Mon 17 Feb: World Systems, History and Ecology

Start Forums Courses Current Debates and Themes in Global Environmental History Mon 17 Feb: World Systems, History and Ecology

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February 19, 2014 at 13:34 #11654

Reply to Nisa’s post
Nisa, thank you for interesting and well written thoughts and comments. In your reflection, Moore’s historical-ecological method and how this methodology could (or could not) translate into historical practice seem to be your main focus. First I would like to begin with commenting on your initial statement, that the transcending of the nature/culture divide has stuck in your head during our program in global environmental history. I find this interesting since this is something I have also pondered a lot about myself. As you mentioned, this divide and the importance of overcoming it, has been emphasized repeatedly during our first semester, and I have been thinking about whether the constant emphasizing of the phenomena is continuing to reinforce it or actually changes it. It’s an ongoing discussion I guess. But have this mantra in some way opened up or changed your ‘constructive approach’ to human-nature assumptions since we began the program? Or has it stayed the same?
It might be my own somewhat difficulties to fully grasp some of Moore’s concepts and ideas, but for me it is a bit difficult to follow your argument on why you cannot see how practicing history can be to locate cumulative and cyclical moments in the capitalist world ecology. You seem to be missing an analysis of how historical practice is produced within Moore’s capitalist world-ecology, oikeios. This is a relevant critique and I think it would be very interesting to hear Moore’s answer to your objections.

February 19, 2014 at 13:40 #11655

Comment on Yaqi’s reflection

After reading your reflection Yaqi, I got the impression that your reflection went beyond merely theoretical musings. Which is good, musing is the easy way out. I appreciate your personal input into this text; you did not simply evaluate Moore’s theory in terms of coherency, or purely theoretical interest, rather you evaluated what kind of truth about the world or consequences Moore’s claims carry. I agree with you that we should not count on another agricultural or techno-scientific revolution to save capitalism (not us, mind you), however I do not think that Moore actually claims that another plunder/production moment should happen, I believe he claims that capitalism needs new frontiers and agricultural revolution. So, I think Moore does not desire Chinese people to suffer that burden, rather he sees China’s struggle as another symptom of the crisis of capitalism. It seems like a dead-end and you propose an inwards revolution of the self, as I understand it. However, I think we should not understand and tackle this problem with moralizing and depoliticizing the struggle. By internalizing the problem and translating the economological crisis into individual guilt, we only make it easier for those who control the flows of capital and forces of production. Internalizing the guilt and choosing an ascetic way of life is another victory for capital, though I understand what you mean by calling for fairness and justice. We eat while the people who fill our bellies are hungry, but do you think consuming less would make it better? How does this rearrange the unequal distribution of wealth? If I buy local food (if indeed I can afford it, since it is much more expensive), lead an introspective, good life, do I change something? Rather, we should seize the struggle as a political one and not be afraid of »radical change« as you put it.
As I said in the beginning, I am very thankful for your personal take on this topic and it gave me courage to express my own. I hope we understand each other!

February 19, 2014 at 14:04 #11659
Sanna Karlsson

Reply to Nik Petek:

I really liked your reflection and the things you came up with. Your point of view in that we human beings tend to see ourselves in the light of being ”on top of nature” is one that I take as well. Of course that is not to say we are completely separated from nature and that is important to understand. The view of not being separated from nature is more inclined with the concept of ”world-ecology”. However, there is no other species who take advantage and dominion over nature as does us humans and therefore the concept of Anthropocene is to me relevant.
I could believe that Moore was reacting to a standardized version of the Anthropocene, like you mentioned resonates better with the early studies done in the field. You did not clearly give a description of the way in which the later studies of the Anthropocene differs from the earlier ones, but I would assume you mean they do not separate humans and nature as completely as the other ones. If this is the case, it would have been interesting to see what stand Moore takes on these latter studies. To syntesize the two and take on a more holistic approach could probably lead to greater understanding, and possibly faster action against the climate change/the wrong relationship between humans and nature than working with one or the other one of them.
I also agree with your point that in Moore´s stance it seems as if humanity is passive actors throughout history. You also described that Moore almost seem to set capitalism as the problem. In one way, I do not agree with you on this since I believe he tried to shift from capitalism as being the problem to ”capitalism as word-ecology ” as being the problem. On the other hand I do agree with you since he thus argues that we are dialectically bound to nature, but that we at the same time have to revaluate this relationship to nature since we see ourselves as being ”on top of it” (in this way not being passive actors/not the fault of capitalism). The last part sounds very much like the Anthropocene to me – that we have to acknowledge that we currently have that relationship to nature.
Maybe then what some speakers for the Anthropocene miss – and Moore does not – is how we can explain the rightful relationship we should have with nature instead, being oikeios, world-ecology. Moore has a gives us a good vocabulary around it. To keep a perspective both on the separation and the unification of the human and extra-human relationship is in this way I believe equally important, that is, the Anthropocene and world-ecology. As such, I share your opinion on how the two perspectives can learn from and benefit each other. Only by understanding the complexity of the picture can one deal with it easier. Lastly, I do believe Moore has an important point in speaking of capitalism in relation to the environment, which not all environmentalists tend to do, and in effect, adds on essential capitalistic aspects to the debates on environmental issues.

