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A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things

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A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things

Abstract

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.
Introduction
Lightning and thunder need time, the light of the
stars needs time, deeds need time, even after they are
done, to be seen and heard. This deed is as yet further
from them than the furthest star, and yet they have
done it!
Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Madman,” in
The Gay Science
Settled agriculture, cities, nation-states, information technol-
ogy, and every other facet of the modern world has unfolded
within a long era of climatic good fortune. Those days are gone.
Sea levels are rising; climate is becoming less stable; average
temperatures are increasing. Civilization emerged in a geologi-
cal era known as the Holocene. Some have called our new cli-
mate era the Anthropocene. Future intelligent life will know we
were here because some humans have filled the fossil record
with such marvels as radiation from atomic bombs, plastics from
the oil industry, and chicken bones.
What happens next is unpredictable at one level and entirely
predictable at another. Regardless of what humans decide to do,
the twenty-first century will be a time of “abrupt and irreversi-
ble” changes in the web of life. Earth system scientists have a
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/ Introduction
rather dry term for such a fundamental turning point in the life
of a biospheric system: state shift. Unfortunately, the ecology
from which this geological change has emerged has also pro-
duced humans who are ill equipped to receive news of this state
shift. Nietzsche’s madman announcing the death of god was met
in a similar fashion: although industrial Europe had reduced
divine influence to the semicompulsory Sunday-morning church
attendance, nineteenth-century society couldn’t imagine a world
without god. The twenty-first century has an analogue: it’s easier
for most people to imagine the end of the planet than to imagine
the end of capitalism.
We need an intellectual state shift to accompany our new
epoch.
The first task is one of linguistic rigor, to note a problem in
naming our new geological epoch the Anthropocene. The root,
anthropos (Greek for “human”), suggests that it’s just humans
being humans, in the way that kids will be kids or snakes will be
snakes, that has caused climate change and the planet’s sixth
mass extinction. It’s true that humans have been changing the
planet since the end of the last ice age. A hunting rate slightly
higher than the replenishment rate over centuries, together with
shifting climate and grasslands, spelled the end for the Colum-
bian plains mammoth in North America, the orangutan’s over-
stued relative the Gigantopithecus in east Asia, and the giant
Irish elk Megaloceros giganteus in Europe. Humans may even have
been partly responsible for tempering a global cooling phase
twelve thousand years ago through agriculture-related green-
house gas emissions.
Hunting large mammals to extinction is one thing, but the
speed and scale of destruction today can’t be extrapolated from
the activities of our knuckle-dragging forebears. Today’s human
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Introduction /
activity isn’t exterminating mammoths through centuries of
overhunting. Some humans are currently killing everything,
from megafauna to microbiota, at speeds one hundred times
higher than the background rate. We argue that what changed
is capitalism, that modern history has, since the s, unfolded
in what is better termed the Capitalocene. Using this name
means taking capitalism seriously, understanding it not just as
an economic system but as a way of organizing the relations
between humans and the rest of the web of life on earth.
In this book, we show how the modern world has been made
through seven cheap things: nature, money, work, care, food,
energy, and lives. Every word in that sentence is dicult. Cheap
is the opposite of a bargain—cheapening is a set of strategies to
control a wider web of life. “Things” become things through
armies and clerics and accountants and print. Most centrally,
humans and nature don’t exist as giant seventeenth-century bil-
liard balls crashing into each other. The pulse of life making is
messy, contentious, and mutually sustaining. This book intro-
duces a way to think about the complex relationships between
humans and the rest of the web of life that helps make sense of
the world we’re in and suggests what it might become.
As a teaser, let’s return to those chicken bones in the geologi-
cal record, a capitalist trace of the relation between humans and
the world’s most common bird, Gallus gallus domesticus. The
chickens we eat today are very dierent from those consumed a
century ago. Today’s birds are the result of intensive post–World
War II eorts drawing on genetic material sourced freely from
Asian jungles, which humans decided to recombine to produce
the most profitable fowl. That bird can barely walk, reaches
maturity in weeks, has an oversize breast, and is reared and
slaughtered in geologically significant quantities (more than
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/ Introduction
sixty billion birds a year). Think of this relationship as a sign of
Cheap Nature. Already the most popular meat in the United
States, chicken is projected to be the planet’s most popular flesh
for human consumption by . That will require a great deal
of labor. Poultry workers are paid very little: in the United
States, two cents for every dollar spent on a fast-food chicken
goes to workers, and some chicken operators use prison labor,
paid twenty-five cents per hour. Think of this as Cheap Work.
In the US poultry industry,  percent of workers who cut wings
are in pain because of the repetitive hacking and twisting on the
line. Some employers mock their workers for reporting injury,
and the denial of injury claims is common. The result for work-
ers is a  percent decline in income for the ten years after
injury. While recovering, workers will depend on their families
and support networks, a factor outside the circuits of production
but central to their continued participation in the workforce.
Think of this as Cheap Care. The food produced by this indus-
try ends up keeping bellies full and discontent down through
low prices at the checkout and drive-through. That’s a strategy
of Cheap Food. Chickens themselves are relatively minor con-
tributors to climate change—they’ve only one stomach each and
don’t burp out methane like cows do—but they’re bred in large
lots that use a great deal of fuel to keep warm. This is the biggest
contributor to the US poultry industry’s carbon footprint. You
can’t have low-cost chicken without abundant propane: Cheap
Energy. There is some risk in the commercial sale of these proc-
essed birds, but through franchising and subsidies, everything
from easy financial and physical access to the land on which the
soy feed for chickens is grown—mainly in China, Brazil, and
the United States—to small business loans, that risk is miti-
gated through public expense for private profit. This is one
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Introduction /
aspect of Cheap Money. Finally, persistent and frequent acts of
chauvinism against categories of animal and human life—
such as women, the colonized, the poor, people of color, and
immigrants—have made each of these six cheap things possible.
Fixing this ecology in place requires a nal element—the rule
of Cheap Lives. Yet at every step of this process, humans resist—
from the Indigenous Peoples whose flocks provide the source
of genetic material for breeding through poultry and care work-
ers demanding recognition and relief to those fighting against
climate change and Wall Street. The social struggles over
nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives that attend
the Capitalocene’s poultry bones amount to a case for why the
most iconic symbol of the modern era isn’t the automobile or the
smartphone but the Chicken McNugget.
All this is forgotten in the act of dipping the chicken-and-soy
product into a plastic pot of barbeque sauce. Yet the fossilized
trace of a trillion birds will outlast—and mark the passage of—
the humans who made them. That’s why we present the story of
humans, nature, and the system that changed the planet as a
short history of the modern world: as an antidote to forgetting.
This short book isn’t, however, a history of the whole world. It’s
the history of processes that can explain why the world looks
the way it does today. The story of these seven cheap things
illustrates how capitalism expanded from Europe to yield maps
like the one above, showing how small a portion of the earth has
lain outside the scope of European colonial power.
We’ll explain precisely what we mean by cheap below. First
we need to make the case that it’s not just some natural human
behavior but rather a specific interaction between humans and
the biological and physical world that has brought us to this
point.
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Map . Parts of the world colonized by Europe.
Map to be split here
Patel map 2
1st proof
Bill Nelson 6/12/17
Europe
Never colonized by Europe
Colonized or controlled by Europe
Partial European control or infuence
European sphere of inuence
Which category does this area belong to?
Patel and Moore - A History of the World in seven cheap things.indd 6 13/06/17 8:51 PM
Map to be split here
Patel map 2
1st proof
Bill Nelson 6/12/17
Europe
Never colonized by Europe
Colonized or controlled by Europe
Partial European control or infuence
European sphere of inuence
Which category does this area belong to?
