Jason W. Moore: Business as usual, both in the economy and the culture, and also of course in in politics will not sustain. Will it be worse will be better? That’s up to us.
Richard Todd Stafford: That was the voice of Jason W Moore who was interviewed in October 2018 by me, Richard Todd Stafford, in conjunction with the Cultural Studies Colloquium at George Mason University. The Cultural Studies department at George Mason University focuses on interdisciplinary research and doctoral training. This year’s colloquium series examines “Capitalism, climate change, and culture.” The fall 2018 colloquium posed the question, “how did we get into this mess?” While the spring 2019 colloquium poses the question, “where do we go from here?”
Jason W. Moore is a leading environmental historian and geographer from Binghamton University whose work characterizing capitalism as a “world ecology” has reinvigorated important conversations about the relationships between political economy, geography, the study of culture, and the environment.
He’s recently published the book A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things with co-author Raj Patel. Thanks for coming to the podcast today, Jason.
Jason W. Moore: Thanks, Todd.
Richard Todd Stafford: I wanted to start by asking you about the concept of the “anthropocene: Many social scientists and humanities scholars have taken this concept up from earth scientists who argue that the signals of human impact in the geological and climate record deserve naming. The challenge that I think cultural and social researchers take from this is: how might we begin to think about human culture and longer scales of time that we’ve previously not been accustomed to think in? So you’ve contributed to an extended these arguments. Could you explain to your listeners why you propose that we should instead focus our attention on the “capitalocene”?
Jason W. Moore: It’s a great question.
There are really at least two anthropocenes. One anthropocene is precisely what you indicate. It is a discussion amongst geologists, earth system scientists, and others in the physical sciences to think about and to periodize the profound changes in the biosphere, especially over the past 150 years or so related to the carbonization of the atmosphere and more recently to the transformation of climate.
So there is an “anthropocene” that is fundamentally about the Earth system and about describing and periodizing a new phase of geological history that has to do with what is popularly known as golden spikes or stratigraphic signals in the geological layer that will be evident to future archaeologists or aliens who come to visit this planet or whomever millions of years from now.
So these are the contributions to the geological record that capitalism has made. Now there’s another “anthropocene” which means literally “age of humans” or “age of man” that is about the origins of planetary crisis. And this replays to older binaries in the way that that scholars, and politicians, and other writers and thinkers have conceptualized the problem in the modern world for five centuries.
One is the humans versus nature model. And the other is the idea that the profound tipping point in planetary history that we are now living through has its origins in something called the industrial revolution. Of this popular “anthropocene,” there are two threads. One is man versus nature or humans versus nature and the other is a kind of industry-centered explanation for what has brought humanity and the planet and life on the planet to the present disastrous state of affairs. So the “capitalocene” argument means literally “age of capital,” but then we have to ask “well, what does that mean? Does it simply mean capitalism as an economic system?” No. In fact, emphatically no. “Capitalocene says that the origins of today’s planetary crisis of carbonization, of the extinction of life on this planet, that the origins of these horrific tipping points today are found in the long history of colonial power, of racism, sexism, in the ways in which work especially becomes profoundly racialized in gendered in the 15th and 16th centuries think of the era of Columbus and the centuries of follow.
It says that. In these early centuries of capitalism. There was a fundamental shift in how power and production and the Web of Life were organized under capitalism, which is above all a system committed to an economic end — the endless accumulation of capital or the endless pursuit of economic growth — but is enabled by taking up not just the work of people in the money economy, but the unpaid work of humans and the rest of nature. So in this sense to quote Maria Mies the famous German feminist scholar, capitalism is based on the appropriation of the unpaid work of women, nature, and colonies. There is in this sense, not just a proletariat in capitalism, but a “biotariat,” to quote Stephen Collis.
Richard Todd Stafford: I’d like to take up that idea of the “biotariat,” because I guess the question I have about reconceptualizing this transformation as a “capitalocene” is: what kind of implications does that have for collective efforts to address major world historical impacts like climate change?
Jason W. Moore: Well, one of the things it allows us to see is that today with climate crisis, we understand that there is a climate class divide. So that 8 human beings own more wealth than the bottom 3.5 billion people. We understand that there is a climate apartheid in which the costs and violence of climate crisis are visited overwhelmingly upon peoples of color across the world. And that there is also a climate patriarchy in which the costs and violence of the climate crisis are visited disproportionately on women across the planet.
