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Natural capital is a term that has emerged to describe the relationship between human means of production and the earth’s ecosystem. More specifically, numerous academics and scholars have sought to consider environmental and natural resource features within a Marxist theoretical framework. For Marx, capital represented not simply material wealth, but control over the means of production in society. This rather abstract way of thinking came from Marx’s own work with dialectical materialism, an analytic approach that involves seeing the world in a constant state of emergence from different antithetical processes. As such, for Marx, capital is not a thing, but rather a process or set of force relations. Reiterated more precisely, capital is not simply a thing that one possesses; it is a process of production and exchange in whichever greater amounts of capital accrue to the capitalist class, for example, the bourgeoisie. Those who control the means of production are thus able to control the capitalist system by continually exploiting the labor power of the proletariat masses.
The more efficiently the owners of the means of production can exploit the labor power of their workers, the more surplus value they derive, and consequently, the more capital they are able to accumulate. In this way, capital is manifested in material wealth as well as in the process that perpetuates it.
In a majority of his work, Marx considered the process of capital from the standpoint of industrial capitalism. For this reason, capital has most often been thought of in terms of material objects, structures, or institutions that have been manufactured by humans such as mechanized equipment, factories, government institutions, and schools. The means of production, however, are not limited to the material or social apparatuses that people construct.
Capital may also be bound in the naturally occurring objects of the environmental landscape. Marx first explored this idea in a section of his book Das Kapital. In this section, which focuses primarily on the concept of ground rent, Marx explains the ways in which a capitalist may use the natural landscape to more efficiently exploit the labor of the proletariat class, thus increasing his own capital returns. A river, for example, is often something that exists naturally, yet can be added to the means of production in order to increase productive outputs.
Natural capital, therefore, is a term that considers the earth’s natural resources within the context of a capitalist mode of production. It is often used to signify the productive potential of a given ecological resource or environmental feature. Places may be said to “have a lot of natural capital” if they are rich in natural resources that make them productive and economically valuable. For example, a piece of farmland with nutrient-rich topsoil, consistent precipitation, easily harvestable fields, and transport access has more natural capital than one with poor soil, frequent droughts, and unstable or impassable terrain. From this perspective, natural capital is any naturally existing phenomenon that facilitates the expanded circulation and accumulation of capitalist processes.
In the continuously expanding body of literature that has emerged from scholars investigating issues of natural resource management, conservation, economic impacts upon the environment, and political ecology, natural capital has come to be synonymous with natural resources in many ways. By viewing the quantity or quality of resources such as timber, water, or oil within a given area as the natural capital of that space, some researchers have worked to measure natural capital more precisely. This arguably provides a more quantifiable method for comparing the natural capital of one space or object to another.
While this approach has yielded a number of fascinating insights, one must be careful not to conflate the idea of natural capital with a simple natural resource commodity. For example, a forest, mine, or petroleum reserve is a natural resource, not an all-telling measure of natural capital. Natural resources may comprise an important element in the make-up of natural capital, but they are not the sole indicator: natural capital refers more to the relationship between the environment and capitalist accumulation than it does to a specific natural object or element. In this way, it is most accurate to think of natural capital as the way processes of capitalist production affect and are affected by the natural environment.
- David Harvey, Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference (Blackwell Publishing, 1996);
- Ann Marie Jansson et , eds., Investing in Natural Capital: The Ecological Economics Approach to Sustainability (Island Press, 1994);
- Karl Marx, Capital (v.1, Penguin Books, 1976); Karl Marx, Capital (v.3, Penguin Books, 1981).