Patel and Moore - A History of the World in seven cheap things.indd 7 13/06/17 8:51 PM
/ Introduction
A BR IEF G UID E TO HU M ANS A ND N ATUR E
BE FO RE C A PITAL ISM
Lamenting how poorly humans treat the natural world is ancient
sport. Plato did it in the Critias, describing a time nine thousand
years before his, when the area around Athens was forested and
tended by a noble people who held property in common and
loved nature more than Plato’s contemporaries. As he told it, his
peers had dishonored nature and allowed the hills to be stripped
bare. Plato’s is a romanticized—and almost certainly false—
history of periurban Athens. Our analysis points not to a deficit
of honor but to what happened, by accident, when a marginal
tributary of West Asian civilization experienced a crisis of cli-
mate, disease, and society. We begin our story a few centuries
before the dawn of capitalism, in a place with aspirations to the
riches and civilizations of Central and East Asia but poorer by
far, in a time made by weather. We begin in feudal Europe.
The Medieval Warm Period was a climate anomaly that ran
from about  to  in the North Atlantic. Winters were
mild and growing seasons were long. Cultivation spread north-
ward and upward: vineyards sprouted in southern Norway, and
grain farms climbed mountains and highlands from the Alps
to Scotland. Human numbers in Europe swelled, nearly
tripling—to seventy million—in the five centuries after .
England’s population peaked around  and wouldn’t reach
that level again until the end of the seventeenth century. The
agricultural surplus grew even faster. Towns sprang up every-
where, and by  a growing share of the population—perhaps
a fifth—worked outside agriculture. Such relative prosperity
also fueled expansionary appetites. The Crusades are an exam-
ple: highly commercialized and militarized operations that tar-
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Introduction /
geted the wealth of the eastern Mediterranean, beginning in
. They were accompanied by other movements of conquest,
two of which loomed large in the shaping of the modern world
five centuries later. The first was the Christian Reconquista of
Iberia, in what are today Portugal and Spain. The Castilians
and Aragonese began to roll back Islamic power on the penin-
sula through the first wave of Crusades—and the Crusaders
made conquest pay through tribute, in what would become a
characteristic of colonial capitalism. The second movement was
subtler and more powerful. Feudalism’s most important feature
was its capacity to sustain massive and ongoing settler expan-
sion without centralized authority. To do this, it relied on
cultivation—the greatest conqueror of all. By the fourteenth
century, agriculture took up a third of all European land use, a
radical, sixfold increase over the area of the previous five centu-
ries, much of it realized at the expense of forests.
Feudal Europe rode the Medieval Warm Period until its peak
around , when the climate turned colder—and wetter. After
centuries of relative food security, famine returned, and with a
force all the greater for smashing against a civilization used to
altogether dierent weather. In May , massive rains struck
across Europe, possibly as a result of the eruption of New Zea-
land’s Mount Kaharoa. They did not relent until August, when
the deluge ended with an early cold snap. Harvests had been
weak in previous years, but ’s was disastrous—and so was the
next year’s. Europe’s population contracted by up to  percent
over the next few years. The continent did not escape from the
Great Famine—as historians call it—until .
Although contemporaries did not know it, they had entered
the Little Ice Age, a period that would end only in the nineteenth
century. The Little Ice Age laid bare feudalism’s vulnerabilities.
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 / Introduction
Its food system, for instance, worked only while the climate
remained clement. This was chiefly because that system ran
through a particular class arrangement, in which lords enjoyed
formal control over the land and peasants cultivated it. Lords
oversaw a rising peasant population, which was able to generate a
rising surplus, with a tendency toward diminishing returns. Soil
fertility was slowly exhausted over the centuries, a decline par-
tially concealed by a rising population of peasants wringing the
last out of fixed areas of land. When the weather turned, it cre-
ated a cascade of failures, propagated through a class system that
enforced soil exhaustion and starvation, killing millions.
One explanation for this civilizational crisis lines up well
with the warning in Robert Malthus’s Essay on the Principles of
Population: there were too many people and not enough food. To
use more modern language, climate change aected Europe’s
carrying capacity, reducing the number of people who could be
sustained on the degraded land under feudalism. But carrying
capacities swell or shrink depending on who rules. The issue—
then as now—was really one of power. In fact, Malthus has less
to oer this story than Karl Marx. Feudal lords wanted cash or
grain, which could be easily stored and marketed, and they
overwhelmingly consumed the modest surpluses wrung from
the soil, leaving precious little to reinvest in agriculture.
Absent the lords’ power and demands, peasants might have
shifted to crop mixes that included garden produce alongside
grains, perhaps solving the food problem. As for the number of
people, family formation and population growth are not deter-
mined by an eternal procreational drive but rather shaped by a
host of historical conditions turning on culture, class, and land
availability. As Guy Bois notes in his classic study of Norman
feudalism, a transition to dierent ways of owning land, with
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Introduction / 
more peasant autonomy and power over what and how to grow,
would have allowed medieval Europe to feed up to three times
as many people. But that transition never happened, and feudal
arrangements staggered on until receiving a final coup de grace
in : the Black Death.
Europe emerged from the Medieval Warm Period in poor
shape. The structures that had produced sucient food to nour-
ish peasants and cities from the beginning of the second millen-
nium weren’t able to cope with the changing climate, casting a
growing layer of the population into malnutrition. Eleventh-
century bodies exhumed from English cemeteries show better
health than those from the thirteenth century. The food short-
ages at the end of the Medieval Warm Period made European
bodies more vulnerable to disease, and the Black Death turned
this vulnerability into an apocalypse. Wiping out between one-
third and one-half of Europe’s population, it took advantage of
the medieval world’s version of globalization. Nearly every-
where, urbanization and commercialization were bringing more
people into cities and more cities into trade networks. Arteries
of trade that carried goods and money from Shanghai to Sicily
also unified Asia and Europe into a supercontinental “disease
pool.”
Once the Black Death reached Europe—Sicily by October
 and Genoa just three months later—feudalism unraveled.
That unraveling can tell us something important about how
great crises occur and how they entangle dynamics such as cli-
mate and population with power and economy. Feudalism, like
many agrarian civilizations, tended to exhaust its agroecological
relations. As population increased under feudal class arrange-
ments, farming became more labor intensive, with more people
working the land, reducing predation and weeds, nurturing
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 / Introduction
crops with more care. Throwing people into fields didn’t address
feudalism’s class structure—it merely managed its decline. In
England, signs of feudalism’s exhaustion were evident from .
In the half century before the Great Famine, peasant diets,
already exceedingly modest, sharply deteriorated. Grain yields
fell, and per capita consumption of grain—the mainstay of the
peasant diet—declined by  percent.
Civilizations don’t collapse simply because people starve.
(Since , the number of malnourished people has remained
above eight hundred million, yet few talk of the end of civiliza-
tion.) Great historical transitions occur because “business as
usual” no longer works. The powerful have a way of sticking to
time-honored strategies even when the reality is radically
changing. So it was with feudal Europe. The Black Death was
not simply a demographic catastrophe. It also tilted the balance
of forces in European society.
Feudalism depended on a growing population, not only to
produce food but also to reproduce lordly power. The aristoc-
racy wanted a relatively high peasant population, to maintain its
bargaining position: many peasants competing for land was bet-
ter than many lords competing for peasants. But with the Black
Death, webs of commerce and exchange didn’t just transmit
disease—they became vectors of mass insurrection. Almost
overnight, peasant revolts ceased being local aairs and became
large-scale threats to the feudal order. After  these uprisings
were synchronized—they were system-wide responses to an
epochal crisis, a fundamental breakdown in feudalism’s logic of
power, production, and nature.
The Black Death precipitated an unbearable strain on a sys-
tem already stretched to the breaking point. Europe after the
plague was a place of unrelenting class war, from the Baltics to
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Introduction / 
Iberia, London to Florence. Peasant demands for tax relief and
the restoration of customary rights were calls that feudalism’s
rulers could not tolerate. If Europe’s crowns, banks, and aristoc-
racies could not suer such demands, neither could they restore
the status quo ante, despite their best eorts. Repressive legisla-
tion to keep labor cheap, through wage controls or outright
reenserfment, came in reaction to the Black Death. Among the
earliest was England’s Ordinance and Statute of Labourers,
enacted in the teeth of the plague’s first onslaught (–). The
equivalent today would be to respond to an Ebola epidemic by
making unionization harder. The labor eects of climate change
were abundantly clear to Europe’s aristocrats, who exhausted
themselves trying to keep business very much as usual. They
failed almost entirely. Nowhere in western or central Europe
was serfdom reestablished. Wages and living standards for peas-
ants and the urban classes improved substantially, enough to
compensate for a decline in the overall size of the economy.
