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Wilma A. Dunaway   



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Ecological Change and the Capitalist World View

Racism, sexism, and scientific universalism are not the only "cultural pillars" (Wallerstein, 1983) that legitimate the transition to capitalism. Exaltation of progress is also accompanied by "an environmental ethic of conquest" (Worster, 1977), without which capitalism could not justify its deconstruction and reorganization of the world-ecosystem (Merchant, 1989). In addition to political and economic domination (Wallerstein, 1983), capitalism relies upon an imperialistic relation of people to the natural world (Worster, 1993)-- a restructuring in which the mode of production develops by exploiting natural and human resources (Marx, 1967, I: 505-6). Capitalism is ideologically redefined to be the "natural order" of things (Smith, 1776) so that entrepreneurs can legitimate their realignment of economy and ecology into a single profit-making system (Cronon, 1983). In short, capitalism transforms ecosystems as profoundly as it does human communities (Cronon, 1983); for it alienates nature even more extensively than it does labor (Marx, 1967).

The capitalist world-system, then, is more than an interstate system of stratified local economies (Wallerstein, 1983); it is simultaneously a world-wide network of interconnected, diverse environments. This capitalist world-(eco)system is constructed upon the premise that nature can be rationally subjugated (Smith, 1776) until there are no external natural arenas "left open for spontaneous, unattended developments" (Prigogine and Stengers, 1984: 2). Thus, historical capitalism has been a colonizing force in two ways. On one hand, territories and people are incorporated by the capitalist world-system because they provide profitable markets and cheap labor to fuel growth at the core (Wallerstein, 1974). On the other hand, external arenas are absorbed within the capitalist logic as valuable sites of raw materials to be managed according to the imperatives of the global marketplace. "What matters is to institute socially the commodity form, so as to represent all of nature (and human nature) as capitals" in the service of the capitalist world-system (O'Connor, 1994: 143-44).

The historical transition to capitalism was achieved at significant ecological costs. Europeans altered their ecosystems at a rate and scale that had not typified any previous mode of production (Ponting, 1992). (1) Agrarian capitalism ignited an enormous appetite for acreage to support the cultivation of cash crops (Braudel, 1972), and the systematization of land tenure generated indigenous depopulation. To increase production of grain, livestock, industrial products and ships, western Europeans deforested vast areas and polluted waterways (Wallerstein, 1974). Having endangered their own natural resources by the mid-sixteenth century (Braudel, 1988-90), rival European nations sought to cement their hegemony over the capitalist world-(eco)system through "continued new colonizations of the 'extensive margin'" -- the opening of new terrains of raw materials, markets, and labor (O'Connor, 1994: 110). Newly-incorporated ecosystems were treated as "inexhaustible mines of nature," and capitalist enterprises devoured resources at a level that was twenty times greater per capita than the environmental degradation caused by indigenous modes of production (Fischer-Kowalski and Haberl, 1993). Europeans achieved their "ecological imperialism" through the transoceanic dissemination of diseases and alien species, two invasive strategies that stimulated indigenous depopulation and environmental reorganization (Crosby, 1986). Subsequently, entropic degradation was maximized (Prigogine and Stengers, 1984). The disparate captured ecosystems that comprised the capitalist world-system were polarized around the amassing of wealth at the core and the accumulation of conditions of resource depletion, environmental pollution, species endangerment, and habitat destruction in peripheral zones (Foster, 1992).

Capitalism and Mountain Ecosystems

The predominant view of geographers, anthropologists, and economists is that the world's mountain societies have been spared from this type of capitalist onslaught longer than other types of terrain. In the conventional view, mountains have been slow to modernize because difficult terrain has kept them isolated. Contrary to this popular myth, recent revisionist research demonstrates that mountain regions have historically been over-developed early to speed the growth of adjacent and distant zones of the capitalist world-system (McNeill, 1992). Mountain ecosystems only seemed to be "a world apart" because European colonists constructed their trade centers on the lowland coasts of newly-incorporated zones (Braudel, 1972, I: 34). Consequently, inland mountains have been historically incorporated as peripheral frontiers that were exploited by adjacent coastal enclaves of capitalist development (Frank, 1978). According to Braudel (1972, I: 93), "a common destiny may be sketched along these enormous mountain wreaths." With little concern for climate, terrain, or atmospheric variations, capitalists have transplanted profit-maximizing strategies of agricultural and industrial development into mountain ecosystems all over the globe. Beginning in the fifteenth century, the mountains of Europe and the Mediterranean were deforested or desertified by overpopulation, slash-and-burn cultivation, the introduction of alien plants and trees, overgrazing, timbering, mineral extraction and smelting (Braudel, 1972; Wallerstein, 1974; McNeill, 1992). During subsequent eras of expansion, Europeans applied nutrient-demanding cash crops (such as grains, coffee, tobacco, sugar), large production units, livestock grazing, timbering, and extractive industry to generate export surpluses from the rest of the world's rugged peaks. Overwhelmingly, these fragile ecosystems have been peripheralized and exploited for wealth accumulation by the core (McNeill, 1992); and they have been the chosen sites for the dirtiest, most scarring agricultural and industrial enterprises (Braudel, 1972). (2)

Throughout the world, capitalist expansion has triggered the depopulation and/or enslavement of indigenous mountain peoples and the introduction of destructive alien species (Faber, 1993; McNeill, 1992). During the early incorporation of Latin America, Europeans extracted vast mineral wealth from the inland mountains, provisioning their massive slave labor forces from huge livestock ranches (Wallerstein, 1980). Indeed, mountains everywhere-- and in every historical era-- have been utilized as open ranges for large herds of cattle, swine, goats, sheep, and horses (Crosby, 1986). Plantation cultivation of tea, coffee, rubber, cotton, and cocoa has been maximized in the mountains of Africa, Asia, India, and central America (Braudel, 1972; Worster, 1993; Faber, 1993). Even though soil and terrain were unsuitable, the mountains of Central and South America and the Caribbean were altered to produce sugar, indigo, wine grapes, and balsam (Wallerstein, 1980; O'Connor, 1989; Bunker, 1985; Faber, 1993). Similarly, the export of silk, wine, and olives has been common to the world's mountains (Braudel, 1972; Wallerstein, 1980; Worster, 1993; McNeill, 1992). Historically, capitalist expansion caused the overpopulation of mountains to a greater degree than has occurred in any other type of terrain (McNeill, 1992). Large capitalist ranches, farms, and plantations pushed indigenous peasants off their traditional lands, forcing them upward onto higher slopes. In those uplands, peasant food production exacerbated the ongoing deforestation process (O'Connor, 1989; Faber, 1993).

