Capitalism as Frontier: On the Nature and Value of ‘Socially Necessary’ Unpaid Work

Jason W. Moore

Here we take up again questions of the relations of value, nature, and history. We have, in earlier installments, considered the indispensable contributions of unpaid work to the endless accumulation of capital: contributions that transcend the illusory divide between human and extra-human natures. The condition that some work is valued is that most work is not.

Not-valued forms of work are outside the value form (the commodity) – they do not directly produce value (contra Dalla Costa and James, 1972). And yet – it is a very big and yet – value as abstract labor cannot be produced except through unpaid work. I would therefore suggest that the value form and the value relation are not coincident; they cut across the paid/unpaid work divide such that generalized commodification cannot be sustained except through the incessant revolutionizing not only of the forces of production but also the relations of reproduction. The historical condition for socially necessary labor-time is socially necessary unpaid work. De-valued work, in this model, becomes an “immanent… antithesis” within the generalization of commodity production and exchange (Marx, 1977: 209). In this contradiction between the expanded reproduction of capital and the simple reproduction of life we have “two universes, two ways of life foreign to each other yet whose wholes explain one another” (Braudel, 1977: 6). The crucial geographical implication of this enabling and constraining tension between paid and unpaid work is the necessity of frontier-making. Recurrent waves of socio-ecological exhaustion – understood as the inability of a given bundle of human/extra-human natures to deliver more work to capital – implicate recurrent waves of geographical expansion. The commodity frontier strategy has been so decisive not because of the extension of commodity production and exchange as such – a common misunderstanding of commodity frontier theory (Moore, 2000, 2013c, 2013d). Rather, commodity frontiers were so epoch-making because they extended the zone of appropriation (of natures’ unpaid work) faster than the zone of commodification. This was the crucial dialectic that Marx put his finger on in addressing the contradictions of the working day, the tendency towards manifold “industrial patholog[ies],” and the necessity of incorporating “physically uncorrupted” human natures into the world proletariat (1977). In sum, not only does capitalism have frontiers; it is a frontier civilization.

It will consequently not suffice to identify the influence of abstract social labor as an “economic” phenomenon, although this remains pivotal. The endless frontier strategy of historical capitalism is premised on a vision of the world as endless: this is the conceit of capital and its theology of endless substitutability.[1] Abstract social labor, in this reading, is the economic expression of the law of value, which is unworkable historically without strategies of appropriating cheap nature. Why is this? Because, in short, the creation of socially necessary labor-time is constituted through a shifting balance of human and extra-human work; the co-production of nature, in other words, is constitutive of socially necessary labor-time. Socially necessary labor-time forms and re-forms in and through the web of life (Moore, 2013b).[2] Early capitalism’s landscape transformations, in their epoch-making totality, were unthinkable without new ways of mapping space, controlling time, and cataloging external nature – and they are inexplicable solely in terms of world-market or class-structural change. The law of value, far from reducible to abstract social labor, finds its necessary conditions of self-expansion through the creation and subsequent appropriation of cheap human and extra-human natures. These movements of appropriation must, if capital is to forestall the rising costs of production, be secured through extra-economic procedures and processes.

By this I mean something more than the recurrent waves of primitive accumulation that we have come to accept as a cyclical phenomenon of capitalism (Angelis, 2007). These also remain pivotal. But between our now cherished dialectic of “expanded reproduction” and “accumulation by dispossession” (Harvey, 2003) are those knowledges and associated practices committed to the mapping, quantifying, and rationalizing of human and extra-human natures in service to capital accumulation.

Thus the trinity: abstract social labor, abstract social nature, primitive accumulation. This is the relational core of capitalist world-praxis. And the work of this unholy trinity? Produce cheap natures.[3] Extend the zone of appropriation. In sum, to deliver labor, food, energy, and raw materials – the “Four Cheaps” (Moore, 2012) – faster than accumulating mass of surplus capital derived from the exploitation of labor-power. Why? Because the rate of exploitation of labor-power (within the commodity system) tends to exhaust the life-making capacities that enter into the immediate production of value. Capital is indifferent to the Cartesian divide:

Capital asks no questions about the length of life of labor-power. What interests it is purely and simply the maximum of labour-power that can be set in motion in a working day. It attains this objective by shortening the life of labour-power, in the same way as a greedy farmer snatches more produce from the soil by robbing it of its fertility (Marx, 1977: 376, emphasis added, also 636-38).

This exhaustion might take the form of an obvious withering of “vital forces” (Marx, 1977: 380). More often, however, exhaustion manifests in the inability of a given production complex to yield a rising stream of unpaid work – performed by human and extra-human natures alike. This latter form of exhaustion typically issues from some combination of class struggle, biophysical change, and the tendentially rising “geographical inertia” of regional built environments (quotation from Harvey, 1982: 428-29). In a world treated as boundless, capital as a whole has evinced a cumulative, but cyclically punctuated, tendency to search out and appropriate new, “physically uncorrupted” (Marx, 1977: 380) zones of cheap labor, food, energy, and raw materials. Exhaustion signals a rising value composition of capital, and the inflection point of decline for a given production complex to supply a growing stream of unpaid work to regional accumulation.[4] To the degree that “foreign preserves” can be identified and dominated, such relative “degeneration of the industrial population” matters little (quotations respectively from Cairnes, 1862: 110-111 quoted in Marx, 1977: 377; and Marx, 1977: 380).[5]

Has it been so different for extra-human natures? English agriculture, though not necessarily physically exhausted, was certainly exhausted in terms of its capacity to send a rising stream of cheap food to metropolitan capital by the early decades of the 19th century (Thomas, 1993). Not surprisingly, British capitalism at its mid-century apex would nourish itself on the basis of cheap calories – grain and sugar – supplied from New World frontier zones in North America and the Caribbean (Cronon, 1991; Mintz, 1985).

We can now connect the dots between the rise of capitalism and the emergence of the law of value. Value relations incorporate a double movement to exploitation and appropriation – within the commodity system, the exploitation of labor-power reigns supreme, but this supremacy is only possible, given its tendency toward self-exhaustion, to the degree that the appropriation of uncommodified natures counteracts this tendency. It is has been a difficult process to discern because value relations are necessarily much broader than the immediate production of the value form (the commodity). The generalization of commodity production has historically proceeded through an expansionary web of value relations whose scope and scale is necessarily much broader than the immediate process of production. McMichael puts the issue very well when he observes the problem of capitalist development as one of the uneven globalization of wage-work dialectically joined to the “generalization of its conditions of reproduction” (1991: 343). The difficulty in pursuing such an analysis has been rooted in the dualisms immanent to modern thought; for to construct capitalism in the fashion that I have suggested is to transcend the man/woman, nature/society boundaries upon which the whole edifice of modernist thought depends (see esp. Plumwood, 1993: 41-68; also Waring, 1988). For not only do we need to unify the distinctive but mutually formative dialectics of human work under capitalism through the nexus paid/unpaid work – “productive” and “reproductive” work. We also need to recognize that the dynamism of capitalism has owed everything to appropriating and co-producing ever more creative configurations of human and extra-human work across the longue durée.

JASON W MOORE teaches world history at Binghamton University. He is coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network. Many of his essays, on the history of capitalism, capitalism as world-ecology, environmental history, and political economy, are available on his website:


[1] Much of ecological economics can be read as a sustained critique of this theology. A useful introduction is found in Daly and Farley, 2004; also Perelman, 2007.

[2]“[T]he process of reproduction has to be considered from the standpoint of the replacement of the individual components of C’ both in value and in material” (Marx, 1978: 469).

[3] Produce does not mean “call forth at will,” but rather signifies a dialectic of co-production (Marx, 1977: 283).

[4]This explains something of the recurrent waves of financialization that redounded to the benefit of the declining world hegemon – in their respective belle époques, the Dutch, British, and American hegemonies each enjoyed a renewal of accumulation by capitalists in their respective geographical loci by deploying financial means to secure the fruits of agro-industrial expansions, based on new appropriations of cheap nature elsewhere in the world (Arrighi, 1994).

[5] Of course we should take care to appreciate that movements to drive down labor costs are found in technical innovation in core industrial sectors, alongside class politics and imperial initiatives to widen the sphere of appropriation. Thus, English labor-to-capital costs were 60 percent higher than on the Continent in the mid-18th century, which encouraged efforts to mechanize production (Allen, 2011, 31-32 and ch. 3 passim). Nevertheless, the new phase of industrialization gathered steam in those regions of England – such as the northern Midlands – where wages were relatively low compared to the south of England (Hunt, 1986). Yet, such mechanization was possible in great measure, especially after 1780s, by technical innovations that were probably “capital-saving” as much as they were “labor-saving” (von Tunzelmann, 1981), at least until the 1830s (Deane, 1973). In textiles, we are clearly dealing with rising labor productivity. But even here the technical composition of capital (the mass of machinery) could rise much faster than its value composition because of opportunities for appropriating cheap energy and cheap iron through the coal/steampower/iron nexus. We are, then, unavoidably dealing with a cascading series of technical innovations that work simultaneously to reduce the value of labor-power and the rest of the Big Four inputs. These cascades – necessarily and irreducibly – extend well beyond any sectoral or national frame, crucially encompassing production/reproduction configurations in the minimally-commodified colonial and frontier zones.


