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).
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).
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. 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.). 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: firstname.lastname@example.org. 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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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.”