e End of Cheap Nature. Or How I Learned to
Stop Worrying about “e” Environment
and Love the Crisis of Capitalism
Jason W. Moore
Does capitalism today face the “end of cheap nature”? If so, what could this mean, and
what are the implications for the future? We are indeed witnessing the end of cheap
nature in a historically speciﬁc sense. Rather than view the end of cheap nature as the
reassertion of external “limits to growth,” I argue that capitalism has today exhausted
the historical relation that produced cheap nature. e end of cheap nature is best com-
prehended as the exhaustion of the value-relations that have periodically restored the
“Four Cheaps”: labor-power, food, energy, and raw materials. Crucially, these value-re-
lations are co-produced by and through humans with the rest of nature. e decisive is-
sue therefore turns on the relations that enfold and unfold successive conﬁgurations of
human and extra-human nature, symbolically enabled and materially enacted, over the
longue durée of the modern world-system. Signiﬁcantly, the appropriation of unpaid
work—including “free gifts” of nature—and the exploitation wage-labor form a dialecti-
cal unity. e limits to growth faced by capital today are real enough, and are “limits”
co-produced through capitalism as world-ecology, joining the accumulation of capital,
the pursuit of power, and the co-production of nature as an organic whole. e world-
ecological limit of capital is capital itself.
What can it mean to speak of “the end of cheap nature”? It is a deceptively simple
question, for it begs a series of clariﬁcations. Is “the end” a cyclical phenomenon?
(e end of neoliberalism’s cheap nature?) Or is the “end” secular? (e end of his-
torical capitalism’s cheap nature?) Capitalism, we know, enjoys a long history of
overcoming seemingly insuperable barriers to revive accumulation. is is espe-
cially true of barriers concerning the Big Four inputs: labor-power, food, energy,
and raw materials. Does “cheap nature” refer to the bounty—and eventual exhaus-
tion—of extra-human biological systems and geological distributions? Or does
cheap nature signify a historical circumstance created—and later unraveled—by the
relations of power, accumulation, and nature speciﬁc to the modern world-system?
Does cheap nature, and its possible demise, include human nature? Perhaps most
signiﬁcantly, are these questions about the end of cheap nature questions about na-
ture as an easy source of resources—either because the “taps” have been tapped out
286 Jason W. Moore
or because the “sinks” have been ﬁlled up? Or are they about the end of a way of
organizing nature premised on endless commodiﬁcation?
eoretical frame: Value relations in the capitalist world-
What we are seeing today is the “end of cheap nature” as a civilizational strategy, one
born during the rise of capitalism in the “long” sixteenth century (c. 1450–1648). An
ingenious civilizational project has been at the core of this strategy, to construct na-
ture as external to human activity, and thence to mobilize the work of uncommodi-
ﬁed human and extra-human natures in service to advancing labor productivity
within commodity production. e great leap forward in the scale, scope, and speed
of landscape and biological transformations in the three centuries after 1450—
stretching from Poland to Brazil, and the North Atlantic’s cod ﬁsheries to Southeast
Asia’s spice islands—may be understood in this light (Moore, 2007; 2010a; 2010b;
2013a; 2013b). Such transformations were the epoch-making expressions of a new
law of value that reconﬁgured uncommodiﬁed human and extra-human natures
(slaves, forests, soils) in servitude to labor productivity and the commodity.
e new law of value was quite peculiar. Never before had any civilization ne-
gotiated this transition from land productivity to labor productivity as the decisive
metric of wealth. is strange metric—value—oriented the whole of west-central
Europe towards an equally strange conquest of space. is strange conquest was
what Marx (1973, 524) calls the “annihilation of space by time,” and across the long
sixteenth century we can see a new form of time—abstract time—taking shape
(Postone, 1993). While all civilizations in some sense are built to expand across var-
ied topographies—they “pulse” (Chase-Dunn and Hall, 1997)—none represented
these topographies as external and progressively abstracted in the ways that domi-
nated early capitalism’s geographical praxis. e genius of capitalism’s cheap na-
ture strategy was to represent time as linear, space as ﬂat, and nature as external
(Mumford, 1934; Merchant, 1980; Pickles, 2004). It was a civilizational inﬂection of
the “God-trick” (Haraway, 1988), with bourgeois knowledge representing its special
brand of quantifying and scientiﬁc reason as a mirror of the world—the same world
then being reshaped by early modernity’s scientiﬁc revolutions in alliance with em-
pires and capitals. With abstract time, in other words, would come abstract space
(Lefebvre, 1991). Together, they were the indispensable corollaries to the weird
crystallization of human and extra-human natures in the form of abstract social
labor. It was this ascendant law of value—operating as gravitational ﬁeld rather than
mechanism—that underpinned the extraordinary landscape and biological revolu-
tions of early modernity. Notwithstanding the fanciful historical interpretations of
the Anthropocene argument and its idealized model of a two-century modernity
(Steﬀen et al., 2011), the origins of capitalism’s cheap nature strategy and today’s
e End of Cheap Nature 287
biospheric turbulence are to be found in the long sixteenth century. e issue is
not one of anthropogenic-drivers—presuming a ﬁctitious human unity—but of the
relations of capital and capitalist power. e issue is not the Anthropocene, but the
is early modern transition from land productivity in manifold “tributary” re-
lations to labor productivity in manifold “commodity” relations emerged through
a powerful bundle of processes co-produced by human and extra-human natures.
In this view, capitalism unfolds in and through the oikeios, the creative, generative,
and multi-layered relation of species and environment (Moore, 2011a). Humans,
like all species, are at once producers and products of our environments (Levins
and Lewontin, 1985). Humans, and also the civilizations we co-produce with the
rest of nature. We ﬁnd the spirit the oikeios when Wallerstein (1980, 162, 132–133;
also 1974, 44, 89) speaks of “ecological exhaustion” as a world-historical movement
encompassing human natures alongside soils and forests. e health of bodies and
environments are indeed dialectically bound (Marx, 1977, 238, 636–638).
To be sure, humans are distinctive in forming historically-speciﬁc notions of
our place in the web of life. is is the history of ideas of nature (Williams, 1980),
which are in fact ideas of everything that humans do. We are amongst the planet’s
more eﬀective “ecosystem engineers” (Wright and Jones, 2006); and even so, we
too—our civilizations also—are made and unmade by the environment-making
activities of life. (Does anyone today doubt that disease and climate make history
every bit as much as any empire or class or market?) To take this position is to im-
mediately abandon the notion of civilization (or world-system or capitalism) and
environment, and instead re-focus on the idea of civilizations-in-nature, capitalism
as environment-making process. ese environments include factories no less than
forests, homes no less than mines, ﬁnancial centers no less than farms, the city no
less than the country. Taking “ecology” as the signiﬁer of the whole in its manifold
species-environment relations, I have taken to calling capitalism a “world-ecology,”
joining the accumulation of capital, the pursuit of power, and the co-production of
nature in dialectical unity (Moore, 2011a, 2011b; also Oloﬀ, 2012; Deckard, 2012;
Leonardi, 2012; Mahnkopf, 2013; Niblett, 2013; Ortiz, 2013).
In what follows, “nature” is matrix, rather than resource zone and rubbish bin.
