The Plantationocene as Zoonotic Transfer Zone
From the Series: Plantationocene
How should we account for the “global sickening” marked by the growing significance of new and emerging diseases? In this brief essay I consider how the Plantationocene offers an alternative analytic to the Anthropocene that highlights the extractive frontiers that have acted as a focal point for a series of zoonotic “spillover events.” By emphasizing the analytical significance of the Plantationocene, we need to place biodiversity loss and racial capitalism at the center of broader debates over global environmental change.
Most infectious diseases in human history have been zoonotic in origin, reflecting specific patterns of human–non-human interaction such as the domestication of animals, the sharing of shelter with other organisms, the mobilities enabled by early trade routes, and the construction of increasingly dense kinds of human settlement. The literature has tended to adopt a Eurocentric vantage point, however, emphasizing a specific set of environmental threats associated with the rise of industrial cities such as cholera and typhoid, as part of a wider story of spatial rationalization, the construction of infrastructure networks, and gradual improvements in medicine and nutrition. Yet if we adopt a global lens this perceived epidemiological teleology becomes less clear (Gandy 2022a). Alternative perspectives on the history of the Anthropocene have emphasized the role of disease in the genocide of Indigenous peoples in the Americas after their first contact with Europeans. Specific diseases, such as syphilis, are likely to have been brought back to Europe as a reverse dynamic within this wider landscape of epidemiological devastation.
A central component of European imperialism involved the creation of multiple extractive frontiers for access to cheap resources that modified existing landscapes on a vast scale. Associated forms of racial capitalism, transatlantic slavery, and the rise of the plantation system created new kinds of socio-ecological dynamics that facilitated the spread of malaria, yellow fever, and other diseases at a global scale (Joseph and Lindo 2022). The extension of the plantation system for rubber, palm oil, and other commodities into highly biodiverse regions during the twentieth century also facilitated the spread of previously unknown zoonotic pathogens such as Ebola, Hantavirus, HIV, and Zika into the human population. The devastating 2016 outbreak of Ebola in West Africa that spread through a series of major cities, can be specifically traced to the impact of deforestation. More recently, a series of biodiversity hotspots under pressure, notably in central Africa and south Asia, have been identified as the source of an increasing number of previously unknown human diseases of zoonotic origin. The global disruption wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic can be explicitly tied to the global biodiversity crisis and is likely to be just one among many future threats. A number of diseases associated with sylvatic transmission cycles such as dengue fever have also flourished from the successful synanthropic adaptation of their insect vectors to the micro topographies of urban space: mosquitoes associated with tree holes, for instance, have easily been able to breed in small bodies of water associated with gutters, tires, refuse, or other features of the urban environment.
The Plantationocene can be conceptualized in terms of successive extractive frontiers for food, timber, and other commodities that have produced a distinctive sequence of degraded, simplified, and in many cases pathogenic ecologies (Besky 2019). Monocultural landscapes not only enable population explosions of agricultural pests but can also create spaces of heightened epidemiological risk for human and non-human inhabitants alike (Dey 2018). The socio-ecological configurations of the Plantationocene are also associated with the emergence of distinctive “accelerator landscapes” marked by faster rates of epigenetic or evolutionary adaptation and the potential for new or more virulent pathogens to emerge (Gandy 2022b). In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis there has been a global intensification of agro-capitalism marked by increasingly monopolistic patterns of ownership along with new forms of automation, logistics, and data control (Beckert et al. 2021; Mezzadra and Neilson 2019). Modes of intensification include the development of vast industrialized facilities for chickens, pigs, and other animals: the new generation of multi-story pig farms, for example, can slaughter over a million animals a year. The epidemiological danger from poultry farms has similarly increased dramatically as chicken has become the main global source of meat for human consumption. Agro-capitalist intensification is not only associated with landscapes of heightened epidemiological risk but also with forms of extreme toxicity affecting entire ecosystems leading to “lake death” and other phenomena. These distinctive landscapes of “ecological decay” constitute a material topography that lies outside the analytical scope of the adaptive Anthropocene.
The Anthropocene concept is peculiarly unsuited to the analysis of global epidemiological landscapes. Indeed, the eco-modernist emphasis on reshaping nature sits uneasily alongside the unpredictable and largely uncontrollable dynamics of zoonotic threats to human health. The implicit malleability and interchangeability of Anthropocene natures, including the emphasis on recombinant ecologies, has systematically downplayed the epidemiological dimensions to global environmental change. The term resilience, for example, has been repeatedly tied to systems-based conceptions of modernity as a sequence of techno-managerial interventions. Contradictory dimensions to global capitalism, including increasing threats to global health, lie outside the interpretive scope of the Anthropocene. The implications of overestimating human ability to influence bio-physical systems or conversely downplaying the scope and significance of human agency have far reaching implications (Wakefield, Chandler, and Grove 2022).
The idea of the Anthropocene has proved something of an analytical dead end. Irrespective of whether the term gains official status as a temporal marker within the earth systems sciences there is now a wealth of literature that debunks many of its underlying assumptions including species-oriented accounts of human history. Alternative terms such as Capitalocene, Necrocene, or Plantationocene shift our emphasis from the search for a synchronous “golden spike” that might mark the starting point for an agreed definition of geological time toward a closer attention to the scale, dynamics, and causes of environmental degradation under modernity.
 For a critique of the eco-modernist malleability thesis see, for example, Neyrat 2018 .
Beckert, Sven, Ulbe Bosma, Mindi Schneider, and Eric Vanhaute. 2021. “Commodity Frontiers and the Transformation of the Global Countryside: A Research Agenda.” Journal of Global History 16, no. 3: 435–450.
Besky, Sarah. 2019. “Exhaustion and Endurance in Sick Landscapes: Cheap Tea and the Work of Monoculture in the Dooars, India." In How Nature Works: Rethinking Labor on a Troubled Planet, edited by Sarah Besky and Alex Blanchette, 23–40. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Dey, Arnab. 2018. Tea Environments and Plantation Culture: Imperial Disarray in Eastern India Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Gandy, Matthew. 2022a. Natura Urbana: Ecological Constellations in Urban Space. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.
Gandy, Matthew. 2022b. “The Zoonotic City: Urban Political Ecology and the Pandemic Imaginary.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 46, no. 2: 202–219.
Joseph, Sophie K., and John Lindo. 2022. “The Evolutionary History of Infectious Disease in the Ancient Americas and the Pathogenic Consequences of European Contact.” American Journal of Biological Anthropology.
Neyrat, Frédéric. 2018 . The Unconstructable Earth: An Ecology of Separation. New York: Fordham University Press.
Mezzadra, Sandro, and Brett Neilson. 2019. The Politics of Operations: Excavating Contemporary Capitalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Wakefield, Stephanie, David Chandler, and Kevin Grove. 2022. “The Asymmetrical Anthropocene: Resilience and the Limits of Posthumanism.” Cultural Geographies 29, no. 3: 389–404.