Is Covid-19 a “Capitalocene” Challenge?

Featured image courtesy of Elisabeth Abergel

By Jenia Mukherjee and Amrita Sen

Rapid shifts across nine planetary boundaries, including deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and climate change, have occurred as a result of the Anthropocene. As recent advances in research suggest, political, economic, and technocratic interests drive global development enterprises. “Capitalocene,” a word used frequently now, emphasizes the palpable connections between planetary transformations and the functioning of the capitalist machine.[1] The environmental social sciences, especially Ecological Marxism and, more recently, emerging discourses within the environmental humanities (EH), have drawn our attention to the systemic causes of environmental destruction, which have generated numerous crises scenarios for humanity. In this piece, we show how Covid-19 is a challenge emanating from the “Capitalocene” and argue that this framework provides a better understanding of global pandemics—their outbreak, spread, and the long-term (welfare) measures needed to prevent them.

What has led to the outbreak of Covid-19—the greatest pandemic “modernity” has so far been confronted with? Though the source of Covid-19 is still unknown, some studies suggest that it has a high level of similarity with viruses found among pangolins, while others confirm that it is a bat-borne infection. It is undoubtedly a zoonotic disease, in which a virus is genetically transmitted from animals to humans. While natural scientists argue that animals are hosts and carriers, environmental humanities scholars trace the real source to humans.[2]

The concept of “Capitalocene” provides a radical critique of the idea that capitalism is just about economics. It endorses the view that capitalism is also implicated in power and culture. The dramatic rise in meat consumption has to be understood as aligned with neoliberal lifestyles and global mass culture, where happiness as a material condition is linked to hedonistic gains, such as an increase in purchasing power and capitalist consumptive desires, in contrast to a eudemonic notion of wellbeing. For example, in countries like India, communities adhering to non-violent religious doctrines preached by Buddhism and Jainism traditionally practised vegetarianism. However, a cultural (and hence dietary) transformation has manifested in the rapid growth of the Indian poultry sector, which grew by around 8–10 percent annually between 1990 and 2010, with an annual turnover of US$7,500 million.[3] These sectors, and the processing methods they utilize to achieve rapid production targets, are largely unhealthy and unhygienic.

In Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching, Michael Greger exposed the links between capitalist live farming practices and virus ecology in the following lines, “If you actually want to create global pandemics, then build factory farms”[4] (fig. 1). The outbreak of deadly diseases, such as Ebola, SARS, Nipah, SADS, and avian influenza (H5N1), in the last two to three decades are all outcomes of rapid planetary changes. The challenges caused by live farming practices are manifold, with the risk of viral eruptions from (similar stock) reservoir species, the risk of the spread of infection through unhygienic waste disposal practices of factory farms, and the development of human resistance to antibiotics, etc. Moreover, the geographic extent of the live animal trade increases the rate at which disease agents explore their evolutionary possibilities. Apart from these risks, the cruelty inflicted on non-human species is beyond redemption. Exotic animals and endangered fish species are prey to illegal trafficking and trading networks, regulated by the powerful nexus of multi-national corporations in alliance with biotech companies and local collaborators, ever hungry for profits against irreversible ecological costs.[5]

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Figure 1: Factors linking factory farms and pandemics[6]

Based on detailed research on the nature of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and coronavirus (SARS-CoV), researchers have concluded that human coronaviruses will re-emerge, multiply, and mutate, with the proliferation of intensive industrial farms and unsanitary wet markets.[7] Prospective medical advances like vaccines and medicines might not be sustainable solutions. The outbreak of pandemics over the last two decades make it clear that this is not a war between viruses and vaccines; rather, awareness and continued protest against injustices meted out by big capital and giant cartels are the key weapons of success. The continued assault on smaller maritime enterprises, farm production, domestic local markets, and indigenous soft infrastructures, encouraging global returns, will further expose the fault lines of disaster management mechanisms, eliciting a manifold of vulnerability scenarios. This calls for special attention to the protection of small-scale industries faced with the threat of co-optation and infringement. Policies, therefore, need to be not only redirected towards piecemeal containment strategies, but also towards systemic gaps within national development models.

