- Asit Das
After the Kyoto protocol and the IPCC report, climate change has emerged as a serious issue facing mankind. Climate change and the issues of social justice should be seen in the context of the urgency of the global ecological crisis.
Some writers think that the origins of today’s global ecological crises are to be found in the unusual response in Europe’s ruling states, to the great crisis in the 14th century 1290 -1450. There are indeed striking parallels between the world system today, and the situation prevailing in a broadly feudal Europe. At the dawn of the 14th century, the agriculture regime, once capable of remarkable productivity, experienced stagnation. A large population shifted to cities; western trading networks connected far-flung economic centers. Resource extraction like copper and silver, faced new technical challenges, fettering profitability. After some six centuries of sustained expansion, by the 14th country, it had become clear that feudal Europe had reached the limits of its development, for reasons related to its environment, its configuration of social power, and the relations between them.
What followed was either immediately or eventually the rise of capitalism. Regardless of one’s specific interpretation, it is clear that the centuries after 1450 marked an era of fundamental environmental transformation. It was to be commodity-centered and exclusive, it was also an unstable and uneven, dynamic combination of seigniorial capitalist and peasant economics.
This ecological regime of early capitalism was beset with contradiction. In the middle of the 18th century, England shifted from its position as a leading grain exporter to major grain importer. Yield in England’s agriculture stagnated. Inside the country, landlords compensated by agitating for enclosures, which accelerated beyond anything known in previous centuries. Outside the country, Ireland's subordination was intensified with an eye on agricultural exports. This was the era of crisis for capitalism's first ecological regime. For all the talk of early capitalism as mercantile, it was also extraordinarily productivist and dynamic, in ways that went far beyond buying cheap and selling dear. Early capitalism had created a vast agro-ecological system of unprecedented geographical breadth, stretching from the eastern Baltic to Portugal, from southern Norway to Brazil and the Caribbean. It had delivered an expansion of the agro-extractive surplus for centuries. It had been, in other words, an expression of capitalist advancement following Adam Smith and occasionally, combining market, class and ecological transformations in a new crystallization of ecological power and process.
By the middle of the 18th century, however, this world ecological regime had become a victim of its own success. Agricultural yields, not just in England but also across Europe, extended even into the Andes and Spain. It was a contributor to the world crisis. It was a world ecological crisis, i.e., not a crisis of the earth in an idealist sense, but a crisis of early modern capitalism's organization of the world nature of capitalism and not just a world economy, but also a world ecology. For even many on the left have long regarded capitalism as something that acts upon nature treating it as a commodity. This world ecological crisis can be characterized as capitalism's first developmental environmental crisis, quite distinct from the epochal ecological crisis that characterized the transition from feudalism to capitalism. It was a crisis resolved through two major successive waves of global conquest - the creation of North America, and increasingly India as a vast supplier of food and resources; and then, by the later 19th century, the great colonial invasion and occupation of Southeast Asia, Africa and China.
The Industrial Revolution retains its hold on the popular imagination as the historical and geographical locus of today’s environmental crisis. It was a view that co-existed with the profound faith in technological progress. It can be viewed that the industrial revolution as the resolution of an earlier moment of modern ecological crisis and a more expansive, more intensive reconstruction of global nature. The industrial revolution offered not merely a technical fix to the developmental crisis that marked capitalisms ecological regimes, but within this revolution, was inscribed a vast geographical fix, which at that time was as limiting as it had once been liberating. Such a perspective of world ecological crisis offers a more historical name and a more hopeful way of looking for a pro-people approach for thinking and acting about the problems of ecological crisis in the modern world. While the technological marvels of the past two centuries are routinely celebrated, it had become clear in the 1860s that all advances in resource efficiency promised more aggregate resource consumption. This is how the modern world market functions, towards profligacy and not conservation. The technological marvels have rested on geographical expansion neither more nor less than they did in the formative centuries of capitalist development. The pressure to enclose vast new areas of the planet and to penetrate even deeper into the niches of social and ecological life has continued unabated. Now we are witnessing the imperial process of new enclosures, with a partnership with the ruling elites, and the corporate sector of the Third World countries. All this has been reinforced in the same manner by a radical plunge into the depths of the earth to extract oil, coal, water and different types of strategic resources. It is an ecological regime that has reached, or will soon reach, its limits. Whatever the geological veracity of the peak oil argument, it is clear that the American led ecological regime that promised, and for half a century delivered cheap oil, is now done for - this is a bigger issue than present limits of oil reserves.