By Kamran Nayeri, July 18, 2016
Jason W. Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (2015) offers a new perspective on capitalism and its current systemic crisis by developing an ecologically centered theory of capital accumulation. This essay first presents a concise account of Moore’s theory. (see, endnote 1) Then, I turn my attention to Moore’s methodology which he believes is “revitalizing” and “reworking” Marx’s and Engels’ historical materialism. In section 2 and 3, I examine this claim and find it wanting. In fact as I will show Moore's methodology and theory are entirely different from those of Marx and Engels. The fact that Moore’s methodology and theory are different from Marx does not mean that they are “wrong” or lack explanatory power. In section 4, I examine the inner logic of Moore’s methodology and theory and find them incoherent on their own basis. In Section 5, I outline a way forward that shares Moore’s concern with situating humanity in nature and shares with Ecological Marxism of Foster and others their focus on the concepts of metabolic rift and alienation from nature.
1. Moore’s theory of capitalism and present-day crisis
The organizing principle of Moore’s book is a critique of what Moore calls Green Arithmetic or Green Thought, which he says divides the world into two separate categories, Society and Nature. He calls this Cartesian dualism to denote its origin in the work of René Descartes. The aim of the book is to replace such dualism with a theory that views humanity, hence human social organization, as an organic part of nature, and then develop an ecologically centered theory of capitalism and its dynamics.
The book has four parts. Part I is an overarching statement of Moore’s critique and his positive contribution. Parts II-IV deal with specific aspects of Part I in greater detail. They are: Part II: Historical Capitalism, Historical Nature; Part III: Historical Nature and the Origins of Capital; and Part IV: The Rise and Demise of Cheap Nature. While all deserve critical attention, for brevity’s sake I will focus on Part I. As we will see, Moore’s methodology, theory and analysis are heavily influenced by world systems theory as developed by Immanuel Wallerstein and Giovanni Arrighi: “Capitalism is ... best understood as world-ecology of capital, power, and re-production in the web of life.” (p. 14; hereafter all emphases are Moore’s own unless noted otherwise)
Moore argues that it is necessary to develop “a language, a method, and a narrative strategy that put the oikeios at the center”; that is, “the creative, generative, and multi- layered relation of species and environment. The oikeios names the relations through which humans act—and are acted upon by the whole nature.” (p. 4)
By “web of life”, Moore means “nature as us, as inside us, as around us.” (p. 3) Moore’s alternative to Green Thought “begins neither with ‘humans’ nor with ‘nature’ but with the relations that co-produce manifold configurations of humanity-in-nature, organisms and environments, life and land, water and air.” (p. 5) To tackle these infinitely complex sets or “bundles” of relations, Moore uses a number of hyphenated terms to denote abstraction; in his view, “’History’ ... is the history of a ‘double internality’: humanity-in-nature/nature-in-humanity.” (ibid.)
“Humanity-in-nature” is “[h]uman engagement with the rest of nature.” It is ecology from the standpoint of human agency. “Capitalism-in-nature” is rather different, since Moore develops a more expansive definition of capitalism, “not an economic system ... not a social system; it is a way of organizing nature”:
“Capitalism’s governing conceit is that it may do with Nature as it pleases, that Nature is external and may be coded, quantified, and rationalized to serve economic growth, social development, or some other higher good. ... [But meanwhile] the web of life is busy shuffling about the biological and geological conditions of capitalism’s process. The ‘web of life’ is nature as a whole: nature with an emphatically lowercase n.” (pp. 2-3)
Moore further defines “world-ecology” as “the process through which civilizations, themselves forces of nature, are caught up in the co-production of life.” (p. 3) World- ecology draws attention to the “rich mosaic of relational thinking about capitalism, nature, power and history.” (ibid.) It also “says the relationality of nature implies a new method that grasps humanity-in-nature as a world historical process.” (ibid.)
Thus, the current crisis is “singular and manifold. It is not a crisis of capitalism and nature but of modernity-in-nature. That modernity is a capitalist world-ecology.” (p. 4)
Moore argues that this oikeios-centered theory inverts the key questions of Green Thought that seek answers to how humanity was separated from nature and causes ecological damage. Instead, he argues, the key questions become “how is humanity unified with the rest of nature within the web of life,” and “how is human history a co- produced history, through which humans have put nature to work—including other humans—in accumulating wealth and power?” (p. 9) “[T]he oikeios presumes that “humanity has always been unified with the rest of nature in a flow of flows. What changes are the ways in which specific aspects of humanity, such as civilizations, ‘fit’ within nature.” (p. 12.)
