Capitalocene: How Capitalism Created the Climate Crisis - Jason W. Moore pt 1/2


The current climate crisis emerged out of a specific set of historical and economic factors which have maintained capitalist accumulation and class inequalities to this day. Jason W. Moore, geographer and Professor of Sociology at Binghamton University, explains how the development of capitalism fueled European colonialism and Western imperialism, resulting in a novel form of climate destruction.

The Assertion of Popular Power: A Climate Movement Imperative – Jason W. Moore pt 2/2


Talia Baroncelli

Hi, I’m Talia Baroncelli, and you’re watching theAnalysis.news. I’ll shortly be joined by historian and geographer Jason W. Moore to speak about capitalism’s effect on climate change. If you’d like to support us, and if you’re in a position to donate, you can go to our website, theAnalysis.news, and hit the donate button at the top right corner of the screen. Make sure you get onto our mailing list and like and subscribe to the show wherever you watch the show, be it on YouTube or on podcast streaming services such as Apple or Spotify. See you in a bit with Jason W. Moore.

Joining me now is Jason W. Moore. He’s a historical geographer and professor of sociology at Binghamton University in Upstate New York. He’s also the Coordinator of the World Ecology Research Network and the author of several books, including Anthropocene Or Capitalocene? and A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, which he co-wrote with Raj Patel. Jason, it’s a pleasure to have you.

Jason Moore

What a treat to be here today, Talia. Thank you for having me.

Talia Baroncelli

I came across your work because a friend of mine gave me this amazing book of yours, which you co-wrote with Raj Patel. I also was going into some of your more academic articles, and your big critique, which I thought was really pertinent, is how you critique this scientific narrative around climate change. Even in the mainstream scientific discourse, when they’re talking about climate change, such as in the IPCC reports, they’ll say that climate change is manmade and that humans are the main culprit to blame for the climate destruction that we’re witnessing.

What you’re saying is something very different, and pinpointing it on just manmade climate change or saying that the conditions we’re living in are simply due to manmade actions is a form of denialism. You’re arguing to go beyond those very binary terms of man and nature. What you’re arguing for is actually an analysis of capitalism and how capitalist systems, structures, and power dynamics are resulting in the climate change that we’re witnessing.

Why don’t you explain what you mean by this form of capitalism and the Capitalocene, and why it’s so important to go beyond our mainstream understanding of manmade climate change?

Jason Moore

It’s a fantastic question. Let’s first recognize that we are subject to one of the greatest ideological con jobs in human history, which is to sort out history in terms of what I call, sarcastically, the eternal conflict between man and nature.

We want it to be clear that humanity is not a historical actor. Humans do not build empires. Humans do not build corporations. This is not the work of an abstract man or of man in general. These are the actions of specific groups of human beings who are in corporations, financial systems, and empires. These are the agents that make history. Political parties make history. Churches make history. Humanity does not make history. Humanity does not go about organizing the climate crisis. There’s a confusion indeed that is deliberately cultivated by the bourgeoisie and their ideologues, which is an argument about human nature. Humans did it.

Well, we know who is responsible for the climate crisis, and they have names and addresses, just like those corporate and capitalist actors who are responsible for the slave trade, they have names and addresses. And just like in the era of slavery, they should be expropriated. It’s as simple as that.

The solution to the climate crisis is part of this argument about the Capitalocene, that we live not in the age of man, the Anthropocene, but in the age of capital, the Capitalocene. The argument is that the source of the problem has definite historical origins in specific times and places, especially in the centuries after Columbus, long before the steam engine came along by the way. It creates a particular set of geo, cultural, economic, and political relations that are always with and within the web of life.

Capitalism did not start transforming the climate with the steam engine. Capitalism and the imperialist agencies responsible for the conquest of the Americas started the climate crisis, and it was evident as early as the long, cold 17th century, roughly from the middle of the 1500s to the year 1700. Why? 

