A Peculiar Way of Organizing Nature

PART I, Labor, Land, and the Commodification of Everything

 Jason W. Moore

Historical capitalism is a peculiar way of organizing nature. This peculiarity begins with a curious inversion of the land-labor relation that governed civilizations for millennia prior to the long sixteenth century (1450-1640). For premodern civilizations, land productivity was the decisive metric of wealth. Barring demographic collapse, such tributary civilizations were more-or-less content with declining labor productivity, so long as returns from the land continue to grow, or at least did not decline. Such civilizations usually expanded, some dramatically so, but none possessed either the will or capacity to conquer the world. That would change with the rise of capitalism. Beginning in this long sixteenth century, we can see a dramatic rupture with the old land-labor relation. Labor productivity, not land productivity, would increasingly govern the logic of power and production.

Why should the sixteenth-century origins of this peculiar configuration of land and labor – these are of course shorthands for much more complex relations – concern us? The short answer is that these peculiar relations, of land, labor, and endless commodification, are still with us. And these relations underpin capitalism’s grand experiment in the web of life.

It turns out that relations really do matter. The new mode of producing wealth, power, and nature was evident from the first stirrings of commodity frontiers in Central European mining and metallurgy and the Atlantic sugar-slave nexus in the century or so after 1450. From the earliest movements of expansion in the later fifteenth century, we see the age-old geography of demographic expansion leading to commercial expansion turned inside-out. In medieval Europe, for example, the effloresence of feudal civilization produced wave upon wave settler expansions. This was most obvious east of the Elbe, but such expansion also occurred within settlement cores, where forests retreated rapidly (Bartlett, 1993; Moore, 2013). From these demographic-territorial expansions issued commercial and manufacturing growth. (Hence, eastern Europe prospered relative to western Europe in the long fourteenth century crisis.) Beginning in the sixteenth century, however, the logic of geographical expansion changed. Demographic and resource frontiers yielded to commodity frontiers. These commodity frontiers – sugar is a spectacular instance – served as magnets for settlement.[1] Where commerce had once followed people, now people followed the frontiers of commodification.

Needless to say, this was a violent process. Forced settlement was most dramatic, of course, in the modern slave trade. But it was also in effect in the “internal Africas” of the New World, those indigenous labor reserves – strategic hamlets called aldeias in Brazil, reducciones in the Andes – that were the necessary complement to the sugar and silver production complexes (Moore, 2010; 2007: chapter six). Here is one basis for explaining the “special laws of population” (Marx, 1977: 784) that attended the rise of capitalism. (And need we say that such special laws apply also to extra-human animals too: cattle, mules, and horses especially in the New World?)

The new civilization – a capitalist world-ecology (Moore, 2011a, 2011b) – was not particularly strong. Its “forces of production” were not, by global standards, especially advanced. But emerging in the sixteenth century was a destabilizing synergy of technics and technique, of power and production (Mumford, 1934). This synergy its epoch-making expression in the commodity form, which was now elevated to God-like status. Where merchants and bankers once bowed before kings, now kings bowed to the power of mammon. Commodification, following the first stirrings of recovery from the fourteenth century crisis (c. 1290-1450), began to invert the old rules of reproduction. Across the hotspots of commodification – enforced and enabled, to be sure, by the technics of a new globe-imagining imperialism – labor no longer served the land. Land, and the rest of nature, would serve labor; the exploitation of labor power in the production and realization of commodities would come first. Everything else came second. And this meant, above all, that the totality of the natures within capital’s grasp – more on this presently – would be appropriated in service to this peculiar civilizational objective: advancing labor productivity. (Or reducing unit labor costs – in the language of economists – which amounts to much the same thing.)

All of which might have you wondering, What does this have to do with nature?

It was the emergence of a new “law of value” – of valorizing some elements of nature (labor power in production, but not labor power in reproduction) and devalorizing other elements of nature (now considered “raw materials”) – that explains the world-ecological revolution of early capitalism (see Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Part II). For increasingly after 1450, all of nature, including most of human nature, was to be mobilized – and thence exhausted – in the service of advancing labor productivity within the commodity system.



Bartlett, Robert (1993). The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950-1350. New York: Penguin.

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

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

Moore, Jason W. (2010). “‘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. (2013). Ecology in the Making (and Unmaking) of Feudal Civilization. Unpublished manuscript.