“In this book, nature assumes three major forms: human organization; extra- human flows, relations, and substances; and the web of life. These are not independent; rather, they are interdependent, and their boundaries and configurations shift in successive historical-geographical eras. This last is pivotal: nature is not ‘just there.’ It is historical. This way of seeing leads us to a second inversion. Instead of asking what capitalism does to nature, we may begin to ask how nature works for capitalism? If the former question implies separation, the latter implicates unification.” (pp. 12-13)
But while laws of nature obey those that govern matter and energy, capitalism operates on the basis of capital accumulation as self-expanding value which obeys the “law of value.” Moore is aware of this incongruence in his theorizing. Thus he writes: “The concept of work/energy looms large in this argument. ... Work/energy helps us to rethink capitalism as a set of relations through which the ‘capacity to do work’—by human and extra-human natures—is transformed into value, understood as socially necessary labor-time (abstract social labor).” (p. 14) (endnote 2)
However, this way of overcoming theoretical/analytical incongruency forces Moore to suggest that not only humans or other animals, but rivers, waterfalls, or forests also “work.”
In addition, although Moore acknowledges the essential role of exploitation – the production of surplus-value in the labor process – he makes a key part of his argument the centrality to capitalism of appropriation, defined as
“those extra-economic processes that identify, secure, and channel unpaid work outside the commodity system into the circuit of capital. ... So important is the appropriation of unpaid work that the rising rate of exploitation depends upon the fruits of appropriation derived from Cheap Natures, understood primarily as the ‘Four Cheaps’ of labor power, food, energy, and raw materials.” (p. 17, emphasis added).
Thus he reinterprets the law of value as “a ‘law’ of Cheap Nature” that is operative from the inception of capitalism in the long sixteenth century (1450-2650). “At the core of this law is the ongoing, rapidly expansive, and relentlessly innovative quest to turn the work/energy of the biosphere into capital (value-in- motion).” (pp. 13-14) In Moore’s reconceptualization,
“Capital must not only ceaselessly accumulate and revolutionize commodity production; it must ceaselessly search for, and find ways to produce, Cheap Natures; a rising stream of low-cost food, labor-power, energy, and raw materials.... These are the Four Cheaps...The law of value in capitalism is a law of Cheap Nature.” (p. 53, my emphasis).
“Cheap Nature” operates “by reducing the value composition—but increasing the technical composition—of capital as a whole; by opening new opportunities for investment; and, in its qualitative dimension, by allowing technologies and new kinds of nature to transform extant structures of capital accumulation and world power. In all this, commodity frontiers—frontiers of appropriation—are central.” (ibid., emphasis added)
Moore gives this process of appropriation on a world scale a name, “world-ecological surplus,” and suggests a tendency for it to fall over the course of historical time. “The ecological surplus is the ratio of the system-wide mass of capital to the system-wide appropriation of unpaid work/energy.” (p. 95) He borrows the idea from the EROI ratio (energy returned on energy invested), a measure for energy efficiency. Moore amends this notion to EROCI – “energy returned on capital invested.” He acknowledges that, like EROI, EROCI cannot be quantified because it is impossible to calculate unpaid work/energy (ibid., footnote 16)
From this follows Moore’s view of the current systemic crisis:
“The crises of capitalism-in-nature are crises of what nature does for capitalism, rather more than what capitalism does to nature. This point of entry offers not only a fresh perspective—one that includes, centrally, the work of human natures—but also provides an opportunity for synthesizing two great streams of radical thought since the 1970s: the theory of accumulation crisis and the study of environmental crisis.” (p. 17)
2. Moore’s revision of historical materialism
Moore posits that Paul Burkett (1999) and John Bellamy Foster (2000) offer the potential for “a revitalized and reworked historical materialism in line with Marx’s system of thought” and a “renewal of value-relational thinking—the law of value as co-produced by humans and the rest of nature.” He clearly views his own work as at least a significant step in such revitalization and renewal. Let’s first outline what Moore believes are the key contributions of Foster and Burkett that enable him to rework historical materialism and develop his own theory of capitalism and crisis.
