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Keywords:

  • political ecology;
  • environmental history;
  • historical sociology;
  • world-systems analysis;
  • capitalism as world-ecology

‘Amsterdam is standing on Norway’– this was a popular saying in the Dutch Republic of the seventeenth century. There was more than one inflection to the phrase. Amsterdam was, in the first instance, built atop a subterranean forest of Norwegian origin. But southern Norway was also a vital resource zone, subordinated to Amsterdam-based capital. This paper follows the movement of strategic commodity frontiers within early modern Europe from the standpoint of capitalism as world-ecology, joining in dialectical unity the production of capital and the production of nature. Our geographical focus is trained upon the emergence of the Global North Atlantic, that zone providing the strategic raw materials and food supplies indispensable to the consolidation of capitalism – timber, naval stores, metals, cereals, fish and whales. I argue for a broader geographical perspective on these movements, one capable of revealing the dialectical interplay of frontiers on all sides of the Atlantic. From its command posts in Amsterdam, Dutch capital deployed American silver in the creation of successive frontiers within Europe, transforming Scandinavian and Baltic regions. The frontier character of these transformations was decisive, premised on drawing readily exploitable supplies of land and labour power into the orbit of capital. We see in northern Europe precisely what we see in the Americas – a pattern of commodity-centred environmental transformation, and thence relative ecological exhaustion, from which the only escape was renewed global conquest and ever-wider cycles of combined and uneven development.