The “capitalocene” says that from the beginning capitalism as a way of organizing nature was also a way of gendering and racializing labor as part of that process. And here’s the interesting part of the story: we take “human versus nature” as an innocent description of the world around us or “society versus nature” we take that as an innocent description.
But in fact what we see with the dawn of the capitalocene five centuries ago is we see that fundamental to the extraordinary violence of this period — let’s remember that this is an era in which 95% of indigenous peoples in the new world were killed died off from disease, but the disease was fundamental to the unfolding of colonialism — that what we see in the origins of capitalism is not just the expulsion of people from their land, and not just the murder of people, and the carrying of disease that killed people, but also the redefinition of virtually all human beings into the realm of “Nature.” So women, Africans, Irish, indigenous peoples all were pushed into a new realm that was called “Nature” with an uppercase “N.” That’s the “Nature” that we talk about today. So we’re saying that the origins of climate crisis are rooted in how capitalism organized and new racist and sexist class structure. That means that race and gender are fundamental first-order problems in dealing with the climate crisis today.
It’s not let’s deal with the machines first, the technology first, the economics first, no: because each of those dynamics of machines, of technology, of markets are racialized in gendered in profoundly violent ways from the very beginning. So that’s one fundamental point that the capitalocene underscores: that this is about dealing with the climate crisis as a racist crisis, as a sexist crisis, and as a crisis of the world class divide, which is reached spectacularly unequal proportions.
Richard Todd Stafford: So you use this very evocative formulation that “Wall Street is a way of organizing nature.” And in the context of this framing of the divide between Nature and Society as pushing some kinds of human beings on to the “Nature” side [of this divide] — that seems like a particularly compelling way of framing it. What I’d like to ask you to do is — what does it mean about the way that we should be conceptualizing political economy? You gestured that there is this vast class divide, but how might we conceptualize political economy without the division between nature on one side and political economy and culture on the other.
Jason W. Moore: Capitalism as a system of political economy works fundamentally through relations of power and inequality.
So if we can imagine for a moment the fundamental economic and industrial revolutions of the past 500 years. These are revolutions that are not only about machines and technologies, but are also about new ways of racializing and gendering labor and work, as a way of enriching the few and impoverishing the vast majority.
So political economy in a critical sense has been very slow to embrace either the question of nature or the question of culture — although there is a significant lineage of discussions in both of those areas. What world ecology says as a conversation is first of all that there’s no cultural superstructure that is sort of derivative of this mythical churning of endless capital accumulation.
So if you think of what Marx writes on in Volume One of Capital, it’s an extraordinaryly lucid account of how capital accumulation works of the centrality of labour power in that. Where he ends up is with the question of power. And so we have to be aware of from the very beginning that great forces of production, to use a very quaint and old-fashioned language, are not just devices like the steam engine.
They are also cultural formations like modern racism and modern slavery, which was premised to as the great Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson calls it on “social death.” That is, Africans who are enslaved were not members of society. They were not part of civilization. They were part of “Nature” with an uppercase “N.”
Indigenous peoples were not part of society. They were banished from society. Indeed the fundamental political theory of the United States of America derives from John Locke who amongst other things forbade English settlers from entering into contracts with indigenous peoples when he wrote the Constitution for the Carolinas in the 1680s or 90s. Why? Well because indigenous peoples lived in the state of “Nature.” They could not be competent. They were not part of civilization.
And so when we use these words of the society-nature divide or how do we pursue social sustainability and ecologically sustainability? We are in fact, reproducing and enabling the colonizers’ model of the world.
And if that makes any of you uncomfortable listening to this, it should. It makes me very uncomfortable to say this: that we are all trained and socialized to perceive something like this podcast as social or cultural and not part of nature.
So political economy has to understand first of all that it flows through a cultural formation and a cultural project, a geocultural project, of the modern world, which is a capitalist world ecology, `that is continually assigning human beings very very large groups of human beings usually on the basis of race and gender to “Nature” with an uppercase “N” and not to society or civilization.