In the limitless thirst for cheap labor, the imperialist forces decimated new world populations. The forest grew back. The soils were left undisturbed. There was a drawdown of carbon dioxide which contributed to the greatest crisis that capitalism, to that point, had faced. It was planetary. It wasn’t limited to Europe. This was the era in which capitalism as a world ecology, not as an economic system narrowly conceived, but as a world ecology of power, profit, and life, come together in those centuries during this first great climate crisis, this capitalogenic climate crisis, at least in part. We see the crystallization of capitalism as a trinity, what I call the climate class divide, climate apartheid, and climate patriarchy. This was a response to the crises, the climate class conjuncture of that era, and it is still very much with us today.

We have to, first and foremost, name the system. Otherwise, we are denying climate change in the more real historical sense of who is responsible. We’re saying with the CEO of ExxonMobil, yes, climate change is real, and we all need to join together to solve the problem.

Talia Baroncelli

Well, you’re trying to infuse a historical perspective into this analysis of climate change. What would you say to people who argue that there were instances of different societies having an impact on the climate, even, say, in the 1200s, for example? In the medieval period, when there was actually, I wouldn’t say, global warming, but there was a bit of a warm period, and there was some affluence that came along with that, as well as increases in the population. Because of the feudal system, more people were put to work in the feudal system under the lords. But then, when there was a cooling. As a result, there was a more vulnerable population that was more vulnerable to health crises.

A lot of people ended up dying when the Black Plague came along. In 1347, because there were still trade networks between Europe and Asia, once the Black Plague hit Europe, a lot of people, a lot of workers or peasants ended up dying. Then, we see the peasant uprisings of the late 1300s and the 1400s that led to the undermining of the feudal system.

How would you say that particular moment is different from what we’re experiencing now? Is it a different critical juncture? Why would those impacts on the environment be different from the way you’re characterizing the Capitalocene in the modern day?

Jason Moore

Well, it’s another fantastic question. I’ve written quite a bit about this over the past 25 years, and people can go to my website, jasonwmoore.com, and look into these discussions. Yes, indeed, the crisis of feudalism was a climate class conjuncture, a socio-physical conjuncture, if you will. It was not the climate shift from the medieval climate anomaly, sometimes called the medieval warm period, because in Europe it was warm; that provided very favorable conditions for the emergence of feudalism and the assertion of feudal power, the encagement of the peasantry, as Christopher Wickham summarizes it. This was fundamental to the golden age of feudalism. You think of knights, the castles, and the cathedrals. When the climate shifted, it transformed everything in that civilization’s DNA. The same thing is going on today.

Here’s the most important takeaway from that story. First of all, it’s not a Malthusian story. It’s not too many people on the land, leading to famine and disease and all this. That is a straight-up ideological falsification. It was very much a Marxist struggle and contradiction of the climatological and other biological and ecological conditions of feudal power that was coming unraveled at the moment of this shift from a warm era that had endured either two and a half, three centuries, or possibly even longer, depending on how we want to look at it, to a very unfavorable climatic situation.

I like to say climate change is not everything. But if we want to understand anything about our political conjuncture today, we have to understand the climate crisis. The same is true for these previous moments, even though they weren’t nearly so dramatic. There were climate shifts within the climate stability of the Holocene. That long era from 11,700 years ago to the present is now over or close to being over.

The key takeaway is that these unfavorable shifts in the climate, unfavorable to large-scale class-dominated agriculture, were bad for the ruling classes. This is true for the feudal ruling classes in the 14th century. It was true for the ruling classes of Western Rome a thousand years earlier when we saw the onset of what science has called the Dark Ages Cold Period. It was true for what’s called the Bronze Age collapse, where a period of sustained drought, along with other factors, led to the near-simultaneous collapse of most of the major Bronze Age civilizations right around the year 1200 BCE. There’s a long history to this.

Lo and behold, the same pattern repeats itself in the history of capitalism. People don’t pay any attention to this, and as a consequence, they overstate the resilience of the ruling classes. The ruling classes today are not in a good position, and climate history tells us a lot about why that is.

