indigenous Andeans in the sixteenth century as naturales (Stavig 2000). The problem with Nature and Society is not merely discursive – they are real abstractions with real force in the modern world we now inhabit.

Primitive accumulation therefore yielded not only bourgeois and proletarian, but Society and Nature. This is not a rhetorical flourish. The binary tendency of modern class formation and the dualism of Society and Nature reinforced each other in the rise of capitalism (Moore 2015a, 2016b, 2017a).

We can see this close relationship with the evolution of the word Society. Society begins to assume its modern English usage – as national collectivity – from the mid-sixteenth century (1 1983, p. 292; also OED 2016). The timing is significant. At precisely this point, following Kett’s Rebellion (1549), that the tide of agrarian class struggle shifted decisively in favor of the gentry (Wood 2007). By 1700, England’s landlords held two-thirds of arable land (Thompson 1966). Nor was it coincident that this period saw, from 1541, the intensification of English colonial rule in Ireland (Ohlmeyer 2016). Through all this, the Irish (and later North America’s indigenous peoples), the poor, most women,  and many others came to be viewed as “savages” of one sort of another – a view that justified all manner of bloody expropriations (Leerssen 1995; Moore 2016b). Here we begin to see modernity’s emergent epistemic rift practically bound to capitalism as ontological formation – as a world-ecology of power, capital, and nature.  The Cheap Nature strategy had become pivotal to the audacious restructuring of human relations along modern – and powerfully dualist – lines of class, race, and gender.[3]

Modernity’s epistemic rift is premised on the creation of two idealized and independent objects of investigation: Nature/Society. The binary is so resilient because its underlying ontology is mechanical, which corresponds remarkably well with capitalist rationality via the quantism of capital in its monetary and productivist forms (currency units, units of labor-power, etc.). In the dualist cognitive map, environmental “factors” are easily tacked onto the analysis of social processes – just what has occurred through Marxist Green Arithmetic. Announcing a “nature-society dialectic” (e.g. Foster 2013), such phrases confuse relations for dialectics and general abstractions and empirical patterns (e.g. Nature/Society) for the “developing tendencies of history” (Lukács 1971, p. 184). For Nature/Society can only be a dialectic – as opposed to a relation – through a specification of its laws of motion, its developing tendencies. Capital/labor is a dialectical relation for this very reason: it is asymmetrical and grounded in a historical-geographical movement of transcendence. At once producer and product of the town/country antagonism (its geographical moment), the capital/labor dialectic entails the undoing of an originary asymmetry in favor of a new synthesis: “the expropriators are expropriated” (Marx 1977, p. 929).

Rift arguments, however, deploy Nature/Society very differently, as basic units rather than interpenetrating relations (Levins and Lewontin 1985). Nature as a general abstraction – like population or production in general (Marx 1973) – dominates. As if to move from the frying pan into the fire, Rift analysts dismiss as idealist efforts to historicize the capitalism-nature relation (e.g. through integrating accounts of science and culture in successively dominant understandings of the web of life) (e.g. Foster and Clark 2016). The result is a twofold conception of history shaped by a declensionist Fall from Eden and the inexorable drive towards catastrophe in which capital accumulation will proceed until “the last tree has been cut” (Foster 2009, p. 206). No one disputes the reality of socio-ecological disaster, planetary change, and limits – notwithstanding Foster’s insistence to the contrary (2016, forthcoming). Rather, the crux of the present argument highlights how the life and times of metabolism has resisted the tendency of dialectical praxis to dissolve its analytical objects (e.g., capital/labor), and to create new categories suitable to comprehending the historically successive interpenetrations of humans with the rest of nature.


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Foster, J.B. (2016). In defense of ecological Marxism., retrieved 4 June, 2016.

Foster, J.B., and B. Clark. (2016). Marx’s Ecology and the Left. Monthly Review, 68(2), 1-25.

Foster, J.B. (forthcoming). Marxism in the Anthropocene. International Critical Thought.

Harvey, D. (1993). The Nature of Environment. Pp. 1-51 in R. Miliband and L. Panitch, eds., Socialist Register 1993. London, Merlin.

Hulme, Peter. (1994). Tales of Distinction. Pp. 157-197 in S.B. Schwartz, ed., Implicit Understandings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

James, P. (2015). They have never been modern? Arena Journal, 44, 31-54.

Kicza, J.E. 1992. Patterns in Early Spanish Overseas Expansion. William and Mary Quarterly, 49(2), 229-253.

Kuklick, H. (1991) The savage within. Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Leerssen, J. (1995). Wildness, Wilderness, and Ireland. Journal of the History of Ideas, 56(1), 25-39.

Lefebvre, Henri. (1991). The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell.

Levins, R, and R Lewontin. 1985. The Dialectical Biologist. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Lukács, G. (1971). History and Class Consciousness. Cambridge: MIT Press.

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Merchant, C. (1980). The Death of Nature. New York: Harper & Row.

Nader, H. (2002). Desperate men, questionable acts. Sixteenth Century Journal, 33(2), 401-422.

Modest, W. (2012). We have always been modern. Museum Anthropology, 35(1), 85-96.

Moore, J.W. (2014). The End of Cheap Nature, or: How I learned to Stop Worrying about ‘the’ Environment and Love the Crisis of Capitalism. Pp. 285-314 in C. Suter and C. Chasde-Dunn, eds., Structures of the World Political Economy and the Future of Global Conflict and Cooperation. Berlin: LIT.

Moore, J.W. (2015a). Capitalism in the Web of Life. London: Verso.

Moore, J.W. (2015b). Cheap Food and Bad Climate. Critical Historical Studies, 2(1), 1-43.

Moore, J.W. (2016a). Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism. Oakland: PM Press.

Moore, J.W. (2016b). The Rise of Cheap Nature. In: J.W. Moore, ed., Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Oakland: PM Press, pp. 78-115.

Moore, J.W. (2017a). The Capitalocene, Part I. Journal of Peasant Studies.

Moore, J.W. (2017b). The Capitalocene, Part II. Journal of Peasant Studies.

Mumford, L. (1934). Technics & Civilization. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Oxford English Dictionary. (2016). Society. In The Oxford English Dictionary,, accessed 10 July 2016.

Ohlmeyer, J. (2016). Conquest, Civilization, Colonization. Pp. 21-47 in R. Bourke and I. McBride, eds., The Princeton History of Modern Ireland. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Ollman, B. (2003). Dance of the Dialectic. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Patterson, O. (1982). Slavery and Social Death. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press.

Rai, Milan. 1993. Columbus in Ireland. Race & Class 34, 4, 25-34.

Raworth, K. (2014). Must the Anthropocene be a Manthropocene? The Guardian (October 20).

Sayer, D. (1987). The Violence of Abstraction. Oxford: Blackwell.

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Stavig, W. (2000). Ambiguous Visions. Hispanic American Historical Review, 80(1), 77-111.

Sued-Badillo, J. (1992). Christopher Columbus and the enslavement of the Amerindians in the Caribbean. Monthly Review, 44(3), 71-103.

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Wood, A. (2007). The 1549 rebellions and the making of early modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jason W. Moore is associate professor of Sociology at Binghamton University and author of several books, including Capitalism in the Web of Life (Verso, 2015). He is coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network. This essay draws on his forthcoming essay, “Metabolic Rift or Metabolic Shift? Dialectics, Nature, and the World-Historical Method,” available here.

[1] Harvey offers the clearest exposition of this critique (1993).

[2] The term is indebted to Schneider and McMichael (2010), whose formulation is, however, distinct from epistemic rift as epistemological dualism.

[3] My concept of ontological formation draws on James’ groundbreaking work (2015).

Free Copy! Capitalism in the Web of Life at the American Sociological Association

Jason W. Moore will be signing copies of Capitalism in the Web of Life at the American Sociological Association meeting this coming Sunday (23 August), from 12:15-1:15. Look for booth 412 (Penguin Publishing) in the book room.

During the signing, books will be free — for the rest of the conference the book is being offered at the conference price of $3.00.

Beyond the ‘Exploitation of Nature’? A World-Ecological Alternative

Jason W. Moore

Is nature exploited? “Of course!” says the environmentalist. But what might this mean? And, more significantly, is it so? Might there be a better way see the relations between humans and the rest of nature?

On the one hand, “exploitation” is often used by red-green scholars as a moral slogan, a polemical phrase – something Marx did frequently as well (e.g. 1977: 519; also Williams, 1980; Merchant, 1980; Moore, 2000a, 2000b; Plumwood, 1993; Katz, 1998; Smith, 2006). Such polemics have their place. Polemical phrases are often useful, and one shouldn’t be too nit-picky about their use; they often overlay and reinforce substantive analytics. Marx’s polemical use of exploitation, for instance, overlaid his theory of the exploitation of labor-power. But the polemical use of the exploitation of nature as a trope for all the bad stuff that capitalism “does” to “the” environment has not yet linked up with a theory of the exploitation of nature. This is even the case when the exploitation of labor power and the exploitation of nature are deployed side by side. Absent a theory of exploitation, the polemic seems to have reinforced a generalized drift away from the law of value, and a generalized, at times ritualized, denunciation of capitalism’s “war on the earth” (Foster, Clark, and York, 2010).