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


Jason W. Moore is coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network. Correspondence is welcome: jasonwsmoore@gmail.com. Many of his essays, on the history of capitalism, food and agriculture, and political economy, are available on his website: www.jasonwmoore.com.


[1] There persisted an older pattern, marked by the proliferation of the expansion of commercial outposts (‘factories’). But even here, the old pattern was reconfigured within new relations. The Portuguese empire was in the vanguard, multiplying commercial outposts along the African coast and thence establishing a tenuous “merchant-warrior” hegemony over the Indian Ocean spice trade (Pearson, 1987; Brady, 1991).



Anthropocene or Capitalocene? On World-Ecology and the Nature of Our Crisis, Part III


Jason W. Moore

I have argued that the Anthropocene argument – in its Two Century Model of modernity – is poor history. But these notes are only partly an argument about the past. They are also an argument about the present, and about the categories that govern our understanding of the past/present dialectic, too often neatly packaged into tidy binary. Can we, for instance, really erase early modern transformations by sweeping them into the rubbish bin of the “preindustrial”? Are such events mere footnotes to the story of the relations that have produced the turbulent and increasingly unpredictable state of affairs in the early 21st century? And is the story of humanity as “geological agent”[1] best narrated through the spectre – and ontological premise – of neo-Malthusian resource scarcity and overpopulation (e.g, Steffen, et al., 2011b)? Or best told through the subjectivity of humanity as unified agent in an era of unprecedented global polarization of rich and poor?

Let me put my cards on the table and offer two propositions from the outset. The first is philosophical. The second is historical.

First, in my view, the modern world-system is a capitalist world-ecology: a civilization that joins the accumulation of capital, the pursuit of power, and the production of nature as an organic whole (Moore, 2003c, 2007, 2010a, 2010b, 2010c, 2011a, 2011b, 2011c, 2011d, 2012, 2013; also Böhm, et al., 2012; Deckard, 2012; Leonardi, 2012; Leitner, 2007; Mahnkopf, 2013; Niblett, 2012; Oloff, 2012). This means that capital and power – and countless other strategic relations – do not act upon nature but develop through the web of life. “Nature” is here offered as the relation of the whole. Humans live as a specifically-endowed (but not special) environment-making species within Nature.

Second, capitalism in 1800 was no Athena, bursting forth, fully grown and armed, from the head of a carboniferous Zeus. Civilizations do not form through Big Bang events. They emerge through cascading transformations and bifurcations of human activity in the web of life. This cascade finds its origin in the chaos the followed the terminal crisis of feudal civilization after the Black Death (1347-53) and the emergence of a “vast but weak” capitalism in the long 16th century (c. 1450-1640). If we are to put our finger on a new era human relations with the rest of nature it was in these centuries, centered geographically in the expansive commodity-centered relations of the early modern Atlantic. At the risk of putting too fine a point on the matter: the rise of capitalism in the “long” 16th century (c. 1450-1640) marked a turning point in the history of humanity’s relation with the rest of nature, greater than any watershed since the rise of agriculture and cities. To put our long list of environmental transformations into perspective, the long 17th century forest clearances of the Vistula Basin and Brazil’s Atlantic Rainforest occurred on a scale, and at a speed, between five and ten times greater than anything seen in medieval Europe (Moore, 2007, 2010b; Darby, 1956; Williams, 2003). This is a clue – nothing more – to an epochal transition in the relations of power and wealth that occurred over the course of the long medieval crisis and the expansion that commenced after 1450.

This turning point, however, is rarely acknowledged, and its significance is widely misunderstood. This is no academic hair-splitting. Lacking a historical-relational perspective on how modernity develops not upon, but through, the web of life, the Anthropocene’s version of green materialism is powerless to explain the early modern relations and patterns that enabled the era of humanity as geological agent. The relations of power, wealth, and nature that emerged after 1450 were the relations that made the long fossil boom of the past two centuries possible. The Anthropocene does indeed a register an important reality. The bias of green materialism tells us that “coal transformed the world” (McNeill, 2008: 3). But is not the inverse formulation more plausible?: New world-relations transformed coal. Coal is coal. Only in specific historical relations does it become fossil fuel. Yes, the fossil boom transformed the conditions of capitalist civilization. But did these new conditions imply a fundamental rupture with the territorialist and capitalist relations – and historical-geographical patterns – of early modernity? This is precisely the line of questioning that has been ruled out by the dominant Anthropocene argument.

