Capitalism, Climate Crisis, and Methodological Challenges in Environmental History

There are three broad and interconnected ways in which mainstream thinking analyses the problem of the climate crisis. They are firstly,debates based on environmental diplomacy perspectives to assess the contribution of individual nation-states in climate change mitigation and adaptation programmes; secondly, climate mitigation policy frameworks informed by scientific studies, and lastly, the analysis of climate change through environmental justice movements and social interventions. What is largely missing in the dominant climate crisis discussions is a nuanced historical perspective on the intersection between the climate crisis and social formations. Along with policy analysis, environmental social sciences, climate sciences, media, and people’s organisations, critical historical thinking is inevitable to take the climate problem towards an enhanced debate and improved action. The emerging field of critical climate history offers a Marxist perspective to discuss issues related to the climate crisis in a socio-historical framework. This article in the context of the people’s movement in Chellanam, Kochi, against issues related to foreshore erosion, elaborates on how radial political ecology and Marxist historical geography-based discussions provide the environmental historians methodological and conceptual insights to address the present-day concerns related to the climate crisis and its societal impacts.

Chellanam, a coastal village near the historic port city of Kochi in southwestern India, witnessed the rise of a powerful mobilisation of the villagers demanding state intervention to address the problem of intensified erosion of the sandy seashores.  A seashore erosion damaged over a 20-kilometre stretch filled with houses, crops, and fishing infrastructures and has reached a stage that threatens the very existence of the narrow coastal strip that separates the sea and backwaters. The initial demand of the movement was to construct a seawall to reduce shore erosion. However, the state authorities’ indifferent response made the protesters adopt resilient modes of protest, including a relay hunger strike that continued for more than a thousand days and a symbolic jalasamadhi. In its 2021–22 budget, the Government of Kerala allocated ₹334 crores to construct a tetrapod seawall along the coasts of Chellanam. However, the struggle that continued for more than three years gained wider social recognition as an environmental justice movement. The Chellanam Janakeeya Vedi, the villagers’ collective that was at the forefront of organising the resistance movement, points out that the building of a deep-water inner harbour for the Kochi port in the early 20th century and the subsequent dredging works are the major factor that led to the destruction of Kochi’s coastal ecosystem.


The ecological condition of the sandy coast undergoes a rhythmic process of erosion during the monsoon months. The erosion of the seashore happens because high-energy storm waves pull sediment and soil from the shore during the southwest monsoon from June to September. After monsoon, low tides deposit back the eroded sediment. However, the Madras Presidency Government initiated a large infrastructure project in the 1920s to cut open the Kochi estuary to facilitate the entry of the ocean-going ship to the Kochi backwaters. However, by removing the underwater sand bar at the Kochi estuary and deepening of the shallow backwaters as 30-feet-deep ship channel, the port authority altered the rhythms of erosion and accretion. In place of wave action, the massive fossil fuel-powered dredgers began to modify the estuary and the backwaters. During the monsoon, the soil eroded from the nearby shores gets deposited into the 30-feet-deep hip channel. The need to facilitate year-round shipping activities made the massive concentration of sediment in the ship channel a problem to be solved. The port authority employed dredgers to consistently dredge deposit the sediment in the outer sea. Along with the eroded coastal sand, the dredged sediment also included fertile soil from the Western Ghats carried by the rivers essential for foreshore nourishment. The intense dredging of the estuary for shipping requirements has been going on for the past century. Consequently, the dredging activity intercepted the natural rhythm by preventing the accretion process and made Kochi an uncertain landscape prone to massive erosion.


