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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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