The invisibilization of capitalism’s origins and consolidation is of some import in our efforts to develop effective political strategies and policy responses to global warming, and not only global warming. Ask any historian and she will tell you: how one periodizes history decisively shapes the interpretation of events, and the choice of decisive relations. Start of the clock in 1784, with James Watt’s steam engine (Crutzen, 2002), and we have a very different view of history – and along with it, of the decisive relations that shape modernity’s patterns of evolution, recurrence, and global crisis – than we do if we begin with the English or Dutch agricultural revolutions, with Columbus and the conquest of the Americas, with the first signs of an epoch-making transitions in landscape transformation after 1450. Are we really living in the Anthropocene, with its return to a curiously Eurocentric vista of humanity and its reliance on well-worn notions of resource- and technological-determinism? Or are we living in the Capitalocene, the historical era shaped by relations privileging the endless accumulation of capital? How one answers the historical question shapes one’s response to the crises of the 21st century.


[1] The term is Chakrabarty’s (2009) and Vernadsky’s (1997: 31).


Jason W. Moore

I argued, in our previous installment, that the Anthropocene argument obscures, when it does not ignore outright, the actually existing relations through which women and men make history with the rest of nature: the relations of power, (re)production, and wealth in the web of life.

This relational argument is more than a political and theoretical protest. It highlights a serious historical problem. Underpinning the Anthropocene argument – in its dominant Two Century expression – is a profound falsification of history.

We can begin with the most palpable transformations of land and labor issued by the rise of capitalism several centuries earlier. A modest catalog of these transformations, from the 1450s to the eve of the Industrial Revolution, would include the following commodity-centered and –influence changes: 1) the agricultural revolution of the Low Countries (c. 1400-1600) (Brenner, 2001); 2) the mining and metallurgical revolution of Central Europe (Nef, 1964; Vlachovic, 1963); 3) the first signs of the modern sugar-slave nexus in Madeira and then São Tomé (1452-1520s, 1540s-1590s), a transition necessitated by rapid deforestation (Moore, 2009, 2010d); 4) northeastern Brazil’s rise to the commanding heights of the world sugar economy, displacing São Tomé after 1570, from which issued the first great wave of clearing Brazil’s Atlantic rainforest (Schwartz 1985; Dean, 1995); 5) the movement of the African “slaving frontier” from the Gulf of Guinea to Angola and the Congo in the later 16th century, marking the first of several major expansions in the slave trade (Miller 1988); 6) Potosí’s ascent after 1545, and its dramatic restructuring after 1571, on the heels of the exhaustion of Saxon and Bohemian silver mining (Bakewell, 1984; Moore 2010e); 7) in South-East Asia, the destruction of clove trees, nutmeg and mace, casualties in the Dutch East India Company’s battle to control the lucrative spice trade in the opening decades of the 17th century (Boxer 1965); 8) the draining of the fens in England, and of wetlands across the Atlantic world, from Pernambuco to Warsaw, from to Rome to Göteborg (Wilson, 1968: 78–81; Rogers, 2005: 51; Richards, 2003);  9) the relative exhaustion of Mediterranean forests, especially for shipbuilding, by the dawn of the 17th century (Braudel, 1972; Moore, 2010a; Wing, 2012); resulting in 10) the relocation of Spanish shipbuilding to Cuba, where one-third of the fleet was built by 1700 (Parry 1966; Funes Monzote, 2008); 11) the emergence of major shipbuilding centers, and significant frontiers for timber and “naval stores,” in North America during the 18th century (Perlin, 1989; Williams, 2003); 12) the advance of the forest products frontier from Poland and Lithuania to southern Norway in the 1570s, followed by renewed movements into the hinterlands of Danzig (again), Königsberg, Riga and Viborg (Moore, 2010b); 13) the rise of the Vistula breadbasket in the 1550s; followed by 14) the exhaustion of Polish market-oriented agriculture and the 17th century English agriculture revolution, which made England the granary of northern Europe by 1700; 15) the re-centering of European copper and iron production in Sweden, beginning in the late sixteenth century, displacing the Hungarian-Slovakian and German centers that flourished in the “first” 16th century (Sundberg, 1991; Hildebrand, 1992); 16) the ever more expansive forays of the herring, cod and whaling fleets across the breadth of the Global North Atlantic (Richards, 2003; Poulsen, 2008); 17) the relentless advance of the fur trapping-trading commodity frontiers in North America (Leitner, 2005; Wolf, 1982); 18) the deforestation of Ireland under British colonial domination (McCracken, 1971); 19) the successive sugar revolutions of the West Indies, from Barbados in the 1640s to Jamaica and St. Domingue, leaving a trail of African graves and denuded landscapes in its wake (Watts, 1987); 20) the sharply uneven “cerealization” of peasant diets – and the “meatification” of aristocratic and bourgeois diets – within Europe; 21) the rise of Mexican silver production in the 18th century and the attendant deforestation of already-thin Mexican forests (Studnicki-Gizbert and Schechter, 2010); 22) the relative exhaustion of English forests and Dutch peat reserves as cheap energy (de Zeeuw, 1978; Perlin, 1989); and, perhaps most significantly, 23) the epoch-making “Columbian exchange,” as Old World diseases, animals, and crops flowed into the New World, and New World crops, such as potatoes and maize, flowed into the Old World (Crosby, 1972, 1986).

