Nature in the limits to capital (and vice versa)

Of all the varieties of crisis thinking, ecological crisis is perhaps the least developed. It is certainly the least conceptualized. To be sure, there is no scar city of empirically rich analyses of biophysical shifts at every scale. But ecological crisis in its popular usage has been an expansive concept, implicating the widest range of human activity. It invokes questions of history, power and capital just as much as those of ecology. And therein lies the source of consider able confusion and uncertainty – not so much about what might happen (a necessarily contingent matter), but about what has happened, and how that history shapes the possibilities we face today.

Such weak conceptualization stems from a way of thinking with origins in the rise of capitalism, more than five centuries ago, which I will call ‘Cartesian dualism’, extending Descartes’ famous mind–body dualism to the notion that Nature and Society are epistemically, even ontologically, independent entities. That dualism powerfully shapes how we think, see and act upon ‘ecological crisis’ today.

Of several alternatives now emerging, the world ecology conversation has offered a means of reframing world history as a unity of power, capital and nature. If modern world history is typically viewed as a history of human relations with environmental consequences, a broader synthesis is suggested by four decades of Green thought: modernity does not only act upon nature, but develops through the web of life. I call this synthesis world-ecology – but not because it is committed to studying the ‘ecology of the world’. Rather, world-ecology is a way of conceptualizing and investigating historical change in the web of life. This optic is at once a protest against the ‘Cartesian’ binary and an alternative to it; the world ecology perspective engages capitalist civilization as a relation of all nature, including those symbolic and material relations between humans often viewed as unquestionably social. In this perspective, the relations of capital, labour and power move through, not around, nature. Culture and symbolic praxis, too, become ‘material forces’. We are dealing not with Nature/Society but with an ‘unbroken coincidence of being, knowing, and doing’.


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