A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet

A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet

by Raj Patel, Jason W. Moore

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Nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives: these are the seven things that have made our world and will shape its future.
In making these things cheap, modern commerce has transformed, governed, and devastated Earth.
In A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore present a new approach to analyzing today’s planetary emergencies. Bringing the latest ecological research together with histories of colonialism, indigenous struggles, slave revolts, and other rebellions and uprisings, Patel and Moore demonstrate that throughout history, crises have always prompted fresh strategies to make the world cheap and safe for capitalism. At a time of crisis in all seven cheap things, innovative and systemic thinking is urgently required. This book proposes a radical new way of understanding—and reclaiming—the planet in the turbulent twenty-first century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520293137
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/17/2017
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 328
Sales rank: 1,154,590
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Raj Patel is an award-winning writer, activist, and academic. He is Research Professor in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, Austin and Senior Research Associate at the Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes University. He is the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System and The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy.
Jason W. Moore teaches world history and world-ecology at Binghamton University and is coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network. He is the author of several books, including Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, and numerous award-winning essays in environmental history, political economy, and social theory.

Read an Excerpt


Cheap Nature

It only took a day from her crime to her execution. Yet court documents don't even record her name. She lived in Tlaxcala, New Spain, and on Sunday, July 18, 1599, she smashed crosses in a church, incited Chichimec Indians to rebel against the Spanish, and killed a Tarascan Indian using sorcery. The next day she was arrested. Six witnesses testified against her. As the sun set, she was permitted to speak in her defense. She recounted her deeds and then — according to the court record — recounted a dream

of deer and they said to her not to turn away and that they were looking for her and that they did not want to appear to anyone else but her, because she was ill and they wanted to see her, and she said that she was very old the time she saw the figures and now she is young and healthy and they have taken away some cataracts that she had, and then these two figures went into a cave with her and they gave her a horse, which she has in said pueblo of Tlaxcala, and that one of the two figures was a deer that rode atop of a horse and the other deer had the horse bridled, and on that occasion she was crippled and after seeing the two figures she is well.

Of the crimes she committed, her dream was the worst. She might have fueled insurrection, desecrated a church, and interfered with the flow of silver from Chichimec land, but most dangerous, she offered a vision of order and nature contrary to the colonizers'. The horse was ridden not by Spanish men but by a deer — the symbol of the Chichimec: not white men astride nature, but local life upon the colonizers' life. The dreamer of this dream was guilty of calling not just for a political insurrection but for a cosmic one. She dreamed the order of the world seditiously. She was hanged as a witch later that afternoon.

It's hard to speak of this woman without knowing her name. Her killers called her a witch. That is a name she may have used for herself, albeit without its colonial venom. Even though her name was set at so little that it didn't merit an entry in the conquistadors' paperwork, it is an act of memory against forgetting that her story is told. The dreamer of this radically different ecology had to be killed, swiftly. To allow her to live would sanction an alternative to capitalism's world-ecology.

Our Chichimec woman was killed by a civilized society because her natural savagery broke its rules. This transgression, this crime, was a relatively new idea. As recently as 1330, savage meant "intrepid, indomitable, valiant." That positive use faded by the end of the fifteenth century, replaced with its modern one of "in a state of nature, wild." This isn't an accident. At the time of the execution of the Chichimec witch, the terms nature and society were being produced.

At the very moment when Las Casas and Sepulveda were debating the fate of Indigenous Peoples — were they "natural" slaves? — the meaning of our everyday word society experienced a momentous change. Beginning in the middle of the sixteenth century, society came to mean not just the company we keep but also a bigger whole of which individuals are a part. The notion that individuals are part of collective units greater than themselves isn't new — humans have long given names to and established boundaries around social groups: being part of the polis, the city, the Middle Kingdom, Christendom, the chosen people, and so on. But modern society has a historically unique antonym: nature. On the other side of "society" are not other humans but the wild. Before nation came society. Before society could be defended, it had to be invented. And it was invented through the policing of a strict boundary with nature.

In the English language, the words nature and society assumed their familiar meanings only after 1550, over the arc of the "long" sixteenth century (c. 1450–1640). This was, as we shall see, a decisive period in England's capitalist and colonial history. It marked the rise of the Spanish and Portuguese empires and their construction of massive New World production systems, worked by coerced Indigenous and African labor. These transformations were key elements of a planetary shift in the global center of power and production from Asia to the North Atlantic. That shift did not come fast. Europe was technologically and economically impoverished compared to civilizations on the other side of Asia, and only after 1800 did that change. China, recall, already had the printing press, a potent navy, gunpowder, and vibrant cities, and it was marked by both wealth and environmental crisis. Where European capitalism thrived was in its capacity to turn nature into something productive and to transform that productivity into wealth. This capacity depended on a peculiar blend of force, commerce, and technology, but also something else — an intellectual revolution underwritten by a new idea: Nature as the opposite of Society. This idea gripped far more than philosophical minds. It became the common sense of conquest and plunder as a way of life. Nature's bloody contradictions found their greatest expression on capitalism's frontiers, forged in violence and rebellion — as the witch killing demonstrates.

