Fernand Braudel Center, Binghamton University

Review Abstracts, Vol. XXXIII, 2010


Review XXXIII, 1, 2010


Jason W. Moore, “Madeira, Sugar, & the Conquest of Nature in the ‘First’ Sixteenth Century, Part II: From Regional Crisis to Commodity Frontier, 1506–1530”


At the rosy dawn of sixteenth century capitalism, few places in this “vast but weak” world-economy were more pivotal than Madeira. A small island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, Madeira in 1500 was the greatest producer of early capitalism’s most important cash crop, sugar. Every year between 1505 and 1509, some 2,000 tons of sugar flowed from Funchal, Madeira’s capital, to Lisbon, Antwerp, Genoa, and many places beyond. Two decades later, the island’s sugar complex had collapsed. In the second of two essays in Review, I illustrate how the socio-ecological regime that enabled Madeira’s sugar revolution between 1450 and 1500 ensured the rapid decline of production after 1506. As we explored in Part I, this regime had everything to do with the forest. No cash crop devoured the forest so quickly as sugar. If dwindling fuel supplies were sugar’s greatest vulnerability, the sources of sugar’s boom and bust on Madeira were irreducibly world-historical and multi-layered. In Part II, I trace the connections between earth-moving and the broader structures of capital and empire, above all the socio-ecological architectures of the world market and the Portuguese Empire in Braudel’s “first” sixteenth century (c. 1450–1557). I build out the relations between deforestation, soil fertility, and faltering labor productivity in agriculture as decisive to sugar’s rapid decline. Far from a narrowly regional phenomenon, this rapid decline was not only caused, but indeed necessitated, by the rise of capitalism as world-ecology—a civilization that joins the endless conquest of nature and the endless accumulation in dialectical unity. Regional socio-ecological crises were not merely resolved through commodity-centered frontier movements; they were also created by them.


Phillip A. Hough, “Hegemonic Projects and the Social Reproduction of the Peasantry: Fedecafé, Fedegán and the FARC in Comparative Historical Perspective”


The author engages the debate on depeasantization through a comparison of the of the peasant populations of two micro-regions of Colombia from the postwar developmental decades until the present era of neoliberal globalization. The first region (the coffee-producing region of Viejo Caldas) highlights the dominant trend found in the literature: a shift from stable smallholding farmers towards increasing marginality and depeasantization. However, the second region (the southern agricultural frontier region of Caquetá) has shifted from a marginalized frontier subsistence peasantry to a relatively stable class of coca-producing smallholders. The author finds that the stable social reproduction of the peasant populations of each region over time depends in important ways on the role of regional elite organizations that take on state-like functions in an attempt to implement “hegemonic projects” that mediate world market demands from above with social class demands from below.


Klas Rönnbäck, “Consumers and Slavery: Diversified Markets for Plantation Produce and the Survival of Slavery in the Nineteenth Century”


Market demand for plantation produce was crucial for the survival of American slavery in the nineteenth century. De-colonization opened up for increasingly complex geographical patterns of trade for the American producers of these crops. This paper estimates quantitatively the “materialized labor” necessary for the consumption of these goods, in order to show the impact of developing markets upon the institution of slavery. The paper finds that the production of goods for even a previously very peripheral market in Europe, such as the Baltic, required the labor of some 200,000 slaves annually by the middle of the nineteenth century.


Review XXXIII, 2/3, 2010


Fred Magdoff, "Multiple Crises as Symptoms of an Unsustainable System"


The severe crises facing the world—widespread hunger and unsustainable agricultural system, the global environmental devastation, the energy crisis, and the prolonged economic crisis—are all indications of an unsustainable economic/political/social system. They are natural outcomes of the way capitalism functions, with the single goal of accumulating more and more capital without end. This essentially irrational system needs to be replaced with an economy and society that is designed to function and exist in harmony with the environment and to satisfy the basic needs—material and nonmaterial—of all people.


