Commodity chains and the global environmental history of the colonial americas

AutorLeonardo Marques
CargoUniversidade Federal Fluminense, Institute of History, Department of History, Niterói, RJ, Brazil
Esboços, Florianópolis, v. 28, n. 49, p. 640-667, set./dez. 2021.
ISSN 2175-7976 DOI
Leonardo Marques
Universidade Federal Fluminense, Institute of History, Department of History, Niterói,
RJ, Brazil
histórias em contextos globais
Colapso ambiental e histórias do capitalismo
Esboços, Florianópolis, v. 28, n. 49, p. 640-667, set./dez. 2021.
ISSN 2175-7976 DOI 641/897
The present article explores some of the problems that the contemporary environmental collapse brought
to the writing of history and suggests, following in the footsteps of other scholars, that one of the main
present challenges is to combine a global history of capital with the time of nature. Approaches based
In the last section I explore two examples — the histories of Brazilian gold and North American ships
— to show how the method can help develop a global environmental history of the colonial Americas
from a critical perspective, i.e. a history of capital that transcends the methodological nationalism that
Commodity Chains; Capitalism; Colonial America.
Esboços, Florianópolis, v. 28, n. 49, p. 640-667, set./dez. 2021.
ISSN 2175-7976 DOI 642/897
Leonardo Marques
Is global history still possible, or has it had its moment? With this question, Jeremy
Adelman argued in a 2017 essay that “it is hard not to conclude that global history is
another Anglospheric invention to integrate the Other into a cosmopolitan narrative
on our terms, in our tongues” (ADELMAN, 2017). A cosmopolitan global history that at
times resembles a history of globalization did indeed seem to be the ideal narrative for
the world that emerged after the end of the Cold War. Such an association has been
common among critics, and for good reasons, but it is not exclusive to the global turn
of recent decades. The central metanarrative of the historiography (and the broader
social sciences in general) has been a product and producer of the processes of
inclusion and extension of democracy in the contemporary world, which in turn allowed
it to be combined with developmentalist narratives, whether we consider the classic
formula of modernization theory of the post-WW2, whether we look at the post-1989
globalizing world. Such modernizing narratives can be read as manifestations of a
triumphant centrist liberalism, to use Immanuel Wallerstein’s (2011) term, which have
been shaping the structures of knowledge since the nineteenth century.
According to Adelman, the ascension of the new right across the world in recent
years has shown the limits of this cosmopolitan global history. The bigger problem,
however, is that the limits of the broader developmentalist paradigm has been evidenced
by a crisis that has put humanity itself into question: the environmental collapse. Some
call it the Anthropocene, others Capitalocene, but the conclusion is only one: the era
in which human beings have become a geological force is in the process of making
the planet uninhabitable for most living beings.1 At the basis of this crisis is the same
world that presented itself as universalizable in the aftermath of World War 2 and as
inevitable after the Cold War. “The mansion of modern freedoms”, Dipesh Chakrabarty
argues, “stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil fuel use. Most of our freedoms so
far have been energy-intensive” (2009, p. 208). The problems that have inspired much
of the historiography in recent decades are still here: reducing inequalities, stimulating
inclusion, and expanding citizenship. But the possibilities for such a project have to
deal with concrete material limitations that have been largely ignored in contemporary
debates on inequality (MARQUES; PARRON, 2021).
The current environmental collapse is clearly global. The devastation of the
Amazon or the many Latin American environmental disasters of recent years are tied
to the dramatic proletarianization and urbanization processes in China (which in turn
are connected to broader exchanges that include all of the developed and developing
world) (ARBOLEDA, 2020; SVAMPA, 2019). The accumulated evidence of this global
environmental collapse shows not only the failure of a modernizing project, but also
            
past and present problems. The global history described by Adelman does not seem
prepared to deal with these challenges, which does not mean that a global approach
global historians to transcend the methodological nationalism that has been part of
the discipline since the nineteenth century, with its role in the legitimation of emerging
nation states, must be further explored; not because the world of free trade will
generate prosperity across the world, but because global processes as we have seen
1 For a summary of the debate focusing on Brazil, see Pádua (2016). On the concepts of Anthropocene
and Capitalocene, see Moore and Parenti (2016).

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