The contemporary and historical narratives on the building of the port depicted the massive engineering project as a symbol of progress and prosperity of the city of Kochi and its hinterlands (Cheriyan 2005; Jayachandran 1983). At the same time, the people living by the backwaters felt the mega-infrastructure project, especially massive dredging, as a gradually and steadily intensifying violence. The ecological rift caused by massive dredging led to intensified wave action that destroyed homes, uprooted crops, and crushed fishing stakes. In addition to these issues, massive depositing of granite blocks at the coast to reduce the effect of high waves intercepted the interaction between the sea and the coasts. The seawall erection works without incorporating the ecological knowledge of the local inhabitants had contrary impacts on everyday life, from the quality of life to subsistence based on the interactions between the sea and the coasts. The state institutions like the Cochin Port Authority and the marine board, and the Kerala Irrigation Infrastructure Development Corporation of the Government of Kerala assume the right to regulate and modify the coast and the backwaters. They perceive foreshore erosion as an issue that requires technological fixes like the erection of a granite sea wall (Fleming 2010). Thus, the environmental activists had to consistently challenge the dominant techno-engineering narrative in the public domain. In Kerala, 378.5 kilometres out of the total 569.7 kilometre-long coast is protected by building seawalls (CSIR-National Institute of Oceanography 2020: 23). The construction of seawalls alters long-shore currents and limits the access of marine organisms to the beach and estuaries for breeding. Despite attempts by the state governments to build a seawall, the villages near Kochi, especially Chellanam, Pallipuram, Kuzhapilli, Elamkunnapuzha, Vypin,  Edavanakkad, Njarakkal, and Nayarambalam are affected by severe erosion. However, discussions in the public domain are dominated by the apocalyptic narrative of sea-level rise and the subsequent inundation of the western Indian coastal zone. Providing a historical analysis informed by Marxist perspectives on the naturesociety relationship under capitalism can challenge such pessimistic discussions on the “man-made” issue of sea-level rise and imagining the coastal zones as disaster landscapes.


The ecological damages in the context of Kochi were a by-product of colonial capitalism’s choice to use fossil fuel as the primary energy source for transportation. The use of fossil energy for maritime and land transport began to create a new set of issues, including the need to develop ports and deep-water harbours for motorised ships and steamboats. The mega infrastructure projects of building deep-water harbours contributed to reducing the time required for maritime trade. Thus, by the early 20th century, the circulation of capital required infrastructures to facilitate the use of fossil fuel as the main energy source. The hinterlands of the colonies required an extended process of modifying the hills, plains, and coastal ecology as roads, railways, ports, and harbours. The use of fossil fuel for production and transportation accelerated the concentration of natural riches as raw materials and commodities in metropolitan cities. At the same time, the effects of fossil consumption unevenly fell on people from the colonised peripheries. Thus, the movement for climate justice, including the ongoing people’s mobilisation at Chellanam, needs to be explained as a part of the global history of fossil fuel energy consumption. This is particularly significant when the fashionable concept of the Anthropocene developed a group of geologists portray humanity as a collective agent responsible for climate change (Crutzen 2002; Lewis and Maslin 2015). An in-depth historical analysis of the ecological degradation of the coastal regions helps to elaborate how the history of capitalistic production of nature created new inequalities and makes ecological degradation like the foreshore erosion an issue of socio-environmental and spatial injustice.


Natural scientists have studied the issue of foreshore erosion and its possible long-term implications on coastal habitats (Ahmad 1972; Baba and Harish 1985; Sajeev 1993; Joseph et al 1995; Jayappa 1996). At the same time, environmental studies require critical perspectives and nuanced concepts to analyse the violent processes associated with the appropriation of the coastal ecosystem as infrastructures for fossil fuel consumption. The emerging scholarship on the capitalist production of nature systematically analyses scientific studies on the coastal and marine ecosystems to elaborate on the socio-environmental contradictions of capitalism (Longo et al 2015). In the past two decades, critical social science scholarship developed as a major field of knowledge to analyse climate crisis as a question of socio-environmental injustice (Parenti 2011; Norgaard 2011; Weston 2014; Klein 2014; Ciplet et al 2015; Dawson 2016; May 2020). There are systematic scholarly attempts to integrate Marx’s dialectical perspectives on society and nature to understand contemporary capitalism (Schmidt 1962; Foster 2000, Burkett 1999; Foster et al 2011). Among them, Andreas Malm (2017) developed a Marxist perspective to locate the large-scale industrialisation based on fossil fuel energy as a class project that involves the massive appropriation of nature and the exploitation of labour power. The new scholarship in critical socio-environmental studies provides historians with deeper insights and possibilities to widen the horizons of environmental history. Integrating the Chellanam seashore erosion issues into the Marxist socio-environmental analysis helps us to deliberate on the limits and possibilities of the methodologies and sources of writing environmental history in the era of the climate crisis.