Although this was a boon for most people, Europe’s percent
found their share of the economic surplus contracting. The old
order was broken and could not be fixed.
Capitalism emerged from this broken state of aairs. Ruling
classes tried not just to restore the surplus but to expand it.
East Asia was wealthier, so although its rulers also experienced
socioecological tribulations, they found ways to accommodate
upheaval, deforestation, and resource shortages in their own trib-
utary terms. One solution that reinvented humans’ relation to
the web of life was stumbled upon by the Iberian aristocracy—in
Portugal and Castile above all. By the end of the fifteenth cen-
tury, these kingdoms and their societies had made war through
the Reconquista, the centuries-long conflict with Muslim pow-
ers on the peninsula, and were so deeply dependent on Italian
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 / Introduction
financiers to fund their military campaigns that Portugal and
Castile had in turn been remade by war. The mix of war debt and
the promise of wealth through conquest spurred the earliest
invasions of the Atlantic—in the Canary Islands and Madeira.
The solution to war debt was more war, and the prizes of colonial
expansion on new, great frontiers.
TH E E A RLI E ST FR O NT IER S
Early modern colonialism used frontiers in an entirely new way.
Always before, rising population density in the heartlands had
led to the expansion of settlement, followed by commerce. This
pattern turned inside out in the two centuries after . Fron-
tiers were to become an organizing principle of metropolitan
wealth. The demographic and geographical logic of the result-
ing civilization would radically invert patterns established mil-
lennia earlier. Financial wealth—as we will see in chapter —
made these conquests possible. And it was in an experiment in
an early Portuguese colonial outpost that many of the features
of the modern world were first convened, in the manufacture of
one of the first capitalist products: sugar.
One of the earliest flares of the modern world was lit on a
small northern African island, where in the s a new system
for producing and distributing food took shape. In , Portu-
guese sailors first sighted an island less than four hundred miles
( kilometers) west of Casablanca, which they called Ilha da
Madeira, “Island of wood.” The Venetian traveler and slaver
Alvise da Ca’ da Mosto (Cadamosto) reported in  that “there
was not a foot of ground that was not entirely covered with great
trees.” By the s it was hard to find any wood on the island at
all. There were two phases in the clear-cutting of Madeira. Ini-
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Introduction / 
tially, the trees had been profitable as lumber for shipbuilding
and construction. The denuded forest became acreage for wheat
to be sent back to Portugal starting in the s. The second,
more dramatic deforestation was driven by the use of wood as
fuel in sugar production.
Humans, primates, and most mammals love the taste of
sugar. Since the discovery of sugarcane in New Guinea in 
, humans have understood the biological necessities of its
treatment. There is a peak time to harvest the cane, when it is
turgid with sweet juice—but then the grass is thick and dicult
to cut. Once chopped, the cane can be coaxed to yield its great-
est quantity of sugar for only forty-eight hours. After that, the
plant starts to rot.
The botany of sugarcane thus calls for speedy production.
This is why the great historian and anthropologist Sidney Mintz
reported that “in , Henry III requested the Mayor of Win-
chester to get him three pounds [. kilograms] of Alexandrine
sugar if so much could be had at one time from the merchants at
the great Winchester Fair.” Increasing the amount that “could
be had at one time” was not easy. One had to surmount the limits
of what a single family might produce. One had to invest in new
techniques and technology. Persians and North Africans in the
great Muslim civilizations had, for instance, discovered that pot-
ash (potassium carbonate) could produce clearer sugar crystals:
the best sugar was from Alexandria in Egypt, hence Henry III’s
specific hankering for it. But it took new experiments in work,
nature, and commerce to invent ways to produce far, far more.
Sugar had arrived in Iberia by the fourteenth century, brought
by King Jaume II of Aragón (–), who also brought a Mus-
lim slave expert in the art of sugar production. By  it was
being grown commercially, funded by German banking houses
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 / Introduction
like the Ravensburger Handelsgesellschaft and cultivated on
rented plots near Valencia by a mixture of slaves and free work-
ers. But sugar remained rare—and there was a ready market for
it. In the s and s, farmers on Madeira stopped growing
wheat and started growing sugar exclusively. A lot more sugar.
The sugar frontier quickly spread, at first to other islands in the
Atlantic, then on a massive scale to the New World. Like palm
and soy monocultures today, it cleared forests, exhausted soils,
and encouraged pests at breakneck speed.
To reach such speeds, production had to be reorganized, bro-
ken into smaller, component activities performed by dierent
workers. It simply isn’t possible to get good returns from workers
who are exhausted from cutting cane and then spend the night
refining it. New management and technologies helped move
sugar manufacture from edge runner mills (big pestle-and-
mortar machines) and small holdings to two-roller mills and
large-scale slave production in São Tomé. Centuries before
Adam Smith could marvel at the division of labor across a
supply chain that made a pin, the relationship between humans,
plants, and capital had forged the core ideas of modern
manufacturing—in cane fields. The plantation was the original
factory. And every time the sugar plantation found a new fron-
tier, as in Brazil after São Tomé and the Caribbean after that,
that factory was reinvented—with new machines and new com-
binations of plantation and sugar mill. The only thing missing
from this story, of course, is the humans who did the work. In
Madeira, they were Indigenous People from the Canary Islands,
North African slaves, and—in some cases—paid plantation lab-
orers from mainland Europe.
The plantations were irrigated by levadas, water channels forged
of trees, mud, sweat, and blood. Today, thirteen hundred miles
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Introduction / 
(twenty-one hundred kilometers) of levadas remain on an island
thirty-seven miles (sixty kilometers) across at its widest point.
Hydraulic engineers deployed slaves, sometimes dangling on
ropes, to carve small canals through rock faces to channel streams
to the cane fields. Many workers died in rockslides and dam
breaches, but the engineers transformed flows of water in Madeira
so eectively that Afonso de Albuquerque, the first duke of Goa
and the second governor of Portuguese India, asked that Madei-
rans be sent “to change the course of the River Nile.” Financed by
Flemish and Italian capitalists, masters from Portugal oversaw
cane’s planting, watering, harvest, and transformation into crystal-
ized sugar. Turning cane stalks into sugar used prodigious amounts
of fuel. At least fifty pounds (twenty-three kilograms) of wood was
needed to boil and distill enough sugarcane juice to return a single
pound (. kilograms) of sugar. To turn the cane, heavy with
water, into molasses and loaves of sugar, mills were built around
Madeira’s capital, Funchal, to which slaves transported the cane.
At its zenith, Madeira’s industry used five hundred hectares (,
acres) of forest each year to feed the boilers that kept the tributes of
sugar flowing to Europe’s courts. Yet after the boom, the bust. Out-
put peaked in the first decade of the sixteenth century, and the fur-
naces sputtered out by the s, the trees having been stripped
from the island. Production crashed, and investors found greater
returns from large-scale slave-planted sugar whose processing was
fueled by forests in the New World. Europe’s wealthy ate the
sugar, and sugar ate the island.
Capitalism didn’t leave Madeira—it reinvented itself. With
no aordable fuel (the island’s only remaining trees were in the
interior highland, too inaccessible to be eciently felled), new
strategies emerged to wring profit from the devastated land.
After sugar came wine, grown in the ashes of the cane industry.
