Name the System! Anthropocenes & the Capitalocene Alternative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

biographical sketch

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


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

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

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

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

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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Caffentzis, George (2005). “Immeasurable Value?” The Commoner, 10, 87-114.

Canning, P., A. Charles, S. Huang, K.R. Polenske, A. Waters. 2010. Energy use in the U.S. food system. Economic Research Report Number 94. Washington: United States Department of Agriculture.

Cuéllar, A. D., and M.E. Webber (2010). “Wasted food, wasted energy: The embedded energy in food waste in the United States,” Environmental Science & Technology, 44(16), 6464-6469.

Davis, Mike (2001). Late Victorian Holocausts. London: Verso.

Dowd, Douglas (1989). The Waste of Nations. Boulder: Westview.

Erten, Bilge, and José Antonio Ocampo (2013). ”Super Cycles of Commodity Prices Since the Mid-Nineteenth Century,” World Development, 44, 14-30.

Friedmann, Harriet (1978). “World Market, State, and Family Farm: Social Bases of Household Production in the Era of Wage Labor,” Comparative Studies in Societyand History,20(4), 545-86.

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.

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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.

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[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.


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:


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Wisner, Ben (1978). “Does radical geography lack an approach to environmental relations?” Antipode, 10(1), 84-95.

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.

Young, Robert M. (1973). “The Human Limits of Nature,” in Jonathan Bethell, ed., The Limits of Human Nature. London: Allen Lane.

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

[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).


Jason W. Moore

I argued, in our previous installment, that the Anthropocene argument obscures, when it does not ignore outright, the actually existing relations through which women and men make history with the rest of nature: the relations of power, (re)production, and wealth in the web of life.

This relational argument is more than a political and theoretical protest. It highlights a serious historical problem. Underpinning the Anthropocene argument – in its dominant Two Century expression – is a profound falsification of history.

We can begin with the most palpable transformations of land and labor issued by the rise of capitalism several centuries earlier. A modest catalog of these transformations, from the 1450s to the eve of the Industrial Revolution, would include the following commodity-centered and –influence changes: 1) the agricultural revolution of the Low Countries (c. 1400-1600) (Brenner, 2001); 2) the mining and metallurgical revolution of Central Europe (Nef, 1964; Vlachovic, 1963); 3) the first signs of the modern sugar-slave nexus in Madeira and then São Tomé (1452-1520s, 1540s-1590s), a transition necessitated by rapid deforestation (Moore, 2009, 2010d); 4) northeastern Brazil’s rise to the commanding heights of the world sugar economy, displacing São Tomé after 1570, from which issued the first great wave of clearing Brazil’s Atlantic rainforest (Schwartz 1985; Dean, 1995); 5) the movement of the African “slaving frontier” from the Gulf of Guinea to Angola and the Congo in the later 16th century, marking the first of several major expansions in the slave trade (Miller 1988); 6) Potosí’s ascent after 1545, and its dramatic restructuring after 1571, on the heels of the exhaustion of Saxon and Bohemian silver mining (Bakewell, 1984; Moore 2010e); 7) in South-East Asia, the destruction of clove trees, nutmeg and mace, casualties in the Dutch East India Company’s battle to control the lucrative spice trade in the opening decades of the 17th century (Boxer 1965); 8) the draining of the fens in England, and of wetlands across the Atlantic world, from Pernambuco to Warsaw, from to Rome to Göteborg (Wilson, 1968: 78–81; Rogers, 2005: 51; Richards, 2003);  9) the relative exhaustion of Mediterranean forests, especially for shipbuilding, by the dawn of the 17th century (Braudel, 1972; Moore, 2010a; Wing, 2012); resulting in 10) the relocation of Spanish shipbuilding to Cuba, where one-third of the fleet was built by 1700 (Parry 1966; Funes Monzote, 2008); 11) the emergence of major shipbuilding centers, and significant frontiers for timber and “naval stores,” in North America during the 18th century (Perlin, 1989; Williams, 2003); 12) the advance of the forest products frontier from Poland and Lithuania to southern Norway in the 1570s, followed by renewed movements into the hinterlands of Danzig (again), Königsberg, Riga and Viborg (Moore, 2010b); 13) the rise of the Vistula breadbasket in the 1550s; followed by 14) the exhaustion of Polish market-oriented agriculture and the 17th century English agriculture revolution, which made England the granary of northern Europe by 1700; 15) the re-centering of European copper and iron production in Sweden, beginning in the late sixteenth century, displacing the Hungarian-Slovakian and German centers that flourished in the “first” 16th century (Sundberg, 1991; Hildebrand, 1992); 16) the ever more expansive forays of the herring, cod and whaling fleets across the breadth of the Global North Atlantic (Richards, 2003; Poulsen, 2008); 17) the relentless advance of the fur trapping-trading commodity frontiers in North America (Leitner, 2005; Wolf, 1982); 18) the deforestation of Ireland under British colonial domination (McCracken, 1971); 19) the successive sugar revolutions of the West Indies, from Barbados in the 1640s to Jamaica and St. Domingue, leaving a trail of African graves and denuded landscapes in its wake (Watts, 1987); 20) the sharply uneven “cerealization” of peasant diets – and the “meatification” of aristocratic and bourgeois diets – within Europe; 21) the rise of Mexican silver production in the 18th century and the attendant deforestation of already-thin Mexican forests (Studnicki-Gizbert and Schechter, 2010); 22) the relative exhaustion of English forests and Dutch peat reserves as cheap energy (de Zeeuw, 1978; Perlin, 1989); and, perhaps most significantly, 23) the epoch-making “Columbian exchange,” as Old World diseases, animals, and crops flowed into the New World, and New World crops, such as potatoes and maize, flowed into the Old World (Crosby, 1972, 1986).

These events are open to a wide range of interpretations. But it seems hard to deny that a new pattern in environmental change can be identified as early as the “first” sixteenth century in the Atlantic world (1450-1557). It is also clear that states across early modern Eurasia were actively making environments as well (Richards, 2003; Lieberman, 2009). None of these states, however, were compelled to resolve the contradictions of environment-making through the endless appropriation of nature’s free gifts. And need we point out that this difference turned on Europe’s unusually weak and contradictory political ecology (Moore, 2003b)? In contrast, China was, between 650 and 1850, nearly always the “most ecologically resilient and resourceful state on earth” (McNeill, 1998: 35). Frontier-making was universal, but commodity frontiers were not. And there’s the rub. Unless one gives in to the Eurocentric conceit of superior ingenuity or curiosity or inquisitiveness, one must allow for the possibility that a significant shift in the relations of power, production, and nature joined with a significant shift in the historical geography of premodern frontier-making after 1450.