We take for granted that some parts of the world are social and others are natural. Racialized violence, mass unemployment and incarceration, consumer cultures — these are the stuff of social problems and social injustice. Climate, biodiversity, resource depletion — these are the stuff of natural problems, of ecological crisis. But it's not just that we think about the world in this way. It's also that we make it so, acting as if the Social and the Natural were autonomous domains, as if relations of human power were somehow untouched by the web of life.

In this book, we use these words — Nature and Society — in a way that's different from their everyday use. We're capitalizing them as a sign that they are concepts that don't merely describe the world but help us organize it and ourselves. Scholars call concepts like these "real abstractions." These abstractions make statements about ontology — What is? — and about epistemology — How do we know what is? Real abstractions both describe the world and make it. That's why real abstractions are often invisible, and why we use ideas like world-ecology to challenge our readers into seeing Nature and Society as hidden forms of violence. These are undetonated words. Real abstractions aren't innocent: they reflect the interests of the powerful and license them to organize the world.

That's why we begin our discussion of cheap things with Nature. Nature is not a thing but a way of organizing — and cheapening — life. It is only through real abstractions — cultural, political, and economic all at once — that nature's activity becomes a set of things. The web of life is no more inherently cheap than it is wicked or good or downloadable. These are attributes assigned to some of its relationships by capitalism. But it has been cheapened, yanked into processes of exchange and profit, denominated and controlled. We made the case in the introduction that capitalism couldn't have emerged without the cheapening of nature; in this chapter we explore the mechanics and effects of this strategy.


To live is to alter one's environment. Hominin evolution proceeded through a series of biological transformations — not least those engendered by fire, which reduced the energy needed for digestion and radically expanded human capacities to make worlds. While humans are an environment-making species, our organizations are fragile. Over the long sweep of history, civilizations have emerged and expanded with more than a little help from the rest of nature, and when that help is withdrawn they can crumble. Rome boomed in the centuries following the onset of the Roman Climatic Optimum (c. 300 bce–300 CE). The Medieval Warm Period (c. 950–1250) gave a helping hand to new states across Eurasia, from Cambodia to France. Feudal Europe got its assist from a climate anomaly, and its crisis — and the eventual transition to capitalism — was coproduced by another climate shift.

The unraveling of European feudalism was made possible by the Little Ice Age, but not by climate alone. Feudal Europe was highly dynamic. While weather unfavorable to cereal yields was a problem, feudalism had sophisticated agricultural technologies. Beginning in the ninth century, agricultural productivity soared, new fields were claimed from the forests, and human and animal populations grew fast. European population densities were quite high by the early fourteenth century, but feudalism's systemic weakness wasn't something as simple as soil exhaustion. Feudalism crumbled because of peasants' inability to produce a bigger economic surplus for their seigneurs. Left to their own devices, peasants could have shifted from rye and wheat monocultures to a diversified crop mix that included garden produce. In western Europe that could have doubled or tripled food production. But this shift was impossible, given the seigneurs' demand for marketable produce that could readily be turned into cash. In an unsettling parallel with the present day, feudal lords reproduced an agricultural system that privileged short-run gains over meaningful adjustments that would have dented their income but sustained life. It is in this context that cheap nature becomes strategic. Nature and Society began to take shape in the throes of feudal crisis and the birth of early capitalism.

The lords' refusal to adjust precipitated an epochal crisis. As we saw in the introduction, agroecological problems enforced by lordly domination fused with climate change and demographic catastrophe to produce not only death but formidable peasant resistance. The ruling classes tried — and failed — to reenserf peasants in western Europe. But the crisis was about more than class; it was the moment when feudalism's ecology of power, wealth, and nature stopped working. That meant something genuinely epoch making: states, lords, and merchants all had to scramble for novel solutions to restore their wealth.

At the core of these novel solutions was global conquest, not just by guns but also by making new frontiers, at once cultural and geographical. Life and land between money and markets became ways to treat and fix crises across the span of capitalism's ecology. At the heart of this relation with nature lay profit, and its poster child is Christopher Columbus. Columbus, who crops up in every chapter as an early practitioner of each of the strategies of cheap things, came to the Caribbean with not just the conqueror's gaze but an appraiser's eye — one sharpened in Portuguese colonial adventures off the shores of North Africa. He launched a colonization of nature as pecuniary as it was peculiar. European empires, beginning with the Spanish and the Portuguese, obsessively collected and ordered Natural objects — including "savage" human bodies — always with an eye on enhanced wealth and power. Columbus's cataloging of nature to evaluate (put a price on) it was an early sign that he understood what Nature had become under early modern capitalism.

