In the discussion of the global ecological crisis, there is more and more talk about the Anthropocene, a term resulting from the combination of Greek words “anthropos” (human) and “kainos” (new). This concept refers to the global scale of the impact of human activity on the composition and functioning of the “Earth system.” In its most common version, the idea of the Anthropocene is based mainly on ecological considerations. In particular, this points to the accelerated extinction of a large number of species, the progressive reduction in the availability of fossil fuels and the increase in greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide and methane. Although this is a very recent phenomenon on the geological scale, by now it has been very clearly established that anthropic (i.e. human-originated) activity is the direct cause of these phenomena, and has profoundly influenced the transformations of the environment on a global scale.
The perspective of a “world-ecology,” developed by Jason W. Moore, does not dispute any part of this picture from a descriptive point of view; it does, however, manage to capture some further aspects which are also backed up by indisputable data. The American sociologist criticizes the “Anthropocenic” narrative in that it focuses only on the effects of ecological degradation. In this way, the analysis of the causes of that deterioration is actually being neglected, thus making it harder both to identify those responsible for the ecological crisis and to search for political solutions to the problem. Instead, we must get to the root of the matter, recognizing that capitalism, while it does not have any provisions for being an ecologically friendly system, is itself, inevitably, an ecological system.
Viewed in this context, the impulse towards environmental unsustainability on the part of capitalism can be seen as already inherent in the organization of labor aimed at unlimited accumulation. Thanks to this timely update to this contemporary concept, the Marxist theoretical toolkit is showing its continued relevance, pointing out that the forcible coercion of labor (both human and non-human), subordinate to the imperative of profit at any cost—and thus of unlimited accumulation—is what is causing the breakdown of equilibria in the ecosystem. We are not talking about the Anthropocene then, but rather of the “Capitalocene.”
We met Moore in Ragusa, where Salvo Torre, a professor at the University of Catania, has organized an intensive seminar on “world-ecology” and the current global crisis, scheduled to take place before the conference in Naples on June 9 entitled “Ecologie politiche del presente” (“Political ecologies of the present time”), which will include other academics who are also engaged in research on issues of political ecology and socio-ecological conflicts.
In your perspective, labor and nature are two sides of the same coin, especially if one considers the capitalist need to produce greater quantities of goods at increasingly lower costs. How, then, is the relationship between cheap nature and cheap labor constituted?
My starting point is the awareness that capitalism is not just a practice of economic exploitation of labor, but also—and more fundamentally—a historical form of domination that extends to domestic labor, servile labor and labor involving nature. In this sense, capital always has the need to produce cheap nature, in order to continuously relaunch the process of accumulation. This word, “cheap,” does not only refer to its low cost. It should be understood rather as a comprehensive strategy, in which the reduction in price is subordinate to a more general degradation, in terms of a “lesser” dignity and respect afforded to the dominated subjects: women, colonized peoples and the environment. In this view, cheap labor is only one element of a nature which is subjected to violence by capital, and it should be thought of both in terms of an economic dynamic aimed at lowering the costs of salaries, i.e. the cost, as well as the value, of the labor force, as well as in terms of a project of expansion of unpaid labor, which, even though it has been rendered invisible, is occurring in the realm of human reproduction.
In your book, you argue that in the current economic situation, capitalism has exhausted its own ability to produce cheap nature. Where does this belief come from?
Every cycle of wealth accumulation so far has required at least four cheap elements. These so-called “four cheaps,” narrowed down to the goods necessary for wealth accumulation, have been labor force, food, energy and raw materials. Every great wave of wealth accumulation on the global scale has developed based on extensive reconstructions of “world-ecology,” which have been centered around agricultural revolutions. The present moment is the latest in a long history of limitations and crises that capital has faced. However, I think today the conditions that can reproduce this kind of process are not present anymore, primarily because of climate change, which has the effect of increasing costs and reducing the availability of each of these elements. Nature is hitting us with the bill, and demanding payment for what we have been extracting from it for centuries.
A glaring recent example of this is the progressively higher cost of agriculture, in terms of both energy and biology. The consumption of reserves at a planetary level is so high that by 2050, the crops being grown will yield considerably less than any likely expectations of the global food market.
Your field of research has an explicit militant dimension. What are the main tools of mobilization offered by this perspective of “world-ecology”?
My hope is that this theoretical research may provide useful insights for the social movements around the world that are fighting not only the effects, but especially the root causes of climate change. Naomi Klein has used the very appropriate term “Blockadia” to refer to this transnational and itinerant conflict zone that includes and ties together union struggles, ecological movements for climate justice and popular movements of extraordinary power such as Black Lives Matter, Idle No More and Standing Rock. I think it is time to ask the question of how we can build a post-capitalist counter-hegemony, which could effectively counter the disastrous environmental policies imposed by neoliberalism.
In the book I wrote together with Raj Patel, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things (in Italian Una storia del mondo a buon mercato, published by Feltrinelli), we try to give some indications toward this goal and we talk about the ecology of reparations, which includes monetary compensation for ecological debt, but, of course, is not limited to it. In particular, we identify different forms of the redistribution of wealth—both social and environmental—as indispensable, as well as the reinvention of labor beyond its mere salaried form.
After all, who said that work should be nothing but a daily grind, and not a form of joyful sharing? On this point, it is important to be clear: the ecological revolution is absolutely incompatible with the so-called “work ethic,” which, moreover, is nothing but a painful heritage from colonialism.
In summary: we do not dispute that hard work and effort is required to produce what is needed for social well-being, but we ask that the work be made, as much as possible, more meaningful and enjoyable. Most of all, we hope that the struggles of working men and women will be able to radically change the current perverse relationship between labor, life and play, which capitalism is violently imposing.