Posts Tagged ‘nature’

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The debate about our ecological predicament is heating up and, as it turns out, the Marxian critique of political economy is at the center of that debate.


Much of the discussion right now concerns the Anthropocene, the idea that the current geological age—overlapping with or, increasingly, after the Holocene—is a period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.

However, as Benjamin Kunkel [ht: ja] explains, “two of the most formidable contributions so far to the literature of the Anthropocene come from authors who reject the term.”

Jason Moore in Capitalism in the Web of Life and Andreas Malm in Fossil Capital have overlapping criticisms of what Moore calls ‘the Anthropocene argument’. Its defect, as Moore sees it, is to present humanity as a ‘homogeneous acting unit’, when in fact human beings are never to be found in a generic state. They exist only in particular historical forms of society, defined by distinct regimes of social property relations that imply different dispositions towards ‘extra-human nature’. An Anthropocene that begins ten thousand years ago sheds no light on the ecological dynamic of recent centuries; modern Anthropocenes – usually conceived as more or less coeval with mercantile, industrial or postwar capitalism – either ignore the specific origins of the period or, at best, acknowledge but fail to analyse them. A concept attractive in the first place for its periodising potential thereby forfeits meaningful historical content. Moore proposes that the Anthropocene be renamed the ‘Capitalocene’, since ‘the rise of capitalism after 1450 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.’

Malm, a professor of ecology in Sweden, locates the headwaters of the present ecological crisis several centuries later, in the global warming set off by coal-burning industrialisation. He complains that in ‘the Anthropocene narrative’, climate change is relocated from the sphere of natural causes to that of human activities’ only to be ‘renaturalised’ a moment later as the excrescence of ‘an innate human trait’. Anthropological invariables like ‘tool use, language, co-operative labour’ and so on may furnish preconditions for accelerating climate change, but do nothing to establish it as a predestined episode in the history of the species: ‘Capitalists in a small corner of the Western world invested in steam, laying the foundation of the fossil economy; at no moment did the species … exercise any sort of shared authority over its own destiny and that of the earth system.’ Nor in the time since has the species en bloc become ecologically sovereign: ‘In the early 21st century, the poorest 45 per cent of humanity generated 7 per cent of CO2 emissions, while the richest 7 per cent produced 50 per cent.’ For both Malm and Moore, capitalism must be recognised as the overriding determinant of humanity’s recent ecological career if the present era of natural history is to become a useful object of analysis, not merely of handwringing.

Kunkel doesn’t consider the terminological dispute—Anthropocene or Capitalocene?—to be particularly important. I do.

As I wrote back in 2011,

Human beings have, of course, transformed the planet from the start of agriculture and the beginnings of class society. But it is as a result of the rise of capitalism that the most significant changes—from rising carbon dioxide levels, population growth, and consumption—have been produced.

The real question for the International Commission on Stratigraphy is, should the geologic timescale be changed to include the Age of Capitalism?

I therefore suggested we might begin using Capitalocene as an alternative to Anthropocene.*

A concept only matters in terms of its effects. As I see it, Capitalocene has a number of advantages. First, it recognizes a longstanding literature (which, unfortunately, Naomi Klein, among many others, fails to recognize and credit) on the relationship between capitalism and the remaking of the natural environment—the long tradition of attempts, sometimes referred to as green-red alliances, to develop a relevant intellectual and political program. I am thinking of the line of eco-socialists, from William Morris in the late-nineteenth century and the members of the Proletkul’t movement during the Soviet Revolution to Rudolf Bahro (the East German dissident), James O’Connor (who founded the journal Capitalism, Nature, Socialism), Joel Kovel (who cowrote with Michael Lowy An Ecosocialist Manifesto and the next year his famous book, The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World?), Vandana Shiva (who writes about and fights for changes in the practices and paradigms of agriculture and food, in India, Bhutan, and elsewhere), and many, many others.

Second, Capitalocene points to the ways capitalism—the particular tendencies and dynamics associated with the appropriation and distribution of surplus-value, the accumulation of capital, and much else—has both made the despoiling of the natural environment (e.g., through the use of fossil fuels) central to the production and distribution of commodities and shifted its effects onto poor people and minorities, who bear higher levels of water, air, and other kinds of pollution than anyone else.

