Interview: Humans Aren’t Inherently Destroying the Planet — Capitalism Is

A new book dubs our current geological era the “Capitalocene.”d3sign / Getty Images

"Capitalism depends on the policing of human bodies of so that there are humans whose lives are systematically cheaper"

Truthout - November 18, 2019

One of the biggest ironies of the right-wing trope accusing socialists of wanting “free stuff” is that in reality, the entire capitalist economy would immediately collapse if it couldn’t continue to rely on free stuff. Without free or artificially cheap access to things like natural resources, care work, labor and a whole array of other elements, capitalism could not stay afloat. In fact, the only way that capitalism was ever able to even emerge was through a process of “primitive accumulation” — where things like slavery and colonialism were utilized to extract free labor and resources.

It’s this oft-forgotten history that compelled Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore to write History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet. The book unpacks our modern capitalist world by tracing the fraught history of how seven elements — nature, money, work, care, food, energy and lives — were transformed and reshaped during the emergence of capitalism and up through to the modern day.

Truthout spoke with the book’s co-author Raj Patel, an activist and academic, about why the authors are calling the new geological era that we’re in the “Capitalocene,” and how this era has led to a complete transformation of how we view some of the most important elements in our lives, and what we can do about it.

You begin the book by introducing the concept of the “Capitalocene.” Can you explain what that term means and its significance?

Raj Patel: We begin the book talking about the Capitalocene as a way of intervening in discussions that are proliferating right now, particularly in the climate change debate around the Anthropocene, which is a term coined by geologists and climate scientists to describe what it is that humans have done to the planet. The reason we wanted to call it the Capitalocene — in fact my co-author Jason W. Moore coined that term in an earlier work — is to observe that to call it the Anthropocene is misleading.

The Anthropocene is a term that suggests that there’s a geological era that is characterized by human activity, but it’s more accurate to say that the scale of this geological era, characterized by the things that humans have laid into the fossil record — things like plastic, things like residues from atmospheric nuclear weapons tests, things like chicken bone — none of those things have been caused by humans in the normal operation of going about our daily business. On the contrary, it’s a particular kind of human society that has caused all these things — and that’s capitalism.

So we call it the Capitalocene because it’s not some innate quality of humans that has destroyed the planet, it’s a product of how the system of capitalism operates. If we are to stop the destruction of the planet, then we need to name the systems that cause it and observe that there are some humans who had nothing to do with it — that some humans are very importantly not to blame for what gets called the Anthropocene. Labeling them with the same term as other humans not only blames the victim in some cases, but it also obscures potential solutions to the climate crisis that aren’t about exploiting nature but are about entering into a much more reasonable relationship to the web of life.

And you argue that we are coming to the end of the Capitalocene era?

What we point out in the book is that the climate catastrophe is such that the Capitalocene cannot persist — not in the way that it has for the past few hundred years. We don’t make any prognostications about how capitalism ends, but we do note that capitalism began in a period of intense climate change and the spread of epidemic disease. We observe that capitalism has shown itself very adept at creating climate change and also through industrial agriculture creating the conditions that would be perfect incubating grounds for epidemic disease. ...
Read full interview at Truthout

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