So in the modern world, especially over the past century, movements of women, peoples of color, lesbian, gays and queers and trans gender [people], are are insisting that their movements are “civil rights” movements because we want to have the full “civil rights” that have been denied us because we were put into the realm of “Nature.”
And that’s not often embraced in cultural studies or in political economy. And what we need is a radical agenda — is to understand that capitalism is political economy is based on a project of sorting everyone into binary categories in which civilization and nature are sort of the original pivots, but you have a cascade of binaries that that quickly very, very quickly after 1492 form around these, especially around racialized binaries, gendered binaries, and colonial binaries. And that we need to come to terms with how that is — overcoming that binary in our real lived experience — is fundamental to the political projects of a just and sustainable world. That we cannot achieve sustainability by reproducing the colonizers model of the world, which is nature plus civilization.
What we are beginning to see in the world around us — and here I think especially of indigenous movements and the Americas against extraction, so against pipelines, against mining projects — is that what they have done is to not just build coalitions, but to build coalitions around the very different cosmology, a very different way of seeing and understanding the world.
And so that’s bringing up a very big tension within environmental justice and environmentalist movements, where environmentalism was always premise and has remained premised on doing something called “saving the environment.” And “the environment” always means something close to pristine nature, which is a kind of uncritical adoption of the ethnic cleansing that came with the conquest of the Americas. On the other hand, what we’re seeing with indigenous and environmental justice movements is the claim that all of these different axes of oppression of race and colonialism and gender are fundamentally connected. And therefore that that to realize some measure of justice that there has to be justice for all life. Not just for some humans; not just for all humans and then we’ll continue to use nature as a productive resource. But that all life is part of this process so that in this alternative, a holistic view — not one that says everything is equal because in holism very often and certainly for indigenous peoples, but also for many philosophers and activists, there’s many distinctions to be made within “oneness,” right? — that we are looking for the interconnection of life, so that an injury to one form of life as an injury to another, to take the old labor movement slogan.
So I think that’s one of the tensions that were dealing with when we think of a debate like “anthropocene” versus “capitalocene” — “age of humans” versus “age of capital” — that we’re not saying literally that you can have this very narrow model of capital in that gives you an answer to all the world’s problems.
We’re saying that, it’s not all humans who have done this. So we have this term “anthropogenic global warming,” which of course is not an innocent and not an accurate formulation. It is not “anthropogenic”: “made by humans.” It is “capitalogenic”: “made by the world’s one percent.” And we know who is responsible for global warming and we know who is responsible for all the other forms of organized and unorganized violence perpetuated by the forces of capital.
Richard Todd Stafford: What might it mean to have a kind of solidarity that spans over a longer duration of time? You know, for it to be a “-cene,” whether it be an “anthropocene” or a “capitalocene” is to say that it is an era or an epoch.
And so what might it mean to have solidarity across dozens or hundreds or thousands of years? Do you have thoughts about that Jason?
Jason W. Moore: What’s a very, very crucial question because we have to deal with very long time scales, if we are going to tackle the question of environmental justice at the same time mainstream environmentalism has gone about it in precisely the wrong way.
Paul Ehrlich really the the most important early figure in mainstream environmentalism — Rachel Carson being the the other most important figure in early environmental justice — Ehrlich comes out and says, well the world is going to face mass starvation. This is in the 1960s. He says in the 1970s hundreds of millions of people are going to die. What’s at the root of this? Well billions of years of evolution have installed in all of us the urge to procreate. Well that’s a way of invoking very, very long geological time without really saying anything at all. That’s just a fancy way of saying it’s human nature.
Now we have to then be very serious about how we are going to think about history and how we are going to start to bring together the very short run of our of our lives, of our generation, of our children’s generation, with the very very long run of Milankovitch cycles, of other other cycle — cycles of glaciation on this planet, which have been now, thanks to carbonization put off by hundreds of thousands of years.
We have to bring that up to the surface and we have to find ways to nurture a conversation that brings all of these time frames together, because we are living in all of them all the same time. The problem, at least in our universities, is that our universities are set up to short-circuit that conversation before it can get started.
So we have geologists and earth system scientists who never talked to the people in sociology or cultural studies or english. And the response is always well, we’re going to have interdisciplinarity, which reinforces the divides and short-circuits the conversations. So we need to look very seriously at how knowledge is structured in the modern world. And of course universities have been pivotal in that.
