Part II: From Geology to Geohistory in the Capitalist World-Ecology

Jason W. Moore

In our previous installment, we highlighted the problems attending a view of modernity that prized the development of machines and the extraction of resources before all else, especially prior to the relations of power and (re)production in the web of life. Today, the dominant Anthropocene argument represents the Industrial Revolution – abstracted from the definite historical relations of class, state, and capital – as the taproot of the ongoing and impending geophysical changes in the 21st century (Steffen, et al., 2011).

This is not the first time that green thinkers have embraced the Industrial Revolution as The Source of our biospheric problems. Green thought has long been enamored with the Two Century Model, of which the Anthropocene is simply old wine in a new bottle. 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). But 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 environmental studies, the embrace was especially warm (e.g. Daly and Farley, 2004; Huber, 2008; Heinberg, 2003; Jensen, 2006; Steffen, et al., 2007, 2011; Wrigley, 1990, 2010).[1]

 Industrialization is not well understood. This is especially true within environmental studies (e.g. Schnaiberg and Gould, 1994). Surely part of the problem was the conjuncture of the 1970s. In this decade, the “new” environmental studies emerged (e.g. Crosby, 1972; Worster, 1977; Merchant, 1980; Schnaiberg, 1980), and the “old” economic history, which had been strongly committed to the study of material life (e.g. Nef, 1964), passed from the scene.  Economic history since the 1970s has rarely taken environmental questions seriously in the Industrial Revolution (e.g. Allen, 2011; but see Jonsson, 2012; Warde and Marra, 2007). Marx’s conception of industrialization – of the rise and development of “large-scale industry” – might have come to the rescue. This could have permitted a view of industrialization as a crystallization of technology, class, state, and nature – a synthesis whose outlines had been suggested by Marx (1967, 1977). But the cutting edge of marxist thought in the 1970s was found in history and political economy, typically abstracted from their bio-geographical conditions (Anderson, 1974a, 1974b; Mandel, 1975; but see Wallerstein, 1974). Questions of nature, agro-ecology, and resources were explored only by a few Marxist trailblazers (see, inter alia, Commoner, 1971: 249-291; England and Bluestone, 1971; Burgess, 1978; Enzensberger, 1974; Hardesty, et al., 1971; Harvey, 1974; Levins and Lewontin, 1980; Linebaugh, 1976; Marcuse, 1972; Mumy, 1979; Perelman, 1977, 1979; Salgo, 1973; Schnaiberg, 1980; Schmidt, 1973; Smith and O’Keefe, 1980; Stretton, 1976; Turshen, 1977; Walker, 1979; Wisner, 1978; Williams, 1972, 1976; Young, 1973, 1979).[2]

 The conjuncture of the 1970s therefore decisively shaped the field of investigation for environmental historians and social scientists. Amongst the key consequences for green thought was the acceptance of the Industrial Revolution in two major ways: 1) as an essentially technical and resource phenomenon abstracted from class relations (e.g. Wrigley, 1990); and 2) as the “explanatory nexus” of modern environmental problems, and indeed of modernity as a whole (Wallerstein, 1986: 67).

It need not have been this way.

Prior to the 1970s, a significant historiography had long emphasized industrialization, not as a singular event, but as a succession of industrializations, commencing in Europe as far back as the thirteenth century (Carus-Wilson, 1941; Gimpel, 1976; Nef, 1964). This would appear to provide a favorable conceptualization of world history in which successive waves of industrialization took shape out of successive of eras of socio-ecological crisis. (It would also have corrected the one-sided emphasis on scarcity that was a defining feature of green thought in the 1970s). But environmental historians have been slow to take advantage of this opportunity. Today, we still do not have a comprehensive environmental history of the Industrial Revolution, even in its most conventional historical and geographical setting: England, between the 1760s and the 1860s.[3] Nor do we have comprehensive ecohistorical interpretations of the “second” industrial revolution of the later 19th century, or of the “third” industrialization of the Global South – China above all! – since the 1970s.