Foster has argued that Marx’s central concern with human emancipation included overcoming bourgeois estrangement from nature, as seen in capitalist production and the growing division between town and country that has adversely affected the metabolic interaction between humanity and the rest of nature. Following Marx’s own use of the concept (Foster, 2000, chapter 5), he and his colleagues have used the concept of “metabolic rift” for their own theoretical development of the relationship between capitalism and nature.
Moore argues that “Foster’s original formulation of metabolic rift opens the possibility for thinking through a singular metabolism of power, nature, and capital.”(endnote 3) He enumerates three “registers” in Foster’s formulation of the “rift.” First, there is a “rift between human production and its natural conditions.” Second, there is a “material estrangement [alienation] of human beings in capitalist society from conditions of their existence.” Finally, the rift finds geographical expression in a new town-country antagonism.
“Foster took the rift in metabolic rift to signify the rechanneling of food and resources produced in agrarian zones into urban-industrial spaces. Although metabolic rift today is almost universally understood as a metaphor of separation, the original argument suggested something different: rift as reconfiguration and shift.” (p. 83).
Thus, the idea of “rift as reconfiguration and shift” which he credits to Foster became Moore’s own point of departure. (ibid.) (endnote 4)
Moore’s interpretation of and preference for “rift” as “shift” – as opposed to Foster’s use “irreparable rift” (Foster, 2000, p. 141) – becomes a defining characteristic of his methodology and the basis of his assertion that environmentalist and Marxists methodologies often suffer from “Cartesian dualism.”
“Metabolism, liberated from dualisms, acts a solvent. For if metabolism as a whole is a flow of flows in which life and matter enter into specific, historical-geographical arrangements, we are called to construct a much more supple and historically sensitive family of concepts, unified by a dialectical method that transcends all manner of dualisms—not least, not only, Nature/Society.” (ibid.)
Thus, Moore’s focus turns to Cheap Nature as the key source of capitalist accumulation: “Foster’s insight was to posit capitalism as an open-flow metabolism, one that requires more and more Cheap Nature just to stay in place…” (ibid.) Cheap Nature as appropriated from human and extra-human nature becomes central to Moore’s theory, a concept that he asserts is from Burkett’s discussion of Marx’s historical materialism and the law of value and nature. (endnote 5)
Thus, modern history is characterized as “the voracious consumption of, and relentless quest for, Cheap Natures – ‘cheap’ in relation to the accumulation of capital and its curious privileging of wage-work as the only thing worth valuing.” (p. 85) Thus, Moore’s emphasis on non-wage worker sources for capitalist accumulation, in particular on the unpaid work/energy of human and extra-human nature.
A key problem that Moore overlooks is this: if Burkett’s and Foster’s contributions that Moore takes as his own point of departure are salient features of Marx’s historical materialism and its specific application to the capitalist mode of production, that is, Marx’s labor theory of value, then why didn’t Marx himself develop a theory of capitalism and crisis along the lines that Moore now proposes? Put another way, why is Moore’s theory of capitalism and crisis differ so radically from that of Marx?
3. Contrasting Marx and Moore
Let’s recall Marx’s own theoretical development and the methodological reasons for it. In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels argued that
“…[W]e must begin by stating the first premise of all human existence and, therefore, all history, the premise, namely, that men must be in a position to live in order to be able to ‘make history.’ But life involves before everything else eating and drinking, housing, clothing and various other things. The first historical act is thus the production of material life itself.” (Marx and Engels, 1845, p. 43-44, emphasis added).
All living organisms “appropriate” from their environment their means of subsistence in order to live and to reproduce. For 190,000 years or 95% of our existence, modern humans lived as hunter-gatherers who – like other animals – appropriated their livelihood. When a combination of factors forced some hunter-gatherer bands to take up farming about 12,000 years ago, production for subsistence began. First farmers “begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organization…” (ibid., p. 31, emphasis in original) (endnote 6). (In thinking through Marx’s concept of metabolic rift this is an insightful passage to which I will return in Section 5 below).
Because of the world-historic significance of production, Marx and Engels viewed “mode of production” not simply as“the reproduction of physical existence of individuals” but also as “a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part….What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produced and with how they produce it.” (ibid. pp. 31-32, emphases in original)
It is important to note topics Marx and Engels quite explicitly set aside: “Of course, we cannot here go either into the actual physical nature of man, or into the natural conditions in which man finds himself—geographical, oro-hydrographical, climate and so on.” (ibid. p. 31) The point is that they were fully aware that “human nature,” and our natural context, environment and what is now called ecological niche matter and can be woven into their analysis. But they still insisted that a focus on “mode of production” is the proper methodological focus for historical studies.