Despite their forbidding topography, mountains comprise some of the least resilient ecosystems in the world. Environmental recuperation is slow due to the process of ecological lability, the pronounced inclination of an ecosystem to change irreversibly.

Mountain landscapes do not show fluctuations within a stable equilibrium; they do not show cyclical stability, resilience, or elasticity, except perhaps over geologic time. . . . they seem to have only a fragile stability, easily upset by unintentional human action. . . . Mountain landscapes have low thresholds for both carrying capacity [i.e., population] and fluctuations in land use, and around the world. . . these thresholds are routinely exceeded (McNeill, 1992: 352, 357).

Because they have a low diversity of species, mountains are more rapidly changed by capitalist development than any other type of ecosystem (Simmons, 1989). After capitalist incorporation, arid and green mountains alike have endured the same types of ecological degradation. Deforestation, massive soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, river alteration and frequent flooding, landslides, and subsidence have characterized the capitalist history of mountains all over the world. Not even the Alps, the Himalayas, the Rockies, or the Andes have remained untouched by capitalist degradation (McNeill, 1992).

The effects of forest clearance are especially marked in mountain regions where not only do the slopes suffer soil erosion at an enhanced pace, but the valleys quickly agrade, with deposits of highly fertile silt as a compensation for more frequent flooding. Channeling of rivers as a response to flood leads in turn to down-cutting, so that the whole basin ecosystem and hydrology is altered as a consequence of deforestation (Simmons, 1989: 166-7).

Mountain pastures and crop fields lose soil 2.3 times faster than forested uplands; and entropic degradation is exacerbated by extremely slow recovery processes. In mountains, deforestation and mining induce landslide areas upon which no regrowth occurs for at least fifty years. Even then, the recovering woodlands are dominated by light-demanding, fast-growing low trees (Guariguata, 1990). After deforestation, wind has transformed many of the world's mountains from green forests and grasslands into deserts (Crosby, 1986). Over the last century of capitalist expansion, soil erosion in mountain regions has occurred six times faster than during the previous three hundred years (Goudie, 1986).

The Target Mountain Ecosystem

I will examine the ecological incorporation of that mountain ecosystem which posed the first inland barrier to the expansion of the European world-system into the North American continent (see Figure 1). Nine-tenths of the land area of the vast region of Southern Appalachia consists of mountains, high plateaus and hills; but its topography is broken up by several sizeable valleys and rivers. I have chosen this region for investigation because it has been idealized one of the last surviving rural precapitalist folk societies within a core country. Supposedly, the natural ruggedness of Southern Appalachia prevented the development of commercial agriculture and transportation infrastructure, making external trade too costly. Because of its topography, it has been viewed by most scholars, including world-systems analysts (Chase-Dunn, 1989), as a zone that was frozen in time outside the capitalist world-system until early twentieth-century extractive industries degraded its primordial ecosystems.

Contrary to this popular historiography, Southern Appalachia was incorporated into the capitalist world-system in the early eighteenth century as a peripheral fringe of the extended Caribbean (Dunaway, 1994). This zone was neither exceptional nor unique, as so many writers have romantically claimed. Instead this zone paralleled other mountain ecosystems in its development history. Beginning in the 1700s, Euroamericans steadily established political and economic hegemony over this vulnerable ecosystem. Biogeographic change was initiated with the integration of the region's indigenous people into the international fur trade (Dunaway, 1994). Between the early eighteenth century and the Civil War, this mountain region was absorbed into the resource-hungry global capitalist system. After the American Revolution, Euroamerican "resettlers" continued the region's transformation. Because of its location and its natural assets, Southern Appalachia emerged as a "support zone" that supplied raw materials to other agricultural or industrial export regions of the world-economy and to the European core (Dunaway, 1996). Consequently, the ecology of the Southern Appalachians was increasingly connected with and shaped by exogenous economic, political and cultural influences. In their race to produce surpluses for export, capitalists redistributed, reorganized, and endangered the diverse local ecosystems that comprised the Southern Appalachians.

Using the Appalachian ecosystem as the historical backdrop, this research investigates the stages of entropic degradation through which newly-incorporated ecosystems are articulated with the capitalist world-ecosystem. The following sections examine four historical stages of ecological transformation that occur when capitalism expands into mountain ecosystems. In the first stage, natural and human resources are expropriated and depopulated to fuel expanding core enterprises. In a second historical stage, resettlers invade the mountains, reorganizing the natural environment into a capitalist agroecosystem (Worster, 1993)-- a shift toward cash crops for export that causes loss of biodiversity. Yet there is a third stage in which capitalism deepens its hold by restructuring the mountain ecosystem into a capitalist extractive enclave with investments in auxiliary travel capitalism. As the mountain ecosystem becomes increasingly articulated with and dominated by the capitalist world-ecosystem, entropic degradation (Prigogine and Stengers, 1984) escalates, stimulating irreversible transformations in mountains that do not occur in other ecosystems.

Ecological Reorganization for the International Fur Trade

By the early 1700s, European colonists had pushed eight indigenous Native American groups out of the Southern Appalachians, leaving only the Cherokees (Dunaway, 1994). Shortly after the incorporation of coastal ecosystems of eastern North American zones (Merchant, 1989; Cronon, 1983; Silver, 1990), Southern Appalachia was integrated into the eighteenth-century international fur trade. Within a few decades, communal hunting and gathering were restructured into an export economy in which slave raids, deer hunting, and herb marketing assumed primacy (Dunaway, 1994). Like other indigenous peoples colliding with European colonialism (Cronon, 1983; Crosby, 1986; Merchant, 1989), the Cherokees and their mountain ecosystem were altered forever by capitalist expansion. Articulation with the European world-economy stimulated indigenous depopulation through slavery, warfare, famines and alcoholism (Crosby, 1986).

