New Criticals

2. Neil Smith (2007) has put forward the powerful argument that we are currently living through a period in which our socio-economic relationship with nature has dramatically transformed: nature has become capitalized to an unprecedented extent. Capitalist nature has always been commodified in the sense that naturally-provided use values are plundered for productive consumption. However, today a whole new range of “ecological commodities” has been produced. “Whereas the traditional commodification of nature generally involved harvesting use values as raw materials for capitalist production – wood for tables, oil for energy, iron ore for steel, various corns for bread – this new generation of commodities is different” (Smith 2007, 2). The new ecological commodities such as carbon or pollution credits paradoxically commodify nature as nature, as something that is produced by capitalism as “external” to capitalist expropriation.  The value of the commodity produced, for example an area of rainforest that offsets a certain amount carbon produced by air travel, rests precisely on the fact that it cannot be productively consumed. “Landowners possessing tracts of forest land (generally in poorer tropical countries) are paid not to cut their forests, while major polluters in more industrial parts of the world can purchase these credits as a means to allow them to continue to pollute” (ibid., 4).

Hence, natural resources in the Third World are not just plundered or extracted through processes of primitive accumulation. Smith’s key claim is that in today’s capitalism nature is increasingly produced as nature and then externalized, posited as an outside. The idea of “external nature” erases this material process of externalization, however, making the idea intelligible. The aim of the capitalist production of external nature becomes essentially to produce nature in new forms that can then be commodified more effectively.