But such an assertion is insuﬃcient in itself, for two reasons. e ﬁrst is that the
philosophical recognition—humanity-in-nature—must be accompanied by work-
able analytics that allow us to interpret historical change as actively co-produced
by humans and the rest of nature. is transition from holistic philosophy to rela-
tional history is the core of the world-ecology argument. Secondly, the argument for
nature as matrix must include and explain the idea and praxis of external nature,
created by modernity’s successive knowledge revolutions. For nature could not be
rendered “cheap” until it was rendered external. Yes, the distinction between hu-
man and extra-human natures has a long history that stretches back, at the latest,
288 Jason W. Moore
to Greco-Roman antiquity (Glacken, 1967). But never before had nature as external
object become an organizing principle for a civilization.
is view of nature as external object, while demonstrably false in terms of his-
torical method, was an essential moment in the rise of capitalism. Here we can see
ideas as “material force” (Marx, 1978, 60). Early capitalism’s world-praxis, fusing
symbolic coding and material inscription, moved forward an audacious fetishiza-
tion of nature. is was expressed, dramatically, in the era’s cartographic, scientiﬁc,
and quantifying revolutions. ese were the symbolic moments of primitive ac-
cumulation, creating a new intellectual system whose presumption, personiﬁed by
Descartes, was the separation of humans from the rest of nature. For early modern
materialism, the point was not only to interpret the world but to control it: “to make
ourselves as it were the masters and possessors of nature” (Descartes, 2006, 51). It
was a powerful vision, one so powerful that that even today, many students of global
environmental change have internalized the early modern view of nature, in which
space is ﬂat, time is linear, and nature ontologically external to human activity (e.g.,
Steﬀen et al., 2011).
e origins of cheap nature are, of course, far more than intellectual and sym-
bolic. e transgression of medieval intellectual frontiers was paired with the trans-
gression of medieval territoriality. While civilizational expansion is in some sense
fundamental to all, there emerged in early modern Europe a speciﬁc geographical
thrust. While all civilizations had frontiers of a sort, capitalism was a frontier. e
extension of capitalist power to new spaces that were uncommodiﬁed became the
lifeblood of capitalism. I have elsewhere considered the historical geographies of
early capitalism’s commodity frontiers (Moore, 2000; 2003; 2007; 2010a; 2010b). For
the moment, I wish to highlight two relational axes of these frontiers. First, com-
modity frontier movements were not merely about the extension of commodity
relations, although this was indeed central. Commodity frontier movements were
also, crucially, about the extension of territorial and symbolic forms that appropri-
ated unpaid work in service to commodity production. is unpaid work could be
delivered by humans—women or slaves, for example—or by extra-human natures,
such as forests, soils, or rivers. Second, such frontier movements were, from the
very beginning of capitalism, essential to creating the forms of cheap nature speciﬁc
to capitalism: the “Four Cheaps” of labor-power, food, energy, and raw materials
Capitalism’s basic problem is that capital’s demand for cheap natures rises faster
than its capacity to secure them. e costs of production rise, and accumulation
falters. is was recognized by Marx long ago, not only in his “general law” of the
“overproduction” of machinery and the “underproduction” of raw materials (Marx,
1967, III, 119–121), but also in his perceptive observations that the bourgeois tends
to accumulate capital by exhausting “labour-power, in the same way as a greedy
farmer snatches more produce from the soil by robbing it of its fertility” (Marx,
1977, 376). e solution? Move to the frontier, so much the better if such frontiers
e End of Cheap Nature 289
were colonies: thus the salience of Irish workers, Caribbean sugar, Mississippi cot-
ton. For this reason, capital ﬁnds itself continually dependent on capitalist power
and bourgeois knowledge to locate “external” natures whose wealth can be mapped,
reshaped, and appropriated cheaply.
In creating these external and “cheap” natures, capital turned weakness to
strength. rough its alliance with state-machineries, imperialist power, and bour-
geois knowledge, capital has proven adept at overcoming real, or impending, “bot-
tlenecks” to renewed accumulation. e frontier has therefore been capitalism’s way
of paying the bills that run up across successive long centuries of accumulation. Is
the exhaustion of the cheap natures created through neoliberal capitalism a cycli-
cal phenomenon—such as we saw at the end of the late eighteenth century, or the
during the long 1970s—or is it the end of the capitalist road to cheap nature? Is the
present conjoncture, in other words, a developmental crisis, one open to resolution
through renewed rounds of capitalization? Or is it, rather, an epochal crisis, one
that will compel fundamentally new relations of wealth, power, and nature in the
is line of questioning has been marginal in today’s proliferating literature on
economic and ecological crisis. Prominent scholars who engage both moments—
such as David Harvey and John Bellamy Foster—write as if nature and capitalism
are separate, rather than uniﬁed, phenomena. eir philosophical insistence that
humans are part of nature (e.g., Harvey, 1996; Foster, 2013b) rarely translates to his-
torical analysis. Harvey’s powerful argument for the relationality of humanity-in-
nature falls by the wayside in his narratives of neoliberalism (Harvey 2003; 2005;
2010); Foster (2009) insists on no necessary connection between accumulation and
biospheric crises. Foster and Harvey stand in here for a broader intellectual prob-
lem. Even when our philosophical position regards humans as part of nature, the
narrative rules, methodological premises, and theoretical frames of world-historical
scholars often remain within the conﬁnes of a modernist view of nature as external.
is may explain some measure of the profound undertheorization of “ecological
crisis,” and the widespread weakness of critical scholars to explain how nature mat-
ters to capitalism, not merely as output, but as constitutive relation.
What would such an explanation—one premised on the co-production of capi-
talism by humans and the rest of nature—look like?
Nature, limits, and capital: Value and the world-ecological
My answer proceeds from two big issues swirling about nature, capital, and lim-
its today. One is historical. e other is conceptual. In the ﬁrst instance, we must
ask whether the peculiar train of events since 2003, when the present commodity
boom began, represents a cyclical or cumulative “end” of the Four Cheaps: food, la-
bor, energy, and raw materials (Moore, 2012). Capitalism since the early nineteenth
290 Jason W. Moore
century has been remarkably adept at overcoming the actual (but temporary)—and
averting potential (but quite threatening)—bottlenecks relating to the rising price
of the Big Four inputs (Rostow, 1978). is capacity to overcome and avert such
bottlenecks can be seen in successive epoch-making agricultural revolutions, ex-
pansively reproducing the cheap food/cheap labor nexus (Moore, 2010c). England’s
late eighteenth century agricultural stagnation and food price woes were resolved
through the American farmer’s marriage of mechanization and fertile frontiers after
1840. e productivity stagnation of early twentieth century capitalist agriculture in
western Europe and North America was resolved through successive “green” revo-
lutions, manifested in the postwar globalization of the hybridized, chemicalized,
and mechanized American farm model (Kloppenburg, 1988; Federico, 2004). From
this perspective, there is good reason for seeing the post-2008 global conjuncture
as a developmental crisis of the capitalist world-ecology, one that can be resolved
through renewed rounds of commodiﬁcation, especially but not only in agriculture.
But the latest wave of capitalist agricultural revolution—in agro-biotechnology—
has yet to arrest the productivity slowdown (Gurian-Sherman, 2009). It is therefore
also possible that capitalism has entered into an epochal crisis.
Developmental and epochal crises do not represent a “convergence” of ontologi-
cally independent environmental and economic crises (e.g., Foster, 2013a). Rather,
such crises give expression to the maturing contradictions inscribed in those re-
gimes of value, power, and nature that govern capitalism over the longue durée, and
through successive long centuries of accumulation (Arrighi, 1994; Moore, 2011b).
In place of the converging crises model, we may instead view our era’s turbulence
as a singular crisis—of capitalism as a way of organizing nature—with manifold ex-
pressions. Food and climate, ﬁnance and energy represent not multiple, but mani-
fold, forms of crisis emanating from a singular civilizational project: the capitalist
We might begin with how capitalism goes about forming and re-forming its spe-
ciﬁc conﬁgurations of wealth, power, and nature: not as three independent boxes
but as mutually relational moments in the cumulative and cyclical development of
the modern world-system. To pursue this line of inquiry brings us squarely onto
the terrain of capitalism’s law of value. For it is the emergence, development, and
cyclical restructuring of capital, power, and nature that are conditioned decisively
by capitalism’s value relations.
We might think value relations in two major ways. e ﬁrst is value as method
(Moore, 2011a; 2011b). is approach reconstructs historical capitalism through
“the production and reproduction of real life” as “distinctions within . . . the organic
whole” (Engels, 1934; Marx, 1973, 99–100). is permits a world-ecological recast-
ing of “nature” and “society” in favor of the contradictory unity of “the production
and reproduction of real life.” It is a unity that cuts across and destabilizes any mean-
ingful historical boundary between human activity and the rest of nature; the “re-
production of real life” includes the extra-human intertwined with the human at
e End of Cheap Nature 291
every step. Taking the production and reproduction of life as our guiding thread
allows us to dissolve the ontological and historical divide between the economic
and the ecological, in favor of deﬁnite historical conﬁgurations of human and extra-
human natures. Once freed from the fetish of “the economy,” we can focus on the
relations of power and (re)production that make possible the endless reproduction
of value in its double existence: as abstract social labor and abstract social nature.
