Why climate discussion today should begin with the New World plantation

By Michaeline A. Crichlow // September 15, 2023

Michaeline Crichlow is Professor of African and African American Studies and Director of the Climate Change, Decolonization, and Global Blackness (CCDGB) Lab, one of three strands of the FHI's Entanglement Project. In response to our request for a CCDGB program highlight for the 2022-23 FHI Annual Report, she chose Dale Tomich's guest lecture, "The Slave Plantation: Environment, History and Cycles of Capital Accumulation," and offered this explication. Tomich is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Binghamton University - learn more about his work here and here.


The double jeopardy of grappling with climate change is the need to contend with both its planetary and place-specific effects, knowing full well that these are inseparable and intertwined. Any discussion of either one entails grappling with how these parts that involve peoples and places play out within the whole. That is, exploring and analyzing how place has been constructed through its relation to the world economy and how that whole is composed through the dynamic of its many parts — call those geographies, ecologies, and peoples. What this suggests is that climate change should involve fewer abstract discussions of its effects and more historical accounts of a political economy that wrestles with the power of the global capitalist economy and entrenched economies of power. Neither one is reducible to the other but the demands of climate precarity require an analysis of their co-constituency.

Though all of the CCDGB’s events stressed these constitutive linkages, the discussion of the plantation and its signal forging of an Atlantic world economy — especially through the operations of colonial projects — is a pivotal optic for analyzing our modern planetary existence in the context of the Atlantic’s disproportionate influence throughout the world. For plantations from the colonial period to the present represent a model of Development that stresses monocultural extractive projects, whether of mining, agriculture, or present-day timber plantations in the US South (masquerading as “forests,” as Professor Danielle Purifoy posits in her talk). The plantation model signifies a formal composite of all those socio-cultural practices that are constitutive of the modern degradation of humans and non-human resources.

[Plantations across the Americas] reorganized and reconfigured the intercontinental flow of resources... beginning processes of the violent unraveling of the inseparable systems of life and livelihoods for the many that continue to this day.

Given the misunderstandings attending the operations of plantations, reduced in the general literature to ‘the plantation’ and generalized across geographies, peoples, places and effects, it was crucial that the CCDGB project participate in an historical and theoretical conversation about plantations in the world that would add and influence even the metaphorical and promiscuous deployment of the term and its referents. Professor Dale Tomich’s discussion of plantations spanning the 16th to the 19th centuries was a central event in the CCDGB program, elucidating with rare and nuanced detail the history of plantations in the world, and opening conversations about the planetary transformations that they have occasioned (and still do) in the world. New World plantations across the Americas reorganized the world’s production of commodities like coffee, cotton, tobacco, and sugar; these processes linked and interconnected newly generated production, consumption, and labor geographies of Europe, Africa, and later Asia as part of the colonial enterprise. The peoples variously enacting and captured within these systems radically reorganized and reconfigured the intercontinental flow of resources, generating through these practices global modernity’s ideologies of raciality and defining a model of progress and Development through their negative relation to waste and dispossession, beginning processes of the violent unraveling of the inseparable systems of life and livelihoods for the many that continue to this day. Twining enslavement of Black bodies with indentured labor and other forms of coerced labor as a precondition and accompaniment to the emergence of wage labor, devastating landscapes, and disappearing people and nonhuman species: these extraordinary projects of domination can be very clearly observed in the way that these diverse commodity-producing enterprises operated under forms of colonial and imperial rule. 

This highlighting of the plantation through historical time (i.e., recognizing its emergence, organization, and consolidation of its use of people and resources over time) was not simply a taxonomic exposé of the extractive mechanisms that undergirded the glamor of industrialization, then and now in the Atlantic North, especially; it offered up a methodology and clues to think our way around and out of this planetary disorder. In the context of our current moment of climate change and increasing vulnerabilities, place continues to matter, along with knowledge of its construction and reconstruction, and how it has been and is being re/incorporated within the dynamized world economy and given the varied forms of mobility that people experience. This has become more urgent now: this detailed analysis of plantations and their transformations within the world economy and the role they have played in advancing the projects of production and expulsions, reinforcing racialized projects of power, globalizing and destabilizing lives and livelihoods. This realization is useful and encourages or rather demands a radical approach to reparative planetary practices beyond the current fixation on new technologies of climate mitigation. Centering the palimpsestic world that the plantations enabled requires a poethical (political and ethical — a concept deployed by Professor Denise Ferreira da Silva and others) praxis that champions justice and care for the planet and all its inhabitants.