On the Concept of Nature Today

Looking back at the class on the philosophy of the environment I’ve just concluded, it seems to me — in good Hegelian fashion — that only now am I in a place to talk about the course’s methodology. To design a syllabus is a matter of selection, and every selection is politically as well as conceptually informed.

After a brief introduction to the problem of the actuality of global climate change with Naomi Klein — whose This Changes Everything we read throughout — the class began in earnest with Marx. From Capital, vol. I we read chapters 7, 16, 23, and the first two parts of 24. This gave us the distinction between the production of commodities and the production of surplus-value, which is the real end of capitalist production; the distinction between absolute and relative-surplus value, which let us think about some of the mechanisms by which surplus-value is produced; and a basic idea of capital’s expansive tendency, the propensity for capitalism to reproduce itself on an ever-increasing scale.

So why begin with Marx? I simply do not think that it is possible to develop an adequate understanding of the problems of environmental or ecological crisis, or natural resource depletion, unless we put them in the context of concrete social relations of production.

I will allow myself the luxury of a polemical digression here. The question could also have been: why not begin with Heidegger? After all, a lot of continentalist work on the environment takes Heidegger as the philosophical point of departure, whether via the concepts of technicity and enframing, dwelling and the earth, or even Ereignis. One knows the critique of technology, which Heidegger tells us is not a particular kind of product or production, but is rather a mode of revealing being [aletheia] that, by enframing and ordering it in a certain way, reduces it to a pure means: ‘The revealing that rules in modern technology is a challenging, which puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such. … Everywhere everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately on hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering. Whatever is ordered about in this way has its own standing. We call it the standing-reserve [Bestand].’ Modernity is cast as the historical era in which this technicity comes to reign supreme among ways of revealing being, in which being and nature are not poetically engaged with but are enframed, reduced always and everywhere to the standing-reserve, that teleologically subordinated way of being a mere means on hand. And thus we ruin the Rhine. Often then we are instructed to seek escape from this teleological schema, cultivating the ethical disposition of Gelassenheit or letting-be; not to use nature or make use of it, indeed to refuse even to frame nature as something for use, but rather to let it be what it is in its being.

Now there is a long tradition of ethical thought that, in many ways, reaches its apex in Kant, in which the principle of morally reprehensible behavior is identified as treating a person as a means. Kant’s second articulation of the categorical imperative, in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, in the form of the ‘supreme practical principle’, runs as follows: ‘act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an ends, never merely as a means.’ It’s hard to object to the claim that to follow this rule would be categorically ethical, and easy to multiply instances of clearly unethical actions that break it. In any event, one can read Heidegger’s critique of technology as a critique of Kant’s moral philosophy, not for the formal character of the imperative, but for its illegitimate restriction to humanity alone: it’s not just people that shouldn’t be treated ‘merely as a means’ — when we move to the level of fundamental ontology, nothing should. So that also animals, but even forests, mountains, and coal deposits ought never to be used as a mere means.

For the most part I think this is all fine. Much of the Heideggerian language here can be reformulated — without, I think, too much loss — into terms deployed by the figures we read in the class: ‘enframing’ is something like the ideologies of nature critically analyzed by Neil Smith; an imaginative vision of practical Gelassenheit could sound a lot like the practices of renewal and regeneration that Klein argues for toward the end of This Changes Everything. And surely Merchant, Haraway, and Moore agree that there’s something violent and destructive, and ultimately self-destructive, about treating nature as a pure means. So why do I prefer this Marxist lineage to the Heideggerian approach?

First, the whole way the story is constructed is one in which the problem is modernity, and consequently the goal will be to get back behind modernity, to suspend the modern enframing of technicity, in order to reclaim a more authentic or primordial way of letting being be. Now of course history does not teach us that before the advent of modernity (let’s say the 1600s? or does modernity commence with Plato?) humanity lived in a golden age of harmonious coexistence with each other and with nature. I am at this point usually informed that I am misreading Heidegger, and that there is no romantic nostalgia at work in these lines. In any case it all sounds a bit too theological to me, this fall from grace that we call the destining of modernity.