As part of Europe's global "germ colonization" (Crosby, 1986), indigenous Appalachians were rapidly depopulated by European diseases. The coastal European settlements transmitted a devastating disease to the Southeastern Indians about every four years; and they triggered 93 Indian epidemics during the 1700s. The Cherokees were concentrated in towns along the trails and waterways that became trading routes linked to the Atlantic settlements. Consequently, smallpox, influenza and venereal diseases travelled inland with traders and trade goods; and epidemics of those three diseases were the major causes of Appalachian depopulation during the 1700s. Because of their increased exposure to infections to which they had no natural immunity and due to the greater frequency of warfare, the Cherokees enjoyed an eighteenth-century life expectancy of only twenty-one years. As a result of the first smallpox epidemic in 1698, the Cherokee population declined by two-thirds. During the French and Indian War, the Cherokees lost 5,000 more people and one-half of their warriors; by 1765, two-thirds of the Cherokee warriors had died. In fact, the Cherokee population declined by ninety percent during the eighteenth century, primarily from European-induced causes. As a result, Cherokee settlements diminished in number from sixty towns in 1715 to 39 towns in 1755 (Thornton, 1990).

Just as disruptive as depopulation was the loss of biodiversity that accompanied articulation of Cherokee society with the European world-economy. Precapitalist Appalachians had altered their ecosystem; however, they made relatively slender demands on nature, when compared with the extensive ecological destruction that accompanied capitalism (Melville, 1994). Economic restructuring around commercial hunting brought a fundamental reorganization of the region's animal community, with a rapid decline in the number of species. To fuel their emergent leather industry (Dunaway, 1994), Europeans coveted the light-colored hides of the white-tailed deer that predominated in the hardwood forests of the Southern Appalachians (Silver, 1990). (3) After the introduction of trade guns, the Cherokees engaged in reckless slaughtering. "This destruction of deer and other animals being chiefly for the sake of their skins. . . the remainder [wa]s left to rot" (Catesby, 1765: 2: xi-xii).

By 1710, commercial hunting had depleted once abundant buffalo, black bear, beaver, and muskrats. Even deer were in short supply by the mid-1750s. Passenger pigeons and wild turkeys were annihilated by the European appetite for these frontier delicacies (Silver, 1990). While travelling in the Southern Appalachian back country in the late 1700s, Bartram (1792: 263-4) found "the wild country now almost depopulated," except for "heaps of white gnawed bones of ancient buffalo, elk, and deer." In short, the international fur trade nearly extinguished all the fur-bearing species and predators by 1749 (Goudie, 1986).

Europeans also radically reordered the region's animal habitat through the intentional and accidental introduction of foreign species. Cattle, hogs, horses, goats, and sheep were the new hooved species that would be domesticated in great numbers on Appalachian farms (Crosby, 1986). Rabbits and opossums were transplanted into the mountain ecosystem to compete with indigenous bears and deer for the dwindling nutrients on the forest floors; and indigenous birds were threatened by imported doves and quail (Silver, 1990). Europeans carried rats in trade goods (Crosby, 1986), presenting a new threat to Cherokee food stores and fur exports. (4) By the mid-1700s, pigs were outnumbering deer in the Appalachian forests; and these destructive creatures consumed the vast majority of plants and nuts that had once supported a variety of indigenous species. To protect their growing swine herds near Cherokee villages, British traders intensified their killing of predators. Consequently, wolves, panthers, foxes, and mountain lions were virtually extinct by 1730 (Silver, 1990). Europeans interjected another species that hastened significant ecological restructuring. Used to pollinate imported peach and apple trees, honey bees cross-fertilized mountain flora with imported plants. Indigenous berry-bearing plants and shrubs were stultified and rapidly supplanted by European substitutes (Crosby, 1986). Little wonder that the Cherokees viewed the buzzing insects with spiritual alarm, coming to fear "their progress into the interior of the continent as an omen of the white man's approach" (Crevecoeur, 1964: 166).

Europeans also endangered the region's plant community. The Atlantic seaboard became "the Neo-European seedbed of North America" (Crosby, 1986: 149), and several colonizing species propagated rapidly into the Southern Appalachians. Sweet potatoes, watermelon, and peaches displaced indigenous tubers, gourds, squash, and flowering trees. Wild peavines disappeared after the British introduced cowpeas to feed their livestock (Silver, 1990). Ever larger sections of Appalachian forests were burned annually to "alure the Deer upon the new Grass" and to provide pasture for imported livestock (DeVorsey, 1971: 80). In similar fashion, several indigenous herbs were depleted for trading on the world-market. By the late 1700s, ginseng and snakeroot "ha[d] been so much sought by the Cherokee Indians for trade" that the two species were rarely found growing wild (Carroll, 1836: 2: 482).

Ecological Reorganization into Agroecosystems

Nevertheless, the most dooming ecological change on the Appalachian frontier was the commodification of land that accompanied dependency upon European trading. To pay trader debts and to cement treaties with the British, indigenous Appalachians had lost three-fifths of their ancestral lands by the late 1700s. In the face of subsequent Manifest Destiny policies of the United States government, the indigenous population was forcibly removed from Southern Appalachia by 1840 (Dunaway, 1996). Capitalism deepened its hold during the second era of capitalist incorporation. After the American Revolution, Euroamerican "resettlers" continued the transformation of this mountain ecosystem into the first frontier-periphery located within the newly-formed United States (Wallerstein, 1989). Because it was linked to the Atlantic coast through its natural waterways, Southern Appalachia emerged as an economic "support zone" that supplied raw materials, foodstuffs, and surplus laborers to other export regions of the world-economy and to the European core. It is not by accident that the region's surplus producers concentrated their land and labor resources into the generation of wheat and corn-- often in terrain where such production was ecologically unsound. Southern Appalachia was incorporated into the capitalist world-system during that general world upturn after 1750 when "Britain would once again reduce its role as a world grain producer in favor of a greater specialization in industrial production" (Wallerstein, 1980: 266). Moreover, the demand for flour, meal, and grain liquors was high in plantation economies (like the North American South and most of Latin America) where labor was concentrated into the production of inedible staples. In 1860, Southern Appalachian counties exported 6,451,839 bushels of wheat; 26,232,104 bushels of corn; 30,394,337 pounds of tobacco; and 121,542 bales of cotton (Dunaway, 1996).