A major source of confusion emerges from the conflation of the Industrial Revolution with the rise of capitalism. A stylized love affair with machinery leads quickly to a stylized love affair with resources. This is not suprising given the faint influence of political economy and class analysis in most green interpretations of industrialization. It is always tempting to “think in terms of realities that can be ‘touched with the finger’,” a mode of thought that Bourdieu calls substantialist (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1998: 228).

 The world-ecology alternative does not contest the materiality or significance of resources (Moore, 2011a, 2011b). Far from it! The view that resources are relational in fact highlights the historically co-produced character of resource production, which unfolds through human/extra-human nexus: the oikeios (Moore, 2013; Harvey, 1974). Coal is a rock in the ground. Only under definite historical relations did coal become fossil fuel. Geology becomes geo-history through definite relations of power and production; these definite relations are, of course, geographical, which is to say they are not relations between humans alone. At the risk of putting too fine a point on the matter, geology does not “directly determine” the organization of production (Bunker and Ciccantell, 2005: 25), precisely because the organization of production is not directly determined at all, but rather co-produced. Articulations of production and reproduction are mediated through the oikeios, especially its dialectic of organic life and inorganic environments. Here I highlight Stephen Bunker’s formulation (with Paul Ciccantell): not because his approach is so weak but rather because it is so vital. Bunker’s  pioneering insight was that the history of capitalism is indeed centrally about space and nature are foundational. However, for Bunker Nature remains condition and consequence, but not constitutive factor in the co-production of capital, empire, and biosphere. But to argue for the direct determination (however partial) of extra-human natures upon social organization, and thence to posit the “theoretically independent” character of material specificities from the course of capitalist development (Ciccantell and Bunker, 2002: 70), is to blunt the argument before it reaches its greatest potential. This potential is not found in a retro-fitted environmental determinism, but rather in the coevolution of world commodity production and exchange as a way of organizing nature, at once product and producer of epoch-making transformations in life, land, and labor.

In the case of coal, we might note the revolution in English coal production began not in the eighteenth century but in the first half of the sixteenth century – a matter to which we will turn in our next installment. If the Anthropocene begins not in 1800 but in the long sixteenth century, we begin to ask a completely different set of questions about the drivers of world-ecological crisis in the 21st century. The onset of the English coal revolution, c. 1530 (Nef, 1932: 19-20, 36, 208), directs our attention to the relations of primitive accumulation and agrarian class structure, to the formation of the modern world market, to new forms of commodity-centered landscape change, to new machineries of state power. This line of argument only appears to return to “social relations” because the legacy of Cartesian thought continues to tell us that state formation, class structure, commodification, and world markets are primarily about relations between humans… which they are not. These too – states, classes, commodity production and exchange – are bundles of human and extra-human nature, processes and projects that reconfigure the relations of humanity-in-nature, within large and small geographies alike.

From this standpoint, to stick with coal, we can say that geology co-produces energy regimes as historically-specific bundles of relations; geology in this view, is at once subject and object. The view that geo-material specificities determines social organization does not highlight geology’s role in historical change; it obscures it. This is so for two reasons, tightly-linked. First, to say that geology determines historical change is to confuse geological facts for historical facts. Second, to conflate geological facts for historical facts is to engage in environmental determinism of a specific kind: the “arithmetic” of nature plus society. But nature plus society adds up to less than the sum of its part. Perhaps most significantly, environmental determinisms, however partial or sophisticated they may be, leave intact the Cartesian order of things, in which society (humans without nature) and nature (environments without humans) interact rather than interpenetrate. The alternative, to see geology co-producing historical change through the oikeios, allows us to see energy regimes – even whole civilizations – moving through, not around, the rest of nature. The definite relations of early capitalism – co-produced in the web of life – transformed coal from a rock in the ground to a fossil fuel. To be clear, material flows and particularities do matter. But their historical significance is best understood through a relational rather than substantialist view of materiality, one in which the flows of resources, circuits of capital, and the struggles of classes and states form a dialectical whole.