One of the consequences of the generalized drift away from Marx’s value-relational approach is the conversion of the concept of explotation from an analytical concept to a moral one. Of course there is always a moral dimension to analytics; but moral polemics do not relieve oneself of the analytical task. We may recall that Marx’s theory of exploitation as the production of surplus value – in which the rate of exploitation turns on the ratio between surplus and necessary labor-time – is at the center of his critique of classical political economy, and, of course, of capitalism itself.

So, on the other hand (you knew this was coming), the “exploitation of nature” trope (I am reluctant to call it a theory) generates considerable confusion when it comes to how capitalism works. As we will consider presently — and as we’ve considered previously on this blog — the accumulation of capital unfolds at the nexus of paid work (performed by some humans) and unpaid work (performed by most humans, and all extra-human natures). This is a dialectic of the exploitation of labor-power, within the commodity system, and the appropriation of unpaid work/energy outside the commodity system but directly necessary to its expanded reproduction. Domestic work and childrearing are classic instances, but so too are the appropriation of agro-ecological ferility and the bountiful mineral deposits.  The only thing worse than being exploited, in this perspective, is… being appropriated (see “Capitalism as Frontier“)!

What’s the big deal with the “exploitation of nature”? Well, most simply, it’s not exploitation in any analytical sense. More importantly, however, it reinforced the Cartesian dualism of red-green thought, which tends to convert Marx’s internal contradictions (capitalism-in-nature) into external contradictions (capitalism and nature). The metabolic rift perspective has moved furthest in this regard, frequently invoking a  dual exploitation model: of labor (power) and nature/the environment. In these arguments, the “exploitation of nature”  is placed on a more-or-less equal footing with the exploitation of labor power (Foster, 1999: 35; Clark and York, 2005a: 395; Clausen and Clark, 2005: 423; Clark and Foster, 2009; Longo, 2009: 48; Clark and Foster, 2010b: 145; York and Clark, 2010: 492; Magdoff and Foster, 2011: 64; Holleman, 2012: 81; Austin and Clark, 2011: 444; Clark and York, 2013: 30). Indeed, the “exploitation of nature” so frequently that it cannot be dismissed as mere sloganeering. It has real – if theoretically unspecified – meaning in the perspective’s critique of capitalism. The real intellectual problem is that the metabolic rift school — which I single out because its influence is so great — has left the big questions unasked: what is the exploitation of nature, how does it relate to the exploitation of labor power, and how does the introduction of dual exploitation model change received notions of capital accumulation?

The dual exploitation model in red-green thought may be something of a dead-end. It’s an easy argument to make, because is essentially additive. Like much of green thought, the “exploitation of nature and labor” thesis is arithmetic rather than synthetic. This is what I have called Green Arithmetic: society plus nature. It wasn’t a bad place to start; but it’s a rather lousy place to end up. Why? Because “nature” and society” are much more fluid categories than we have been led to think; it is difficult to think of any major historical process that has not seen human thought and action “bundled” with the rest of nature.

What happened, since the early 1990s environmental studies boom, was a widespread conversion of marxists to green thought, and a much weaker conversion of greens to Marxism. This reinforced the underlying Cartesian dualism. In this movement, traces of a value-relational approach – one implicit in O’Connor’s second contradiction approach – were largely dissolved in favor of the primacy of historical materialism, increasingly conceptualized as an approach for which value relations were epiphenomenal. (This partly explains the curious preference of the metabolic rift school for the neoclassical “Jevons’ Paradox” over the Marx’s general law of underproduction.) This red-green Cartesianism has been most evident in this couplet – the “exploitation of nature and labor” (Clark and York, 2013) – which does not in fact undermine the older model (in which nature was invisible) but simply adds to it. The dual exploitation model therefore endorses a human exemptionalist ontology, which retains the exploitation of labor-power as crucial to the course of capitalist development, while creating a second category of exploitation in which the exploitation of nature occurs through an external relation to the exploitation of labor power.

This has created difficulties for the formation of a theory of the exploitation of nature, precisely because it is an additive rather than synthetic formulation: positing the exploitation of nature as an external relation to the exploitation of labor power does two things. First, it confuses matters, because nature and labor are not comparable entities. Nature is the field within which human activity unfolds, and is also the object, and precondition of, human activity. Second, it confuses matters yet further by establishing an arbitrary discontinuity between human environment-making – the exploitation of nature – and  environment-making by other forms of life. I do not mean to suggest that that all forms of environment-making are created equal; that would be a false equivalence. It is precisely – and counter-intuitively – the proclamation of the “exploitation of nature” as characterizing human environment-making that fails to distinguish between more or less emancipatory, and more or less oppressive, forms of humanity-in-nature. When do humans exploit nature and when do we merely use it? The exploitation of nature argument closes down the question before we can ask it.

A different way forward is suggested by the emphasis on relations of exploitation and appropriation.

If we take the nexus paid/unpaid work as our premise – implicitly suggested by ecological and feminist scholars – the implications are significant. Capitalism and value relations cannot be reduced to a relation between the owners of capital and the possessors of labor-power. To repeat: the historical condition of socially necessary labor-time is socially necessary unpaid work. This observation opens a vista on capitalism as a contradictory unity of production and reproduction that crosses the Cartesian boundary. The crucial divide is between the zone of paid work (the exploitation of commodified labor-power) and the zone of unpaid work (the reproduction of life). This contradictory unity works by creating a relatively narrow sphere of commodity production within which labor-power can be said to yield either rising or falling productivity, which can be represented (imperfectly) through input-output calculations. This narrow sphere, premised on the exploitation of labor-power within commodity production, operates in relation to a much more expansive sphere of appropriation, through which the diversity of nature’s “free gifts” – including the reproduction of life from the family to the biosphere – may be taken up into commodity production, but not fully capitalized. Why not fully capitalized? Because the capitalization of reproduction is subject to the exhaustive tendencies we have just discussed, which imply a rising value composition of capital and signals a situation in which capital must bear a great share of its own costs.

The upshot is this. Taking shape in the “long” sixteenth century (1450-1640), this new law of value, turning on socially necessary labor-time within commodity production, required an expansive (and expanding) domain of appropriating cheap natures. This was in fact what early capitalism was best at doing: developing technologies and knowledges unusually well-suited to identifying, coding, and rationalizing cheap natures. Here the new way of seeing the world – inaugurated by the emergence of Renaissance perspective – decisively conditioned a new organizing technics for the capitalist world-ecology, manifesting in the cartographic-shipbuilding revolution of early modernity, from the Portolan maps and caravels to Mercator globes and galleons, and much beyond.

Appropriating cheap natures was a far more creative act than the dependencia language of plunder allows (e.g. Galeano, 1973; Clark and Foster, 2009; see Moore, 2010a). “Appropriation” represents a productive activity every bit as much as “exploitation.” The outright seizure of basic wealth – clearly no invention of the sixteenth century – provided no durable basis for the endless accumulation of capital. What did provide a reliable basis for the new civilization was a set of appropriative practices combined with the world market and technological innovations oriented towards global expansion. Crucially, these comprised quite conscious colonial strategies to reorganize indigenous populations into strategic hamlets that functioned as labor reserves: the reducciones in the Andes and the aldeias in Brazil (Gade and Escobar, 1982; Schwartz, 1978). The practices enabled rising labor productivity within the only zone that capital cares about: the zone of commodification. It did not matter that horrific levels of mortality accompanied this rising labor productivity so long as the costs of appropriation – through indigenous and African slave trades – were sufficiently low (Schwartz, 1985; Moore, 2007).

This speaks to a problem not only of economic historiography but also of Marxist political economy. We are, in the conventional reading of Marx, offered two categories for the production of surplus value: absolute (more hours worked) and relative (more commodities produced in the same number of hours). For good reason, Marx focused on the basic tendencies at play in the rise of large-scale industry, and this focus has been reproduced ever since. But Marx also points towards a theory of the rate of exploitation that is grounded in the dialectic of human labor with external natures. In this, the fertility of the soil may “act like an increase of fixed capital” (1977: 238, 636-38; quotation from 1973: 748; also 1981: chapter 38). We can take this reference to soil fertility as a shorthand for the life-making capacities of human and extra-human natures. Even where extraordinary soil fertility was in some sense “given,” it was equally co-produced: as in the fertility of seventeenth century Bahia or the nineteenth century American Midwest and Great Plains. Absent the cartographic-shipbuilding revolution of the long sixteenth century, or the railroad revolution and the rationalization of American territory in the long nineteenth century, the bounty of these frontiers was no more than potential. These “hard” and “soft” technologies of production advanced labor productivity by harnessing the capacities of these natures to work for free. But it took work to gets these natures to work for free, and this was the innovation of early capitalist technical advance. Sugar and wheat frontiers remade the world only through extraordinary movements of capital, knowledge, and humans, each movement a mighty expenditure of energy aimed at transforming nature’s work into the bourgeoisie’s capital. Yes, coal and oil are dramatic examples of this process of appropriating unpaid work, understood in such a relational framework. But this observation – namely, that fossil fuels have been central to great leaps forward in labor productivity – is turned into a fetish when the same processes are not applied to early capitalism.

