So far, my Plastic Free July resolutions have yielded a cotton bag hung in the pantry to accumulate bread bags and random soft-plastic wrappings which will go into the Ostend supermarket’s useful bin, a lively conversation with a young store manager working for a prominent New Zealand company about their inability to get council to provide soft plastic recycling options – and a bamboo toothbrush.
The toothbrush came with the discovery of a new and particularly nice eco toothpaste (alas not yet purveyed in a glass jar) but doesn’t count as single-use plastic and sounds a bit underwhelming until one counts up how many of them we throw away over a lifetime, to languish forever in monstrous rubbish piles in every town, everywhere.
Along with the forensic remains of the 60 billion chickens that feed us each year.
Into this rather modest heightened awareness came The History of the World in Seven Cheap Things.
Although authors Raj Patel and Jason W Moore do cast the McNugget as a potent symbol of the modern era we find ourselves in, it devotes much of what Guardian reviewer Mark O’Connell describes as their almost hyper-diligent scholarship towards the really “cheap things” that have turned us from what appears to be an inevitably planet-changing ‘Anthropocene’ geological era to a ‘Capitalocene’ scenario which has a much darker provenance.
They say that anthropocene too neatly packages and labels our current mess into just what humans do. In reality, it flows out of the specific historical phenomenon of capitalism, they say, coining ‘Capitalocene’ to nudge us away from this sense of collective culpability for climate change and towards an understanding of the way in which the destruction of nature has largely been the result of capitalism’s specific (and often violent) economic system organised around a minority class and its pursuit of profit.
We may all be in the same boat when it comes to climate change, they say, but most of us are in steerage.
This indefatigable drive for cheapness may have thrown up our consumerism, but the central cheapness laid out in the book is of conceptual categories: nature, money, work, care, food, energy and lives, which are seen as reliant on each other for their cheapness and enmeshed in a kind of ecosystem best demonstrated by the barbaric silver mining practices of 16th century Spanish colonialists in Peru.
Cheap lives turn into cheap workers dependent on cheap care – the domestic work mostly performed for nothing and mostly by women, that is rarely factored into the cost of labour. Cheap food in home communities requires cheap fuel to collect and process, while cheap nature is needed to produce cheap money.
One of the book’s central contentions is that capitalism lives by the often-bloody expansion of frontiers, legitimised by 16th century European theologies that separated nature and society and led to the relegation of indigenous peoples to the category of nature – which is itself seen as subservient to man.
Capitalism’s frontiers, the authors argue, are “the encounter zones between capital and all kinds of nature – humans included. “They are, always, about reducing the costs of doing business. Capitalism not only has frontiers; it exists only through frontiers.”
Like O’Connell, I’ve little appetite for entrepreneur Elon Musk’s most recent desire to terraform Mars so those unable to find work here can, for the price of a modest (but unavailable) house on Earth, relocate and be housed in mining communities.
It seems like the ultimate iteration of 400 years of monomaniacal pursuit of cheap labour; a last ‘new frontier’ when the seven continents of the Earth are left drained of resources and the ability to sustain life.
The lessons from Seven Cheap Things, as O’Connell concludes, are there to provoke us into imagining a future outside of “capitalism’s violent imperatives”.
It all sounds brutally barbaric but it’s not hard to see how it got us to where we are now. Not least with cheap plastic and cheap fuel providing last gasp frontiers on the Home World. • Liz Waters