The Origins of Cheap Nature: From Use-Value to Abstract Social Nature

Jason W. Moore

Modernity’s law of value is an exceedingly peculiar way of organizing life in a civilization. Born in the midst of the rise of capitalism after 1450, the law of value enabled an unprecedented historical transition: from land productivity to labor productivity as the metric of wealth and power. It was an ingenious civilizational strategy, for it enabled the deployment of capitalist technics – crystallizations of tools and ideas, power and nature – to appropriate the wealth of uncommodified nature in service to advance labor productivity within the zone of commodification. The great leap forward in the scale, scope, and speed of landscape and biological transformations in the three centuries after 1450 — stretching from Poland to Brazil, and the North Atlantic’s cod fisheries to Southeast Asia’s spice islands — may be understood in this light (see Moore, “The Capitalocene, Part I”; also Moore, 2007; 2010a; 2010b; 2013a; 2013b).

Such transformations were the epoch-making expressions of a new law of value that reconfigured uncommodified human and extra-human natures (slaves, forests, soils) in servitude to labor productivity and the commodity. The new law of value was quite spectacular. Never before had any civilization negotiated this transition from land productivity to labor productivity as the decisive metric of wealth. This strange metric — value — oriented the whole of west-central Europe towards an equally strange conquest of space. This strange conquest was what Marx (1973, 524) calls the “annihilation of space by time,” and across the long sixteenth century we can see a new form of time — abstract time — taking shape (Landes, 1983). While all civilizations in some sense are built to expand across varied topographies, none represented these topographies as external and progressively abstracted in the ways that dominated early capitalism’s geographical praxis. The genius of capitalism’s cheap nature strategy was to represent time as linear, space as flat, and nature as external (Mumford, 1934; Merchant, 1980; Pickles, 2004). It was a civilizational inflection of the “God-trick” (Haraway, 1988), with bourgeois knowledge representing its special brand of quantifying and scientific reason as a mirror of the world — the same world then being reshaped by early modernity’s scientific revolutions in alliance with empires and capitals. The God-trick was the work of abstract social nature.

With abstract time, in other words, would come abstract space (Lefebvre, 1991). Together, they were the indispensable corollaries to the weird crystallization of human and extra-human natures in the form of abstract social labor. It was this ascendant law of value — operating as gravitational field rather than mechanism—that underpinned the extraordinary landscape and biological revolutions of early modernity. Notwithstanding the fanciful historical interpretations of the Anthropocene argument and its idealized model of a two-century modernity (Steffen et al., 2011), the origins of capitalism’s cheap nature strategy and today’s biospheric turbulence are to be found in the long sixteenth century. The issue is not one of anthropogenic-drivers — presuming a fictitious human unity — but of the relations of capital and capitalist power. The issue is not the Anthropocene, but the Capitalocene.

The “Age of Capital” has been premised on a relation that enables advancing labor productivity in great bursts with even greater bursts in the production of “cheap natures,” above the Four Cheaps of labor-power, food, energy, and raw materials (Moore, 2012). The catch is that capital-labor relations are not are well-equipped to map, code, survey, quantify and otherwise identify and facilitate new sources of cheap nature. This latter has, crucially, involved all manner of knowledge-practices, closely linked but not reducible to territorial power (Parenti, 2014), in which the expanded reproduction of the capital-unpaid work relation has been central. This is the historical terrain of abstract social nature and accumulation by appropriation.

The idea of nature as external has worked so effectively because the condition for capital’s “self”-expansion is the location and production of  external natures. (An obviously co-productive process.) Because these natures are historical and therefore finite, the exhaustion of one historical nature quickly prompts the “discovery” of new natures that deliver yet untapped sources of unpaid work. Thus did the Kew Gardens of British hegemony yield to the International Agricultural Research Centers of American hegemony, which in turn were superseded by the bioprospecting, rent-seeking, and genomic mapping practices of the neoliberal era (Brockway, 1978; Kloppenburg, 1988; McAfee, 1999; 2003.) This means that not only is capitalism bound up with a historically-specific nature; so are its specific phases of development. Each long century of accumulation does not “tap” an external nature that exists as a warehouse of resources. Rather, each such long wave creates — and is created by — a historical nature that offers a new, specific set of constraints and opportunities. The accumulation strategies that work at the beginning of a cycle — creating particular historical natures through science, technology, and new forms of territoriality and governance (abstract social nature)—progressively exhaust the relations of reproduction that supply “cheap” labor, food, energy, and raw materials. At some point, this exhaustion registers in rising commodity prices.

This view of nature as external object, while demonstrably false in terms of historical method, was an essential moment in the rise of capitalism. Here we can see ideas as “material force” (Marx, 1978, 60). Early capitalism’s world-praxis, fusing symbolic coding and material inscription, moved forward an audacious fetishization of nature. This was expressed, dramatically, in the era’s cartographic, scientific, and quantifying revolutions. These were the symbolic moments of primitive accumulation, creating a new intellectual system whose presumption, personified by Descartes, was the separation of humans from the rest of nature. For early modern materialism, the point was not only to interpret the world but to control it: “to make ourselves as it were the masters and possessors of nature” (Descartes, 2006, 51). It was a powerful vision, one so powerful that that even today, many students of global environmental change have internalized the early modern view of nature as effectively external to human activity (e.g., Steffen et al., 2011).

The origins of cheap nature are, of course, far more than intellectual and symbolic. The transgression of medieval intellectual frontiers was paired with the transgression of medieval territoriality. While civilizational expansion is in some sense fundamental to all, there emerged in early modern Europe a specific geographical thrust. While all civilizations had frontiers of a sort, capitalism was a frontier. The extension of capitalist power to new spaces that were uncommodified became the lifeblood of capitalism. I have elsewhere considered the historical geographies of early capitalism’s commodity frontiers (Moore, 2000b, 2003a, 2003b, 2009, 2010a, 2010b, 2010d, 2010e). For the moment, I wish to highlight two relational axes of these frontiers. First, commodity frontier movements were not merely about the extension of commodity relations, although this was indeed central. Commodity frontier movements were also, crucially, about the extension of territorial and symbolic forms that appropriated unpaid work in service to commodity production. This unpaid work could be delivered by humans — women or slaves, for example — or by extra-human natures, such as forests, soils, or rivers. Second, such frontier movements were, from the very beginning of capitalism, essential to creating the forms of cheap nature specific to capitalism, the Four Cheaps.

What are the implications of this line of thought for a post-Cartesian historical method, one that takes the law of value as a co-production of humans bundled with the rest of nature?

An approach to value that joins the appropriation of cheap natures (including humans!) and the exploitation of commodified labor-power allows us to unravel some of the mysteries of early capitalism’s dynamism – a civilization with few significant resource or technological advantages and yet endowed with an epoch-making capacity to reshape landscapes worldwide. While marxisante ecology tends to ignore value (e.g. Foster, Clark, and York, 2010), it does so by hiding from view Marx’s formulation that use- and exchange-value represent “on the surface” the “internal opposition of use-value and value” (Marx, 1977: 153, 209). Marx’s discussion in these opening pages of Capital are pitched at so high a level of abstraction that I think the implications of this “internal opposition” have been insufficiently grasped. These implications are explosive. For to say that value and use-value are internally related is to say that the value relation encompasses the relation value/use-value in a way that necessarily extends far beyond the immediate process of production. Here is a connection that allows us to join definite “modes of production” and definite “modes of life” in concrete historical unities (quotations from Marx and Engels, 1970: 42).

This means that capitalism can be comprehended through the shifting configuration of the exploitation of labor-power and the appropriation of cheap natures – a dialectic of paid and unpaid work that demands a disproportional expansion of the latter (appropriation) in relation to the former (exploitation). This reality is suggested – even if its implications for accumulation are only partially grasped – by those widely-cited estimates on the contribution of unpaid work performed by humans (UNDP, 1995: 16; Safri and Graham, 2010) and the rest of nature (“ecosystem services”) (Costanza, et al., 1997). The quantitative reckonings for unpaid human work – overwhelmingly delivered by women – vary between 70 and 80 percent of world GDP; for “ecosystem services,” between 70 and 250 percent of GDP. The relations between these two moments are rarely grasped (but see Perkins, 2007); their role in long waves of accumulation, rarely discussed (but for unpaid human work, see Caffentzis, 2010/1980; O’Hara, 1995). I would observe that unpaid work comprises not only the active and ongoing contributions to the daily reproduction of labor-power and the production cycles of agriculture and forestry. Unpaid work also encompasses the appropriation of accumulated unpaid work in the form of children raised to adulthood largely outside the commodity system (e.g., in peasant agriculture) and subsequently pushed or pulled into wage-work, and also in the form of fossil fuels produced through the earth’s biogeological processes.

