A Change of Cene (part 2)

In the first part of this review I worked through five of the seven chapters of Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism. Despite the various merits of some of those chapters, there was essentially nothing in them to justify the book’s claim to “diagnose the problems of Anthropocene thinking” from a politically radical point of view (a claim repeated in, for instance, this supportive review)

That leaves just two chapters, one by Eileen Crist and one by Jason Moore.

Crist’s chapter is a reprint of a 2013 article in Environmental Humanities. Unlike the previous five chapters it does include direct quotation from, and discussion of, more than one paper about the Anthropocene. But compared to the rest of the volume, its political stance is… different.

“There are compelling reasons to blockade the word Anthropocene,” Crist writes (p. 26). Why? Because “the Anthropocene discourse delivers a Promethean self-portrait” (p. 16); because it’s “a surreptitious purveyor (inadvertent or not) of the human supremacy complex” (p. 18); because of its “fetishizing of factuality that blindsides normative expectation” (p. 24); because it’s “the brazen face of ‘anthropos’ stamped over the face of the Earth” (p. 32). When some Anthropocene Working Group members describe recent events as “a remarkable episode in the history of our planet,” Crist sniffs “a presentiment of triumph” in their language: “Cold and broken though it be, it’s still a Hallelujah” (p. 17). What Leonard Cohen has to do with any of this I don’t know, but Crist’s general view is that the word Anthropocene is anthropocentric. If only it was called the Ecozoic instead! (p. 27).

Here’s a sample from Crist’s most sustained paragraph about the implications of the Anthropocene:

The discourse of the Anthropocene is arguably an ideational preview of how this concept will materialize into planetary inhabitation by the collective. As a cohesive discourse, it blocks alternative forms of human life on Earth from vying for attention. By upholding history’s forward thrust, it also submits to its totalizing (and, in that sense, spurious) ideology of delivering “continuous improvement.” …  The very concept of the Anthropocene crystallizes human dominion, corralling the already-pliable-in-that-direction human mind into viewing our master identity as manifestly destined, quasi-natural, and sort of awesome. … The Anthropocene discourse perpetuates the concealment that the human takeover is (by now) an unexamined choice, one which human beings have it within both our power and our nature to rescind if only we focused our creative, critical gaze upon it. (p. 25)

Readers can make up their own minds about all of that. But in fact Crist’s target is much broader. She dislikes the tone of academic writing in the natural sciences in general.

Describing human-driven extinction with detachment (and often in passing), and certainly avoiding by a wide berth a Munchian scream for its prevention, sidesteps a matter of unparalleled, even cosmological significance for a “world of facts” … Detached reporting on the sixth extinction amounts to an absence of clarity about its earth-shattering meaning and avoidance of voicing the imperative of its pre-emption. (p. 22)

If you’re not “screaming,” you’re not worth listening to. Crist gives examples of the kind of “detached reporting” she doesn’t like. For instance (from that Steffen et al. paper that Daniel Hartley also complained about): “the world is likely entering its sixth mass extinction event and the first caused by a biological species.”

What would she prefer? “The world is likely entering its sixth mass extinction event and the first caused by a biological species. Oh no!”

Crist’s own position is undiluted deep ecology of the most unreconstructed kind. She’s one of the editors of the previous book against the Anthropocene, an intermittently druidical collection called Keeping the Wild. Why her essay has now ended up in this ostensibly leftish volume, devoted to “a politics of hope that signal the possibilities for transcending capitalism,” is hard to say. Her position is unambiguously universalist and neo-Malthusian. We need to “welcome[e] limitations of our numbers” (p. 29), because “a world of 10 billion reasonably rich people” would undoubtedly be awful, “a planet and Earthlings bent into submission to serve the human enterprise” (p. 19). “Of course scarcity for humans … will, now and then, always arise,” but its “persistence” is “an artefact of human expansionism at every level” (p. 29)—not the consequence of, say, inequality. The problem with the world today is “the history of the planet’s conquest against which no nonhuman can direct a flood of grievances that might strike a humbling note into the human soul” (pp. 17–18).

If you believe that “questing in the wilderness is a birthright that some people are called to seek out” and suchlike hokum about “the divine spirit of the human” and about an outdoorsy elite that’s uniquely liberated from modernity’s “historical bequest of autism” (pp. 33, 29, 22)—if you believe in all that, then Crist’s essay might well appeal. But social justice doesn’t come into it. (Nor, not surprisingly, does the word “Capitalocene.”)

So then there was one. The last remaining chapter in the collection is a long piece by the editor, Jason Moore.

The first thing to say is that I really admire Moore’s work. His Capitalism in the Web of Life, which itself came out just recently, is a dazzling work of ecological theory. Its central theme is the “world-ecological” realm of “appropriation,” a zone of work and reproduction that exists outside the circuit of capital but within reach of capitalist power. For Moore, capitalism seems to be structured rather like two concentric circles. On the inside there’s the zone of capitalism proper: cash, commodities, wage-relations. But then, articulated with the inner zone, there’s a vast penumbra of things that don’t rely on the cash nexus for their survival but are susceptible to being put to work to create value. This penumbra is the zone of appropriation. Without it, the inner zone of “exploitation” couldn’t begin to function.

