The Myth of the ‘Human Enterprise’: The Anthropos and Capitalogenic Change

Humans are distinctive. No one is arguing the point. But how do we think through that distinctiveness? How do our conceptualizations lead us to highlight some relations over others, and how do those in/visibilities conform to – and challenge – extant structures of power (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992; Sohn-Rethel 1978)? Those are tough — and politically fraught — questions.

The social sciences emerged not only on the premise of fragmentation and the autonomy of spheres (culture, politics, economy, etc.) but also on the ground of human exceptionalism. Seeing human relations as not only distinct from nature, but as effectively independent of the web of life, has shaped social thought for two centuries. (There is a reason why one reads Durkheim but not Darwin in social theory seminars.) In this, human exceptionalism expresses the peculiar idea that humanity “alone is not a spatial and temporal web of interspecies dependencies” (Haraway 2008, 11; also Dunlap and Catton 1979).

The philosophical point is fundamental to the Anthropocene dialogue because, after all, its central concept is the Anthropos. In the dominant Anthropocene presentation, the human species becomes a mighty, largely homogenous, acting unit: the “human enterprise” (Steffen, et al., 2011a). (Could a more neoliberal turn of phrase be found?) Inequality, commodification, imperialism, patriarchy, racism, and much more – all have been cleansed from “Humanity,” the Anthropocene’s point of departure.

Cleansed of such differences, Humanity appears as a kind of Cartesian virgin birth. Nature appears, in this same imaginary, as “out there,” somehow pristine and untouched. (Thus Humanity and Nature implicate not one, but two, virgin births.) The resulting story of ecological crisis is a kind of Tale of the Fall. Humans do bad things to Nature. Nature becomes a fantasy of the wild, of pristine nature, awaiting our protection, fearing destruction at our hands. In this Tale, the human enterprise now rivals, and presumably is destroying, the “great forces of nature” (Steffen et al. 2011, 2007). Capitalism and its driving relations have indeed directed horrific violence towards human and extra-human life. I would go so far as to say that an unusual combination of productive and necrotic violence defines capitalism. The Capitalocene, as McBrien reminds us, is also a Necrocene – a system that not only accumulates capital, but drives extinction (2016; also Dawson 2016). At stake is how we think through the relations of Capitalocene and Necrocene – between the creativity of capitalist development and its deep exterminism. That exterminism is not anthropogenic but capitalogenic.

Here, then, is an important difference: between an analysis that begins with undifferentiated Humanity and one that sets out from humanity’s patterns of difference, conflict, and cooperation. Too often in the Anthropocene narrative, something like the taxonomy of “Anthromes” (Ellis et al. 2010) – ecosystems dominated by humans, and therefore not “wild” – tends to precede the interpretation of historical change. Highly linear notions of time and space substituted for the complex task of historical-geographical interpreting. At the same time, Anthropocene scholars cannot escape the conclusion that humans, too, are a “geophysical force” – the singular is important here – that operates within nature (Steffen et al. 2011, 741).

This conclusion, recognizing humans as part of nature whilst separating Humanity from Nature, troubles Anthropocene thinking at every turn. On the one hand, humans become Humanity, a singular human enterprise. They act upon – or are subject to – the “great forces of nature.” On the other hand, Humanity – the uppercase is deliberate – remains a geophysical force. This is the “One System/Two Systems” problem faced by environmentally-oriented scholars across the Two Cultures (Moore 2015a). In this view, humans are recognized as one species within the web of life (One System). But the recognition proceeds by abstracting – rather than synthesizing – the biological from human sociality. Established methodological frames, analytical strategies, and narrative structures are scarcely touched. Practically speaking, Society is independent from Nature (Two Systems). For the earth-system scientists behind the Anthropocene, Social Factors – again, decidedly in the uppercase – are added; for scholars in the humanities and social sciences, Nature is added. There are “human constructions” and “natural” constructions (Zalasiewicz et al. 2011: 837). This is Green Arithmetic: Nature plus Society equals the Whole.

Green Thought, Humanity & the Problem Of Dualism

But is this Human/Nature binary the most effective way to distinguish humans in the web of life?

The elevation of the Anthropos as a collective actor encourages several important mis-recognitions. One is a neo-Malthusian view of population lurking below the surface of these analyses (e.g. Crutzen 2002; Fischer-Kowalski, et al., 2015; Steffen et al. 2007: 618; Ellis et al., 2013).[1] These are neo-Malthusian not because they emphasize population, but because they make population dynamics independent of capitalism’s historical patterns of family formation and population movement (see Seccombe 1992, 1995). Secondly, Humanity’s agency is realized principally through technology-resource complexes rather than interpenetrated relations of power, technology, and capital (e.g. Steffen, et al. 2007; contrast with Mumford 1934). Thirdly, scarcity tends to be removed from those relations – of power and re/production – and deposited into Nature, abstracted from those relations. And finhally, as we have seen, such approaches tend to view humanity (or “human societies” in the abstract) as a responsible for the transgression of planetary thresholds (Steffen et al. 2015b).

Such views evidently rest upon Human/Nature dualism and its cognates. This dualism obscures our vistas of power, production, and profit in the web of life. It prevents us from seeing the accumulation of capital as a powerful web of interspecies dependencies; it prevents us from seeing how those interdependencies are not only shaped by capital, but also shape it; and it prevents us from seeing how the terms of that producer/product relation change over time. For instance, it is clear that capitalogenic climate change is undermining crucial relations of capitalism’s Cheap Food regime in the 21st century – Cheap Nature increasingly confronts forms of nature that cannot be controlled by capitalist technology or rationality (Moore, 2015b; Altvater 2016).

Human/Nature dualisms presume what needs to be explained: How we have reached the point where we assume a separation that so clearly does not exist? Such dualisms confuse modernity’s historical movements (e.g. alienation) for philosophical abstractions (“separation from nature”). They elide the deep, profound, and intimate porosity and permeability of human sociality, whose forms are specific, ueven, and distinctive. Nature/Society dualisms cannot discern the flows of human and extra-human life as they bond and bundle with each other; they prevent us from asking questions about the connective tissues of human sociality. Green Arithmetic, in other words, offers a Human/Nature binary that can proceed only by converting the living, multi-species connections of humanity-in-nature and the web of life into dead abstractions – abstractions that connect to each other as cascades of consequences rather than constitutive relations.