The appropriation of unpaid work signifies something beyond the important – but nevertheless too partial – notion of environmental costs and externalities as “missing” (e.g. Patel, 2009). I think in this respect that we may take the crucial insight from feminist marxism: the contribution of unpaid work is not “just there,” but actively produced through complex (yet patterned) relations of power, (re)production, and accumulation. I risk pedantry here in saying that the “free gifts” of nature are not “low-hanging fruit” that can simply be picked without much time and effort. Quite the contrary! Cheap natures are actively produced by human activity bundled with the rest of nature, and human and extra-human natures are both replete with creativity and contingency. Nature is too often regards as a passive substrate – as in the popular ecological footprint metaphor (Wackernagel and Rees, 1996) – but this is a modernist conceit; one that reflects capital’s priorities rather more the history of capitalism. But nature is not substrate; it is the field within which all life unfolds. And all of that life is actively, creatively, incessantly engaged in environment-making (Levins and Lewontin, 1985; Moore, 2013a) – such that, in the modern world, human ingenuity (such as it is) and human activity (such as it has been) must activate the work of particular natures in order to appropriate particular streams of unpaid work. Such activation is co-produced reality, bundling the life-activities of human and extra-human nature, present and accumulated over time.

What are the implications for a historically grounded theory of value? On the one hand, capitalism lives and dies on the expanded reproduction of capital: value-in-motion. The substance of value is abstract social labor, or socially necessary labor time, implicated in the production of surplus value. On the other hand, this production of value is particular – it does not value everything, only labor power in the service of commodity production – and therefore rests upon a series of devaluations. Plenty of work – indeed the majority of work in the orbit of capitalism – does not register as valuable. Work by humans, especially women; but also “work” performed by extra-human natures. For good reason does Hribal pose the question (2003), “Are animals part of the working class”? – a question that illuminates the law of value’s absurdity alongside its consistent praxis. Although there remains a lot of confusion about this, it is now clear that Marx understood that extra-human natures perform all sorts of useful (but not valuable) work for capitalist production, and that such useful work was in fact immanent to the capital-relation (Burkett, 1999). Marx’s reading of value was, in other words, eminently post-Cartesian.

REFERENCES (TO BE ADDED, see also: “The Capitalocene, Part II: Abstract Social Nature and the Limits to Capital,” for references).

Wasting Away: Value, Waste, and Appropriation in the Capitalist World-Ecology

Jason W. Moore

The decisive violence imposed on life by the capitalist mode of production derives from its quest for radical simplification. The dream, the fantasy, the nightmare of capital is its practical desire — practical, yet impossible — for world of interchangeable parts, in which one part of nature easily substitutes for another. This the conceit of value as abstract social labor, whose practical violence lies precisely in its negation of, and yet utter dependence upon,  life-making. What is certainly true about a long-running commentary on capitalism and entropy — capitalism as “dissipative system” — is the law of value’s negation of life-making, which turns on adaptation, variation, and the ongoing emergence of biological and even geological difference.[1] What has been missed is capital’s dependence on such life-making processes: those uncapitalized human and extra-human natures without which no great wave of accumulation can materialize. That dependence is materialized through accumulation by appropriation: the channeling of unpaid work by human and extra-human natures into the conditions for capital accumulation (Moore, 2014a, 2014b, 2014c).

It is a wasteful system, to be sure, but one wasteful only secondarily at the level of consequences. The epochal claim of capital is that only one part of nature — labor-power within the circuit of capital — is valuable; all the rest, at least all the rest within reach of capitalist power, is to be mobilized in servitude to labor productivity. Viewed in this way, we can immediately identify as wasteful capitalism’s value-centered appropriations, which find useful only “an extremely quantified form of lif” (Caffentzis, 2005).  What early critics of industrial agriculture noted about energy inefficiency is in fact a general law of capital accumulation. Even in the 1960s, it was apparent that every calorie of food production demanded more and more energy over time, such that in American agriculture today, one calorie of food requires no less than 15 calories of energy (Pimentel, et al., 1973; Canning, et al., 2010; Acker, et al., 2013; Cuéllar and Webber, 2010). Compounding the problem, one-third to one-half of “all food produced never reaches a human stomach” (Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 2012; also Gustavsson, et al., 2011).

In these terms, capitalism is not a system of efficiency, and can only be identified as a system of profligacy and waste. Such wastefulness is, moreover, immanent to capital; it is bound up with the constitution of capital itself, and not only its palpable consequences for the biosphere and for particular landscapes. While the latter is recognized by Cartesian Marxists (e.g. Foster, 2012; Dowd, 1989), and is connected with today’s biospheric problems, such as climate change, the story is more than one of outputs. Waste is possible as “output” (after production) only to the degree that unpaid work is wastefully appropriated as “input” (before and during production); waste, in other words, is both producer and product of capital accumulation. The condition for such massive production of waste (after production) is capitalism’s wasteful appropriation of life and energy (during production) – is capitalism’s commitment to an extreme form of quantification: the law of value. The history of American bison hunters on the Great Plains in the 19th century – taking only the hide and leaving the rest to rot (Isenberg, 2001)[2] – serves as an appropriate metaphor for the capitalist world-ecology’s vast and wasteful history.

Waste, then, suggests a crucial point of entry into the problem of appropriation.

To Marx’s famous observation we may now add (1977: 763-764, ch. 25, part I), the accumulation of capital is the proletarianization of labor is the appropriation of unpaid work (is the accumulation of waste). This dialectical syllogism represents a weave of very complex historical processes. What this formulation provides – the accumulation of capital is the proletarianization of labor is the appropriation of unpaid work – is a way to explain long waves of accumulation as closely bound to the value composition (as abstract social labor) of the Big Four inputs: labor-power, food, energy, and raw materials. As labor, food, energy and raw materials are made cheap – through the appropriation of the unpaid work of “women, nature, and colonies” – they become what I have called the Four Cheaps (Moore, 2012, 2014a). As the Four Cheaps are restored, new opportunities for capital accumulation appear: for instance, the railroad revolution of the 19th century or the automobile revolution of the 20th century. Over time, the Four Cheaps stop being cheap, because the squeezing out of unpaid work in the upswing of an accumulation cycle exhausts the resilience of uncommodified relations of reproduction. Thence labor costs rise, along with food, energy, and raw materials prices. (Historically in uneven fashion, although this may be changing today, as commodity boom that commenced in 2003 shows few signs of collapsing [Erten and Ocampo, 2013].) As the Big Four inputs stop being cheap and start being dear, the opportunities for accumulation in the zone of material production (M-C-M’) stagnate, and begin to contract. Financial expansions (M-M’) tend to begin when the Big Four inputs become more expensive – the value composition of the labor, food,  energy, and raw materials rises rather than falls. (This is the heretofore “hidden” socio-ecological moment of overaccumulation crises.)

The food/labor nexus is especially important, because “cheap” food and labor are at once determined by transformations of commodity production (through the capital-intensive moment of agricultural revolutions) and also by the degree to which capital can secure vast new opportunities for appropriating unpaid work outside the commodity system but inside capitalism. This was the genius of the American-led “family farm” revolution of the later 19th century (c. 1840-1900), combining unpaid family labor with the unpaid work of extra-human natures, especially those frontier soils of western North America, accumulated over millennia and largely untouched by agriculture (Friedman, 1978, 2000). Cheap energy is crucial because, especially since the steam power revolution, labor productivity surges forward with abundant cheap energy, and stagnates with rising energy prices, as we saw during the 1970s (Jorgenson, 1980, 1984). Recessions in the North Atlantic core have been closely linked to rising oil prices since the 1970s (Hamilton, 2009). Finally, neither cheap labor nor cheap energy is particularly useful if there are not abundant (cheap) raw materials that can be transformed into commodities.

