Is capitalism what brought our society to contemporary ecological crisis? And if so, can it take us through the changes yet to come? Jason W. Moore and Raj Patel answer this question in their new book, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet. Placing the act of “cheapening” at the heart of a capitalist world ecology, Moore and Patel trace the creation of cheap nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives—and their devastating socio-ecological impacts—in a work that is as succinct as it is lucid.
I spoke on the phone with Jason Moore on October 2 about the history of cheapening and its relevance to the contemporary world. Bringing a historic analysis of race, class, gender, and colonialism to narratives of climate, technology, and governance, Moore emphasizes that cheapness emerged as a technology of capitalism rooted in empire-building. In response to this legacy, he calls for a “reparations ecology” that exceeds capitalist strategies. Drawing inspiration from The Movement for Black Lives, alongside movements for food sovereignty and climate justice, Moore offers a vision of socio-ecological collapse that, despite all else, remains hopeful.
Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.
Stepha Velednitsky: Jason, thanks so much for joining us! Who is the audience you had in mind for this book, and what would you like them to take away?
Jason Moore: Raj Patel and I have done our best to write a book for students, activists, and academics, to try to think about capitalism as an ecology. It comes out of one of the emergent fields in the environmental humanities today, which is world ecology. World ecology says that we have to think through relations of power, production, reproduction, nature, and capital as mutually constituting each other.
Instead of hiving off capitalism into something “economic” and then looking at all of the terrible things that capitalism or industrial society has done to this external thing called “nature,” we do something that includes that but moves deeper. We are really concerned with showing how the modern world—from Columbus on—has been premised on “cheap nature” and the logic of cheapening. And that doesn’t mean just something low in price, but means to cheapen, to treat with less dignity, to degrade, or to disrespect the work and life of women, nature, colonies, Indigenous Peoples, Africans, and many others around the world who were not part of this narrow band of the 1% in Western Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
We start this book with the premise that capitalism is an ecology, and it operates within the broader ecology of the biosphere. We’re not saying this is everything, but we are saying that if we don’t understand capitalism as a world ecology of power, capital, and nature, we are going to end up with very partial politics and very partial analyses of the situation today.
Capitalism is an ecology, and it operates within the broader ecology of the biosphere.
SV: Could you speak to your critique of the term “Anthropocene” and your use of the word “Capitalocene” as an alternative?
JM: The Anthropocene as a way of understanding history is deeply problematic because it says that the problems of the present era are the creations of the “Anthropos,” of humanity as a whole. It’s created an agent of planetary change called “Man” or “humans,” but really, as Kate Raworth reminds us, the “Anthropocene” is really the “Manthropocene.” It’s not just that the concept itself has been framed by men, but that the Anthropocene itself has been premised on the erasure of gender, racial, colonial inequalities. So we have to be clear that the “Capitalocene” alternative doesn’t say that it’s all about economics. That would be a replication of the kind of thinking that has created this situation. The Capitalocene argument says that capitalism is a way of organizing the relations between humans and the rest of nature—that it is a system of nature, capital, and power. We have to understand that most of the things that happen in the capitalist era are not done by capitalists: they are done by states, and they are enabled by cultures of domination, especially racism and sexism.
SV: I want to talk to you about the metaphor of capitalism as a gravitational field. How does this open up space for identifying the non-capitalist modes of relation which you want to exculpate from global climate change while still acknowledging capitalism’s immense pull?
JM: One thing that’s become fashionable in the critical humanities and social sciences is to identify the key agents of change as somehow outside of capitalism. If we say that some parts of the world today are not capitalist, we have a view that adds up reality from the parts. But if we say that there is no dimension of human life, of the life of the planet, that is untouched by capital, then we get closer to an understanding of capitalism as a gravitational field. In a gravitational field—and this was one of Marx’s favorite metaphors—there’s tremendous contingency. But as long as that field holds, there are real patterns. So often academics, and even activists, when they emphasize the particular, the instability of modernity, they forget that relational and historical thinking also means that we identify real, durable patterns of inequality and power.
SV: That brings us to the seven cheap things. You do a fantastic job of “de-naturalizing” the phenomenon of cheapness, and you write that “keeping things cheap is expensive.” Could you talk through what is cheapness? How does it show up in your book? And how is it produced?
JM: In historicizing this issue of cheapness, we identify six cheap things. “Cheap nature” is a strategy of cheapening the lives and work of humans and the rest of nature in the process of accumulating capital. Capitalism is a very peculiar beast when it comes to this process of accumulating wealth. It’s not distinctive because there are markets, wage labor, because there are rich and poor—it’s distinctive because what’s valuable gets crystallized into a weird, absurd definition of wealth which is the “average labor time” and the “average commodity.” And this is something that critics of industrial agriculture have long recognized: that industrial agriculture is monstrously inefficient, except for the productivity of labor.
The other dimension is that accumulated wealth exists only for the purpose of generating more wealth. That is very fraught because you have to continually find new places to invest your capital. How do you do that? Historically, that’s happened through a series of interlinked movements of big empires, of big science, of capital looking for cheap energy, food, raw materials, and labor. And that has depended crucially on this process of global conquest. Beginning with Columbus, there is an inexorable, insatiable desire for cheap natures. And these cheap natures are not just about driving down the prices. That process was not carried out primarily by businessmen—and they were almost always men—but by planters and industrialists and merchants, always backed by the extraordinary and fearsome power of empires and states. That’s what we show from the beginning of the discussion of cheap natures all the way to discussions of race and gender and policing and nationalism through the arc of this book.