From Environmental History to Critical Climate History 

The interlink between anthropogenic environmental change and social transformations has been a concern since the development of environmental history as a field of historical research in the first half of the 20th century. Especially the French Annales tradition of historiography systematically explored the link between society and the environment. Fernand Braudel’s studies on the ancient and medieval Mediterranean world elaborated on the extended role of landscapes and long-term climatic rhythms in shaping material life (Braudel 1972). The introduction of new sources and methodological tools by Immanuel Le Roy Ladurie made historical climatology a concern for environmental historians since the 1970s (Ladurie 1971).


The 1980s and the 1990s were crucial decades in the development of climate science and international platforms to address climate change. These include the earth summits, climate conferences, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Moreover, the political mobilisation worldwide against neoliberal capitalism made climate change a defining provocation of the time. Influenced by the global dimension of the debates on the link between neoliberal capitalism and ecological degradation, by the turn of the 20th century, environmental historians began to broaden the field to include critical questions related to global climate change. They began to cover diverse topics across various world regions and over different periods. The major themes included humannature relationships, forest histories, conservation politics, humananimal interactions, landscape histories, water histories, science and environment, epidemics, cities, pollution, industrial agriculture, and the intellectual history of environmentalism. The books and articles published in the 1990s majorly focused on issues related to forests, wilderness, gardens, and conservation (Gadgil and Guha 1995; Arnold and Guha 1995; Bhattacharya 1998; Grove 1995; Rangarajan 1998; Sivaramakrishnan 1999). However, there are also areas of silence. For example, issues related to cities, waste management, desert ecologies, marine environments, history of energy consumption and its impacts on social formations, environmental history of war and so on received only scant attention.


In the early 2000s, intensified discussion on global warming opened up important social and economic issues for historians to address. Historians started publishing scholarly works on energy consumption, air pollution, El Niño droughts, floods, and other extreme weather events that have become an essential part of environmental history narratives (Smil 2007; Davis 2001; Sharan 2014; McNeill 2008; D’Souza 2016; Grove and Adamson 2018). Alongside, Marxist ecologists began to develop methodological tools to interconnect climate change and capitalism. Marxist scholars, especially David Harvey (1996, 2015), Neil Smith (1984), John Bellamy Foster (2000), Jason Moore (2015), and Kohei Saito (2018), revisited Marx’s works to develop the field of Marxist ecological theories. Harvey’s several books and articles on the historical geography of capitalism offered a class analysis of environmental issues. He counters the apocalyptic approach that is quite dominant in climate change thinking by explaining how capitalism made the past environmental crisis an opportunity to further expand its spheres of accumulation (Harvey 1996). Smith (1984) developed the concept of “production of nature” to elaborate on the capitalist integration of nature by exploiting labour power. He considers climate change as a part of the capitalistic production of nature. Moore (2015; 2016) expanded the scope of the World systems theory perspective to examine how capitalism commodified the specificities of planetary life as cheap commodities for the industrial core regions. Foster (2011) provided insights into Marx’s concept of “the metabolic rift” to explain how capitalism disrupted ecological cycles by taking the produce from the primary producer away to a geographically distant location. He argued that the ecological rift created by the massive expropriation of nature was made possible by the social rift of separating the producer from the means of production. Malm (2016) analysed how fossil fuel provided a material condition for capitalism to appropriate land and labour globally. These studies on historical geography and Marxist political ecology influenced the emergence of global environmental history as an area of historical research that opened up spaces to interlace the issues of climate change and social transformations on a global scale.  


The Age of Man and Historical Consciousness

In the early 2000s, geologists began to revise the 19th-century geological time frame by arguing that the planet may have passed the Holocene era and entered a new human-made geological epoch called the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene concept discusses the concern regarding the influence of humans on the planet’s history, including global warming, ocean acidification, species extinction, scarcity of fresh water, and the increasing frequency of extreme weather-related issues (Lewis and Maslin 2015; McNeill and Engelke 2014). Universities worldwide began to introduce debates around the concept of the Anthropocene as part of their courses. The emerging field of global environmental history integrated the Anthropocene as an entry point to discuss the history of the climate crisis. The new courses began to offer possibilities to develop historical perspectives on some pressing debates on the societal impacts of climate change. Historians deliberated on the implications of applying the term “Anthropocene” in making interpretative shifts in historical thinking and writing.