The clear tendency of the capitalist mode of production is to dissolve the boundaries between each of the Big Four inputs, especially between food, energy, and raw materials, which have become increasingly interchangeable in recent decades. One moment of this is directly bio-material. The manifold uses of American maize, now used for ethanol, food, and industrial production, are one good example. Another is the generalization of energy-intensive nitrogen fertilizers in world agriculture, which have allowed a growing (but still minority) share of humanity to “eat” oil and natural gas (Manning, 2001). Another moment of this dissolution of the boundaries between the Big Four inputs is found in the new phase of financialization after 2000. Perhaps most spectacularly, the world’s primary commodity markets were financialized. Before the 21st century, commodity markets were largely independent “from outside financial markets and from each other” – for example, the price of oil was not strongly correlated with the price of copper. After 2000, however, finance capital (especially via index investors) “precipitated a fundamental process of financialization amongst commodities markets, through which commodity prices became more correlated with prices of financial assets and with each other… As a result of [this] financialization…, the price of an individual commodity is no longer simply determined by its supply and demand (Tang and Xiong, 2011, emphasis added). Not coincidentally, the commodity boom that commenced in 2003 has been the longest, most volatile, and most encompassing commodity boom of the past century, and indeed probably of the past five centuries (World Bank, 2009: ch. 2; Erten and Ocampo, 2013). What this combination of bio-material and financial restructuring suggests is a 21st century global scenario in which the tendency towards underproduction reasserts itself, through an unusual and unstable combination of physical depletion, declining agro-ecological productivity, new antisystemic movements, and financialization,

This attention to the appropriation of unpaid work, and its cyclical and cumulative exhaustion across the longue durée, allows us to elaborate a theory of how under-production operates in the long history of the capitalist world-ecology (Moore, 2011a, 2011b). Underproduction signifies a conjoncture in which one or more of the Big Four inputs becomes increasingly costly, and begins to fetter the accumulation process. From the outset, let me make two things clear about underproduction. First, underproduction always exists alongside overproduction in historical capitalism. The crucial issue is not underproduction or overproduction, but how the two moments fit together. The past two centuries have been dominated by overproduction. This marked a relative escape from the problems of early capitalism. The greatest problem early capitalism was the supply of the Big Four inputs – hence, the audacious movements of enclosure and primitive accumulation in Europe and the Americas, and the great commodity frontiers in silver, sugar, forest productions, and grain. Not for nothing does Wallerstein call such expansion the “fundamental factor” in the rise of capitalism (1974). The Big Four inputs were rarely all cheap at the same time, which explains at least part of the extraordinary scale and speed of European conquest and commodification in the early modern era (Moore, 2007; 2009, 2010a, 2010b, 2010c, 2010d).

But if the problem in early capitalism was too few workers or resources, the great problem for capitalism after 1800 was too few customers: too many commodities chasing too few customers, always and necessarily conditioned by the rising value composition of production. (Two sides of the same process.)  Given the relative ease with which European capitalists and empires were able to remake the world-ecology in the 19th century, the Big Four inputs were often cheap, and were made relatively cheaper when necessary, from the agrarian and subsistence crises of the late 19th century (Wolf, 1982; Davis, 2001) to the “shock doctrines” and dispossessions of the neoliberal era (Klein, 2007; Harvey, 2003, 2005). For this historical reason – the relative cheapness of labor, food, energy, and raw materials  between 1800 and 2000 – underproduction is poorly understood, and is often framed in terms of “scarcity.” Scarcity is the bogeyman of our times, one whose realities and spectres are impossible to distinguish through the violent abstractions of “nature” and “society.”


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Friedmann, Harriet (2000). “What on Earth is the Modern World-System? Foodgetting and Territory in the Modern Era and Beyond,” Journal of World-Systems Research 6(2), 480-515.

Gustavsson, Jenny, Christel Cederberg, Ulf Sonesson, Robert van Otterdijk, and Alexandre Meybeck (2011). Global Food Losses and Food Waste. Rome: Food and Agrifculture Organization of the United Nations.

Hamilton, James D. (2009). “Causes and Consequences of the Oil Shock of 2007-08,” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity.

Harvey, David (2003). The New Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

Harvey, David (2005). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Institution of Mechanical Engineers (2013). Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not. London: Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

Klein, Naomi (2007). The Shock Doctrine. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Manning, Richard (2004). “The Oil We Eat: Following the Food Chain back to Iraq,” Harper’s (February), 37-45.

Marx, Karl (1977). Capital. Vol. I. Ben Fowkes, trans. New York: Vintage.

Moore, Jason W. (2007). Ecology and the Rise of Capitalism. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Geography, University of California, Berkeley.

Moore, J.W. (2009). “Madeira, Sugar, & the Conquest of Nature in the ‘First’ Sixteenth Century, Part I,” Review 32,4, 345–90.

Moore, Jason W. (2010a). “‘Amsterdam is Standing on Norway’ Part I: The Alchemy of Capital, Empire, and Nature in the Diaspora of Silver, 1545–1648,” Journal of Agrarian Change, 10, 1, 35–71.

Moore, Jason W. (2010b). “‘Amsterdam is Standing on Norway’ Part II: The Global North Atlantic in the Ecological Revolution of the Long Seventeenth Century,” Journal of Agrarian Change, 10, 2, 188–227.

Moore, J.W. (2010c). “Madeira, Sugar, & the Conquest of Nature in the ‘First’ Sixteenth Century, Part II,” Review 33(1), 1-24.

Moore, Jason W. (2010d). “‘This Lofty Mountain of Silver Could Conquer the Whole World’: Potosí and the Political Ecology of Underdevelopment, 1545–1800,” Jour­nal of Philosophical Economics 4, 1, 58–103.

Moore, Jason W. (2011a). “Transcending the Metabolic Rift,” The Journal of Peasant Studies, 38, 1, 1-46.

Moore, Jason W. (2011b). “Ecology, Capital, and the Nature of Our Times,” Journal of World-Systems Analysis 17(1), 108-47.

Moore, Jason W. (2012). “Cheap Food & Bad Money: Food, Frontiers, and Financialization in the Rise and Demise of Neoliberalism,” Review, 33(2-3), 125-161.

Moore, Jason W. (2014a). “The End of Cheap Nature, or, How I learned to Stop Worrying about ’the’ Environment and Love the Crisis of Capitalism,” in Structures of the World Political Economy and the Future of Global Conflict and Cooperation, edited byC. Suter and C. Chase-Dunn (Berlin: LIT, 2014), 1-31.

Moore, Jason W. (2014b). “The Capitalocene, Part I: On the Nature and Origins of Our Ecological Crisis,” unpublished paper, Fernand Braudel Center, Binghamton University.

Moore, Jason W. (2014c). “The Capitalocene, Part II: Abstract Social Nature and the Limits to Capital,” unpublished paper, Fernand Braudel Center, Binghamton University.

Pimentel, David, L. E. Hurd , A. C. Bellotti, M. J. Forster, I. N. Oka, O. D. Sholes, and R. J. Whitman (1973). “Food Production and the Energy Crisis,” Science 182 (4111, 2 November), 443-449.

Tang, Ke, and Wei Xiong. 2011. “Index investment and Financialization of Commodities.” Working paper, Department of Economics, Princeton University,, accessed 17 March 2011.

Wallerstein, Immanuel (1974). The Modern World-System I. New York: Academic Press.

Wolf, Eric R. (1982). Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley: University of California Presss.


[1] I do not mean to suggest a teleology of life-making. There is no question that life-making and adaptation may, under some conditions, move in the direction of simplification and the reduction in the diversity of life (Levins and Lewontin, 1985). Even when such movements towards simplification occur, however, the movement towards complexification resumes whenever life is afforded the solar, geological, and biological opportunity to do so.

[2] It is of course true, as Isenberg argues (2001), that Native American world-ecologies could also be wasteful in a similar fashion; but the scale, speed, and consistency of bison extermination after the American Civil War was clearly a qualitatively new development that found only the faintest formal similarities with the Native American past.

Technics and Historical Nature: Praxis of the Capitalist World-Ecology

Jason W. Moore

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,

The Capitalocene: Beyond Environment as the Zone of Consequence

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.


Capitalism as a Way of Organizing Nature

On Value and the Appropriation of Unpaid Work

Jason W. Moore

To ask about humanity’s modern relation with the rest of nature is to shift our focus from the consequences of these relations to the relations that enfold and unfold these consequences. Consequences are crucial. Those issuing from climate change are especially salient, perhaps especially in its suppressive impact on labor and land productivity in world agriculture: signaling the end of capitalism’s longue durée cheap food regime (Kjell, et al., 2009; Zivin and Neidel, 2010; Peng, et al., 2004; Moore, 2012, 2013b). But to periodize historical change on the basis of consequences – or a highly-stylized interpretation of the Industrial Revolution fueled by fossils – is to cloud our vision from the outset. Of course we must begin with the decisive shifts in the dominant relations of power and production, of classes and commodities. To leave it at that, however, says nothing new. What the more sophisticated versions of the “coal and capitalism” argument appreciate is that the transition in the relations of power and production that occurred at the onset of the “long” 19th century involved a transition that went beyond relations between humans; it also implied a transition in humanity’s relation with the rest of nature (e.g. Huber, 2008; Malm, 2013). I would go still further. The radical engagement with the Anthropocene has proceeded through an agreement on periodization – the Two Century Model – which is problematic enough.  More fundamentally, both centrist and radical approaches to the Anthropocene argument have converged on an ontological agreement: the “co-production of society WITH nature” (Swyngedouw, 2013: 16, emphasis added; also Davis, 2010; Gowdy and Krall, 2013), as if these were two independent entities (but see Sayre, 2012). While co-production is the right way to put it, its association with a Nature/Society vocabulary short-circuits the effort to move from modernity WITH nature towards modernity-in-nature. Why? Because the philosophy of co-production depends on acting units that are themselves co-produced. To be sure, radicals such as Swyngedouw – a pioneer in the critique of Nature/Society dualisms (1996) – understand this. But the distance between philosophical critique and world-historical interpretation has been great. The Achilles’ Heel of the post-Cartesian critique has been historical analysis, resulting in a disjuncture between the “production of nature” as theoretical construct and world-historical process. Without a sufficient historical grounding, the critique of Nature/Society dualism tends to stumble on the terrain of world history, precisely the turf staked out by the Anthropocene position.