The consequence is a massive blindspot in radical thought: the great labor productivity revolution of early capitalism is almost universally ignored.[1] Why? Because our metrics and even narrative frames have been largely unable – or perhaps unwilling? – to bring unpaid work into value-relations. The challenge is to internalize, in our narrative frames and analytical strategies, how configurations of paid and unpaid work stabilize, and are cyclically restructured, through successive productivity regimes in historical capitalism. Returning to our early modern frame, we might ask, How do we internalize the fertility windfalls of massapé soils in 17th century Brazil? Of the contributions of the families of the mitayos (forced wage-workers) traveling to the Potosi mines? Of Norwegian and Baltic forests to the shipbuilding centers of the Dutch Republic? Of peasant cultivation to the off-season iron-making work of Swedish peasants, whose labor costs were correspondingly much lower than English competitors? And perhaps most spectacularly – I am again transgressing the Cartesian boundary – of African families whose sons and daughters were impressed into plantation labor?

This early modern labor productivity revolution turned not only on Smithian specialization, technological change, and organizational innovation, but also on the new technics of value through which cheap natures were mapped, organized, and appropriated. The “fertility” of cheap natures was the pedestal for productivity advance within the commodity zone. Perhaps inadvertently, Clark offers an illuminating contrast about labor productivity informed by a caloric metric. In a passage that would resonate with any energy-centered critic of industrial agriculture (e.g. Pimentel, et al., 1973), Clark notes that the average “worker-hour” in English agriculture around 1800 would have yield about 2,600 calories, premised on wheat, milk, and wheat staples (2007: 67-68). In contrast, the average “worker-hour” in swidden agriculture in turn-of-the-century Brazil, cultivating manioc, maize, and sweet potatoes, yielded anywhere between 7,000 and 17,600 calories (ibid; also Werner, et al., 1979).

What does this tell us? Most of all, it tells us that one of the key reasons why capitalism was able to consolidate across the early modern era was its ability to appropriate the astounding realities, and realize the extraordinary potentialities, of uncommodified natures worldwide. If sixteenth century Europe was exceptional in any technological sense, it was this. Food works well as an example, because the metrics are easy, but one could multiply the appropriations of worker-hour windfalls to all sectors of early capitalism. How would work-hour productivity in timber vary between, say, coppiced English forests and the relatively unmanaged Norwegian forests of the late sixteenth century? Or between long-exploited Central European silver mines and Potosí’s Cerro Rico around 1550? In a narrow sense, these differences were not “produced” in any straightforward, linear, sense. But neither were these bountiful frontiers simply there for the taking. They were co-produced.

There was necessarily a mix of serendipity and strategy at play in early capitalism’s productivity revolution: serendipity insofar as New World crops such as maize, potatoes, and manioc were high-yielding, and strategy insofar as the new commodity frontiers (sugar and silver above all) actively constructed their production systems around such high-yielding crops. But even where Old World crops were introduced – the Spaniards in colonial Peru loved wheat bread – the initial yields were extraordinarily high (an order of magnitude greater than the Europe average) and remained so for the first long wave of colonial domination (c. 1545-1640) (Super, 1988; Moore, 2010e). The point can scarcely be overstated: the introduction of “cheap” food, as civilizational strategy, “acts like an increase in fixed capital.” The declining price (value composition) of food is advancing labor productivity is the rising rate of exploitation.

The catch? The cheapening of food – along with raw materials and energy – cannot be accomplished by economic and territorial means alone. Cheap food, and “cheap nature” as capitalist project, could be realized only through the symbolic regimes of  abstract social nature (see Moore, “The Capitalocene, Part II“). These encompassed the “primitive accumulation of botanical knowledge” organized by Iberian botanical gardens (Cañizares-Esguerra, 2004, 2006), the emergence of a new “map consciousness” (Pickles, 2004), the “death of nature” inaugurated by early modern materialism (Merchant, 1980), and much more. We will have both motive and opportunity to return to the question of abstract social nature in subsequent installments.

[1] This revolution is largely unacknowledged, although sometimes hinted at (Landes, 1998). Why the blindspot? On the one hand, economic historiography remains overwhelmingly Eurocentric, methodologically nationalist, and quantitatively fetishist. One the other hand, it has been unable to grasp the role of unpaid work secured by extra-economic means, which include but go beyond processes of primitive accumulation.

JASON W MOORE teaches world history at Binghamton University. He is coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network. Many of his essays, on the history of capitalism, capitalism as world-ecology, environmental history, and political economy, are available on his website:

Capitalism as Frontier: On the Nature and Value of ‘Socially Necessary’ Unpaid Work

Jason W. Moore

Here we take up again questions of the relations of value, nature, and history. We have, in earlier installments, considered the indispensable contributions of unpaid work to the endless accumulation of capital: contributions that transcend the illusory divide between human and extra-human natures. The condition that some work is valued is that most work is not.

Not-valued forms of work are outside the value form (the commodity) – they do not directly produce value (contra Dalla Costa and James, 1972). And yet – it is a very big and yet – value as abstract labor cannot be produced except through unpaid work. I would therefore suggest that the value form and the value relation are not coincident; they cut across the paid/unpaid work divide such that generalized commodification cannot be sustained except through the incessant revolutionizing not only of the forces of production but also the relations of reproduction. The historical condition for socially necessary labor-time is socially necessary unpaid work. De-valued work, in this model, becomes an “immanent… antithesis” within the generalization of commodity production and exchange (Marx, 1977: 209). In this contradiction between the expanded reproduction of capital and the simple reproduction of life we have “two universes, two ways of life foreign to each other yet whose wholes explain one another” (Braudel, 1977: 6). The crucial geographical implication of this enabling and constraining tension between paid and unpaid work is the necessity of frontier-making. Recurrent waves of socio-ecological exhaustion – understood as the inability of a given bundle of human/extra-human natures to deliver more work to capital – implicate recurrent waves of geographical expansion. The commodity frontier strategy has been so decisive not because of the extension of commodity production and exchange as such – a common misunderstanding of commodity frontier theory (Moore, 2000, 2013c, 2013d). Rather, commodity frontiers were so epoch-making because they extended the zone of appropriation (of natures’ unpaid work) faster than the zone of commodification. This was the crucial dialectic that Marx put his finger on in addressing the contradictions of the working day, the tendency towards manifold “industrial patholog[ies],” and the necessity of incorporating “physically uncorrupted” human natures into the world proletariat (1977). In sum, not only does capitalism have frontiers; it is a frontier civilization.

It will consequently not suffice to identify the influence of abstract social labor as an “economic” phenomenon, although this remains pivotal. The endless frontier strategy of historical capitalism is premised on a vision of the world as endless: this is the conceit of capital and its theology of endless substitutability.[1] Abstract social labor, in this reading, is the economic expression of the law of value, which is unworkable historically without strategies of appropriating cheap nature. Why is this? Because, in short, the creation of socially necessary labor-time is constituted through a shifting balance of human and extra-human work; the co-production of nature, in other words, is constitutive of socially necessary labor-time. Socially necessary labor-time forms and re-forms in and through the web of life (Moore, 2013b).[2] Early capitalism’s landscape transformations, in their epoch-making totality, were unthinkable without new ways of mapping space, controlling time, and cataloging external nature – and they are inexplicable solely in terms of world-market or class-structural change. The law of value, far from reducible to abstract social labor, finds its necessary conditions of self-expansion through the creation and subsequent appropriation of cheap human and extra-human natures. These movements of appropriation must, if capital is to forestall the rising costs of production, be secured through extra-economic procedures and processes.

By this I mean something more than the recurrent waves of primitive accumulation that we have come to accept as a cyclical phenomenon of capitalism (Angelis, 2007). These also remain pivotal. But between our now cherished dialectic of “expanded reproduction” and “accumulation by dispossession” (Harvey, 2003) are those knowledges and associated practices committed to the mapping, quantifying, and rationalizing of human and extra-human natures in service to capital accumulation.

Thus the trinity: abstract social labor, abstract social nature, primitive accumulation. This is the relational core of capitalist world-praxis. And the work of this unholy trinity? Produce cheap natures.[3] Extend the zone of appropriation. In sum, to deliver labor, food, energy, and raw materials – the “Four Cheaps” (Moore, 2012) – faster than accumulating mass of surplus capital derived from the exploitation of labor-power. Why? Because the rate of exploitation of labor-power (within the commodity system) tends to exhaust the life-making capacities that enter into the immediate production of value. Capital is indifferent to the Cartesian divide:

Capital asks no questions about the length of life of labor-power. What interests it is purely and simply the maximum of labour-power that can be set in motion in a working day. It attains this objective by shortening the life of labour-power, in the same way as a greedy farmer snatches more produce from the soil by robbing it of its fertility (Marx, 1977: 376, emphasis added, also 636-38).

