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).



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