As I mentioned in the previous question, the long, cold 17th century was one of the coldest periods of the past 8,000 years. This was an era of profound revolt. It’s an era that ends with civil wars and revolutions. 

Oliver Cromwell in England has cut off the head of the king and is then facing the prospect of a Communist, or as they said at the time, a Communist army, the Levellers, outside of London. He was trying to figure out what to do with this. We can’t have a Communist revolution. This dynamic repeats itself again and again in the era of the French Revolution and Malthus. This was the last great cold stretch of the Little Ice Age between 1783 and 1820. This was the era of the Haitian Revolution, of the revolt in Ireland in 1798, of the English fleet mutiny in the 1790s. This was an era of profound revolution and revolt. So again, in an era of very unfavorable climate. This should give us pause to reject both the climate doomism and, I think, the climate resignation, this sense of powerlessness in the present conjuncture. These moments of unfavorable climate change are wrapped up with periods of popular revolt and the unraveling of the underlying conditions for ruling class power especially, but not only in agriculture.

The ideological terrain has been dominated by neo-Malthusians. We don’t understand that, ultimately, the source of bourgeois legitimacy is their ability to maintain a cheap food regime so people can gain access to cheap food. That’s obviously an issue in the present moment. There are many intervening factors, but it has to be front and center in our imagination that climate is, amongst others, a weak link in the imperialist chain of power.

Talia Baroncelli

We’ll definitely get into how your analysis of capitalism, the Capitalocene, and world ecology can potentially be useful to revolutionary struggles as well as to the climate movement. You did bring up the issue of cheapening nature. This is something that you discuss, along with Raj Patel in your book, on that topic.

I think it was really interesting how you brought up the historical example of the island of Madeira. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this was in the mid-1400s when the Portuguese went to Madeira. They were so taken by the idea of making sugar or producing sugar that they went to the island. They cleared the island of all the forestry that was there because, for every pound of sugar, they would need to burn something like 50 pounds of wood to distill the sugar and get to it. Distill the sugarcane, rather.

You use this example of what took place on the island to illustrate the seven ways in which nature is cheapened. You speak about how capitalism cheapens nature. It takes things that are essentially undenominable, or it transforms them into relations of production and consumption in ways that perhaps didn’t exist previous to that. It’s not just making the cost of things cheaper but also reducing the integrity or the value. It is also reducing people or Indigenous people to being cheap, essentially, or women and other marginalized groups, for example, and how that relates to nature and cheap goods and energy. Maybe we could get into that historical example as well, the example of Madeira and how cheapening nature and these seven cheap things that you mentioned with Raj Patel are so important to understand the perspective you’re getting at in world ecology.

Jason Moore

Absolutely. When we think about the rise of capitalism and the extension of the formal colonial empire, which is modern imperialism, today, people talk about colonialism and don’t have any sense of what that is.

Colonialism, as a formal expression of imperialism, is how the bourgeoisie prefers to wage the class struggle. That is at the core of my theory of cheap nature. This expansion was because, under the conditions of the feudal crisis, the seigneurs and the aristocrats were defeated. They lost the class struggle. You mentioned the popular revolt. The peasants and workers everywhere across Europe prevented the restoration of feudalism. 

To make a very long and complex story very short, they essentially forced the bankers, the kings and queens, and the seigneurs to find a solution overseas, where the overwhelming military power of the new capitalist states gave them a decisive advantage. Be mindful, they didn’t go to Africa, they didn’t go to India, they didn’t go to China because they would have lost. They went to the Americas where decisive military power allowed them to create the conditions for a good business environment.

Cheap nature has two moments, and you nailed it. It is both cheap in price for the capitalist. It’s not the $3 hamburger. It is the $10 barrel of oil. It is commodity prices. It is the cost of doing business for capital. Cheap nature is a strategy to create other cheapened moments.

Now, the second moment of cheap nature is geo-cultural devaluation. This gives rise to specific forms of proletarianization that are today talked about in very abstract and incorrect language, like women and Indigenous peoples, as if the whole point was not to create indigeneity, to create man/woman as a binary, to create racial categories in order to cheapen the labor. These are cultural expressions of the worldwide class struggle.

