Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Private Ownership and Global Resources: the Effect on our Past and Future Landscape.

The logic of privatization and commodification can be seen in the specific form of a culture’s landscape. Modern, economic ‘Liberalization’ and other efforts to expand the scope of privatization into the global ‘commons’ will have tangible, if unexpected, effects upon the shape of the 21st century landscape. The history of the commodification of the natural world is necessarily long and tangled. This process is as much a result of the logic of capitalism as it is the child of modern science, theories of knowledge and even certain veins of the ecology movement. Commodification is a complex process requiring specific economic conditions, infrastructural and scientific advances, as well as profound conceptual shifts which lead to the mental and legal abstractions necessary for privatization to occur.

We can see the process of commodification played out upon all of the earth’s historic ‘commons,’ from the enclosure of land in England during the 18th century to the abstraction and categorization of wheat(food) in Chicago during the 19th century and in the measurement, control and dispersal of water ‘rights’ during the 20th century. Now, in the 21st century, the logic of commodification and privatization is being extended into one of the last of the earth’s global commons, the air, through the mechanics of the various ‘Carbon Trading’ schemes and air pollution markets. These markets, even excepting their distortions and corruptions due to poor monitoring and verification, have real and tangible effects upon the landscape. Furthermore, in a globalized world, the landscape of the underdeveloped south is being manipulated by agents of the developed world in a new form of “Carbon Colonialism (Bachram, 1).”

The idea that Nature exists primarily as a resource for human consumption and utility can be traced as far back as one cares to look within the western world. This ideology becomes more apparent, however, as the logic of capitalism developed into the dominant world-view of the western world. This conception can also be seen in the writings of early environmentalists such as Gifford Pinchot who, in contrast to activists such as John Muir, believed that the natural world could be managed by man and existed as a resource for use by civilization.

This view of the natural world as manageable and controllable also required the development of forms of knowledge which allowed for the understanding and abstraction of specific organisms and effects into understandable types. The ability to distill the complexity and particularity of the natural world into objects is fundamental to the project of commodification. As science expands our ability to understand the world, it turns the previously intangible and ephemeral into something categorized, normalized and objectified. The grid and the map allowed land to be privatized. The railroad and grain elevators, along with the Chicago Exchange, turned wheat, the grass, into ‘no. 2 Red Winter Wheat (Cronon, 116).’ The science of Hydrography and the technology of dams and canals allowed water; controlled, categorized, inspected and apportioned according to right, to become merely another commodity.

Of course, science merely supplied the technique while the ideologies of Colonialism, Economic Development and ‘Improvement’ were the prime motivators behind the process of privatization. The ideology of Improvement, specifically, became intimately tied to the process of privatizing land. Indeed, the very right to own property in 17th century England was largely dependant on one’s ‘Improving’ the land (Wood, 157) and as John Locke argued, mixing one’s own labor with the land, thereby “…removing it from its’ natural state or changing its natural condition (Wood, 110).” These ideas were central to justifying the expropriation of land from Native Americans in America, as well as the other colonized populations within the British Empire. This conception of private property threads its’ way into contemporary thought as well, and contributes to our inability to understand the value of the natural world in terms other than its’ explicit exchange value.

While the process of privatization can be charted through laws, maps and ideologies, it also creates very tangible effects upon the landscape. In England, during the process of ‘Enclosure’ the large, commonly held fields slowly became privatized as landlords and farmers sought to ‘Improve’ the production of their land. Fences; the increased presence of sheep; and drained fen and marsh land; all manifested themselves upon the late-medieval landscape of England during the process of Enclosure. The effective use of maps during the process of English Enclosure translated well into America and soon after the Revolutionary War the Continental Congress ‘Enclosed’ the whole of the Continent within a grid of 6 mile by 6 mile squares (Land Ordinance of 1785). This scientific and cartographic translation of land effectively set the boundaries and the form of the landscape of the American West which carries through to this day.