February 19, 2014 at 16:25 #11660

In response to Sabbath Sunday –

It was interesting to read your post – thanks for sharing. It appears that you are a fan of Immanuel Wallerstein – as am I. His call for intellectual change through world-systems analysis has been answered by Moore, but also, as Moore writes himself, by his mentor Giovanni Arrighi. Wallerstein also has a pretty great website where he posts bi-monthly commentaries, the latest one was about protests in the Ukraine (check it here →
You touch on a lot of good points made by Moore, though one thing that has caught my attention is how you have discussed the concept of “oikeios”. In my readings of Moore’s articles it seems to me that his construction of the term oikeios is based around “that messy bundle of relations that give rise to the nature-society dialectic” (2010: 392). From what I understand Moore doesn’t recognize the oikeios to be harmonic. I am of the opinion that oikeios (human in environment relations) are never entirely consistent, orderly, or congruent. The application of the term dialectic is so appropriate when conceptualizing the oikeios because of the fluidity, tension, and redefinition of human environment relations. I think the word oikeios is still imperfect for capturing human environment dialectical relations because it is a reinvention of a previous definition for a different but somewhat related concept (indicating relations between plant species and the environment). It is good that you brought attention to the difficulty of finding the appropriate language to communicate the oikeios, a concept which to understand requires a paradigm shift in mainstream perceptions of the world we inhabit. Having a background in archaeology, I think the idea of the anthropocene is a step in the right direction, but it still feels temporally and spatially bounded to “when humans begin to impact their environments”, which is a construction that moves us away from understanding what Moore calls the oikeios. I’ve yet to encounter the perfect word or phrase that is capable of relaying “the messy bundle”, but it’s important to find it and disseminate it if we hope to go beyond the human nature binary and closer to what is surely the truth.

February 19, 2014 at 16:34 #11661

Response to Gao Yongliang’s reflection

By Yaqi Fu

Thanks very much for your comprehensive reflection. Personally I understand your feelings as well.

From the first part in your reflection I can see you are confused about terminological words that Moore used in his article. I agree with you on this problem. Since he seemed to prefer using some “big words” in his essays. It’s easy to get lost if there is insufficient of explanation. Global issues are hard to solve and even to find a way in solving. These “big words” may lead it to the air, but not real solutions, and further as you said, make readers hard to evaluate and comment on his work. But on the other side, it’s helpful to know some new terminology in his articles.

The second part of your essay is about trans-disciplinary thinking. You found Moore’s work is more focused on economical and political history, but less on environmental history. I think that is true. Moore believed current environmental problems are in fact historical, and environmental history can not be studied without understanding capitalism in history and neoliberalism now. In Moore’s idea, environmental problems are much more complicated than what you (I also) understand. This is good to have a broad view on environment issues, I think.

In the third part you questioned if his articles seem to present so much theories but not enough facts. I agree with you on this side. Cheap food is also of my interest. In explaining cheap food, he uses the historical facts in the capitalism age, and a chart to show the price fluctuation in the current time. But it still gives me a feeling that the evidence is so general and partial. From cheap food, he extended to hegemony, capitalism, ecology, neoliberalism and what more. This trial is creative and provoking, and makes us reflect ourselves what is next when cheap food ends. But it’s so broad that gives another feeling that we can not catch any certainty of facts.

