The Commoditization of Nature

The Commoditization of Nature

One of the most famous lines of The Communist Manifesto is Marx and Engle’s reflection on the pace of change and secularization generated by bourgeoisie capitalism: "All that is solid melts into air, and all that is holy is profaned." This is a prescient observation, especially as regards modern environmentalism, for it targets an important, frequently unappreciated dynamic: the commoditization of nature.

Commoditization is a strange word. Frequently found in Marxist discourse, it means the process by which capitalism changes something not regarded as an economic good into something with a price and, concomitantly, part of the economy. Thus, for example, a consultant may find she values her time based on her hourly rate, regardless of where it is spent: an hour watching TV or playing with her kids represents $200 in forgone income. Her time has been commoditized. In another example, critics of biotechnology argue that the process "commoditizes the genome," turning a fundamental natural system, genetic material, into a commercial good.

Consider in this light the last part of the Manifesto quote: "and all that is holy is profaned." What this suggests is that elements of our life previously considered sacred are turned into economic goods by the action of the market economy. This dynamic — the pricing (commoditization) of the sacred that, by definition, is beyond price — is of particular interest in the environmental arena: genomes are commoditized; the right to pollute is commoditized; "nature" is experienced at malls or in parks run by large corporations. There are at least some environmentalists for whom, following the Enlightenment Romantics, nature has become the secular substitute for traditional religion. There are many more for whom nature, in at least some of its manifestations, is sacred, beyond price. Yet without commoditization how is nature to be valued and preserved in a public discourse that frequently is defined by economics?

Perhaps nowhere are these conflicts more apparent than in the global climate-change arena. "Emissions credits" are one mechanism by which efficient reduction of carbon dioxide emissions are to be encouraged; they, in turn, are based on programs involving planting trees, preserving forests or grasslands, or the like. Such mechanisms, which rely on economic self-interest, are crucial for efficient emissions reductions. On the other hand, it can be said with little exaggeration that the Kyoto process is historic in that it may be the first time humans have commoditized a critical and fundamental natural system — the carbon cycle — in a wholesale manner. What was once clearly exogenous to human culture is now becoming endogenous: the carbon cycle, like genomes of various species, is on its way to being just another part of human economic activity. Marx and Engels would understand this well.

This process bothers many people on ideological and religious grounds. It is the dark side of the concept that the environment — "nature" — benefits when externalities are internalized. But one should be clear on what drives this process: it is not some nefarious scheme by markets to dominate natural systems. Rather, it reflects the reality that the world is increasingly a human artifact, a monoculture reflecting the activities of one species: ours.

In short, commoditization is not the means by which control of natural systems is obtained, but a reflection that influence over natural systems already has occurred. It follows, not proceeds, the event itself. Commoditization of natural systems arises from the Industrial Revolution with its concomitant explosive growth in the scale of human economic activity and population, and the evolution of technological and cultural systems that accompanied it. It is a symptom, not a cause, of a new relationship between humans and their planet.

Because it reflects this reality, it is hard to see how commoditization of nature can be reversed without reversing the underlying structure — that is, without dramatic decreases in levels of human economic activity or populations. This is obviously problematic. Alternatively, we can work towards a governance system and ethical structure based on transparency, dialogue, and multicultural collaboration, reflecting the realities of a human Earth — the direction of earth systems engineering and management. Thus does the Marxist critique continue to call forth creative responses from the capitalistic, market-based system.


Allenby is environment, health and safety vice president, AT&T, and adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. The opinions expressed are those of the author, not necessarily those of any institution with which he is associated.