My position is that the critique of Nature/Society dualisms is not only relevant to historical analysis, but that the history of capitalism cannot be explained in terms of a ping-pong of nature-society interactions (citations omitted for anonymous review). The bundle of transformations that gathered steam in the closing decades of the 18th century were co-produced by human and extra-human natures (in which the latter are also directly constitutive of so-called “society”) – not only at the level of consequences, but in terms of the strategic relations behind capitalism’s peculiar reordering of the biosphere over the longue durée. This perspective views capitalism as, at once, producer and product of the web of life. Capitalism can then be understood as a co-production of human and extra-human natures. The patterns of co-production are contingent but cohered, and this coherence reveals itself in specific patterns of environment-making that reach well beyond conventional reckonings of landscape change. This coherence is realized and reproduced through definite rules of reproduction – of power, of capital, of production. For capitalist civilization, these rules embody a value relation, quite literally determining what counts as valuable and what does not.[1] Different civilizations have different value relations, that prioritize different forms of wealth, power, and production. Feudal Europe, for instance, privileged land productivity where the world capitalist system increasingly privileged labor productivity after 1450. For the moment, I simply wish to highlight that capitalism’s “law of value” – understood more expansively than for Marx, but in the spirit of Marx’s method (Marx, 1973; Hopkins, 1982; Sayer, 1987) – produced an exceedingly peculiar forms of wealth – capital as value-in-motion – that creates abstract social labor only through a far-flung repertoire of imperialist enclosure and appropriation of nature’s “free gifts” in service to commodity production (Burkett, 1999; Moore, 2011a). Capital is value-in-motion is value-in-nature. Value is a bundled relation of human and extra-human natures (e.g. Marx, 1977: 283; Burkett, 1999). Hence Marx writes that the natural fertility of the soil may “act as an increase in fixed capital” (1973: 748): an observation pregnant with socio-ecological implications for the analysis of capital accumulation.

We may begin to unpack these implications through a suggestive proposition: Value operates through a dialectic of exploitation and appropriation that illuminates capitalism’s peculiar relation with, and within, nature. On the one hand, the system turns on a weird coding of what is valuable, installing human work within the commodity system (wage-labor) as the decisive metric of wealth. In this domain, the exploitation of labor-power is pivotal, upon which all else turns. On the other hand, the exploitation of wage-labor works only to the degree that its reproduction costs can be checked. The mistake is to see capitalism as defined by wage-labor, any more than it defined by the world market. Rather the crucial question turns on the historical connections between wage-work and its necessary conditions of expanded reproduction – conditions which depend on massive contributions of unpaid work, outside the commodity system but necessary to its generalization. Sometimes this is called the domain of social reproduction (e.g. Bakker and Gill, 2003), although it is here that the adjective “social” seems especially unsuitable – where does the “social” moment of raising children end, and the “biological” moment begin? Clearly, we are dealing with zone of reproduction that transcends any neat and tidy separation of sociality and biology, better viewed as internal to each other. Neither is this zone of reproduction – the domain where unpaid work is produced for capital[2] – narrowly human affair. For unpaid work not only makes possible the production of potential – or the reproduction of actual – labor-power as “cheap” labor; it also involves the unpaid work of extra-human natures. In this domain of reproduction, the appropriation of unpaid work is central.

My use of appropriation therefore differs from Marx, who deployed the term more or less interchangeably with the exploitation of wage-labor. Appropriation, in what follows, names those extra-economic processes to identify, secure, and channel unpaid work outside the commodity system into the circuit of capital. Scientific, cartographic, and botanical revolutions, broadly conceived, are  good examples, and themes to which we will return in subsequent posts. Movements of appropriation, in this sense, are distinct from movements of the exploitation of wage-labor, whose tendential generalization is premised on the generalization of appropriative practices.[3] So important is the appropriation of unpaid work that the rising rate of exploitation depends upon the fruits of appropriation derived from cheap natures, understood primarily as the “Four Cheaps” of labor-power, food, energy, and raw materials (Moore, 2012).

This use of appropriation therefore implies a labor/work distinction, insofar as labor in the Marxist tradition has been used as a shorthand for abstract social labor (Marx, 1967 and especially 1967, I: ch. 18; e.g. Mandel, 1981). Work, in what follows, signifies the historically-grounded forms of geo- and bio-physical activity as they “bundle” with humanity’s distinctive forms of sociality and embodied thought (e.g. White, 1995). This allows us to see that only some energy becomes work, and only some work becomes value. These broadly-entropic transitions allow us to highlight the self-consuming character of the capital relation, which in any given historical configuration tends to burn through its necessary biophysical conditions (included workers) and in so doing jack up the organic composition of capital (Marx, 1977: 377-380; Luxemburg, 1913: 328-427). Thus, capitalism’s cheap nature strategy, and the recurrent cyclical movements in favor of ever-cheaper nature until 2003 (Grantham, 2011), may be understood in relation to the cyclical threat of the Four Cheaps turning dear (Mandel, 1975; Rostow, 1978). Costly nature turns cheap through appropriating unpaid work on the commodity frontiers inside and outside the zone of commodification (Hochschild, 2002; Moore, 200ob). These cheap nature movements, at least until 2003-08, counteracted capitalism’s tendency to voraciously consumes both the geological accumulations and biological configurations of unpaid work as manifold capitals competed at the point of production. The competitive struggle in production – not merely the market, as environmental historians and sociologists  would suggest (e.g. Cronon, 1991; Foster, 2001) – compels capitalists to pursue rising rates of labor productivity, often through mechanization. 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 dynamisms 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).[4]

New installments coming soon!


Complete references found here.

[1] The argument for global value relations has been articulated by Araghi in a distinct but complementary register (2009a, 2009b).

[2] I do not mean to suggest that life-activity in the zone of reproduction is work as such, only that capital views it as such. Indeed, as I will show, a significant part of capitalist history is the identification and development of symbolic-material practices that aim to activate new streams of unpaid work in service to capital.

[3] The dialectic paid/unpaid work does not, therefore, displace the centrality of the value-relations with the circuit of capital. The terms paid/unpaid work serve to illuminate the constitutive relations through which socially-necessary unpaid work makes possible the successive determinations of systemic labor-time. In other words, the present argument agrees with the classical Marxist position on the centrality of the  exploitation of labor-power. My point is that the historical-geographical reproduction of this central relation cannot be explained absent the relational movements that channeled unpaid work into the circuit of capital.

[4] It is of course true that rising labor productivity – in value terms – may or may not involve rising throughput. This latter is the strongest tendency. Nevertheless, it would be possible to increase labor productivity without rising throughput by reducing the value composition of production; such a downward reduction would likely take the form of wage cuts. Even in these instances, such reductions would be temporary and partial, except in the case of an epochal crisis.


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.


JASON W MOORE is coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network ( You are welcome to contact him: Many of his essays, on the history of capitalism, capitalism as world-ecology, environmental history, and political economy, are available on his website:


Allen, Robert C. (2011). Global economic history: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Altvater, Elmar (2006). “The Social and Natural Environment of Fossil Capitalism,” in Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, eds., Coming to Terms with Nature: Socialist Register 2007. London: Merlin Press.

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 Anderson, Perry (1974b). Lineages of the Absolutist State. London: New Left Books.

 Barca, Stefania (2010). “Energy, property, and the industrial revolution narrative,” Ecological Economics, 70(7), 1309-1315.

 Beard, Charles (1901). The Industrial Revolution. London: George Allen & Unwin.

 Bourdieu, Pierre and Loic J.D. Wacquant (1992). An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Braun, Bruce (2006). “Towards a New Earth and a New Humanity: Nature, Ontology, Politics,” in Noel Castree and Derek Gregory, eds., David Harvey: A Critical Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 191-222.