Patel and Moore - A History of the World in seven cheap things.indd 17 13/06/17 8:51 PM
 / Introduction
Grapes demand less labor, water, and fuel than cane. But wine
needs casks, so for centuries the wood for Madeira barrels was
brought from the most economical source: the cheap forests of
the New World. Commodities flowed the other way too, as
Madeira was a conduit for the Atlantic slave trade until the
eighteenth century. In a more recent act of reinvention, the
island today uses that grim history as a source of revenue
through tourism. Yet as the sugar frontier closed in Madeira,
new frontiers opened elsewhere, and forces less obvious than a
craving for sweetness shaped the island, and soon the planet.
FR ONT I ER S AND C HEAP N ESS
This sketch of a colonial frontier gives us a glimpse of how capi-
talism was to work beyond Madeira. Before analyzing the story of
sugar and the island more thoroughly, we need to explain why we
think it’s important to analyze frontiers. Often in visualizations of
the spread of capitalism, the image that oers itself is an asteroid
impact or the spread of a disease, which starts at ground or patient
zero and metastasizes across the planet. Capitalist frontiers
require a more sophisticated science fiction. If capitalism is a dis-
ease, then it’s one that eats your flesh—and then profits from sell-
ing your bones for fertilizer, and then invests that profit to reap
the cane harvest, and then sells that harvest to tourists who pay to
visit your headstone. But even this description isn’t adequate.
The frontier works only through connection, fixing its failures by
siphoning life from elsewhere. A frontier is a site where crises
encourage new strategies for profit. Frontiers are frontiers because
they are the encounter zones between capital and all kinds of
nature—humans included. They are always, then, about reducing
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Introduction / 
the costs of doing business. Capitalism not only has frontiers; it
exists only through frontiers, expanding from one place to the next,
transforming socioecological relations, producing more and more
kinds of goods and services that circulate through an expanding
series of exchanges. But more important, frontiers are sites where
power is exercised—and not just economic power. Through fron-
tiers, states and empires use violence, culture, and knowledge to
mobilize natures at low cost. It’s this cheapening that makes fron-
tiers so central to modern history and that makes possible capital-
ism’s expansive markets. This gives us a precious clue to how pro-
ductivity is understood and practiced. While much has been
made of its gory and oppressive history, one fact is often over-
looked: capitalism has thrived not because it is violent and
destructive (it is) but because it is productive in a particular way.
Capitalism thrives not by destroying natures but by putting
natures to work—as cheaply as possible.
Through its frontiers, capitalism taps and controls a wider set
of relations of life making than appear in an accountant’s balance
of profit and loss. There isn’t a word in English for the process of
making life, though such words are found in a range of other lan-
guages. The Anishinaabeg, whose original lands extended widely
across northeastern North America, have Minobimaatisiiwin,
which means “the good life” but also “a continuous rebirth” of
reciprocal and cyclical relations between humans and other life.
Southern African Bantu languages have ubuntu, human fulfill-
ment through togetherness, and the Shona language has the fur-
ther idea of ukama, a “relatedness to the entire cosmos,” including
the biophysical world. Similar interpretations exist of the Chi-
nese shi-shi wu-ai and the Maori mauri. Absent a decent term in
English, we use the idea of oikeios. Oikeios names the creative and
multilayered pulse of life making through which all human
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 / Introduction
activity flows, shaped at every turn by natures that consistently
elude human eorts at control. It is through the oikeios that par-
ticular forms of life emerge, that species make environments and
environments make species. Likewise, the pulse of human civili-
zation does not simply occupy environments but produces
them—and in the process is produced by them.
Everything that humans make is coproduced with the rest of
nature: food, clothing, homes and workplaces, roads and railways
and airports, even phones and apps. It’s relatively easy to under-
stand how something like farming mixes the work of humans and
soils, and also mixes all sorts of physical processes with human
knowledge. When the processes are larger in scale, it becomes
easier to think about “social” and “naturalprocesses as if they
were independent of each other. It is somehow easier to grasp the
immediate relationship to soil and work of a farmers’ market than
a global financial market. But Wall Street is just as much copro-
duced through nature as that farmers’ market. Indeed, Wall Street’s
global financial operations involve it in a web of planetary ecologi-
cal relationships unimaginable in any previous civilization. His-
tory is made not through the separation of humans from nature but
through their evolving, diverse configurations. The “human” rela-
tions of power and dierence, production and reproduction, not
only produce nature; they are products of nature. There is, for
example, a variety of mosquito (Culex pipiens) that has made its
home in the London Underground and adapted to the dark world
of the British commuter to such an extent that it can no longer
interbreed with its topside counterparts—hence the new species
Culex pipiens molestus. This new species, made through human
activity, is a small karmic counterbalance to those species
destroyed by the work done in the City of London (Britain’s Wall
Street) by these commuters, o whose blood the mosquito feeds.
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Introduction / 
The relationship between the wider web of life and capital-
ism is the subject of this book. Capitalism’s frontiers always lie
firmly within a far larger world of life making. For capitalism,
what matters is that the figures entered into ledgers—to pay
workers, to supply adequate food to workers, to purchase energy
and raw materials—are as low as possible. Capitalism values
only what it can count, and it can count only dollars. Every capi-
talist wants to invest as little and profit as much as possible. For
capitalism, this means that the whole system thrives when pow-
erful states and capitalists can reorganize global nature, invest
as little as they can, and receive as much food, work, energy, and
raw materials with as little disruption as possible.
Economists might at this point mutter “Externalities” and
wonder why we haven’t read the original scholars of externali-
ties, Arthur Cecil Pigou or James Meade. We have, which is
why we’re writing this book. In economics, an externality is a
cost or a benefit, private or social, that doesn’t appear in the cal-
culus of production. We’re arguing that the modern world
emerged from systematic attempts to fix crises at the frontier,
crises that resulted from human and extrahuman life inserting
itself into that calculus. The modern world happened because
externalities struck back.
Capitalism is not a system where cash is everywhere but rather
one in which islands of cash exchange exist within oceans of
cheap—or potentially cheap—natures. Reproducing life within
the cash nexus is expensive, and it grows more expensive over
time. Workers’ wages can be frozen, even rolled back, but in the
end inequality precipitates crises of the kind we’ve recently seen
bring about populist protests in the United States and the United
Kingdom. Workers demand dignity, and their labor becomes
expensive. Production processes burn through an island, and
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 / Introduction
energy is no longer cheap. The climate changes, and crops can
no longer grow as abundantly as they once did. Frontiers are so
important in these processes because they oer places where the
new cheap things can be seized—and the cheap work of humans
and other natures can be coerced.
We come, then, to what we mean by cheapness: it’s a set of
strategies to manage relations between capitalism and the web
of life by temporarily fixing capitalism’s crises. Cheap is not the
same as low cost—though that’s part of it. Cheap is a strategy, a
practice, a violence that mobilizes all kinds of work—human
and animal, botanical and geological—with as little compensa-
tion as possible. We use cheap to talk about the process through
which capitalism transmutes these undenominated relationships
of life making into circuits of production and consumption, in
which these relations come to have as low a price as possible.
Cheapening marks the transition from uncounted relations of
life making to the lowest possible dollar value. It’s always a
short-term strategy. And cheapness has always been a battle-
ground. Looking at these seven cheap things helps us see the
horizon of what is possible. It helps us grasp the stakes in social
conflicts today and the reparations that need to be made for soli-
darity to be meaningful. In examining money, work, care,
energy, food, lives, and above all nature, we argue for a new way
to understand what we call capitalism’s ecology, the blend of
relations that explains how the modern world works. Why these
seven? We couldn’t do fewer, and while there might be more,
each of them was present at the dawn of capitalism’s ecology.
They’re a useful start to the project of both interpreting and
changing the world—and it’s now time to explore how each of
them mattered in Madeira.
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Introduction / 
Nature
When settlers landed on Madeira, they brought along invasive
species. On one of the smaller islands, Porto Santo (whose first
lord was Columbus’s father-in-law), rabbits quickly escaped
captivity and devoured local flora. Other invasions followed. A
snail indigenous to Madeira, Caseolus bowdichianus, was extinct
within a century of colonization. But the record suggests that
the majority of the extinctions on Madeira happened over the
past two centuries—not under the initial colonial onslaught but
later, as successive waves of foreign species and patterns of land
use snued out millions of years of evolution.