These events are open to a wide range of interpretations. But it seems hard to deny that a new pattern in environmental change can be identified as early as the “first” sixteenth century in the Atlantic world (1450-1557). It is also clear that states across early modern Eurasia were actively making environments as well (Richards, 2003; Lieberman, 2009). None of these states, however, were compelled to resolve the contradictions of environment-making through the endless appropriation of nature’s free gifts. And need we point out that this difference turned on Europe’s unusually weak and contradictory political ecology (Moore, 2003b)? In contrast, China was, between 650 and 1850, nearly always the “most ecologically resilient and resourceful state on earth” (McNeill, 1998: 35). Frontier-making was universal, but commodity frontiers were not. And there’s the rub. Unless one gives in to the Eurocentric conceit of superior ingenuity or curiosity or inquisitiveness, one must allow for the possibility that a significant shift in the relations of power, production, and nature joined with a significant shift in the historical geography of premodern frontier-making after 1450.




(Part I: Excerpt from Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital).

Jason W. Moore

When and where did humanity’s modern relation with the rest of nature begin? The question has gained new prominence with growing public concern over accelerating climate change. For the past decade, one answer to this question has captivated scholarly and popular audiences alike: the Anthropocene.

It is, in Paul Vooser’s apt phrase, “an argument wrapped in a word” (2012).

But just what kind of argument is it? As with all fashionable concepts, the Anthropocene has been subject to a wide spectrum of interpretations. But one is dominant. This one tells us that the origins of modern world are to be found in England, right around the dawn of the 19th century (Crutzen and Stoermer, 2000; Crutzen, 2002; Steffen, Crutzen, and McNeill, 2007; Steffen, et al, 2011a, 2011b; Chakrabarty, 2009; Davis, 2010; Swyngedouw, 2013). The motive force behind this epochal shift? In two words: coal and steam. The driving force behind coal and steam? Not class. Not capital. Not imperialism. Not even culture. But… you guessed it, the Anthropos. Humanity as an undifferentiated whole.

The Anthropocene makes for an easy story. Easy, because it does not challenge the naturalized inequalities, alienation, and violence inscribed in modernity’s strategic relations of power, production, and nature. It is an easy story to tell because it does not ask us to think about these relations at all. As a metaphor for communicating the significant – and growing – problem posed by greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, the Anthropocene is to be welcomed. But the Anthropocene argument goes much further than this. For Will Steffen and his colleagues (2011b), the great conceptual inspiration for their analyses of our present conjuncture – and how we have arrived at this unfortunate state of affairs – is not Darwin or Vernadsky, but Malthus. Their Anthropocene is one in which today’s crises are framed through and explained by the neo-Malthusian vistas of resource scarcity (peak everything) and rising population.

From this vantage point, we might all do well to take a moment to step back and ask, Does the Anthropocene argument obscure more than it illuminates?

Almost certainly. Above all, the Anthropocene argument obscures, and relegates to context, the actually existing relations through which women and men make history with the rest of nature: the relations of power, (re)production, and wealth in the web of life.