Richard Todd Stafford: So I want to pick up on your invocation of Ehrlich a little bit. So what in your view is the the problem with mainstream environmentalism’s focus on the kind of Malthusian themes sort of associated with that name whether it be “the population bomb” or the “limits to growth” or the “carrying capacity of the Earth.”
So in what way in what way can we talk about the problem without invoking malthusian limits?
Jason W. Moore: Well this is a fantastic question because there are limits. I know that that on the Marxist left there are some who say “oh Moore says there are no limits or the only limits are internal to capitalism itself.”
And of course there are limits and the limits are simultaneously within capitalism, beyond capitalism in the sense that capitalism is a particular organization or crystallization of power human and extra human nature production systems. There’s clearly a biosphere that dwarfs by orders of magnitude the power of capitalism.
And then the question is how do the internal and external limits connect? And that’s a vital question to ask and it’s a vital question to study because one of the central things that we know about climate change today is that it is nonlinear. And that’s a bit frightening. And it should be unsettling. And one of the reasons why we tend to think you know, there’s there’s a radical saying that “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”
And that’s true because our dominant imaginary is still “there’s a crisis of nature over here on one box and a crisis of capital or society or industrial civilization here in another box.” In fact, they are intimately connected at every scale big and small from empires and financial markets, to how families are organized, to how production on the shop floor in Shenzhen China is organized, to mega cities across the third world. So we know that climate is implicated in every nook and cranny of relations between humans today. There are no human relations not, now not ever that are independent of climate. So, although we don’t know all the nonlinear shifts that will occur in something we can call “capitalism.”
We know that they will occur because that is the nature of climate change in the 21st century. And in terms of agency, it’s clear — and I see this with my students all the time, there is a very powerful sense of powerlessness. I think that sense of powerlessness has been nurtured by modern environmentalism around Malthusian, neo-Malthusian notions of carrying capacity, notions of the ecological footprint, where your responsibility is hyper individualized and totally regulated by how much you consume. Consumption itself is a neoliberal cheap trick because it obscures completely or tries to obscure completely the extraordinary amount of work, most of which is performed by women, in so-called consumption. It’s going grocery shopping. It’s buying the kids clothes for the new academic year. It’s all of those activities that go on in daily life. Those are not mere consumption. Those are profound activities of social reproduction and work.
And so, there are multiple ways in which we can look at something called Malthusianism or neo-Malthusianism. The conventional way is that it all comes down to too many people. In practice that has always meant, or virtually always meant, too many brown people. And there’s another dimension to Malthusianism that we have to pay attention to, which is to take the question of limits outside of history, outside of the relations of power and production and reproduction within any civilization, and take it out of history. And then to explain everything in terms of too many people. There’s this abstract population dynamic or there’s an abstract growth curve as in, the “limits to growt”h discussion that will lead to too little steel or aluminum or lithium or whatever it is.
Now. It’s not that there aren’t scarcities of a kind but we have to put them inside of history rather than take them out. And that was what Malthus and his successors ultimately did was to take the the real problems of capitalist power and production in the web of life and put the limits outside of those relations of power.
Richard Todd Stafford: So in James O’Connor’s famous “second contradiction of capitalism” thesis, political economic forces come into conflict with environmental conditions of their own making and the thesis observes and anticipates efforts to account for these conditions within the logic of capitalism. You know, I think pricing “ecosystem services” is one of the common examples and in my own work the “social cost of carbon” is something that I’ve been thinking about it as a way that this works. He projects that this will lead to a crisis of under-production by driving the cost of production up, essentially. So how does your argument that capitalism is running out of “cheap nature” relate to and extend O’Connor’s and how does it provide us an alternative to that sort of Malthusian logic that characteristic more of the mainstream environmentalism.
Jason W. Moore: James O’Connor and my view was one of the great political economists of the 20th century.
And what I tried to do, as best I was able, was to extend his insights into a more elaborated model of how capitalism works in the web of life. And so there are two two or three different dimensions of how I’ve carried forth O’Connor’s argument. O’Connor basically argued that the conditions of reproduction, which could be soils, but could also be education systems, also could be infrastructures, that these would be exhausted and eroded by processes of capitalist development.
