THE CAPITALOCENE:
Beyond Environment as the Zone of Consequence

Jason W. Moore

We ended our last installment with a simple observation:

Rising labor productivity tends strongly towards the rising throughput of materials per quantum of necessary labor-time, and the constant danger, given capitalism’s industrial dynamism and commitment to expansion, is that the value of inputs will rise, and the rate of profit, fall. This tendency towards the overproduction of fixed capital and the underproduction of raw materials was so important for Marx that he called it a general law (Marx, 1967, III: 119-121; also Moore, 2011a; Bukharin, 1915).

Such post-Cartesian readings of capitalism’s “general laws” – or other propositions regarding the longue durée movements and moments of the capitalist world-ecology – opens up the possibility of moving from the “environmental” consequences of “social” processes to the socio-ecological constitution of Anthropogenic drivers themselves. Too often, the environment leads an unduly narrow existence, as a zone of consequences, impacts, and conditions. Green scholars study the metabolism of globalization, industrialization, and agrarian change, rather than studying globalization, industrialization and agrarian change as metabolisms, as ways of organizing nature. I think this transition from the political ecology or environmental history of social change towards social change as environment-making is now a possibility, with significant intellectual and therefore political implications. To move from a focus on the environmental consequences of so-called social processes to a view of social processes as co-produced by human and extra-human natures involves more than philosophical assertion, and entails more than registering political and theoretical protest. Such a move also demands historical reconstruction – a reconstruction made possible by generations of environmental scholars across the Two Cultures since the 1970s.

Such historical reconstruction calls into question any periodization premised on a dualistic “social drive plus environmental consequence” model. This remains the hegemonic model within global environmental studies, even as regional studies have long since transcended such dualisms (e.g. White, 1995; Kosek, 2006). From this standpoint, the Anthropocene argument is not only philosophically and theoretically problematic – viewing humans as separate from nature and erasing capitalism from the equation – it also offers an unduly narrow conceptualization of historical time. This plays out at two levels. One is an awkward conflation of geological notions of time with the periodization of historical change. The other is the Anthropocene’s recuperation of an older historiographical vista which saw the “real” changes of “real” modernity beginning in the later 18th century.

In this respect, the Anthropocene argument feeds into Green Thought’s longstanding love affair with the Two Century model of modernity: 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). 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 green thought, the embrace of the “industrialization thesis” on the origins of ecological crisis has been especially warm (Moore, 2003b; see, e.g. Daly and Farley, 2004; Huber, 2008; Heinberg, 2003; Jensen, 2006; Malm, 2013; O’Connor, 1998; Steffen, et al., 2007, 2011; Wrigley, 1990, 2010).

What this Two Century model obscured was the remarkable remaking of land and labor beginning in the “long” sixteenth century, c. 1450-1640 (Braudel, 1953). (About which, more presently.) Ignored – even by environmental historians (see Moore, 2003a, 2003b) – was the important historiography of economic change in early modern Europe and the Americas, written during the postwar era. Only occasionally were these analyses framed in terms of capitalism; but for these historians there was no question that the early modern transformations of economies and landscapes were dialectically bound (see inter alia, Braudel, 1972; Galeano, 1973; Kellenbenz, 1974, 1976; Kriedte, 1983; Nef, 1964; Malowist, 2009; Prado, 1967; Wallerstein, 1974; Brenner, 1976; Sella, 1974; de Vries, 1974, 1976; Cipolla, 1976). Since the 1970s, for all their distinctive geographical emphases and interpretive differences, the view of early modernity as real modernity has persisted (e.g., de Vries and van der Woude, 1997; de Vries, 2001; Brenner, 2001; Crosby, 1997; DuPlessis, 1997; Jones, 1987; Komlos, 2000; Landes, 1998; Seccombe, 1992; Mokyr, 1990: 57-80; Moore, 2003a, 2003b, 2007, 2010a, 2010b; Nef, 1964; Prak, 2001; van Zanden, 1993). For some, this ongoing “revolt of the early modernists” (van Zanden, 2002) did not go nearly so far enough: the decisive period begins sometime just after the turn of the millennium (van Zanden, 2009; Levine, 2001; Arrighi, 1994; Mielants, 2007). And yet, green thought has been slow – very slow – to engage this literature. This holds true even for students of early modern environmental history (e.g. Richards, 2003; Warde, 2006a, 2006b; Grove, 1995; Williams, 2003). Industrialization appears, in the metanarratives of green thought, as a deus ex machina dropped onto the world-historical stage by coal and steampower.

We might therefore do well to ask if industrialization is really the best way to frame the origins and subsequent development of modernity’s “ecological” crisis? At its best, industrialization is a shorthand for the tensions between technology and power, between the “forces” and “relations” of production; these are hardly novel historical problems. But these tensions have, almost universally, been framed in dualistic terms, contained within a “social” universe of human relations ontologically prior to the latter’s engagement with web of life. This is the problem of Cartesian dualism, one that bears bitter fruit in the hegemonic narrative of industrialization as acting upon, rather than developing through, nature. At a time when Cartesian dualism, as philosophical construct, finds itself widely questioned across the spectrum of green thought (e.g. Harvey, 1996; Latour, 1993; Plumwood, 1993; Braun and Castree, 1998; Castree and Braun, 2001), such dualism retains its hegemony over the methods, theory, and narrative frames of world-historical change (see Moore, 2011a). Left ecology still tends to think of capitalism and nature rather than capitalism-in-nature (e.g. Foster, Clark, and York, 2010; Heynen, et al., 2007). This is the largely-unacknowledged dissonance at the core of green thought today, between the philosophical recognition that humans are a part of nature (humanity-in-nature) and the construction of histories, recent and remote, that proceed as if human relations are ontologically prior to the web of life (humanity and nature).

Whereas the Anthropocene argument begins with biospheric consequences and moves towards social history, an unconventional ordering of crises would begin with the dialectic between (and amongst) humans and the rest of nature, and thence move towards geological and biophysical change. These consequences, in turn, constitute new conditions for successive eras of capitalist restructuring across the longue durée. Relations of power and production, themselves co-produced within nature, enfold and unfold consequences. The modern world-system becomes, in this approach, a capitalist world-ecology: a civilization that joins the accumulation of capital, the pursuit of power, and the co-production of nature as an organic whole (Moore, 2003, 2011a, 2011b, 2011c, 2013a, 2013b; also Deckard, 2012, 2013; Leonardi, 2012; Niblett, 2012, 2013; Mahnkopf, 2012; Marley, 2013; Marley and Fox, forthcoming; Oloff, 2012; Ortiz, forthcoming; Parenti, 2014; Weis, 2013). This means that capital and power – and countless other strategic relations – do not act upon nature, but develop through the web of life. Crises are turning points of world-historical processes – accumulation, imperialism, industrialization, and so forth – that are neither social nor environmental in the usual sense, but rather bundles of human and extra-human natures, materially practiced and symbolically enabled. In world-ecological perspective, Nature stands as the relation of the whole. Humans live as one specifically-endowed (but not special) environment-making species within Nature.

 

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