Finally, the term Capitalocene carries with it the possibility of imagining the end of capitalism, and therefore a radical change in the way human beings relate to the natural environment. To be clear, I am not suggesting that global warming and other environmental problems would be automatically eliminated with a radical transformation of the way the economy is currently organized. That’s partly because, as Kunkel explains, “the outsized role of human societies in determining the complexion of earthly existence will persist long after the capitalist mode of production—on even its partisans’ most optimistic assumptions—has expired.” It’s also because there’s nothing necessarily “green” about other modes of production (including, as we know, the state capitalism of the Soviet Union). Environmental concerns will require particular changes in thinking to be made central to whatever noncapitalist economies are imagined and enacted as we move forward.

I do, however, maintain that eliminating capitalism will be an important step in setting aside and overcoming many of the obstacles to creating a different, better relationship in and with the natural environment.

Therefore, I agree with Kunkel that “the question of modern humanity’s past and future ecological trajectory can’t be intelligently posed except as a question about capitalism.”

*In fact, Moore (p. 5) credits me as being the first to publicize the concept:

The first thing I wish to say is that Capitalocene is an ugly word for an ugly system. As Haraway points out, “the Capitalocene” seems to be one of those words floating in the ether, one crystallized by several scholars at once—many of them independently. I first heard the word in 2009 from Andreas Malm. The radical economist David Ruccio seems to have first publicized the concept, on his blog in 2011 (Ruccio 2011). By 2012, Haraway began to use the concept in her public lectures (Haraway 2015). That same year, Tony Weis and I were discussing the concept in relation to what would become The Ecological Hoofprint, his groundbreaking work on the meat-industrial complex (2013). My formulation of the Capitalocene took shape in the early months of 2013, as my discontent with the Anthropocene argument began to grow.


Special mention

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A little over a week ago, in a talk I gave at the Appalachian Center at the University of Kentucky, “Trash the System or Crash the Planet,” I noted that Naomi Klein and many other environmentalists treat the natural environment as scarce, as immutable or given.

What is strange about that argument is that it’s exactly the framework—of unlimited desires and limited means—that forms the basis of the economic theory she and others—including me—are so critical of. It’s how neoclassical economists, the ones who promote free trade and criticize any and all forms of government intervention, understand the world: through the lens of scarcity. It’s how they arrive at their conclusion that, in a world of private property and free markets, self-interested households and corporations will arrive at an efficient allocation of scarce resources. All societies face the same problem—scarcity—and free markets are the best way of dealing with it.

Now, I understand that free-marketeers actually want it both ways: a scarce nature in their neoclassical theories of value, and natural limitations that can ultimately be overcome (as in this recent piece by Matt Ridley) through technological innovation.

But what about that notion of scarcity?

What Klein and others seem NOT to want to imagine is that each society—each way of organizing the economic dimensions of our lives, each way of arranging the production, consumption, and distribution of goods and services—has its own laws of resources, both human and nonhuman. Of workers as well as of oil, of population as well as water. What that means is that changing institutions leads to a change in scarcity—of what is scarce, how it is scarce, what scarcity means, and so on. It is not a question of acknowledging and adapting to scarcity, as neoclassical economists want us to do, but of undoing existing forms of scarcity by changing the institutions whereby we treat resources—again, both human and nonhuman—as scarce. Instead of what? Instead of abundant, overflowing, unproductive, and so on.

What I have in mind, of course, is George Bataille’s critique of the classical notion of utility or usefulness in favor of the notion of expenditure. An abundant instead of a scarce nature.

A concrete example of what I have in mind is a dispute—one that is back in the news as a result of the ruling by a federal judge in favor of seed giant Monsanto Co. in a lawsuit filed on behalf of 60 family farmers, seed businesses and organic agricultural organizations challenging the company’s seed patents. Monsanto is creating a particular kind of scarcity, which is useful to its bottom line, a scarcity of patented seeds and intellectual property, which stands opposed to the farmers who want to save and share seeds, and thus to treat nature as not scarce but abundant. As providing abundant seeds and proliferating food variety and as the basis of livelihood for millions of farmers. Or, to invoke another example, the scarcity of land as private property for cattle ranchers in Brazil versus the abundance of latex, with carefully scored rubber trees, for rubber-tappers like Chico Mendes, who was subsequently killed for attempting to protect the abundance of the forest and the livelihoods of the rubber-tappers.

The challenge, it seems to me, is to treat scarcity as an economic and social construction, as the product of particular kinds of institutions and discourses, and to tap the potential of rethinking nature as abundant.

To do so will allow us to imagine trashing the system and, at the same time, avoid crashing the planet.


