The challenges involved in translating the philosophical premise of humanity-in-nature into historical methods and narrative strategies are considerable. This is the task pursued by the emerging set of arguments we call the world-ecology synthesis.
Certainly, a core problem has been the difficulty in forging a conceptual vocabulary that grasps “society” and “nature” as a singular ontological domain, such that all human activity is simultaneously producer and product of the web of life. The problem has been recognized for a long time, and especially since the 1970s (Birch and Cobb, 1981; Harvey, 1993). Elsewhere, I have tackled the problem with the concept of the oikeios, signifying the creative, generative, and multi-layered relation of species and environment (2011a). The oikeios provides a way to move beyond the narrative trope of “the” environment (as object) in favor of environment-making (as process), at all turns a co-production of specifically bundled human and extra-human natures (Moore, 2013a). “Nature” and “society,” in world-ecological perspective, are viewed as violent abstractions that – by positing discrete ontological domains of humans without nature and nature without humans – dissolve the messy, bundled, and creative co-productions of historical change. The idea of nature as external to human relations is not, however, a magician’s trick of smoke-and-mirrors; it is a real historical force. Capitalism, as project, emerges through a world-praxis that creates external natures as objects to be mapped, quantified, and regulated so that they may service capital’s insatiable demands for cheap nature. At the same time, as process, capitalism emerges and develops through the web of life; nature is at once internal and external. In this way of seeing, the oikeios is a general abstraction that gains historical traction only insofar as it provides the conditions for recasting the great drivers of world-historical change – foremost among them the perennial darlings of industrialization, imperialism, capitalism, modernity – as co-produced by humans and the rest of nature.
If capitalism as a “way of organizing nature” gets us moving in the right direction, this is a statement more of the “what” of modernity-in-nature than of the “how.” To recast the “how” of capitalism as world-ecology – how power, capital, and nature form an organic whole – we might turn to Mumford’s notion of technics (1934). Mumford grasped that a new technics emerged in the early modern era – crystallizing tools and knowledge, nature and power, in a new world-praxis, one that reduced both “man” and “nature” to abstractions. For Mumford, power and production in capitalism embodied and reproduced a vast cultural-symbolic repertoire that was cause, condition, and consequence of modernity’s specific form of technical advance. This was not, Mumford made plain, a story to be celebrated. It was, rather, one to be recognized, and critiqued, for its peculiarity: “The Chinese, the Arabs, the Greeks, long before the Northern European, had taken most of the first steps toward the machine… [T]hese peoples plainly had an abundance of technical skill at their command. They had machines; but they did not develop ‘the machine’” (1934: 4, emphasis added). Here Mumford might have stopped, as have so many green thinkers. But he did not. At the heart of Mumford’s argument was the idea that machines, technics, and the alienated violence of capitalist civilization move through the web of life. It was the
discovery of nature as a whole [that] was the most important part of that era of discovery which began for the Western World with the Crusades and the travels of Marco Polo and the southward ventures of the Portuguese. Nature existed to be explored, to be invaded, to be conquered, and finally, to be understood… [A]s soon as the procedure of exploration was definitely outlined in the philosophy and mechanics of the seventeenth century, man himself was excluded from the picture. Technics perhaps temporarily profited by this exclusion; but in the long run the result was to prove unfortunate. In attempting to seize power, man tended to reduce himself to an abstraction, or, what comes to almost the same thing, to dominate every part of himself except that which was bent on seizing power (Mumford, 1934: 31, emphasis added)
In the absence of a world-ecological concept of technics, much of green thought conflates the Industrial Revolution with modernity (Steffen, et al., 2011a, 2011b; Malm, 2013). The question of origins is elided – not resolved – through recourse to a meta-narrative premised on the self-evidently periodizing implications of rising CO2 emissions and other eco-consequential phenomena. The question of the origins of world-ecological crisis is axiomatically reduced to a surficial representation of the drivers and consequences of 19th century industrialization. Of course it all began with coal, says the Anthropocene argument, because the consequences are measurable, and this is, after all, what counts. The consequences of this approach –green thought’s consequentialist bias – are more significant than commonly recognized. Kingsnorth puts this well:
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 (2011).
I would go still further. The fetish of industrialization quickly embraces other fetishes. A stylized love affair with machinery leads quickly to a stylized love affair with resources. This is not surprising given the faint influence of political economy and class analysis in most green interpretations of industrialization. But even for those on the left who favor a class-relational or capital-centric approach, a certain fossil fuel-fetishism appears, as when Malm suggests (2013) that one can insert fossil fuels as the spark that ignites the engine of capital (also Altvater, 2006; Huber, 2008). “Capital,” in these accounts, forms independently of the web of life, and intervenes in “nature” as an exogenous force, variously intruding in, and interrupting, a pre-given “traditional balance between humanity and nature” (Foster, 1994: 40). This view of capitalism as an exogenous rather than endogenous actor in relation to the web of life has the paradoxical effect of reducing nature to a substance that can be variously protected or destroyed (e.g. Martinez-Alier, 2002). No matter how dialectical the conception of capital, so long as this conception unfolds within a Cartesian frame – humans without nature, nature without humans – the analyst is compelled to engage capital’s relation with nature as “tap” and “sink” first, and only later as the field within which modernity unfolds. When push comes to shove, the philosophy of humanity-in-nature gets pushed aside in favor of analytical practicality (compare Harvey, 1993 with Harvey, 2003, 2005). The result is that nature is fetishized rather than adequately historicized.
It is always tempting to “think in terms of realities that can be ‘touched with the finger’” (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 228). In this way of thinking – Bourdieu calls it substantialist (ibid.) – substances form prior to, and independently of, events and fields of relations, rather than developing through environments cohered by definite patterns of events (Birch and Cobb, 1981: 79-96 and passim; Moore, 2011a, 2011b). Substantialism, in this sense, is at the heart “human exemptionalist” social theory (Catton and Dunlap, 1979), which isolates humanity from its extra-human conditions of reproduction. The result is a way of thinking humanity as ontologically independent – a kind of human substance apart from the ‘substance’ of Earth/Life. Even when the professed goal is holism, substantialist dualism fetters the move towards synthesis (e.g. Foster, 2013b). Why? Largely because human exemptionalist social theory – and this is still most social theory (e.g. Ritzer, 2005) – presumes humanity’s specificity in the absence of a historical specification of the whole: the natures within which human activity unfolds, and to which human activity actively contributes. The very procedure that might establish humanity’s “dialectical historicity” is in the process denied (Meszaros, 1970: 40). What Marx and Engels called “historical nature” (1970: 41) is too often missing from critical and mainstream green perspectives.
It turns out that, as with pregnancy, one cannot be a little bit Cartesian. For nature is either abstract and external or historical and immanent to everything that humans do, including those large-scale and long-run patterns of power and production that we call civilizations, world-systems, and modes of production.
Jason W. Moore teaches world history in the Department of Sociology at Binghamton University, and is on the executive board of the Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems, and Civilizations. He is coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network. Many of his essays can be found on his website, www.jasonwmoore.com.