The trees, water, soil, fauna, and flora on Madeira and the sea
around the island were treated as “free gifts,” transformed into a
series of inputs or hindrances to production. In a seminal paper
on overfishing, “Reefs since Columbus,” Jeremy Jackson notes how
humans have extinguished life from the time that young Colum-
bus arrived on Madeira. Humans under capitalism abuse the eco-
systems of which we are part—and on which we depend. Capital-
ists are, for instance, happy to view the ocean as both storage
facility for the seafood we have yet to catch and sinkhole for the
detritus we produce on land. The balance of food and trash will
soon tip. By , two years after the last commercial fish catch is
projected to land, there will be more plastic in the sea than fish.
The intellectually slack explanation here is that humans bring
destruction in their wake. But nature is more than a resource pool
or rubbish bin. A central reason for beginning our story at the
frontier of the Portuguese empire is that Madeira so clearly dem-
onstrates what happens when the metabolism of humans in the
web of life becomes governed by the demand for profit.
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 / Introduction
If profit was to govern life, a significant intellectual state shift
had to occur: a conceptual split between Nature and Society.
This was a momentous shift but usually pales alongside the birth
of the world market, the conquest of the Americas, and the dis-
possession of peasants. No less important, however, was the
transformation in how some humans understood, and acted
upon, nature as a whole. It’s important to be clear that this was
always the work of some humans—those in charge of conquering
and commercializing a world that counts only dollars. We may
all be in the same boat when it comes to climate change, but most
of us are in steerage. Our qualification here is important for two
big reasons. First, it helps us place responsibility and look to
those classes and relationships that profit from this separation.
Second and more significant, the human “separation from nature”
took shape around a truly massive exclusion. The rise of capital-
ism gave us the idea not only that society was relatively inde-
pendent of the web of life but also that most women, Indigenous
Peoples, slaves, and colonized peoples everywhere were not fully
human and thus not full members of society. These were people
who were not—or were only barely—human. They were part of
Nature, treated as social outcasts—they were cheapened.
The cleaving of Nature from Society, of savage from civilized,
set the stage for the creation of our other cheap things, as we argue
in chapter . Nature was remade, reinvented, and rethought many
times over the next five centuries. Capitalism’s practices of cheap
nature would define whose lives and whose work mattered—and
whose did not. Its dominant ideas Nature and Society (in upper-
case because of their mythic and bloody power) would determine
whose work was valued and whose work—care for young and old,
for the sick and those with special needs, agricultural work, and
the work of extrahuman natures (animals, soils, forests, fuels)
Patel and Moore - A History of the World in seven cheap things.indd 24 13/06/17 8:51 PM
Introduction / 
was rendered largely invisible. It achieved all this through the cir-
culation of money, whose price in turn depended on global con-
quest and subjugation. Successive eras saw the control of food to
sustain workers and of energy to make them more productive.
Cheap things are thus not really things at all—but rather strate-
gies adopted by capitalism to survive and manage crises, gambits
made to appear as real and independent entities by the original sin
of cheap nature.
Money
Money is the medium through which capitalism operates, a
source of power for those able to control it. That control isn’t just
about people and wealth. It’s about how such control entwines
with nature. Consider how tightly linked are American dollars
and barrels of Saudi Arabian oil or, in an earlier era, Dutch rix-
dollars and New World ingots of silver. If modernity is an ecol-
ogy of power, money binds the ecosystem, and that ecosystem
shapes money. Money depends on culture and force to become
capital. It divides and connects worker and capitalist, rich and
poor regions—the Global North and the Global South in today’s
lexicon. It fosters nation-states and empires; it disciplines and
depends upon them. To look at history this way moves away
from seeing the modern world as a collection of states and toward
seeing it as a world-system of capital, power, and nature. And
it compels us to consider these processes over the span of
centuries—not decades.
Elements of this approach were initially oered in the s by
Immanuel Wallerstein, who showed how capitalism emerged
through a cascading series of political and economic transforma-
tions in which a new, and grossly unequal, division of labor was
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 / Introduction
forged. Among his chief insights were two with special relevance
to this book. First, global inequality is a class process made possi-
ble by political as well as market forces. Second, production and
accumulation have been remade through a radical remaking of
nature. If subsequent scholars dropped Wallerstein’s insistence on
capitalism as an ecology, we build on his thinking to show how
work and power unfold within planetary nature—in wholesale
transformations that constitute an ecology. And because we’re
interested in the forces that condition socioecological relationships
over distance, it should be clear why money matters so much.
With a world-historical eye, trivial historical details become
vital. One example: the relationship between fifteenth-century
Genoese banking, Madeira’s ecology, and today’s planetary crisis.
Humans like the taste of sugar. Sugar needs water. Irrigation on
Madeira needed work, which needed to be funded. Slaves weren’t
cheap to buy, transport, or maintain, and it took a full season for
the water to feed the cane and the cane to be harvested, processed
into sugar, and sold in mainland Europe, exchanged for silver that
then bought spices from Asia. In between all these were credit
and debt and the flow of money into commodities, in which the
Italian city-state of Genoa was central.
Money isn’t capital. Capital is journalism’s shorthand for
money or, worse, a stock of something that can be transformed
into something else. If you’ve ever heard or used the terms natu-
ral capital or social capital, you’ve been part of a grand obfusca-
tion. Capital isn’t the dead stock of uncut trees or unused skill.
For Marx and for us, capital happens only in the live transfor-
mation of money into commodities and back again. Money
tucked under a mattress is as dead to capitalism as the mattress
itself. It is through the live circulation of this money, and in the
relations around it, that capitalism happens.
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Introduction / 
The processes of exchange and circulation turn money into
capital. At the heart of Marx’s Capital is a simple, powerful
model: in production and exchange, capitalists combine labor
power, machines, and raw material. The result, commodities,
are then sold for money. If all goes well, there is a profit, which
needs then to be reinvested into yet more labor power, machines,
and raw materials. Neither commodities nor money is capital.
This circuit becomes capital when money is sunk into commodity
production, in an ever-expanding cycle. Capital is a process in
which money flows through nature. The trouble here is that
capital supposes infinite expansion within a nite web of life.
Marx chides economists who believe that their profession
explains markets through supply and demand, when those are
precisely what need to be explained. To understand those forces
requires an examination of markets through the “organic whole”
of production and exchange. That organic whole robs life from
the worker just as it exhausts the soil of the capitalist farmer.
This cycle of money into commodities and then back into
money isn’t just a way of looking at capital. It is an optic through
which to see far longer rhythms in the rise and fall of empires
and superpowers, the span of the longue durée. Remember that
after making a commodity and selling it, capitalists ideally have
a profit. The permanent demands of profit making require those
profits to themselves generate profitable returns. That causes a
problem, because the amount of capital tends to grow faster that
the opportunities to invest it advantageously. That’s why finan-
cial bubbles—episodes when large sums of capital flow into a
particular economic sector, like home mortgages before the
 crisis—recur throughout the history of the modern world.
Empires help fix this problem. Over the long run, empires open
new frontiers. Over the short run, when profitability slows they
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 / Introduction
go to war—and borrow to do it. Bankers are happy to lend
because other opportunities for profit making are relatively
slight and states are typically good credit risks. They also have
armies ready to go to war, at the state’s expense, to defend a safe
and valuable currency. The relations between bankers and gov-
ernments lead in the short term to reinvestment, in the medium
term to the concentration of wealth and returns in the financial
sector, and in the long term to the rise and fall of commercial
power centered on a city, state, or international regime.