(About the latter, more presently.) Value as method therefore posits historical capi-
talism not as the zone of commodiﬁcation but as the contradictory unity of endless
commodiﬁcation and its appropriation of the conditions of reproduction—from the
reproduction of human beings to to the reproduction of biospheric stability.
is brings us to a second deployment of value relations. is is value as histori-
cal proposition. In this, we can think value as a historical project that engages reality
as something to be reduced to an interchangeable part. ese reductions are at once
symbolic and material, and they comprise both “economic” and “non-economic”
simpliﬁcations (e.g., Braverman, 1974; Worster, 1990; Scott, 1998). Crucially, the
generalization of value relations works through a dialectic of capitalizing produc-
tion and appropriating reproduction. Value is encoded simultaneously through the
exploitation of labor-power in commodity production, and through the appropria-
tion of nature’s life-making capacities as unpaid work. is double coding of value is
therefore a dialectic of value/not-value. is latter, not-value, is “produced” through
the zone of appropriation: the condition for value as the zone of exploitation. It in-
cludes, pivotally, the unpaid work of all humans, but especially so-called “women’s
Historical capitalism has been able to resolve its recurrent crises because ter-
ritorialist and capitalist agencies have been able to extend the zone of appropriation
faster than the zone of exploitation. For this reason, capitalism overcomes seeming-
ly insuperable “natural limits” through coercive-intensive and symbolically-enabled
appropriations of cheap natures, cyclically renewing the Four Cheaps. Dramatic
enlargements in the zone of appropriation resolve capitalism’s crises by eﬀecting
a remarkable—and necessarily short-lived—trick: appropriation “works” to the de-
gree that it controls and channels, but does not capitalize, the reproduction of life-
making as unpaid work. Value only works when most work is not valued. Modernity
in this sense is a mighty control project, eﬀecting all manner of quantifying and cat-
egorizing procedures oriented towards identifying, securing, and regulating human
and extra-human natures in the service of accumulation. is latter is the terrain of
abstract social nature.
From this standpoint, the development of value relations may be discerned
through its chief material expression, the Four Cheaps of labor-power, food, energy,
and raw materials. ese are the indispensable (but not exclusive) conditions for the
long-run revival of accumulation, as we saw in 1846–1873, 1947–1973, and mostly
292 Jason W. Moore
e cyclical rise and decline of the Four Cheaps therefore oﬀers a promising
point of entry into a deeper, world-ecological, understanding of historical capital-
ism. “Cheap” signiﬁes the value composition of the Big Four inputs. A low value
composition represents a relatively low quantum of average human labor (abstract
social labor) in the average commodity—and a relatively higher contribution of
unpaid work. “Value,” understood as abstract social labor, is measured by average
labor-time. e law of value, in this reading, is a world-historical tendency that—
“modiﬁed in its working by many circumstances” (Marx, 1977, 798)—transforms
the wealth of nature into value, as interchangeable and quantiﬁable units of wealth,
deﬁned by interchangeable and quantiﬁable units of human labor-time in commod-
is latter is socially necessary labor-time. While all species “work” in some
fashion, only humans create and labor under socially necessary labor-time. Only
humans, and only some humans at that. e law of value—not the theory of value
but its actual historical operation—is anthropocentric in a very speciﬁc sense. Only
human labor-power directly produces value. A tree, or a horse, or a geological vent
cannot be paid. And yet, commodiﬁed labor-power cannot produce anything with-
out the unpaid work of the horse or the three. Socially necessary unpaid work is the
pedestal of socially necessary labor time.
“But wait!” says the environmentalist. “Doesn’t that show that value is partial,
and doesn’t work?” e ﬁrst part of the objection is entirely correct: value is partial.
Necessarily partial. And, unlike the horse or the tree, unpaid human work could be
paid. But capitalists do not like to pay their bills, and for good reason. To fully com-
modify the reproduction of labor-power would do away with the unpaid work that
allows accumulation to proceed at acceptable rates of proﬁt. Marxists will some-
times characterize capitalism as a system in which “the bulk of society’s work is done
by propertyless labourers who are obliged to sell their labour-power” (Wood, 2002,
3). But this is precisely what cannot occur under capitalism! If the bulk of the work
carried out within capitalism were ever to be monetized, the costs of labor-power
would soar, and cheap labor-power would not exist. Only the barest rate of capital
accumulation would be possible.
None of this suggests that wage-labor is epiphenomenal. Quite the contrary!
Rather, proletarianization may be more adequately understood as a “connective
historical process” fundamental to the capitalist world-ecology (McMichael, 1991,
343). In this light, the rise of the law of value is not centered on the rise of the mod-
ern proletariat as such, but on the uneven globalization of wage-work dialectically
joined to the “generalization of its conditions of reproduction” (McMichael, 1991,
343). Value, as abstract social labor, works through, not in spite of, its partiality.
Life-activity outside commodity production, but articulated with it, is socially
necessary unpaid work. Strictly speaking, it cannot be quantiﬁed in the same fashion
as commodiﬁed labor-power because the condition of quantiﬁable abstract social
labor is a mass of unquantiﬁable work. What capital strives to achieve is the reduc-
e End of Cheap Nature 293
tion of necessary labor-time. is reduction is intrinsic to capital’s existence: hence
capitalism’s emphasis on labor productivity over land productivity, and capital’s mo-
bilization of cheap natures in order to make this emphasis possible. e accelera-
tion of landscape change and the emergence of a tentative but tenacious regime of
abstract social labor were two sides of the rise of capitalism in the sixteenth century;
abstract social labor could only take shape on the basis of a new, sharply accelerated,
relation to the unpaid work of cheap natures.
In the conventional narrative (Landes, 1969), rising labor productivity is a story
of technological advance and organizational innovation in industrial production.
is is true enough. But is it the whole story? New machinery and energy sources at
the point of production can only advance labor productivity—reducing necessary
labor-time over the long-run—through new technologies of power that reduce the
value-composition of the Big Four inputs. e Four Cheaps could be restored only
partly through innovations within established zones of commodity production; his-
torically, they also depended on new strategies of appropriation, on new frontiers.
Here we ﬁnd a systemic connection between the accumulation of capital and the
rise of capitalist power in making possible a civilization cohered by the law of value.
In order to reduce necessary labor-time, capital sets in motion—and struggles to
create through varied combinations of coercion, consent, and rationalization—a
civilization that aims to maximize the unpaid “work” of life outside circuit of capital,
but within reach of capitalist power.
e reduction of socially-necessary labor time through commodiﬁcation is
what I have been calling capitalization; the maximization of unpaid work in ser-
vice to capitalization, is appropriation. ere is some overlap, to be sure. Where the
Cartesian frame presumes separation of humanity and nature, the world-ecology
argument presumes a dialectical unity that proceeds from the distinctiveness of hu-
mans (amongst many other species) within the web of life. So my focus is directed
towards the ways that capitalization and appropriation work together as patterns
and rules of reproducing value and power in the web of life. is gives us a way to
identify and to explain patterns of environment-making across the longue durée of
historical capitalism. It is a simpliﬁed model, a “ﬁrst cut” if you will. We are excavat-
ing the fundamental historical dynamics of capital accumulation as a pattern that
operates through the speciﬁcally bundled relations of human and extra-human na-
ture governed by the law of value.
We can begin with capitalization and appropriation as relations of reproduction.
From there, we may consider the relations between the two moments. First, while
the capitalization of reproduction assumes many forms, it has occurred most con-
spicuously through proletarianization. is was historically prior to the large-scale
capitalization of extra-human natures, and indeed historically prior to large-scale
industrialization in the nineteenth century (Seccombe, 1995). “Proletarianization”
is another way of saying that the reproduction of labor-power ﬂows through cap-
294 Jason W. Moore
ital, largely in the form of paid work.1 Of course, even proletarian households in
the Global North continue to rely upon the signiﬁcant expenditure of unpaid work
(laundry, cooking meals, raising children, etc.). Humans transform the rest of na-
ture only through the labor process, and the commodiﬁcation of work—directly
and indirectly—is therefore historically pivotal to the capitalization of extra-human
But it is not just the reproduction of labor-power that has become capitalized; it
is also the reproduction of extra-human natures. Over the past ﬁve centuries, capi-
talist agriculture reveals the dependence of agro-ecosystems on global capital ﬂows
(especially through credit) every bit as much as nutrient and hydrological cycles.
e extraordinary shift that occurred in the twentieth century—through successive
hybridization, chemical, and biotechnological “revolutions”—has been the capital-
ization of agro-ecological relations (unpaid work) that were previously outside the
commodity system (Kloppenburg, 1988). e twenty-ﬁrst century capitalist farmer
must buy new seeds every year rather than save seeds; she must buy more pesticides
and herbicides every year to protect the yield; the farming family must strive to
produce more and more to satisfy the debt obligations of an agro-ecological model
that is increasingly “reproduced within the circuits of capital accumulation” (Boyd
et al., 2001, 560). Flows of nutrients, ﬂows of humans, and ﬂows of capital make a
historical totality, in which each ﬂow implies the other—a point frequently missed
by green critics of capitalism (e.g., Foster et al., 2010).