The Anthropocene’s appeal is not clarity but its opposite. Like globalization in the 1990s, it has come to mean all things to all people. That is sometimes bad and sometimes good. I want to focus on the Anthropocene as a way of thinking about history, about modernity’s crises and limits, and as a means of bridging the Two Cultures. It would be impossible – and uncharitable – to ignore the Anthropocene’s most important contribution: as a public and scholarly dialogue that has put artists, cultural critics, political economists, historians, geographers, biologists, and many others into conversation. This dialogue suggests something of the zeitgeist: the intuition that Nature/Society dualism cannot serve us in an era of accelerating climate change and mass extinction. At the same time, the responsibility of the radical is to name the system and identify how the Anthropocene is implicated in capitalist power, symbolically and materially. That the Anthropocene, at its core, is a fundamentally bourgeois concept should surprise no one. After all, it tells us that behind the current, disastrous state of world affairs is the Anthropos. It’s a trick as old as modernity – the rich and powerful create problems for all of us, then tell us we’re all to blame.

But are we? And just who, in any case, is “we”?

The answer is not so obvious. Neither abstract humanism nor abstract naturalism can suffice. Humans, and human organizations, are obviously distinct from the environments in which they evolve; they are also products of those environments. This is why I’ve underscored the concept of environment-making as central to rethinking history (Moore 2015a): we make environments and the environments make us (Lewontin and Levins 1997). The web of life is obviously larger than any one species. It operates – if that is the right word – relatively independently of humans. (Just as capitalism operates relatively independently of any firm or empire or even class.) By the same measure, planetary life is a web of interdependencies, all the way up and down. Species form and differentiate through a web of life. That web of life is historical, and not only over geological time. Capitalism’s revolutionary character can scarcely be understood absent the extraordinary scientific revolutions behind successive great leaps forward in labor productivity and capital accumulation. Consider how every era of capitalist development turns on agricultural revolutions that comprise not only class, production, and power, but also new agronomic and botanical knowledges (see esp. Cañizares-Esguerra 2004; Kloppenburg 1988; Brockway 1979; Perkins 1997). Capitalism revolutionizes the co-production of historical natures as no previously existing civilization could. The implication? Any historical conception of human activity and relations that abstracts geography and biospheric relations is irreducibly partial. Geography in its widest and best sense is an ontological condition.

Human specificities form through, not in spite of, the web of life. From this point of view, we may do away with a powerful dualist shibboleth. In its most naked expression (e.g. Foster 2016), the claim runs like this: seeing human organizations as a part of nature leads to an undifferentiated monism in which no human specificity – and no “natural” specificity – can be discerned. This in turn undercuts the possibility for Red-Green politics.

Nothing could be farther from the truth! Seeing human organizations as part of nature leads us to explore manifold socio-ecological connections that make us specifically human – just not “exceptional.” These are connections of agro-ecology, of disease, of climate, of hydrology, of the micro-biome, of non-human animals. Can we really discern what makes us human, for instance, abstracted from our relations with dogs, pigs, fish, and cows? For that matter, is there any reasonable way to think through capitalism abstracted from its relations with non-human animals (e.g. Weis 2013; Hribal 2003; Wilde 2000)? At stake is how we understand capitalism in the web of life – which in turn shapes emancipatory strategies. Philosophy will of course not solve the problem of capitalism’s unfolding crisis and the contemporary, horrific, dangers to life. But it will be hard to develop a politics of emancipation for all life without a philosophical commitment to precisely that: emancipating all life. And an authentically multi-species politics of emancipation will require – and will need to nurture – ways of thinking that connect first, and separate later.

Green Thought has always pointed beyond the dualism of Nature and Society (e.g. Harvey 1974; Naess 1973; Williams 1972; Merchant 1980; Haraway 1991; Plumwood 1993). Just as often, it has been captive to the binary it challenges. Green Thought has been vexed by a thorny reality that has never fit comfortably within dualist models. To their credit, environmentally-oriented scholars have stayed with the trouble, to paraphrase Haraway (2016). That reality is one in which humans, quite obviously, work and live and play through our relations with bodies (some human, many not) and landscapes, themselves often made by bodies. There is no “separation” from nature in our lived experience, even if the natures we inhabit are often filled with concrete structures, traffic jams, and cell phone towers.

Biographical sketch

Jason W. Moore, a world historian and historical geographer, is associate professor of Sociology at Binghamton University. He is author of several books, mostly recently Capitalism in the Web of Life (Verso, 2015), Ecologia-mondo e crisi del capitalismo: La fine della natura a buon mercato (Ombre Corte, 2015), and editor of Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism (PM Press, 2016). He coordinates the World-Ecology Research Network, and is presently completing Seven Cheap Things: A World-Ecological Manifesto (with Raj Patel) and Ecology of the Rise of Capitalism, both for the University of California Press. This essay is drawn from “The Capitalocene, Part I: On the Origins of Our Ecological Crisis.”


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[1] Strictly speaking, Ellis and his colleagues follow a Boserupian model in which rising population leads to innovation and “intensification” (2013). This model turns Malthus on his head, positing population growth as opportunity rather constraint. The problem is that the whole history of capitalism, certainly from 1450-1850, was one of declining person-to-land ratios on a systemic basis; indeed the whole thrust of capitalism’s geographical expansion produced recurrent downward revisions in the labor-to-land ratio..

Metabolisms, Marxisms, & Other Mindfields

The turbulence of the 21st century poses a serious analytical challenge: How does capitalism develop through nature, and not just act upon it? Try drawing a line around the “social” and “environmental” moments of financialization, global warming, resurgent fundamentalisms, the rise of China – and much beyond. The exercise quickly ends in futility. Not because these processes are “too complex,” but because the conventional reckoning of Nature/Society yields the wrong questions – and the wrong answers. Such questions and answers are premised on the idea of humanity’s practical separation from the web of life.