Of course, we see this very clearly all across the world today within and in the United States with a massive dilapidation of infrastructure, for example, but also massive massive problems of urban environment, soil exhaustion, droughts, aquifer depletion, all of this.
So the short version of this argument is that the costs of production become more and more expensive over time. Now, that’s true what I tried to show, in my previous book Capitalism in the Web of Life was I tried to show how capitalism, over the past five centuries, had been able to restructure its way out of fundamental crises, and I called these developmental crises.
So there were major crises without being epochal crises of the system that would foreclose capitalism. How did capitalism make its way out of these developmental crises? Because in each case and we saw this for instance at the end of the 18th century, when Maltese was writing, we saw that there was there was indeed a sense that these were natural limits that could not be overcome or could not be overcome in an expanded capitalist sense.
So I looked at what happened in each of these moments in order to figure out well what is different, if anything, what is different today? So what I found is that from the very beginning, indeed from the era of Columbus you have industrializations that are paired with great waves of colonial expansion and great waves of transformations of agrarian life, and these big big world historical transformations in every case restored what I call the “Four Cheaps.” So: labor power, food, energy, and raw materials.
These great revolutions in industry, in science, in imperial rule, many other facets of life, succeeded in expanding the volume of labor, food energy, raw materials, but also in reducing their price. So that’s an extraordinary accomplishment. We have to pause and ask well, how is that possible? And in a word, it was possible by going to frontiers and conquering those frontiers and subordinating them.
So that those zones — you can think of the great silver mines of present-day Bolivia, or you can think of the great sugar plantations of Northeastern Brazil or the Caribbean — places like Jamaica and Barbados and Cuba. Or you can think of the cotton plantations of the American South in the 50-60 years before the Civil War.
These were all moments at which the supply of labor, food, energy, raw materials has dramatically expanded and cheapened dramatically. It was in every case the product of violence, but not just violence of all sorts of innovation and organization that economics and business departments like to celebrate.
Now we have to see the good in the bad, or at least the the innovative with the violent in the history of capitalism. So recurrently over the history of capitalism, you saw these moments of crisis where capitalists could no longer reinvest their profits successfully and there was an economic contraction or a great depression. And then there was another wave of colonialism and imperialism and going out to new frontiers. And finding new and expanded supplies of labor, food, energy, and raw materials — these Four Cheaps — so fast forward to the present. Where are those frontiers today? Well, they’re very very small. Yes, you can go to Amazonia and see commodity frontiers and soy rolling forward. Or you can go to Southeast Asia and see oil palm frontiers rolling out and destroying lives and forests, but very very small compared to the amount of money that has to be reinvested profitably.
Now, that’s an end of the frontier argument. Here’s the last wrinkle and this is why there we have to emphasize there emphatically are very powerful limits that are going on. This whole model of going to the frontier defined cheap work, cheap natures of every kind, is now not just stopped, but imploding, because what climate change is doing is basically contracting the spaces on a radical and and unprecedented way, where cheap natures can be extracted and there’s no better example of this than the industrial agriculture model, which has been in a productivity stagnation now for the better part of three decades.
Richard Todd Stafford: Thank you Jason. So in the context of “cheap nature” being harder and harder for capitalism to access, I guess my question — and this will be our last question for the podcast — is there hope?
Jason W. Moore: I think this is an extraordinarily hopeful moment. And I’ll tell you why: that over the past twelve thousand years, what geologists call the Holocene, there has been unusual climate stability.
But every time we have seen major climate shifts and just to give you examples from the Northern Hemisphere over the past 2,000 years. When you see the end of the Roman Climate Optimum in the second century AD you see the proliferation of crises: Rome goes through great crisis of the Third Century. It survives that, but then in the midst of the worst Eurasian drought in 2000 years, you see a resurgence of barbarian invasions, the Goths come in. And there is not only invasion from outside, but there is also class revolt from inside. Within a century of the Goths crossing the Danube and 376, Roman power in Western and Central Europe is over now, then what happens?
