Part I: Beyond the Consequentialist Bias

Jason W. Moore

All arguments effect uneven openings and closures. The Anthropocene argument is no different. It is true that the land and labor transformations of early capitalism – even if we recognize them as potentially epoch-making – do not say anything directly about the new relations of class, capital, and empire that emerged after 1450. But they are clues. The extraordinary scale, scope, and speed of early modernity’s reshaping of land and labor (human and extra-human natures) brings into question any historical periodization that excludes it.

When the Anthropocene argument begins with the consequences issuing from a stylized and uncritical version of the Industrial Revolution, it implicates a problem inherent in green materialism since the 1970s. Given human exemptionalism’s hegemony across the historical social sciences,[1] the main thrust of environmental history and social science was to make explicit the environmental dimension of social processes. From this movement we gained impressive environmental histories, not least of capitalist transition and development (e.g. Cronon, 1983, 1991; Merchant, 1989). Usually, however, the environmental dimension of social change meant writing about environmental consequences more than environmental causes. And for good reason. Environmental determinism enjoyed an unsavory past, one closely allied to imperialism and Eurocentrism (Peet, 1985; e.g. Semple, 1911). But the rejection of environmental determinism tended to throw out the baby with the bathwater; it biased the new environmental historiography and social sciences against the notion that socio-ecological antagonisms might be at the core of modernity’s crisis tendencies. Unfortunately, these antagonisms could hardly be avoided. With a direct approach impossible, nature’s role was reduced to the spectre of neo-Malthusian scarcity, imposed on capitalism from outside (Schnaiberg, 1980; Catton, 1980).

As a result, when explanatory models in environmental history challenged the Cartesian dualism – seeking to move environmental history beyond the environmental consequences of social relations (e.g. Merchant, 1989; Worster, 1990) – they seldom gained traction. More recently, green scholars have sought to remedy this consequentialist bias with calls for nature’s agency. Beinart and Hughes (2007), for example, talk about “environmental causation,” with the Columbian exchange of flora and fauna as a prime example (e.g. Crosby, 1986); similarly, Campbell speaks of climate as “historical protagonist” in the late medieval crisis (2010). Such calls, as with the Anthropocene argument, have the virtue of saying – quite correctly – that nature matters. But they have reproduced the underlying problem of a dualistic conception: “nature” remains an ontologically independent realm of agency that acts upon “society.” (And vice-versa.) This false separation produces the appearance of nature’s agency while undermining a view of historical change as constituted through the complex and multi-layered “flows of people, materials, information, [and] artifacts” (Carlstein, 2003: 57). These dualistic arguments for nature’s agency reinforce the very thought-structures they aim to critique; they get us scarcely closer than before to explanations of the causes of historical change premised on the dialectic of human and extra-human nature.

The consequentialist bias of green materialism has not given the Anthropocene argument much to work with. Common to the uncritical and stylized version of the Industrial Revolution embraced by the Anthropocene argument – and it is not alone – is the reluctance to explain modernity as constituted through nature, and to explain modernity instead as the output of industrialization and its impacts upon nature.[2] Left to its own devices, green materialism tends to succumb to a global empiricism of cobbled together meta-forces, endowing some descriptive categories – industrialization, urbanization, automobilization, and so forth (e.g. Steffen, et al., 2011a) – with the power to “overwhelm the great forces of nature” (Steffen, Crutzen, and McNeill, 2007). (As if industrialization was not itself a “specifically harnessed natural force.”) But as any sociologist will quickly tell you, correlation is not causation. The accumulation of descriptive categories that quantify important trends in the modern world-system does not – cannot – “add up” to an explanation of humanity-in-nature since the sixteenth century.