Thus, it is not surprising that Marx devoted decades of his life to developing his critique of political economy and of the capitalist mode of production. Nor it is surprising that he critically appraised and appropriated as much as possible of classical political economists’ labor theories of value, in particular those developed by Ricardo and Smith. These clearly follow from his historical materialism.
It is equally clear that Marx and Engels were always aware of the role of appropriation in human history and prehistory (See, Burkett, 1999; chapter 2). For Marx, the capitalist mode of production originated in primitive accumulation, a historical process of appropriation (Marx, 1867, chapter 26; Nayeri, 1991, Appendix 1). This process was necessary to develop the four pillars of the capitalist mode of production: 1) the existence of a class of wage workers that is “free” of their means of subsistence and of bondage to land, that is, a labor market; 2) the concentration of means of social production in the hands of a class of industrial capitalists, that is, a capital market; 3) a commodities market; and 4) production for profit. For Marx, in England this process coincided with the “manufacturing stage,” roughly 1550-1750 (Marx, 1867, p. 455).
The contrast with Moore is considerable. Following Wallerstein who identified capitalism with “production for sale in a market which the objective is to realize a profit” (Wallerstein, 1974, p. 398), Moore holds that capitalism came into existence in the long sixteenth century (1460-1650). (endnote 7) For Marx capitalism in England took at least a century more to emerge. Moore does not distinguish between “capitalism” and “capitalist mode of production.” For Marx, the former is a social formation and the latter a historical mode of production. A nation-state typically is a social formation including a number of modes of production. A nation-state is called capitalist when the capitalist mode of production is dominant. This requires the formation of the general (average ) rate of profit. (Marx, 1894, Part Two; also see, Shaikh, 2016, Pat II, especially, 7. IV) To my knowledge neither Wallerstein nor Moore have argued that this was the case in the long sixteenth century.
Moore’s revisions to Marx’s and Engels’ historical materialism are extensive. First, he insists that capitalism is “not an economic system ... not a social system; it is a way of organizing nature.” A charitable interpretation of this assertion is that for Moore capitalism is first and foremost “a way of organizing nature.” But in doing so, Moore is focusing attention on what is shared with all other modes of production, the exact opposite of Marx’s method that focused attention on what is unique to capitalist production. Second, in his theory of accumulation, Moore de-emphasizes capitalist production, hence wage-labor, and emphasizes appropriation of “unpaid human and extra-human nature.” That is, Moore privileges “appropriation” instead of “production.” Third, he sets aside Marx’s labor theory of value, his historical materialism applied to the analysis of the capitalist mode of production, in favor of a “law of value” that combines “work/energy” from appropriation and surplus value from capitalist production to explain the history of the capitalist system and its crisis.
Historical materialism has been both a methodology used by some of the best historians and theorists of capitalism and contested by others including some Marxist theorists who have tried to refine or extend it. However, fruitful revision of any methodology or theory requires specific criticism of its deficiencies and ensuring that the proposed improvements would not debase it entirely. Unfortunately, Moore’s “revitalization” and “reworking” of historical materialism does not explicitly discuss any of its deficiencies. Instead, he simply declares an alternative methodology and a theory of capitalism and crisis that is at odds with Marx’s own methodology and theory (which Moore claims to adhere to and wishes to extend).
Moore’s sharp break with Marx aside, we must now ask: How well do Moore’s methodology and theory hold up on their own basis?
4. Tensions in Moore’s methodology and theory
Moore’s methodology and theory have serious internal tensions. Moore himself acknowledges some of them. For instance, he admits that his proposed EROCI ratio (energy returned on capital invested) to measure “world ecological surplus” cannot be operationalized: “This is an imperfect formulation, precisely because the condition for quantification within the commodity system (units of labor-time) is a world of unpaid work that cannot be quantified.” (P. 96, footnote 16) However, Moore does not seem to recognize that this same lack of congruency and incoherence runs through his entire theory of capitalist accumulation which centrally depends on appropriation of “unpaid work by human and extra-human nature.” If Moore cannot quantify unpaid work, then how can we assess how central its contribution is to capitalist accumulation?
However, Moore seems impervious to such considerations. Thus, He uses EROCI ratio to introduce yet another concept: “Peak appropriation.”
