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Jason Moore on Ecological Degradation

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In my opinion Jason Moore is the most important social scientist writing about ecological destruction today.


There are two schools of ecological theory.


One school, Jason Moore’s school, is called Treadmill of Production. Treadmill of production theorists argue that economic growth is in fundamental conflict with the survival of the planet. The more we produce, the more we destroy. The biosphere is consistently degraded by capitalist production. The more we make, the more we wreck.


The other school is called Ecological Modernization. Those theorists argue that ecological problems are inherently solvable. With greater development of engineering and social policy, we will find technological or political solutions to environmental problems These will allow for continued sustainable economic growth.


The ecological modernization theorists can back themselves up with a lot of historical examples. We have replaced coal – which is incredibly polluting – with other cleaner forms of energy. We have slowed the depletion of fish stocks in the ocean by creating and enforcing marine protected areas. Free markets can also have beneficial environmental consequences. When resources become scarce, they become expensive; high costs induce customers to use less of them.


That said, the terms of the debate overwhelmingly favor treadmill of production. For the ecological modernization theorists to be right, social progress has to stop each and every new ecological threat that comes along. If one fatal ecological problem gets past the goalie of technological process, we all die.


Ecological modernization theorists have to be right all of the time.


Treadmill of production theorists only have to be right once.


Jason Moore is extremely compelling as a treadmill of production theorist because he has vast historical knowledge of the economic and environmental history of the world from the Middle Ages forward. He documents a vast panorama of ecological destruction. It is not pretty.


The Moore model is an upgrade of a famous treadmill of production model developed by Stephen Bunker called Expanding Frontiers of Production Theory. Expanding Frontiers of Production Theory claims that as capitalism develops it requires more and more physical space. As new physical space gets put into production, it becomes degraded.


Why does capitalism require ever increasing amounts of physical space?


Capitalism is dependent on resources. In the early stages of a resource cycle, the raw materials are easily accessible and are also cheap to develop. However, over time, those cheap and accessible resources run out. Nature locates resources in somewhat random locations. So the next cheapest source of raw materials is not necessarily close to where they are needed. Locations become ever more remote and physically or geologically hard to work with, making the raw materials more expensive as they become more difficult to extract, and as they have to travel a greater distance after extraction. Capitalism faces a continual series of economic crises as the resources upon which it depends become ever more costly as time progresses. The solution often involves opening up more space, and destroying ever larger expanses of formerly pristine nature.


To illustrate, consider the history of how the United States has obtained its petroleum.


In the nineteenth century, when petroleum was primarily used as kerosene for lamps, America could get all of the kerosene it needed from shallow deposits in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. John Rockefeller became a millionaire controlling oil wells in the northeast and midatlantic states. When Standard Oil was broken up, two of its biggest components were Standard Oil of New Jersey and Standard Oil of Pennsylvania. Anyone could be a wildcatter because all the oil was near the surface. Drilling an oil well was no different than drilling a water well.


Oil in the midatlantic states ran out. So American oil exploration had to move to Texas. Texan oil had to be transported across half of the United States to be usable on the eastern seaboard. Both the wells in Texas and the wells still workable in Pennsylvania were deeper than the wells of the early wildcatting period.


When the oil in Texas began to run low, production moved to the Middle East. Engineers had to learn to drill in the middle of the desert.


When the oil in the Middle East began to be insufficient, production moved to the North Sea and the north coast of Alaska. Engineers had to learn how to drill beneath the ocean floor. Alaskan oil had to be transported by pipeline across the entire state of Alaska before being put in tankers for further transshipment.


Now the world is drilling in the South Atlantic off of the coast of Brazil. The South Atlantic is much deeper and harder to work than the relatively shallow waters of the North Sea.


The oil involved becomes progressively more expensive.


Note that the problem of rising costs can be handled technologically as well as geographically. Oil prices are low now because the oil industry invented fracking – which allowed for the extraction of extra oil from old previously dead fields. However, in the absence of technological fixes, geographical limits make the cost of petroleum increase over time.


