The World Ecology of Desalination

From Cold War Positioning to Financialization in the Capitalocene




Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Desalination, Financialization, World-Systems


World-systems scholars are increasingly engaged in issues at the intersection of ecological and economic concerns since the proliferation of debates on the Anthropocene. Recently, the alternative concept of Capitalocene—age of Capital—has emerged to draw attention to the world-ecological disruption of capitalism founded on cheap nature appropriation at ever-emerging extraction zones. This paper extends these discussions to the oceanic frontier, as the latest trend in the abstraction of value from the environment. Based on original archival research conducted in the context of a larger ethnographic project on the politics of industrial desalination—creating potable water from the sea—the article analyzes how this practice emerged in two phases. First, the Cold War opened the ocean as a commodity frontier during the pax Americana. Then, when this technopolitical agenda stagnated, financialization techniques were deployed to appropriate seawater, utilizing a mode of financial engineering—desalination via financialization reinstates the cultural hegemony of the Capitalocene that privileges infrastructure for water supply management solutions. As such, the article highlights the co-production of nature with financial capitalism.

Author Biography

Brian F O'Neill, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Brian F. O’Neill is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Working at the nexus of environmental sociology and political ecology, he focuses on water politics in the U.S. Southwest and the globalization of large-scale water supplies.


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How to Cite

O’Neill, B. F. (2020). The World Ecology of Desalination: From Cold War Positioning to Financialization in the Capitalocene. Journal of World-Systems Research, 26(2), 318–349.



Special Issue: World-Systems Analysis in the Anthropocene