My second objection is that this story doesn’t involve any concrete historical account. An adequate response to a problem, I think, requires that its causes and conditions be articulated, both historically and conceptually. Even if the Heideggerian, being no romantic, correctly identifies that we abuse nature by enframing it as standing-reserve — this does not tell me why we do so today, or in any concrete way how we do so. The Marxist approach here seems to be both less abstract and more compelling; it tells me about the dynamics of capitalist social organization — accumulation and expanded reproduction — and explains why it is necessary that, under conditions of capitalist production, and certainly from the 1450s onward, nature will come to be exploited to catastrophic exhaustion. This strikes me as just much more helpful, and certainly as more historically concrete.

Finally, if I’m not convinced we’ve accurately named the problem with modernity, I’m equally unsatisfied by the suggestion that the problem is technology as such. I am not sure it is possible or even desirable to reject modern technology either in its technical forms or as a way of framing things through means and ends. As a pure matter of fact, I would argue, the scope and scale of the logistical problems involved in contemporary social organization are only navigable through a thoughtful and concerted mobilization of a wide variety of modern technologies. For example, rising sea levels will, within decades, drown millions of people, primarily impoverished people of color in global south megacities, unless those people are relocated en masse, or unless we undertake massive constructions of levies and dams; surely neither will be possible without the appropriation and repurposing of a host of natural matters and energies. Similarly, the logistics of providing sustainable, nourishing food for over seven billion humans — which, let us remind ourselves, contemporary capital does not and will not do — is almost certainly an impossible task without deploying advanced technological and scientific knowledges.

Simply put then I think the way out of the present crisis must be a passage through it. I think it would be suicidal, and catastrophic for nonhuman natures, to have allowed imperial capital to develop and deploy modern technologies to get us to where we are today, on the eve of the sixth great extinction event, but then to jettison technoscience entirely in favor of other modes of relating or revealing. But this requires that we cultivate some understanding of how scientific knowledges are produced and of the concrete mechanisms of technological intervention available to us today.

Preventing a lapse into naïve scientism here is this recognition of the historical fact that capital and empire have been more than capable of using technoscience for its ends, and if Marx and Moore are correct, those ends — the continued and always-increasing accumulation of capital — are necessarily incompatible with global sustainability, no matter how you parse it. Justin McBrien’s somewhat stronger formulation is that capital accumulation just is the process of extinction, and the continued development of scientific knowledges in the 20th and 21st centuries under the auspices of global capital have certainly not done much to respond to this catastrophic identity.

The development and deployment of technology and science must therefore be accompanied, complemented and constrained by a historically and politically informed critique of their logics and presuppositions, their historically accreted prejudices and entwinements with asymmetrical power relations. For this I had the class turn to the critical feminist philosophy of science and epistemology of Donna Haraway, the ecofeminist philosophies and critiques surveyed by Carolyn Merchant, and the affirmative xenofeminist injunction to experiment with alienation and nature-hacking. These all suggest that science and technology are neither emancipatory nor repressive in themselves, but that this is a matter of their specific orientation and the manner of their mobilization. And while all voice serious doubts and reservations about the whole enlightenment project of scientific knowledge production, they also keep alive a cautiously optimistic sense that these knowledges and technologies might be critically disentangled from their imperial and patriarchal origins and put to genuinely emancipatory use. So that, for example, when above I suggested that feeding several billion is probably impossible without modern science and technology, this was absolutely not to advocate for colonialist monocultures, high-carbon industrial animal farming, or the intellectual property racket of GMO agricultural production.