Bunker, Stephen G., and Paul S. Ciccantell (2005). Globalization and the Race for Resources. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Burgess, Rod (1978). “The Concept of Nature in Geography and Marxism,” Antipode, 10(2), 1-11.

Carus-Wilson, E.M. (1941). “An industrial revolution of the thirteenth century,” Economic History Review, (1st series) 11(1), 39-60.

Ciccantell, Paul S., and Stephen G. Bunker (2002). “International Inequality in the Age of Globalization: Japanese Economic Ascent and the Restructuring of the Capitalist World-Economy,” Journal of World-Systems Research, 8(1), 62-98.

Commoner, Barry (1971). The Closing Circle. New York: Bantam Books.

Crosby, Alfred W., jr. (1972). The Columbian exchange: biological and cultural consequences of 1492. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Daly, Herman E., and Joshua Farley (2004). Ecological Economics. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

England, Richard, and Barry Bluestone (1971). “Ecology and class conflict,” Review of Radical Political Economics, 3(4), 31-55.

Enzenberger, Hans-Magnus (1974). “A critique of political ecology,” New Left Review I/84, 3-32.

FischerKowalski, Marina, and Helmut Haberl (1997). “Tons, joules, and money: Modes of production and their sustainability problems,” Society & Natural Resources, 10, 1, 61-85

FischerKowalski, Marina, and Helmut Haberl (1998). “Sustainable Development: Socio-economic metabolism and the colonization of nature,” International Social Science Journal, 158, 573-587.

Foster, John Bellamy (1994). The Vulnerable Planet: A Short Economic History of the Environment. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Frank, Andre Gunder (1978). World Accumulation, 1492-1798. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Gimpel, Jean (1976). The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages. New York: Penguin.

Gould, Stephen Jay (1981). The Mismeasure of Man. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Haberl, Helmut, Marina FischerKowalski, Fridolin Krausmann, Joan MartinezAlier, and Verena Winiwarter (2011). “A sociometabolic transition towards sustainability? Challenges for another Great Transformation,” Sustainable Development, 19(1),1-14.

Hardesty, John, Norris C. Clement, and Clinton E. Jencks (1971). “Political Economy and Environmental Destruction,” Review of Radical Political Economics, 3(4), 82-102.

Harvey, David (1974). “Population, Resources, and the Ideology of Science,” Economic Geography 50 (3), 256-277.

Harvey, David (2010). The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism. London: Profile Books

Heinberg, Richard (2003). The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies. Gabriola, BC: New Society Publishers.

Huber, Matthew T. (2008). “Energizing historical materialism: Fossil fuels, space and the capitalist mode of Production,” Geoforum, 40, 105-115.

Jensen, Derrick (2006). Endgame, Volume 1: The Problem of Civilization. New York: Seven Stories Press.

Jonsson, Fredrik Albritton (2012). “The Industrial Revolution in the Anthropocene,” The Journal of Modern History, 84(3), 679-696.

Kingsnorth, Paul (2011). “The Quants and the Poets,”, available at, accessed 24 June, 2013.

Linebaugh, Peter (1976). “Karl Marx, the theft of wood, and working class composition: a contribution to the current debate,” Crime and Social Justice, 6, 5-16.

Malanima, Paolo (2006). “Energy crisis and growth 1650–1850: The European deviation in a comparative perspective,” Journal of Global History, 1(1), 101–121

Malm, Andreas (2013). “The Origins of Fossil Capital: From Water to Steam in the British
Cotton Industry,” Histoircal Materialism, 21(1), 15–68.

Mandel, Ernest (1975). Late Capitalism. London: New Left Books.

Marcuse, Herbert (1972). “Ecology and revolution,” Liberation, 16, 10-12.

Marx, Karl (1967). Capital. 3 vols. Frederick Engels, ed. New York: International Publishers.

Marx, Karl (1977). Capital, Vol. I. Ben Fowkes, trans. New York: Vintage.

Merchant, Carolyn (1980). The Death of Nature. New York: Harper & Row.

Moore, Jason W. (2011a). “Transcending the Metabolic Rift,” The Journal of Peasant Studies, 38, 1, 1-46.

Moore, Jason W. (2011b). “Ecology, Capital, and the Nature of Our Times,” Journal of World-Systems Analysis 17(1), 108-47.

Moore, Jason W. (2013). “From Object to Oikeios: Environment-Making in the Capitalist World-Ecology,” unpublished paper.

Mumy, G. (1979). “Economic systems and environmental quality: A critique of the current debate,” Antipode, 11(2), 23-33.

Nef, John U. (1966/1932 original). The Rise of the British Coal Industry. London: Routledge.

Nef, John U. (1964). The Conquest of the Material World. New York: Meridian.

Osborn, Matthew (2003). “‘The Weirdest of All Undertakings’: The Land and the Early Industrial Revolution in Oldham, England,” Environmental History, 8(2), 246-269.

Perelman, Michael (1977). Farming for profit in a hungry world: Capital and the crisis in agriculture. Montclair, NJ: Allanheld, Osmun and Co.

Perelman, Michael (1979). “Marx, Malthus, and the concept of natural resource scarcity,” Antipode, 11(2), 80-91.

Pomeranz, Kenneth. 2000. The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Salgo, Harvey (1973). “The obsolescence of growth: Capitalism and the environmental crisis,” Review of Radical Political Economics, 5(3), 26-45.

Schmidt, Alfred (1973). The Concept of Nature in Marx. London: New Left Books.

Schnaiberg, Allan (1980). The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schnaiberg, Allan, and Kenneth Alan Gould (1994). Environment and society: The enduring conflict. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Sieferle, Rolf Peter (2001). The Subterranean Forest: Energy Systems and the Industrial Revolution. Michael P. Osman, trans. Cambridge: The White Horse Press.

Smith, Neil, and Phil O’Keefe (1980). “Geography, Marx and the Concept of Nature,” Antipode, 12(2), 30-39.

Steffen, Will, Paul J. Crutzen and John R. McNeill (2007). “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?” Ambio, 36(8), 614-621.

Steinberg, Theodore L. (1986). “An Ecological Perspective on the Origins of Industrialization,” Environmental Review: ER, 10(4), 261-276.

Stretton, Hugh (1976). Capitalism, socialism, and the environment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Steffen, Will, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen and John McNeill (2011). “The Anthropocene: Conceptual and historical perspectives,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, 369, 842-867.

Toynbee, Arnold (1894/1884 original/1881 lectures). Lectures on the Industrial Revolution of the Eighteenth Century in England. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.

Turshen, Meredeth (1977). “The political ecology of disease,” Review of Radical Political Economics, 9(1), 45-60.

Walker, Richard A. (1979). “Human-Environment Relations: Editor’s Introduction,” Antipode, 11(2), 1-16.

Wallerstein, Immanuel (1974). The Modern World-System I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century. New York: Academic Press.

Wallerstein, Immanuel (1986). “The Industrial Revolution: Cui Bono?,”Thesis Eleven, 13, 67-76.

Warde, Paul, and Antonio Marra (2007). Energy Consumption in England & Wales, 1560-2000.  Naples: Consiglio nazionale delle ricerche, Istituto di studi sulle società del Mediterraneo.

Williams, Raymond (1972). “Ideas of Nature,” in J. Benthall, ed., Ecology: The Shaping Inquiry.London: Longman, 146-164.

Williams, Raymond (1976). The Country and the City. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Worster, Donald (1977). Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Wrigley, Edward Anthony (1990). Continuity, Chance and Change: The character of the industrial revolution in England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wrigley, E. A. (2010). Energy and the English Industrial Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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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.”


Part I: Beyond the Consequentialist Bias

Jason W. Moore

All arguments effect uneven openings and closures. The Anthropocene argument is no different. It is true that the land and labor transformations of early capitalism – even if we recognize them as potentially epoch-making – do not say anything directly about the new relations of class, capital, and empire that emerged after 1450. But they are clues. The extraordinary scale, scope, and speed of early modernity’s reshaping of land and labor (human and extra-human natures) brings into question any historical periodization that excludes it.

When the Anthropocene argument begins with the consequences issuing from a stylized and uncritical version of the Industrial Revolution, it implicates a problem inherent in green materialism since the 1970s. Given human exemptionalism’s hegemony across the historical social sciences,[1] the main thrust of environmental history and social science was to make explicit the environmental dimension of social processes. From this movement we gained impressive environmental histories, not least of capitalist transition and development (e.g. Cronon, 1983, 1991; Merchant, 1989). Usually, however, the environmental dimension of social change meant writing about environmental consequences more than environmental causes. And for good reason. Environmental determinism enjoyed an unsavory past, one closely allied to imperialism and Eurocentrism (Peet, 1985; e.g. Semple, 1911). But the rejection of environmental determinism tended to throw out the baby with the bathwater; it biased the new environmental historiography and social sciences against the notion that socio-ecological antagonisms might be at the core of modernity’s crisis tendencies. Unfortunately, these antagonisms could hardly be avoided. With a direct approach impossible, nature’s role was reduced to the spectre of neo-Malthusian scarcity, imposed on capitalism from outside (Schnaiberg, 1980; Catton, 1980).

