Commodification and Environment Essay

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Commodif ication is a widely if often somewhat loosely used term, usually with some sort of critical or pejorative connotation. But what does the term actually mean, what processes does it refer to, and what might rigorous perspectives on commodification have to offer to the study of environmental politics and environmental change?

At the most basic level, a commodity may be defined as that which is produced for sale. This is less an evaluation of the actual material character of production and more a recognition of the sociological significance of intent, with production for use being distinguished fundamentally from production driven by desire for exchange, and for profit. This distinction-one made by Aristotle, Marx, and Polanyi, among others-recognizes that there is something quite different about producing (e.g., fishing) for subsistence needs as opposed to producing for exchange and the generation of surplus. There is also something different about consumption mediated by market relations, particularly when production and consumption networks spread across vast expanses of space, as is characteristic of the contemporary global economy. If we accept that production primarily for sale is the defining feature of a commodity, then commodification refers to the uneven, dynamic, and always incomplete tendency toward circulating certain types of “things” as commodities, but it also refers more generally to the proliferation of more and more commodities, as production for use displaces production for exchange.

That said, production for exchange is not unique to capitalism. But the sheer proliferation of commodities, and the extent to which seemingly everything and anything can be produced as a commodity for exchange, is a defining feature of capitalist political economy, and particularly, of its expansionary tendencies. This expansion has been fruitfully discussed as having two interlinked facets, the first “deepening,” the other “stretching.” Deepening refers to the tendency of more and more “things” to be commodified produced primarily for exchange. Stretching refers to the expansion of commodity markets, and thus the expanding scope of exchange dominated production, displacing production for use. Examples of deepening might include farmers increasingly buying commercial, synthetic fertilizers as opposed to using on-farm organic wastes, while stretching would include the ongoing international expansion of commercial markets for such fertilizers via the Green Revolution and liberalized trading regimes. And indeed, these selfsame tendencies toward the commodification of on-farm inputs have been theorized as a key facet of the development of capitalist agriculture more generally. Important links connect stretching and deepening with the commodification of labor power. This is because production for exchange, particularly on an expanding scale, gives rise to the purchase of labor power as a commodity (or at least based on the pretence that it is a commodity like any other) via payment of wages. Price-based competition fueled by expanding, wage-labor based production can push out petty commodity producers, and production based on other systems of social organization, such as mixed production for subsistence and barter exchange on a limited scale. This dynamic of competition has the effect of both deepening and stretching commodification. In addition, however, commodification of labor power is central because the increasing dependence of workers on wages used goes hand-in-glove with the production of more and more “things” as commodities for sale (food, clothing, shelter, etc.).

Commodification and Environment

There are important connections between commodification and environmental studies. For one, commodification is no stranger to resource and environmentally intensive production, so that the provision of biophysical resources as commodities (e.g., coal, oil, timber) underpins the material and energetic basis of capitalist economic production, often attended by serious and geographically uneven environmental impacts. Oil, for instance, is arguably the world’s most important single commodity and is among the world’s most heavily traded commodities, and oil companies were among the first modern, transnational firms.

But this points to a fundamental tension between commodification and the biophysical world. On what basis is it possible to say that production is primarily, if not exclusively, for sale (exchange) when all production, including the reproduction of labor power, depends on ecological production of various kinds? This is one of the reasons that nature as a category has been termed a fictitious commodity-it only appears to be produced by capitalist firms and allocated by markets. Nature is sustained and reproduced by ecological circuits not wholly subsumable to social coordination. Moreover, biophysical nature is also subject to contending social demands that compete with market pressures. As Polanyi noted, the allocation of land (nature) cannot be wholly subordinated to the market because this would result in society tearing itself apart.

Despite this, neoliberal efforts to deepen and stretch capitalist markets via the privatization and commodification of more and more discrete environmental resources and services make commodification an immediate concern in environmental studie. Examples include privatization and sale of fishing rights, private for profit water utility service provisioning, and waste disposal services. Significantly, this can include not only the commodification of material nature, but also commodification of representations and images of nature (such aspastoral images used to sell ski vacations). In fact, entire “political ecological imaginaries” circulate along with material commodities as a kind of surrogate for direct knowledge of production conditions, in the context of spatially stretched relations between producers and consumers. This semiotic commodification shapes and fuels desire for commodities in markets, and acts as a crucial link between producers and consumers. But it is also a potential source of leverage in progressive struggles to achieve social and environmental justice in commodity production by means of labels and branding. Whether robust social and environmental justice can actually survive commodification, with all that entails, is an open question indeed.

Commodification, via the expansion of production for exchange as opposed to production for use, arguably deepens an instrumental, utilitarian disposition toward biophysical nature that many identify as a cultural origin of modern environmental problems. Moreover, precisely because of the fictitious character of nature as commodity, there are particular problems and contradictions associated with making discrete elements of the biophysical world ciculate as such. How, for instance, is continuous ecological variation discursively rendered into the sort of acceptable, discrete gradations that market differentiation requires, such as discrete grades of wheat or lumber? What “work” is required to equilibrate and sunder discrete biophysical entities and processes to allow them to be exchanged as commodities? And since prior ecological (not to mention social) production sustains all formally capitalist, economic commodity production, commodification is necessarily and always uneven and incomplete, begging the question as to how commodification proceeds and how it articulates with wider networks of socio-ecological production and regulation.

Bibliography: 

  1. K. Bakker, An Uncooperative Commodity: Privatizing Water in England and Wales (Oxford University Press, 2003);
  2. N. Castree, “Commodifying What Nature?” Progress in Human Geography (27(3): 273-97, 2003);
  3. W. Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, (1st, New York: W. W. Norton, 1991). D. Goodman, “Reading Fair Trade: Political Ecological Imaginary and the Moral Economy of Fair Trade Foods,” Political Geography (23: 891-915, 2004);
  4. D. Goodman, B. Sorj and J. Wilkinson, From Farming to Biotechnology: A Theory of Agro-Industrial Development (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987);
  5. J. Guthman, Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California (University of California Press, 2004);
  6. P. Lysandrou, “Globalization as Commodification,” Cambridge Journal of Economics (29(5): 769-97, 2005);
  7. B. Mansfield, “Rules of Privatization: Contradictions in Neoliberal Regulation of North Pacific Fisheries,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers (94(3): 565-84, 2004);
  8. J. McCarthy and S. Prudham, “Neoliberal Nature and the Nature of Neoliberalism,” Geoforum (35(3): 275-83, 2004);
  9. T. Mutersbaugh, “Serve and Certify: Paradoxes of Service Work in Organic Coffee Certification,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space (22: 533-52, 2004);
  • K. Polanyi, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Beacon Press, 1944);
  • M. Robertson, “No Net Loss: Wetland Restoration and the Incomplete Capitalization of Nature,” Antipode (32(4): 463-93, 2000);
  1. A Sayer, “(De)Commodification, Consumer Culture, and Moral Economy,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space (21: 341-57, 2003);
  2. D. Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power (Simon & Schuster, 2001).

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