“EROCI puts the relative contributions of paid and unpaid work/energy at the center. The peak in question is not, then, a peak in output—of energy, or some other primary commodity. It is, rather, the work/energy embodied in the commodity: dollars per bushel, or ton, or barrel, or horse, or hours of labor-power.” (p. 106)
But he immediately adds:
“Even here the language is imprecise. Quantification can illuminate but not adequately capture these specifics. Energy and material flows can be measured; but within capitalism, they cannot be counted—for the secret of capital’s dynamism is that it counts only what it values (labor productivity).” (ibid.)
It seems to this me that this not really a problem of language but of murkiness of Moore’s own concepts. If Moore cannot establish a way to verify conceptual categories that are derived from his methodology and are the stuff of his theory, then how can he believe they are valid?
Moore’s concept of work/energy is similarly incoherent. What does it mean to say, as he does, that rivers, oceans and forests “work”? When a beaver puts up a dam on a river does the river “work” for her? If Moore answers in the affirmative, then he is speaking the language of physics: Work is done when a force that is applied to an object moves that object. But if Moore denies that the river works for the beaver, then why, when humans put up a dam on the same river, does Moore argue that the river is providing unpaid work to humans (be they hunter-gatherers or capitalists)?
The same methodological problem crops up in Moore’s notion that capitalism is “co-produced by human and extra-human nature” (e.g., see, p. 14). If appropriated unpaid work is centrally important to capitalist accumulation and by appropriation we understand the dictionary definition (“The action of taking something for one's own use, typically without the owner's permission”) then how can we view those who have been subjected to appropriation as “co-producers?” In 2011, more than 58 billion chickens, nearly 3 billion ducks, and some 1.38 billion pigs were slaughtered worldwide to be sold as food. Other farm animals slaughtered for food numbered in the hundreds of millions (turkeys, geese and guinea fowl, sheep, goats and cattle). (Heinrich Böll Foundation, 2014, p. 15; for a discussion of this, see, Nayeri, 2014) It is clear that the meat industry quite consciously “worked through” nature by enslaving, torturing and mass murdering these billions of non-human animals. Should we call their victims “co-producers” of the capitalist meat industry? To what end?
The notion of “co-production” is problematic because the relation between social production and the rest of nature in not symmetrical. In Marx’s view, in class societies external nature (extra-human nature) is mediated through forces of production, knowledge/science and technology. These create a partial separation from external nature. Interpreting Darwin’s work as showing “the formation of the organs of plants and animals, which serve as the instruments of production for sustaining their life,” Marx asks rhetorically: “Does not the history of the productive organs of man, of organs that are the material basis of every particular organization of society, deserve equal attention?” In his view human history differs from natural history in that humans have made the former, but not that the latter. “Technology reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life, and thereby it also lays bare the process of production of his life.” (Marx, 1867, p. 493, footnote 4).
In the Grundrisse, in the “Chapter on Capital,” Book VII, Marx writes:
“Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules, etc. These are products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge, objectified. The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it.” (Marx, 1973, p. 706; emphases in original)
Hence, the need for a theory of society that requires its own methodology apart from methodology of natural science. Thus, Moore’s methodology and theory that aim at combining social and natural categories by privileging contributions to capitalist accumulation from “unpaid work of human and extra-human nature” is incoherent. There is no way to reconcile the labor theory of value (or indeed any “theory of value”) and appropriated flows of work/energy because the former is about the laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production and the latter obey the laws of physics. An analogous error can be found in E.O. Wilson’s attempt to apply evolutionary biology to problems in the domains of humanities and social sciences, for which he has been aptly criticized by dialectical biologist Richard Levins (e.g., see, Levins, 2012) (for my own view, see, Nayeri, 2015).
The problem here is not dualism but the recognition that to understand humanity we must understand humans not simply as biological beings but also as social beings who have unique powers to manipulate nature, including human nature, and to try to understand why in class societies, in particular industrial capitalism, these powers have come to debase life as we know it. In the short history of capitalism, these powers have produced conditions that threaten not only humanity but the Earth system itself.