This exhaustion might take the form of an obvious withering of “vital forces” (Marx, 1977: 380). More often, however, exhaustion manifests in the inability of a given production complex to yield a rising stream of unpaid work – performed by human and extra-human natures alike. This latter form of exhaustion typically issues from some combination of class struggle, biophysical change, and the tendentially rising “geographical inertia” of regional built environments (quotation from Harvey, 1982: 428-29). In a world treated as boundless, capital as a whole has evinced a cumulative, but cyclically punctuated, tendency to search out and appropriate new, “physically uncorrupted” (Marx, 1977: 380) zones of cheap labor, food, energy, and raw materials. Exhaustion signals a rising value composition of capital, and the inflection point of decline for a given production complex to supply a growing stream of unpaid work to regional accumulation.[4] To the degree that “foreign preserves” can be identified and dominated, such relative “degeneration of the industrial population” matters little (quotations respectively from Cairnes, 1862: 110-111 quoted in Marx, 1977: 377; and Marx, 1977: 380).[5]

Has it been so different for extra-human natures? English agriculture, though not necessarily physically exhausted, was certainly exhausted in terms of its capacity to send a rising stream of cheap food to metropolitan capital by the early decades of the 19th century (Thomas, 1993). Not surprisingly, British capitalism at its mid-century apex would nourish itself on the basis of cheap calories – grain and sugar – supplied from New World frontier zones in North America and the Caribbean (Cronon, 1991; Mintz, 1985).

We can now connect the dots between the rise of capitalism and the emergence of the law of value. Value relations incorporate a double movement to exploitation and appropriation – within the commodity system, the exploitation of labor-power reigns supreme, but this supremacy is only possible, given its tendency toward self-exhaustion, to the degree that the appropriation of uncommodified natures counteracts this tendency. It is has been a difficult process to discern because value relations are necessarily much broader than the immediate production of the value form (the commodity). The generalization of commodity production has historically proceeded through an expansionary web of value relations whose scope and scale is necessarily much broader than the immediate process of production. McMichael puts the issue very well when he observes the problem of capitalist development as one of the uneven globalization of wage-work dialectically joined to the “generalization of its conditions of reproduction” (1991: 343). The difficulty in pursuing such an analysis has been rooted in the dualisms immanent to modern thought; for to construct capitalism in the fashion that I have suggested is to transcend the man/woman, nature/society boundaries upon which the whole edifice of modernist thought depends (see esp. Plumwood, 1993: 41-68; also Waring, 1988). For not only do we need to unify the distinctive but mutually formative dialectics of human work under capitalism through the nexus paid/unpaid work – “productive” and “reproductive” work. We also need to recognize that the dynamism of capitalism has owed everything to appropriating and co-producing ever more creative configurations of human and extra-human work across the longue durée.

JASON W MOORE teaches world history at Binghamton University. He is coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network. Many of his essays, on the history of capitalism, capitalism as world-ecology, environmental history, and political economy, are available on his website:


[1] Much of ecological economics can be read as a sustained critique of this theology. A useful introduction is found in Daly and Farley, 2004; also Perelman, 2007.

[2]“[T]he process of reproduction has to be considered from the standpoint of the replacement of the individual components of C’ both in value and in material” (Marx, 1978: 469).

[3] Produce does not mean “call forth at will,” but rather signifies a dialectic of co-production (Marx, 1977: 283).

[4]This explains something of the recurrent waves of financialization that redounded to the benefit of the declining world hegemon – in their respective belle époques, the Dutch, British, and American hegemonies each enjoyed a renewal of accumulation by capitalists in their respective geographical loci by deploying financial means to secure the fruits of agro-industrial expansions, based on new appropriations of cheap nature elsewhere in the world (Arrighi, 1994).

[5] Of course we should take care to appreciate that movements to drive down labor costs are found in technical innovation in core industrial sectors, alongside class politics and imperial initiatives to widen the sphere of appropriation. Thus, English labor-to-capital costs were 60 percent higher than on the Continent in the mid-18th century, which encouraged efforts to mechanize production (Allen, 2011, 31-32 and ch. 3 passim). Nevertheless, the new phase of industrialization gathered steam in those regions of England – such as the northern Midlands – where wages were relatively low compared to the south of England (Hunt, 1986). Yet, such mechanization was possible in great measure, especially after 1780s, by technical innovations that were probably “capital-saving” as much as they were “labor-saving” (von Tunzelmann, 1981), at least until the 1830s (Deane, 1973). In textiles, we are clearly dealing with rising labor productivity. But even here the technical composition of capital (the mass of machinery) could rise much faster than its value composition because of opportunities for appropriating cheap energy and cheap iron through the coal/steampower/iron nexus. We are, then, unavoidably dealing with a cascading series of technical innovations that work simultaneously to reduce the value of labor-power and the rest of the Big Four inputs. These cascades – necessarily and irreducibly – extend well beyond any sectoral or national frame, crucially encompassing production/reproduction configurations in the minimally-commodified colonial and frontier zones.

The Origins of Cheap Nature: From Use-Value to Abstract Social Nature

Jason W. Moore

Modernity’s law of value is an exceedingly peculiar way of organizing life in a civilization. Born in the midst of the rise of capitalism after 1450, the law of value enabled an unprecedented historical transition: from land productivity to labor productivity as the metric of wealth and power. It was an ingenious civilizational strategy, for it enabled the deployment of capitalist technics – crystallizations of tools and ideas, power and nature – to appropriate the wealth of uncommodified nature in service to advance labor productivity within the zone of commodification. The great leap forward in the scale, scope, and speed of landscape and biological transformations in the three centuries after 1450 — stretching from Poland to Brazil, and the North Atlantic’s cod fisheries to Southeast Asia’s spice islands — may be understood in this light (see Moore, “The Capitalocene, Part I”; also Moore, 2007; 2010a; 2010b; 2013a; 2013b).

Such transformations were the epoch-making expressions of a new law of value that reconfigured uncommodified human and extra-human natures (slaves, forests, soils) in servitude to labor productivity and the commodity. The new law of value was quite spectacular. Never before had any civilization negotiated this transition from land productivity to labor productivity as the decisive metric of wealth. This strange metric — value — oriented the whole of west-central Europe towards an equally strange conquest of space. This strange conquest was what Marx (1973, 524) calls the “annihilation of space by time,” and across the long sixteenth century we can see a new form of time — abstract time — taking shape (Landes, 1983). While all civilizations in some sense are built to expand across varied topographies, none represented these topographies as external and progressively abstracted in the ways that dominated early capitalism’s geographical praxis. The genius of capitalism’s cheap nature strategy was to represent time as linear, space as flat, and nature as external (Mumford, 1934; Merchant, 1980; Pickles, 2004). It was a civilizational inflection of the “God-trick” (Haraway, 1988), with bourgeois knowledge representing its special brand of quantifying and scientific reason as a mirror of the world — the same world then being reshaped by early modernity’s scientific revolutions in alliance with empires and capitals. The God-trick was the work of abstract social nature.

With abstract time, in other words, would come abstract space (Lefebvre, 1991). Together, they were the indispensable corollaries to the weird crystallization of human and extra-human natures in the form of abstract social labor. It was this ascendant law of value — operating as gravitational field rather than mechanism—that underpinned the extraordinary landscape and biological revolutions of early modernity. Notwithstanding the fanciful historical interpretations of the Anthropocene argument and its idealized model of a two-century modernity (Steffen et al., 2011), the origins of capitalism’s cheap nature strategy and today’s biospheric turbulence are to be found in the long sixteenth century. The issue is not one of anthropogenic-drivers — presuming a fictitious human unity — but of the relations of capital and capitalist power. The issue is not the Anthropocene, but the Capitalocene.

The “Age of Capital” has been premised on a relation that enables advancing labor productivity in great bursts with even greater bursts in the production of “cheap natures,” above the Four Cheaps of labor-power, food, energy, and raw materials (Moore, 2012). The catch is that capital-labor relations are not are well-equipped to map, code, survey, quantify and otherwise identify and facilitate new sources of cheap nature. This latter has, crucially, involved all manner of knowledge-practices, closely linked but not reducible to territorial power (Parenti, 2014), in which the expanded reproduction of the capital-unpaid work relation has been central. This is the historical terrain of abstract social nature and accumulation by appropriation.

The idea of nature as external has worked so effectively because the condition for capital’s “self”-expansion is the location and production of  external natures. (An obviously co-productive process.) Because these natures are historical and therefore finite, the exhaustion of one historical nature quickly prompts the “discovery” of new natures that deliver yet untapped sources of unpaid work. Thus did the Kew Gardens of British hegemony yield to the International Agricultural Research Centers of American hegemony, which in turn were superseded by the bioprospecting, rent-seeking, and genomic mapping practices of the neoliberal era (Brockway, 1978; Kloppenburg, 1988; McAfee, 1999; 2003.) This means that not only is capitalism bound up with a historically-specific nature; so are its specific phases of development. Each long century of accumulation does not “tap” an external nature that exists as a warehouse of resources. Rather, each such long wave creates — and is created by — a historical nature that offers a new, specific set of constraints and opportunities. The accumulation strategies that work at the beginning of a cycle — creating particular historical natures through science, technology, and new forms of territoriality and governance (abstract social nature)—progressively exhaust the relations of reproduction that supply “cheap” labor, food, energy, and raw materials. At some point, this exhaustion registers in rising commodity prices.

