From the Series: Plantationocene
Planetary transformations are dynamic and uneven. The unending quest to produce even more commodities is underpinned by the violent expropriation of human labor and the unpaid work of nature. The new geographies of animals and plants witnessed across the world today have been set in motion by colonial histories of transporting biota. Global industrial food production, which has increased at a remarkable speed and scale, continually operates through new extractive frontiers that foster the ongoingness of plunder.
Plantations, as Katherine McKittrick argues, are an “ugly blueprint” of such change (McKittrick 2013, 11). They have long been themes of anthropological inquiry (see Besky 2013; Jegathesan 2019; Stoler 1995), and plantations, arguably, provided the impetus for the mechanized factory production system sometimes referred to as an inflection point of the Anthropocene (Manjapra 2018; Mintz 1986; Wolford 2021). The Plantationocene—the theme of this series of interventions—has only emerged more recently. Coined in a conversation between anthropologists and ecologists in Aarhus, Denmark, the term was deployed as a signature for “devastating transformations of diverse kinds,” sparked by “extractive and enclosed plantations” (Haraway 2015, 162).
Moving beyond the plantation, scholars now take up the Plantationocene to ask poignant questions regarding planetary transformations. This entails troubling some of the discourse surrounding the Anthropocene, including the idea that humankind as a whole is responsible for epochal change (Davis et al. 2019), and that transformations are homogeneous and undifferentiated (Barua 2023; Paredes 2021), immune to the dynamics of colonialism and race. What is vital is examining planetary change “from the standpoint of those made into “cheap” objects of commerce” (Vergès 2017, 73), whose lives are captured and rendered disposable. Equally important is paying attention to how plantation logics underline a range of contemporary social and spatial arrangements (McKittrick 2011), not solely in terms of production but as a persisting form of community, characterized by inequality and immiseration (Wolford 2021). The multispecies relations that emerge as a result of environmental change are being put under close scrutiny, with an emphasis on ecological justice (Jegathesan 2021) and survival amidst violence (Chao 2022).
In this series, which grew out of two “Plantationocene Futures” workshops funded by the British Academy and Royal Netherlands Academy of the Arts and Sciences, we aim to go beyond critique or, rather, as Manuel Tironi has argued, to find other ways of articulating critique in the wake of planetary upheavals (Tironi 2019). When initiating this conversation, our starting point was to think about mobility, cheap work, and monoculture—features of the plantation but also of contemporary economic production. A wider conversation, however, raised numerous other pressing themes: the plantation as not just a force but a duration, the persistence of immobility in a world of escalated movement, and the rise of virulence in altered worlds. This prompts us to consider the Plantationocene, not only as one among other monikers of our planetary present, but as an analytic and as a methodological impetus. And while the essays in this series are diverse, they address common themes and converge in one important respect: presenting situated accounts of planetary change whilst being attentive to histories of colonialism and the persistence of race.
A first theme that the essays address pertains to the Plantationocene as a duration. There is a perenniality to plantations: they tend to have a material obduracy that is difficult to undo. The persistence of plantations is not only material, but in the Indian context Besky describes, aided by capital and state imperatives. As plantations persist, so too does a colonial agrarian landscape, whose internal relations remain unchanged. Plantations’ pasts turn up in sometimes surprising ways. As Fisher and Nading’s intervention reveals, cotton plants from the past can suddenly spring up in a city from where plantations have been effaced. Turning to the decommissioning of hydrocarbon assets, Weszkalnys draws attention to another form of persistence: that of racialized and militarized violence that continues through numerous means, from the repurposing of infrastructure to plans for energy transitions. Here, the Plantationocene becomes a pivot for understanding “the uneven disassembly and reassembly of geological, infrastructural, and political logics,” pointing to processes that can be nonlinear rather than teleological.
Secondly, the Plantationocene troubles narratives regarding mobility and circulations. Whilst the Anthropocene has been equated with speed, velocity, and acceleration (Haraway 2015), what we are beginning to witness are in fact global, and racial, hierarchies of movement. For instance, Europe’s wider borderlands have become carceral spaces that differentially police who can pass and who cannot. Drawing attention to immobility, which is also a logic of the plantation, Achtnich argues that racial hierarchies of movement give rise to conditions that generate cheap labor in Europe. This troubling of mobility is also extended to an entourage of other beings. Tropical houseplants adorning people’s homes, as Cohen argues, have colonial histories of circulation. Plunder and glasshouse infrastructures undergird their everyday ubiquity.
Turning to the intersections of mobility and industrial production, Green shows how the animal transport industry “is booming.” “Livestock,” as Green argues, “brings together two elements that are relevant to the Plantationocene: standardization and bureaucracy.” With industrial farming, plantation logics begin to appear in all sorts of guises. There is an entire infrastructure underpinning the genomics of cattle breeding, which strive to produce what Thoreau evocatively calls “mononatures”: the reproduction of life with the aim of relentlessly generate surplus value. Greenhouses, as Ibáñez Martín observes, are “engines for planetary transformation”: they produce cheap commodities through precarious migrant labor as well as the unpaid work of other-than-humans, both of which are essential to the generation of simplified ecologies. As Walter Rodney long suggested, plantations require much more than just capital: labor has to be cheap, plentiful, and easily disciplined (Rodney 1981). There is purchase to be drawn here from conceptualizing greenhouses as “the new plantation,” for it fosters other ways to think about the histories and drivers of planetary change. This theme is amplified in Eggers and Driessen’s account of the living spaces of contemporary migrant workers in a Dutch polder. This does not mean, however, that one ought to lose sight of plantations. Everyday commodities consumed in the West entail supply chains that hark back to those very sites where frontiers are continuing to expand and where violence is routine (Pérez Castro).