Nor was it a chance occurrence that Southern Appalachians specialized in the production of livestock, as did inland mountainous sections of other zones of the New World (Crosby, 1986). The demand for meat, work stock, and animal byproducts was high in those areas of the world-economy that did not allocate land to less-profitable livestock production (Frank, 1978). Little wonder, then, that Appalachian farmers exceeded Southern averages in their per-capita production of hogs, cattle, sheep, horses and mules. (5) In 1860, Southern Appalachia exported 1,047,907 hogs; 427,786 cattle; 90,143 horses and mules; thousands of chickens and turkeys; and massive amounts of animal byproducts (Dunaway, 1996). Antebellum journalists believed the cotton South was dependent upon the Upper South for grain, meats, and work animals (DeBow's Review 19: 229). However, much of the Appalachian surplus received in Southern ports was re-exported to the urban-industrial centers of the American Northeast (Lindstrom, 1970). Outside the country, Appalachian commodities flowed to the manufacturing centers of Europe and to the plantation economies in the West Indies, the Caribbean and South America (Dunaway, 1996).

However, there was nothing exceptional or unique about the agroecosystem that developed in Southern Appalachia, for it replicated the exploitation strategies of agrarian capitalism all over the globe. (6) As the European world-system incorporated external mountain arenas, settler colonists and absentee speculators reconstructed natural resources into the type of agroecosystem that had characterized the transition to capitalism in western Europe. (7) In western Europe, the shift to market-driven agriculture and resource-devouring cash crops was accompanied by peasant depopulation, land enclosure and plowing, the reorganization of land tenure, and the expansion of livestock production (Wallerstein, 1980). Thus, capitalism stimulated two major reorientations of the ecosystem.

It created for the first time in history a general market in land. . . . But that is not all: the land itself evolved into a set of specialized instruments of production. What had once been a biological community of plants and animals so complex. . . now increasingly became a rigidly contrived apparatus competing in widespread markets for economic success (Worster, 1993: 58).

As a result of agrarian capitalism, previously complex ecosystems are transformed into monocultures in which nature "has been reconstituted to the point that it yields a single species, which is growing on the land only because somewhere there is a strong market for it" (Worster, 1993: 59).

Agrarian capitalism is driven by rationalization, homogenization, and a radical simplification of the natural environment. The agroecosystems that develop are truncated environments, for these export systems deplete and degrade the ecosystem (Worster, 1993). "Plowing destroy[s] all native plant species to create an entirely new habitat populated mainly by domesticated species" (Cronon, 1983: 147). Even though it introduces new plants, capitalist monoculture in cash crops narrows the range of species, causing loss of biodiversity and genetic erosion (Worster, 1993).

As a direct result of the transition to an export economy, the diversity of species that originally comprised the Appalachian ecosystem gave way to the handful of plants and animals that made farms profitable. The land area of this mountain ecosystem was reorganized for the production of large surpluses of grains, tobacco and cotton. Because of its demand on the world-market, Appalachian ginseng had been endangered; so farmers were replacing the indigenous varieties with imported species (Dunaway, 1996). Woodlands gave way to two French-imported weeds, as Appalachian farmers displaced natural grasses and ground cover with white clover and Kentucky bluegrass for pasturage (Crosby, 1986). Numerous European weeds were transported by livestock and birds into the mountains (Crosby, 1986), and many of these transplants rapidly extinguished natural plants like hog peanuts (Silver, 1990).

Animal diversity contracted with the introduction of cattle, sheep, hogs, horses, mules, donkeys, burros, and goats. Legally-mandated bounties hastened the extinction of indigenous "pests" (particularly red squirrels, panthers, wildcats, foxes, hawks, cougars and wolves) that threatened grain and livestock surpluses. By 1860, domestic livestock dramatically outnumbered larger indigenous wildlife; and the ecosystem had been transformed into an animal monoculture (Worster, 1993) that specialized in hooved species.

As had previously occurred in Europe, in Hispanic America (Wallerstein, 1974) and in New England (Cronon, 1983), there was a dramatic reversal in the food chain (Melville, 1994) of the Southern Appalachian ecosystem. In grain-livestock agroecosystems, domesticated animals consume higher levels of energy from the environment and from the labor of human producers than they contribute in caloric nutrients (Worster, 1993). In 1860, livestock consumed nearly three-fifths of the corn produced in Appalachian counties. The livestock owned by a typical Appalachian farm consumed 3.5 times more of the food crop than the human household that herded them. In addition, the typical Appalachian farmer allocated nearly four times more crop labor time to generate the feed for livestock than was required to cultivate the grain consumed by the farm family. (8)

Following the profit-maximization strategies of agrarian capitalists around the globe (Wallerstein, 1980: 82), Appalachian farmers found it more profitable to continue current depleting techniques than to invest in reclamation or improvements. In order to cultivate large surpluses, Appalachian farmers over-cropped their farm lands (Farmer's Register 1: 150), rarely applied livestock manures (Olmsted, 1861), and cultivated plants that were ill-suited to the terrain (Atlantic Monthly 23: 172). In mountainous North Carolina, Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama, the natural canebrakes were removed in order to produce cotton on steep slopes, a practice that left "the hill-sides gullied like icebergs" (Olmsted, 1861: 291). By 1850, much of Southern Appalachia's farm land was intermixed with extensive tracts of waste land (Dunaway, 1996) and "washed into gullies as deep as the Shapes of the hills would Admit" (Tilley, 1947: 511).

