Award winning activist and researcher Raj Patel
has teamed up with innovative environmental historian and historical geographer Jason W. Moore
to produce an accessible book which provides historical explanations for the world ecological crises and the global crisis in capitalism. Using the framework of "cheapness," A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A Guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet
(University of California Press, 2017) takes the reader through the long history of the search for lower production costs, extending from European colonial conquests in the fifteenth century up to present agroindustrial systems. This quest for cheapness originated with European colonists' desire to separate Society—themselves—from Nature—everything else. All forms of "Nature" were categorized by colonist and capitalists so that they could be efficiently used for production. Human beings were often included in this contrived category of Nature. Colonized people, the indigenous, women, and brown people were considered akin to non-human nature. In the process of employing cheapness as a "strategy" across space and time, colonial and capitalist powers have devastated land, destroyed indigenous populations, and exploited workers. Resistance to cheapness is described in the book too, but in Moore and Patel's depiction of the modern world, this resistance seems insignificant compared to the power and momentum of the cheapness strategy. The refusal to pay the true costs of production eventually led to crises because nature was cheap, but never free; debts mounted. “The modern world happened” according to Patel and Moore, “because externalities struck back” (21). Global warming is the best example of these debts but the book exposes many others.
To engage as broad of an audience as possible, the book is structured in a simple way making it useful for researchers, a general audience, and as a teaching text. The introduction begins with the example of the chicken nugget, the production of which exemplifies all seven "cheap things." The chapter then gives an outline of the argument. After the introduction, the reader is walked through relatively self-contained chapters on each of the seven cheap things: cheap nature, cheap money, cheap work, cheap care, cheap food, cheap energy, and cheap lives. Any chapter can be read in isolation as an example of how the concept of cheapness works in different ecological and economic realms but together they give the reader an understanding of the encompassing and destructive power of "cheapness." As Patel explains in the interview, the book was designed to engage an "intersectional" activist audience. Those interested in indigenous rights, class, race, and ecological issues will all find something interesting, and likely infuriating, in this book.
Readers might be disappointed by the brevity of the conclusion however, which attempts to offer some solutions to current global crises. Here Patel and Moore lay out the basic structure for a "reparations ecology" that calls for profound changes, not simply in world economic and political relations, but in humans' attitude towards nature, both human and non-human forms. Hopefully Patel and Moore will elaborate further on the important concept of reparations ecology in their future works. In the meantime, anyone interested in the origins of the most pressing problems facing humanity today must give Patel and Moore's thesis serious consideration.
Jason L. Newton is a visiting assistant professor of history at Cornell University. His book manuscript, Cutover Capitalism: The Industrialization of the Northern Forest, 1850-1950, is a history of the changing types of labor performed by people, trees, and the landscape in the American Northeast as that area industrialized. He has also published on nature, race, and immigration. He teaches classes on labor and the environment.