Accumulation by appropriation also transcends and disrupts the Cartesian bina-
ry. e really meaningful distinction is not between humanity and the rest of nature,
but between two spheres: life-activity within the commodity system and life-activity
outside the zone of commodiﬁcation, but still ensnared within capitalist power. e
movements of both spheres contribute, decisively, to the determination of socially
necessary labor time. e ﬁrst movement occurs within the “organic whole” of com-
modity production, comprising distribution, exchange, and distribution, alongside
immediate production (Marx, 1973, 100). e other is the “organic whole” of appro-
priating unpaid work in the service of advancing labor productivity. In other words,
the rate of exploitation under the law of value is determined not only by the class
struggle within commodity production (between capitalists and the direct produc-
ers), and not only by the tools, organization, and value composition of commodity
production. It is also determined by the contribution of unpaid work, performed by
human and extra-human natures alike. (ere is a class struggle here, too.)
Successive regimes of abstract social labor therefore turn on the active recon-
ﬁguration of worlds of production and reproduction. In this view, value relations
1 I say “largely in the form of paid work,” because the relation of bourgeois and proletarian
assumes many concrete forms, including master and slave in the early modern sugar plantation
(Mintz, 1978); for the late twentieth century, Lewontin (1998) suggests (with some exaggeration)
that the farmer has become a proletarian.
e End of Cheap Nature 295
unfold through the dialectic of value/not-value, in which “not-value” is directly pro-
ductive of the conditions necessary for a regime of abstract social labor. is means
that capitalism’s technics—understood as speciﬁc crystallizations of tools, nature,
and power (Mumford, 1934)—do more than pick the “low-hanging fruit” (Cowen,
2011). Capitalist technics seek to mobilize and to appropriate the (unpaid) “forces of
nature” so as to make the (paid) “forces of labor” productive in their modern form
(the production of surplus value). is is the signiﬁcance of the production of na-
ture; nature is not a pre-formed object for capital, but a web of relations that capital
reshapes so as to advance the contributions of unpaid biospheric “work” for capital
accumulation. Capital, in so doing, is reshaped by nature as a whole.
e appropriation of unpaid work—represented historically through the cycli-
cal rise and decline of the Four Cheaps—is therefore a central issue for anyone who
wants to take seriously the question of limits. is is because the real historical lim-
its of capitalism derive from capital as a relation of capitalization and appropriation.
e “limits to growth” (Meadows et al., 1972) are not external, but derive from rela-
tions internal to capitalist civilization. Why internal? Clearly, we are not speaking of
internal as a ﬁxed boundary—much less in a Cartesian sense of “social” limits and
“natural” limits—but rather capitalism as an internalizing civilization. Here, inter-
nal is methodological premise, not historical statement. Economists often speak of
how capitalism “externalizes” costs. e conversion of the atmosphere to a dumping
ground for greenhouse gases is a good example. What bears emphasizing is that the
externalization of costs is also the internalization of spaces necessary for capital ac-
cumulation: waste frontiers matter, too.
When capitalists can set in motion small amounts of capital and appropriate
large volumes of unpaid work, the costs of production fall and the rate of proﬁt ris-
es.2 In these situations, there is a high world-ecological surplus (or simply, “ecological
surplus”). e ecological surplus is the ratio of the systemwide mass of capital to the
systemwide contribution of unpaid work. A growing relative contribution of un-
paid work tends to reduce the systemwide organic composition of capital, especially
within the new centers of accumulation. Over the course of an accumulation cycle,
the contribution of unpaid work tends to fall, relative to the mass of capital seeking
investment. Every great wave of accumulation therefore begins with a high ecologi-
cal surplus, which is created through combinations of capital (value-in-motion) and
capitalist power (territorial but also cultural). Together, these movements of capi-
tal and capitalist power secure new and greatly expanded sources of unpaid work
in service to accumulation. is is the dialectical counterpoint to the traditional
rendering of primitive accumulation as a process of class formation in production
(bourgeois and proletarian). Primitive accumulation is equally about the restructur-
2 is is a simpliﬁed model of capital and nature. One would naturally wish to elaborate the
simple model into a series of world-historical speciﬁcations and revisions based on richer totali-
ties of many determinations.
296 Jason W. Moore
ing of the relations of reproduction—human and extra-human alike—so as to allow
the renewed and expanded ﬂow of “cheap” labor, food, energy, and raw materials
into the commodity system.
e problem for capital is that the strategies that create the Four Cheaps are
“one-oﬀ ” aﬀairs. You cannot discover something twice. e idea of nature as ex-
ternal has worked so eﬀectively because capital must constantly locate natures ex-
ternal to it. Because these natures are historical and therefore ﬁnite, the exhaus-
tion of one historical nature quickly prompts the “discovery” of new natures that
deliver yet untapped sources of unpaid work. us did the Kew Gardens of British
hegemony yield to the International Agricultural Research Centers of American he-
gemony, which in turn were superseded by the bioprospecting, rent-seeking, and
genomic mapping practices of the neoliberal era (Brockway, 1978; Kloppenburg,
1988; McAfee, 1999; 2003.) is means that not only is capitalism bound up with
a historically-speciﬁc nature; so are its speciﬁc phases of development. Each long
century of accumulation does not “tap” an external nature that exists as a pre-given
warehouse of resources. Rather, each such long wave creates—and is created by—a
historical nature that oﬀers a new, speciﬁc set of constraints and opportunities. e
accumulation strategies that work at the beginning of a cycle—creating particular
historical natures through science, technology, and new forms of territoriality and
governance (abstract social nature)—progressively exhaust the relations of repro-
duction that supply “cheap” labor, food, energy, and raw materials. At some point,
this exhaustion registers in rising commodity prices.
From peak appropriation to the tendency of the ecological
surplus to fall
Exhaustion encompasses the physical deterioration of human and extra-human na-
tures (e.g., health problems, soil erosion), but cannot be reduced to such depletion.
Deterioration is an empirical reality that speaks to a relational dynamic: the relation
between the shares of unpaid work (appropriation) and paid work (capitalization)
in world accumulation. Exhaustion is the ﬂipside of “boom.” Both turn on the ca-
pacity of particular species, ecosystems (including humans), and even geological
formations, to deliver unpaid work. at capacity is not, however, “just there.” It
is actively co-produced through the relations of capital, capitalist power, and class
struggle. Exhaustion in this sense signiﬁes the erosion of those historically-speciﬁc
accumulation strategies that remake the speciﬁc forms of capital, power, and nature
in successive long centuries of accumulation. e error of much critical discourse
on “natural limits” is to confuse the depletion of substances for the exhaustion of ac-
cumulation strategies (e.g., Foster et al., 2010). ey are related. And substances do
matter. But, as any student of resource economics will tell you, the issue for capital
is not energy returned on energy invested, but energy returned on capital invested:
EROCI, not EROEI. What matters, in capitalist history, is the ratio between the
e End of Cheap Nature 297
mass of unpaid work and the mass of surplus capital. Stated formally, the mass of
unpaid work may rise even as its share declines relative to accumulation by capital-
ization. is is probably what has occurred over the past decade since the onset of
the 2003 commodity boom.
Several examples illustrate this counter-intuitive theoretical picture. Labor pro-
ductivity growth may continue, but at a much slower rate than previously. is has
been the case with world agriculture since the 1980s (Moore, 2010c). Productivity
growth has continued, but at a pace that is too slow to meet capital’s need for cheap
food. A slowing rate of growth indicates exhaustion, if the need for unpaid work
rises, and the agro-food regime fails to restore cheap food. At the same time, rising
food prices cannot be reduced to productivity in an era characterized by an unprec-
edented ﬁnancialization of commodities (Moore, 2012; Tang and Xiong, 2012).
A second mirage appears in contemporary discussions of global energy.