Tony Weis, "The Ecological Hoofprint and the Population Bomb of Reverse Protein Factories"


This paper examines the environmental costs and unevenness of rising livestock production on a world scale. To do this, it develops a framework – the ecological hoofprint – for analyzing the nature of the industrial grain-oilseed-livestock complex. This includes attention to: the scale of production and the dramatic pace of change; systemic imperatives and production methods; biophysical instabilities and 'overrides'; feed conversion inefficiencies; resource budgets and pollution burdens; and the commodification of sentient life. Ultimately, it argues that industrial livestock production is a central vector in the global food economy, marked at once by profound inequalities in consumption and a perilous and violent ecology. This trajectory is heavily implicated in near-term food insecurity and price volatility, and portends disastrous human and ecological outcomes in the longer term.


John Wilkinson, "Water and Land in Latin America – Global Strategies and Policies"


Situated within a global context this article analyzes the impact of the transformation of water and land into strategic scarce resources in the case of Latin America. While water and land maintain their specificities in terms of uses, markets, policies and the social movements which they provoke, they are increasingly combined as agricultural production is redefined in terms of its virtual water content. In comparison with Africa and Asia, Latin America is favorably endowed both with water and land. On closer analysis, however, these advantages are more associated with the Southern Cone than Central America, the Caribbean or Mexico and even here important regions suffer from serious water stress. Three types of water use are singled out for analysis - the privatization of water services, the bottled and bulk water market, and agriculture as virtual water. Each is discussed in terms of investments, policies and social movements. Land availability is examined comparing the different sub-regions of the continent and the recent surge in land investments involving both traditional and new actor is evaluated. In conclusion, it is argued that while Latin America has distinct advantages in relation to these strategic resources it is also highly vulnerable since all aspects of the continent's economy - energy, agriculture, forestry, mining - depend on these advantages.


David Pimentel, "Biofuels versus Food Resources and the Environment"


More than 66% of the humans in the world are malnourished so the need for grains and other basic foods is critical. Growing crops for biofuels squanders land, water, and fossil energy resources. For example, 40% of U.S. corn grain is converted into ethanol. This biofuel program is subsidized by $12 billion per year and results in the U.S. investing 1.5 gallons of fossil energy to produce 1 gallon of ethanol. This results in the U.S. importing oil to produce ethanol. In fact, all biofuels produced in the world are produced from food, thus contributing to world starvation.


Richard York and Brett Clark, "Nothing New Under the Sun? The Old False Promise of New Technology"


To understand contemporary environmental problems—including food and energy crises—it is necessary to employ a broad historical view. While existing problems have distinctive features, the underlying causes, which stem from the structure of the world-system, are not novel to this or the previous century. We assert that it is useful to distinguish between three tiers of time in order to recognize the various forces, systems, and processes that operate within the world. The global capitalist system, which operates on the second tier, acts as a form of "social gravity" that is pervasive and constant. Too often, it goes unnoticed or is simply assumed to be immutable. As a result, mainstream thinkers focus on the particularities of environmental problems and offer "solutions" (such as energy efficiency, new sources of energy, and other technological fixes) that fail to address or solve the original problems. Often attempts to solve one problem generate new problems, given specific shifts in the capitalist system and its technical regimes. To overcome modern environmental crises will require addressing the root causes of them: the contradictions inherent in the capitalist system.


Jason W. Moore, "Cheap Food & Bad Money: Food, Frontiers, and Financialization in the Rise and Demise of Neoliberalism"


It is now widely understood that the "end of cheap food" has arrived. It is much less clear what this means for the ongoing crisis of neoliberalism, and for the future of the capitalist world-ecology. Taking the accumulation of capital and the production of nature as a world-historical unity, this paper explores the connections between a new era of financialization, the exhaustion of capitalism's longue durée model of agricultural revolutions, and the closure of the last remaining frontiers of appropriation since the 1970s. In this perspective, the "food crisis" and "financial crisis" are understood as expressions of neoliberalism's signal crisis – when prices for strategic commodities such as food, energy, and raw materials begin to rise rather than decline in any long accumulation cycle. This tipping point is a reversal of the system's capacity to produce more and more food, energy, and raw materials with less and less labor – fundamentally, a crisis of value relations. Although this reversal is often attributed to resource depletion, the reality is at once more complex, and more intractable. Neoliberal financializations, marked by an unprecedented penetration into the everyday lives of human and extra-human natures, have induced an upward spiral of socio-ecological unpredictability alongside deepening resource depletion. Among the consequences is a new phase of extra-human nature's revolt against the disciplines of capital, especially in world agriculture – the Superweed Effect. From glyphosate-resistant weeds to spiraling antibiotic resistance, ours is an era marked by the rising capacity of extra-human natures to elude capitalist control.