The “Capitalocene” framework is significant in terms of exposing Covid-19 as a “neo-liberal disease” deeply embedded in the material and cultural fabric of our times.[8] It can be controlled only at the surface level—that is, temporarily suppressed—through the implementation of aggressive preventative measures, such as the development of vaccines and the formation of antibodies. Yet the crisis will keep recurring until structural inequities and injustices, manifesting in the omnipresent contradictions between capital and labor and human and nature are dealt with, and a just, democratic, sustainable, and resilient world order established. Food sovereignty, by guaranteeing locally manufactured diversified food production in different countries, will ensure parallel wellbeing of smallholder farmers and animals. It calls for appropriate and in-depth research to support diversified agricultural knowledge and skills across specific local contexts.


[1] Jason Moore writes, “Capitalocene is a kind of critical provocation to this sensibility of the Anthropocene, which is: We have met the enemy and he is us.”

[2] Thom van Dooren, “Pangolins and Pandemics: The Real Source of this Crisis is Human, not Animal,” newmatilda.com, published 22 March 2020, https://newmatilda.com/2020/03/22/pangolins-and-pandemics-the-real-source-of-this-crisis-is-human-not-animal/.

[3] Rajesh Mehta and R. G. Nambiar, “The Poultry Industry in India,” fao.org, published January 2007, http://www.fao.org/ag/againfo/home/events/bangkok2007/docs/part1/1_5.pdf.

[4] Michael Greger, Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching (New York: Lantern Books, 2006).

[5] In May 2019, the documentary Sea of Shadows directed by Richard Ladkani premiered at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society. The film shows how the vaquita, the world’s smallest whale, is near extinction, as its habitat is being destroyed by Mexican cartels and Chinese mafia, who harvest the swimming bladder of the totoaba fish, “the cocaine of the sea.” This is just one example of the numerous illegal trading and trafficking operations occurring across the planet.

[6] Links between Factory Farming & Pandemics/Epidemics. 2019. Farms Not Factories. https://farmsnotfactories.org/articles/if-you-want-pandemics-build-factory-farms/.

[7] Vincent C.C. Cheng et al., “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus as an Agent of Emerging and Reemerging Infection,” Clinical Microbiological Reviews 20, no.4 (2007): 660–694. https://doi.org/10.1128/CMR.00023-07.

[8] Rob Wallace et al., “COVID-19 and Circuits of Capital,” Monthly Review: An Independent Socialist Magazine, published 1 May 2020, https://monthlyreview.org/2020/04/01/covid-19-and-circuits-of-capital/.


Further Reading

Cheng, Vincent C.C., Susanne K.P. Lau, Patrick C.Y. Woo, and Kwok Yung Yuen. “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus as an Agent of Emerging and Reemerging Infection.” Clinical Microbiological Reviews 20, no.4 (2007): 660–694. https://doi.org/10.1128/CMR.00023-07.

Greger, Michael. Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching. New York: Lantern Books, 2006.

Mehta, Rajesh, and R.G Nambiar. “The Poultry Industry in India.” fao.org. Published January 2007. http://www.fao.org/ag/againfo/home/events/bangkok2007/docs/part1/1_5.pdf.

Moore, J.W. “The Capitalocene, Part I: On the Nature and Origins of our Ecological Crisis.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 44, no.3 (2017): 594–630. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2016.1235036.

van Dooren, Thom. “Pangolins and Pandemics: The Real Source of this Crisis is Human, not Animal.” newmatilda.com. Published 22 March 2020. https://newmatilda.com/2020/03/22/pangolins-and-pandemics-the-real-source-of-this-crisis-is-human-not-animal/.

Wallace, Rob, Alex Liebman, Luis Fernando Chaves, and Rodrick Wallace. “COVID-19 and Circuits of Capital.” Monthly Review: An Independent Socialist Magazine. Published 1 May 2020. https://monthlyreview.org/2020/04/01/covid-19-and-circuits-of-capital/.

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