Advocates of “peak everything” point to an impending decline in oil—and even-
tually, coal—production (Heinberg, 2003). Such declines will occur, although it is
far from clear that they will be geologically-driven. e geological dimensions are
crucial, but a too-narrow focus easily misses the historical reality. is reality turns
on the law of value. e “peak” that capitalism cares about is peak appropriation: the
moment when the contribution of unpaid work is highest, relative to the abstract
social labor (capital) deployed. Peak appropriation can be identiﬁed both cyclically,
in successive accumulation cycles, and cumulatively, since the sixteenth century.
Cumulative peak appropriation for coal was reached sometime in the early twen-
tieth century; peak appropriation for oil, sometime around 2000. Output may rise
as the ecological surplus falls, as seems to be the case with coal production today.
Rising output will restore cheap energy only if the share of unpaid work (here, geo-
logical “work”) increases relative to the capital necessary to produce it. In this light,
post-peak appropriation registers capital’s declining capacity to appropriate nature
cheaply (with less and less labor-power). e problem is not whether more oil—for
example—can be extracted on an abstract supply curve, but whether more oil (or its
equivalents) can be extracted with less labor.
And what of human natures? Labor-power is exhausted too. e American
working class today, for instance, is not exhausted in the sense of imminent physical
breakdown; it is exhausted in its capacity to deliver a rising volume of unpaid work
to capital. Its potential for delivering unpaid work is maxed out. e proliferation of
“shifts”—a second and third shift in paid and unpaid work—and the neolib eral exten-
sion of the workweek provide good reason to think that American workers cannot
work much more or much harder (e.g., Hochshild, 1989; Schor, 1991; 2003). (On the
margins, perhaps, but not more than this.) Sociophysical “breakdown” is implicated
in exhaustion. is can be seen in the dramatic rise of mental health problems in
the Global North since the 1980s (HHS, 2010), along with rising cancer rates (Davis,
2007). Beyond mounting health problems, one could also look at the “baby strike”
of declining fertility, carried out by proletarian women across the North Atlantic in
298 Jason W. Moore
recent decades, now extending to industrialized East Asia (Livingston and Cohn,
2010; e Economist, 2013). Over the course of an accumulation cycle, relations of
reproduction once outside the cash nexus become progressively monetized. is
capitalization of reproduction delivers a middle-run boost to accumulation through
multiple shifts. But the middle-run boom is achieved at a price. As reproduction
becomes channeled through commodity relations, the share of unpaid work stag-
nates or declines. When this occurs, the expanded accumulation of capital becomes
increasingly dependent on the commodiﬁed, rather than the uncommodiﬁed, re-
production of life, and the costs of accumulating capital rise.
is dynamic is the tendency of the ecological surplus to fall.
e most obvious indicator of a declining ecological surplus is the rising price of
the Big Four inputs. Labor, food, energy, and raw materials become more and more
expensive. e Four Cheaps stop being cheap. is usually doesn’t happen all at
once, although this is in fact what we have seen since the start of the 2003 commod-
ity boom. e point at which the Four Cheaps stop becoming cheaper and cheaper
and start to become more and more expensive is the signal crisis of a phase of capi-
talism. Such crises signal the exhaustion of an accumulation regime (Moore, 2012).
For the neoliberal phase of capitalism, this signal crisis—far more important than
the near-meltdown of the ﬁnancial system in 2008—began around 2003. Since that
time, the ecological surplus has been falling, and there are few signs that the decline
will be reversed soon, if ever. Why? Largely because the greatest frontiers have been
exhausted, and because, at the same time, the mass of surplus capital continues to
rise. What seems to be occurring is a vicious circle. Finding frontiers few and far be-
tween, a growing mass of surplus capital has sought refuge in commodity markets,
pushing up the very prices of food, energy, and raw materials at the moment when
capitalism (as a system) needs those prices to go down. is in turn exacerbates the
surplus capital absorption problem, which ﬁnds partial and temporary resolution
in renewed ﬁnancialization. is in turn further “short-circuit[s] ﬂows of produc-
tion and trade . . . at the expense of what might have been long-term social surplus”
(Blackburn 2006, 67).
is points towards a decisive lacuna in the Marxist theory of capital accumula-
tion. e resolution of cyclical overaccumulation crises—crises deﬁned by a rising
mass of “surplus” capital that cannot be reinvested proﬁtably—has depended upon
the cyclical restoration of the Four Cheaps. e falling ecological surplus, repre-
senting a contraction of capital’s opportunities for appropriating unpaid work, is
closely linked to the contraction of proﬁtable opportunities for investment in the
real economy (M-C-M’).3 Cheap oil, or cheap labor, or cheap metals, make possible
new products—such as, in their respective eras, the railroad and steam engine, or
3 Here I lean of Arrighi’s simpliﬁed model of Marx’s general formula of capital. In “M-C-M’…
[m]oney capital (M) means liquidity, ﬂexibility, freedom of choice. Commodity capital (C) means
capital invested in a particular input-output combination in view of a proﬁt. Hence, it means
e End of Cheap Nature 299
the automobile. e production systems, urban spaces, and infrastructures implied
by these new products absorbed giant volumes of surplus capital. Indeed, the suc-
cessive industrializations in the North Atlantic between 1790 and 1960—spanning
the ﬁrst, second, and Fordist industrial revolutions—can be told through the ways
these epochal inventions (steam/coal, auto/oil) reworked the capitalist oikeios and
its rising relative contribution of unpaid work over this period. Intriguingly, the in-
formation technology “revolution” of the past forty years has been manifestly inad-
equate in absorbing surplus capital (Foster and McChesney, 2012, 38).
e Four Cheaps, in making possible those great waves of industrialization, are
central to the resolution of recurrent overaccumulation crises in historical capi-
talism—crises characterized by rising volumes of capital that cannot be invested
proﬁtably. Consequently, the cyclical “end” of the Four Cheaps, in successive ac-
cumulation cycles, corresponds to a growing mass of surplus capital with no place
to go. As accumulation in the real economy falters, a growing mass of capital be-
comes involved in ﬁnancial rather than productive activities (M-M’ rather than
M-C-M’) (Arrighi, 1994; Leyshon and rift, 2007).4 e exhaustion of commodity
frontiers—and the systemwide stagnation of unpaid work that such exhaustion im-
plies—appears to be closely linked to the peculiar forms of ﬁnancialization that have
emerged since the 1970s.
e rise and demise of cheap nature: e neoliberal
Can the tendency of the ecological surplus to fall be seen during the neoliberal era?
We may recall that a high world-ecological surplus represents a ratio of low capital-
ization to high appropriation. is is a necessary condition for the revival of accu-
mulation. For good reason, the neoliberal “boom” that commenced after 1983 was
accompanied—or preceded—by a signiﬁcant cyclical decline in food, energy, and
resources prices. Commodity prices for metals fell by nearly half between 1975 and
1989; for food by 39 percent; while oil stabilized by 1983, for the next twenty years,
at a price per barrel about twice that of the postwar era (McMichael, 2005; Radetzki,
2006; van der Mensbrugghe et al., 2011).
concreteness, rigidity, and a narrowing down or closing of options. M’ means expanded liquidity,
exibility, and freedom of choice” (Arrighi, 1994, 5).
4 M-M’ comes into play during what Arrighi calls ﬁnancial expansions, such as the one that has
characterized the capitalist world-ecology since the 1970s. Such ﬁnancial expansions are “symp-
tomatic of a situation in which the investment of money in the expansion of trade and production
[M-C-M’] no longer serves the purpose of increasing the cash ﬂow to the capitalist stratum as
eﬀectively as pure ﬁnancial deals can. In such a situation, capital invested in trade and production
tends to revert to its money form and accumulate more directly, as in Marx’s abridged formula
MM’” (Arrighi, 1994, 8–9).