But is not the inverse more plausible?

If “the truth is the whole” (Hegel), then the story of specific totalities – of financialization or climate change or even historical capitalism – cannot be adduced by aggregating environmental and social parts. For the “social” moment of these processes is essentially co-produced and co-productive; it is a product of nature as a whole. Far from blurring the specificity of “social” relations, such an approach enhances our capacity to grasp their specificity. Consider, for instance, the formation of new class, racial, and gendered orders in the centuries after 1492. Could we really explain the emergence of modern racism while bracketing the conquest and depopulation of the Americas? Or while abstracting the sugar planting frontier’s ferocious record of biogeographical transformation? Or nor considering the hardening of the Human/Nature divide in which most humans – women, peoples of color, and  many others – were expelled from Humanity with an uppercase ‘H’? The question of human sociality (difference, conflict, and cooperation) remains at the center of such an alternative, but is now situated within lively and unruly assemblages that enfold and unfold the organic and inorganic, the human and the extra-human, the symbolic and the material (Birch and Cobb 1981; Haraway 2016).

Situating human sociality within historical webs of power, capital, and nature significantly shifts our explanatory problem. Out goes the problem of how humans created Society separate from Nature. In comes a new set of questions, turning on humanity’s patterns of difference, conflict, and cooperation within the web of life. Financialization, in this light, is not a social process with environmental and social “consequences” – consequences which subsequently issue social and environmental “limits” and which might be remedied through social and environmental “justice.” Financialization is, rather, a bundle of human and extra-human natures. Its claims on future wealth involve claims on future capacities of human and extra-human work, and its transmutation into capital.

The contradictions – the “laws of motion” – of such bundled processes are not rooted in an abstract Society (in general) pressing against an equally abstract Nature. They are, rather, rooted in the mosaic of modernity’s “double internality” (Moore 2015, p. 3) – that is, in the ways that power and re/production are specifically bundled within a web of life that makes humans and that humans make. (Hint: when humans interact with other humans, we are – as any careworker and every parent can tell you – dealing with unruly natures that defy the boundary Nature/Society.)

Put simply, humans are a part of nature. The totality of nature is immanent in every human thought, organization, and movement. The statement is hardly controversial. Most environmental studies scholars would agree… at least in principle. It feels good to characterize “human society” as “internal to and dependent upon [the] larger earthly metabolism” (Foster 2013a, p. 8). And for many scholars of global change, such feel-good statements are the end of the line. It is decidedly less comfortable – and considerably more daunting – to rethink our methodological frames, theoretical propositions, and narrative strategies in this light. If not just humans, but human organizations, are products and producers of extra-human nature, a fundamental rethinking of storytelling, concept formation, and methodological orientation follows.

That such rethinking has made little headway until recently – with the explosion of actor-network, assemblage, world-ecological, and multi-species perspectives – is hardly surprising. For to move beyond Green Arithmetic in an analytical-empirical sense is to challenge the very basis of the social sciences and their governing conceit:  that human activity is, for practical analytical purposes, “exempt” from the dynamics of the web of life. In the logic of “human exemptionalism” (Dunlap and Catton 1979; also Haraway 2008; Moore 2015), relations between humans are ontologically independent of nature. In so doing, human exemptionalism allows one to speak of modernity as a set of social relations that act upon, rather than develop through, the web of life. It allows one to assume that history, at manifold temporal and spatial resolutions, unfolds as a kind of ping-pong between “natural forces” and “human agency.”

Foster’s groundbreaking contribution was to use metabolism as a means of putting work – the work of humans and the work of nature – at the center of the question of nature, and therefore the history of capitalism. His formulation of the rift marked a kind of halfway house: between Cartesian and post-Cartesian social science. Within the context of American sociology, Foster consciously aimed at transcending the limits of human exemptionalism and establishing a research program grounded in classical social theory, Marxism above all (1999). The conjuncture was fruitful. The rise of environmental sociology in the 1970s had not changed the discipline. Marxism, too, had yet to find its groove around ecological questions. By the late 1990s, however, the conditions had ripened for the rise of metabolism as a “conceptual star” (Fischer-Kowalksi 1997). A vigorous research program was established.

This conceptual star shaped a significant current within the “environmental humanities” at the dawn of the 21st century. In distinct registers, metabolism strongly influenced both Fischer-Kowalski’s neo-Malthusian “socio-metabolic” school and Marxisante approaches to global environmental change (Fischer-Kowalski and Haberl 1998; Foster 1999). Metabolism appeared to offer the possibility of fording the “Great Divide” of Nature and Society (Goldman and Schurman 2000).

Foster’s early formulation of metabolism suggested how we might realize that possibility (1999, 2000). In emphasizing work, nature, and capital, Foster appeared to propose a new method of bounding human and extra-human natures. Human-initiated processes and relations could be situated within their internalization of particular extra-human natures, and within nature as a whole. At the same time, the biosphere could be understood as internalizing elements of human-initiated process – obviously an asymmetrical relation. Such a method would take seriously a messy process of co-production, one that could move beyond re-branding Society as “human nature” and Nature as “extra-human nature.”  In such a reckoning, the perils of environmental determinism and social reductionism would be transcended. Human “society” could be understood as simultaneously a producer and product of the web of life, unevenly co-produced and symbolically enabled. In so doing, the specific forms of human sociality could be distinguished and analyzed in much more complex and nuanced ways relative to those blunt instruments, Nature/Society. Metabolism, in this potential synthesis, would bridge the Great Divide.

And yet, despite its appeal, such a synthesis never occurred. The bridge was never built. Foster’s elaboration of metabolism and materialism quickly foreclosed the very possibility of synthesis that it suggested. Marx’s “interdependent process of social metabolism” was forced into a dualist frame: “metabolism of nature and society” (Marx 1981, p. 949; Foster 2000: ch. 6, emphasis added). At the same time, Foster encouraged a theoretical rift between historical materialism and critical political economy, underscored by a reluctance to develop the socio-ecological possibilities of Marx’s theory of value. The dualism of Society (humans without nature) and Nature (ecologies without humans) was not transcended.