December 18, 2014 at 14:53 #15781

Markus Nyström
Complementary task for seminar 2, 17 february 2013, Jason Moore

Moore argues that capitalism as we know it may very well crumble within the next few decades. I believe neoliberalism, as the over-arching ideological framework for contemorary capitalism, will come to crumble or change long before that and that this change might already have started. In this paper I present some of my thoughts towards this “whatever-comes-next” as I try to summerize the literature and the written reflections of my colleagues.
Reading Moore’s articles and the reflections from the saminar, I can’t help thinking that the “four cheaps” actually might have been five. If food, energy, natural resources and labor has traditionally been the “four cheaps”, the four frontiers of capital that need to be expanded in order for further capital accumulation to be possible, then finincialization – crucial to neoliberalism – could be regarded as a fifth cheap, a fifth frontier to expand. Financialization, as I understand it, is really the symbolic or abstract side of economics, not connected to real production or consumption, but founded on the symbolic properties of economics. A frontier of the symbolic, so to speak, the increase of finincialization within neoliberal economics seems to me like a final, daring attempt to bloat the symbols rather than the products of capitalism into obcene proportions and forms in order to allow capital to accumulate further.
I see this in the field I am studying with my master thesis, namely the mining industry in Sweden. Over the last few years, there has been around a thousand active prospecting permits issued by the Swedish Mining Inspectorate. At the same time, only around 15 mines are in operation. Many of the places where prospectors have permits to explore will never be turned into mining operations, not (only) because the bedrock does not contain sufficiently high levels of whatever minerals the prospector is looking for, but because the companies in this business are not really interested in developing the deposits at all. What they are interested in is to bloat the value of shares by artificially increasing the anticipation of the potential wealth of a (theoretical) mine. The Swedish mining industry is an interesting example where something so concrete as mining – one of the four cheaps (raw materials) – has been financialized to the point where the actual mining is not what produces most growth in the industry. It is the speculation, the anticipation, the potential and the symbolic that are truelly growing. This at the same time as the cumbersome activity of actually procuring minerals is subject to ever stronger indications of decreasing marginal returns.
Moore argues that the 2008 economic crisis was in fact a “signal crisis” for neoliberalism’s demise. According to Anna Shoemaker, Moore also argued in the seminar that “capitalism is done for”, that the next few decades will be a period of collapse of the the four cheaps and thus of capitalism. Since capitalism is, according to Moore, a “world-ecology”, this would necessarily mean that the coming decades will entail a collapse of the capitalist approach of deviding culture from nature.
Whenever I come across lecturers or writers talking about neoliberalism, I think of a lecture a attended many years ago by Sverker Gustavsson, Professor Emeritus in Government studies at Uppsala university. He talked about the period after WWII in Europe as divided in two – first “l’or trente”, the “golden thirty”, when social democratic ideas were prevailing. Large infrastructure projects were launched around Europe, payed through public means, which lay the groundwork for the modern welfare state. Then came the neoliberal era, initiated by Thatcher and Reagan and the oil crisis in the 1970’s. The public wealth built up during the previous thirty years was sold out more and more, free trade and financialization, and the state turned from an institution which through ideological debates governed the economy and society to an institution which had as its primery role to facilitate a liberal economics. (This is why political debates today [in Sweden at least] are more about throwing numbers and statistics at each other rather than an ideological dialogue where different worldviews and perspectives on humanity are discussed).
Now that the neoliberal paradigm, just like the “golden thirty”, is drawing close to thirty years old, is there something new coming? If so, what?
I believe something new has probably already come. The idea that human society is divorced from ecology – the Cartesian divide, the fake dichotomy of nature/culture – has been questioned in influential circles for quite some time, but the extent to which this critique has taken hold of the general society is something I believe has increased a lot over the last few years. From my very limited perspective and subjective experience, I distinctly get the feeling that fewer and fewer actually buy into the idea that we can solve the environmental crises by investing more into the structures that lead to the crises in the first place – i.e. that technology and markets can solve that which obviously is a crisis of technology and markets. Criticizing the idea of endless growth is commonplace today (especially, perhaps, since the publication of Tim Jackson’s bestseller Prosperity Without Growth). Again, an example from the mining industry might help clarify, as the ministers of commerse and environment in Sweden published a debate article claiming that we need more mines in order to build environmentally friendly technologies so that our society can be sustainable.1 It is my understanding and experience that twenty years ago, or indeed just ten or five years ago, most people would agree and understand this argument. But today, I think most Swedish people understand the logical gap in the reasoning: in order to “save the environment” with the help of green technology, we need to destroy the environment through mining. I do believe there is a deeper understanding today generally of the “world-ecology” property of modern capitalism, that the dichotomy of nature/culture (or even more to the point: nature/economy) is flawed and fake.
These are of course just my own observations, made from my own perspective, but I believe this is where whatever-comes-next takes its beginning. As much as the welfare state got the blame when neoliberal ideas started to flourish in the 1970’s, so too will the hallmark of neoliberalism – the faith in and relentless persuit of exponential growth, at any cost – be criticized. Even though neoliberalism has done a great job of including “green” ideals – green modernism – into the ideology, I can’t imagine that the flawed premise of green modernism (endless growth on a finite planet) will be able to withstand critical debate for very long as the global economy heads into new and prolonged crises.
Moore’s holistic perspective on capitalism, that it is a “world-ecology”, not just a social or economic system, is intriguing to me. It reminds me of what Alf Hornborg argues political ecology is about, namely to erase the disciplinary barriers between environment, economy and technology, and instead regard the whole thing as one system. Indeed, they seem to both share origins in Wallerstein’s world-system theory and, deeper still, a Marxist approach.
As such, I wonder if whatever-comes-next will also question other dichotomies and ideas advanced by neoliberalism, in particular neoliberal conceptions of individualism and competition as the natural state of human existence rather than collectives and collaboration. Mark Fisher, in his book Capitalist Realism (2009), argued that the dramatic increase in mental health problems in western society is regarded as wrongly tuned chemical balances in the brain of the individual rather than an effect of a soceity which makes people sick. Will this rampant individualistic perspective also be put into question? Fisher morover argues that bureaucracy has increased enormously in the neoliberal era, not decreased as promised, because of increased needs to monitor individual performance, etcetera. Fisher argues that here lies a real ground for questioning the one thing neoliberalism usually claims it really does achieve: efficiency. Will that too come under scrutiny as the four cheaps start to crumble and societies need to restructure and reorganize?
In my ears, this all sound rather promising, but there are of course huge risks. The increase in neofascist movements in Europe today is no small matter. If this movement is left unchallenged to define problems and solutions as capitalism starts to crumble (like Moore suggests it will), an incredably dark period could very well come to pass.

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