Because agricultural and livestock production fluctuate far more dramatically than an ecosystem's indigenous species, production in agroecosystems will eventually decline without massive inputs of technology, labor, and capital (McNeill, 1992). Thus, agrarian capitalists have always been dependent on imports from distant zones to keep their local agroecosystems functioning. Soil depletion characterized most agricultural zones of the nineteenth-century world-system, so fertilizers were transported great distances (Worster, 1977). Despite its rugged terrain, Southern Appalachia was linked into these global commodity chains. Beginning in 1844, two London factors held monopolies in the export of guano, bird droppings from islands off the coast of Peru. Utilizing three agents at Baltimore, those factors marketed to Appalachian farmers this rich new fertilizer. By 1853, regional agricultural societies could report that "Wheat, which was formerly considered so precarious a crop that its culture was almost abandoned, has now, by improved husbandry, . . . and the best of all fertilizers, guano, become our greatest staple in the production of which we can defy the competition of the world." (American Farmer 1854: 347) In return for bags of Baltimore guano, steamboats received wheat from the Appalachian counties. At river landings, workers toted bags of the smelly import from the decks while "granaries on the river bank, with short troughs, or spouts, running into the hold of the vessel" reloaded the steamboats with wheat (DeBow's Review 19: 276).

Capitalist agrarian ecosystems represent short-term maximization strategies, especially in fragile mountain zones (McNeill, 1992). Capitalist frontiers have always been characterized by the "dependence upon a single crop produced by whatever methods gave largest immediate returns regardless of the waste entailed; the thrusts of the burdens of abnormal production upon land because it was more plentiful than either capital or labor; the placing of an exaggerated value upon the crop which first furnished the surplus by which exchange with the outside world was established" (Merchant, 1993: 131). Capitalist agroecosystems have always been depauperate environments because they have undergone rigorous simplification of precapitalist complexity (Worster, 1993). Capitalist production "only develops the techniques and the degree of combining of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth-- the soil and the worker" (Marx, 1967, I: 301). In ecological terms, capitalist agroecosystems are "populations of parasites or pathogens" that drain the vitality of other living communities and kill off indigenous species in order to decrease the competition for nutrients (Weiskel, 1988: 171). In short, capitalist agriculture "leaves deserts behind it" (Marx and Engels, 1942: 237).

In agroecosystems, loss of biodiversity and reorganization of land tenure are followed by accelerated soil loss, the expansion of land clearing by burning, and increased flooding (Melville, 1994). Because it requires 10,000 years to form, topsoil is virtually nonrenewable (Weiskel, 1988). Forest removal and plowing cause an increase in soil temperatures, destroying organic nutrients. As humus disappears, erosion on flat agricultural land occurs eight times faster than topsoil is formed (Goudie, 1986). In the world's mountains, however, these ecological transformations have occurred even more rapidly; and damage has been irreversible. Repeated burning of upland forests caused alkaline conditions and topsoil loss at a faster pace than occurred in other types of ecosystems. Consequently, "mountain agriculture represents a shorter-term maximization strategy than most any other agriculture because. . . it invites much faster erosion" (McNeill, 1992: 353).

Ecological Degradation Caused by Livestock

As Europeans had done on their own continent (Braudel, 1988-90) and would do in every colonized area of the globe (Worster, 1993), Appalachian farmers turned loose their massive livestock herds to forage in the woodlands and mountain balds (Dunaway, 1996). Appalachians transplanted the European practice of pastoral transhumance, the relocation of animals from the valleys to the mountains and hills for summer grazing (Simmons, 1989). (9) To provide the laborers needed to herd the shifting populations of livestock, one form of intergenerational tenancy became entrenched in Southern Appalachia. Valley graziers employed tenant families who resided in temporary shelters near mountain balds and coves (Dunaway, 1996). (10) A 1766 North Carolina law required nomadic speculators to allocate one hundred acres of mountainous land for every ten cattle (Silver, 1990). However, livestock in the woodlands of Southern Appalachia require at least twenty to thirty acres per animal, with frequent grazing site relocation to avoid irreversible ecological damage (Johnson, 1952). In contrast, antebellum Appalachian exporters produced so many livestock that they were allocating only an average of 6.7 acres per head. (11) By 1860, nearly one-tenth of the country's domesticated livestock roamed this mountain ecosystem. (12)

By the late eighteenth century, the near-wild livestock herds had caused massive damage throughout the Appalachians. Within a few years after resettlement, the primeval "cane breaks" of the Appalachian countryside were destroyed by the cattle and hogs; and "the meadows encroach[ed] continually upon the forests" (Thwaites, 1904: 257). Once Europeans spread into mountainous South Carolina with their herds of cattle and hogs, the indigenous canebrakes were "kept so closely cut down, by the continual browsing of cattle as to have nearly extirpated them" (Drayton, 1802: 62). Within a few years of the opening of each of the Appalachian frontiers, fifteen-feet-high canebrakes were replaced by imported bluegrass, pasture grasses, clovers (Crosby, 1986; Silver 1990). By 1830, much of Blue Ridge Virginia had "a squalid appearance," caused "by the injury they [we]re continually sustaining from the cattle that range[d] through them at all seasons, and which in winter [we]re compelled, by the want of herbage, to subsist upon the young sprouts and the shoots of the preceding year" (Michaux, 1865, I: 37). Over-grazing woodlands with great herds wasted the greater portion of western North Carolina timber by the mid-1800s (Silver, 1990). Similarly, the forests of east Kentucky had been devastated (Kentucky Gazette, 21 March 1822); and "no timber larger than small bushes" remained in much of upper-middle Tennessee (Patton, 1958: 159). West Virginia's Kanawha Valley was filled with "dismal looking places with bare, unhospitable-looking mountains, from which all the timber ha[d] been cut" (Royall, 1826: 25).

Manipulation of the environment by Appalachians to achieve the maximum profit from their livestock caused radical, irreversible alteration of the mountain ecosystem. "The introduction of ungulates into new ecosystems results in a radically changed biological regime" (Melville, 1994: 78), evidenced by the formation of toxic compounds, waterway pollution, curtailed root growth, and deforestation. In mountain ecosystems, the ecological changes are virtually irreversible because alpine vegetation recovers very slowly from overgrazing (Simmons, 1989). In Southern Appalachia, livestock producers annually burned over vast areas of mountain forest (Silver, 1990). Following that repeated ritual, heavily-grazed mountains were damaged by soil compaction, a process in which the surface hardens so much that water is not absorbed. Over time, heavy grazing generated more bare ground and sparser vegetation, accompanied by lower quantities of organic matter on the soil surface. Precipitation ran off more quickly, eroding mountainsides and choking waterways with sedimentation (Simmons, 1989).

