Cheap Labour, Cheap Nature: Anthropocene and the Crisis of Capitalism

Sohini Sengupta

Even as the domains of science and humanities coalesce in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, a debate that spans a larger time and speaks of a much more universally destructive future has been questioning the need to bring into conversation the domains of nature and culture – the debate on the Anthropocene. Coined by Eugene Stoermer and Paul Crutzen, the Anthropocene inaugurates a new geological epoch and signifies the end to Holocene, the present epoch of geological time, which has stretched over the past 11,700 years of the Earth’s history. The need for the coinage of a new epoch was felt because of the social trends that were, and are, unsettling the natural system. Humans or Anthropos therefore become, as the name suggests, the central actant that is singlehandedly transforming biogeological systems in unprecedented ways.

While the question of whether human actions have truly become impactful enough to leave an impact on the geological timeframe of the Earth continues to be debated, that climate change is a problem that continues to haunt humanity is undeniable. The idea of the Anthropocene has realigned aspects of history, ethics, politics and poetics. It has also brought to light debates on modernity and globalization, and especially on capitalism. As Emmett and Lekan argue, the hypothesis of the Anthropocene “requires us to put global histories of capital in conversation with the species history of humans, as colonial expansion and capitalist accumulation produced both historical inequalities and locked in future climate instability tied to humanity at the level of a global population” (8). 

The Anthropocene argument has spiked two distinct worldviews around capitalism – one that dismisses, or at least problematises, locating the roots of climate change to fossil-capitalism, and therefore, to the imperial powers, and the other view that connects the two. Dipesh Chakrabarty famously claimed that the “the whole crisis [of climate change] cannot be reduced to a story of capitalism” (222). His contentions were read sceptically by Slavoj Zizek, who felt that the human species could only survive by “first resolving the particular deadlock of the capitalist mode of production”. Chakrabarty points out the complex nature of the web of consumption in a post-globalized era, one of his often-cited examples being the fact that in India especially, a large chunk of the consumers of air-conditioners today is formed by the lower-middle class families, many of which have only just managed to shore up the amount of money required here. Shall we blame capitalism and ask them to denounce what richer people have enjoyed before them? That hardly sounds fair. The chief conflict, one can now see, is between two lenses – the lens which sees all humanity as merely a species and holds this species as a whole as accountable, and the inevitable matrix of differences of caste, creed, colour, economy, state policies and so forth, which complicate the consumption of resources at any place in any moment. The slippage takes place, as Chakrabarty rightly points out, between the globe of globalization and the globe of global warming. The Anthropocene places before us difficult questions of ethics, of ownership and rights – between the poor and the rich, the developing and developed countries, and even the human and non-human, urging, at the same time, to recalibrate our traditions of history and politics.

Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narayan in their book Global Warming in an Unequal World: A Case of Environmental Colonialism (1991), argue that the developed Western countries are the chief source of global warming in the first place, and the Western logic holding Anthropos as the problem pins the blame on all humanity, thereby acting as a deterrent to the development of third-world countries. While this does ring in some sense true, one must admit that ‘right to pollute’ sounds dubious at best. Agarwal and Narayan appear to locate the roots of the climate crisis in the 500-year-old history of capitalism, in Europe, or more specifically in the English, and later American, industrial revolution. I would, however, like to demonstrate how, beyond the Anglozone, the rise in carbon-footprints begin with ‘fossil developmentalism’, fuelled by the state-driven moral project of energy expansion, rather than the colonial ‘fossil capitalism’.

While colonialism and the rise of imperial powers have commonly ascribed as the agent of industrialization in the colonies, if we consider the case of India, significant development was made in the post-colonial nation. To take a few examples, electricity provision in the newly independent India was “increasingly conceptualized as a national good and an entitlement … transcend[ing] the distinction between market and planned economies, and extended beyond formal democracies” (Chatterjee 1). Similarly, the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act of 1957 regulated the mineral resources of the country for national good. However, with growing globalization, the national (right-wing driven) economy increasingly disorients the border between public and capitalist policies. The 2020 bill towards the amendment of the MMDR Act now removes the restrictions of the end-use of coal, allowing the companies to make extensive use of the resources for their own consumption and sale; it has allowed foreign companies – those without prior mining experience in India, to participate in the auction for coal and lignite. The amendments in the Environment Impact Assessment Notification (2020) too point towards a great sway towards unrestrained resource exploitation. What eventually began as developmentalism is currently moving towards an energy race tangled in a global network of capitalist exploitation.

We therefore see a power-and-wealth dynamic of capitalism emerging out of the energy race; it can be seen at the same time, however, that the history of capitalism that is said to begin with the industrial revolution, remains an adequate and Eurocentric logic to the Anthropocene. Jason Moore, in his text Anthropocene or Capitalocene? emphasizes the role of capitalism to the point that ‘The Age of Man’ should be held as ‘The Age of Capital’. However, Moore opens an alternate, non-Eurocentric approach to capitalism. Deviating from the familiar historical notion of capitalism, Moore terms it as “a relation of capital, power, and nature as an organic whole, … world-ecological… a multi-species affair” (81). Capitalism is therefore not a pure social or economic phenomenon, but “a historically situated complex of metabolisms and assemblages” (Haraway et al. 21). Accusing the Anthropocene argument of erasing “the naturalized inequalities, alienation, and violence inscribed in modernity’s strategic relations of power and production”, Moore questions the anthropos as a collective, homogenous agent and tries to reconcile the two lenses that we discussed above, through a reformulation of the idea and the history of capitalism (82).

Capitalism in the face of climate change therefore opens up to become more than a crisis between the rich and the poor, while at the same time not discounting the human differences at ground level. The cash nexus now stretches to the idea of what Moore calls ‘Cheap nature’ or ‘proletarianization of nature’; capital and power inflict themselves upon nature. Environmental crises can no longer be held as separate from human crises under the singularities of Humanity and Nature. Even as the migrant workers of our country suffer from the depleting economy, the other end of the spectrum has “environmental refugees”, such as those displaced by super cyclone Amphan. The Anthropocene has forced us to acknowledge the need for a radical restructuring of history and politics, and most importantly, of ethics, that take into consideration the amalgamation of humans-in-nature and nature-in-human. The climate crisis may be interpreted as a crisis of capitalism, but capitalism as a broader, reformulated concept – the dual exploitation of human and nature. The need of the hour is therefore to understand nature and culture in synchrony, to visualise this through the lens that can include the non-human without ignoring the plight and interest of the human.  

Works Cited
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35 (2), 197-222, 2009.
Chatterjee, Elizabeth. “The Asian Anthropocene: Electricity and Fossil Developmentalism”, Journal of Asian Studies, 79 (1), 2020. pp. 3-24.
Emmett, Robert and Thomas Lekan. “Introduction”, Whose Anthropocene?: Revisiting Dipesh Chakrabarty’s “Four Theses”, 2016. pp. 5-15.
Haraway, Donna, and Martha Kenney. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene: Donna Haraway in Conversation with Martha Kenney.” Art in the Anthropocene, London: Open Humanities Press, 2015. pp. 255–70.
Moore,Jason W. Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism, PM Press, 2016.
Žižek, Slavoj. Living in the End Times, London: Verso, 2010, pp. 330–336.

Sohini Sengupta, Student, Department of English, Presidency University

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Oct 31, 2020

Sohini Sengupta

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