Reply To: Mon 17 Feb: World Systems, History and Ecology

Author Replies # Posted on February 18, 2014 at 15:28

SEMINAR 2, 18th february 2014. Nisa Dedic
Overcoming the nature/human binary has almost become a mantra in my head since I’ve begun with my studies in environmental history. I do not know whether the sharp division was even more enforced in my new academic milieu, since to me it was a closed deal that there is nothing natural about humans and nothing natural about nature either. A naive constructivist approach, I suppose. In my reflection I will mainly focus on the historical-ecological method and historical practice/theory as ways of understanding/changing the capitalist world-ecology. Moore diagnoses two wide fields of practicing environmental history: one that focuses on biophysical conditions that enabled socio-environmental transformations and the other that focuses on consequences of human activity upon biophysical nature. Both of these practices are according to Moore still entrenched deep within the Cartesian mind/body divide, which he translates into his frame as »nature and capitalism«. Moore proposes a historical-ecological methodology that would write history as »capitalism in nature«; in other words, capital accumulation and production of human and extra human nature should not be understood as discrete phenomena but dialectically bound emergences. In this way environmental history could understand urban decay, debtocracy in the same bundle of flows as for example soil depletion.
Throughout my reading of Moore’s texts I was bothered by the question how does this proposed methodology translate into historical practice. I acknowledge that capitalism should not be understood in an asynchronic perspective; Moore’s syntagm historical capitalism is productive precisely because it understands capitalism and the master processes that are produced/producing in the capitalist world ecology (class, urbanization, agricultural revolutions etc.) as a flux not as »invariable structures«; yet at the same time Moore employs Marx’s general law of underproduction as the underlying tension of capital accumulation that pushes different stages of historical capitalism on the verge of signal or epochal crises, as a constant of capitalism. I am not opposing that the limit of capital is capital itself, yet I do not agree that the general law of underproduction can function as the organizing principle of practicing history. When a capitalist hegemony reaches a limit of exhaustion, when it basically endangers the conditions of further capital accumulation, a signal or epochal crisis emerges. Various strategies are employed by capitalists to continue capital accumulation: plunder/production duo as Moore calls it and accumulation by dispossession (Harvey) for example. This methodology practices history as cycles of accumulation and crises and searches for patterns in historical capitalism in accord with the questions what is cumulative, cyclical or novel, in other words, when quantitative change becoms qualitative. I accept the dialectic emergence of human and extra human nature that gravitates around the commodification of everything in the capitalist oikeios, but I cannot agree at practicing history as locating cumulative and cyclical moments in the capitalist world-ecology. It is hard to put my finger on what bothers me in Moore’s article but what I missed in them is a reflection on how historical practice itself is produced in the capitalist oikeios, and indeed it has to be since »no domain of human experience is off limits« (Moore:2011, p.135). This is why I find the concept of oikeios circular; oikeios is defined as the »fundamental ontological relation between humans and the rest of nature« (ibid., p.127), in turn historical master processes are expressions of this fundamental relation, and the fundamental relation emerges in capitalist world-ecology. What is the position of theory in this producing/produced dialectic? Can we practice historical theory that is not in accord with the capitalist oikeios then? Moore distinguishes the part/whole historical practice and I believe that the historical-ecological methodology simply would work better for understading master processes in specific historical, material contexts than at practicing grand history of cycles and qualitative leaps.