Why was it that capitalism needed to invent, for instance, a new binarized gender division of labor? Because it needed cheap workers. The only people who can produce cheap workers are females. So that was fundamental to the emergence, the invention of climate patriarchy, of climate apartheid, out of the raw material of what I think is the most dangerous word in the language, nature.

The book is titled Seven Cheap Things. But in fact, very quickly, we say, look, there aren’t really seven cheap things because nature is a specific cultural and political mechanism to make other relations into things and make them cheap. Cheap nature puts these two moments together. Everybody pays lip service today around intersectionality, but they never bother to put them together historically. That is the exploitation of labor power and the domination through nature, the domination of the web of life, and various forms of naturalized domination like racism and sexism. These are all intimately tied in this account. This allows us to begin to understand what is at the core of the climate crisis. And what is at the core of the climate crisis is not European white men doing bad things to landscapes. It is about the drive to find cheap labor, because without cheap labor, you can’t do anything to the rest of the web of life. You can’t turn the rest of life into a cash machine without cheap labor. And that’s more than just wage workers. It is, as I’ve been arguing, my comrades, and the World Ecology Conversation, have been arguing for over a decade. Capitalism is a system of unpaid work. It thrives when there are small pockets of market exchange of the cash nexus within oceans of cheap or potentially cheap nature, at the center of which is labor. We’re always looking at how labor is cheapened through these ideological dynamics.

I would close with a nice sound bite that I take from the great German Marxist feminist Claudia von Werlhof. She says, “Nature is everything the bourgeoisie does not want to pay for.” If you stop and think about it, that applies to racism and it applies to sexism. It applies to the whole dynamic of what economists, in a rather banal way, talk about as externalization.

We have to begin to pierce the ideological con job of this eternal conflict between man versus nature and begin to understand this is a dynamic of class struggle in the web of life. That’s an old-fashioned way of putting a very, very concrete reality here. This is not a struggle of Europe against indigenous peoples. This is the emergence of a capitalist class structure committed to an absurdity, the endless accumulation of capital, and therefore, the endless conquest of the earth, as in the story of Madeira, where one frontier gives right away to another, to another, to another, where the frontiers fix the problems of capitalism or fix the problems of the Iberian states in the era of feudal crisis.

Talia Baroncelli

Yeah, just touching on the unpaid aspect of labor. Silvia Federici would also speak about the importance of reproductive labor and how that form of unpaid labor is so crucial to upholding very specific capitalist relations.

Going back to the Madeira example, what happened on the island was that the island was completely deforested, and they had to shift the sugarcane production to, I believe it was wine or something else. It seems like once that happened, the people who owned the modes of production then required other frontiers to expand their relations and to continue to profit off of those other sites of power that you could potentially call them. They needed to go to what they termed the New World, to the Americas, to look for more land there and to have a cheaper labor force that they brought from Africa to then exploit and appropriate energy.

Jason Moore

There’s an ongoing frontier, a restless frontier that is at the core of capitalism. There’s no capitalism without frontiers. We know this today because capitalism is in its zombie phase. It is dead. Its underlying inner sources of animism and vitality are gone. Those are frontiers. Frontiers of what? Of cheap labor, food, energy, raw materials, anything that’s fundamental to capital accumulation. The role of imperialism is to secure cheap nature frontiers. Today, those frontiers are gone. What’s the role of imperialism? Well, we’re seeing it right before our eyes.

Talia Baroncelli

Would you say that your argument is similar to what David Harvey would be speaking about, the spatial-temporal fix in which, due to crises of over-accumulation, capital always seeks other areas beyond other frontiers, for example, to continue to accumulate? Then, once there’s nothing else, no other frontiers, you see these crises boiling over even within what we would consider the Global North, for example, not just in places such as the Global South.

