Rethinking nature — a new look at capitalism and life

April 12, 2016

Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology & the Accumulation of Capital
By Jason Moore (2015)
Verso Books

Jason Moore's book is a great new addition to our thinking about capitalist ecology. It is not an easy book — Moore draws on a wide range of ideas, in particular world-systems thinking and Karl Marx's value theory, but it is well worth the effort of deepening our understanding in this vital area.

Taking a cue from the title — it is capitalism “in” not “and” the web of life — one central theme is that capitalism and nature are co-produced.

Don't we all know that humans are part of nature? Most of us say so and recent green thought has taken this idea to the extent of talking about it defining a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene.

Yet when we try and be concrete about this, it slips away. It sounds OK to say individuals are part of nature, but what about the ways we actually live. It still feels wrong to say human environments like universities, markets, even empires, are part of nature.

The arena of human reproduction shows the contradiction most clearly: where is the line between the biological and the social in the family? Sure we have two biological sexes to reproduce. But aside from the fusion of egg and sperm, almost every other aspect of the process that makes that fusion happen — from choosing a partner to birthing and raising a child — are a co-production of social and biological processes.

Similarly, when I look around at the sugar cane fields that surround my house in Mackay in Queensland, I ask are these social or ecological? Sugar cane is a species of grass, so in that sense it is “natural”. It evolved in South East Asia, but with the emergence of capitalism in the 16th century, this grass was taken by Portugal to Brazil, from where it spread through the Caribbean.

The species would go on through the Industrial Revolution to create whole new landscapes. Mackay sugar — though arriving much later, forms part of a historically co-produced nature from which value could be extracted and which ensured the reproduction of the sugar cane on a global scale.

Moore's book explains this process of commodity frontiers in more detail. His capacity as a historian of world-ecology gives his book a great deal of its power.

Capitalist thinking of nature as somehow “outside” society means it is not valued in the same way. It can be treated as “free”, as simply “raw material” for the process of capital accumulation.

Likewise women's labour at home does not need to be paid because its “natural” for them to do that reproductive work. Plantation slaves did not need to be paid because, so the argument of the day went, slavery was the “natural” state of Negros and so those resources were also treated as “free”.

Capitalism relies equally on the exploitation of labour and the expropriation of nature — in the form of what Moore calls the “four cheaps” (labour power, food, energy and raw materials). Capitalism's boundaries extend from the point of production to the colonial frontier, from factory to the domestic sphere. But it pretends that there is a Nature (with a capital “N”) operating independently of Humanity and vice versa.

So why is this dialectical way of thinking important? Obviously we face enormous ecological challenges — and work on planetary boundaries has helped grasp the scale of the problem. But humans, when not simply defined as the problem, are not seen as social beings.

The vision is of an abstract Humanity (an “Anthropos”) which leaves a “footprint” in an abstract Nature — seen as a tap or a sink. This footprint, it is then said, must be reduced. Treating biospheric limits abstractly doesn't allow us to frame the problem correctly.

What really matters are the limits to capital's maintenance of productivity and the supply of the “four cheaps”. The systems real, concrete limits are the limits past which processes of exploitation and expropriation do not allow the reproduction of capital.

It is common to frame the problem of population as “too many people”, which can lead to inhumane “solutions”. However, understanding capital's “four cheaps” allows us to see that “surplus population” exists, not because more labour could not be used to meet human needs but because people cannot be employed to add value to capital.

Recent environmental disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill are not the product of some new cancerous, extractive form of capitalism, but of capitalism in search of cheap energy which is harder and harder to find.

In a real sense, the “problem” of climate change from the point of view of capitalism is not an abstract problem of human survival but the fact that warming threatens to raise the cost of the “four cheaps” in ways that will make the self-valourisation of capital impossible.

This book demonstrates the power of a world-ecology lens and is a real advance in bringing world history to Marxist ecology. It challenges the catastrophism of many green thinkers, including a section of Marxist ecologists.

It demands that we give up the dualisms that naturalise capitalism — and think concretely about humans in all their socio-ecological relations. This is essential to creating a new society based on meeting human needs that will allow the flourishing of human and extra-human natures.

[Shane Hopkinson is a lecturer in sociology at Central Queensland University.]

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