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.




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