Friday, October 8, 2010

Jason Moore, World Systems and Agriculture

Several years ago, while at the Environment Section presentations at the ASA meetings in San Francisco, I had the pleasure of meeting Jason Moore. At that point he was a graduate student at UC-Berkley. The paper he presented (later published as "Silver, Ecology, and the Origins of the Modern World, 1450-1640") was, by far, the most interesting one at the conference.

It provided a fascinatingly detailed and historically rich description of the relationship between developments in Spain (leading to a need for silver) and those in Bolivia (where silver production was declining). At the core of the paper was a description of how Latin American agricultural practices were changed in order to free up the labor necessary to increase silver production through the implement new, labor intensive silver extraction and smelting techniques. While the bulk of the paper deals with the silver industry, it was the shift in agriculture that fascinated me. It went from a labor intensive vertical model that exploited the variety of ecological niches present in the narrow space between the Pacific and the Andes -- where different crops were grown and livestock raised at different altitudes with guano from the coast used as fertilizer -- to a labor efficient horizontal model -- combining agriculture and livestock into a single ecological zone and using the livestock to plow the fields. It remains one of the best historical scale accounts of the operation of social-ecological systems that I know. Unbeknown to me, Moore had already received several awards for his work (including a best graduate student paper award and an Honourable Mention for the Rheinhard Bendix prize offered by the Historical Sociology Section).

Moore, like Hornborg who's writing I've discussed here, is a world systems theorist. Indeed, one of his earliest pieces was a critique of Hornborg. I had originally intended to post material about Moore's work as a follow-up to the Hornborg posts, but things intervened.

And now Moore is back with another great piece "The End of the Road? Agricultural Revolutions in the Capitalist World-Ecology, 1450–2010". Here is the abstract:
Does the present socio-ecological impasse – captured in popular discussions of the ‘end’ of cheap food and cheap oil – represent the latest in a long history of limits and crises that have been transcended by capital, or have we arrived at an epochal turning point in the relation of capital, capitalism and agricultural revolution? For the better part of six centuries, the relation between world capitalism and agriculture has been a remarkable one. Every great wave of capitalist development has been paved with ‘cheap’ food. Beginning in the long sixteenth century, capitalist agencies pioneered successive agricultural revolutions, yielding a series of extraordinary expansions of the food surplus. This paper engages the crisis of neoliberalism today, and asks: Is another agricultural revolution, comparable to those we have known in the history of capitalism, possible? Does the present conjuncture represent a developmental crisis of capitalism that can be resolved by establishing new agro-ecological conditions for another long wave of accumulation, or are we now witnessing an epochal crisis of capitalism? These divergent possibilities are explored from a perspective that views capitalism as ‘world-ecology’, joining together the accumulation of capital and the production of nature in dialectical unity.

While Moore's analysis, from my perspective, places a bit too much emphasis on capitalism and, correspondingly, too little emphasis on the consequences of industrialization, he provides a significantly more nuanced view of the social portion of socio-ecological systems than most individuals working with the concept.

Finally, for those wanting more Moore, Jason has graciously posted many of his papers to the web.

1 comment:

  1. I'm definitely going to read this article. It puts food supply at the heart of the crisis of both ecology and capitalism. This is something that people feel instinctively; the first thing people do when they fear an impending crisis is build up their supply of food and water. Relocalization movements like Transition Towns put local food at the top of their agenda. It helps to analyze it sociologically to see just how it plays out, how big an impact it has.