300 Jason W. Moore
But it was not only extra-human natures that became cheap.
e 1980s revival of accumulation also turned on a cheap labor regime. is
entailed producing a regime of cheap human nature that could supply both paid
and unpaid work in suﬃcient volumes to restore accumulation. In formal terms, es-
tablishing a new cheap labor regime meant reducing the value of labor-power. is
was not easy to accomplish. ere were ﬁve key dimensions of the neoliberal project
to restore cheap labor after 1973. e ﬁrst was “wage repression” (Harvey, 2010,
12). Bourgeoisies across the Global North began to “organize as a class” (Moody,
1988), and moved aggressively against trade unions following the 1974–1975 re-
cession. Wage repression was especially important as labor productivity growth
sagged in the 1970s, a deceleration that increasingly looks permanent (Gordon,
2010). Second, the falling rate of proﬁt in American industry—induced both by la-
bor’s class power and the rising organic composition of capital—led American and
other capitalists to move rapidly towards the “global factory” in the 1970s (Barnet,
1980; Gordon et al., 1982). is was a tectonic shift in world history that entailed the
simultaneous de-industrialization of core zones and the rapid industrialization of
the Global South (Arrighi et al., 2003). ird, the global factory depended upon the
“great global enclosure” (Araghi, 2000) that commenced in the early 1980s. ese
global enclosures, realized through structural adjustment programs and market lib-
eralization, restructured agrarian class relations worldwide, dispossessing hundreds
of millions of peasants worldwide. In China alone, some 200–300 million migrants
moved from countryside to city (Webber, 2012). e new global proletariat dwarfed
any that came before it. In concert with the opening of Russia, China, and India to
the world market, the world proletariat doubled after 1989 (Freeman, 2010). Fourth,
this great doubling represented an even greater expansion of the female proletariat,
adding paid work on top of unpaid work on an unprecedented scale. Neoliberal
proletarianization was, in this reckoning, an unprecedented global expansion of
Hochschild’s (1989) “second shift,” an audacious expansion of absolute surplus val-
ue. Finally—and almost universally ignored by environmentalists—cheap labor was
made possible through a new regime of “forced underconsumption” (Araghi, 2009),
such that hunger and nutrient deﬁciencies today aﬀect nearly three billion people,
including 50 million people in the United States (Keats and Wiggins, 2010).
By 2003, the world-ecological surplus had stopped rising, and began to decline.
Registered by the slow-, then fast-moving, commodity boom (Jacks, 2013), this was
the signal crisis of neoliberalism as a way of organizing nature (Moore, 2010c). is
expression of crisis signals the beginning of a cyclical contraction of the ecological
surplus. e clearest indicator of this signal crisis was the rising price of metals,
energy, and food commodity prices. But this was not just any commodity boom, not
least because of its unusual durability, now ten years and counting. What does this
seemingly endless commodity boom indicate? At a minimum, the peculiar char-
acter of this boom—which includes more primary commodities, has lasted longer,
and has seen more price volatility than any previous commodity boom in mod-
e End of Cheap Nature 301
ern world history (World Bank, 2009)—indicates an exhaustion of neoliberalism’s
cheap nature strategy. Notably, neoliberalism’s strategies for reducing the Big Four
input prices began to falter at least ﬁve years prior to the ﬁnancial events of 2008.
Economists talk of this very long commodity boom as a “supercycle”—a decades-
long increase in basic commodity prices. But so far, they have invoked an abstract
“world of scarcity” (Jacks, 2013) rather than consider the possibility that today’s su-
percycle represents a historical limit to capitalism’s longue durée regime of “cheap
ecology” (Araghi, 2010).
Even cheap labor may be fading fast. In other words, the signal crisis of neolib-
eralism is not merely a question of extra-human natures—reﬂected in the commod-
ity boom—but of human nature too. In China, real wages increased 300 percent
between 1990 and 2005 (Midnight Notes, 2009, 4). Manufacturing wages grew six
times faster than the rate of inﬂation, and unit labor costs rose 85 percent between
2000 and 2011 (USDC, 2013). Meanwhile, the usual strategy of moving to cheap
labor frontiers—seeking new streams of unpaid work in support of low-wage work-
ers—is in motion, but with rapidly diminishing returns. Within China, the govern-
ment’s “Go West” policy, which has aimed to attract industry to the interior, has
narrowed labor costs between interior and coastal regions to a “surprisingly . . . pal-
try wage diﬀerential” (Scott, 2011, 1). Rural-to-urban migration has slowed con-
siderably in recent years (Fegley, 2013). By 2012, per capita foreign investment in
Cambodia moved ahead of China (Bradsher, 2013). But Cambodia is much smaller
than China, which is part of the broader problem: the frontiers are shrinking at the
very moment when capital needs ever-greater commodity frontiers to resolve the
overaccumulation problem. Meanwhile, the very information and communication
technologies that have made possible global production are now also being used in
the class struggle:
Workers in Cambodia today have begun syndical action after only a few years, not
after twenty-ﬁve. ere are strikes and pressure for higher wages and beneﬁts, which
they are receiving. is of course reduces the value for the multinationals of moving to
Cambodia, or Myanmar, or Vietnam, or the Philippines. It now turns out that the sav-
ings of moving from China are not all that great. (Wallerstein, 2013)
e ongoing erosion of cheap labor is not exclusively an East Asian story. Less well
understood, but no less signiﬁcant, is the transition across the Global North to a
“second (and third) shift”—wage work plus unpaid reproductive labor. is transi-
tion enacted and embodied one of the last great commodity frontiers of historical
capitalism. Unpaid household labor has been a pillar of endless commodiﬁcation
since the sixteenth century (Mies, 1986). What happened in the Global North, and
especially in North America, after 1970 was the accelerated proletarianization of
women. is marked the demise of the Fordist one-income family and the rise of
the “ﬂexible” two-income household. is 1970s acceleration had been preﬁgured
302 Jason W. Moore
by Soviet developmentalism (Sacks, 1977), and also by the fast entry of American
women into paid work since the 1930s (Goldin, 2008). is too was a commod-
ity frontier, marked by the progressive commodiﬁcation of work-potential and the
progressive appropriation of (human) nature’s “free” gifts. Hence the imposition of
multiple “shifts,” and the double squeeze on women’s time via the simultaneously
operating pressures of capitalization and appropriation; even as early as the mid-
1960s a growing number of married American women had traded in their 55-hour
work week at home for the 76-hour work week at home and work (Hartmann,
1981). If this were all—as in Hochschild’s (2002) rendering of the commodity fron-
tier—there would be little to add. What the theory of the commodity frontier illu-
minates is not only the pattern of successively paired commodifying/appropriating
movements, but the ﬁnite opportunities inscribed in each such movement (Moore,
2013a; 2013b). In the United States, the extraordinarily rapid increase in mothers’
labor force participation—50 percent between 1975 and 1995 (BLS, 2009)—was not
only a powerful moment of neoliberal wage repression while maintaining eﬀective
(consumer) demand. It was also a one-shot deal. e commodity frontier is a one-
way ticket. Frontiers, once appropriated and commodiﬁed, are no longer frontiers—
they do however move on, as we’ve seen in the roll out of the proletarian relation for
women across the Global South since the 1980s (Kabeer, 2007; McMichael, 2012).
Capitalism as frontier: Abstract social natures
Commodity frontiers may roll onwards, but only to a point. Capitalism not only
has frontiers; it is fundamentally deﬁned by frontier movement. e conceit of early
modern cartographic revolutions was to conceive of the Earth as abstract space
rather than as concrete geographies. e latter, abolished (or at least controlled) in
theory, would continually reassert itself, as geographical particularities (climates,
soils, topographies, diseases) entered into dynamic tension with bourgeois fantasies
of abstract space. e great advantage of mapping the world as a grid and nature as
an external object was that one could appropriate the wealth of nature in a fashion
profoundly eﬃcient for the accumulation of capital. e very dynamism of capital-
ist production is unthinkable in the absence of frontier appropriations that allowed
more and more materials to ﬂow through a given unit of abstract labor time: value’s
self-expanding character depends on an exponential rise in the material volume of
production without a corresponding rise in the abstract labor implied in such pro-
duction. is incessant reduction of labor-time can occur, however, only to the ex-
tent that cheap energy, cheap food, cheap raw materials, and yes, cheap labor can be
secured through strategies of appropriation outside the immediate circuit of capital.
is can only occur through the continual enlargement of the geographical arenas
for appropriation. us are capital and capitalist power joined in the co-production
of cheap natures.
e End of Cheap Nature 303
For this reason, frontiers are much more central to the expanded reproduction
of capital and capitalist power than commonly recognized. When Harvey (2003,
131) opines that capitalism, confronting the end of frontiers, might “actively manu-
facture” such frontiers, he reﬂects the common sense of the contemporary radical
critique. But this is a misinterpretation. e processes of privatization and ﬁnance-
led dispossession, insofar as they operate within the domain of capitalized relations,
cannot revive accumulation by themselves; indeed, these processes worked in the
neoliberal era because they were bound to the release of cheap labor-power, food,
energy, and raw materials into the circuits of capital from outside those circuits.