If adding up doesn’t suffice, what would? We have, in the Anthropocene and world-ecology arguments, two very different historical methods. The first begins with geological consequences and moves towards social history. The world-ecology argument, in constrast, begins with the dance of the dialectic between (and amongst) humans and the rest of nature and moves towards geological and biophysical consequences. These, in turn, create new conditions of historical change (Moore, 2011a, 2011b): world-ecology is a method that enfolds consequences into new constitutive terrain for the emergence of new human/extra-human relations. Climate change – and climate is always changing – is a good example. Instead of a “factor” that gets in the way of civilizations once the weather gets too cold, too wet, too hot, too unpredictable, climate change is a constitutive factor the emergence and development of civilizations, not only in their crises (Moore, 2013). The difference between the Anthropocene and world-ecology perspectives is a difference over how one frames the history of geological and biospheric changes. Above all, it is a difference over how one sees the geobiosphere as constitutive of historical change itself, and not merely as a repository of natural limits. It is of no small consequence whether we begin with the origins of the relations of modernity – as a capitalist world-ecology – in the long sixteenth century, or with the fossil boom that commenced around 1800. One approach tells us to consider the relations of modernity first; the other tells us to look at machines and resources first.

TO BE CONTINUED…

JASON W MOORE is coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network (https://www.facebook.com/pages/World-Ecology-Research-Network/174713375900335?fref=ts). You are welcome to contact him: jasonwsmoore@gmail.com. Many of his essays, on the history of capitalism, capitalism as world-ecology, environmental history, and political economy, are available on his website: www.jasonwmoore.com.

REFERENCES

Beinart, William, and Lotte Hughes (2007). Environment and Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Campbell, Bruce M.S. (2010). “Nature as historical protagonist: Environment and society in pre-industrial England,” Economic History Review, 63(2), 281–314.

Carlstein, Tommy (2003). “Why ‘Society’ is an Ecosystem and what this Implies for the Social Sciences and the Disciplines of Culture,” in Eric Clark, Per Olof Hallin, and Mats Widgren, eds., Tidrumsfragment. Stockholm: Stockholm University Press, 45-70.

Catton, jr., William R. 1980. Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Cronon, William (1983). Changes in the Land. New York: W.W. Norton.

Cronon, William (1991). Nature’s Metropolis. New York: W.W. Norton.

Crosby, Alfred W., jr. (1986). Ecological Imperialism. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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

Huber, Matthew T. (2008). “Energizing historical materialism: Fossil fuels, space and the capitalist mode of Production,” Geoforum, 40, 105-115.

Huber, Matthew T. (2012). “Refined Politics: Petroleum Products, Neoliberalism, and the Ecology of Entrepreneurial Life,” Journal of American Studies, 46, 295-312.

Merchant, Carolyn (1989). Ecological Revolutions. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

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). “From Object to Oikeios: Environment-Making in the Capitalist World-Ecology,” unpublished paper.

Peet, Richard (1985). “The social origins of environmental determinism,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 75(3), 309-333.

Schnaiberg, Allan (1980). The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Semple, Ellen C. (1911). Influences of geographic environment on the basis of Ratzel’s system of anthropo-geography. New York: Russell and Russell.

Steffen, Will, Paul J. Crutzen and John R. McNeill (2007). “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?” Ambio, 36(8), 614-621.

Steffen, Will, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen and John McNeill (2011a). “The Anthropocene: Conceptual and historical perspectives,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, 369, 842-867.

Worster, Donald (1990). “Transformations of the Earth,” Journal of American History 76(4), 1087-1106.


[1] Human exemptionalism embraces humanity as “an ‘exceptional’ species… [in which] the exceptional characteristics of our species (culture, technology, language, elaborate social organization) somehow exempt humans from ecological principles and from environmental influences and constraints” (Dunlap and Catton, 1979: 250). The most penetrating critique of human exemptionalism that I have seen is offered by Carlsson: “[W]e cannot understand society as a general and overall construction if we stick to the humanistic, dualistic and anti-naturalist ideology that society is all about humans… Humans get excessive ontological privilege in the humanistic and socio-cultural disciplines because of an overspecialization and misspecialization of these disciplines” (2003: 54).

[2] Huber’s work is an important exception. He points us in the right direction in arguing that “fossil fuel energy is… internal to… the contradictions of capitalism” (2008: 113). But nature is not only internal, but also external. The crucial shift is to move “away from the neoliberal politics of ecology (or nature) [e.g. Heynen, et al., 2007] to a framework that considers the ecology of neoliberal politics” (Huber, 2012: 299).

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