In that arc, some people benefit a great deal, while others
merely get by—or worse. Thomas Piketty’s ideas on how invest-
ment return has outstripped GDP growth in the Global North
have generated much interest recently, but they belong to an older
class of insights about how finance relates to the rest of capital-
ism’s ecology under successive state regimes. Capitalism is not
just the sum of “economic” transactions that turn money into
commodities and back again; it’s inseparable from the modern
state and from governments’ dominions and transformations of
natures, human and otherwise. Financial capital’s paroxysms of
expansion and collapse are central to understanding how capital-
ism has developed, as we discuss in chapter . Through the
advance of financiers, who have aimed to shape and profit from
their investments, capitalism’s ecology now aects every tendril
of the planet’s ecology. The story of how money came to rule not
just humans but a good chunk of planetary life begins with the
invasion of the New World’s wealth. The unholy alliance of Euro-
pean empires, conquerors, and banks would turn New World
natures into commodities and capital. Centrally, capitalism’s ecol-
ogy needed new ways of managing humans, their bodies and the
resources they required to survive. Because money doesn’t just
turn into commodities by itself: for that you need labor.
Patel and Moore - A History of the World in seven cheap things.indd 28 13/06/17 8:51 PM
Introduction / 
Work
Initially, the Portuguese, Genoese, and Flemish sugar plantation
owners on Madeira brought Guanches, people indigenous to the
Canary Islands, to work their land. A few fifteenth-century wills
show that owners bequeathed Guanches to the next generation.
These and other Indigenous workers succumbed to European
disease and brutality. They were supplemented and replaced
with a mix of wageworkers and North African slaves, humans
whose recent ancestors had made a living in subsistence agricul-
ture but who themselves arrived in Madeira as a consequence of
either enslavement or exclusion from the land they once worked.
Madeira was a field site for experiments in the limits of human
endurance and strength but also for the trial of new technologies
of order, process, and specialization that—centuries later
would be used in England’s industrial factories. We don’t
know nearly enough about the ways that workers on Madeira—
slaves and freemen alike—resisted their masters and employers.
There’s little recorded about how they fought the regime that
both worked them to death and exhausted the soil on which they
labored. But we do know that they resisted and that their
attempts to combat the conditions of their exploitation generated
crises sucient for authorities to forbid slaves from living alone
or with freedmen in .
The story of cheap things and the crises that follow their
cheapening is not one of inevitability. Humans can and do fight
back. Capitalists then try to address that resistance with a range
of cheap xes. These too inevitably generate their own crises
and, in turn, more and more sophisticated mechanisms of con-
trol and order. This class struggle is a vital engine of change in
capitalist ecology. Although we know little about slave rebellion
Patel and Moore - A History of the World in seven cheap things.indd 29 13/06/17 8:51 PM
 / Introduction
in Madeira, we do know that by the end of the sugar boom, the
technologies of slavery and plantation had been refined and
were being exported across the Atlantic, first to São Tomé,
where runaway slaves called Anglores scorched the island’s
sugar mills and besieged its capital for two weeks in . We
also know, as we discuss in chapter , that it is in workers’ oppo-
sition to their exploitation that some of the most potent chal-
lenges to capitalism can be found.
Slavery remains, as does resistance to it. There are more
humans in forced labor in the twenty-first century than were
transported by the Atlantic slave trade. The International Labor
Organization found than there were nearly  million people in
forced labor in , of whom . million were in labor forced
upon them by the state (prison work) or rebel military groups. Of
the remaining . million, . million were involved in commer-
cial sexual exploitation and . million in forced economic
exploitation. For comparison, . million Africans were
enslaved and transported through the Middle Passage. Slavery
didn’t begin in Madeira, but modern slavery did. The modern
dierence lies in slaves’ being put to work in agricultural mass
production and in their expulsion from the mythic domain of
society. Although slaves had always been at the bottom of the
social order, in the centuries after Madeira’s boom and bust they
were kicked outside that order, stripped of anything that resem-
bled citizenship. For Indigenous and African slaves, modernity
meant not only actual death but also “social death.” Treating
slaves as part of Nature rather than Society was a successful
move for investors. For that success to multiply, more workers
needed to be found, their broken bodies cared for, and their com-
munities supported by work that was forever unpaid. In other
words, capitalists needed more labor and needed it to be edu-
Patel and Moore - A History of the World in seven cheap things.indd 30 13/06/17 8:51 PM
Introduction / 
cated and maintained as cheaply as possible. From this impera-
tive emerged an entire regime of cheap care, one so vital to capi-
talism’s ecology that its history has been all but erased.
Care
The part of Madeira’s early history about which the least is
known, yet without which it would have been impossible, is the
work of what social scientists call social reproduction. The
work of care, for young and old, infirm and sick, learning and
recovering, makes capitalism possible. Where else do humans
come from but from other humans? How else are they socialized
than through communities? How else are they cared for and
nurtured than through networks of support? The demands for
this care to be performed cheaply helped to refashion older
patriarchies and produced modern categories of sex and gender
dierence in capitalism’s ecology.
We know that by the time the Brazilian sugar industry was
trading in slaves, women were  percent cheaper than men. In
Europe, a generalized wage cut in the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries aected all workers but women especially, who
received just a third of the already “reduced male wage.” They
were also still expected to tend to labor at home, and indeed
the domestic sphere was a conscious invention of early capi-
talism. Burdens of work, care work, and community support
fell increasingly on women, whose social position came to be
policed, just as work in the cane fields was. The burning of
witches was a form of discipline for those women who resisted
their confinement in this domestic sphere, as we discuss in chap-
ter . Patriarchy isn’t a mere by-product of capitalism’s ecology—
it’s fundamental to it. So crucial was “women’s work” to the rise
Patel and Moore - A History of the World in seven cheap things.indd 31 13/06/17 8:51 PM
 / Introduction
of capitalism that by  it had been radically redefined. Wom-
en’s labor became “non-work”—rendered largely invisible, the
better to cheapen it.
In , researchers hazarded a dollar value for women’s
unpaid work. A United Nations team suggested that all unpaid
reproductive labor, if compensated, would be valued at sixteen
trillion dollars. Of that, eleven trillion represented women’s
unpaid work. This was about a third of the world’s total eco-
nomic activity—a figure that would have been higher had bank-
ing not already taken a larger and larger share of the world’s
economy. In the United Kingdom, more recent studies have
suggested that reproductive labor is worth more than London’s
mighty financial services sector. Still others have argued that
the UN estimate was too low and that “household nonmarket
activity” is the equivalent of  percent of the gross world prod-
uct: nearly sixty trillion dollars in .
Duties of care are poorly waged, if paid at all, and social
reproduction needs stu. As the planet’s workers moved from
rural to urban areas, one thing came to matter above all in the
new cash nexus: the ability to secure sucient nutrition on one
day in order to labor on the next. Hence the emergence of a
regime of cheap food.
Food
In the story of Madeira, the cheap food isn’t sugar. Sugar was
still a luxury in fifteenth-century Europe. The food that needed
to be cheap was what the slaves ate. Cane workers then, as now,
will have stolen the odd stalk of ripe cane to chew, its watery,
sweet juice providing a few extra calories and little nutrition.
Brazilian slavers sometimes gave their sick slaves meat and eggs
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Introduction / 
so that their property would recover and go back to work,
though the food was strictly accounted, a debit in the ledger of
profit and loss. There are few records of the diets of slaves
under Portuguese rule in Madeira, though it is likely that they
brought with them the rice, millet, and sorghum that they had
cultivated in Africa, and which their descendants would pocket
in their violent passage to the New World. No matter the
menu, a constant of capitalism is that food needs to be available,
cheaply, for workers to consume—for both profits and social
order to be maintained, as we show in chapter .
