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The Web of Life Reshaped - Painting by Mike Caimbeul

The Web of Life Reshaped – Painting by Mike Caimbeul
Photo Credit: Bongdoogle.com


Part Two of my series on the book, Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism (Kairos Books, 2016), edited by Jason W. Moore, is a synopsis of Moore’s article on “The Rise of Cheap Nature.” In his article, he refers to two kinds of nature: nature with a common ‘n’ is the web of life; Nature with a capital ‘N’ is environments without humans.

Like Eileen Crist (Part One), Moore argues that we live in the “Age of Capital,” the Capitalocene. Until we understand that “capital and power do not act upon nature, but develop through the web of life,” we cannot formulate solutions for the environmental crises we now face.

Most people (myself included), Moore notes, still think about capitalism in economic terms – markets, prices, money, and the like. He proposes that we think about the rise of capitalism as a new way of organizing nature. We would start to consider capitalism not as world-economy but as world-ecology – the organization of work, re/production of nature, and the conditions of life as an organic whole for the accumulation of capital and pursuit of power. In other words, human activity is environmental-making.

Moore challenges the Anthropocene narrative that capitalism emerged in eighteenth-century England with the Industrial Revolution, powered by coal and steam. The focus on fossil fuels as the ignition for the growth of capital ignores the greatest landscape revolution in human history – in terms of speed, scale, and scope – that occurred in the three centuries after 1450.

The conquest of the Atlantic and appropriation of the New World brought vast expanses of “Cheap Nature” and the labor-power to create wealth. “Cheap” refers to the unpaid work/energy of organic life. Numbered among Cheap Nature – along with trees, soils, and rivers – were indigenous peoples, enslaved Africans, nearly all women, and even white-skinned men (Slavs, Jews, Irish) living in semi-colonial regions. These humans, deemed not Human, provided Cheap Labor.

By 1500, Spain alone had colonized an area greater than the whole of Europe and more than 25 million indigenous peoples. Sugar, the modern world’s original cash crop, fed on the work/energy of African slaves. Sugar production devoured forests and exhausted soils. Between 1570 and 1640, Brazilian sugar grew three percent every year. In northeastern Brazil at the height of the sugar boom in the 1650s, twelve thousand hectares of forest were cleared in a single year, as compared with 200 years in twelfth-century Europe.

Scientific advances made it possible to put the whole of nature to work for capital. “Science” revealed nature’s secrets for capital accumulation. “Economy” channeled the labor-power of the landless proletariat into the cash nexus of the labor market. The “state” enforced the cash nexus.

To maintain expanding commodity production required cheap, productive labor; cheap food to control the price of labor-power; cheap raw materials; and cheap energy for diverse industries. Fossil fuels, seemingly unlimited supplies of Cheap Nature, were put to work for the rapid expansion of capitalism.

Though rising costs of fossil fuel production and labor costs have shrunk sources of Cheap Nature and Cheap Labor, capitalism has managed to keep ahead with Cheap Nature strategies within reach of its power. (I think of low cost labor of America’s private prison population and the expanding gig economy.)

Moore concludes that financialization and extreme inequality are predictable results of the end of Cheap Nature. The web of life can no longer sustain capitalism’s world-ecology. Our strategies for liberation must not only determine how to redistribute wealth, but also “how to remake our place in nature in a way that promises emancipation for all life.”