This view of nature as external object, while demonstrably false in terms of historical method, was an essential moment in the rise of capitalism. Here we can see ideas as “material force” (Marx, 1978, 60). Early capitalism’s world-praxis, fusing symbolic coding and material inscription, moved forward an audacious fetishization of nature. This was expressed, dramatically, in the era’s cartographic, scientific, and quantifying revolutions. These were the symbolic moments of primitive accumulation, creating a new intellectual system whose presumption, personified by Descartes, was the separation of humans from the rest of nature. For early modern materialism, the point was not only to interpret the world but to control it: “to make ourselves as it were the masters and possessors of nature” (Descartes, 2006, 51). It was a powerful vision, one so powerful that that even today, many students of global environmental change have internalized the early modern view of nature as effectively external to human activity (e.g., Steffen et al., 2011).

The origins of cheap nature are, of course, far more than intellectual and symbolic. The transgression of medieval intellectual frontiers was paired with the transgression of medieval territoriality. While civilizational expansion is in some sense fundamental to all, there emerged in early modern Europe a specific geographical thrust. While all civilizations had frontiers of a sort, capitalism was a frontier. The extension of capitalist power to new spaces that were uncommodified became the lifeblood of capitalism. I have elsewhere considered the historical geographies of early capitalism’s commodity frontiers (Moore, 2000b, 2003a, 2003b, 2009, 2010a, 2010b, 2010d, 2010e). For the moment, I wish to highlight two relational axes of these frontiers. First, commodity frontier movements were not merely about the extension of commodity relations, although this was indeed central. Commodity frontier movements were also, crucially, about the extension of territorial and symbolic forms that appropriated unpaid work in service to commodity production. This unpaid work could be delivered by humans — women or slaves, for example — or by extra-human natures, such as forests, soils, or rivers. Second, such frontier movements were, from the very beginning of capitalism, essential to creating the forms of cheap nature specific to capitalism, the Four Cheaps.

What are the implications of this line of thought for a post-Cartesian historical method, one that takes the law of value as a co-production of humans bundled with the rest of nature?

An approach to value that joins the appropriation of cheap natures (including humans!) and the exploitation of commodified labor-power allows us to unravel some of the mysteries of early capitalism’s dynamism – a civilization with few significant resource or technological advantages and yet endowed with an epoch-making capacity to reshape landscapes worldwide. While marxisante ecology tends to ignore value (e.g. Foster, Clark, and York, 2010), it does so by hiding from view Marx’s formulation that use- and exchange-value represent “on the surface” the “internal opposition of use-value and value” (Marx, 1977: 153, 209). Marx’s discussion in these opening pages of Capital are pitched at so high a level of abstraction that I think the implications of this “internal opposition” have been insufficiently grasped. These implications are explosive. For to say that value and use-value are internally related is to say that the value relation encompasses the relation value/use-value in a way that necessarily extends far beyond the immediate process of production. Here is a connection that allows us to join definite “modes of production” and definite “modes of life” in concrete historical unities (quotations from Marx and Engels, 1970: 42).

This means that capitalism can be comprehended through the shifting configuration of the exploitation of labor-power and the appropriation of cheap natures – a dialectic of paid and unpaid work that demands a disproportional expansion of the latter (appropriation) in relation to the former (exploitation). This reality is suggested – even if its implications for accumulation are only partially grasped – by those widely-cited estimates on the contribution of unpaid work performed by humans (UNDP, 1995: 16; Safri and Graham, 2010) and the rest of nature (“ecosystem services”) (Costanza, et al., 1997). The quantitative reckonings for unpaid human work – overwhelmingly delivered by women – vary between 70 and 80 percent of world GDP; for “ecosystem services,” between 70 and 250 percent of GDP. The relations between these two moments are rarely grasped (but see Perkins, 2007); their role in long waves of accumulation, rarely discussed (but for unpaid human work, see Caffentzis, 2010/1980; O’Hara, 1995). I would observe that unpaid work comprises not only the active and ongoing contributions to the daily reproduction of labor-power and the production cycles of agriculture and forestry. Unpaid work also encompasses the appropriation of accumulated unpaid work in the form of children raised to adulthood largely outside the commodity system (e.g., in peasant agriculture) and subsequently pushed or pulled into wage-work, and also in the form of fossil fuels produced through the earth’s biogeological processes.

The appropriation of unpaid work signifies something beyond the important – but nevertheless too partial – notion of environmental costs and externalities as “missing” (e.g. Patel, 2009). I think in this respect that we may take the crucial insight from feminist marxism: the contribution of unpaid work is not “just there,” but actively produced through complex (yet patterned) relations of power, (re)production, and accumulation. I risk pedantry here in saying that the “free gifts” of nature are not “low-hanging fruit” that can simply be picked without much time and effort. Quite the contrary! Cheap natures are actively produced by human activity bundled with the rest of nature, and human and extra-human natures are both replete with creativity and contingency. Nature is too often regards as a passive substrate – as in the popular ecological footprint metaphor (Wackernagel and Rees, 1996) – but this is a modernist conceit; one that reflects capital’s priorities rather more the history of capitalism. But nature is not substrate; it is the field within which all life unfolds. And all of that life is actively, creatively, incessantly engaged in environment-making (Levins and Lewontin, 1985; Moore, 2013a) – such that, in the modern world, human ingenuity (such as it is) and human activity (such as it has been) must activate the work of particular natures in order to appropriate particular streams of unpaid work. Such activation is co-produced reality, bundling the life-activities of human and extra-human nature, present and accumulated over time.

What are the implications for a historically grounded theory of value? On the one hand, capitalism lives and dies on the expanded reproduction of capital: value-in-motion. The substance of value is abstract social labor, or socially necessary labor time, implicated in the production of surplus value. On the other hand, this production of value is particular – it does not value everything, only labor power in the service of commodity production – and therefore rests upon a series of devaluations. Plenty of work – indeed the majority of work in the orbit of capitalism – does not register as valuable. Work by humans, especially women; but also “work” performed by extra-human natures. For good reason does Hribal pose the question (2003), “Are animals part of the working class”? – a question that illuminates the law of value’s absurdity alongside its consistent praxis. Although there remains a lot of confusion about this, it is now clear that Marx understood that extra-human natures perform all sorts of useful (but not valuable) work for capitalist production, and that such useful work was in fact immanent to the capital-relation (Burkett, 1999). Marx’s reading of value was, in other words, eminently post-Cartesian.

REFERENCES (TO BE ADDED, see also: “The Capitalocene, Part II: Abstract Social Nature and the Limits to Capital,” for references).

Wasting Away: Value, Waste, and Appropriation in the Capitalist World-Ecology

Jason W. Moore

The decisive violence imposed on life by the capitalist mode of production derives from its quest for radical simplification. The dream, the fantasy, the nightmare of capital is its practical desire — practical, yet impossible — for world of interchangeable parts, in which one part of nature easily substitutes for another. This the conceit of value as abstract social labor, whose practical violence lies precisely in its negation of, and yet utter dependence upon,  life-making. What is certainly true about a long-running commentary on capitalism and entropy — capitalism as “dissipative system” — is the law of value’s negation of life-making, which turns on adaptation, variation, and the ongoing emergence of biological and even geological difference.[1] What has been missed is capital’s dependence on such life-making processes: those uncapitalized human and extra-human natures without which no great wave of accumulation can materialize. That dependence is materialized through accumulation by appropriation: the channeling of unpaid work by human and extra-human natures into the conditions for capital accumulation (Moore, 2014a, 2014b, 2014c).

It is a wasteful system, to be sure, but one wasteful only secondarily at the level of consequences. The epochal claim of capital is that only one part of nature — labor-power within the circuit of capital — is valuable; all the rest, at least all the rest within reach of capitalist power, is to be mobilized in servitude to labor productivity. Viewed in this way, we can immediately identify as wasteful capitalism’s value-centered appropriations, which find useful only “an extremely quantified form of lif” (Caffentzis, 2005).  What early critics of industrial agriculture noted about energy inefficiency is in fact a general law of capital accumulation. Even in the 1960s, it was apparent that every calorie of food production demanded more and more energy over time, such that in American agriculture today, one calorie of food requires no less than 15 calories of energy (Pimentel, et al., 1973; Canning, et al., 2010; Acker, et al., 2013; Cuéllar and Webber, 2010). Compounding the problem, one-third to one-half of “all food produced never reaches a human stomach” (Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 2012; also Gustavsson, et al., 2011).

In these terms, capitalism is not a system of efficiency, and can only be identified as a system of profligacy and waste. Such wastefulness is, moreover, immanent to capital; it is bound up with the constitution of capital itself, and not only its palpable consequences for the biosphere and for particular landscapes. While the latter is recognized by Cartesian Marxists (e.g. Foster, 2012; Dowd, 1989), and is connected with today’s biospheric problems, such as climate change, the story is more than one of outputs. Waste is possible as “output” (after production) only to the degree that unpaid work is wastefully appropriated as “input” (before and during production); waste, in other words, is both producer and product of capital accumulation. The condition for such massive production of waste (after production) is capitalism’s wasteful appropriation of life and energy (during production) – is capitalism’s commitment to an extreme form of quantification: the law of value. The history of American bison hunters on the Great Plains in the 19th century – taking only the hide and leaving the rest to rot (Isenberg, 2001)[2] – serves as an appropriate metaphor for the capitalist world-ecology’s vast and wasteful history.