Criticizing Western Marxism for banishing nature from dialectics, Foster established a new Red-Green canon, and drew a new cognitive map for ecological Marxism. The new Red-Green canon was notable not only for who it included – but also for whom it left out. Including such figures as Richard Levins, Richard Lewontin, Stephen J. Gould, and Barry Commoner, Foster excised many other leading critical thinkers of the new environmental social sciences in the long 1970s: David Harvey, Neil Smith, Michael Watts, Robert M. Young, and Carolyn Merchant, just for starters.[1] Geographers have been unwelcome in Foster’s canon, and especially those closely associated with David Harvey (see Foster and Clark 2016; Foster 2016, forthcoming).[2] The exclusion of geographers – Foster cannot find a single geographer to credit with moving beyond “first-stage eco-socialism” (Burkett and Foster 2016, pp. 3-4) – is important in its own right. (Nor does Foster’s classic 1999 article make reference to a (then) quarter-century of Marxist-influenced political ecology.)

This disciplinary exclusion had two major effects. First, Foster’s expulsion of geographers from his version of ecological Marxism is tightly related to his procedure of abstraction. For Foster, Society (and capitalism) can be conceptualized abstracted from geographical relations and conditions. Just as no historian would accept ahistorical conceptions of social change – say, crude versions of modernization or demographic transition theory – no geographer would accept a conception of Society abstracted from geography. Secondly, the refusal of geographers to accept un-geographical conceptions of Nature/Society relations has led to a broad skepticism regarding dualism (see esp. Watts 2005; e.g. Harvey 1995; Heynen et al. 2007; Peet et al. 2011; Braun and Castree 1998). Foster’s reluctance to engage geographical knowledges combines with a disciplinary insularity that has effectively removed him from meaningful conversations with geographers and other scholars in the humanities and social sciences who have made the “spatial turn” (e.g., Warf and Arias 2008). Among the intellectual consequences is Foster’s unwillingness to discern social constructionist from materialist interpretations that differ from Rift interpretations. The argument for historical-geographical materialism, for instance, privileges the relationality of humanity-in-nature (and nature-in-humanity) in which material and cultural transformations are entwined – without succumbing to idealism (Smith 1984; Harvey 1995; Braun and Castree 1998; Moore 2015a). And yet, for Foster, all deviations from his interpretation of Marx are idealist and constructionist. Critics of the Rift are less-than-truly Marxist – or worse (e.g. Foster 2013a, 2016a, forthcoming; Foster and Clark 2016). The evaluative process is black and white, either/or – interpretative differences are cast into the cauldron of Cartesian rationality, boiling down all difference into binary categories.

Foster’s Red-Green canon has evolved alongside Foster’s new cognitive map of Nature and Society. Thanks to Foster and others, Nature earned a place within Marxism – and even beyond. This was, however, a narrow interpretation of Marx’s thinking about the web of life (Moore 2015). Foster saw nature as Nature, with an emphatically uppercase ‘N.’ Dualism had won the day. Rift as metaphor of separation, premised on material flows between Nature and Society, triumphed. The accomplishment was mighty, but so was the cost. Pushed to the side was a vision of metabolism as a means of unifying humans within nature, unfolding through combined and uneven metabolisms of power, wealth, and nature. In this, the dualist conception of metabolism and its “rifts” influenced a decade and more of critical environmental studies, especially within environmental sociology.

Why should this be a problem? It was perhaps not a significant problem for the first decade of the twenty-first century. New interpretations and empirical analyses poured forth. By 2010, however, it began to look as if Rift arguments had explained about as much as they could within Green Arithmetic’s constraints (e.g. Foster et al. 2010). Rift analysts had largely completed the work of mapping environmental problems within capitalism – but the additive character of that project constrained its ability to explain not just capitalism’s consequences, but its constitution as producer and product of the web of life.

The metabolic rift perspective is not alone in this – Green Thought’s signal accomplishment, from the 1970s, was to fill in and flesh out blank spots in the human exemptionalist cognitive map. Like Green Thought as a whole, Rift arguments were caught in a powerful contradiction: a “double yes” (Moore 2015). Are humans part of nature? Yes. Can we analyze human organizations as if they are independent of nature? Yes. Metabolism-centered studies, like much of critical environmental studies, face an unresolved contradiction: between a philosophical-discursive embrace of a relational ontology (humanity-in-nature) and a practical-analytical acceptance of Nature/Society dualism (dualist practicality). It has been one thing to affirm and explore the ontological and epistemological questions (e.g., Bennett 2009).[3] But how does one move from seeing human organization as part of nature towards an effective – and practicable – analytical program?

About the author

Jason W. Moore, a world historian and historical geographer, is associate professor of Sociology at Binghamton University. He is author of several books, mostly recently Capitalism in the Web of Life (Verso, 2015), and editor of Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism (PM Press, 2016). He coordinates the World-Ecology Research Network, and is presently completing Seven Cheap Things: A World-Ecological Manifesto (with Raj Patel) and Ecology of the Rise of Capitalism, both for the University of California Press. This essay is drawn from “Metabolic Rift or Metabolic Shift? Dialectics, Nature, and the World-Historical Method.”


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Watts, M.J. (1983). Silent Violence. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Watts, M.J. (2005). Nature:Culture. Pp. 142-174 in P. Cloke and R. Johnston, eds., Spaces of Geographical Thought. London, Sage.

Young, R.M. (1979). Science is a Labor Process. Science for the People, 43-44, 31-37.

[1] Representative texts include Harvey (1974), Merchant (1980), Young (1979), Watts (1983), and Smith (1984).

[2] Foster presents Harvey as arguing for nature as an “outer boundary” (2013a, p. 9) – a position that distorts Harvey’s actual position. Harvey holds to a strongly relational view of socio-ecological relations in which “all ecological projects (and arguments) are simultaneously political-economic projects (and arguments) and vice versa” (1993, p. 25; also 1995). An analagous mis-reading is found in Foster’s appropriation of my conception of epochal crisis (Moore 2011), which he describes as the “convergence of economic and ecological contradictions” (2013b, p. 1). These appropriations indicate Foster’s unwillingness to engage the relational critique on its own terms

[3] The critique of nature/society dualism is vast. Classic statements include Smith (1984); Plumwood (1993); Braun and Castree (1998). Descartes is simply one of several possible names for the kind of dualism that emerged with the rise of capitalism in the early modern era (Moore 2015).