Finally, the essays point to a Plantationocene as both a virulent condition and as an analytic for understanding the “global sickening” marked by emerging diseases (Gandy). Extractive frontiers, including those for new commodity production, act as focal points for zoonotic “spillover events.” In fact, as scholars have argued, virulence can become endemic to plantations (Dey 2018). Such virulence has become part and parcel of industrial food production systems (Green; Ibáñez Martín), some of it spurred by the simplified ecologies or “mononatures” such regimes spawn (Keck 2020). The Anthropocene concept, as Gandy argues, “is peculiarly unsuited to the analysis of global epidemiological landscapes”.
The essays in this series are not prescriptive: they do not provide a singular vision of what constitutes the Plantationocene. In fact, we might refer to “a Plantationocene” rather than “The Plantationocene” (see also Hecht 2018), as though the latter has only one history and one temporality. By examining situated ecologies and by thinking established tenets anew, the contributions are more akin to diagnostics that pay close attention to the dynamics of colonialism, capitalism, and race whilst grounding planetary change ethnographically and empirically. They also open up possibilities for a plural conversation. This plurality is most vividly addressed by Simone in the coda to the collection. Plantations, Simone writes, are also “shadow worlds” where “solidarities” have to be “continually worked out” anew. Herein lies the value of a Plantationocene. It opens up richer, more earthly, and perhaps just, accounts of planetary change.
Our research and conversations going into this series was enabled by a British Academy Knowledge Frontiers Symposium KNAW Seed Fund (Grant No. KFSSFKNAW\100017), by an ERC Horizon 2020 Starting Grant “Urban Ecologies: governing nonhuman life in global cities” (uEcologies; Grant No. 759239); and by the Amsterdam Centre for European Studies (ACES) Grant “Human and Non-Human Mobilities in Dutch and Spanish horticultural greenhouses.”
 The title takes its inspiration from Katherine McKittrick’s essay, “Plantation Futures” (McKittrick 2013).
Barua, Maan. 2023. “Plantationocene: A Vegetal Geography.” Annals of the American Association of Geographers 113, no. 1: 13–29.
Besky, Sarah. 2013. The Darjeeling Distinction: Labor and Justice on Fair-Trade Tea Plantations in India. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Chao, Sophie. 2022. “(Un)Worlding the Plantationocene: Extraction, Extinction, Emergence.” eTropic 21, no. 1: 165–191.
Davis, Janae, Alex A. Mouldon, Levi Van Sant, and Brian Williams. 2019. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, . . . Plantationocene?: A Manifesto for Ecological Justice in an Age of Global Crises.” Geography Compass 13, no. 5.
Dey, Arnab. 2018. Tea Environments and Plantation Culture: Imperial Disarray in Eastern India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Haraway, Donna. 2015. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin.” Environmental Humanities 6, no. 1: 159–165.
Hecht, Gabrielle. 2018. “Interscalar Vehicles for an African Anthropocene: On Waste, Temporality, and Violence.” Cultural Anthropology 33, no. 1: 109–141.
Jegathesan, Mythri. 2019. Tea and Solidarity: Tamil Women and Work in Postwar Sri Lanka. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Jegathesan, Mythri. 2021. “Black Feminist Plots before the Plantationocene and Anthropology's ‘Regional Closets.’” Feminist Anthropology 2, no. 1: 78–93.
Keck, Frédéric. 2020. Avian Reservoirs: Virus Hunters and Birdwatchers in Chinese Sentinel Posts. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Manjapra, Kris. 2018. “Plantation Dispossession: The Global Travel of Agricultural Racial Capitalism.” In American Capitalism: New Histories, edited by Sven Beckert and Christine Desan, 361–388. New York: Columbia University Press.
McKittrick, Katherine. 2011. “On Plantations, Prisons, and a Black Sense of Place.” Social & Cultural Geography 12, no. 8: 947–963.
McKittrick, Katherine. 2013. “Plantation Futures.” Small Axe 17, no. 3 (42): 1–15.
Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. 1986. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin Books.
Paredes, Alyssa. 2021. “Experimental Science for the ‘Bananapocalypse’: Counter Politics in the Plantationocene.” Ethnos.
Rodney, Walter. 1981. “Plantation Society in Guyana.” Review (Fernand Braudel Center) 4, no. 4: 643–666.
Stoler, Ann Laura. 1995. Capitalism and Confrontation in Sumatra's Plantation Belt, 1870-1979. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
Tironi, Manuel. 2019. “Lithic Abstractions: Geophysical Operations against the Anthropocene.” Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory 20, no. 3: 284–300.
Vergès, Françoise. 2017. “Racial Capitalocene.” In Futures of Black Radicalism, edited by Gaye Theresa Johnson and Alex Lubin, 72–82. London: Verso.
Wolford, Wendy. 2021. “The Plantationocene: A Lusotropical Contribution to the Theory.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 111, no. 6: 1622–1639.