Waste, then, suggests a crucial point of entry into the problem of appropriation.

To Marx’s famous observation we may now add (1977: 763-764, ch. 25, part I), the accumulation of capital is the proletarianization of labor is the appropriation of unpaid work (is the accumulation of waste). This dialectical syllogism represents a weave of very complex historical processes. What this formulation provides – the accumulation of capital is the proletarianization of labor is the appropriation of unpaid work – is a way to explain long waves of accumulation as closely bound to the value composition (as abstract social labor) of the Big Four inputs: labor-power, food, energy, and raw materials. As labor, food, energy and raw materials are made cheap – through the appropriation of the unpaid work of “women, nature, and colonies” – they become what I have called the Four Cheaps (Moore, 2012, 2014a). As the Four Cheaps are restored, new opportunities for capital accumulation appear: for instance, the railroad revolution of the 19th century or the automobile revolution of the 20th century. Over time, the Four Cheaps stop being cheap, because the squeezing out of unpaid work in the upswing of an accumulation cycle exhausts the resilience of uncommodified relations of reproduction. Thence labor costs rise, along with food, energy, and raw materials prices. (Historically in uneven fashion, although this may be changing today, as commodity boom that commenced in 2003 shows few signs of collapsing [Erten and Ocampo, 2013].) As the Big Four inputs stop being cheap and start being dear, the opportunities for accumulation in the zone of material production (M-C-M’) stagnate, and begin to contract. Financial expansions (M-M’) tend to begin when the Big Four inputs become more expensive – the value composition of the labor, food,  energy, and raw materials rises rather than falls. (This is the heretofore “hidden” socio-ecological moment of overaccumulation crises.)

The food/labor nexus is especially important, because “cheap” food and labor are at once determined by transformations of commodity production (through the capital-intensive moment of agricultural revolutions) and also by the degree to which capital can secure vast new opportunities for appropriating unpaid work outside the commodity system but inside capitalism. This was the genius of the American-led “family farm” revolution of the later 19th century (c. 1840-1900), combining unpaid family labor with the unpaid work of extra-human natures, especially those frontier soils of western North America, accumulated over millennia and largely untouched by agriculture (Friedman, 1978, 2000). Cheap energy is crucial because, especially since the steam power revolution, labor productivity surges forward with abundant cheap energy, and stagnates with rising energy prices, as we saw during the 1970s (Jorgenson, 1980, 1984). Recessions in the North Atlantic core have been closely linked to rising oil prices since the 1970s (Hamilton, 2009). Finally, neither cheap labor nor cheap energy is particularly useful if there are not abundant (cheap) raw materials that can be transformed into commodities.

The clear tendency of the capitalist mode of production is to dissolve the boundaries between each of the Big Four inputs, especially between food, energy, and raw materials, which have become increasingly interchangeable in recent decades. One moment of this is directly bio-material. The manifold uses of American maize, now used for ethanol, food, and industrial production, are one good example. Another is the generalization of energy-intensive nitrogen fertilizers in world agriculture, which have allowed a growing (but still minority) share of humanity to “eat” oil and natural gas (Manning, 2001). Another moment of this dissolution of the boundaries between the Big Four inputs is found in the new phase of financialization after 2000. Perhaps most spectacularly, the world’s primary commodity markets were financialized. Before the 21st century, commodity markets were largely independent “from outside financial markets and from each other” – for example, the price of oil was not strongly correlated with the price of copper. After 2000, however, finance capital (especially via index investors) “precipitated a fundamental process of financialization amongst commodities markets, through which commodity prices became more correlated with prices of financial assets and with each other… As a result of [this] financialization…, the price of an individual commodity is no longer simply determined by its supply and demand (Tang and Xiong, 2011, emphasis added). Not coincidentally, the commodity boom that commenced in 2003 has been the longest, most volatile, and most encompassing commodity boom of the past century, and indeed probably of the past five centuries (World Bank, 2009: ch. 2; Erten and Ocampo, 2013). What this combination of bio-material and financial restructuring suggests is a 21st century global scenario in which the tendency towards underproduction reasserts itself, through an unusual and unstable combination of physical depletion, declining agro-ecological productivity, new antisystemic movements, and financialization,

This attention to the appropriation of unpaid work, and its cyclical and cumulative exhaustion across the longue durée, allows us to elaborate a theory of how under-production operates in the long history of the capitalist world-ecology (Moore, 2011a, 2011b). Underproduction signifies a conjoncture in which one or more of the Big Four inputs becomes increasingly costly, and begins to fetter the accumulation process. From the outset, let me make two things clear about underproduction. First, underproduction always exists alongside overproduction in historical capitalism. The crucial issue is not underproduction or overproduction, but how the two moments fit together. The past two centuries have been dominated by overproduction. This marked a relative escape from the problems of early capitalism. The greatest problem early capitalism was the supply of the Big Four inputs – hence, the audacious movements of enclosure and primitive accumulation in Europe and the Americas, and the great commodity frontiers in silver, sugar, forest productions, and grain. Not for nothing does Wallerstein call such expansion the “fundamental factor” in the rise of capitalism (1974). The Big Four inputs were rarely all cheap at the same time, which explains at least part of the extraordinary scale and speed of European conquest and commodification in the early modern era (Moore, 2007; 2009, 2010a, 2010b, 2010c, 2010d).

But if the problem in early capitalism was too few workers or resources, the great problem for capitalism after 1800 was too few customers: too many commodities chasing too few customers, always and necessarily conditioned by the rising value composition of production. (Two sides of the same process.)  Given the relative ease with which European capitalists and empires were able to remake the world-ecology in the 19th century, the Big Four inputs were often cheap, and were made relatively cheaper when necessary, from the agrarian and subsistence crises of the late 19th century (Wolf, 1982; Davis, 2001) to the “shock doctrines” and dispossessions of the neoliberal era (Klein, 2007; Harvey, 2003, 2005). For this historical reason – the relative cheapness of labor, food, energy, and raw materials  between 1800 and 2000 – underproduction is poorly understood, and is often framed in terms of “scarcity.” Scarcity is the bogeyman of our times, one whose realities and spectres are impossible to distinguish through the violent abstractions of “nature” and “society.”


Acker, T. L., C. Atwater, C., D.H. Smith (2013). “Energy Inefficiency In Industrial Agriculture: You Are What You Eat,” Energy Sources, Part B: Economics, Planning, and Policy, 8(4), 420-430.

Caffentzis, George (2005). “Immeasurable Value?” The Commoner, 10, 87-114.

Canning, P., A. Charles, S. Huang, K.R. Polenske, A. Waters. 2010. Energy use in the U.S. food system. Economic Research Report Number 94. Washington: United States Department of Agriculture.

Cuéllar, A. D., and M.E. Webber (2010). “Wasted food, wasted energy: The embedded energy in food waste in the United States,” Environmental Science & Technology, 44(16), 6464-6469.

Davis, Mike (2001). Late Victorian Holocausts. London: Verso.

Dowd, Douglas (1989). The Waste of Nations. Boulder: Westview.

Erten, Bilge, and José Antonio Ocampo (2013). ”Super Cycles of Commodity Prices Since the Mid-Nineteenth Century,” World Development, 44, 14-30.

Friedmann, Harriet (1978). “World Market, State, and Family Farm: Social Bases of Household Production in the Era of Wage Labor,” Comparative Studies in Societyand History,20(4), 545-86.

Friedmann, Harriet (2000). “What on Earth is the Modern World-System? Foodgetting and Territory in the Modern Era and Beyond,” Journal of World-Systems Research 6(2), 480-515.

Gustavsson, Jenny, Christel Cederberg, Ulf Sonesson, Robert van Otterdijk, and Alexandre Meybeck (2011). Global Food Losses and Food Waste. Rome: Food and Agrifculture Organization of the United Nations.

Hamilton, James D. (2009). “Causes and Consequences of the Oil Shock of 2007-08,” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity.

Harvey, David (2003). The New Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

Harvey, David (2005). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Institution of Mechanical Engineers (2013). Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not. London: Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

Klein, Naomi (2007). The Shock Doctrine. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Manning, Richard (2004). “The Oil We Eat: Following the Food Chain back to Iraq,” Harper’s (February), 37-45.

Marx, Karl (1977). Capital. Vol. I. Ben Fowkes, trans. New York: Vintage.

Moore, Jason W. (2007). Ecology and the Rise of Capitalism. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Geography, University of California, Berkeley.

Moore, J.W. (2009). “Madeira, Sugar, & the Conquest of Nature in the ‘First’ Sixteenth Century, Part I,” Review 32,4, 345–90.