Columbus channeled the strategy of cheap nature almost from the first moment that he saw the New World. On the eighth day of his first voyage in the Caribbean, he found a cape he named "Cabo Hermoso [Beautiful cape], because it is so. ... I can never tire my eyes in looking at such lovely vegetation, so different from ours. I believe there are many herbs and many trees that are worth much in Europe for dyes and for medicines but I do not know them, and this causes me great sorrow." He was from the outset an assessor with a keen sense of cheapness and power, able to cast his eye on nature and be frustrated that he couldn't instantly see money.

Profit didn't come just from trade, however. Nature had to be put to work. An early practical use of the division between Nature and Society appeared in the colonial reinvention of the encomienda. Originally just a claim on land, the encomienda became a strategy to shift certain humans into the category of Nature so that they might more cheaply work the land. When the Spanish crown was battling for territory in Iberia, encomiendas were a way of managing its spoils. These were temporary land grants given by the king to aristocrats so that they might profit from estates previously occupied by Moors. In the Caribbean, encomiendas were transformed from medieval land grants into modern labor grants, allowing not just access to the land but the de facto enslavement of the Indigenous People who happened to be there. Rights of dominion came to encompass not just territory but also flora and fauna; Indigenous People became the latter. Over time, the encomienda system came to comprise a diversity of labor arrangements, combining legal coercion with wage labor. This meant that the realm of Nature included virtually all peoples of color, most women, and most people with white skin living in semicolonial regions (e.g., Ireland, Poland). This is why in the sixteenth century Castilians referred to Indigenous Andeans as naturales.


From the beginning, humans understood they were different from the rest of nature. Capitalism didn't invent the distinction. Its innovation was to turn this distinction into a hard-and-fast separation — and into an organizing principle. This was a task to which intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic contributed. Rene Descartes (1596–1660), about whom more below, learned basic philosophical reasoning by studying the Mexican philosopher Antonio Rubio (1548–1615). Some of the sixteenth century's most sophisticated anticolonial Christian intellectual activity, as Enrique Dussel argues, happened in the Americas. The English, at the same time, were developing ideas of "the savage and the civilized" in Ireland — their first colonial frontier. It's no coincidence that English rule in Ireland intensified after 1541 — at the very moment when Nature and Society were assuming their familiar, current meanings. England's colonial forces were concentrated on that notch of land on the Irish east coast around Dublin. The initial area of English colonial activity was known as the Pale. Those outside it were "savages."

The inventors of Nature were philosophers as well as conquerors and profiteers. In 1641, Descartes offered what would become the first two laws of capitalist ecology. The first is seemingly innocent. Descartes distinguished between mind and body, using the Latin res cogitans and res extensa to refer to them. Reality, in this view, is composed of discrete "thinking things" and "extended things." Humans (but not all humans) were thinking things; Nature was full of extended things. The era's ruling classes saw most human beings — women, peoples of color, Indigenous Peoples — as extended, not thinking, beings. This means that Descartes's philosophical abstractions were practical instruments of domination: they were real abstractions with tremendous material force. And this leads us to Descartes's second law of capitalist ecology: European civilization (or "we," in Descartes's word) must become "the masters and possessors of nature." Society and Nature were not just existentially separate; Nature was something to be controlled and dominated by Society. The Cartesian outlook, in other words, shaped modern logics of power as well as thought.

While Descartes is usually thought of as French, his perspective might just as easily be characterized as English and Dutch. Born and educated in France, he wrote most of his major works in the Dutch Republic between 1629 and 1649, when the republic was the era's greatest superpower and home to its most dynamic capitalism. These decades also saw the crescendo of a planetary ecological revolution that had begun nearly two centuries earlier, laying waste to forests from Brazil to Poland to the Spice Islands, clearing wetlands from Russia to England, and mining the earth from the Andes to Sweden. So pivotal were these environmental transformations, each delivering some form of cheap nature, that more than five hundred commodities were traded on the Amsterdam Bourse (the first modern stock market) by the 1650s. Descartes's revolutionary materialism was very much in step with the times.

Descartes had not stumbled upon his revolutionary philosophy all on his own. The second law of capitalist ecology, domination over nature, owed much to Francis Bacon (1561–1626), a philosopher widely credited as the father of modern science. (That gendered language will make sense in a moment.) Bacon was also a prominent member of England's political establishment, at different times a member of Parliament and the attorney general of England and Wales. He argued that "science should as it were torture nature's secrets out of her." Further, the "empire of man" should penetrate and dominate the "womb of nature." Science must "hound nature in her wanderings, and you will be able, when you like, to lead and drive her afterwards to the same place again. ... Neither ought a man to make scruple of entering and penetrating into these holes and corners, when the inquisition of truth is his whole object."


Excerpted from "A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things"
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Table of Contents



1. Cheap Nature
2. Cheap Money
3. Cheap Work
4. Cheap Care
5. Cheap Food
6. Cheap Energy
7. Cheap Lives



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