meat and capital

Image: Hamilton Grimaldi


From the market's perspective, trees, soil, animals, meat, nature are not trees, soil, animals, or nature; they are just an amorphous mass of potential profit, they are pure exchange value to be exploited

As I write this text, forest fires in the Pantanal complete 20 days of uninterrupted duration. About a fifth of everything that was left of the biome is in ashes, in a good part irreversibly. Half of indigenous territories of the region were destroyed. Investigations in progress are, little by little, proving what was already expected: a significant part of the origins of the fires are human, intentional or criminal and aimed to open pastures for the livestock industry.

Naturally, in response to such a scenario of devastation, different sectors of the population begin to mobilize, attacking those responsible in whatever way they can – be they people, behaviors or ideas. More than justifiable criticisms of the president, scathing attacks against the agricultural industry and fundamental reflections on climate change are some of the recurring themes in the debate. Another attitude, however, also takes up a lot of space: the association between individual meat consumption and the destruction of biomes.

This 'vegetarian' criticism of the problem of the destructive exploitation of nature usually comes in accusatory forms, directed against 'carnists' who do not recognize that their hamburger is causing the destruction of the Amazon. The problem with these accusations is that they are often based on an argument that is only partially true. It is true, as we are seeing, that the fires in the Pantanal and the Amazon are directly caused by the interests of the livestock industry. There is no doubt that meat consumption is harmful to the environment, and that the industry around it is associated with all possible types of harmful and even criminal activities.

But, often, the argument ends there, and the rest of the associations implicit in this particular type of criticism are completed with a mixture of ignorance and ideology. The problem is that, while it is true that meat consumption is linked to a whole series of predatory activities, there is nothing to guarantee that its mere end will necessarily reduce or even affect the degree of human exploitation of nature. In addition, this type of manifestation, almost always based on offensives directed at individual behavior, when it is not productively part of a consistent sociopolitical program, it is difficult to overcome the barrier of moral disputes and, many times, does not go beyond what Slavoj Zizek called ecological ideology.

“The prevailing ecological ideology treats us as guilty a priori, indebted to mother nature, under the constant pressure of the superegoic ecological agency that interpellates us in our individuality: 'What did you do today to pay your debt to nature? Have you placed all newspapers in a suitable recyclable bin? What about all the beer bottles or Coke cans? Have you used your car where you could have opted for a bicycle or some public transport? Did you use air conditioning instead of simply opening the windows?' It is easy to discern what is at stake ideologically in this kind of individualization: I get lost in my own self-examination rather than raising more pertinent global questions about our industrial civilization as a whole.”

Let us deal, then, with these global questions, starting from our national case.

Caio Prado Júnior, both in his work and in his activism, never tired of telling us that, from the moment the Portuguese landed for the first time on the south-tropical coast, their relationship with it was one of harsh and destructive exploitation. “As a whole, and seen on a global and international level, the colonization of the tropics takes on the aspect of a vast commercial enterprise, more complex than the old factory, but always with the same character as it, destined to exploit the natural resources of a virgin territory for the benefit of European trade. Is this the real sense tropical colonization, of which Brazil is one of the results; and he will explain the fundamental elements, both economic and social, of the formation and evolution of the American tropics”[I].

Since the beginning of colonization, and in a way until today, the exaltation of the great and exuberant Brazilian nature has always been accompanied by its lazy, irrational and aggressive abuse – precisely because of this supposed immensity. Often without any care for the reconstitution of the soil, with the balance of fauna and flora, Brazilian biomes have historically been a privileged target of human exploratory activity with commercial objectives.

Starting from the ferocious and inconsequential extraction of brazilwood, followed by the large sugar mills based on the monoculture of sugarcane, passing through the hasty and excessive extraction of gold and other minerals, through the monoculture of coffee, we arrive today at the agribusiness exporting soy , corn and meat. In all stages and different cultures, one thing always repeats itself: ruthless exploitation, without fear of using the most abusive techniques and practices – whether with nature or with human labor – to extract every last drop of value from the natural resources, without much concern for the scorched earth to be left behind at the end of the process.

In colonial Brazil, meat, recalls Caio Prado Júnior, “plays an important role in food”[ii]. Livestock, among the main commercial activities, was “the only one, apart from those intended for export products, that is of any importance”[iii]. However, there was a sharp separation between it and the other export crops. Although relevant, livestock was an underprivileged activity, dedicated more to the extraction of leather, followed by the production of meat as food and, finally, the production of milk. Cattle raising ranged from an almost total neglect, leaving the herd in the wild by nature, to some more organized farms and slave labor. In general, this practice was largely associated with a secondary economy, and was mostly determined by natural conditions such as soil salinity and the availability of open fields for raising livestock.