Moore, Jason W. (2010a). “‘Amsterdam is Standing on Norway’ Part I: The Alchemy of Capital, Empire, and Nature in the Diaspora of Silver, 1545–1648,” Journal of Agrarian Change, 10, 1, 35–71.

Moore, Jason W. (2010b). “‘Amsterdam is Standing on Norway’ Part II: The Global North Atlantic in the Ecological Revolution of the Long Seventeenth Century,” Journal of Agrarian Change, 10, 2, 188–227.

Moore, J.W. (2010c). “Madeira, Sugar, & the Conquest of Nature in the ‘First’ Sixteenth Century, Part II,” Review 33(1), 1-24.

Moore, Jason W. (2010d). “‘This Lofty Mountain of Silver Could Conquer the Whole World’: Potosí and the Political Ecology of Underdevelopment, 1545–1800,” Jour­nal of Philosophical Economics 4, 1, 58–103.

Moore, Jason W. (2011a). “Transcending the Metabolic Rift,” The Journal of Peasant Studies, 38, 1, 1-46.

Moore, Jason W. (2011b). “Ecology, Capital, and the Nature of Our Times,” Journal of World-Systems Analysis 17(1), 108-47.

Moore, Jason W. (2012). “Cheap Food & Bad Money: Food, Frontiers, and Financialization in the Rise and Demise of Neoliberalism,” Review, 33(2-3), 125-161.

Moore, Jason W. (2014a). “The End of Cheap Nature, or, How I learned to Stop Worrying about ’the’ Environment and Love the Crisis of Capitalism,” in Structures of the World Political Economy and the Future of Global Conflict and Cooperation, edited byC. Suter and C. Chase-Dunn (Berlin: LIT, 2014), 1-31.

Moore, Jason W. (2014b). “The Capitalocene, Part I: On the Nature and Origins of Our Ecological Crisis,” unpublished paper, Fernand Braudel Center, Binghamton University.

Moore, Jason W. (2014c). “The Capitalocene, Part II: Abstract Social Nature and the Limits to Capital,” unpublished paper, Fernand Braudel Center, Binghamton University.

Pimentel, David, L. E. Hurd , A. C. Bellotti, M. J. Forster, I. N. Oka, O. D. Sholes, and R. J. Whitman (1973). “Food Production and the Energy Crisis,” Science 182 (4111, 2 November), 443-449.

Tang, Ke, and Wei Xiong. 2011. “Index investment and Financialization of Commodities.” Working paper, Department of Economics, Princeton University,, accessed 17 March 2011.

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Wolf, Eric R. (1982). Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley: University of California Presss.


[1] I do not mean to suggest a teleology of life-making. There is no question that life-making and adaptation may, under some conditions, move in the direction of simplification and the reduction in the diversity of life (Levins and Lewontin, 1985). Even when such movements towards simplification occur, however, the movement towards complexification resumes whenever life is afforded the solar, geological, and biological opportunity to do so.

[2] It is of course true, as Isenberg argues (2001), that Native American world-ecologies could also be wasteful in a similar fashion; but the scale, speed, and consistency of bison extermination after the American Civil War was clearly a qualitatively new development that found only the faintest formal similarities with the Native American past.

Technics and Historical Nature: Praxis of the Capitalist World-Ecology

Jason W. Moore

The challenges involved in translating the philosophical premise of humanity-in-nature into historical methods and narrative strategies are considerable. This is the task pursued by the emerging set of arguments we call the world-ecology synthesis.

Certainly, a core problem has been the difficulty in forging a conceptual vocabulary that grasps “society” and “nature” as a singular ontological domain, such that all human activity is simultaneously producer and product of the web of life. The problem has been recognized for a long time, and especially since the 1970s (Birch and Cobb, 1981; Harvey, 1993). Elsewhere, I have tackled the problem with the concept of the oikeios, signifying the creative, generative, and multi-layered relation of species and environment (2011a). The oikeios provides a way to move beyond the narrative trope of “the” environment (as object) in favor of environment-making (as process), at all turns a co-production of specifically bundled human and extra-human natures (Moore, 2013a). “Nature” and “society,” in world-ecological perspective, are viewed as violent abstractions that – by positing discrete ontological domains of humans without nature and nature without humans – dissolve the messy, bundled, and creative co-productions of historical change. The idea of nature as external to human relations is not, however, a magician’s trick of smoke-and-mirrors; it is a real historical force. Capitalism, as project, emerges through a world-praxis that creates external natures as objects to be mapped, quantified, and regulated so that they may service capital’s insatiable demands for cheap nature. At the same time, as process, capitalism emerges and develops through the web of life; nature is at once internal and external. In this way of seeing, the oikeios is a general abstraction that gains historical traction only insofar as it provides the conditions for recasting the great drivers of world-historical change – foremost among them the perennial darlings of industrialization, imperialism, capitalism, modernity – as co-produced by humans and the rest of nature.

If capitalism as a “way of organizing nature” gets us moving in the right direction, this is a statement more of the “what” of modernity-in-nature than of the “how.” To recast the “how” of capitalism as world-ecology – how power, capital, and nature form an organic whole – we might turn to Mumford’s notion of technics (1934). Mumford grasped that a new technics emerged in the early modern era – crystallizing tools and knowledge, nature and power, in a new world-praxis, one that reduced both “man” and “nature” to abstractions. For Mumford, power and production in capitalism embodied and reproduced a vast cultural-symbolic repertoire that was cause, condition, and consequence of modernity’s specific form of technical advance. This was not, Mumford made plain, a story to be celebrated. It was, rather, one to be recognized, and critiqued, for its peculiarity: “The Chinese, the Arabs, the Greeks, long before the Northern European, had taken most of the first steps toward the machine… [T]hese peoples plainly had an abundance of technical skill at their command. They had machines; but they did not develop ‘the machine’” (1934: 4, emphasis added). Here Mumford might have stopped, as have so many green thinkers. But he did not. At the heart of Mumford’s argument was the idea that machines, technics, and the alienated violence of capitalist civilization move through the web of life. It was the

discovery of nature as a whole [that] was the most important part of that era of discovery which began for the Western World with the Crusades and the travels of Marco Polo and the southward ventures of the Portuguese. Nature existed to be explored, to be invaded, to be conquered, and finally, to be understood… [A]s soon as the procedure of exploration was definitely outlined in the philosophy and mechanics of the seventeenth century, man himself was excluded from the picture. Technics perhaps temporarily profited by this exclusion; but in the long run the result was to prove unfortunate. In attempting to seize power, man tended to reduce himself to an abstraction, or, what comes to almost the same thing, to dominate every part of himself except that which was bent on seizing power (Mumford, 1934: 31, emphasis added)

In the absence of a world-ecological concept of technics, much of green thought conflates the Industrial Revolution with modernity (Steffen, et al., 2011a, 2011b; Malm, 2013). The question of origins is elided – not resolved – through recourse to a meta-narrative premised on the self-evidently periodizing implications of rising CO2 emissions and other eco-consequential phenomena. The question of the origins of world-ecological crisis is axiomatically reduced to a surficial representation of the drivers and consequences of 19th century industrialization. Of course it all began with coal, says the Anthropocene argument, because the consequences are measurable, and this is, after all, what counts. The consequences of this approach –green thought’s consequentialist bias – are more significant than commonly recognized. Kingsnorth puts this well:

My feeling is that the green movement has torpedoed itself with numbers. Its single-minded obsession with climate change, and its insistence on seeing this as an engineering challenge which must be overcome with technological solutions guided by the neutral gaze of Science, has forced it into a ghetto from which it may never escape. Most greens in the mainstream now spend their time arguing about whether they prefer windfarms to wave machines or nuclear power to carbon sequestration. They offer up remarkably confident predictions of what will happen if we do or don’t do this or that, all based on mind-numbing numbers cherry-picked from this or that ‘study’ as if the world were a giant spreadsheet which only needs to be balanced correctly (2011).

I would go still further. The fetish of industrialization quickly embraces other fetishes. A stylized love affair with machinery leads quickly to a stylized love affair with resources. This is not surprising given the faint influence of political economy and class analysis in most green interpretations of industrialization. But even for those on the left who favor a class-relational or capital-centric approach, a certain fossil fuel-fetishism appears, as when Malm suggests (2013) that one can insert fossil fuels as the spark that ignites the engine of capital (also Altvater, 2006; Huber, 2008). “Capital,” in these accounts, forms independently of the web of life, and intervenes in “nature” as an exogenous force, variously intruding in, and interrupting, a pre-given “traditional balance between humanity and nature” (Foster, 1994: 40). This view of capitalism as an exogenous rather than endogenous actor in relation to the web of life has the paradoxical effect of reducing nature to a substance that can be variously protected or destroyed (e.g. Martinez-Alier, 2002). No matter how dialectical the conception of capital, so long as this conception unfolds within a Cartesian frame – humans without nature, nature without humans – the analyst is compelled to engage capital’s relation with nature as “tap” and “sink” first, and only later as the field within which modernity unfolds. When push comes to shove, the philosophy of humanity-in-nature gets pushed aside in favor of analytical practicality (compare Harvey, 1993 with Harvey, 2003, 2005). The result is that nature is fetishized rather than adequately historicized.