Name the System! Anthropocenes & the Capitalocene Alternative

The Anthropocene has become the most important – and also the most dangerous — environmentalist concept of our times. It is dangerous not because it gets planetary crisis so wrong, but because it simultaneously clarifies ongoing “state shifts” in planetary natures while mystifying the history behind them (Barnosky et al. 2012). No phrase crystallizes this danger more than the words anthropogenic global warming. Of course this is a colossal falsification. Global warming is not the accomplishment of an abstract humanity, the Anthropos. Global warming is capital’s crowning achievement. Global warming is capitalogenic (Street 2016).

The Anthropocene’s popularity derives from something more than impressive research. Its influence has been won on the strength of its storytelling power, and on its capacity to unify humans and the earth-system within a singular narrative. How it unifies earth-system and humanity within a singular narrative is precisely its weakness, and the source of its falsifying power. For the unification is not dialectical; it is the unity of the cyberneticist – a unity of fragments, an idealist unity that severs the constitutive historical relations that have brought the planet to its present age of extinction.

In the three years since my initial sketch of the Capitalocene (Moore 2013a, 2013b, 2013c), the concept has gone viral.[1] For me, the Capitalocene is partly a play on words. It is a geopoetics (Last 2015), a counterpoint to the Anthropocene’s extraordinary popularity. It is a means of cutting to the heart of the conversation initiated by Crutzen and Stoermer (2000). That conversation has been twofold (Moore 2017a, 2017b). One is an argument about stratigraphy. In this, the necessary criterion for designating a new geological era turns on a “geological signal” that “must be sufficiently large, clear and distinctive” on a global scale (Working Group 2016). This is the Geological Anthropocene. It begins, we are now told, at the mid-century dawn of the atomic age (Carrington 2016).

The Geological Anthropocene – a useful, “formal concept to the scientific community” – has, however, been eclipsed by the Popular Anthropocene: a way of thinking the origins and evolution of modern ecological crisis. This is debate joined by the Capitalocene – and the stakes are anything but silly (contra Chakrabarty 2016). The Popular Anthropocene poses several daunting questions: 1) What is the character of 21st century ecological crisis?; 2) When did that crisis originate?; and 3) What forces drive that crisis? That conversation, except for a brief moment in the 1970s (e.g. Meadows et al. 1972), was marginal until the new millennium.

Crutzen and Stoermer’s Anthropocene enjoyed the necessary virtue required of all Big Ideas – timing. It helped that the Anthropocene was one of those quasi-empty signifiers – like globalization in the 1990s – that could be filled with the aspirations and arguments of otherwise radically divergent thinkers (compare Steffen et al. 2007; Davis 2010). Quasi-empty, however, was not completely vacant. The Popular Anthropocene has worked not only because it is plastic, but because it fits comfortably with a view of population, environment, and history governed by food and resource use – and abstracted from class and empire (and not only class and empire).

If that sounds neo-Malthusian, it is. Not for its emphasis on population, but for ignoring modernity’s “special laws of population” (Marx 1967, I, 592) – human and non-human alike (e.g. Seccombe 1992; Weis 2013). In Anthropocenic thought, history is the first casualty; like Malthus in the eighteenth century, its major exponents substitute an abstract time for history, evacuating the very historical perspective that might give real explanatory flesh and blood to their quantitative reckonings. Among Malthus’s greatest errors was his inability to situate the late eighteenth century’s quite real combination of agricultural stagnation and population increase within longer waves of agricultural revolution and demographic change (see Moore 2010; Seccombe 1992, 1995).

The Capitalocene is therefore precisely not an argument about geological history (contra, e.g., Vansintjan 2015). For starters, the ‘Age of Capital’ necessarily precedes and precipitates the ‘geological signals’ necessary to discern a new geological era. That era – the Anthropocene – will outlast capitalism by a great many millennia. The biospheric conditions of the ongoing planetary “state shift” will shape the conditions of human organization for a very longue durée indeed.

The Capitalocene is an argument about thinking ecological crisis. It is a conversation about geo-history rather than geological history – although of course the two are related. The Capitalocene challenges the Popular Anthropocene’s Two Century model of modernity – a model that has been the lodestar of Green Thought since the 1970s (Moore 2017a). The origins of modern ecological crisis – and therefore of capitalism – cannot be reduced to England, to the long 19th century, to coal, or to the steam engine. The Anthropocene’s historical myopia, moreover, seems to be immanent to its intellectual culture. In this respect, the Capitalocene challenges not just the earth system scientists – but also those on the “other” side of the Two Cultures (e.g. Pálsson et al 2013; Brondizio et al 2016; McNeill and Engelke 2016) – who refuse to name the system. The Popular Anthropocene is but the latest of a long series of environmental concepts whose function is to deny the multi-species violence and inequality of capitalism and to assert that the problems created by capital are the responsibility of all humans. The politics of the Anthropocene – an anti-politics in Ferguson’s sense (1990) – is resolutely committed to the erasure of capitalism and the capitalogenesis of planetary crisis.

The Anthropocene helpfully poses the question of Nature/Society dualism, but cannot resolve that dualism in favor of a new synthesis. That synthesis, in my view, rests on rethinking capitalism in the web of life. While it is now commonplace to invoke – quite properly – “system change, not climate change,” we should take care with how we think that system. A critique of capitalism that accepts its self-definition – as a market or social system abstracted from the web of life – is unlikely to guide us helpfully towards sustainability and liberation. We should be therefore wary of views of capitalism reduced to their economic and social moments: the practice of “human exceptionalism” (Haraway 2008). Exceptionalisms are always dangerous; especially so when it comes to Humanity, a real abstraction active in a long history of racialized, gendered, and colonial violence (Moore 2016b, 2017a, forthcoming). The world-ecology conversation has argued the opposite: capitalism develops through the web of life. In this movement, human sociality has been brutally reshaped through Nature/Society as real abstractions, enabling modernity’s successive racialized and gendered orders (Plumwood 1993; Moore 2015a; von Werlhof 1985).[2] This doubly-layered question of nature – as Nature/Society and as web of life – is fundamentally implicated in every moment and movement of modern history.