Historically, frontier zones of low or minimal commodiﬁcation have provided
capital’s greatest opportunities to reduce the Big Four input prices: labor, food, en-
ergy, and raw materials. ese costs directly or indirectly reﬂect the value compo-
sition of commodity production as a whole, in their variable, ﬁxed, and, above all,
circulating moments. (Note that circulating capital refers to the inputs used up in a
given production cycle; it is diﬀerent from the circulation of capital.) Frontiers are
pivotal to long waves of accumulation for an elementary reason: they check the ris-
ing organic composition of capital, and therefore the tendency of the rate of proﬁt
to fall. e reduction of the value composition of these four inputs is signiﬁcant
because it is inversely related to the formation of a global rate of proﬁt, and therefore
to world accumulation. In Marx’s rarely-cited “general law” of underproduction, the
overproduction of machinery tends to lead to the underproduction of raw materi-
als, which in turn enter into the determination not only of the value composition
of non-human labor (raw materials) but also, over the course of successive accu-
mulation cycles, of ﬁxed capital itself. Cheap coal, for example, reduced not only
the costs of circulating capital (energy costs) but also the costs of manufacturing
steam engines and other vital forces of production in the second half of the “long”
Depeasantization, the reorientation of peasant agriculture towards the world
market, the extraction of abundant energy and mineral wealth—these great move-
ments of modern world history have been frontier movements, some more obvious
than others. ese movements of appropriation have enlarged the reserve army of
labor; expanded food supplies to the world proletariat; directed abundant energy
ﬂows to, and boosted labor productivity within, commodity production; and chan-
neled gigantic volumes of raw materials into industrial production, driving down
the value composition of both ﬁxed and circulating capital even as the technical
composition of capital rose mightily (Moore, 2011a; 2011b). Put simply, the Great
Frontier that opened the capitalist epoch did so by making nature’s free gifts—hu-
man natures’ too—more or less cheaply available to those with capital and power.
e end of the frontier today is the end of nature’s free gifts, and with it, the end of
capitalism’s free ride.
Frontier appropriations occur not only on the horizontal edges of the capital-
ist system—as in world-historical reckonings of incorporation (e.g., Hopkins and
304 Jason W. Moore
Wallerstein, 1987)—but also on the “vertical” axis of socio-ecological reproduction
within the heartlands of commodiﬁcation. Although the horizontal and vertical
moments of these frontier appropriations unfolded in distinct geographical zones
with speciﬁc socio-ecological inﬂections, they were uniﬁed through their relation
to the accumulation process. Commodity frontiers worked in both heartlands and
hinterlands by appropriating and transferring unpaid work from the zones of so-
cio-ecological reproduction towards zones of commodiﬁcation. In the heartlands,
the appropriation of women’s unpaid work was central to the cheap reproduction
of labor-power; in the hinterlands, the appropriation of extra-human natures (for-
ests, soils, mineral veins) was often primary. e secret of the law of value is in this
epochal synthesis of the exploitation of labor-power and the appropriation of the
unpaid work of human and extra-human natures. e formation of abstract social
labor occurs only partly, not wholly, within the zone of commodiﬁcation. e re-
gime of abstract social labor—premised on socially necessary labor-time—emerged
historically, and restructured cumulatively, through the formation of regimes of ab-
stract social nature.
e argument here is that abstract social nature—understood as a systemic fam-
ily of processes aimed at rationalizing, simplifying, standardizing, and otherwise
mapping the world—is directly constitutive of producing external natures that can
be cheaply appropriated. In this, abstract social nature is immanent to the law of
value; the praxis of external nature was pivotal to the generalization of commodity
production and exchange. e cascading and converging processes of commodiﬁ-
cation, capital accumulation, and symbolic innovation constituted a virtuous circle
of modern world development, beginning in the long sixteenth century. I do not
propose a revision of Marx’s law of value in a strict sense: the substance of capital is
abstract social labor. But neither an adequate history of capitalism, nor a suﬃciently
dynamic theory of capitalist limits, is possible without taking value relations as a
methodological premise focused on the trinity of capital/power/nature.
In this perspective, value relations are grounded historically in successive con-
ﬁgurations of abstract labor and nature. ose conﬁgurations may be called his-
torical natures. Each historical nature, co-produced by the law of value, enables the
renewed exploitation of labor-power and the renewed appropriation of life-activity
as unpaid work. e appropriation of unpaid work must outstrip the exploitation of
labor-power, else the Four Cheaps cannot return, and neither can capitalist prosper-
ity. Abstract social nature names those processes that extend, through new forms
of symbolic praxis and knowledge formation, the frontiers of accumulation—both
accumulation by capitalization and, especially, accumulation by appropriation.
Value is therefore not an economic form with systemic consequences. It is, rath-
er, a systemic relation with a pivotal “economic” expression (abstract social labor).
One cannot think the accumulation of capital without abstract social labor and the
struggle to reduce socially-necessary labor-time. By the same measure, one cannot
think the accumulation of capital without the symbolic praxis of abstract social na-
e End of Cheap Nature 305
ture, allowing for the appropriation of unpaid work on a scale that dwarfs the exploi-
tation of labor-power. Unifying these two moments calls for a mode of inquiry that
brings together the circuit of capital with the appropriation of life, and this neces-
sitates a world-ecological framework for interpreting the history of capitalism and
value’s contingent and ﬂuctuating gravities of nature, power, and capital.
Early modernity’s epoch-making abstractions—constituting a vast but weak
regime of abstract social nature—were registered through the era’s new cartogra-
phies, new temporalities, new forms of surveying and property-making, schools of
painting and music, accounting practices, and scientiﬁc revolutions. ese abstrac-
tions marked the birth of abstract social nature (Mumford, 1934; Merchant, 1980;
Harvey, 1993; Crosby, 1997; Pickles, 2004; Cosgrove, 2008). e infant would begin
to walk by the close of the sixteenth century. We ﬁnd the new face of world money-
and credit-creation in the rise of the Amsterdam Bourse after 1602. Here, not only
were shares of the Dutch East India Company traded, but also, very soon, a growing
number of commodities (360 diﬀerent commodities by 1639!) and even futures. e
Bourse’s material coordinations and symbolic “rationality provided the basis for a
universalisation and intensiﬁcation of world credit practices which served to set the
Dutch[-led world] ﬁnancial order apart from pre-modern world ﬁnance” (Langley,
2002, 45; also Petram, 2011).
Of course, abstract social nature is still with us.
For the history of capitalism may be read, in part, as a succession of scientiﬁc
revolutions that actively co-produced distinctive historical natures in and through
successive phases of capital accumulation. In every signiﬁcant respect, these scien-
tiﬁc revolutions not only produced new conditions of opportunity for capital and
states, but transformed our understanding of nature as a whole, and perhaps most
signiﬁcantly, of the boundaries between humans and the rest of nature. e point
has been underscored most dramatically by neoliberalism’s systematic combination
of shock doctrines with revolutions in the earth system and life sciences, tightly
linked in turn to new property regimes aiming to secure not only land but life for
capital accumulation (Klein, 2007; Mansﬁeld, 2009). is has unfolded at the nexus
of the global and molecular scales (McAfee, 2003). On the one hand, the new life
sciences emerging after 1973 (with the invention of recombinant DNA) became a
powerful lever for producing new conditions of accumulation premised on redis-
tribution and speculation—patenting life forms, starting with the microorganisms
recognized in 1980 by the U.S. Supreme Court. e ambition has been to enclose
“the reproduction of life itself within the promissory accumulation of the debt form”
(Cooper, 2008, 31). On the other hand, the Earth system sciences, aided consider-
ably by the mapping sciences (e.g., remote sensing, geographic information systems,
etc.), have sought to reduce
the Earth . . . to little more than a vast standing reserve, serving as a ready resource sup-
ply center and/or accessible waste reception site . . . [ey] aspire to scan and appraise
306 Jason W. Moore
the most productive use of . . . [the] resourciﬁed ﬂows of energy, information, and mat-
ter as well as the sinks, dumps, and wastelands for all the by-products that commercial
products leave behind. (Luke, 2009, 133)
is is what Luke (2009) calls “planetarian accountancy.” But planetarian accoun-
tancy is more than biophysical. It is also about the production of new ﬁnancial
techniques premised on the same worldview of “scanning and appraising” the most
proﬁtable opportunities for capital accumulation.