Calcium phosphate and nitrogenous organic matter were exported causing indigenous vegetation to deteriorate; in addition, overgrazing reduced the level of mountain plant photosynthesis (Goudie, 1986). As a result, weeds and less desirable species displaced those plants that had root systems deep enough to hold the mountain soils in place. Pastoralism also destroyed indigenous plant cover so that native perennials were replaced by a greater number of annuals that germinated, grew rapidly, and produced large quantities of seeds (Simmons, 1989). The regeneration capacity of mountain forests was further impaired because cattle consumed tree leaves, twigs, and seedlings. In addition, pigs altered rates of decomposition and nutrient cycling by tunneling through the soil; and they deterred the survival and reproduction of plant life by consuming roots, seeds, acorns, and new sprouts (Silver, 1990).

Deforestation and Waterway Disturbance

Restructuring natural environments into capitalist agroecosystems deforested England and France by the end of the 1600s (Braudel, 1988-90: I). With the expansion of global capitalism, the Europeans carried their slash-and-burn strategies into every zone they colonized. "The European pattern was to remove all the forest where possible and replace it with settled agriculture" (Simmons, 1989: 167). Antebellum capitalists devalued trees as a source of wealth because land could only be integrated into the economic cycle once the forests no longer stood in the way (Cronon, 1983). Consequently, the North American continent underwent a particularly brutal and rapid deforestation; in less than two centuries, Euroamericans removed 90% of the woodlands (Goudie, 1986). Appalachian resettlers were "insensible to arguments touching the future supply;" to them the forest was "only fit to be exterminated" since it hindered plowing and obstructed the sunlight (North American Review 1868: 97-98). Like their counterparts on every other capitalist frontier, Appalachian farmers wreaked disaster upon the region's virgin forests in order to produce export surpluses.

The precapitalist pattern of limited annual burning by Cherokees was restructured into total forest clearance by settled farmers; thus, Euroamericans cleared land more often and much more extensively than indigenous Appalachians (Cronon, 1983). To expand pastures, farmers annually burned over woodlands and stripped the sides of many peaks ("Uria Brown's Journal," 1915-16). Replicating capitalist agrarian practices in other mountain ecosystems, Appalachian peaks were often cultivated right up to the tops. (13) The preferred lands for tobacco production lay in the hill-plateau counties where woodlands were destroyed to capture the fertilizing effect of the rich black mould of the forest floors. (14)

In addition to deforestation for farming, Appalachian households consumed nearly one-quarter of the region's forests for household heating and cooking between 1810 and 1860. (15) Appalachian towns complained of shortages of firewood while landholders wasted vast forests (Dunaway, 1996). By 1860, more than one-half of the land area of this mountain ecosystem had been deforested for agricultural purposes. (16) Moreover, a large proportion of the remaining woodlands consisted of biotically-underdeveloped second growth that emerged after industrial disturbance (Whitney, 1990). Between 1790-1860, Appalachian mixed hardwood-evergreen forests were denuded. Because they were essential to travel and to centralized livestock production, mountain gaps were the first areas to be stripped (Dunaway, 1996). (17) Thus, there was a trend toward monoculture in which shade-intolerant sprouting softwoods returned slowly (Whitney, 1990).

Deforestation was not unique to Southern Appalachia; indeed every New World frontier settled by Europeans was made economically-productive through the same historical pattern of over-development: pastoralism in combination with cropping, overgrazing, timbering, and mineral extraction (Melville, 1994). (18) However, these development tactics are particularly destructive for mountain ecosystems that recover very slowly. After clearance, the reproduction of healthy trees is severely limited during the first fifty years (D'Antonio and Vitousek, 1992). Soil salinity rises, and the nutrients natural to forest floors are replaced by chemicals that slow the return of plant life (Simmons, 1989). Agricultural clearing generates severe fluctuations in temperature (Silver, 1990) and a reduction in rainfall (Goudie, 1986).

Biological invasions and land-use changes were the primary causes of species extinction in the region. These invasions altered the mountain ecosystem in several ways. When top carnivores (e.g., Appalachian wolves) were removed, the ecosystem became over-populated by species that consumed forest floor nutrients. Where grasses replaced woodlands, surface temperatures rose to increase the frequency of fires. Following fires, alien grasses recovered more rapidly than native species, setting in motion a repeated grass/ fire cycle that has characterized the Appalachians into the contemporary period (D'Antonio and Vitousek, 1992).

Deforestation also had devastating impacts upon Appalachian waterways. In mountain ecosystems, soils absorb more water and lose fewer nutrients when covered with trees; so the destruction of woodlands triggers heavy runoff and erosion. "The removal of the forest, the increase in destructive floods, the soil compaction and close-cropping wrought by grazing animals, plowing-- all served to increase erosion;" (Cronon, 1983: 147) and erosion exacerbated the impacts on waterways (Goudie, 1986). In the valleys, river channels filled with sediment, stimulating alternate annual cycles of flooding and drying. Annual spring floods followed the advance of Euroamerican settlers steadily south. In western North Carolina and northwestern Georgia, mid-1800s clear-felling of the mountains increased river levels by 400%. Water quality declined in streams and in the underground water table, as water temperatures rose and sediment deposits blocked natural flows (Goudie, 1986). Such impacts meant dramatic alterations in this mountain ecosystem, for Southern Appalachia was criss-crossed by seven major river systems, each linked to several tributaries. In addition to annual spring floods, ravaging overflows of the region's river systems crippled towns and destabilized the environment even further (Dunaway, 1996).