There’s a long tradition of rulers recognizing that one of the
best routes to securing the consent of workers and the poor is
through their stomachs. The Roman philosopher and landowner
Cicero saw his house attacked by a hungry crowd, and a century
later the emperor Claudius was pelted by stale bread crusts in
another food rebellion. Cheap food has been central to the
maintenance of order for millennia. In capitalism’s ecology, that
order has been maintained by tamping down workers’ costs of
feeding themselves and their families. This may seem trivial
today, when transportation and housing account for larger shares
of household income than the cost of food. But the relative
unimportance of food is historically novel—it is cheap because
it has been made so. From  to , the percentage of English
builders’ wages spent on food fell from  to . percent. It is a
far more recent phenomenon for British food consumption to
have fallen to . percent of household expenditure (as of ; in
the United States it was . percent, in Italy . percent, in
China . percent, and in Nigeria . percent). These num-
bers are kept low through strategies that, in the United States,
for instance, foster dollar burgers and the buckets of cheap
chicken with which we began.
Patel and Moore - A History of the World in seven cheap things.indd 33 13/06/17 8:51 PM
 / Introduction
The irony of our Madeira example is that sugar has since
become a cheap commodity crop precisely through the relations
pioneered there. From being an occasional treat, English sugar
consumption rose fourfold toward the end of the seventeenth cen-
tury and doubled again in the eighteenth, closing that century at
around  pounds per person. Today, sweetener consumption in
the United States is  pounds per person per year—of which
 pounds is refined sugar and  pounds is high-fructose corn
syrup. From  to , the average daily calorie intake from
added sugars was  for men and  for women in the United
States, about  percent of total daily calories (recent research
suggests an intake of more than – percent will have negative
health eects). Sugar isn’t, however, humans’ only energy
source. The other commodity whose price has been kept low in
order for the US working class to survive is the second greatest
expenditure for English builders over seven centuries: fuel.
Energy
The subtropical laurel forests on Madeira, the “Island of wood,”
weren’t fuel to start o with. Initially they were used as timber—
the material out of which the Portuguese fleet was hewn, the
stu for construction projects in metropolitan Lisbon. But
wood stops being the thing that keeps out the water when it
becomes more valuable as the thing you burn to fire the boilers
that make sugar. These trees weren’t naturally a fuel—they
became so under specific conditions.
Almost every other human civilization has harnessed fire and
found material that can sustain flame. But on Madeira the arc of
boom to bust, which happened in just seventy years, was limited
by the number of trees on the island. In other words, the speed
Patel and Moore - A History of the World in seven cheap things.indd 34 13/06/17 8:51 PM
Introduction / 
and scale of consumption of fuel under capitalism are unusual.
Wood’s cheapness in Madeira was cause and consequence of the
rise and fall of the sugar industry there, the crisis precipitated by
the depletion of a finite combustible stock. Fuel does triple duty
under capitalism. It is not only its own industry and force
for scaling production in other industries but also provides a sub-
stitute for labor power and serves to keep that labor power aord-
able—and productive. Cheap fuel is both an antagonist for workers
put out of jobs by wood-, coal-, oil-, and other-energy-powered
machines and a necessary input for the work of cheap care, cen-
tral to the maintenance of order, as we show in chapter .
We are—need it be said?—living with the consequences of
an economy built on cheap energy, a reality verified by climate
change. The global political economy of cheap fuel has not only
wrought immense human suering in its extraction but also, of
course, remade planetary ecology. Climate change’s eects have
not, however, been distributed evenly. There is a calculus that
allows us to map where the bodies most aected by past climate
change are buried and where future casualties are likely to be.
To see that map, we need first to understand a final strategy in
capitalism’s ecology: cheap lives.
Lives
Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa in . He was for a
time a resident of Porto Santo, o the main island of Madeira.
He first arrived there in  and in  was commissioned to
trade sugar back to Genoa for Ludovico Centurione, a scion of
Genoese capital. When Columbus arrived in Madeira, he saw
slaves and learned how the law treated them. Slaves were legally
dierent from other humans. In court, they could never be
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 / Introduction
witnesses or victims—they were only allowed to be defendants,
standing accused of crimes but never able to see or suer one.
This jurisprudence informed Columbus’s colonial apprentice-
ship. Between his departure from Madeira in  to serve the
Spanish crown and his return to Funchal for six days in  as
the viceroy of the Indies, Columbus inaugurated a genocide in
the Caribbean that would see the death of many of the humans—
and human societies—living there.
A century after Columbus’s birth, the scale of the extermina-
tion, under the flag of the Spanish royal family and the Catholic
cross, troubled some of its executors to such an extent that they
went to the trouble of giving the enslavement and brutalization
of other humans firm intellectual foundations. The “Valladolid
controversy” was where the boundary between the civilized and
the savage was prosecuted. Over the course of a few weeks in
Valladolid, Spain, two sides debated the treatment of humans
across the Atlantic. On one side sat Bartolomé de Las Casas, the
Dominican friar whose  treatise A Short Account of the Destruc-
tion of the Indies testified to the violence he’d witnessed in the
New World. On the other was Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, an
orthodox defender of Spain’s right to conquest. In Valladolid,
the two argued over whether natives were people or beasts. At
stake was the encomienda system, the technology of colonial
landownership that apportioned groups of Indigenous People
among landowners, who “kept them in deposit” for the duration
of two lifetimes: that of the deposited native and that of their
children. Landlords agreed to care for these depositees by pro-
viding them with Spanish classes and schooling in Catholicism,
and to pay a tax to the state for the right to have this labor pool.
At the end of the debate, after Las Casas had appealed to univer-
sal humanism and Sepúlveda had cited Aristotle in defense of
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Introduction / 
the idea that Indians were “slaves by nature, uncivilized, barbar-
ian and inhuman,” both sides claimed victory. But while
encomiendas were governed by slightly stricter laws afterward,
conquest continued and Indian lives continued to be devalued.
Sepúlveda’s practices carried the day.
So why the debate? The philosophical disagreement over the
humanity of Indigenous People was both about their place in a
world cleaved between Nature and Society and about how they
might be governed. It was a debate, in other words, about cheap
lives, a term we use to refer to how the order of other cheap
things—labor and care in particular—is policed and main-
tained through force and ideology. This is, we admit, a slightly
dierent use of cheap than that in other chapters. We argue for its
necessity in chapter , because without the power to decide
whose lives matter and whose do not, it would not have been
possible to suppress Indigenous Peoples or members of rival
religions and states and appropriate their knowledge, resources,
and labor power.
Modern equivalents abound in current debates around such
topics as security, the status of immigrants and refugees, states’
insistence on order while licensing the extraction of the natural
resources on top of which so many Indigenous Peoples inconven-
iently live, oil wars, and the “existential threats” of modern ter-
rorism. Again, that humans should need to find safety and shel-
ter from threats is not new. But since capitalism grows through its
frontiers, the domestic and international deployments of force
through nature to secure money, work, care, food, and fuel are
accompanied by ideologies of race and state and nation, together
with the appropriations and devaluations that these deployments
involve. Cheap lives are made through the apparatus of the mod-
ern social order. They’re absolutely necessary to capitalism’s
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 / Introduction
ecology. The power of these narratives of human community
and exclusion has a particular salience today, as the tilts of Don-
ald Trump’s America, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Recep Tayyip
Erdoğan’s Turkey, and Narendra Modi’s India suggest.
IN TRO DUC ING W O RL D-E COL OGY
Our views of capitalism, life making, and the seven cheap things
are part of a perspective that we call world-ecology. World-
ecology has emerged in recent years as a way to think through
human history in the web of life. Rather than begin with the sep-
aration of humans from the web of life, we will ask questions
about how humans—and human arrangements of power and vio-
lence, work, and inequality—fit within nature. Capitalism is not
just part of an ecology but is an ecology—a set of relationships
integrating power, capital, and nature. So when we write—and
hyphenate—world-ecology, we draw on older traditions of “world-
systems” to say that capitalism creates an ecology that expands
over the planet through its frontiers, driven by forces of endless
accumulation. To say world-ecology is not, therefore, to invoke the
“ecology of the world” but to suggest an analysis that shows how
relations of power, production, and reproduction work through
the web of life. The idea of world-ecology allows us to see how
the modern world’s violent and exploitative relationships are
rooted in five centuries of capitalism and also how these unequal
arrangements—even those that appear timeless and necessary
today—are contingent and in the midst of unprecedented crisis.