Peasants live better than they had for centuries. They grow taller. The birth rate declines. Burial evidence that archaeologists have found suggest equality or relatively greater equality between women and men which would explain a declining birth rate in part. There is a golden age for peasants across Western and Central Europe for several centuries. Fast forward about a thousand years to the 14th century, a story that Raj Patel and I narrate in Seven Cheap Things where you have a climate crisis, the arrival of The Little Ice Age and there is a confluence, not just of — the Malthusian story is bad climate and overpopulation leads to the end of feudalism. No. For one thing, there wasn’t overpopulation in the way that they mean it: there was plenty of room for productivity growth, etc.
But given the way that agriculture was organized — and think today about industrial agriculture, right? There’s a clear parallel — given the way the agriculture was organized under feudal class rule, bad climate, the Little Ice Age, destabilize arrangements, disease came in, and then feudalism is ruling classes with the Black Death in the middle of the 14th Century, try to reimpose the most severe and oppressive forms of feudalism. Workers and peasants everywhere in Western and Central Europe refuse this. They revolt. And in fact the great voyages of enslavement and ethnic cleansing and commercialization that set out from the end of the late 15th century occur in the context of the historic defeat of Western Europe’s 1%. They couldn’t reimpose feudalism. They had to find a different way, that was not business as usual.
Now, unfortunately for human beings who lived on the planet at that time, that ended up being a total disaster, especially if you happen to live in the Western Hemisphere.
So and even in the history of capitalism, two of the greatest moments of political instability in the history of capitalism were in the middle of the 17th century. And then again at the end of the 18th century. These were both moments of solar minima. That is, the the low points in the amount of solar radiation reaching planet Earth. So in the Maunder Minimum, which is in the middle of the 17th century, you have extraordinary political chaos and crisis from Paris to Beijing. And at the end of the 18th century, this is the era of the revolutions of the French, the Haitians, the Americans.
So, what’s the take-away here? Climate changes are bad for ruling classes. And in the history of capitalism they were able to survive it, but they were able to survive climate shifts that were in the direction of cold and wet — which were the conditions of capitalism developed in. So Commodores and developed a way of dealing with that by extending its power into tropical zones.
Today, we have a planetary system and the problem isn’t cold and wet, it is too hot and either too wet or too dry but hotter and hotter and hotter and hotter. And the kinds of climate changes that we are seeing. Are an order of magnitude greater than anything that we have seen in the Holocene, over the past twelve thousand years.
So we know that what comes next is an era of political instability. And that’s a time of profound opportunity, because business as usual both in the economy and the culture and also of course in in politics will not sustain. Will it be worse will it be better? That’s up to us.
Richard Todd Stafford: Thank you, Jason. I really appreciate you joining us on the podcast today and we look forward to hearing your lecture today at the Cultural Studies Colloquium.
Jason W. Moore: Thank you very much.
Richard Todd Stafford: Thanks again for listening to this interview with Jason W Moore, which is a production of the Cultural Studies Colloquium hosted by the George Mason University Cultural Studies department with the support of the Department of Communications, the Global Affairs program, the Department of History and Art History, the Interdisciplinary Curriculum Collaborative, the Department of Philosophy, the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, the Schar School of Policy and Government, the Women and Gender Studies program, and University Life.
This interview was conducted by me, Richard Todd Stafford, a candidate for the PhD in Cultural Studies. I also did audio editing on this episode. Production and audio engineering work were completed by Adam Proctor. The colloquium series has been organized by Professor Roger Lancaster.
References in this podcast
Moore, Jason W. “Metabolic rift or metabolic shift? dialectics, nature, and the world-historical method.” Theory and Society 46, no. 4 (2017): 285-318.
Patel, Raj, and Jason W. Moore. A history of the world in seven cheap things: A guide to capitalism, nature, and the future of the planet. Univ of California Press, 2017.
Altvater, Elmar, Eileen Crist, Donna Haraway, Daniel Hartley, Christian Parenti, and Justin McBrien. Anthropocene or capitalocene?: Nature, history, and the crisis of capitalism. Ed. Jason W. Moore, PM Press, 2016.
Moore, Jason W. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. Verso Books, 2015.
Music: Kevin MacLeod “Acid Trumpet,” used under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License
Production and audio engineering: Adam Proctor
Interview, editing, post-production, and transcription: Richard Todd Stafford
Colloquium Organizer: Roger Lancaster