Finally, the Capitalocene embodies world-ecology’s rejection of two frames that dominate environmental social science. On the one hand, it seeks an alternative to concept-indicator approaches characterized by influential metaphors such as the “ecological footprint” and the “metabolic rift.” Such approaches conceptualize human organization – respectively markets and capitalism – independently of the web of life, then mobilize indicators of the “degree-of or amount-of” stress or degradation (Hopkins 1982, 201; e.g. Wackernagel et al. 2002; Foster et al. 2010). A relational approach, in contrast, follows part-whole movements in successive determinations and juxtapositions – through which the “whole” in question (capitalism, imperialism, industrialization, etc.) undergoes qualitative transformation (Moore forthcoming). This logic of inquiry opens analytical pathways that emphasize capitalism’s extraordinary flexibility through its socio-ecological conditions. The Capitalocene argument consequently trods a different path from the governing procedures of global environmental change research: it is not a quest for “underlying [social] causes” of environmental change, nor for connecting “social organization” to environmental consequences (respectively, Brondizio et al. 2016; Dalby 2015).

On the other hand, in arguing that climate change, for instance, is capitalogenic, world-ecology argues against the view that climate change is sociogenic. That may seem a fine point. It is in fact anything but. The conflation of human sociality with Society is a conceptual move indebted to a long history of gendered, racialized, and colonial violence (Moore 2017a). The Capitalocene pursues a different approach, privileging a triple helix of environment-making: the mutually constitutive transformation of ideas, environments, and organization, co-producing the relations of production and reproduction (Moore 2015a; Merchant 1989; Worster 1990; Seccombe 1992). This challenges a vulgar materialism implicit in many global environmental change studies, for which ideas, culture, and even scientific revolutions have little traction – a problem besetting radical as well as mainstream accounts (e.g. Foster et al. 2010; Steffen et al. 2011). Even that, however, does not go nearly far enough:

“The challenge for us may then be to use descriptive tools that do not give to Capitalocene the power to explain away the entanglement of earthly, resilient matters of concern, while adding that no Capitalocene story, starting with the ‘long sixteenth century’, can go very far without being entangled with the on-going invention-production-appropriation-exploitation of… ‘cheap nature’. In other words, we should not indulge in the very Capitalocene gesture of appropriation, of giving to an abstraction the power to define as ‘cheap’ – an inexhaustible resource that may be dismembered or debunked at will and reduced to illusory beliefs – whatever escapes its grasp” (Stengers 2015, 142; also Haraway 2016; Moore 2015a, 2016a, 2016c).

The Capitalocene, then, is a key conceptual and methodological move in rethinking capitalism as “a historically situated complex of metabolisms and assemblages” (Haraway et al. 2015, 21). This complex includes – but cannot be reduced to – capital’s circuit of expanded reproduction. The concept’s virtue, in relation to alternatives, is its historical-relational focus. Alternative naming has proliferated – a hopeful and positive indicator of flourishing discontent with the Popular Anthropocene. The equally ungainly terms offered as complementary, even alternative, to Anthropocene/Capitalocene frequently reveal innovative thinking. Some are oriented towards Braudel’s “very longue durée” (2009, e.g. Pyne’s Pyrocene [2015]); others to modernity’s phenomenal forms of production (e.g. Tsing’s Plantationocene [2015]); still others to violent abstractions created by the past century’s colonial developmentalism (e.g. Growthocene, Econocene [Chertkovskaya and Paulsson 2016; Norgaard 2013]). The argument that the Capitalocene elides the experience of Communist projects is framed by a concept-indicator epistemology – a surprising critique when offered by otherwise relational thinkers (e.g. Morton 2016). But the Capitalocene is a dialectical – not “generalizing” – claim (Moore 2017a, 2017b). In contrast to positivist generalization, dialectical arguments proceed through, not in spite of, variation. The Capitalocene names a historical process in Marx’s sense of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (1981): as a general law constituted through counter-acting tendencies. To what degree either the Soviet or Chinese projects represented a fundamental break with previous waves of capitalist environment-making is an important question but beside the point. The question is whether or not such partial moments overwhelmed the “developing patterns of history” established and reproduced in the capitalist world-ecology over the longue durée.[3]

A politics of nature premised on degradation rather than work renders the radical vision vulnerable to a powerful critique. This says, in effect, that pristine nature has never really existed; that we are living through another of many eras of environmental change that can be resolved through technological innovation (Lynas 2011; Shellenberger and Nordhaus 2011). Of course such arguments are rubbish. The counterargument – for the Capitalocene – understands the degradation of nature as a specific expression of capitalism’s organization of work. “Work” takes many forms in this conception; it is a multispecies and manifold geo-ecological process. This allows us to think of technology as rooted in the natures co-produced by capitalism. It allows us to see that capitalism has thrived by mobilizing the work of nature as a whole; and to mobilize human work in configurations of “paid” and “unpaid” work by capturing the work/energies of the biosphere.

Human organizations are at once producers and products of the web of life, understood in its evolving mosaic of diversity. From this perspective, capitalism becomes something more-than-human. It becomes a world-ecology of power, capital, and nature (Moore 2003, 2011, 2015a, 2016a; Altvater 2016; Bolthouse 2014; Camba 2015; Cox 2015; Deckard 2015; Dixon 2015; El Khoury 2015; Gill 2016; Hartley 2016; Jakes forthcoming; Marley forthcoming; McBrien 2016; Niblett and Campbell 2016; Oloff 2016; Parenti 2016; Taylor 2015; Weis 2013; see World-Ecology Research Network, Essays). This incorporates geological history but does not substitute for it. World-ecology refuses naturalism and constructivism – not in favor a balance between the two but in pursuit of their transcendence. It incorporates geobiophysical processes and social and economic history within a relational field. That wider field is crucial. It allows world-ecology to situate the histories of culture and knowledge production, frequently excised from the historiography of capitalism (Moore 2015a, 193-217; 2017b; Hartley 2016). The Capitalocene therefore contests social as well as environmental reductionism, and resists any periodization of capitalism derived from the mythic category of Society (humans without nature).[4]

biographical sketch

Jason W. Moore is associate professor of Sociology at Binghamton University. He is author of Capitalism in the Web of Life (Verso, 2015) and editor of Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism. He is coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network. This essay draws on “The Capitalocene, Part II: Accumulation by Appropriation and the Centrality of Unpaid Work/Energy,” forthcoming, The Journal of Peasant Studies.