This class was about the politics of scientific knowledge production, the ecological foundations and consequences of capital, and the critical prospects of emancipation-in-nature. My position is that questions like: what is the environment? or: what is nature? cannot be answered in an even minimally adequate way without involving historical relations of power, modes of social organization and production, and the limits of scientific discursive formations. If we leave any one of these out, we end up with a one-sided or idealist concept of nature or the environment, which ignores or obscures its historical character, its role in relations of social organization, or the way it is bound up with class struggle and the constructions of race and gender. That is: we end up with a bad concept.

If philosophy is a practice of constructing concepts, of exploring and expressing conceptual necessity, in this class I tried to argue that these determinations are all necessarily involved in an adequate concept of nature today. If I wasn’t able to make that argument convincingly in ten weeks, I still learned a lot from making the effort. And hopefully my students are better off for the experience too; they were fantastic, and deserved at least that much.


Recommended viewing: Chasing Ice, The World of Tomorrow, ‘Cities’ from Planet Earth II.

Accumulation and Ecological Surplus

Capitalism, Jason Moore argues, is a system of organizing nature in which the aim is the accumulation of surplus-value and the means are twofold: the exploitation of labor-power and the appropriation of unpaid work and energy from human and nonhuman natures. Following Marx, he contends that the capitalist manner of organizing commodity production enables the extraction of surplus-value, but that those same dynamics lead to a decline in the rate of profit; this leads to crises which, Moore adds, can only be resolved by the production and appropriation of new cheap natures that offset the rising costs of production.

Chapter 4 of Capitalism in the Web of Life, entitled ‘The Tendency of the Ecological Surplus to Fall’, focuses on how these cheap natures tend to get costly. If the pressures of economic crises can be dissipated by appropriating the productive forces of human and nonhuman natures, what are the limits of this process? Moore will argue that the limits are internal to capital, and thus that the dialectic of capitalist accumulation is necessarily unsustainable.

Accumulation Crises

To begin let us consider where the crisis comes from. As Moore glosses it, the ‘general law of capitalist accumulation’ is that, in the development of capitalist relations of production and exchange, capital accumulates in the hands of a few capitalists and poverty accumulates in the hands of laborers. But it is these laborers who keep the whole system going by purchasing and consuming those very commodities produced. So at some point, just by virtue of how this general law plays out, there arise moments where the commodities produced are too expensive for consumers to purchase. “In one sense, this is an overproduction problem: too many factories produce too many cars, or refrigerators, or computers that cannot be purchased in sufficient volumes to maintain the rate of profit. In another sense, it is an overaccumulation problem: the rate of profit in existing investment lines begins to fall, and new, more profitable investment opportunities have not emerged.” (91)

Moore points out that, prior to capitalism, this problem did not exist: overproduction was never much of an issue for feudal and premodern economic systems. The problem there was underproduction. But since the circuits of commodity production involve increasing the productivity of labor in order to extract greater shares of surplus-value, especially since the industrial revolutions in the 18th century, the problem became one of overproduction and overaccumulation.

Prior to this revolution, though, a particular form of underproduction still haunted capital, and Moore draws our attention to this historical dynamic: the underproduction, not of commodities, but of the Cheap Natures that make the process of accumulation possible. “Early capitalism’s greatest problem centered on the delivery of cheap inputs to the factory gates, not on selling the commodities that issued from manufacturing centers.” (92) In other words, he wants us to look at the logical and historical dynamics on the side of the production and appropriation of natures.

Let’s recall a few of Marx’s distinctions, which Moore draws on here. In general, capital is invested in both the means and forces of production in order to constitute a process of production that yields a commodity. Marx distinguishes between variable and constant capital, and then between fixed and circulating forms of the latter.

1. Variable capital is the hired workforce, the waged labor-power.

2. Constant capital is everything else: raw materials, energy, machinery, etc. The distinction between fixed and circulating constant capital hinges on whether these are consumed in a single cycle of production.

a. Fixed constant capital is whatever is not consumed, what outlasts the production cycle: the buildings, the machinery, and also, as Moore says, “other extra-human forces of production, including animals.” (93) These will eventually need to be replaced, but last for long periods of time, and so their reproduction is not immediately necessary.

b. Circulating constant capital is the raw materials and energy used up in the production process. Because they are immediately consumed in the production process, they need to be replaced in each cycle of production.