Review XXXIII, 1, 2010

Edvige Bilotti, "Models of Economic Development from a World-Systems Perspective: Moving Beyond Universalism"

This essay examines the construction of models of economic development based on perceptions of East Asian success through a systemic long-term, large-scale perspective. These models take three main forms: neo-liberalistic (or neoliberal), state-centric (or statist), and cultural. The neo-liberalistic interpretation ascribes the Asiatic dynamism to the export-oriented policies based on the "free" market; the state-centric interpretation traces the process of "late development" back to the basic role of the "developmental state" and of a clever economic bureaucracy whose technical competences decide the most appropriate strategies; the cultural interpretation explains Asia's economic success in terms of the Confucian system of values, entailing an adhesion to social rules and requiring specific forms of devotion and sacrifice. It is argued, however, that in a complex and interdependent system like the historical social system of the capitalist world-economy, problems should be examined not separately but in their mutual connections. Furthermore, as analysts think about the developmental trajectories of, say, China or India, it should be kept in mind that development, if anything, is an aspect of the system as a whole and models need to take into consideration creativity and freedom, and their impact at the world level, where the seeds of meaningful possibilities and new opportunities will be found in this time of (indeed secular) depression—of "transition crisis" and transformation.

Alf Hornborg, "Toward a Truly Global Environmental History: A Review Article"

European landscapes have for centuries been organically connected with landscapes (plantations, clear cuts, mines, etc.) on other continents. The environmental impacts of asymmetric material flows, geared to capital accumulation in core areas, can be addressed with modern concepts of ecologically unequal exchange and environmental load displacement, with which historians are rarely familiar. When scholars with a background in natural science turn to human history, on the other hand, there is a disturbing silence on the role of specificities of culture and social structure in accounting for historical processes. Geographical determinism often proves seductive in its simplicity, reflecting a desire for simple, material explanations of world history. It is imperative to maintain an analytical distinction between the material/biophysical and the cultural/semiotic dimensions of human economies. A crucial task is to acknowledge the biophysical dimension but without equating it with "value." Although not as geographically extended as in more recent societies, the polarization of centers of accumulation and impoverished extractive zones was evident even in early civilizations. The geographical position of Europe in the sixteenth century gave it access to New World silver, furs, forests, and agricultural land, which over the next five centuries stimulated new and expansive strategies for capital accumulation through long-distance trade, colonialism, slavery, and industrialization. Different kinds of environmental load displacement reflect the different kinds of technological infrastructures that are being accumulated. If a world-system perspective is crucial for understanding the local details of environmental history, ecology is no less fundamental for understanding world-system history. To trace the metabolic flows of world-systems requires a basic familiarity with their biophysical aspects such as the use of energy and land, the displacement of entropy, and ecologically unequal exchange. For two centuries, the age of fossil fuels has kept land requirements and energy requirements distinct from each other, but our current vision of a turn to biofuels suggests that we are imagining a future where land requirements and energy requirements will once again coincide.

Carlos Antonio Aguirre Rojas, "Latin America's Antisystemic Movements and Its Struggle for the Land in the Twenty-first Century"

This article defines the new profile of the fight over land in Latin America. The struggle for land is carried by modern antisystemic movements over the last forty years. This essay discloses the new actors, the new goals, and the new conceptions that have developed in the course of the renewed struggle for land in Latin America, since the 1968 world­‑wide cultural revolution. The article also examines the implications of this latest fight for land, especially when the conflict goes beyond the simple struggle for agrarian reform, or even the conquest of property in land for the people. These movements acquire a real and radical anticapitalist and antisystemic character by fighting for the total decommodification and desintrumentalization of this land under the radical conception of land as "Mother-Land" or "Pachamama."


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