Ecological Reorganization for External Trade and Industrial Capitalism

Timbering was one of the primary extractive industries of nearly every antebellum Appalachian county (Dunaway, 1996). In addition to increased erosion and flooding (Goudie, 1986), the export from the Appalachian ecosystem of millions of tons of biomass permanently removed from these mountain soils important restorative nutrients. However, the Southern Appalachian mountains offered other valuable assets that were sought by expanding industries in the European core and in the American Northeast: mineral ores. As early as 1810, the region's mineral resources were being extracted at levels that exceeded environmental exploitation in other parts of the new United States (Dunaway, 1996). In fact, the country's early iron manufacturing and salt production were concentrated in Southern Appalachia. Moreover, the country's first gold rush fed the national Treasury from the hills of Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee. The nation's only supply of manganese was mined in Appalachian Virginia; and coal, lead and copper were being exported from the mountain South by 1820.

By 1860, timbering and extractive industries were underway in two-thirds of the region's counties (Dunaway, 1996). While extractive industry was not unique to the Southern Appalachians, it did occur more frequently and with more debilitating effects than in other ecosystems in antebellum North America. (19) By the early 1800s, a majority of the region's acreage was controlled by absentee speculators; and the region's land and natural resources remained heavily concentrated into the hands of distant capitalists throughout the antebellum period. Because of that external control over natural resources, Southern Appalachia's industrial investments were heavily concentrated into low-wage mining, quarrying, smelting, intermediate ore processing, and timbering. For every dollar allocated to Appalachian extractive enterprises, the American Northeast assigned more than seven dollars to diversified manufacturing (Dunaway, 1996). By 1860, Southern Appalachia had already endured several boom-to-bust cycles in which extractive development flourished in response to global prices, only to decline when cheaper or more plentiful resources were located in other zones of the world-system. As one of the extractive regions of the capitalist world-system, Southern Appalachia was ecologically impoverished by a development trajectory that did not generate alternative productive economies. (20)

Like the region's agrarian capitalists, Appalachian industries deforested vast areas of the mountain ecosystem. Tanneries devoured wood and bark, and the iron furnaces incinerated thousands of acres of trees to prepare their charcoal. To provide the 360 bushels of charcoal necessary for one day's operation of an iron furnace, an acre of virgin oaks and hardwoods was destroyed. In addition to sparking frequent forest fires, charcoal hearths eroded, sterilized and stripped the topsoil-- creating scattered plots of barren ground throughout iron-producing counties. In the antebellum period, many forests of Appalachian Virginia were clear-cut several times to fuel adjacent iron furnaces. By 1850, east Kentucky iron facilities were destroying 3,541 acres of forests each year. To produce 1,000 tons of metal per year, one iron furnace devastated 10,000 Smoky Mountain acres. In fact, every east Tennessee county near a furnace denuded its primordial woodlands to fuel iron manufacturing; and many forests had already been clear-cut twice by the Civil War. In the upper Shenandoah Valley, 32,000 acres were repeatedly harvested. Similarly, 18,000 acres of western North Carolina forests disappeared in the wake of iron furnaces (Smith, 1982).

Antebellum salt furnaces also devoured hundred of acres of virgin trees, left huge gaping holes, and gutted fields. The region's twenty-four salt manufacturers devoured 28,800 bushels of coal daily-- leaving in their wake thousands of open ore banks, smoldering slag heaps, and underground shafts (Dunaway, 1996). In addition, the escaping brine galled the soil, killed vegetation, "blackened the air and rendered [it] unpleasant to the lungs and senses" (New England Magazine, 1832: 222).

In several parts of Southern Appalachia, itinerant gold miners laid waste thousands of acres. Entire hills were washed away by forced-water excavation; rivers were diverted and dirtied; and coves were defiled with thousands of gravel piles and uprooted trees. (21) Even more devastating was the copper mining in east Tennessee and northern Georgia. The roasting process released sulphur dioxide into the air, killing all the vegetation and poisoning adjacent streams. Forty-seven square miles of timber were stripped, either by the gas or to fuel the smelting. Adjacent lands became barren, as vegetation did not return to soil corrupted by the poisonous discharges from the furnaces and mines. Thus, two entire counties were engulfed in vast gullies that still exist today (Thompson, 1982).

In addition to causing deforestation, pollution, and species annihilation, extractive industries generated other surface and subsurface changes that are irreversible in mountain ecosystems (Simmons, 1989). Mining of steep slopes, smoldering ore banks and mines, and the exploitation of caves generated subsidence, an earth shifting process in which large craters open (Goudie, 1986). Mill dams exacerbated annual flooding and destroyed the fish that some farmers harvested as part of their food and fertilizer supply. (22) The slag tips that accumulated adjacent to iron, coal, and copper mines were hostile to living organisms for decades. Wastes and toxic gases from lead, manganese, and copper smelting contaminated water, killed wildlife, and chemically fried the soil (Simmons, 1989). "Noisome wastes" from textiles, distilling, paper, and grain milling were dumped by the ton into Appalachian waterways (Goudie, 1986).

Another ecological transformation accompanied the reorganization of the Appalachian ecosystem for export. Travel capitalism emerged around the itinerant livestock industry and the attraction of tourists to the region's 134 mineral spas. Six national livestock trails crisscrossed Southern Appalachia to reach cities on the coasts. Consequently, Appalachian farmers sold nearly one-quarter of their corn surpluses to massive annual itinerant herds (Dunaway, 1996). In those counties that were dependent upon the drover trade, farms were cultivated intensively and pastures were over-taxed to feed the great annual drives. By the 1840s and 1850s, massive soil erosion was evident in Appalachian counties that were bisected by major drover routes. By 1850, the Appalachians had also suffered significant disturbance from tourist invasions into the highest peaks of the Blue Ridge and the Smokies (Dunaway, 1996).

In addition to physical damage to the ecosystem, itinerant livestock herds and thousands of tourists carried with them from the Deep South and the Northeast epidemics of cholera, dysentery, and smallpox. (23) Practically every summer from the 1830s to the 1850s, parts of the region were ravaged by cholera. About once every five years, smallpox followed a major flood. (24) One antebellum traveller described West Virginia towns along the Ohio River as "without exception, unhealthy" because of "annual visitations of discentary, flux, pleuracy, and various species of intermittent fevers" (Ashe, 1808: 69).