Capitalist accumulation tends to increase the ratio of constant to variable capital; and, internal to constant capital, tends to increase the ratio of fixed to circulating constant capital. Simply put, accumulation means that proportionally more capital is invested in machinery than in raw materials or labor. One consequence of this is that the demand for circulating constant capital rises faster than they can be supplied. That is, the dynamics of capitalist accumulation lead to the need for raw materials and energy growing faster than they can be provided. Moore summarizes: “The ‘overproduction’ of machinery (fixed capital) finds its dialectical antagonism in the ‘underproduction’ of raw materials (circulating capital). This law, like the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, is a dialectic of tendencies and counter-tendencies, in which the latter are endogenous.” (94)

Moore’s argument is that the ‘problem’ of this antagonism isn’t either overproduction or underproduction; it’s both, it’s in how they fit together as a necessary consequence of long periods of capitalist accumulation: overproduction of machinery, underproduction of raw materials and energy. Eventually the accumulation of fixed capital means that the factories are capable of making more commodities than there are raw materials with which to make them, food to feed the workers, or fuel with which to keep the lights on.

Ecological Surplus

At this point Moore introduces the concept of world-ecological surplus. The accumulation of value has two aspects or processes: exploitation of labor-power (capitalizing on production) and appropriation (drawing unpaid work and energy from human and nonhuman natures). The former take place in economic relations, the latter do not – they are extra-economic. “Appropriation works through projects to control, rationalize, and channel potentially unruly human and extra-human sources of unpaid work/energy, without immediately capitalizing these sources.” (95) In other words, the raw materials and energy are not directly commodified – they are not the object of capitalization – but they are appropriated as necessary in order to capitalize on labor-power.

Ecological surplus can then be described as follows: “When capitalists can set in motion small amounts of capital and appropriate large volumes of unpaid work/energy, the costs of production fall and the rate of profit rises. In these situations, there is a high world-ecological surplus (or simply, ‘ecological surplus’).” (95) Ecological surplus = high rate of appropriation, low rate of capital investment; this is what you get when the natures involved in raw materials and energy are cheap.

Moore shifts his analysis now from the logic of capital to the history of capitalism: in the past two decades at least, we’ve seen rising production costs and slowing productivity growth overall, and especially in the production of energy, suggesting that the ecological surplus is dwindling.

Historically this kind of economic depression is “resolved through world-ecological revolutions that create opportunities for windfall profits” – reconstructing socio-ecological relations so that the Four Cheaps (labor, food, energy, and raw materials) become cheap again. That is, what’s needed is “the production of new historical natures and their chief historical forms: successive waves of enclosure, imperial expansion, scientific practice, and dispossesionary movements.” (96)

So part of the Moore’s argument is that historical periods of high profit and capitalist accumulation are only possible when the ecological surplus itself is high – that is, when a high degree of appropriation of human and nonhuman natures takes place with only little capital investment, the costs of production drop and profits soar. The claim is that if these natures were not cheap, profits would not be possible in production and exchange. Ecological surplus is a condition for the possibility of capitalist accumulation.

Tendencies to Decline

However, the other side of Moore’s argument here is that this ecological surplus has a tendency to fall precisely in those periods when profits are high and accumulation takes place. “The ecological surplus declines over the course of every long wave of accumulation.” (97) If ecological surplus = lots of unpaid work/energy appropriated from nature relative to little capital investment, why would the rate of ecological surplus tend to fall? Moore gives four reasons.