“As for Mato Grosso [during the colonial period], some cattle are raised in the northern regions, close to the mining establishments; something of little importance, which is only for local consumption. The great phase of prosperity of livestock in Mato Grosso, which unfolds in the endless fields of the South, had not yet begun and belongs entirely to the XNUMXth century. XIX”[iv]. And even so, this livestock activity close to the Brazilian Midwest is just beginning to move away from the South and Southeast regions towards the north of Mato Grosso do Sul, on the border with Mato Grosso – where the Pantanal is located –, and in towards the south of Pará – where the Amazon rainforest is located – in the XNUMXth century. And it was along with the rationalization of agriculture, especially soy, corn, cotton and sugarcane, that livestock followed the advance of the agricultural frontier towards (still) unexplored biomes – that is, devastated.

Um 2016 article, published by Ipea, reminds us that “Knowledge-intensive agribusiness was organized with the creation of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) in 1973. In 1960, Brazil was, unbelievably, a country that imported food, such as corn, rice, cereals and chicken meat”. The advance of the agrarian frontier in the Midwest, one of the factors responsible for the advance of current deforestation, was profoundly determined by the cultivation of soy and corn. In addition, “it should be noted that soy has always been an important input in the production of meat”. Cattle ranching, therefore, is far from being the only or even the main reason for the deforestation and destructive exploratory practices that are exposed today.

Finally, it is worth insisting that “in fact, in macroeconomic terms, Brazilian cattle raising, which was located in the South and Southeast, when incorporated into the new agricultural frontiers, was directed to the Center-West, first to Mato Grosso do Sul. Later, with the increase in sugarcane production in that state, livestock production moved to the Amazon region, not only to Mato Grosso and Rondônia, but also to Pará. (…) The expansion of agriculture and livestock in Mato Grosso (soybean, corn, cotton and cattle) and livestock in Pará (cattle) represented a threat to the deforestation of the Amazon Forest from 1990 until the mid-2000s”. Which means, quite clearly, that it is impossible to dissociate meat consumption, cattle raising, destructive practices and, therefore, deforestation and forest megafires from the macroeconomy, the international commodity market and the global capitalist system.

In a more general way, Brazil, having occupied an important place in the 'great navigations', which in turn were fundamental for the development of European capitalism, was, throughout its history, a key player, as an exporter of raw materials, for the development of this mode of production, as Caio Prado Júnior recalled and as confirmed by the Ipea article.

Anselm Jappe, precisely, argues that “the ecological crisis is insurmountable in the capitalist context, even considering 'degrowth' or, even worse, 'green capitalism' and 'sustainable development'. As long as the mercantile society lasts, productivity gains will make an ever-increasing mass of material objects – whose production consumes real resources – represent an ever-smaller mass of value, which is the expression of the abstract part of labor – and is just production. of value that counts in the logic of capital. Capitalism is therefore essentially, inevitably, productivist, oriented to production for the sake of production.”

In the eyes of capital, or, as it is now fashionable to say, in the eyes of the market, trees, soil, animals, meat, nature, are not trees, soil, animals or nature; they are just an amorphous mass of potential profit, they are pure exchange value to be exploited. If meat consumption, today, is a use value that justifies aggressive livestock farming as a way of generating value, if, suddenly, the entire global population decides to stop eating meat (or, we can even exaggerate, stop eating meat , soybeans and corn) all the natural resources exploited in the production of these goods, seen as an amorphous value, would quickly be exploited in another way: be it in the extraction of minerals, in the extraction of vegetables, in the simple settlement of that territory or, even, in the installation mega-factories of electric vehicles and lithium batteries – capital's creativity is limitless.

Resuming, then, our initial dilemma, it can be said that a political action that really aims to combat the destruction of nature that we are witnessing today must, inevitably, take into account a well-structured critique of the general sociopolitical order of which the partial elements attacked are only moments. It is necessary to understand the historical processes within which the trends that explode today have developed. It is also necessary to understand and consider how this order itself determines us, in our criticism and militancy, so that we can find a real emancipation capable of dealing with the inevitable conflicts that arise.

Reducing the environmental problem to simple answers, as in attacks on the individual consumption of a certain food or certain individual behaviors, is dangerously similar to the same reduction made by the 'other side', by right-wing populists, who reduce the great dilemmas of the capitalism to immigrants, minorities or leftist parties. Both are partial visions that, even if they have, here and there, true aspects, fall into a discursive entanglement that ends up producing effects contrary to what was expected.

This is by no means a matter of criticizing or diminishing vegetarian criticism. Meat consumption is, in fact, a relevant social and environmental problem, and the adoption of different diets is an inevitable way out for the sustainable advancement of civilization. It is a matter, here, of exploring the 'moment of truth' that appears in this practice as social criticism. It is about exploring its potential, emancipating it from the various ideological barriers – which often reduce it to pedantic, individualistic and moralistic criticisms, which only contribute to the creation of new markets for capital.

*Daniel Pavan is majoring in Social Sciences at USP.


[I] PRADO JUNIOR, Caio. Formations of Contemporary Brazil: Colonia. 6a Edition. Editora Brasiliense, São Paulo, 1961. p.25.

[ii] Ibid. p.181

[iii] Ibid, p.182

[iv] Ibid. p.207

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