As a result, when explanatory models in environmental history challenged the Cartesian dualism – seeking to move environmental history beyond the environmental consequences of social relations (e.g. Merchant, 1989; Worster, 1990) – they seldom gained traction. More recently, green scholars have sought to remedy this consequentialist bias with calls for nature’s agency. Beinart and Hughes (2007), for example, talk about “environmental causation,” with the Columbian exchange of flora and fauna as a prime example (e.g. Crosby, 1986); similarly, Campbell speaks of climate as “historical protagonist” in the late medieval crisis (2010). Such calls, as with the Anthropocene argument, have the virtue of saying – quite correctly – that nature matters. But they have reproduced the underlying problem of a dualistic conception: “nature” remains an ontologically independent realm of agency that acts upon “society.” (And vice-versa.) This false separation produces the appearance of nature’s agency while undermining a view of historical change as constituted through the complex and multi-layered “flows of people, materials, information, [and] artifacts” (Carlstein, 2003: 57). These dualistic arguments for nature’s agency reinforce the very thought-structures they aim to critique; they get us scarcely closer than before to explanations of the causes of historical change premised on the dialectic of human and extra-human nature.

The consequentialist bias of green materialism has not given the Anthropocene argument much to work with. Common to the uncritical and stylized version of the Industrial Revolution embraced by the Anthropocene argument – and it is not alone – is the reluctance to explain modernity as constituted through nature, and to explain modernity instead as the output of industrialization and its impacts upon nature.[2] Left to its own devices, green materialism tends to succumb to a global empiricism of cobbled together meta-forces, endowing some descriptive categories – industrialization, urbanization, automobilization, and so forth (e.g. Steffen, et al., 2011a) – with the power to “overwhelm the great forces of nature” (Steffen, Crutzen, and McNeill, 2007). (As if industrialization was not itself a “specifically harnessed natural force.”) But as any sociologist will quickly tell you, correlation is not causation. The accumulation of descriptive categories that quantify important trends in the modern world-system does not – cannot – “add up” to an explanation of humanity-in-nature since the sixteenth century.

If adding up doesn’t suffice, what would? We have, in the Anthropocene and world-ecology arguments, two very different historical methods. The first begins with geological consequences and moves towards social history. The world-ecology argument, in constrast, begins with the dance of the dialectic between (and amongst) humans and the rest of nature and moves towards geological and biophysical consequences. These, in turn, create new conditions of historical change (Moore, 2011a, 2011b): world-ecology is a method that enfolds consequences into new constitutive terrain for the emergence of new human/extra-human relations. Climate change – and climate is always changing – is a good example. Instead of a “factor” that gets in the way of civilizations once the weather gets too cold, too wet, too hot, too unpredictable, climate change is a constitutive factor the emergence and development of civilizations, not only in their crises (Moore, 2013). The difference between the Anthropocene and world-ecology perspectives is a difference over how one frames the history of geological and biospheric changes. Above all, it is a difference over how one sees the geobiosphere as constitutive of historical change itself, and not merely as a repository of natural limits. It is of no small consequence whether we begin with the origins of the relations of modernity – as a capitalist world-ecology – in the long sixteenth century, or with the fossil boom that commenced around 1800. One approach tells us to consider the relations of modernity first; the other tells us to look at machines and resources first.


JASON W MOORE is coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network ( You are welcome to contact him: Many of his essays, on the history of capitalism, capitalism as world-ecology, environmental history, and political economy, are available on his website:


Beinart, William, and Lotte Hughes (2007). Environment and Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Campbell, Bruce M.S. (2010). “Nature as historical protagonist: Environment and society in pre-industrial England,” Economic History Review, 63(2), 281–314.

Carlstein, Tommy (2003). “Why ‘Society’ is an Ecosystem and what this Implies for the Social Sciences and the Disciplines of Culture,” in Eric Clark, Per Olof Hallin, and Mats Widgren, eds., Tidrumsfragment. Stockholm: Stockholm University Press, 45-70.

Catton, jr., William R. 1980. Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Cronon, William (1983). Changes in the Land. New York: W.W. Norton.

Cronon, William (1991). Nature’s Metropolis. New York: W.W. Norton.

Crosby, Alfred W., jr. (1986). Ecological Imperialism. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Dunlap, Riley E., and William R. Catton, Jr. (1979). “Environmental Sociology,” Annual Reviews in Sociology, 5, 243-273.

Huber, Matthew T. (2008). “Energizing historical materialism: Fossil fuels, space and the capitalist mode of Production,” Geoforum, 40, 105-115.

Huber, Matthew T. (2012). “Refined Politics: Petroleum Products, Neoliberalism, and the Ecology of Entrepreneurial Life,” Journal of American Studies, 46, 295-312.

Merchant, Carolyn (1989). Ecological Revolutions. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Moore, Jason W. (2011a). “Transcending the Metabolic Rift,” The Journal of Peasant Studies, 38, 1, 1-46.

Moore, Jason W. (2011b). “Ecology, Capital, and the Nature of Our Times,” Journal of World-Systems Analysis 17(1), 108-47.

Moore, Jason W. (2013). “From Object to Oikeios: Environment-Making in the Capitalist World-Ecology,” unpublished paper.

Peet, Richard (1985). “The social origins of environmental determinism,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 75(3), 309-333.

Schnaiberg, Allan (1980). The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Semple, Ellen C. (1911). Influences of geographic environment on the basis of Ratzel’s system of anthropo-geography. New York: Russell and Russell.

Steffen, Will, Paul J. Crutzen and John R. McNeill (2007). “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?” Ambio, 36(8), 614-621.

Steffen, Will, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen and John McNeill (2011a). “The Anthropocene: Conceptual and historical perspectives,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, 369, 842-867.

Worster, Donald (1990). “Transformations of the Earth,” Journal of American History 76(4), 1087-1106.

[1] Human exemptionalism embraces humanity as “an ‘exceptional’ species… [in which] the exceptional characteristics of our species (culture, technology, language, elaborate social organization) somehow exempt humans from ecological principles and from environmental influences and constraints” (Dunlap and Catton, 1979: 250). The most penetrating critique of human exemptionalism that I have seen is offered by Carlsson: “[W]e cannot understand society as a general and overall construction if we stick to the humanistic, dualistic and anti-naturalist ideology that society is all about humans… Humans get excessive ontological privilege in the humanistic and socio-cultural disciplines because of an overspecialization and misspecialization of these disciplines” (2003: 54).

[2] Huber’s work is an important exception. He points us in the right direction in arguing that “fossil fuel energy is… internal to… the contradictions of capitalism” (2008: 113). But nature is not only internal, but also external. The crucial shift is to move “away from the neoliberal politics of ecology (or nature) [e.g. Heynen, et al., 2007] to a framework that considers the ecology of neoliberal politics” (Huber, 2012: 299).


A Peculiar Way of Organizing Nature

PART I, Labor, Land, and the Commodification of Everything

 Jason W. Moore

Historical capitalism is a peculiar way of organizing nature. This peculiarity begins with a curious inversion of the land-labor relation that governed civilizations for millennia prior to the long sixteenth century (1450-1640). For premodern civilizations, land productivity was the decisive metric of wealth. Barring demographic collapse, such tributary civilizations were more-or-less content with declining labor productivity, so long as returns from the land continue to grow, or at least did not decline. Such civilizations usually expanded, some dramatically so, but none possessed either the will or capacity to conquer the world. That would change with the rise of capitalism. Beginning in this long sixteenth century, we can see a dramatic rupture with the old land-labor relation. Labor productivity, not land productivity, would increasingly govern the logic of power and production.

Why should the sixteenth-century origins of this peculiar configuration of land and labor – these are of course shorthands for much more complex relations – concern us? The short answer is that these peculiar relations, of land, labor, and endless commodification, are still with us. And these relations underpin capitalism’s grand experiment in the web of life.

It turns out that relations really do matter. The new mode of producing wealth, power, and nature was evident from the first stirrings of commodity frontiers in Central European mining and metallurgy and the Atlantic sugar-slave nexus in the century or so after 1450. From the earliest movements of expansion in the later fifteenth century, we see the age-old geography of demographic expansion leading to commercial expansion turned inside-out. In medieval Europe, for example, the effloresence of feudal civilization produced wave upon wave settler expansions. This was most obvious east of the Elbe, but such expansion also occurred within settlement cores, where forests retreated rapidly (Bartlett, 1993; Moore, 2013). From these demographic-territorial expansions issued commercial and manufacturing growth. (Hence, eastern Europe prospered relative to western Europe in the long fourteenth century crisis.) Beginning in the sixteenth century, however, the logic of geographical expansion changed. Demographic and resource frontiers yielded to commodity frontiers. These commodity frontiers – sugar is a spectacular instance – served as magnets for settlement.[1] Where commerce had once followed people, now people followed the frontiers of commodification.

