Into The Capitalocene

This is part of a series of blog posts highlighting objects and archival documents from Social Climates: Power and the Environment in the Archives, an exhibition currently on view in the Kempner Gallery at Columbia’s RBML. Drawing on a wide array of RBML collections and materials, Social Climates explores the interconnections between culture, history, politics, and the natural world. 

The following is adapted from the Social Climates exhibit essay text by Thai Jones, Curator of American History.  

Frederick Jones & Co’s. shoe factory, Plymouth, Mass. J.H. Bufford’s Sons, Boston. Lithograph, ca. 1880. Parsons Railroad Prints, RBML. 

Though not fully recognized at the time, the power of capitalist industry to alter the global environment had manifested itself by the mid-nineteenth century. Processes that would accelerate in coming decades – deforestation, population movements, proletarianization, fossil fuel exploitation – were increasing rapidly. And for the first time in history, human-made pollutants were beginning to affect atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide and, with them, the very temperature of the globe.

Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. London, 1848. Seligman Collection, RBML

The first edition of “The Communist Manifesto,” a humble 23-page pamphlet printed anonymously in London, would do more than any other theoretical statement to set the terms of the contest between capitalism and its critics over the succeeding centuries. Later works by Marx – and especially by Engels – would also come to place the exploitation of the natural world under direct scrutiny. Even in this first attempt at analysis, the authors identified the ecological impact of the nascent capitalist regime. “The bourgeoisie,” they wrote, “during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground – what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?”

Social Climates runs through September 30, 2022 in Kempner Gallery at Columbia’s RBML, 6th Floor Butler.