On commodity fetishism and the itemisation of ecosystems

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In a remarkable paper, published in 2010 in Ecological Economics*, Nicol├ís Kosoy and Esteve Corbera, gave an in-depth political-science look at payments for ecosystem services (PES). They suggested that their development as a solution to nature conservation’s failures amounted to “commodity fetishism” (after Karl Marx’s use of the term for describing the nascent labour relations in Capital [1867]).

They described the process of commodification which is prevalent in PES but more generally in all the current and up-coming “markets” for biodiversity and ecosystem services, which need precise ecological “things” to trade, sell, value or offset. Accounting frameworks such as the ones we discussed in a previous post require commodification. Concerning PES, this is how they describe commodification:

First, it involves narrowing down an ecological function to the level of an ecosystem service, hence separating the latter from the whole ecosystem. Second, it assigns a single exchange-value to this service and, third, it links ‘providers’ and ‘consumers’ of these services in market or market-like exchanges.

Commodification leads to complex ecosystems being compartmentalised into discrete elements or items. Ecological sciences are increasingly called upon to identify, quantify and map these “items”, and hence ignore the complex interactions between and among ecosystems (which they strive to untangle!). Because tradable items must be reliably (and cheaply) measured or counted, proxys are usually needed which further reduces the ecological complexity or realism they encompass.

Kosoy and Corbera suggest that ecosystem services be bundled up to favour the provision of multiple ecosystem services rather than aiming for the maximum production of a unique target service. This requires additional knowledge about the interactions between ecosystem services and the synergies and trade-offs between services. These lines of research are in their infancy, and remain limited by the many gaps in our understanding of real-world ecosystem dynamics, concerning the effects of management interventions or those of external drivers such as climate change. Exchanging scientific accuracy for simplification will not help in this endeavour!

A more general solution to the issue of itemisation that bundling services would be to set safeguards on ecosystem management, whereby market-based mechanisms would be allowed to operate within certain ecological limits that guarantee a site’s “evolutionary” and “ecological” potential. This requires mixing marked-based mechanisms with standard (command-and-control) mechanisms. Would that be an on-the-ground translation of the pluralism that Kosoy and Corbera call for?

* Kosoy, N. & Corbera E. (2010): Payments for ecosystem services as commodity fetishism. Ecological Economics 69: 1228-1236.

One Response to “On commodity fetishism and the itemisation of ecosystems”

  1. F@bien says:

    In a recent paper, Lorraine Moore of Lancaster University (UK) also discusses commodification, using the examples of elephants in Southern Africa:

    Moore L. (2010): The neoliberal elephant: Exploring the impacts of the trade ban in ivory on the commodification and neoliberalisation of elephants. Geoforum, in press.

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