1. There’s a sort of entropy involved, a generic ‘wear and tear’: appropriating natures tends to exhaust them.

2. Even if there were no entropic waste, still the ecological surplus would decline: “The mass of accumulated capital tends to rise faster than the appropriation of unpaid work/energy.” (97) Going back to our distinctions from Marx, accumulation tends toward investments in fixed and not in circulating constant capital.

3. There is a “contradiction between the reproduction time of capital and the reproduction times of the rest of nature.” (97) Capital constantly shortens production times to maximize the ratio of surplus to necessary labor-time and thus the rate of surplus-value. But there are no shortcuts to replenishing natural resources – these reproductive processes really do just take time.

4. The accumulation of capital itself becomes more wasteful over time. One form of this is expressed in what he calls the production of ‘negative values’: toxic wastes, for instance, are actively hostile to continued capitalist expansion, since they are destructive the very natures that capital needs to be cheaply productive. Moore says this feature of the dynamic is probably the most cumulatively significant.

The consequence of these four tendencies is that, if we look back historically, every great period of profit and accumulation begins with a high ecological surplus – food, energy, and raw materials are appropriated very cheaply – but over time these become increasingly expensive until the costs of production are too high, commodities become too expensive, and a crisis emerges. The strategy then becomes, as he puts it, actively constituting newly cheap historical natures.

In other words, there is a tension, within accumulation, between appropriation and capitalization or exploitation. Appropriation makes capitalization possible, but capitalization tends to make appropriation impossible by exhausting the ecological surplus. Moore’s claim is thus that if we want to talk about exploitation, we need to take into account three things: class struggle, the composition of commodity production (that proportion of constant and variable capital), and also “the contribution of unpaid work performed by human and extra-human natures alike.” (100)

Keeping these three factors in mind, we can look at the history of successive waves of accumulation and decline as oscillating back and forth between rising exploitation when natures are exhausted, and the creation of new natures that can be appropriated cheaply. “As these configurations tilt toward appropriation, world accumulation revives and a ‘golden age’ begins. When these configurations tilt towards capitalization, opportunities for investment at (or above) the average rate of profit decline, and various symptoms of capitalist stagnation appear – rising inequality, financialization, etc.” (102)

Peak Appropriation

One last concept introduced in the chapter is peak appropriation. Ecological conversations about ‘peak outputs’, most prominently that of ‘peak oil’, on Moore’s account, are insufficient insofar as they treat the natures in question simply as finite quantities, while failing to incorporate their relation to capitalist regimes of appropriation and exploitation. His dialectical approach leads to a more robust understanding of the role played by ‘peaks’.

Peak appropriation signifies a ratio in which maximal work/energy from human and nonhuman natures is appropriated relative to a minimum of capital investment. “The peak in question is not, then, a peak in output – of energy, or some other primary commodity. It is, rather, the peak ‘gap’ between the capital set in motion to produce a given commodity and the work/energy embodied in that commodity.” (106) It thus provides another way to think about ecological surplus: rising ecological surpluses reach their apex at the point of peak appropriation, after which the rate of ecological surplus falls.

Scarcity is a misleading concept, involving precisely the sort of fetish character Marx analyzed with respect to the commodity: an apparent given covers over the concrete dynamics of social relations of production and exchange that constitute it. “Depletion translates into scarcity only through the capitalist market, and that market is determined by all manner of mediations: social unrest, international conflict, state policies, petro-developmentalism, financialization, etc. … capital recognizes scarcity only through price, and that price (exchange-value) expresses middle- and long-term tendencies in the production of value.” (109) The depletion of resources today, the scarcity of a natural resource, is a function of the coproduction of capitalist social relations and historical natures.

Disturbingly, it appears that the real limits of capital are being reached as we speak; the historical dialectic of appropriation and exploitation is unsustainable in principle, and there are worrying signs that the natures we have progressively decimated, and on which this dialectic rests, cannot be made cheap again. If our neoliberal era is one characterized by the predominance of cheap money, the continual rise of production costs in the energy sector suggests that it is also the era of the end of Cheap Nature.