Once the process of privatization was begun, it spread quickly into all areas of human life and the natural world, from food to water to animal and plant life itself. The process whereby the wheat of the American midwest became subject to the imperatives of the market is tied to the very development of rural and urban settlement in the region, specifically to Chicago and its’ massive grain market. William Cronon chronicles this development and writes of how the Chicago Exchange,

“… altered [these grains’] meaning, distancing them from the rural farm and tying them ever more closely to the urban market in which they were exchanged. The very language of the market reshaped the objects traded within it. To understand ‘futures’ meant seeing grain as a commodity, not as a living organism planted and harvested by farmers as a crop for people to mill into flour, bake into bread and eat. (146)”

This translation of the organism of ‘wheat’ into the commodity ‘wheat’ was part of the very shaping of the whole of the midwest. Throughout the region individual farms and whole settlements were established without ready access to local timber and other building materials, solely because of their efficient wheat-growing soil. This meant that in order to construct these settlements, they were reliant upon both the availability of northern timber, and the expansion of the railroads for delivery of this timber. These farms also engaged in a drastically simplified version of farming which presaged the monoculture of today’s agribusiness. Again, Cronon writes of how:

“Farm families had destroyed the habitats of dozens of native species to make room for the much smaller bundle of plants that filled the Euro-American breadbasket. As a result, the vast productive powers of the prairie soil came to concentrate upon a handful of exotic grasses, and the resulting deluge of wheat, corn and other grains flowed via the railroads into Chicago.(145)”

The specific landscape forms of prairie settlements, midwestern crop-land and even the forested lands of Michigan and Wisconsin are all expressions of the commodification of wheat and its’ specific market imperatives.

The expansion of the logic of capitalism and privatization had, looking back, obvious landscape effects. It is more difficult, however, to project our global landscape into the future and to hypothesize about how the expansion of Neo-Liberal policies will affect our landscape and development patterns. If we investigate some of the early attempts to commodify our air and water, however, we can perhaps imagine what these future repercussions will be.

The global trading of Carbon Emissions is the outgrowth of many endeavors, but it requires the conscious creation of markets for the express purpose of commodifying this natural resource. The largest trading mechanisms, such as the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), were created in conjunction with the Kyoto Protocol. The Kyoto treaty itself established several pollution-commodification procedures such as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), where developed nations work with underdeveloped ones, and Joint Implementation Projects (JI), where developed nations cooperate with other developed economies to implement Carbon reduction projects. These projects rely on effective measurement and the scientific abstraction of air pollutants as a way of trading the right to pollute, the goal being subsidies to those companies that reduce emissions and financial penalties for those who do not. The EU ETS, the CDM, and the JI all establish pollutant types and categories which facilitate the same sorts of mental and legal abstractions that wheat required during its’ process of commodification.

Under the CDM, six main types of pollutants are traded, all of which are considered interchangeable thanks to the process of commodification. This abstraction, which ignores the specific nature of the pollutants in favor of the abstraction of ‘pollutant,’ gives rise to severe market distortions. Indeed, the current CDM has created such a distorted market that, “The largest volume of credits, almost 30% of the entire market, come from capturing and destroying trifluoromethane (HFC-23), a potent greenhouse gas that is the by-product of the manufacture of refrigerant gases (Wara, 3).” This makes sense to the market: HFC-23 is 12,000 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon-dioxide, and it is relatively cheap to fix, therefore its’ credit-yield will be much higher than energy-sector, carbon-dioxide based offsets. However, there are only about 17 factories world-wide that produce HFC-23 and for 30% of all Carbon trading credits to be funneled into this tiny industry is a massive market distortion and an incredibly inefficient use of global capital. While this may seem to be an easily correctible distortion, it does point to the uncertainty of the commodification process and the fact that the potential outcomes of this process are extremely difficult to predict or manage.