Jason Moore argues that what applies to oil applies more generally. Moore argues that capitalism depends on “the four cheaps”.


All of these four cheaps are subject to the dynamics of exhaustion and geographical fixing that lead to both economic and environmental problems.


The four cheaps are:

1. Cheap Food

2. Cheap Energy

3. Cheap Resources

4. Cheap Labor


1. Cheap food has been instrumental both to capitalist development and the spatial expansion of European settlement. Much of economic development of the United States and Canada came from the settlement of the Great Plains. The massive fertility and scale of the Great Plains allowed the United States and Canada to flood the world with inexpensive wheat and corn, which made possible the production of inexpensive meat. The increased demand for these affordable products called for an industrialized food manufacture, resulting in vast amounts of breakfast cereal, canned soups, packaged macaroni and cheese, and other bulk processed foodstuffs. Cheap American and Canadian foodstuffs displaced European farmers; cereal agriculture in Western Europe practically disappeared. What Western European agriculture remained migrated to high-value niches such as the production of wine and cheese. Cheap food contributed to the reduction of labor costs in manufacturing in both the United States and Europe.


As global populations have grown, the demand for food has increased. Agriculture, however, faces the problem of increasing soil depletion with overuse – a problem that is only partially resolvable with chemical fertilizer. Thus, the feeding of the world labor force has required the expansion of capitalist food production to other global regions. Southern Latin America is the current breadbasket of the world, providing both grain, meat and, most importantly, soybeans to final producers of food products all over the world. In Brazil, the expansion of the ranching and soybean complex is the primary impetus behind the destruction of the Amazon. The value of hardwoods harvested in Amazonian rainforest deforestation is relatively minor. The big money is in export agribusiness on cleared lands. As a result, the forest is just burned down to expand the agro-industrial sector.  Palm oil production is driving the deforestation of Indonesia and Malaysia. Similar ecological losses will soon be widespread in Africa.


2. Most readers are already familiar with the global search for cheap energy. Oil production just gets dirtier and dirtier. The ecological issues involved with tar sands and fracking are well known. Production of oil in geopolitically insecure areas leads to the environmental damage associated with war. The Gulf Wars first in Kuwait and then in Iraq led to massive contamination of the Upper Persian Gulf. The production of oil in areas with criminality leads to all sorts of damage associated both with thieves breaking into pipelines and the companies themselves shirking environmental regulations in areas of low enforcement. This has generally been the experience of Nigerian oil.


3. The search for cheap resources parallels the search for cheap energy. Sand is a critical resource both for the making of silica-based optic fiber and for construction. Global overdemand for sand has led to “sand raiding” throughout Southeast Asia, removing natural offshore protective sand barriers. Southeast Asian coasts are now more vulnerable to flooding, tsunamis, and typhoons.


4. Labor is as much a factor of production as raw materials. The search for cheaper and cheaper labor has led to a vast expansion of manufacturing in the Global South. This has generally been sweatshop manufacture, designed to make use of the cheap labor available in underdeveloped nations. This is probably the least ecologically damaging of the four cheaps – although rural-urban migration associated with increased sweatshop labor has led to a vast expansion of slums. Slum expansion leads to increases in water pollution, increases in food importation (since the urban dwellers cannot supplement their food supplies with gardening), increased petroleum use from increased pollution, and the public health issues associated with dense concentrations of population in medically under-served areas.


Jason Moore adds one extra kicker to this model: financialization. In general, the demands for three of the four cheaps -food, energy, and resources - are based on the objective needs of capitalist production. As economic activity expands, demand for all three factors increases.