5. An alternative road forward
In Chapter 7, “Anthropocene or Capitalocene?: On the Nature and Origins of Our Ecological Crisis,” Moore dismisses a number of competing views of the causes and timing for the Anthropocene to argue for his own notion of the Capitalocene. Included in his criticism are their supposed treatment of humanity as a homogenous whole and their dualism. Unsurprisingly, the Capitalocene began with “[t]he rise of capitalism after 1450” which “was made possible by an epochal shift in the scale, speed, and scope of landscape transformation in the Atlantic world and beyond.” (p. 182)
The literature on the Anthropocene (Epoch of Man) was born out of the recognition of the intensifying planetary crisis that poses an existential threat to humanity and the search for its causes and policy response to it. The aquatic biologist Eugene F. Stoermer coined the term in the 1980s and atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen who popularized it in 2000 have suggested that the Anthropocene could have begun with the introduction of the steam engine in the English Industrial Revolution. This idea resonated with the Green movement, which holds industrialization as the cause for the ecological crisis and with the (eco)socialist movement that holds capitalism responsible. There are very good reasons to believe that the fossil fuel-powered industrial capitalist world economy is responsible for the planetary crisis—just take a look at the list of the nine “planetary boundaries” (thresholds for safe human societies) presented by the Stockholm Resilience Center (Rockström, et.al., 2009) that Moore himself cites on the first page of his book. They nine thresholds are:
• climate change
• stratospheric ozone
• land use change
• freshwater use
• biological diversity
• ocean acidity
• nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere and oceans
• aerosol loading
• chemical pollution
Even if we accept the world-systems view that capitalism emerged in the long sixteenth century with significant negative impact on the landscape and labor, it is hard to deny that capitalist industrialization has had a world-historic disastrous impact on the biosphere creating existential threats to humanity and much of life on Earth.
Between 1804 and 2012 the world human population increased exponentially seven-folds from 1 billion to 7 billion and it is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. "The human species is now using about 12,000 times as much energy per day as was the case when farming started; 90 per cent of this is a result of industrialization, 10 per cent to our huge growth in numbers.” (Vitousek, et al, 1986) The ratio of real GDP in 1995 to 1950 was 3.1 in the “more developed areas” with 20% of the world population and 2.9 in the “less developed areas” with 80% of the world population. (Easterlin, 2000, Table 3) Taking Moore’s own interest in appropriation of work/energy, in the 1980s about 40% of the net primary production in terrestrial ecosystems was being coopted by human beings each year. (endnote 9) People and the associated organisms used this organic material largely, but not entirely, at human direction, and the vast majority of other species had to subsist on the remainder. “An equivalent concentration of resources into one species and its satellites has probably not occurred since land plants first diversified.” (Vitousek, et al, 1986) . They also note that humans affected much of the remaining 60% of terrestrial NNP. This study used conservative estimates and we are now 25 years further down the path of expansion of production and population. Just one statistics makes the point: in 2011-2013 China used more concrete than the United States did in the entire 20th century .(Beiser, 2016)
Further, Moore’s double criticism of proponents of the notion of the Anthropocene certainly does not apply to at least some ecological socialists. To simply paint the entire literature on the Anthropocene as indifferent to social stratification and as dualist is to dismiss a key thesis in understanding of what has gone wrong and how to intervene in history to address the existential crisis we face today.
Even so, the literature on the Anthropocene and its competing hypotheses such as the Capitalocene ignore a central question: How and when humanity or at least a decisive part of it set off to forge a malignant relation with nature?
The origin of alienation from nature
Ecological Marxists like Foster identify alienation, in particular alienation from nature, as the ultimate cause of the ecological crisis. In this, they follow Marx’s labor theory of alienation, closely tied to the rise and dominance of the capitalist mode of production. However, we know of many pre-capitalist civilizations that collapsed in part because of ecological crisis. Clearly, the problem of alienation from nature precedes capitalism.
To locate the origins of alienation from nature and appreciate its world-historic significance for human emancipation, it is helpful to recall key elements of Marx’s and Engels’ historical materialism that I cited in Section 3 above. Marx and Engels argued that as they engaged in organized production for the first time in history early farmers began to distinguish themselves from other animals. What they produced and how they produced it also contributed to who the early farmers became. Modern anthropology and archeology confirm this view expressed over a century and half earlier.