Needless to say, this was a violent process. Forced settlement was most dramatic, of course, in the modern slave trade. But it was also in effect in the “internal Africas” of the New World, those indigenous labor reserves – strategic hamlets called aldeias in Brazil, reducciones in the Andes – that were the necessary complement to the sugar and silver production complexes (Moore, 2010; 2007: chapter six). Here is one basis for explaining the “special laws of population” (Marx, 1977: 784) that attended the rise of capitalism. (And need we say that such special laws apply also to extra-human animals too: cattle, mules, and horses especially in the New World?)

The new civilization – a capitalist world-ecology (Moore, 2011a, 2011b) – was not particularly strong. Its “forces of production” were not, by global standards, especially advanced. But emerging in the sixteenth century was a destabilizing synergy of technics and technique, of power and production (Mumford, 1934). This synergy its epoch-making expression in the commodity form, which was now elevated to God-like status. Where merchants and bankers once bowed before kings, now kings bowed to the power of mammon. Commodification, following the first stirrings of recovery from the fourteenth century crisis (c. 1290-1450), began to invert the old rules of reproduction. Across the hotspots of commodification – enforced and enabled, to be sure, by the technics of a new globe-imagining imperialism – labor no longer served the land. Land, and the rest of nature, would serve labor; the exploitation of labor power in the production and realization of commodities would come first. Everything else came second. And this meant, above all, that the totality of the natures within capital’s grasp – more on this presently – would be appropriated in service to this peculiar civilizational objective: advancing labor productivity. (Or reducing unit labor costs – in the language of economists – which amounts to much the same thing.)

All of which might have you wondering, What does this have to do with nature?

It was the emergence of a new “law of value” – of valorizing some elements of nature (labor power in production, but not labor power in reproduction) and devalorizing other elements of nature (now considered “raw materials”) – that explains the world-ecological revolution of early capitalism (see Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Part II). For increasingly after 1450, all of nature, including most of human nature, was to be mobilized – and thence exhausted – in the service of advancing labor productivity within the commodity system.



Bartlett, Robert (1993). The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950-1350. New York: Penguin.

Marx, Karl (1977). Capital, Vol. I. Ben Fowkes, trans. New York: Vintage.

Moore, Jason W. (2007). Ecology and the Rise of Capitalism. PhD dissertation. Department of Geography, University of California, Berkeley.

Moore, Jason W. (2010). “‘This Lofty Mountain of Silver Could Conquer the Whole World’: Potosí and the Political Ecology of Underdevelopment, 1545–1800,” Jour­nal of Philosophical Economics 4, 1, 58–103.

Moore, Jason W. (2011a). “Transcending the Metabolic Rift,” The Journal of Peasant Studies, 38, 1, 1-46.

Moore, Jason W. (2011b). “Ecology, Capital, and the Nature of Our Times,” Journal of World-Systems Analysis 17(1), 108-47.

Moore, Jason W. (2013). Ecology in the Making (and Unmaking) of Feudal Civilization. Unpublished manuscript.

Mumford, Lewis (1934). Technics and Civilization. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.


Jason W. Moore is coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network. Correspondence is welcome: Many of his essays, on the history of capitalism, food and agriculture, and political economy, are available on his website:


[1] There persisted an older pattern, marked by the proliferation of the expansion of commercial outposts (‘factories’). But even here, the old pattern was reconfigured within new relations. The Portuguese empire was in the vanguard, multiplying commercial outposts along the African coast and thence establishing a tenuous “merchant-warrior” hegemony over the Indian Ocean spice trade (Pearson, 1987; Brady, 1991).


Anthropocene or Capitalocene? On World-Ecology and the Nature of Our Crisis, Part III


Jason W. Moore

I have argued that the Anthropocene argument – in its Two Century Model of modernity – is poor history. But these notes are only partly an argument about the past. They are also an argument about the present, and about the categories that govern our understanding of the past/present dialectic, too often neatly packaged into tidy binary. Can we, for instance, really erase early modern transformations by sweeping them into the rubbish bin of the “preindustrial”? Are such events mere footnotes to the story of the relations that have produced the turbulent and increasingly unpredictable state of affairs in the early 21st century? And is the story of humanity as “geological agent”[1] best narrated through the spectre – and ontological premise – of neo-Malthusian resource scarcity and overpopulation (e.g, Steffen, et al., 2011b)? Or best told through the subjectivity of humanity as unified agent in an era of unprecedented global polarization of rich and poor?

Let me put my cards on the table and offer two propositions from the outset. The first is philosophical. The second is historical.

First, in my view, the modern world-system is a capitalist world-ecology: a civilization that joins the accumulation of capital, the pursuit of power, and the production of nature as an organic whole (Moore, 2003c, 2007, 2010a, 2010b, 2010c, 2011a, 2011b, 2011c, 2011d, 2012, 2013; also Böhm, et al., 2012; Deckard, 2012; Leonardi, 2012; Leitner, 2007; Mahnkopf, 2013; Niblett, 2012; Oloff, 2012). This means that capital and power – and countless other strategic relations – do not act upon nature but develop through the web of life. “Nature” is here offered as the relation of the whole. Humans live as a specifically-endowed (but not special) environment-making species within Nature.

Second, capitalism in 1800 was no Athena, bursting forth, fully grown and armed, from the head of a carboniferous Zeus. Civilizations do not form through Big Bang events. They emerge through cascading transformations and bifurcations of human activity in the web of life. This cascade finds its origin in the chaos the followed the terminal crisis of feudal civilization after the Black Death (1347-53) and the emergence of a “vast but weak” capitalism in the long 16th century (c. 1450-1640). If we are to put our finger on a new era human relations with the rest of nature it was in these centuries, centered geographically in the expansive commodity-centered relations of the early modern Atlantic. At the risk of putting too fine a point on the matter: the rise of capitalism in the “long” 16th century (c. 1450-1640) marked a turning point in the history of humanity’s relation with the rest of nature, greater than any watershed since the rise of agriculture and cities. To put our long list of environmental transformations into perspective, the long 17th century forest clearances of the Vistula Basin and Brazil’s Atlantic Rainforest occurred on a scale, and at a speed, between five and ten times greater than anything seen in medieval Europe (Moore, 2007, 2010b; Darby, 1956; Williams, 2003). This is a clue – nothing more – to an epochal transition in the relations of power and wealth that occurred over the course of the long medieval crisis and the expansion that commenced after 1450.

This turning point, however, is rarely acknowledged, and its significance is widely misunderstood. This is no academic hair-splitting. Lacking a historical-relational perspective on how modernity develops not upon, but through, the web of life, the Anthropocene’s version of green materialism is powerless to explain the early modern relations and patterns that enabled the era of humanity as geological agent. The relations of power, wealth, and nature that emerged after 1450 were the relations that made the long fossil boom of the past two centuries possible. The Anthropocene does indeed a register an important reality. The bias of green materialism tells us that “coal transformed the world” (McNeill, 2008: 3). But is not the inverse formulation more plausible?: New world-relations transformed coal. Coal is coal. Only in specific historical relations does it become fossil fuel. Yes, the fossil boom transformed the conditions of capitalist civilization. But did these new conditions imply a fundamental rupture with the territorialist and capitalist relations – and historical-geographical patterns – of early modernity? This is precisely the line of questioning that has been ruled out by the dominant Anthropocene argument.

The invisibilization of capitalism’s origins and consolidation is of some import in our efforts to develop effective political strategies and policy responses to global warming, and not only global warming. Ask any historian and she will tell you: how one periodizes history decisively shapes the interpretation of events, and the choice of decisive relations. Start of the clock in 1784, with James Watt’s steam engine (Crutzen, 2002), and we have a very different view of history – and along with it, of the decisive relations that shape modernity’s patterns of evolution, recurrence, and global crisis – than we do if we begin with the English or Dutch agricultural revolutions, with Columbus and the conquest of the Americas, with the first signs of an epoch-making transitions in landscape transformation after 1450. Are we really living in the Anthropocene, with its return to a curiously Eurocentric vista of humanity and its reliance on well-worn notions of resource- and technological-determinism? Or are we living in the Capitalocene, the historical era shaped by relations privileging the endless accumulation of capital? How one answers the historical question shapes one’s response to the crises of the 21st century.


[1] The term is Chakrabarty’s (2009) and Vernadsky’s (1997: 31).