The Modern Assault On Nature The Making Of Ecocide

So many goodly cities ransacked and razed; so many nations destroyed and made desolate; so infinite millions of harmless people of all sexes, states and ages, massacred, ravaged and put to the sword; and the richest, the fairest and the best parts of the world topsiturvied, ruined and defaced for the traffic of Pearls and Pepper. (Montaigne, 1533-1592)1

The war on other species reflected the dominance of commercial ends. The ecological effects of the mercantilist age of capitalism, however, were to be found not simply in the destruction of animal species for profit, but in the creation of a world system of cash-crop production based on the transformation of nature and the subjugation of human labor. (John Bellamy Foster, Vulnerable Planet: A Short History of the Environment)2


The emergence of the modern era in the sixteenth century is inseparable from the emergence of capitalism as a historically novel mode of social organization. Successful development of capitalism as a comprehensive system of social relations fundamentally depends on the accumulation and reinvestment of profits in a free market. New class relations based on the capitalist mode of production first took shape in Europe, following the disintegration of the feudal order of medieval society.

Beginning roughly in the fifth century CE, following the eclipse of the Roman Empire and continuing into the fourteenth century, social relations based on agriculture and caste prevailed in Europe. Feudalism can be defined as a social and economic system centered on land worked by serfs, who were working agricultural producers bound to the land. The land was held by vassals, who pledged fealty to the overlords, who were titled members of nobility. They ruled feudal states, conferring land holdings on vassals in return for military services. Within the feudal mode, which historically preceded capitalism in Western Europe, the relations of production were characterized by feudal landlords using political and legal power to extract profit from an unfree peasantry in the countryside. This dynamic of social relations between town and countryside, together with the development of trade and manufacturing in the towns, was an important element in the dynamics of the feudal mode of production and the transition from feudalism to capitalism.3 This process intensified existing patterns of resource extraction. The Anglo-Saxons in Britain, for example, continued with the Roman practice of deforestation, leaving less than a tenth of the original forest that covered the island.4 Indeed, the use of large trees for the masts of naval and merchant ships in the late Middle Ages accelerated the destruction of forest all over feudal Europe.

In the last few centuries, capitalism has worn many faces and taken many forms. The words we associate with capitalism reflect its elusive breath: private property, business, laissez-faire, profit motive, the pursuit of self-interest, free enterprise, open marketplace, the bourgeoisie. For Adam Smith, it was an economic system loosed from the shackles of feudalism - a natural liberty to make, buy, and sell things. For Karl Marx, it was a vicious class order in which a few owned the means of production and the rest sold their labor to stay alive. For Max Weber, capitalism was a "spirit" that emphasized hard work, accumulation, and economic rationality.5 What separates capitalism sociologically from all the economic systems preceding it is not merely the unprecedented worldwide expansion of productive forces. The difference is also qualitative. Value is extracted through an impersonal economic mechanism based on the labor contract, whereas in all earlier societies the extraction of value took the form of a personalized system of tribute based on traditional, ascribed social relations.

All civilizations depend to some extent on the extraction of surplus labor. In feudal societies, exploitation is still direct and visible. Serfs were not only required to render services to a lord, but they were also attached to the lord's land. Profit extraction under capitalism, by contrast, occurs by economic means and is ideologically concealed in seemingly "free" relations of exchange. This novel mode of social production, its relations based on capital and labor, came to define a whole epoch and represented an altogether more efficient and more veiled form of exploitation. The transparency of economic phenomena in pre-capitalist societies on the one hand, and the concealment and opaqueness of exploitation under capitalism on the other, have led to the rise of the economic realm as an autonomous sphere. Whereas political forms of domination prevailed in early modern societies, market-based forms of authority emerged in later capitalist systems.

The expansion of agriculture in Britain in the seventeenth century was one of the determining factors in the first stages of capitalist development.6 But it was only in Atlantic societies that capitalism developed into the global system that dominated the next four centuries. The ecological setting was not inconsequential. As environmental sociologist Enrique Leff notes, "the high resilience of temperate zones permitted an intensive agriculture to develop that in tropical regions might have led to premature depletion of the soils and a disequilibrium in productive ecosystems, blocking the structural changes undertaken in this determinant phase of primitive capital accumulation."7

Economic historians disagree about the decisive social factors involved in the development of capitalism. Marx identified two main factors in the formation of the capitalist mode: first, emergence of autonomous craft manufacturing in the feudal towns around which capital developed; and, second, the growth of overseas trade, particularly the emergence of British trade with the Americas in the sixteenth century leading to the rise of merchant capital. By contrast, Max Weber laid great emphasis on political changes in Western European feudalism, particularly the contradiction between the centralizing tendencies of absolutism and the centrifugal forces associated with, and the local and regional power of feudal lords.

Yet both Marx and Weber associated capitalism with an outlook of a very specific kind: the continual accumulation of wealth for its own sake, rather than for the material rewards that it can serve to bring. Said Weber: "Man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of his life. Economic acquisition is no longer subordinated to man as the means for satisfaction of his material needs."8 Still, he emphasized the role of the Protestant ethic as containing the ethos and worldview of the newly emerging bourgeoisie.9 The entrepreneurs associated with the development of rational capitalism combine the impulse to accumulation with a positively frugal lifestyle. Weber finds the answer in the "this-worldly asceticism" of Puritanism, focusing on the concept of "calling."10 The notion of the calling, according to Weber, did not exist either in antiquity or in the Middle Ages; the Reformation introduced it.

Ultimately, feudalism was toppled by the expansion of markets and trade, together with the rise of a new ethos of the individual entrepreneur. Being first, English capitalism set a competitive challenge for others, compelling them - not least through England's military strength - to adapt to the new conditions. However, the existing conditions under which those countries had to compete with England differed greatly. In order to catch up with the more advanced and productive England, the rest of Europe was forced to utilize their absolutist systems as engines of capitalist development. This required a more centralized, concentrated, and interventionist pattern of development. The emergence of capitalism had givenrise to the geopolitical and ideological social phenomena of nationalism. The stage was set for the competitive framework of nation-states competing on the capitalist "world market."

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