Bunker’s insight that material particularities shaped industrialization as much as industrialization shaped the rest of nature is an important corrective to the prevailing wisdom. For much of the green left, industrialization is a matter of society acting upon the earth, drawing forth fossilized carbon and spewing forth all manner of nasty effluents. This substantialist view of industrialization, and its conflation with capitalism, has encouraged a powerful metabolic fetish, one reproduced even by radical scholars in the critique of “fossil capitalism” (e.g. Altvater, 2006). In this scheme of things, “material flows” are given ontological priority over the relations that create, enfold, and develop through these flows. Often enough, priority is too kind a description, as the logic of metabolic fetishization pushes the movements of classes and capitals from the analysis altogether (e.g. Fischer-Kowalski and Haberl, 1997, 1998; Harberl, et al., 2011)! For both radical and mainstream scholars alike, there is a tendency to invoke an exogenous nature that creates an “ahistorical and apolitical bottom line.” This is the view of  “nature [as] external, [in which] the laws of thermodynamics are immutable… [O]ver time, [the argument holds] human actions will ‘wind down’ the earth’s energy and resources” (Braun, 2006: 198).

 The metabolic fetish, and its manifold resource- and energy-determinisms, is easy to justify quantitatively. More energy used, more minerals extracted and metals produced, more urban-industrial workers and fewer agrarian producers, and so much more. For this reason, perhaps, most environmentally-oriented historians of the Industrial Revolution have preferred to analyze energy (rather than, say, parliamentary enclosures) with its allure of easy mathematization (e.g. Wrigley, 2010; Sieferle, 2001; Malanima, 2006). But numbers are tricky things. They easily entrain a powerful empiricist logic that can blind its handlers to plausible alternatives. Gould elegantly reminds us that “numbers suggest, constrain, and refute; they do not, by themselves, specify the content of scientific theories” (1981: 106). More poignant still, the confusion of numbers for explanation tends to ensnare “interpreters… [in the logic of] their own rhetoric. They [tend to] believe in their own objectivity, and fail to discern the prejudice that leads them to one interpretation among many [others] consistent with their numbers” (ibid.).[4] Thus do we have an Anthropocene line of thought that has given rise to many possible periodizations, with the exception of the one interpretation most consistent with its assessment.

This interpretation is, of course, the turning point of the long sixteenth century.

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.

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[1] Important exceptions are Bunker and Ciccantell (2005) and Foster (1994).

[2] The question to ask is not, Why didn’t Marxists pay attention to ecology?, but rather: Why did these pioneering analyses gain so little traction?

[3] For an insightful survey of environmental historians’ relation to the Industrial Revolution narrative, see Barca, 2011; also Osborne, 2003; Steinberg, 1986. A perceptive marxist re-examination is offered by Malm, 2013.

[4] Kingsnorth (2011) highlights the political implications of this quantifying zeal: “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.”

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4 thoughts on “ANTHROPOCENE, CAPITALOCENE & THE MYTH OF INDUSTRIALIZATION II

  1. The central premise of your argument–that proponents of the Anthropocene have decided it began with the industrial revolution–is problematic. Some bio-geologists assert it began in 1950, some in the 17th century, and others argue for pushing it back to what may be the first major climate impact (8,000 year ago) or the first major anthropogenic extinction wave (12-14,000 years ago). Which will win out, indeed if any do, remains to be seen.

    Ignoring all the other proposals leads to a rehash of the familiar industrialization vs. class relations debate and misses a key aspect of Anthropocene research. It is primarily concerned with measuring effects and trying to determine when these effects are sufficient to indicate a phase-shift in the planet’s biological history. They are not primarily concerned with cause of these effects. What social relations were at play in the Quaternary extinction events? How did differing cultural forms contribute differently to early climate change some 8-10,000 years ago? We have little actual historical evidence to say.