Jason Moore

Yes and no. David Harvey is a comrade and a teacher of mine. I’m very much in that intellectual lineage rather directly. Harvey is brilliant. What you just summarized is not Harvey’s position. Harvey has stated many times that capitalism does not need frontiers of cheap labor, energy, food, and raw materials to survive, that it can cannibalize itself in some version of Nancy Fraser’s argument. This is provided without any historical examination of the real historical conditions through which capitalism has resolved its great accumulation crises.

If you look at history, say, classically at the end of the 19th century, but also in the middle of the 16th century, the Great Depressions were resolved through new ways of imperialism, the securing of new frontiers, especially these four cheaps of labor, food, energy, and raw materials, to fix the over-accumulation problem. That is, the problem where there’s too much capital and not enough profitable investment opportunities.

Harvey went part of the way, and in fact, in his most important work that nobody reads but go read, Limits to Capital from 1982, he says, look, right around the early 20th century, and Luxemburg put her finger on it at that moment, there was a sea change in capitalism, the closure of the frontiers, and then what he calls the law of rising geographical inertia.

Now, interestingly, nobody, I think, except for me, has ever picked up on that. But that means, essentially, there was an intimate connection between capitalism’s famous flexibility and capacity for innovation and its capacity to secure frontiers.

Lo and behold, if we look at the past 50 years, and this is part of my thesis on zombie capitalism, in the productive center, the heart of capitalism, we see long-run productivity stagnation. We see a long-run agricultural productivity stagnation at the very moment when the last meaningful frontiers have been enclosed. Yes, there are frontier spaces in Borneo, Sumatra, in the Amazon, here and there, for sure. But these are no longer or even remotely close to promising to restore the conditions for a new golden age of capitalism, such as existed at previous moments of restructuring. In this long historical cycle of imperialism, frontiers, the acquisition, appropriation of new cheap natures, resolving the crisis, and then, of course, there’s another crisis, another century or so ahead. That’s a story that I tell in Capitalism in the Web of Life and in many, many essays. It’s important to remember those frontiers are now gone. I just have to mention that it’s related to waste frontiers, foremost among them, the atmosphere as a great waste frontier for greenhouse gasses.

Part of what we see in the history of capitalism is that for every moment of externalizing waste and polluting and toxifying the world, for every moment of waste, there’s a complementary moment of laying waste. That’s what we’re seeing in the world today. We’re seeing in the world today the end of capitalism, a climate crisis that is inducing a shift towards geopolitical accumulation, using political and military power to secure the best deal for different capitalist classes in different imperial centers of the world.

Talia Baroncelli

Well, the waste thing is quite a big issue. I think it was in one of your books where you mentioned that by 2050, there’ll probably be more plastic in the oceans than fish. That’s an example of where all the [crosstalk 00:28:54].

Jason Moore

And that was optimistic.

Talia Baroncelli

That was an optimistic estimate because that was probably in 2017 that you wrote that. Jason W. Moore, it’s been really great to speak to you. Thanks so much for your time. Let’s talk again soon.

Jason Moore

Talia, it has been a pleasure. Thank you for such a lively conversation. For those who are interested in anything that I’ve just said, you can go to my website, jasonwmoore.com.

Talia Baroncelli

You’ve just been watching part one of my discussion with Jason W. Moore. In part two, we get to some of the strategies that can be deployed by movements to unseat capitalism and the consolidation of the elite power. Thanks for watching.


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Jason W. Moore is an environmental historian and historical geographer at Binghamton University, where he is a professor of sociology and leads the World-Ecology Research Collective. He is the author or editor, most recently, of Capitalism in the Web of LifeCapitalocene or Anthropocene?, Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism, and, with Raj Patel, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things. His books and essays on environmental history, capitalism, and social theory have been widely recognized, including the Alice Hamilton Prize of the American Society for Environmental History (2003), the Distinguished Scholarship Award of the Section on the Political Economy of the World-System (American Sociological Association, 2002 for articles, and 2015 for Web of Life), and the Byres and Bernstein Prize in Agrarian Change (2011). He coordinates the World-Ecology Research Network. 

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