SV: You describe climate change as an “enclosure of the atmospheric commons.” How can we use this framework to understand the kinds of catastrophic environmental issues that have been happening recently?
JM: To think about capitalism’s relation with and within the global atmosphere, we need to have a bit of a different perspective on how capitalism works in the web of life. I talk about this as a “double internality.” Capitalism has externalized carbon emissions and greenhouse gas emissions into the biosphere, and therefore, the biosphere is internalizing what capitalism has dumped into it. So, there’s a movement of treating the atmosphere as a cheap garbage can.
If we think about the area in the United States that’s been most devastated, it’s Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is a colony that emerged first growing sugar. Sugar and slavery and industrial agriculture and colonialism all formed together. In order to understand the severity of something like Hurricane Maria, we have to understand that this is the outcome of five centuries of colonialism, cash crop agriculture, racism, and so on. That’s why, if you go a little bit away from Puerto Rico to the island of Cuba, we see a dramatically different response to the hurricanes.
If you live in the United States, you are fifteen times more likely to die from a hurricane than if you live in Cuba. That’s quite extraordinary because while we don’t need to be romantic about Cuba, we can see that Cuba is full of remarkable lessons of what to do when cheap oil and gas and inputs of industrial agriculture stop coming in. In Havana, you have the largest city in the world that is fed by the highest proportion of locally grown produce.
SV: I’m curious to hear your thoughts on more technocratic, or technology-oriented solutions to both environmental and social issues. How can we understand technology within the concept of cheapness, or as an answer to it?
JM: The question of technology is one of the most dangerous ones that not just environmentalists, but radicals and progressives have faced. There is an allure of technology as machine-like that is very dangerous, because it’s not clear that the machines—such as the steam engine or the computer—have been as central to the history of the modern world as we might think. They certainly have been at the center, among other things. We tend to think of modern ecological crisis coming from an assemblage of machine (the steam engine) and resource (coal). Instead, it is far more compelling to look at the technologies of cartography and surveying (without which you could not have modern empires and markets) and the technologies of race and gender which essentially fed into organizing life and capital and the economy.
SV: At the end of the book, you and Raj Patel offer “reparation ecology” as a way of moving forward. Can you describe its components?
JM: Well, a “reparation ecology” is not about writing a check and saying it’s all good. What we implicate are the experiences of national trauma, and we mention the experiences of Guatemala—which went through one of the worst indigenous genocides of the twentieth century under a US-based dictatorship—and of South Africa, around the struggle against apartheid. The question of reparations is fundamental to remembering the violence and inequality of modernity and coming to terms with a way of organizing life—not just between humans, but between humans and the rest of nature—in a way that is emancipatory.
The question of reparations is fundamental to remembering the violence and inequality of modernity and coming to terms with a way of organizing life—not just between humans, but between humans and the rest of nature—in a way that is emancipatory.
The question of justice and sustainability are deeper than interlinked, they are intimate, they are different moments of the same question. We cannot pretend any longer that nature is a productive resource to be used for the benefit of some human beings. The emancipation of all humans, and of life itself, in the sense of a reciprocal and care-oriented ethos of life and power, has to be at the center.
SV: You reference the platform of The Movement for Black Lives, which actually identifies different forms of reparations: accessible and historically honest education, healthcare, food, housing, land—without recourse to a specific dollar amount. What kinds of reparations go beyond monetary reparations?
JM: We’re seeing a similar tenor of demands from the food sovereignty movements and from climate justice movements in their best forms. These movements are advancing demands that defy the redistributionist strategies of capitalism. What’s coming into focus is a politics that is revolutionary in a new way—a “new ontological politics” which questions capitalism’s very basis, through especially the nature-society binary, which is related to the binaries of colonialism, race, class, and gender.
We need to look at these demands, such as the demands for healthcare, which can only be met by decommodifying healthcare. Many of these demands can only be met through a fundamental reversal of a five-century-long process of extending the market to more and more domains of life. So when we look at reparation-like demands, we need to understand them as demands not only for money—though sometimes money is absolutely necessary—but also for the inverse of that, for taking key domains of life (education, healthcare, housing) out of the market. . . . Reparation ecology is far more than an environmental politics plus racial and gender justice. It is a rethinking of what nature, and humanity, and justice means.
Featured image: Jason W. Moore. Image courtesy of University of California Press.
Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.
Stepha Velednitsky is a member of the Edge Effects editorial board and a geography M.S. Candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research explores the connections between ethnicity, water, and geopolitics in Israel’s computer chip manufacturing industry. Twitter. Contact.
Jason W. Moore is Associate Professor of Sociology at Binghampton University. He is the author of several books including Capitalism in the Web of Life (Verso, 2015), Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism (PM Press, 2016), and, most recently co-authored with Raj Patel, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet (University of California Press, 2017). He is currently the chair of the Political Economy of the World-System Section (ASA), and is the coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network. Website. Twitter. Contact.