The Anthropocene concept and the contemporary debates on climate change encouraged environmental historians to reassess their methods and fields of inquiry. As a significant attempt towards this, Dipesh Chakrabarty (2009) examined the significance of the Anthropocene. He argued that developing a historical consciousness to acknowledge the planetary existence of humans and a geological force can help historians revise many of their assumptions. Chakrabarty developed the concept of “deep history” to acknowledge the importance of geological timescale in understanding human history (Chakrabarty 2009, 2021). Challenging the divide between prehistory and recorded human history, Chakraborty argued that understanding the planet’s millions of years-long geobiological history needs to be a part of our historical consciousness. However, the species category, considering humanity as a collective while writing history, received a powerful critique from historians and philosophers (Castree 2015; Malm and Hornborg 2014; McAfee 2016; Moore 2016). By placing humans as a collective geological force, the concept of Anthropocene blames the entire humanity for the climate crisis. However, as Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg (2014) argued, the concept of Anthropocene is inadequate since the fossil fuel-made modern civilisation led to a massive concentration natural riches in the hands of the capitalists in small corners of the world. Moore, a prominent opponent of the Anthropocene concept in history, suggests the Capitalocene as a possible alternative concept to stress the interlaced history of capitalist appropriation of nature and the climate crisis (Moore 2016). Malm offered systematic critique of the Anthropocene concept by elaborating on the intimate interlink between the shift of the industrial core to fossil fuel energy and the development of modern capitalism (Malm and Hornborg 2014). He offered a theoretical framework based on Marx’s dialectical thinking to analyse the history of the climate crisis as an integrated history of capitalism and ecological degradation (Malm 2016). The theoretical shift in environmental history influenced by the Marxian ecological reading allows us to locate the historical origin of Chellanam sea erosion as a part of the larger story of capitalist appropriation of landscapes and waterscapes as infrastructure to consume fossil energy for the ever-expanding process of profit. Locally specific case studies like Chellanam and Kochi shall add to studies that focus on multiple social outcomes of fossil fuel-based high energy societies (Podobnik 2006; Mitchell 2011; Huber 2013; Malm 2016).



There are three dominant historiographical approaches to studying the link between climate crisis and society. First, historians explore the relationship between long-term climatic transformations and changes in livelihood patterns, economy, culture, and social relationships (Brooke 2014; Ruddiman 2005; Behringer 2010; Lieberman and Gordon 2018). Second, environmental historians approach extreme weather events like drought, flood, and El Niño as crucial moments to understand the complex relationship between society and nature (Jordon 1996; Davis 2001; Carey 2010; Fleitmann 2022). Third, historians provide a historical perspective to the present debates on global warming, changing marine ecosystems, carbon emission, and pollution (Weart 2008; Carey 2014; Mitchell 2011). These debates on climate and history opened up crucial issues and methodological challenges for environmental historians to revisit the questions of scales, time, and agency. It also allowed them to provide a fresh reading of the existing archives to explore the link between climate and historical transformations (Sabin 2010). Critical climate history perspective could go beyond nation-state-centric developmentalist perspective on environmental issues to include often intersecting global, national, regional, urban, and local scales of historical processes. Environmental history classrooms and research in the contemporary context need to develop a larger canvas of the global geographical frame to study history to understand the complexities of our times. The perspective of the global interconnectedness of socio-ecological histories has become an essential element of historical thinking and writing. Entering “Global Environmental Change” into Google search engine yields about 35 crores hits. This shows that writing critical climate history on a global scale can help historians to go beyond the frames of nation-states to write globally interconnected histories of fossil fuel economies and their uneven social impacts on the global peripheries. Critical environmental history is also making the question of climate justice a central concern to interpret the past and to promote greater democratisation of resource use. The Marxist political ecology and critical geography offer a radical perspective to integrate the locally specific and rather unnoticed movements like the Chellanam movement as a question of climate justice as a part of the global story of appropriating the marine ecologies as infrastructures for fossil fuel consumption.


The author thanks the anonymous reviewer for their comments and suggestions to revise the article.

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