[Beginning] in the 1970s, an “arms race” to develop new ﬁnancial techniques for com-
modifying uncertainty spurred innovators competing for proﬁts to ever-new heights,
and by the 1990s terms such as “ﬁnancial product” and “ﬁnancial products division”
were enjoying an unprecedented vogue. e relevant mode of “production” was what
might be called “quantism”: the material and social processes of isolating, laying claim
to, objectifying, simplifying, abstracting, quantifying, commensurating, pricing and re-
aggregating masses of unknowns by which derivatives were manufactured and ﬁnan-
cial uncertainty commodiﬁed. Computers and top mathematical talent were given free
rein in greatly expanded eﬀorts to break down, reframe, mathematise, diversify across,
appropriate and charge rent for the future. (Lohmann, 2009, 19)
Both “scanning and appraising” the world and the scramble to produce ever-more
exotic ﬁnancial instruments may be read as eﬀorts to transcend the problems of a
capitalism that has entered uncharted territory: the terrain of post-peak appropria-
tion, which is to say, the end of cheap nature.
By way of conclusion
e rise of capitalism launched a new way of organizing nature, mobilizing for the
ﬁrst time a metric of wealth premised on labor productivity rather than land pro-
ductivity. is was the originary moment of today’s fast-fading “cheap nature.” is
strange law of value, taking shape out of the vast frontier appropriations and pro-
ductive innovations of the long sixteenth century, allowed for capitalism’s unusual
civilizational dynamism: appropriating the whole of nature within its grasp to ad-
vance the rate of exploitation of labor-power. From the 1450s, there commenced a
succession of movements of productivity and plunder, joining the vast appropria-
tion of nature’s free gifts with extraordinary technical innovations in production
and transport. Each wave of capitalism that followed depended on great frontier
movements, the agrarian counterpart to the spatial and productive “ﬁxes” of capi-
tal accumulation in the metropoles. Together these movements of accumulation
by appropriation and accumulation by capitalization constituted world-ecological
revolutions through which new opportunities for peak appropriation were realized,
and capital accumulation maximized. ese world-ecological revolutions—and the
e End of Cheap Nature 307
organizational structures they implied—encompassed innovations in industry and
ﬁnance no less than agriculture and resource extraction. ese innovations at ﬁrst
liberated accumulation, only to fetter it over time, as the great windfalls of fron-
tier expansion and accumulation by appropriation gradually—sometimes rapidly—
disappeared: newly proletarianized workers began to organize, farming regions
became exhausted, coal seams were mined out. e tendential result has been a
lurching movement towards a rising organic composition of capital and a declining
ecological surplus, squeezing the rate of accumulation as opportunities for new pro-
ductive investment dried up. ese developments were, at all turns, linked closely
with rising costs of inputs (circulating capital) and with them, the ampliﬁed ten-
dency of the rate of proﬁt to fall.
is is of course a provisional model for taking nature seriously in the theory of
capital accumulation. It is an invitation. To what? To a conversation over how we
might elaborate a more radical, dialectical, and historical synthesis of capitalism-
in-nature: a synthesis suggested by O’Connor (1998) and Burkett (1999), but whose
implications have scarcely been explored.
How to move forward? Certainly, any synthesis worthy of the name will go be-
yond the Cartesian dualism of “nature” and “society.” In this respect, I am struck
by Marx’s (1973, 748) insight that the fertility of the soil could “act like an increase
of ﬁxed capital.” e English agricultural revolution had proceeded on precisely
this basis, “cashing in on reserves of nitrogen under permanent pasture for short-
term gain” (Overton, 1996, 117), and stagnating after 1760. Much the same process
of “cashing in” occurred in the American Midwest between 1840 and 1880, after
which yield growth slowed until the 1930s (Kloppenburg, 1988; Friedmann, 2000).
e same arc of peaking and post-peak appropriation could be seen in South Asia’s
Green Revolution between the 1960s and 1980s (Moore, 2010c). Capitalism’s agri-
cultural revolutions—is it so diﬀerent for energy and other “modes of extraction”?
(Bunker, 1985)—are always premised on such appropriations, combining cutting-
edge industrial production with frontier enclosures. In this way, food could be pro-
duced cheaply and a double-gift presented to capital: peasant dispossession and
cheaper reproduction costs for those already proletarianized. us we might extend
Marx’s observation to all forms of “fertility.”
Capitalism’s longue durée cheap nature strategy has aimed at appropriating the
biological capacities and geological distributions of the earth in an eﬀort to reduce
the value composition of production, thereby checking the tendency towards a fall-
ing rate of proﬁt. As opportunities for accumulation by appropriation contract, we
would expect to see a profound shift from spatial to temporal ﬁxes (Harvey, 1989),
moving from the appropriation of space to the colonization of time: the greatest
strength of neoliberal ﬁnancialization. By the early twenty-ﬁrst century, the end of
cheap nature was in sight. More violence, more biopower, and more guns restored
the Four Cheaps for two decades after 1983. But the bloom was oﬀ the rose by the
early years of the new millennium. Appropriation was faltering. Rising costs of pro-
308 Jason W. Moore
duction and extraction in agriculture, energy, and mining began. e price move-
ment was made oﬃcial by 2003, with the onset of the seemingly endless commodity
boom. Labor-power seemed cheap for a time, but here too the cheap labor regime
showed signs of wear. Cheap labor became less cheap. e “Great Doubling” no lon-
ger seemed so great. But the rising capitalized composition of nature did not stop
there. Appropriation not only faltered in all the old ways; it now carried forth a new
stench of unfathomable toxiﬁcation: hydro-fracked aquifers, mountaintop remov-
als, the overnight devastation of the Gulf of Mexico.
e problem today is the end of the Capitalocene, not the march of the
Anthropocene. e reality is not one of humanity “overwhelming the great forces of
nature” (Steﬀen et al., 2011), but rather one of capitalism exhausting its cheap nature
strategy. (is is the small kernel of truth in the otherwise absurd discourse on eco-
system services.) at process of getting extra-human natures—and humans too—
to work for very low expenditures of money and energy is the history of capitalism’s
great commodity frontiers, and with it, of capitalism’s long waves of accumulation.
e appropriation of frontier land and labor has been the indispensable condition
for great waves of capital accumulation, from Dutch hegemony in the seventeenth
century to the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s and 1980s (Moore, 2010b; 2012).
e crucial “work” of these commodity frontiers has been unpaid; on that basis, the
cheap nature strategy has renewed the Four Cheaps.
With frontiers fast closing, the cheap nature strategy is failing in a double sense.
On the one hand, new streams of unpaid work are materializing slowly, if at all.
On the other hand, the accumulation of waste and toxiﬁcation is now threatening
the unpaid work that is being done. Climate change is the greatest example here.
It is increasingly certain that global warming constitutes an insuperable barrier to
any new capitalist agricultural revolution—and with it, any return of “cheap food”
(Kjellstrom et al., 2009; Zivin and Neidell, 2010). From this perspective, the greatest
problem of the twenty-ﬁrst century may well not be one of resource “taps” at all. e
end of cheap garbage cans may loom larger than the end of cheap resources (Parenti,
2012). e shift towards ﬁnancialization, and a deepening of commodity relations
in the sphere of reproduction, has been a powerful way of postponing the inevitable
blowback of modernity’s cheap nature strategy. It has allowed capitalism to survive.
But for how much longer?
Special thanks to Diana C. Gildea, and also to Henry Bernstein, Holly Jean Buck,
Alvin Camba, Phil Campanile, Giuseppe Cioﬀo, Christopher Cox, Sharae Deckard,
Joshua Eichen, Sam Fassbinder, John Bellamy Foster, Kyle Gibson, Matt Huber,
Rebecca Lave, Emmanuel Leonardi, Ben Marley, Phil McMichael, Michael Niblett,
Roberto José Ortiz, Christian Parenti, Andy Pragacz, Michael Niblett, Shehryar
Qazi, Stephen Shapiro, Dale Tomich, Jeremy Vetter, Richard Walker, Tony Weis,
e End of Cheap Nature 309
Anna Zalik, and Xiurong Zhao for conversations and correspondence on the
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