The capitalist world-(eco)system is constructed upon the premise that nature can be rationally subjugated until there are no external natural arenas left open for spontaneous noncapitalist development. Recent revisionist research demonstrates that mountain regions have historically been over-developed early to speed the growth of adjacent and distant zones of the capitalist world-system. Using the Appalachian ecosystem as the historical backdrop, this research investigates four stages of entropic degradation through which newly-incorporated mountain ecosystems are articulated with the capitalist world-system. Initially, natural and human resources are expropriated and depopulated. In a second stage, resettlers reorganize the mountains into a capitalist agroecosystem-- a shift toward cash crops for export that causes loss of biodiversity. Subsequently, capitalism deepens its hold by restructuring the mountain ecosystem into an extractive enclave with investments in auxiliary travel capitalism. As the mountain ecosystem becomes increasingly articulated with and dominated by the capitalist world-ecosystem, entropic degradation escalates in mountains, stimulating irreversible loss of biodiversity, lability, subsidence, and climate changes that do not occur in other ecosystems.


1. Environmental history seems to be experiencing a swing the right, as an increasing number of writers argue that natural processes and precapitalist systems have damaged the environment as much as capitalism. There is frequent critique in journals like the Environmental History Review of what neoliberal writers pejoratively label "the decline from paradise motif." Most world-systems analysts and authors such as Crosby (1986) would be lumped into this category because we contend that capitalism has been more ecologically destructive than any previous mode of production. For an extensive overview of authors who document ecological destruction by capitalist expansion, see Cronon (1983: 211-34).

2. In the contemporary period, mountains are the primary suppliers for the core market in illegal drugs. Marijuana, cocaine, and heroin originate in the mountains of Peru, Colombia, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Appalachia. Deforestation and chemical pollution of waterways have resulted. For instance, the kerosene and sulfuric acid required to produce cocaine are dumped at toxic levels into the Peruvian rivers (McNeill, 1992).

3. Deerskins were so crucial to the burgeoning leather industry that they were regulated as an export that could be shipped only to England (Dunaway, 1994).

4. British trade journals include regular complaints about Cherokee marketing of furs and hides that had been damaged by rats (Dunaway, 1996).

5. Aggregated from 1860 published Census of Agriculture. Per capita, Appalachian farms generated 2.5 times the cattle, 3 times the swine, 4 times the horses/mules, and five times the sheep production of the South as a whole. Appalachian farms (1.5 per capita) even exceeded national averages (1.1 per capita) in swine production.

6. A century later, the crop-grazing systems established in the temperate, moist green Appalachians were used by capitalist ranchers to produce exports from the arid mountains of Arizona, Colorado, and Montana (McNeill, 1992).

7. Precapitalist agriculture made major changes in nature; however, those earlier modes of production preserved ecological diversity and complexity (Worster, 1993). "The intimate connection between grazing animals, plows, and fixed property lay at the heart of European agriculture, with far-reaching ecological consequences" (Cronon, 1983: 147).

8. Calculated by applying cliometric subsistence estimates to county totals in the published 1860 Census of Population; for methods, see Dunaway (1996).

9. This livestock practice has been replicated in mountain ecosystems all over the globe, including the Mediterranean (Braudel, 1972: I) and the South American Andes (McNeill, 1992).

10. Throughout the present-day Shenandoah, Blue Ridge and Great Smokies National Parks, there are numerous peaks named for the intergenerational practice of herding hogs and cattle. These national forests are also still peppered with hundreds of miles of the low stone fences that were once used to constrain large swine herds, and the remnants of tenant houses and potato fields still exist in the Blue Ridge.

11. Calculated using county totals in the published 1860 Census of Agriculture.

12. Aggregated from Appalachian county statistics in the 1860 Census of Agriculture.

13. To maximize profits from their land sales, absentee speculators drew property lines so that farms encompassed mountainous terrain in addition to arable land. Several travel accounts report grain and fields up the sides of Blue Ridge and western North Carolina mountains (Dunaway, 1996). Braudel (1972, I: 66) reports the cultivation of grape vines right up to the mountain tops in Italy.

14. Derived from analysis of 1860 Census of Agriculture statistics for Appalachian counties.

15. Cronon (1983) estimated that antebellum New England households consumed 40 cords firewood per year, at the rate of 30 cords per acre. Given the warmer climate, I estimated 30 cords per Appalachian household per year. Estimate calculated using published 1860 Census counts of households and land area.

16. Calculated using totals for unimproved acreage in the published 1860 Census of Agriculture. These estimates are low since they do not account deforestation caused by clearance for towns, roads, railroads, canals or industries.

17. For a parallel with the Alps, see Braudel (1972, I: 205-207).

18. For parallels with other U.S. regions, see Cronon (1983); Merchant (1989); and Silver (1990).

19. Extractive industries have been over-concentrated in the mountain ecosystems of the capitalist world-system (McNeill, 1992).

20. "Resource depletion and changing demand account for the costly boom and bust cycles of peripheral economies. . . . Use values are lost to the region both through exports of the resources and through the disruption of the ecosystems from which they are extracted. . . . The dominant classes engendered by such economies tend to invest available capital in infrastructure and organization for transport and exchange rather than industry. Political institutions are largely adapted to control access to natural resources. Neither is geared to the protection or rational exploitation of the resources on which the economy is based" (Chase-Dunn, 1989: 123).

21. Information from Gold Museum at Dahlonega, Georgia.

22. Numerous legislative petitions for relief from such practices appear in public records. For example, Wythe County residents petitioned the Virginia Legislature to require the owners of an iron works to "Erect a slope in such manner as Shall be sufficient to Admit the passage of the fish" through their dam. See Wythe County Legislative Petitions, Box B: 1798-1814, Virginia State Archives.

23. Throughout the world, lowland populations have used mountain ecosystems to escape the epidemics that accompany urbanization and industrial capitalism (McNeill, 1992).

24. Letters dated September, 1832 in Alfred Beckley Papers and May, 1833 entries in Thomas P. Ray Diary, West Virginia University Manuscripts. Kingston Gazetteer, 30 September 1854. Carolina Watchman, 1 March & 18 October 1836.


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