Taking this cue from Marx and Engels, I have drawn upon the most recent “stylized facts” of archeology and anthropology to outline a theory of the origin of human alienation and how it served as the basis for social alienation: stratification, oppression and exploitation (Nayeri, 2013). I urge the reader to review my argument which I cannot repeat in detail here. But for our present purpose it instructive to outline what hunter-gatherers’ worldview might have looked like, based on anthropologists’ accounts of the worldviews of forager societies still surviving in tiny pockets around:
“...[M]ost foragers are characterized by ‘animistic’ or (less commonly) ‘totemic’ belief systems. In the former, non-human animals are not just like humans, they are persons. Their environment is a treasure house of ‘personage’, each with language, reason, intellect, moral conscience, and knowledge, regardless of whether the outer shape is human, animal, reptile, or plant. Thus the Jivaro people of eastern Ecuador and Peru consider humans, animals, and plant as ‘persons’ (aents), linked by blood ties and common ancestry (Descola, 1996). Foragers with animistic belief systems commonly do not have words for distinguishing between people, animals, and plants as separate categories, using instead classification systems based on terms of equality rather than the hierarchies of our own Linnaean taxonomies (Howell, 1996). The totemic systems of Australian Aborigines are ceremonies and rituals that stress an abstract linear continuity between the human and non-human communities. Animals are the most common totems, signifying a person’s or group’s identity or distinctiveness, but though they may be good to eat or food for thought, they are not considered social partners as in the animistic belief systems.
“The forager world is animated with moral, mystical, and mythical significance (Carmichael et al., 1994). It is constructed and reconstructed through the telling of myths, which commonly include all kinds of animals as humans, changing shape between one and the other. In addition to the present world inhabited by humans and non-human-beings, there is a supernatural world. In many forager societies, shamans mediate between the lived and supernatural worlds, entering and conceptualizing the latter, commonly through ecstatic experiences... As the whole world is self, killing a plant or animal is not murder but transformation. Finding food is taken for granted, reinforced by myths telling the hunter to be the animal before presuming to kill and eat it. ‘They are being heard by a sentient conscious universe--a gallery of intelligent beings who, if offended by injudicious words (ridicule, bragging, undue familiarity, profanity, etc.) can take reprisal, usually by a steadfast refusal to be taken as food or by inflicting disease or doing other violence’ (C.L. Martin, 1993, p. 14).” (Barker, 2006, p. 59).
I call foragers worldviews ecocentric because their frame of reference is their natural setting. It should be easy to agree that our ecocentric hunter-gatherer ancestors had no dualist view of the natural world in the sense Moore is concerned with. However, as Marx and Engels suggested to us and modern anthropology and archeology has documented it the perception of humanity rising above the natural world , which we may call anthropocentrism, originated with the Agricultural Revolution some 10,000 years ago. Anthropocentrism (human-centered worldview), also known as homo-centrism, human supremacism, and speciesism, is the view that holds human beings as the central or most significant species on Earth in the sense that they are considered to have a moral standing above other beings. Current consensus is that anthropocentrism perhaps contributed to the transition to farming. But there is little doubt that it emerged and consolidated with the Agricultural Revolution and institutionalized by the class societies that followed.
Let's recall that farming presupposes domestication of some plants and animals. While early domestications were coincidental (how some wolves began to track humans for leftovers from hunting and in return provided the hunter-gather bands with advance warning and some protection), when farming finally consolidated it has been characterized throughout history with systematic attempts to dominate and control nature including by breeding “desirable” plants and animals and control or elimination of “undesirable” species and more recently by attempts to control against natural cycles. These contributed to the development of science and technology and it was served in turn by them.
Once the early subsistence farmers began to produce an economic surplus, social stratification emerged giving rise to social alienation, paving the way for the institutionalization of subordination, oppression and exploitation. Thus, alienation from nature and social alienation are inter-related and the former was necessary for the latter.
If my overall argument is correct in broad outlines, then we have a unified (non-dualist) theory of society and nature and their systemic crisis throughout history has brought down a number of civilizations. The systemic crisis we face today is different only because of its global reach and scale, speed and intensity of forces unleashed by industrial capitalist civilization that threatens humanity and much beside. The metabolic rift did not originate with the rise of capitalism but, to use Richard Levins’ terminology, with the rise of Homo productivore (Levins, 2012). Anthropocentric class societies that have been all about “ways of organizing nature” for the benefit of the ruling elites and have presupposed domination and control over nature, including human nature.
An advantage of this theory of metabolic rift and dualism is that it includes the added dimnesion of an environmental ethics not integral to Moore’s theory or those of Ecological Marxists. This environmental ethic squarely is based on Darwin’s theory of evolution and science of ecology that are both ecocentric (even though Darwin himself like others of his time was anthropocentric). The solution to the anthropocentric industrial capitalist crisis is an ecocentric ecological socialist revolution in which we retreat from more than 10,000 years of trying to dominate and control nature only to create more devastating social and natural crises. The challenge of our time is to make such a revolution before the systemic crisis undermine life-support systems of the biosphere.
Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Fred Murphy for his expert copy-editing of this essay and his critical comments that helped me improve the text, and to Robin Chang for his generous help with the literature search. Neither bears any responsibility for the views expressed here or any remaining errors and shortcomings.
Dedication: The writing of this essay was delayed for months when my beloved companion Lulu (the cat) was battling serious and eventually terminal illness. He died at 5 in the morning of February 13, 2016. The Humane Society in Sonoma County, California, where I live, offers material incentives to people who adopt black cats because of the superstition that black cats are evil or at least bring bad luck. My experience has been the exact opposite. I have been fortunate to have had two companion black cats both far sweeter than all but a handful of humans I have come to know in my long life. This essay is dedicated to the loving memory Lulu.
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1. The American Sociological Association has granted Capitalism in the Web of Life the Section on the Political Economy of the World-System Book Award. Still, I found reading “Capitalism in the Web of Life” challenging. It is poorly edited and rife with repetitions. Moore liberally uses a language whose terminology is not properly explained (for example, “bundles” is first defined on page 46 but used earlier a number of times). The editorial group of Capitalism Nature Socialism in Britain similarly found it hard to summarize and understand Capitalism in the Web of Life (Watson, et. al., 2016).
2. Moore borrows this idea from George Caffenztis (In Letters of Blood and Fire, 2013): ”My use of work/energy extends it to capitalism’s unified logic of appropriation of human and extra-human ‘work’ that is transformed into value.” (p. 14, footnote 24).
3. Of course, the idea of metabolic rift originated with Marx; Foster should be credited for reintroducing it and expanding on it with others in the current surge of interest in ecological socialism.
4. Due to concern for brevity I have set aside a number of important methodological issues, including the meaning and uses of “dialectics.” “Rift” is a break from an existing pattern of relations setting up a new relationship. Once established, the new pattern of relations changes over time making for another rift, setting up new relationships. Thus, a rift happens as quantitative changes resulting in a qualitative change, or thesis and anti-thesis making for a new synthesis. This is the sense I understand Moore’s emphasis on “rift” as “shift” and Foster’s use of “rift irreparable.” Moore emphasizes continuity while Foster emphasizes change.
5. In Marx, labor power is itself “a natural object, a thing, although a living conscious thing” and through the labor process the worker “appropriates Nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants.” (Burkett, 1999, p. 26, emphases in original)
6. Clearly, in retrospect Marx and Engels must have said, instead of “distinguish themselves from animals,” “distinguished themselves from other animals.” I will get back to this distinction in Section 5.
7. Brenner (1977) deftly criticizes this notion. Also, see, Denemark and Thomas (1988) and Ashton and Philpin (1985). There is a renewed interest in the problem of origins of capitalism and the debate on transition from feudalism to capitalism. Writing in the same vein as Brenner, Wood (1999) criticizes the literature for its logical circularity. While Brenner’s thesis is largely accepted among economic historians and others interested in the question of origins of capitalism, in recent years a number of writers have contributed views that are different from or critical of Brenner’s, including Anievas and Nisancioglu (2015), Banaji (2014), Blaut (1994), Harootunian (2015) and Heller (2011). Others, such as Post who writes in the Brenner tradition (Post, 2012), have argued in his defense (2014). As Post observes there is nothing less than the status of Marx’s and Engels’ historical materialism that is at stake.
8. What distinguishes Moore’s method and theory is the emphasis on appropriation of “unpaid work of human and extra-human nature.” “So important is the appropriation of unpaid work that the rising rate of exploitation depends upon the fruits of appropriation derived from Cheap Natures, understood primarily as the ‘Four Cheaps’ of labor power, food, energy, and raw materials.” (p. 17)
9. Ultimately, all species live off energy that arrives on Earth via sunshine. Through photosynthesis green plants (primary producers) convert solar energy into sugars. They consume about half of it for their own livelihood. What remains is called Net Primary Productivity (NPP). The NPP is the basis for all animal life. Herbivores eat plants to gain energy for their livelihood (primary consumers). Finally, some carnivores live off herbivores (secondary consumers). Some omnivores eat secondary consumers (tertiary consumers). The final link in the food chain is the decomposers that live off the organic matter of plants, herbivores and carnivores. In each step in the food chain about 90% of the energy is lost.