    It may be useful to point out the limits of research focused on biosphere effects rather than social causes, but it is incorrect to present them as faulty causal analyses.

    Rather than squeeze the current debate in a form that fits an old argument, I think it’s more useful to explore what the Anthropocene effects analysis, despite its theoretical limits, may reveal. Do biosphere effects (extinction levels, nitrogen deposition, atmospheric carbon concentrations, nuclear radiation, shrinkage of undeveloped land, etc.) point to a start of the Anthropocene in early or late Capitalism? Do they point to an origin before Capitalism? Or as some geologists argue, perhaps the Anthropocene has not yet begun because the effect is not sufficiently large when placed in a geological context. Is the premature announcement of the Anthropocene then, really a mark of Anthropocentrism? What would this indicate about the current state of Capitalism? And what about the fact that the “current age” always been called the Age of Man from the very moment it was discovered that humans were younger than the earth (see for example Buffon in 1770s)? Does that indicate that the Anthropocene is nothing new at all, but just the latest terminology in a long cycle of anthropocentric posturing? And if so, who is the assumed anthros? Is it truly “humans” that are being referred to, or a subset of humans? Westerners perhaps. Or elite westerners or elite male westerners or elite, white, male westerners?

    In short, there are many important questions which appear if we recognize the full spectrum of Anthropocene claims and follow the rapidly developing research on the extent and timing of human impacts on the biosphere. They may cause us to rethink or update our current theories of social relations.

    Kieran Suckling
    Executive Director
    Center for Biological Diversity

    1. Dear Kieran,

      Many kind thanks for your intervention. I confess surprise at several key claims of yours, since my point has been precisely not to “squeeze” new debates into old models. This is especially so on the question of class. Since class relations, in world-ecological perspective, develop through the web of life, and are indeed pivotal to the rise and demise of civilizations as bundles of human and extra-human nature, it is far from clear to me how this fits into an “old model.” It is of course possible that I have been less than clear on this than I would like. I would say, however, that any model — the dominant Anthropocene argument is one — that proceeds from humanity as a non-class entity will not inform our understanding of the 21st century’s ongoing, and escalating, turbulence. And the problems of the dominant Anthropocene argument, as I have noted, do not end with questions of class. They also ignore questions of imperialism and global inequality, the dynamics of accumulation, and manifold other ways of organizing nature in the modern world, since the long sixteenth century. An argument that seeks to measure consequences without explaining their historical genesis will not get us far in responding to the turbulent times now unfolding before our eyes.

      There are, as I have noted in earlier posts, several versions of the Anthropocene argument. It is certainly possible that an alternative periodization will win out. But it strikes me as disingenuous to suggest that there is not, today, a dominant Anthropocene argument centered on the Two Century Model of modernity. I am sympathetic to an early- to mid-Holocene start date for the Anthropocene, which works rather better for that era, when humanity was indeed a non-class (though still differentiated) species. To be perfectly clear: there is more to humanity-in-nature than class, but it is hard to say anything meaningful about that history without reference to class relations, at once broadly conceived and conceived relationally as bundles of human and extra-human nature.

      Finally, l am in perfect agreement with you that we ought to pay attention to the outpouring of research coming out around the Anthropocene concept. Much of it is useful, relevant, and important. And at the same time, any model of modernity that proceeds on the basis of Cartesian dualism — namely that humans are practically separate from nature, and that humans are now “overwhelming the great forces of nature” — will be unable to come to grips with modernity’s peculiar way of joining the production of nature, the pursuit of power, and the accumulation of capital in an organic, historical whole. This is the point of departure on offer from world-ecology: that human activity unfolds within the web of life, and that therefore our perspective can be one of humanity-in-nature rather than humanity and nature.

      With kind regards, Jason

      Jason W. Moore
      Coordinator, World-Ecology Research Network

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