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Do We Live in the Capitalocene?

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The language around climate change and epochs in history has fairly recently coalesced around the term “Anthropocene” to delineate the recent point humans became a geological force that is rapidly transforming the world in ways equivalent to an asteroid forcing the dinosaurs into extinction.

But is this term accurate? Or it is a term that depoliticizes the situation and undermines our solution-creating capabilities? This excerpt from Jason Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Life argues instead for the term Capitalocene to understand that real issue is not collective human behavior but rapacious capitalism.

And it is here—in thinking through the origins of the problem of rapid and fundamental biospheric change—that we find the central historical, and therefore political, problem with the Anthropocene argument. If we shift our method from one that unduly prioritizes environmental consequences to one that prioritizes the producer/product relation, a very different view of the Anthropocene problem comes into focus. From this standpoint, the origins of a new pattern of environment-making began in the Atlantic world during the long sixteenth century. Why is this not “merely” a historical problem, but also a political one? In sum, to locate the origins of the modern world with the steam engine and the coal pit is to prioritize shutting down the steam engines and the coal pits (and their twenty-first-century incarnations.) To locate the origins of the modern world with the rise of capitalist civilization after 1450, with its audacious strategies of global conquest, endless commodification, and relentless rationalization, is to prioritize the relations of power, capital, and nature that rendered fossil capitalism so deadly in the first place. Shut down a coal plant, and you can slow global warming for a day; shut down the relations that made the coal plant, and you can stop it for good.

The erasure of capitalism’s early modern origins, and its extraordinary reshaping of global natures long before the steam engine, is therefore of some significance to our politics—far beyond the politics of climate change, and even beyond “environmental” politics. How we conceptualize the origins of a crisis has everything to do with how we choose to respond to that crisis. The question of how and when to draw lines around historical eras is therefore no small matter. Ask any historian and she will tell you: how one periodizes history fundamentally shapes the interpretation of events, and one’s choice of significant relations. Start the clock in 1784, with James Watt’s rotary steam engine,12 and we have a very different view of history—and a very different view of modernity—than we do if we begin with the English or Dutch agricultural revolutions, with Columbus and the conquest of the Americas, or with the first signs of an epochal transition 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?

And before you argue “communism is just as bad,” remember that socialism is a direct response to capitalism and so it’s hardly surprising it would adopt the same developmentalist strategies for a somewhat different end.

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  • Denverite

    Serious question. Haven’t humans been significantly affecting the environment since prehistoric times? (E.g., the extinction of large fauna in North America, turning the UK from a forest into not, etc.) If so, doesn’t that kind of undercut any idea that capitalism is to blame?

    • celticdragonchick

      Yes. Introduce early man to any continent and watch the mega fauna go extinct in a geologic blink of an eye. Trying to pin this exclusively on capitalism is laughable (although capitalism is certainly not helping at present). Any organized human governance and economic system has the potential to profoundly affect the local biosphere, and numerous examples from history abound. Regardless of the economic and governance model, the goal is to incentivize responsible and sustainable behavior.

    • trashdog

      Local vs. global is the question here. Also, there is a not totally bonkers theory that early adoption of rice agriculture may have produced a spike in methane that prevented a return to ice-age conditions ~8kya.

      So, sure we can talk about how humans affected the biosphere, but the colombian exchange and subsequent reorganization of global trade around capitalist empire is pretty damn important. The salient point being that we like to erase the grim and bloody period that is early modern europe in favor of jumping straight to the 1800s and steam engines, coal, etc.

      • Linnaeus

        Agreed. It’s true that humans have always altered their environment and that environmental change under capitalism might be a matter of degree and scale rather than kind when compared with pre-capitalist change. But that degree and scale matters a lot.

    • rea

      Yes. The invention of bronze and iron smelting had devastating environmental consequences back in prehistory.

  • Nobdy

    It seems to me that the real issues are development and technology. Insofar as capitalism encourages or provides the necessary context for development and technology to happen then it could be seen as a contributing factor, but it’s kind of a weird specific layer to peg the blame on.

    You can maybe blame consumerism, but capitalism doesn’t cause that either. People want cars and central air conditioning and cell phones basically wherever those things are available. They are useful. Some specific groups may reject some specific subset of items for some period of time, but the vast majority of people like and want technology. Now maybe in the future we can focus on supplying only the most important things and doing so in a way that’s less disruptive (I don’t like the term ‘damaging’ for various reasons) to the environment, and maybe doing so will involve rejecting capitalism, but it’s very difficult to imagine a world where electricity was available but everyone agreed not to use it until we figured wind and solar out.

  • DrDick

    Capitalism has certainly done more than anything I can think of to normalize and magnify the tragedy of the commons.

  • Area Man

    Shut down a coal plant, and you can slow global warming for a day; shut down the relations that made the coal plant, and you can stop it for good.

    What is this even supposed to mean?

    • Brett

      I think he was trying to say that we could shift to a different power source that doesn’t cause climate change with a change in the system, but it’s very weirdly phrased. Because the relations that made the coal plant was a need for electricity, and I’m going to guess that Moore isn’t saying that we need to give up electricity to stop climate change.

  • ForkyMcSpoon

    What is the argument that unsustainable development was something caused/created by capitalism, rather than something that was merely accelerated by it?

    Civilizations have caused environmental disasters without capitalism, although it has usually required an island environment to be a total disaster (see: Easter Island and how they cut down all the trees, leading to an environmental disaster and population collapse).

    Capitalism is a force that runs counter to environmentalism, but it’s modern environmental sciences that allow us to understand the dangers of rapacious resource exploitation.

    • ForkyMcSpoon

      That is to say, it’s not clear to me that without our scientific understanding of the environment, any advanced civilization, capitalist or not, rejects coal power electricity. If they don’t understand the reasons why coal power is so bad, why would they?

      However, I can see there being a good argument that the capitalist system was more destructive than other systems would’ve been and that it results in greater resistance to environmentalist measures.

  • Yankee

    it’s the end stage of a long process– agriculture leads to urbanization which leads to capitalism which leads to globalism, and global effects are the problem. But humans have been hunter-gatherers for most of our time, a style that seems to have been more or less or nearly sustainable except for the emergence of the tendency above, so maybe Anthropocene isn’t exact. But it’s pretty good.

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