The Commodification of Nature

As Karl Polanyi argued in 1947 in his seminal work “The Great Transformation“, capitalism has to convert both humans and nature into commodities to keep growing. Humans became commoditised through selling their ‘labour’ and nature has been commoditised in myriad ways: allowing private ownership of land, farm animals, wildlife and even genetic code and air rights.

We have seen this process accelerate greatly over the last 40 years, with the spread of neoliberalism. Under the neoliberal doctrine, state functions, unpaid labour and the commons have to be privatised and brought into the so-called ‘free market’. The more unpaid activities can be converted into paid activities, the better. The more of nature we can put a price on and find a market to trade for, the better. Everything that can be monetised automatically creates economic growth, whether it is useful or not.

Fundamentally, capitalism considers any form of (monetary) trade ‘good’ and any form of exemption or exclusion from the market on whatever grounds as ‘bad’ (because it limits economic growth). Our moral framework has been shifted in response to the need of capitalism to find new markets. We now happily buy child care and aged care in ‘the market’, which would have been unthinkable 50 years ago.

The corporate conservation movement has unwittingly adopted the same paradigm, buying into the sustainable use model not as a localised, common use rights mechanism for subsistence, but also as a basis for legalised trade in wildlife. This approach was codified in 1975 in the CITES treaty, which is commonly seen as a treaty to ‘protect endangered plants and animals’, but in reality is a mechanism for enabling international trade in flora and fauna. CITES actively promotes sustainable use and captive breeding of wildlife, irrespective of any ethical considerations.

As capitalism is running into hard limits to growth – global warming, declining soil productivity, lack of fresh water, declining fisheries etc – we will have the opportunity to reconsider our fundamental assumptions about the commodification of both nature and humans. This process has started in earnest since the global financial crisis in 2008 and will continue to accelerate with every new crisis produced by excessive debt and lack of real economic growth.

Undoing the Commodification of Nature

The commodification of nature can’t be undone without undermining a basic tenet of capitalism – unlimited economic growth. Given that the unfettered growth is no longer feasible with hard ecological limits to further growth, it is time to rethink commodification in the context of conservation.

Currently, most traditional large conservation agencies willingly buy into the commodification paradigm through a wholesale embrace of the ‘sustainable use‘ model, despite overwhelming evidence that this model has not produced anything ecologically sustainable as yet. We continue to lose habitats and species at record rates, the loss of which those same agencies lament endlessly without ever questioning the underlying assumption of ‘sustainable use’ and its meaning for each and every individual species (e.g. What even constitutes ‘sustainable use’ of elephants?). Sustainable use has also been factored into global development aid, further increasing the pressure on wildlife and protected areas.

To start the process of undoing commodification, in the first instance we need to set limits to ‘sustainable use’. These are limits based on ecological needs, moral and ethical considerations and via giving animals and ecosystems ‘non-human’ rights.

Ecological Limits

Only 13% of all landmass is still wilderness, 75% is used by humans and the rest is barren (ice and sand deserts). Our massive ecological footprint is the main reason for the biodiversity crisis, with up to 1 million species facing extinction. This needs to change quickly if we want to prevent disaster and that means giving space back to nature and rewilding areas no longer used or of marginal value. It also means reforming industrial agriculture and reducing meat consumption.

Ethical Limits

The demand for many products using animal body parts or rare botanicals is entirely manufactured. If there is no need for such products, why allow them? Why do we allow the manufacture and sale of shoes and handbags made from python skin, crocodile skin or even manta ray skin? By setting ethical limits to consumption, we can start to wind back the commodification of nature step-by-step.

Non-Human Rights

There is a growing movement to grant animals and ecosystems legal rights that are equivalent to personhood rights. Given that corporations have the legal rights of a person in many countries, why not rivers and protected areas? Governments can ignore or weaken legal protections under environmental law, but if animals, animal populations and ecosystems have rights equivalent to personhood, much better legal avenues to protect them can be used.