Moore’s shorthand for the zone of appropriation is “women, nature, and colonies.” It includes slaves, soil fertility windfalls, peasant childrearing, oil formations, and so on. On his account, it’s not primarily a standing reserve of “free gifts” combined with a dumping-ground for wastes, but instead more fundamentally a source of unpaid “work/energy,” from a river that can turn a waterwheel to a working parent’s “second shift.” Moore talks about the “Four Cheaps” (all of them closely interlinked) that capital must ceaselessly hoover up: cheap labour, cheap food, cheap energy, and cheap raw materials. Because it’s predicated on the flow of these Four Cheaps, capitalism doesn’t just have environmental impacts, but is a way of organising the physical world, an “ecological regime.” Its “socio-ecological relations” are “constitutive,” not “contextual” (p. 119).

In Capitalism in the Web of Life, making the work/energy of the penumbra available to capital isn’t a matter of simple plunder, but on the contrary a process that demands endless innovation. In order for things to be appropriated they have to be theorised, sailed to, explored, mapped, scientifically investigated, classified, moralised, dug up, preached at, cut down, drilled, planted, regulated, aggregated, herded into work camps, loaded on to barges, advertised, piped, fracked, and generally licked into shape. And you can’t only do it once. Any given regional complex of “Cheap Nature” can be expected to lose its profitability in a couple of generations, and the entire system will periodically need an overhaul, when it’s supplanted by the next in a succession of “historical natures,” in Moore’s terminology. All in all, appropriation is the most effortful and creative thing that capitalism does.

It’s also what keeps the entire show on the road. Is there a tendency of the rate of profit to fall, all else being equal? Sure. But given a “rising rate of appropriation,” “the tendency towards a falling rate of profit is not only checked, but (for a time) reversed” (p. 143). Contrariwise, whenever the (inner) zone of commodification expands faster than the (outer) zone of appropriation, the rate of profit does tend to fall and a crisis begins, because “every act of exploitation … depends on an even greater act of appropriation” (p. 54).

The distance between the edge of the zone of commodification and the edge of the zone of appropriation—the most fundamental of economic variables—is what Moore calls the “ecological surplus.” It peaked in about 1870, and mostly stayed peaked for a hundred years, but since then it’s been shrinking; neoliberalism is an effort to hold back the tide through wage repression. In the past, capitalism has always found a way to re-accelerate the expansion of the “frontiers of appropriation” (often through literal geographical invasion), but now it’s run out of planet. That means that it’s impossible for the whole capitalist shebang to outlast the twenty-first century (the sort of leftist fortune-telling that Razmig Keucheyan rightly decries).

The theorising goes along with a historical narrative. In fact, the most exciting stuff that Moore has published so far has been his work in early modern history. That’s apparently due to result in a book with the same name as his intimidatingly brilliant PhD thesis: “Ecology and the Rise of Capitalism.” The nub of his argument is that western and central Europe underwent a historically unprecedented “transition from land productivity to labor productivity as its metric of wealth” (p. 295) in or about the 1450s, and that that incited a colossal and usually underestimated early modern revolution in labour productivity. The capitalism of 1450–1750 was precociously fully-fledged, not immature or preindustrial, and its ecological effects (in places like the Atlantic forests of Brazil) were stupendous. The Industrial Revolution wasn’t a new beginning, but a way of straightening out some of the creases that had emerged in that regime by the late eighteenth century.

Capitalism in the Web of Life has its downsides. It’s provokingly repetitive. In particular, it spends inordinate time on the not very startling claim that Nature/Society dualism is a Bad Thing. Moore harps on about that because he thinks that many green thinkers only pay lip service to that principle, and that a residual dualism compromises their analyses. That may well be true, but I wouldn’t count on it, because he also levels the accusation against some people, notably Bruno Latour and Jane Bennett, of whom it self-evidently isn’t true. (Anyhow, what about Moore’s own claim that “if there is something resembling a fundamental ontological relation, it is between humans and the rest of nature” (p. 291)? If that isn’t residual dualism then I don’t know what is.)

Because of that, some of the early responses to Moore’s work have got tangled up in debates about what he for some reason calls “Cartesian dualism” (Descartes’ dualism of thought and extension doesn’t remotely resemble Nature/Society dualism). Others have worried about whether or not Moore’s theory is strictly compatible with Marx’s views, which is a fight in which I don’t have a dog. But all in all I think Capitalism in the Web of Life is one for the ages.