World-ecology, then, oers something more than a dierent
view of capitalism, nature, and possible futures. It oers a way of
seeing how humans make environments and environments make
humans through the long sweep of modern history. This opens
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Introduction / 
space for us to reconsider how the ways that we have been schooled
to think of change—ecological, economic, and all the rest—are
themselves implicated in today’s crises. That space is crucial if we
are to understand the relationship between naming and acting on
the world. Movements for social justice have long insisted on
“naming the system” because the relationships among thought,
language, and emancipation are intimate and fundamental to
power. World-ecology allows us to see how concepts we take for
granted—like Nature and Society—are problems not just because
they obscure actual life and history but because they emerged out
of the violence of colonial and capitalist practice. Modern con-
cepts of Nature and Society, as we shall see in chapter , were
born in Europe in the sixteenth century. These master concepts
were not only formed in close relation to the dispossession of
peasants in the colonies and in Europe but also themselves used
as instruments of dispossession and genocide. The Nature/
Society split was fundamental to a new, modern cosmology in
which space was flat, time was linear, and nature was external.
That we are usually unaware of this bloody history—one that
includes the early modern expulsions of most women, Indigenous
Peoples, and Africans from humanity—is testimony to moderni-
ty’s extraordinary capacity to make us forget.
World-ecology therefore commits not only to rethinking but
to remembering. Too often we attribute capitalism’s devastation
of life and environments to economic rapaciousness alone, when
much of capitalism cannot be reduced to economics. Contrary
to neoliberal claptrap, businesses and markets are ineective at
doing most of what makes capitalism run. Cultures, states, and
scientific complexes must work to keep humans obedient to
norms of gender, race, and class. New resource geographies
need to be mapped and secured, mounting debts repaid, coin
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 / Introduction
defended. World-ecology oers a way to recognize this, to
remember—and see anew—the lives and labors of humans and
other natures in the web of life.
TH E A F TER LIV ES OF CH E AP TH ING S
There is hope in world-ecology. To recognize the webs of
life making on which capitalism depends is also to find new
conceptual tools with which to face the Capitalocene. As justice
movements develop strategies for confronting planetary crisis—
and alternatives to our present way of organizing nature—we
need to think about the creative and expanded reproduction of
democratic forms of life. That’s why we conclude this introduc-
tion, and this book, with ideas that can help us navigate the state
shift that lies ahead.
A wan environmentalism is unlikely to make change if its
principle theory rests on the historically bankrupt idea of immu-
table human separation from nature. Unfortunately, many of
today’s politics take as given the transformation of the world
into cheap things. Recall the last financial crisis, made possible
by the tearing down of the boundary between retail and com-
mercial banking in the United States. The Great Depression’s
Glass-Steagall Act put that barrier in place to prevent future
dealing of the kind that was understood to have knocked the
global economy into a tailspin in the s. American socialists
and communists had been agitating for bank nationalization,
and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Dealers oered the act as a com-
promise safeguard. When twenty-first-century liberal protes-
tors demanded the return of Glass-Steagall, they were asking
for a compromise, not for what had been surrendered to cheap
finance: housing.
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Introduction / 
Similarly, when unions demand fifteen dollars an hour for
work in the United States, a demand we have supported, a grand
vision for the future of work is absent. Why should the future of
care and food-service workers be to receive an incremental sal-
ary increase, barely enough on which to subsist? Why, indeed,
ought ideas of human dignity be linked to hard work? Might
there not be space to demand not just drudgery from work but
the chance to contribute to making the world better?
Although the welfare state has expanded, becoming the
fastest-growing share of household income in the United States
and accounting for  percent of household income by , its
transfers haven’t ended the burden of women’s work. Surely the
political demand that household work be reduced, rewarded,
and redistributed is the ultimate goal.
We see the need to dream for more radical change than con-
temporary politics oers. Consider, to take another example, that
cheap fossil fuel has its advocates among right-wing think tanks
from India to the United States. While liberals propose a photo-
voltaic future, they can too easily forget the suering involved in
the mineral infrastructure on which their alternative depends.
The food movement has remained hospitable to those who would
either raise the price of food while ignoring poverty or engineer
alternatives to food that will allow poverty to persist, albeit with
added vitamins. And, of course, the persistence of the politics
of cheap lives can be found in the return to supremacism from
Russia and South Africa to the United States and China in the
name of “protecting the nation.” We aren’t sanguine about the
future either, given polling data from the National Opinion
Research Center at the University of Chicago which found that
 percent of baby boomers feel blacks are lazier / less hardwork-
ing than whites and  percent of millennials feel the same way.
Patel and Moore - A History of the World in seven cheap things.indd 41 13/06/17 8:51 PM
 / Introduction
While maintaining a healthy pessimism of the intellect, we find
optimism of the will through the work of organizations that see far
more mutability in social relations. Many of these groups are
already tackling cheap things. Unions want higher wages. Climate
change activists want to revalue our relationship to energy, and
those who’ve read Naomi Klein’s work will recognize that much
more must change too. Food campaigners want to change what
we eat and how we grow it so that everyone eats well. Domestic-
worker organizers want society to recognize the work done in
homes and care facilities. The Occupy movement wants debt to be
canceled and those threatened with foreclosure and exclusion
allowed to remain in their homes. Radical ecologists want to
change the way we think about all life on earth. The Movement
for Black Lives, Indigenous groups, and immigrant-rights activists
want equality and reparation for historical injustice.
Each of these movements might provoke a moment of crisis.
Capitalism has always been shaped by resistance—from slave
uprisings to mass strikes, from anticolonial revolts through abo-
lition to the organization for women’s and Indigenous Peoples’
rights—and has always managed to survive. Yet all of today’s
movements are connected, and together they oer an antidote
to pessimism. World-ecology can help connect the dots.
We do not oer solutions that return to the past. We agree
with Alice Walker that “activism is the rent I pay for living on
the planet” and that if there is to be life after capitalism, it will
come through the struggles of people on the ground for which
they fight. We don’t deny that if politics are to transform, they
must begin where people currently find themselves. But we can-
not end with the same abstractions that capitalism has made, of
nature, society, and economy. We must find the language and
politics for new civilizations, find ways of living through the
Patel and Moore - A History of the World in seven cheap things.indd 42 13/06/17 8:51 PM
Introduction / 
state shift that capitalism’s ecology has wrought. This is why in
our conclusion we oer a series of ideas that help us recognize
and orient humans’ place in nature through the forensics of rep-
aration. Weighing the injustices of centuries of exploitation can
resacrilize human relations within the web of life. Redistribut-
ing care, land, and work so that everyone has a chance to con-
tribute to the improvement of their lives and to that of the ecol-
ogy around them can undo the violence of abstraction that
capitalism makes us perform every day. We term this vision
“reparation ecology”  and oer it as a way to see history as well
as the future, a practice and a commitment to equality and
reimagined relations for humans in the web of life.
Patel and Moore - A History of the World in seven cheap things.indd 43 13/06/17 8:51 PM
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Borders are back with a vengeance. From the Americas to the Mediterranean, borders cut through the increasingly integrated world in a way that exposes the inside-outside logic of contemporary capitalism. All this happens on a backdrop where cities are becoming the key sites of contestation since borders and levees do not suffice to keep them intact. Cities are also increasingly becoming the focus of international efforts to deal with climate change and migration, where nation-states are falling short. By synthesizing the possibilities of urban belonging and right-to-the-world, we argue that new urban imaginaries are at the frontline of the mobilities debate today. Consequently, we argue for a cross-pollination of mobility justice and climate justice as urban citizenship. The main thrust of our argument is that there are viable alternatives to the isolationist fortress nation model, which can bring a new dimension to debates concerning climate change and migration. Fearless cities are but one example of these emerging alternatives. By focusing on the opportunities for a radical response to climate change and migration, we suggest that cities can respond to the burning mobility challenges of our times with a just, grounded and egalitarian urban citizenship framed as mobile commons.
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