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[1] I chart the genealogy of the Capitalocene elsewhere (Moore 2016b). The term originates with Andreas Malm. The use of the Capitalocene to signify capitalism as a system of power, capital, and nature is broadly shared with Haraway (2016). Haraway and I began experimenting with the concept independently before discovering each other in 2013.

[2] Real abstractions “are not mental categories that ideally precede the concrete totality; they are real abstractions that are truly caught up in the [socio-ecological] whole” (Toscano 2008, 274-75).

[3] It is difficult for me to read the Soviet project as a fundamental rupture. The great industrialization drive of the 1930s relied – massively – on the importation of fixed capital, which by 1931 constituted 90 percent of Soviet imports. The Soviets were so desperate to obtain hard currency that “the state was prepared to export anything and everything, from gold, oil and furs to the pictures in the Hermitage Museum” (Kagarlitsky 2007, 272-73). If the Soviet project resembles other modes of production, it is surely the tributary, not socialist, mode of production, through which the state directly extracts the surplus. Nor did the Soviets turn inwards after 1945. Soviet trade with OECD countries (in constant dollars) increased 8.9 percent annually between 1950 and 1970, rising to 17.9 percent a year in the following decade (calculated from Gaidar 2007, 14) – a trend accompanied by sharply deteriorating terms of trade and rising debt across the Soviet-led zone (Kagarlitsky 2007). Need we recall that the 1980s debt crisis was detonated not by Mexico but by Poland in 1981 (Green 1983)?

[4] Although this is how Malm (2016) uses it.



Jason W. Moore

Fernand Braudel Center and Department of Sociology

Binghamton University

Among Nature/Society dualism’s essential features is the tendency to circumscribe truth-claims by drawing hard-and-fast lines between what is Social and what is Natural.[1] Here is a rift: an epistemic rift.[2] At its core is a series of violent abstractions implicated in the creation and reproduction of two separate epistemic domains: Nature and Society (again in the uppercase). The abstractions are “violent” because they remove essential relations from each node in the interests of narrative and theoretical coherence (Sayer 1987). Dialectical abstractions, in contrast, begin with historical movement and decisions about strategic historical relations – something conspicuously absent from Nature/Society.

The procedure of abstraction is central to Marx’s method, with implications that go far beyond philosophical differences (Ollman 2003). How we abstract reality into semi-fixed categories shapes our interpretation; analytics in turn shape politics and policy. This is why Foster’s defense of Nature/Society as appropriate abstractions – strikingly at odds with Marx’s method – is so curious (2013). Nature/Society are undialectical abstractions. They are no more dialectical than, say, “the market” and “industry,” or “population” and “environment.” At best, these are chaotic conceptions, as Marx would say (1973, pp. 100).

Such chaotic conceptions are violent in Sayer’s sense of the term – but also in a more practical sense. The language of Nature and Society is hardly value-neutral. Environmental sociology, in particular, has yet to experience its Bourdieu-ian moment, “reflexively” grasping the degree to which Nature/Society embody arbitrary yet patterned relations of power (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992).  While a distinction between humans and the rest of nature antedates capitalism by millennia (Arnold 1996), the elevation of Nature/Society to a civilizational organizing principle did not occur until the “long” sixteenth century (Braudel 1953; Wallerstein 1974; Moore 2016a). This is no mere quibble over terms. Cartesian dualism as a system of thought – and as a conceptual vocabulary – has been a quite palpable force in the making of the modern world. They have been real abstractions – abstractions with operative force in the material world (Sohn-Rethel 1978; Toscano 2016). Nature/Society – and manifold cognate terms, clustered in early modern Europe around “civility” and “barbarism” or “savagery” – implicated a new ways of thinking… and a new civilizational praxis: Cheap Nature

The birth of these real abstractions, Nature and Society, was consolidated in early capitalism (Merchant 1980; Moore 2015a). In the centuries after 1450, the entanglements of capital, science, and empire enacted a series of socio-ecological and symbolic revolutions aimed at the creation of an “external” nature as a source of cheap inputs (Moore 2014, 2015a). What is crucial to understand is that “Nature” in the rise of capitalism came to include the vast majority of humans within its geographical reach.

Nature – again our uppercase ‘N’ – was fundamental to capitalism from the beginning. The Columbian rupture of 1492 marked not only the “discovery” of the Americas, but the “discovery of Mankind” – and with it, Nature (Albuafia 2008; Mumford 1934). For the Columbian conquests were not merely exterminist and plundering; their epochal significance derives also from ambitious imperial projects to map and catalogue productive natures of every kind (Bleichmar et al. 2009). The project proceeded through the assumption that Nature included indigenous peoples. The overseas empires, beginning with the Iberian powers, “collected, harnessed, and ordered (natural) things as they tried to construct and control (knowledge about) the natural world.” These “practices included the collecting of humans, that is (savage) bodies, as fungible commodities to be classified and exploited” (Modest 2012, p. 86).

The newly-discovered Mankind was of a piece with early modernity’s epistemological and ontological revolution, creating Nature as external to civilization and subordinating it to new “measures of reality” – above all the primacy of visual knowledges embodied in the cartographic gaze and new procedures of quantitative rationalization (Crosby 1997; Mumford 1934). At best, the paired discovery of Mankind and Nature was less anthropocentric than it was Manthropocentric – to borrow Raworth’s apt turn of phrase (2014; see Federici 2004; Merchant 1980). At its core was an always-contested boundary between which humans counted as Human, and which would be forcibly resettled into the zone of Nature. The conquest of the Americas and the paired “discoveries” of Nature and Humanity/Society were two moments of a singular movement.