But I seem to have got away from tedious bloody Anthropocene or Capitalocene? to more rewarding topics, so let’s round off the book review. Moore’s chapter in the collection is called “The Rise of Cheap Nature.” It’s mostly a condensed version of Capitalism in the Web of Life with more emphasis on the historical narrative, and to that extent it’s excellent. It overlaps with two essays on “The Capitalocene” on Moore’s website, and with a chapter called “Anthropocene or Capitalocene?” in Web of Life. In all of those texts Moore spends a few pages (but only a few) taking swipes at the word Anthropocene. Oddly, the swipes in Anthropocene or Capitalocene? are based on skimpier citation of the literature than the ones in Web of Life. (Maybe the collection chapter was written earlier?)

Eileen Crist didn’t object to the “keystone rationale that humanity’s stratigraphic imprint would be discernible to future geologists,” but she disliked “the advocacy and elaboration of rationales favoring the term in scientific, environmental, popular writings, and other media” (p. 15). Moore (like Hartley, who disapproves of “geologists enter[ing] the political arena”) is the opposite: he attacks an approximate version of the earth science discourse on the Anthropocene, but he’s more or less OK with “the Anthropocene as a broader conversation that transcends the university” (p. 80).

In his editorial introduction to the collection Moore flits between bald statements about what “the Anthropocene argument” does, and acknowledgments that it “is in fact a family of arguments with many variations” (pp. 2–3). But in the chapter he’s convinced that there is at least a “dominant Anthropocene argument” (p. 81) —he has in mind the great current of work that’s flowed and eddied down from Paul Crutzen’s Mexican epiphany, and especially the doings of the Anthropocene Working Group—and that it’s uniformly wrongheaded. This Anthropocene (1) blames everything on “humanity as an undifferentiated whole” (making it “neo-Malthusian”); (2) focuses on consequences rather than causes, or at best explains “historical change … by technology-resource complexes” rather than “relations of capital, class, and empire” (pp. 82–83); (3) is dualistic; and (4) is preoccupied with the Industrial Revolution, as shown by the general consensus that the Anthropocene began around 1800, which makes it Eurocentric and preoccupied with fossil fuel use.

Well. (1) Here’s that Ian Angus piece again on the canard that scholars of the Anthropocene epoch blame all of humanity for ecological crisis. In truth, Crist contributes much more concentrated neo-Malthusianism to Moore’s own collection. (2) Yes, the project of developing adequate critical histories of the birth of the Anthropocene that prioritise “relations of capital, class, and empire” is a work in progress. But it demonstrably is in progress, in the hands of a number of scholars. Why snipe about that project rather than contribute to it? (3) It’s true that “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?” is a bluntly dualistic title for a scientific paper (Moore cites that title three times over), but if Nature/Society dualism is basically everywhere, as Moore thinks, then it’s hardly surprising that some people have used the word Anthropocene dualistically. There’s nothing inherently dualistic about the theme of the new epoch. (4) Not a single voting member of the AWG thinks that the Anthropocene began around 1800. But Elmar Altvater, writing, like Crist, in Moore’s own collection, does think that the “Capitalocene” began with the Industrial Revolution and is thus “a child of European rationalism” (p. 146).

The oddest moment in Moore’s critique of the “dominant Anthropocene argument” is certainly this one:

Of course, we are told by the Anthropocene advocates—and not a few Marxists—that early capitalism was not really modern, and not really capitalist. Why? Because early capitalism was technologically inert, and unable to sustain the long-run advance of labour productivity. (p. 100)

Wait, what? We’re told by the Anthropocene advocates that before the late eighteenth century, capitalism was unable to sustain long-run labour productivity advance? Of course?

A couple of premier league historians, John McNeill and Dipesh Chakrabarty, have been among the most prominent writers on the Anthropocene, and they’re both cited in Moore’s essay. They might have strong views on labour productivity from 1450 to 1750, for all I know, though that’s not exactly their field. But the soil scientists, field geologists, climate modellers, atmospheric chemists and the like who are ostensibly the principal targets of Moore’s critique? Those Anthropocene advocates have been belabouring him with mistaken dogma about early modern labour productivity statistics?

This strange moment is actually the one that reconciles me to Moore’s account of “the Anthropocene advocates.” At this point, it  becomes clear that he’s stopped worrying about what members of the AWG have actually written, and just started using the word Anthropocene as a catch-all for everything he disagrees with, in every field. And as long as you understand that, there’s really nothing left to rebut.

(Oh, and the “Capitalocene”? It turns out to be “the historical era shaped by relations privileging the endless accumulation of capital” (p. 94). Or more simply, in Capitalism in the Web of Life, just “the Age of Capitalism” (p. 173). It’s roughly equivalent to Marks’s “modern world” or Wallerstein’s “modern world-system,” but nothing to do with geology, or with the Anthropocene, other than that it’s a parody of the name.)

Anthropocene or Capitalocene? is mostly not about the Anthropocene. The exceptions are ill-informed and/or a bit reactionary. But there’s room enough in the world for both the idea of the Anthropocene epoch and the theory of ecological surplus. Go and read Capitalism in the Web of Life instead.

[Soon after I wrote this, International Socialist Review published a well-informed review of Anthropocene or Capitalocene? by Ian Angus. I’ve written at length about Angus’s own book on the Anthropocene, starting here.]

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