The idea of Carbon-offsets, made possible thanks to the legal and scientific abstraction of this gas into an exchangeable commodity, also has peculiar and oftentimes troubling effects on the landscape. The Dutch organization, FACE Foundation (Forests Absorbing Carbon-Dioxide Emissions) works with Third world governments and the company GreenSeat to set up Carbon-offset relationships where first world consumers ‘offset’ their consumption by paying for trees to be planted in the third world. FACE, specifically, has developed plantations in the Mount Elgon National Park region of Uganda, planting over 25,000 hectares of trees, displacing local communities and forcing changes in farming, religious and cultural patterns (Carbon Trade Watch, 32). The idea behind the ‘offset’ program is that first-world consumers need not change their behavior, they only have to pay the ‘true cost’ of their consumption which will be balanced out by projects imposed upon the developing world.

Setting aside the questionable effectiveness of Carbon sequestration within trees (Wara, 6), the landscape of these Carbon-offset forests hints at the inherent conflict between first-world consumption and third-word resources. These offset landscapes are primarily composed of monocultural plantations of fast-growing, hardy species such as Eucalyptus and Pine. The introduction of non-native species has consistently spawned deleterious effects across the globe, and we should not assume any different outcome in these cases. In addition, the replacement of native species has the potential to disrupt the cultural and religious processes within local populations. These ‘forests’ also become highly policed spaces because of their high value to first-world consumers. This causes significant local disruptions and conflicts as spaces which have been traditionally left open and common become closed and commodified in the service of first-world consumption.

All of this can be seen in some ways as a continuation of the logic of Colonialism, where resources are extracted or exploited within the colonized area and their value is transferred to the colonizer. As Heidi Bachram writes about these CDM projects:

“…land is commandeered in the South for large-scale monoculture plantations which act as an occupying force in impoverished rural communities dependant on these lands for survival…Responsibility for over consumptive lifestyles of those in richer nations is pushed onto the poor, as the South becomes a carbon dump for the industrialized world. (7).”

This effect, while unintentional from the standpoint of the first world consumers, is not a distortion but rather the logical outcome of the commodification of certain gases and the global trade these gases as ‘air pollutants.’

While it is impossible to predict the future with any degree of certainty, we can certainly use what we know about the past and present to imagine avenues of possible development. In terms of the continuing project of privatization and the commodification of the earth’s natural resources, we can safely say that if all of the natural world’s complexity and specificity is reduced to types, categories and commodities, we can expect to see a much greater degree of conflict between the cultures of the first and third worlds as both struggle to exert their ‘rights’; one its right to consumption and the other the right to its landscape. These struggles will only get more pronounced as the connections across the world’s ecosystems becomes more obvious. Today, a flight from London to New York results in the planting of a Eucalyptus tree in Uganda. The global landscape of natural resources is now connected to the consumptive patterns of a tiny minority of the world’s population and as more and more of the Global South is forced to sacrifice to enable the continuation of this consumption, conflict will become inevitable.

The project of gaining mastery over the natural world stretches back millennia, but the specific process of commodification and the translation of natural phenomena into ‘resources’ is a much more recent practice. The internal logic of Capitalism encourages, and indeed forces, the increasing exploitation of the natural world. The process of abstraction and legal commodification has historically been expressed in the landscape, and this logic of exploitation can been seen in the fences of England, the monoculture of the American midwest and now in the Dutch-run Eucalyptus plantations of eastern Uganda. As the ideology of Neo-Liberal economics expands its reach and the sophistication of scientific knowledge increases, the scope of privatization will continue to grow. As more and more of the Earth’s resources are able to be transferred into the service of generating private wealth, increasingly unforeseen consequences will develop.

Works Cited:

1. Bachram, Heidi. “Climate Fraud and Carbon Colonialism: The New Trade in Greenhouse Gases.” Capitalism Nature Socialism 15.4 (2004) : 2-16.

2. Carbon Trade Watch. The Carbon Neutral Myth: Offset Indulgences for your Climate Sins. Amsterdam: Hija de J. Prats Bernadas, 2007.

3. Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: Norton, 1991.

4. Wara, Michael. “Is the Global Carbon Market Working?” Nature 445 (2007) : 595- 596.

5. Wood, Ellen Meiksins. The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View. London: Verso, 2002.

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