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Telling Environmental Histories of Capitalism through Commodities

Fri, March 31, 10:30am to 12:00pm, The Drake Hotel, Huron

Session Submission Type: Panel


The panel “Telling Environmental Histories of Capitalism through Commodities” showcases emerging scholarship utilizing commodity-centered approaches to environmental history. The papers address environmental and social questions regarding commodities, commodification, and capitalism in a wide range of geographic and temporal contexts. One study examines the post-war rise of chicken meat production and consumption in the Western world. Another focuses on the social, environmental, and economic dynamics of the ginseng market between the early 1500s and the 1780s that connected the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy to New York colonial traders, Indian agents, and their contacts throughout the Atlantic world. A third analyzes different moments of gold mining in Antioquia, Columbia during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to address major interrelated problems and discern an ecology of gold. A fourth paper uses the cotton commodity to examine a nascent ecological order conditioned by the imperatives of industrial capitalism, tracing ecological relationships emerging within and among three major centers of cotton production over the course of the 19th century: the American Deep South, western and central India, and North West England.

These studies bring a much-needed material and environmental focus to the history of capitalism during a moment of mounting scholarly attention to the subject. Commodities serve as useful analytical foci that bring into fuller relief past ecological processes and relationships associated with economic activity. Their role in organizing the political economy assists environmental historians seeking to make sense of how entangled and far-reaching material and symbolic networks conditioned and were conditioned by environmental change. Follow a pound of white meat or gold through its circuit from commodification and extraction to consumption and you can learn a great deal about the capitalist system it sustains.

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