Financialization has increased the gratuitous use of world resources by commodifying their future value in the form of currently traded financial instruments. Before the 1990’s, commodity production was affected in part by commodities futures – financial instruments based on future prices of the commodity in question. These are, in essence, a pure casino bet. I buy a contract from you for $100,000 obligating you to provide me with “$100,000 worth of orange juice concentrate in current prices” on this date next year. If the price goes down for orange juice concentrate, you can buy the orange juice for less than $100,000. I get an asset worth less than the $100,000 I paid. I walked into a sucker deal. However, If I were correct in betting that the price of orange juice concentrate would go up – preferably by a lot - when the due date falls, you have to spend $350,000 to buy the required amount of orange juice. I get an asset worth $350,000 for my earlier payment of $100,000. We have just gambled on the future price of orange juice. I won. You lost.


In principle, this should be an innocent casino game.


What makes commodity futures dangerous is that the contract specifies actual delivery of actual resources. Regardless of whether it makes sense to grow oranges or concentrate orange juice, there is now a deal out requiring $100,000 of concentrated juice be produced. On orange juice, this is probably fairly harmless since most trees will produce the same amount of juice, contracts or no contracts.


It is a different story for petroleum or minerals or hardwood. Here, the contract require the production of more than would be economically needed when that product could have just as easily been left in the ground to be conserved for future generations.


Nowadays, commodity bets are a lot more complex than simple futures. There are all sorts of derivatives representing complex bets involving all sorts of resources mixed up in all sorts of ways. The amount of money that can be made trading resource derivatives is vast. Many of those contracts represent pure ecological waste of arbitrary production of goods before their time, that will lead to resource depletion, the exhaustion of older sources of value and the need to expand farther into pristine territories to find new resources for the bets of the future.


Jason Moore covers these trends from the rise of early capitalism up through the present day. He provides a panorama of ever increasing ecological destruction. He provides a panorama of wealthy nations losing their productivity and losing their environmental capacities because their grounds within their territories are becoming depleted and exhausted. He provides a panorama of the natural havoc that occurs when those nations expand their economic reach to the previously less-developed world.


He is not an absolute profit of doom.

He recognizes some technological fixes stave off the worse disasters. Some geographical fixes are relatively beneficent.


But treadmill of production theorists are correct if at least one new environmental problem that they predict turns out to be lethal.

Rub your lucky rabbit’s foot and hope that Jason Moore is wrong forever.


I don’t think we are going to get that wish.

For More Information

The easiest way to read Jason Moore is to pick up the book he did with Rav Patel, History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: Guide to Capitalism, Nature and the Future of the Planet. Berkeley, California. That book has seven cheap things rather than four; I like the four cheap things version myself. But the book is otherwise wonderful.

Jason Moore’s articles are heavy going. He has a very, very good vocabulary and expect to see that vocabulary on display in the writing. He also writes densely without a lot of repetition. You are going to have to pay attention.

The two most important of his many articles are.

2011. “Transcending the Metabolic Rift: A Theory of Crises in the Capitalist World Ecology,” Journal of Peasant Studies: 38(1), 1-46.

2015. “From Object to Oikeios: Environment Making in the Capitalist World Ecology.” Published in China but available on the web as


For a book length treatment of the heavy issues, try Moore’s Capitalism and the Web of Life. (London, Verso)

If you want to be cheered up, you can read ecological modernization theorists. Arthur Mols has a fine reader of upbeat pieces: The Ecological Modernization Reader. New York, Routledge. 2010.

For expanding frontiers of production see Bunker, Stephen. 1988. Underdeveloping the Amazon: Extraction, Unequal Exchange and the Failure of the Modern State. Chicago, Chicago.

For the great transformation of global food production, see anything by Philip McMichael or Harriet Friedman.


This is heavy reading again. When she was alive, Harriet Friedman maintained a website with a lot of her publication materials and some public outreach material. You can find that on


For McMichael, his edited collections are often the best way in. A classic collection is his Global Restructuring of Agro-Food Systems. Ithaca, Cornell. For just his own stuff, see Food Regimes and Agrarian Questions. Halifax, Fernwood.

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