Special mention

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I am frequently amazed both by capitalism’s ability to despoil the natural environment and by giant engineering projects, which remake the natural environment and create further problems.

The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which has now been named to the National Register of Historic Places, fits both criteria. First, capitalist development in Chicago generated enormous quantities of waste that followed the Chicago River into Lake Michigan, which was (and remains) the source of the city’s drinking water. Then, as a result of the largest public works project ever undertaken at the time, the state of Illinois decided to construct a canal linking the south branch of the Chicago River to the Des Plaines River at Lockport and then to reverse the flow of the Chicago River.

Here’s the before and after:

But, of course, the solution created further problems:

Waste that had previously gone into Lake Michigan instead flowed down the Des Plaines, Illinois and Mississippi rivers past other towns and cities. By digging a 28-mile canal between the Chicago and Des Plaines rivers, engineers also breached the natural barrier between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, creating an avenue for invasive species to move between different watersheds.

In recent years, a group of Great Lakes states has been trying to have Chicago-area shipping locks closed to stop Asian carp from entering Lake Michigan. A report last month by a coalition of Great Lakes states and cities also explored strategies for installing permanent barriers in the Chicago waterway system that would re-reverse the flow of the Chicago River.

And the reengineering of the natural environment didn’t stop there: the equipment and techniques used in the construction of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal were later used in other large projects, such as the Panama Canal.

My amazement at the audacity of undertaking such mammoth projects is only tempered by my recognition of capitalism’s extraordinary ability both to despoil and to remake the natural environment.

Addicted to risk?

Posted: 12 December 2011 in Uncategorized
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Are we addicted to risk? Or, perhaps better, are those in power addicted to risk?

Naomi Klein, in her TED talk (above), argues that we (or they) are addicted to risk, especially with respect to the natural environment—and it’s because there is a master narrative of limitlessness.

George DeMartino, in a recent paper [pdf] published in the Real-World Economics Review, that mainstream economists are addicted to risk—and it’s because they often use a maxi-max decision rule when they advise or decide for others.

Klein’s answer is interesting, at least in relation to mainstream economics, because the usual neoclassical assumption is scarcity not limitlessness. But if the natural environment is treated as a completely external object, then the scarcity assumption with respect to the rest of the economy is quite compatible with a presumption of limitlessness in terms of everything else—the natural environment but also the extent to which the majority of people are capable of enduring the effects of economic crises and austerity measures.

As for DeMartino, his argument is that, while no sane individual would adopt a maxi-max rule with respect to their individual life, it’s precisely the rule that guided mainstream economists “in two of the most important policy matters they confronted over the past several decades”: the neoliberal economic restructurings, first in the global south from the 1980s onward and then in post-socialist transition economies of Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s.

The examples that Klein and DeMartino invoke are examples of economic engineering that have entailed extraordinary risk—to the natural environment and to large numbers of people around the world. Does this mean we, or at least those in power, are addicted to risk?

Let me suggest, in addition to the causes suggested by Klein and DeMartino, there’s another factor: the small minority of people who have taken those enormous risks are not those who have been made to pay the costs of those risks. Those in power appear to be addicted to risk because the potential gains for them are enormous, and because, in the way the economy is currently structured, they are able to shift the costs of their risky decisions on to others.

That’s why the one percent can continue to take risks—because the 99 percent are the ones who are forced to pay the costs.

In the comments on an earlier post, I suggested substituting the term Capitalocene for Anthropocene. The reason was, it isn’t humanity in general but humanity organized in a particular fashion, in terms of the capitalist mode of production, that has transformed the planet in the most dramatic fashion. Therefore, creating noncapitalist ways of organizing our economy and society would create a different relationship to nature.

That’s a distinction missing from the New York Times debate, “Embracing the Anthropocene.” The various commentators focus on whether or not humanity can learn to be good stewards of the planet. Earle C. Ellis is a good example:

Up to this point, it is fair to say that we have been doing our human thing without realizing that this was also a whole Earth thing. We used to depend on nature to care for us. Now it’s entirely the other way around. So the question is how we make use of this realization.

What Ellis and the other participants in the debate overlook or ignore is that our relationship to nature—to the planet, other species, and other members of our own species—has been mediated during the so-called Anthropocene by the emergence and development of capitalism.

If that’s the case, then the transition from “the lesser Anthropocene to the greater Anthropocene” will need to be based on moving from the Capitalocene to something else. Call it the Post-Capitalocene.

Note: the images above are by the Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky.