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Nature, Technology, Society, and Capitalism Essay


Introduction

For the majority of human history, the approach towards the relationship between Humanity and Nature was perceived through the lens of binary interactions. Each was viewed as an independent entity, and many historical texts and analyses perceived either one without considering the other, and completely ignoring the connection between them. Moore identifies it as the Cartesian Dualism Model, where nature is perceived as a set of objects and resources to be used by society (Moore, 2015a: 34). This kind of view works very well in a capitalist model of the world economy, as capitalism is largely based around extracting resources and accumulation of wealth. As Moore stated in “The Four Cheap’s,” capitalism derives profit from getting one or more of these for free – be that either labor or resources (Moore, 2015b: 110). Expropriation of nature without any thought of restoring or spending it sparingly is the face of modern global capitalism nowadays. It brought upon many crises, ranging from global warming to inevitable dwindling of crucial resources like oil and drinking water (Klare, 2012: 21). Deforestation, pollution, corruption of the environment – these are not only the traits of the existence of the human race but also traits brought upon by the emergence of capitalism (Moore, 2015c: 175). The purpose of this paper is to perceive historical change through the lens of these four realms: Nature, Technology, Capitalism, and Society, to outline and understand interactions between them and understand the nature of the crises occurring on Earth today.

NATURE AS A WEB OF LIFE

Criticism of the Cartesian Dualism Model and the formation of new Green Thought began in the 1970s, with political ecology, ecological economics, systems ecology, resource conservation, and other concepts starting to appear and playing a bigger role in our society (Moore, 2015a: 34). The emergence of the new concept called the Oikeios. This framework describes nature not as a resource pile and a waste bin combined, but as a medium in which humanity exists (Moore, 2015a: 35). This medium cannot be destroyed or exhausted by human actions, only modified, for better or worse. Humans are stated to have a very powerful influence on the surrounding environment, but the connection goes both ways. Humanity shapes Nature just as Nature shapes it, and modern history of imperialism, capitalism, and industrialization can be explored more in-depth if we observe it from nature’s point of view.

CAPITALISM AND NATURE AS SOURCE OF PROFIT

As Moore stated in his article, called “Endless Accumulation, Endless Unpaid Work,” capitalism largely revolves around inequality (Moore, 2015d: par. 10). It is also the oldest working economic model that was in use since the appearance and advances of the earliest human civilizations. Capitalism existed in some shape or form in ancient Babylon, Egypt, in Greece and the Roman Empire, everywhere. These societies all partook in practices of slavery. From ancient times and up to the 16th-17th century, slave labor and very cheap labor were some of the main commodities of the market. Unpaid labor created an excess of income, which was then taken by those who owned the slaves and profited from their work (Moore, 2015d: par. 18).

Then, came the idea of exploiting not only people but also nature itself. The concept of fighting for resources was present at all periods of human history, but with the globalization of the world economy, it took a new turn. The principle remained the same – abuse and extracted natural resources from where they are cheap, and sell and use them to produce more expensive items, goods, and equipment (Klein, 2015: 25). The one performing it accumulates the difference from this unfair transaction. This was the basis of colonial empires, which used their colonies as cheap resource bases and traded more sophisticated goods to get their money back. This trend continues up to this day, even though colonies were abolished – transnational corporations are using less-developed countries as resource bases, as sources of cheap labor, and as places where environmental laws are less restrictive, to squeeze maximum profit out of the exploitation of land, society, and nature (Moore, 2015b: 94).

TECHNOLOGY AS AN EXPANSION TOOL FOR CAPITALISM

Production efficiency was always measured by its Labor/Energy coefficient. For the greater portion of humanity’s history, the worker was the primary labor tool in society. It is the reason why slave labor was so widespread in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and the Americas – slave labor allowed for “cost-effective” labor (Moore, 2015b: 92). Often, workers paid with their lives in the name of “efficiency.” Over 500,000 workers died during the construction of the Great Wall of China (Ponting, 1991: 272). Tools and machines were used to subjugate nature and improve the efficiency rates of workers. As it was stated by Moore and later extrapolated on by Mumford, while religion and early concepts of magic served to understand nature, technology was solely used to subjugate and control it.

Mumford, in his article titled “Cultural Preparation,” states that the clock and the engine were the two inventions that transformed the world. The clock allowed measuring time and calculate the efficiency of workers by the hour. It was invented by the Monk Gerbert, was likely a water clock copied from the early Arabian and Roman designs. However, the mechanical clock appeared at the end of the 13th century, to give cities a more routinely schedule (Mumford, 1934a: 63). The first “modern mechanical clock” appeared in 1370 in Paris and was created by Heinrich von Vick (Mumford, 1934a: 63). The importance of the clock to capitalism cannot be underestimated, as Mumford claims that its creation was on par, if not more important than the invention of the steam engine, as it gave birth to time management, time rationing, and time-accounting.

While the clock was the machine that helped organize large organizations and masses, the engine produced the production power that transcended human physical capabilities (Mumford, 1934a: 65). The steam engine marked the beginning of a new age, where coal and oil became the primary commodities. Oil is called black gold, and with the industrialization of the world, the engine became the primary consumer of natural resources and the primary extractor of it too (Abramsky, 2007: 30). The first engine was patented by Thomas Savery in 1698. It was a steam engine that was used to draw water from flooded mines. While the first engines were crude and barely worth their effort, the evolution of engine caused two things – rapid economic expansion in the West, and cheapening of worker labor – many workers were replaced by machines, thus losing their sources of income and forced to sell their labor for cheap, to remain competitive (Abramsky, 2007: 30).

CONSUMERISM AS THE BUILDING BLOCK OF MODERN SOCIETY

Consumerism comes as the inevitable continuation of capitalism – over-accumulation of resources in one part of the world at the expense of all the rest eventually leads to wastefulness and overindulgence in one hand, and poverty and need in the other. If we look at the poverty levels in industrial and post-industrial countries, we would be able to see that in countries like India and China, a great percentage of the population is forced to work for very cheap – barely enough to sustain themselves and their families (Klein, 2015: 66). At the same time, these are considered to be the countries where most of the world’s production is being done.

Consumerism affects nature in several ways. Excessive production of goods and materials that humanity could have reasonably managed to do without means excessive extraction of natural resources and increased pollution. Excessive availability of products, in turn, leads to ever-growing dumps and garbage storages, as numerous goods are being exchanged, broken, and discarded (Klein, 2015: 67). Nowadays, nobody cares about exchanging smartphones every year or so and discarding the old one despite the latter being in perfect working condition. Electronic components, such as batteries, are dangerous to nature. These, of course, are not the only examples of consumerism affecting nature (Klein, 2015: 67). Consumerism is attached to technology and the military in particular, as stated by Mumford and Lewis in their article titled “Agents of Mechanization.” The military is one of the largest consumers of standardized goods that rarely get used, ranging from uniforms to weapons and ammunition (Mumford, 1934b: 75). In the 21st century, the military is used as a tool for claiming natural resources and territories, keeping them under control, and suppressing anyone who tries to oppose (Mitchell, 2011: 224).

THE CONNECTION BETWEEN NATURE, CAPITALISM, SOCIETY, AND TECHNOLOGY

As we perceive the evolution of technology, society, and capitalism, it is possible to see that all of them are intertwined. While historians acknowledge these connections, Nature as an entity was largely left out of it. However, it is possible to see that Nature as a playing field for all nations influenced their development since the beginning of time. Benevolent environment and abundance of resources managed to put some nations ahead in their development while leaving others, like many African nations, hopelessly behind (Mumford, 1934c: 110). Later, through medieval periods and into modernity, humanity was motivated to expand and claim Nature for its intents and purposes. This trend was further promoted by the ever-evolving technology, as well as humanity’s discovery of new continents, such as the Americas (Mumford, 1934c: 113). As long as there was room for expansion, humanity did not feel the need to look back and see that their relationship with nature was not one-sided. Now, in the 21st century, in the Neotechnic age, the results of this greedy and mindless expansion are taking hold (Mumford, 1934d: 212). Climate changes and global warming are largely the results of fumes gasses being released into the atmosphere in great amounts, greater than the Earth could handle. The extraction of fossil fuels is causing harm to both water and soil, and humanity’s over-reliance on it promises to cause a catastrophe once this vital resource runs out (Klein, 2015: 256). Once that happens, the humanity will be forced to reform – either using technology to adapt or reverting its technological progress several centuries back – to the times when humanity was relatively self-sustainable and did not consume as much. This would cause the size of humanity to shrink, as the planet would not be able to sustain as many people as there are now.

When approaching this issue and looking for possible solutions, it is very important to avoid the Malthusian fallacy that many capitalists want others to believe. By claiming that global warming is a hoax and stating that energy-saving and resource-saving technologies are inefficient, they oppose all regulations and innovations in the field, as those threaten to diminish profits and income (Klein, 2015: 257). It is a narrow-minded view, however. Nature as the matrix within which the society exists comes into play once more (Moore, 2015a: 34). Pollution occurring in China or the deforestation of Brazil will not affect those countries alone. They will affect all of the worlds, including capitalists. During dire times, the true value of objects and resources is revealed. The transfer of value from necessary materials to gold and rubies will be reversed, and, likely, Earth will once more be engulfed in a war for resources reminiscent to that of ancient and medieval times. However, there is still time. Since Nature and Society are intertwined, it is possible to influence the environment positively through societal reformation and technological progress (Klein, 2015: 257). Technology, previously used as a tool of capitalism that enhanced extraction and expropriation of resources, can be used to save nature through the creation of more efficient ways of production and reduction of pollution. Societal reformations would have to include denouncement of consumerism and adoption of a more ascetical, nature-friendly way of life. This, inevitably, will mark the disappearance of capitalism as a world economy model, as it will lose its two pillars – consumerism, and the availability of cheap resources extracted from nature (Klein, 2014: 258).

Works Cited

Abramsky, Kolya. “Energy and Labor in the World-Economy.” The Commoner, vol. 13, 2007, pp. 23-43.

Klare, Michael. “Driven by Depletion.” The Race of What’s Left, Picador, 2012, 19-40.

Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. Simon & Schuster, 2014.

Mitchell, Timothy. “The Prize from Fairyland.” Carbon Democracy. Verso, 2011, pp. 43-65.

Moore, Jason W. “From Object to Oikeios.” Capitalism in the Web of Life, Verso, 2015a, pp. 33-49.

Moore, Jason W. “The Tendency of the Ecological Surplus to Fall,” Capitalism in the Web of Life, Verso, 2015b, 91-109.

Moore, Jason W. “Anthropocene or Capitalocene? On the Nature and Origins of Our Ecological Crisis.” Capitalism in the Web of Life, Verso, 2015c, 169-192.

Moore, Jason W. Occupied Times, 2015d, Web.

Mumford, Lewis. “Cultural Preparation,” Technics & Civilization, Routledge, 1934a, pp. 9-55.

Mumford, Lewis. “Agents of Mechanization.” Technics & Civilization, Routledge, 1934b, pp. 60-106.

Mumford, Lewis. “The Eotechnic Phase.” in Technics & Civilization, Technics & Civilization, Routledge, 1934c, pp. 107-150.

Mumford, Lewis. “The Neotechnic Phase.” in Technics & Civilization, Technics & Civilization, Routledge, 1934d, pp. 212-267.

Ponting, Clive. “The Second Great Transition.” A Green History of the World, St. Martin’s Press, 1991, pp. 267-294.

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