Colonialism, ethnic cleansing, and the emergence of Nature as a violent and real abstraction co-evolved from the very beginning. During the protracted conquest of the Canaries, Portugal’s King Duarte put the issue starkly (1436): Canarians are “nearly wild men… living in the country like animals” (quoted in Hulme 1994, p. 187). The same discourse characterized English rule in Ireland a century later (Rai 1993). Ethnic cleansing – typically in the name of “taking away their inhumanity” (Sued-Badillo 1992) – was the order of the day in the three great military campaigns culminating in the Columbian invasions. The final waves of conquest of the Canaries (1478-1490s) and Granada (1482-92) – which cash-strapped Castile and Aragon financed largely through slaving – were key moments in an emergent capitalism installing and reproducing a Humanity/Nature binary through an equally emergent racialized and gendered order (Nader 2002; Kicza 1992).

The earliest moments of conquest were effected through a radical inversion of land/labor arrangements – underscored by the overnight reinvention of the encomienda, from a medieval land grant and to a preciously modern labor grant. Indigenous peoples became de facto slaves, while the booming sugar plantation complex pioneered modern slavery de jure – tentatively at first in Madeira, and reaching critical mass in Brazil after 1600. An African slave was part of Nature – not Society – in the new order. Here Patterson’s characterization of modern slavery as “social death” receives a post-Cartesian twist (1982). Most human work was not labor-power and therefore most humans within capital’s gravitational pull were not, or not really, Humans. This meant that the realm of Nature encompassed virtually all peoples of color, most women, and most people with white skin living in semi-colonial regions (e.g. Ireland, Poland, etc.) (von Werlhof 1985; Rai 1993). Not for nothing did Castilians refer to indigenous Andeans in the sixteenth century as naturales (Stavig 2000). The problem with Nature and Society is not merely discursive – they are real abstractions with real force in the modern world we now inhabit.

Primitive accumulation therefore yielded not only bourgeois and proletarian, but Society and Nature. This is not a rhetorical flourish. The binary tendency of modern class formation and the dualism of Society and Nature reinforced each other in the rise of capitalism (Moore 2015a, 2016b, 2017a).

We can see this close relationship with the evolution of the word Society. Society begins to assume its modern English usage – as national collectivity – from the mid-sixteenth century (1 1983, p. 292; also OED 2016). The timing is significant. At precisely this point, following Kett’s Rebellion (1549), that the tide of agrarian class struggle shifted decisively in favor of the gentry (Wood 2007). By 1700, England’s landlords held two-thirds of arable land (Thompson 1966). Nor was it coincident that this period saw, from 1541, the intensification of English colonial rule in Ireland (Ohlmeyer 2016). Through all this, the Irish (and later North America’s indigenous peoples), the poor, most women,  and many others came to be viewed as “savages” of one sort of another – a view that justified all manner of bloody expropriations (Leerssen 1995; Moore 2016b). Here we begin to see modernity’s emergent epistemic rift practically bound to capitalism as ontological formation – as a world-ecology of power, capital, and nature.  The Cheap Nature strategy had become pivotal to the audacious restructuring of human relations along modern – and powerfully dualist – lines of class, race, and gender.[3]

Modernity’s epistemic rift is premised on the creation of two idealized and independent objects of investigation: Nature/Society. The binary is so resilient because its underlying ontology is mechanical, which corresponds remarkably well with capitalist rationality via the quantism of capital in its monetary and productivist forms (currency units, units of labor-power, etc.). In the dualist cognitive map, environmental “factors” are easily tacked onto the analysis of social processes – just what has occurred through Marxist Green Arithmetic. Announcing a “nature-society dialectic” (e.g. Foster 2013), such phrases confuse relations for dialectics and general abstractions and empirical patterns (e.g. Nature/Society) for the “developing tendencies of history” (Lukács 1971, p. 184). For Nature/Society can only be a dialectic – as opposed to a relation – through a specification of its laws of motion, its developing tendencies. Capital/labor is a dialectical relation for this very reason: it is asymmetrical and grounded in a historical-geographical movement of transcendence. At once producer and product of the town/country antagonism (its geographical moment), the capital/labor dialectic entails the undoing of an originary asymmetry in favor of a new synthesis: “the expropriators are expropriated” (Marx 1977, p. 929).

Rift arguments, however, deploy Nature/Society very differently, as basic units rather than interpenetrating relations (Levins and Lewontin 1985). Nature as a general abstraction – like population or production in general (Marx 1973) – dominates. As if to move from the frying pan into the fire, Rift analysts dismiss as idealist efforts to historicize the capitalism-nature relation (e.g. through integrating accounts of science and culture in successively dominant understandings of the web of life) (e.g. Foster and Clark 2016). The result is a twofold conception of history shaped by a declensionist Fall from Eden and the inexorable drive towards catastrophe in which capital accumulation will proceed until “the last tree has been cut” (Foster 2009, p. 206). No one disputes the reality of socio-ecological disaster, planetary change, and limits – notwithstanding Foster’s insistence to the contrary (2016, forthcoming). Rather, the crux of the present argument highlights how the life and times of metabolism has resisted the tendency of dialectical praxis to dissolve its analytical objects (e.g., capital/labor), and to create new categories suitable to comprehending the historically successive interpenetrations of humans with the rest of nature.


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Jason W. Moore is associate professor of Sociology at Binghamton University and author of several books, including Capitalism in the Web of Life (Verso, 2015). He is coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network. This essay draws on his forthcoming essay, “Metabolic Rift or Metabolic Shift? Dialectics, Nature, and the World-Historical Method,” available here.

[1] Harvey offers the clearest exposition of this critique (1993).

[2] The term is indebted to Schneider and McMichael (2010), whose formulation is, however, distinct from epistemic rift as epistemological dualism.

[3] My concept of ontological formation draws on James’ groundbreaking work (2015).