It is always tempting to “think in terms of realities that can be ‘touched with the finger’” (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 228). In this way of thinking – Bourdieu calls it substantialist (ibid.) – substances form prior to, and independently of, events and fields of relations, rather than developing through environments cohered by definite patterns of events (Birch and Cobb, 1981: 79-96 and passim; Moore, 2011a, 2011b). Substantialism, in this sense, is at the heart “human exemptionalist” social theory (Catton and Dunlap, 1979), which isolates humanity from its extra-human conditions of reproduction. The result is a way of thinking humanity as ontologically independent – a kind of human substance apart from the ‘substance’ of Earth/Life. Even when the professed goal is holism, substantialist dualism fetters the move towards synthesis (e.g. Foster, 2013b). Why? Largely because human exemptionalist social theory – and this is still most social theory (e.g. Ritzer, 2005) – presumes humanity’s specificity in the absence of a historical specification of the whole: the natures within which human activity unfolds, and to which human activity actively contributes. The very procedure that might establish humanity’s “dialectical historicity” is in the process denied (Meszaros, 1970: 40). What Marx and Engels called “historical nature” (1970: 41) is too often missing from critical and mainstream green perspectives.

It turns out that, as with pregnancy, one cannot be a little bit Cartesian. For nature is either abstract and external or historical and immanent to everything that humans do, including those large-scale and long-run patterns of power and production that we call civilizations, world-systems, and modes of production.

Jason W. Moore teaches world history in the Department of Sociology at Binghamton University, and is on the executive board of the Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems, and Civilizations. He is coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network. Many of his essays can be found on his website,

The Capitalocene: Beyond Environment as the Zone of Consequence

Beyond Environment as the Zone of Consequence

Jason W. Moore

We ended our last installment with a simple observation:

Rising labor productivity tends strongly towards the rising throughput of materials per quantum of necessary labor-time, and the constant danger, given capitalism’s industrial dynamism and commitment to expansion, is that the value of inputs will rise, and the rate of profit, fall. This tendency towards the overproduction of fixed capital and the underproduction of raw materials was so important for Marx that he called it a general law (Marx, 1967, III: 119-121; also Moore, 2011a; Bukharin, 1915).

Such post-Cartesian readings of capitalism’s “general laws” – or other propositions regarding the longue durée movements and moments of the capitalist world-ecology – opens up the possibility of moving from the “environmental” consequences of “social” processes to the socio-ecological constitution of Anthropogenic drivers themselves. Too often, the environment leads an unduly narrow existence, as a zone of consequences, impacts, and conditions. Green scholars study the metabolism of globalization, industrialization, and agrarian change, rather than studying globalization, industrialization and agrarian change as metabolisms, as ways of organizing nature. I think this transition from the political ecology or environmental history of social change towards social change as environment-making is now a possibility, with significant intellectual and therefore political implications. To move from a focus on the environmental consequences of so-called social processes to a view of social processes as co-produced by human and extra-human natures involves more than philosophical assertion, and entails more than registering political and theoretical protest. Such a move also demands historical reconstruction – a reconstruction made possible by generations of environmental scholars across the Two Cultures since the 1970s.

Such historical reconstruction calls into question any periodization premised on a dualistic “social drive plus environmental consequence” model. This remains the hegemonic model within global environmental studies, even as regional studies have long since transcended such dualisms (e.g. White, 1995; Kosek, 2006). From this standpoint, the Anthropocene argument is not only philosophically and theoretically problematic – viewing humans as separate from nature and erasing capitalism from the equation – it also offers an unduly narrow conceptualization of historical time. This plays out at two levels. One is an awkward conflation of geological notions of time with the periodization of historical change. The other is the Anthropocene’s recuperation of an older historiographical vista which saw the “real” changes of “real” modernity beginning in the later 18th century.

In this respect, the Anthropocene argument feeds into Green Thought’s longstanding love affair with the Two Century model of modernity: industrial society, industrial civilization, industrial capitalism. The notion that It all began with the Industrial Revolution has been with us for a very long time (e.g. Toynbee, 1894/1884/1881; Beard, 1901). After taking a pounding in the 1970s (Wallerstein, 1974; Frank, 1978), the Two Century Model came roaring back at the dawn of the 21st century. Not just Anthropocene advocates, but many critical historians and social scientists, came to embrace the Industrial Revolution as the source of all things difficult and divergent (e.g. Pomeranz, 2000; Harvey, 2010). Within green thought, the embrace of the “industrialization thesis” on the origins of ecological crisis has been especially warm (Moore, 2003b; see, e.g. Daly and Farley, 2004; Huber, 2008; Heinberg, 2003; Jensen, 2006; Malm, 2013; O’Connor, 1998; Steffen, et al., 2007, 2011; Wrigley, 1990, 2010).

What this Two Century model obscured was the remarkable remaking of land and labor beginning in the “long” sixteenth century, c. 1450-1640 (Braudel, 1953). (About which, more presently.) Ignored – even by environmental historians (see Moore, 2003a, 2003b) – was the important historiography of economic change in early modern Europe and the Americas, written during the postwar era. Only occasionally were these analyses framed in terms of capitalism; but for these historians there was no question that the early modern transformations of economies and landscapes were dialectically bound (see inter alia, Braudel, 1972; Galeano, 1973; Kellenbenz, 1974, 1976; Kriedte, 1983; Nef, 1964; Malowist, 2009; Prado, 1967; Wallerstein, 1974; Brenner, 1976; Sella, 1974; de Vries, 1974, 1976; Cipolla, 1976). Since the 1970s, for all their distinctive geographical emphases and interpretive differences, the view of early modernity as real modernity has persisted (e.g., de Vries and van der Woude, 1997; de Vries, 2001; Brenner, 2001; Crosby, 1997; DuPlessis, 1997; Jones, 1987; Komlos, 2000; Landes, 1998; Seccombe, 1992; Mokyr, 1990: 57-80; Moore, 2003a, 2003b, 2007, 2010a, 2010b; Nef, 1964; Prak, 2001; van Zanden, 1993). For some, this ongoing “revolt of the early modernists” (van Zanden, 2002) did not go nearly so far enough: the decisive period begins sometime just after the turn of the millennium (van Zanden, 2009; Levine, 2001; Arrighi, 1994; Mielants, 2007). And yet, green thought has been slow – very slow – to engage this literature. This holds true even for students of early modern environmental history (e.g. Richards, 2003; Warde, 2006a, 2006b; Grove, 1995; Williams, 2003). Industrialization appears, in the metanarratives of green thought, as a deus ex machina dropped onto the world-historical stage by coal and steampower.

We might therefore do well to ask if industrialization is really the best way to frame the origins and subsequent development of modernity’s “ecological” crisis? At its best, industrialization is a shorthand for the tensions between technology and power, between the “forces” and “relations” of production; these are hardly novel historical problems. But these tensions have, almost universally, been framed in dualistic terms, contained within a “social” universe of human relations ontologically prior to the latter’s engagement with web of life. This is the problem of Cartesian dualism, one that bears bitter fruit in the hegemonic narrative of industrialization as acting upon, rather than developing through, nature. At a time when Cartesian dualism, as philosophical construct, finds itself widely questioned across the spectrum of green thought (e.g. Harvey, 1996; Latour, 1993; Plumwood, 1993; Braun and Castree, 1998; Castree and Braun, 2001), such dualism retains its hegemony over the methods, theory, and narrative frames of world-historical change (see Moore, 2011a). Left ecology still tends to think of capitalism and nature rather than capitalism-in-nature (e.g. Foster, Clark, and York, 2010; Heynen, et al., 2007). This is the largely-unacknowledged dissonance at the core of green thought today, between the philosophical recognition that humans are a part of nature (humanity-in-nature) and the construction of histories, recent and remote, that proceed as if human relations are ontologically prior to the web of life (humanity and nature).

Whereas the Anthropocene argument begins with biospheric consequences and moves towards social history, an unconventional ordering of crises would begin with the dialectic between (and amongst) humans and the rest of nature, and thence move towards geological and biophysical change. These consequences, in turn, constitute new conditions for successive eras of capitalist restructuring across the longue durée. Relations of power and production, themselves co-produced within nature, enfold and unfold consequences. The modern world-system becomes, in this approach, a capitalist world-ecology: a civilization that joins the accumulation of capital, the pursuit of power, and the co-production of nature as an organic whole (Moore, 2003, 2011a, 2011b, 2011c, 2013a, 2013b; also Deckard, 2012, 2013; Leonardi, 2012; Niblett, 2012, 2013; Mahnkopf, 2012; Marley, 2013; Marley and Fox, forthcoming; Oloff, 2012; Ortiz, forthcoming; Parenti, 2014; Weis, 2013). This means that capital and power – and countless other strategic relations – do not act upon nature, but develop through the web of life. Crises are turning points of world-historical processes – accumulation, imperialism, industrialization, and so forth – that are neither social nor environmental in the usual sense, but rather bundles of human and extra-human natures, materially practiced and symbolically enabled. In world-ecological perspective, Nature stands as the relation of the whole. Humans live as one specifically-endowed (but not special) environment-making species within Nature.