Our Common (Problematic) Future
The Inadequacies of Our Current Global Economic Modus Operandi
“Newtonian mechanics and Smithian economics may be adequate to building bridges, but they are totally inadequate in trying to determine the ecosystemic impact of such endeavors” – David Harvey
My aim in this short article is to provide an outline of the contradictions of commodification. My target audience is the angry and frustrated 99%, you have a right to be mad – the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer – but what you need to know is that this process of growing imbalances, through the dialectics of global capitalism, is something to be expected. That is, global capitalism leads to maximization and accumulation (very rich people) as well as displacement (very poor people). Let’s be matter-of-fact, the powerful don’t really want to give up their power – that would be very un-business-like. Unless giving up a little bit of power might lead to MORE power in the long run.
With dialectics in mind, my intent is not necessarily to lambast the process of commodification or capitalism as ‘evil’ (contained at the local scale, I believe that capitalism has the potential to be quasi-fair. But than it wouldn’t be called capitalism). I only wish to point out what it IS and what it enables (particularly at the global scale) so that we may begin to first ask, is this really how we want to continue: business as usual? Better yet, are we ABLE to biosphysically continue with business as usual? As I expect an astounding “NO” from this question (particularly from the audience of the 99%). The point of this article is then to suggest that we need to begin slowly exploring other options of global stewardship, an exploration of which I do not believe should be limited to the writings of one individual (i.e. myself or anyone else) – global stewardship requires global participation (which we’re already doing through global capitalism, but the participation is obviously imbalanced and unfair at the moment). This kind of dialectical collaboration is perhaps easier said than done.
The First Transaction
“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” – Aldo Leopold, The Sand Country Almanac
As Aldo puts it (and to which I somewhat agree), the problem is not that we use land and labor (‘we‘ are not necessarily the problem – this is important to remember), but that we abuse them through an active surrogate: a commodified transaction. The transaction, between a qualitative, material entity (i.e. a cow) into a quantitative value (i.e. money), enables a contradiction to arise. A cow is not money – a cow is a cow and money is money. But through this transaction that is allowed (by us and a historically perpetuated system), a living, breathing cow becomes money (and in most cases, due to our lack of control (because private banks control money currencies, it) is slowly being inflated or losing value).
“I am myself and my circumstance” – Ortega y Gasset
Through this transaction, all of the relationships that embody the multiplicity of that material entity (the cow; the cow’s ecosystem; the cow’s caretaker; the cow’s feelings) become invisible under a quantitative vail (i.e. money). Focusing on and understanding this first transformation (from living cow to inflatable money) and contradiction (that a cow is not in fact, money) is crucial in order to understand how the next transformations and contradictions are allowed to occur. That is, if you can understand ‘the emperor’s clothing’ in this, you will begin to understand one of the strongest mechanisms for how we are now in such a global mess – how we have reached our current global, environmental, political and social-ecological situation.
For in the end, we can’t eat money but we’ve begun to shape the world, our lives and our actions as if we could eat money. Perhaps one of the most noticeable concerns is that we frequently forget to include, quantify, or value things (and their relationships) in our economic equations until after the fact. Until we can no longer ignore them any further. In affect, we’ve enabled more problems than we can juggle – at the global level: ocean acidification, greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, growing inequalities, global health concerns (obesity vs. starvation), etc.
Example of the First Transaction
Here is an example from my case study: a Swedish mountain cow (fjällko) is a small, hardy cow that is fairly self-sufficient in the cold arctic north of Sweden. The particular breed doesn’t needs as much food as larger cattle breeds partially because it was bred to be smaller and hardier in order to endure the long, fodder-less (cattle feed-less) winters. In a sense, it developed, very contextually, to live in harmony with itself and its circumstance (the local Swedish farmers and the rugged surroundings).
When this cow is slaughtered, its meat is sold at a price. The transaction, however, from cow to pricetag does not begin to describe all of the relationships of that heritage cow with its very contextual landscape, let alone, the evolutionary history of this particular fjällko-breed’s forefathers and the genetic selection (or husbandry) that the farmers went through so that this specific species would be better suited for the conditions of the rugged region of Sweden.
At the local scale, this transaction can be more easily appreciated. Locals, whether they like it or not, understand the environmental conditions that the farmer must endure in order to raise that cow. They can see and perceive its contextual value. What happens when cheaper, imported cow meat from France or Spain becomes available in the farmer’s village?
The Second Transaction
“Merely quantitative differences, beyond a certain point, pass into qualitative changes.” Karl Marx, Capital, Vol 1.
Once we allow for the first transaction to occur (cows into money), the transaction has the possibility of then redefining the material entity itself (money into cows, i.e. monetary investments could change the cattle breed that is being raised in a particular context, or even the context itself). This is perhaps the most frightening aspect of global capitalism, when quantitative values (money) begin defining qualitative changes (i.e. the breed of cattle, the politics that are practiced or the use of a landscape). This process has the possibility of decoupling naturally functioning, co-evolving relationships from their context (i.e. the fjällko in the context of rugged Sweden) and placing greater dependence on distant contexts that have no ‘evolved’ affiliation to the local landscape, except a new found relationship through the surrogate of capital exchange. The likelihood of this occurrence is much more when the scales of interaction are expanded beyond the local level (i.e. from Spain or France or New Zealand – all of which have a much easier climatic environment in which to raise animals).
Example of Second Transaction
This second transaction has figuratively redefined the value of the Swedish Mountain Cow. In the 19th and early 20th century, there were many fjällko in Sweden. But through many decades of growing international market competition and transnational sales of meat, by 1998, there were only about 1000 breeding pairs of fjällko remaining. The international market essentially redefined the competitiveness of the very contextually specific fjällko – nearly to the point of its extinction.
It wasn’t until the E.U. added a protectionist monetary valuation (or extra payment) for the raising of the fjällko breed and other heritage species, that their numbers began to grow (or at least stop from falling further). The fjällko could no longer compete on a global market. But cows don’t just disappear. The farmers I spoke to during my case study reported that, in order to continue farming, they had to become more competitive, otherwise they would go bankrupt and have to sell their land. This often meant switching from raising fjällko to raising larger breeds like the Hereford or Angus. These cattle would provide nearly twice as much meat as the fjällko and were more competitive on the international meat market. At the same time, these foreign cows were more vulnerable to the cold climate and, due to their size, required heavy imports in fodder in order to feed them through the winters (the contextual landscape of Sweden could not provide). Money was literally and figuratively redefining the cows.
Who’s Responsible for the Transactions? Why Should we Care?
The problem is complex because it embodies a long history of contradictions and transactions that have quasi-solidified into ideologies that must be acknowledged without too much judgement placed at the individual level. That is, a baby prince was never born into the world imagining he would eventually oppress hundreds of thousands of people. He was taught and instructed to believe that this was merely how the world works. Is it his fault that he enslaves thousands of people? Or is it the fault of a relationship of power that has perpetually gone unquestioned for hundreds of royal generations? I believe that both relationships deserve our attention and scrutiny (agency and the ‘relationalities’ of history).
But who cares if we lose one species (i.e. the fjällko) on the planet due to international commodity market forces? This question is not easily answerable. We may not know or care until it’s too late.
A million Irish people cared when they starved to death due to their dependence of one potato species (the ‘Klumpy’ which became infected with a fungus and was no longer edible). But this would be ignorant to not look into how they became dependent on one potato species or to not notice what was happening in the same location while people were starving. The commodity aspect of this story is that the English, who owned and controlled the majority of the landscapes of Ireland at the time, were exporting large quantities of grain from the country while the Irish were starving to death.
Diversity matters but without looking at how commodification has redefined diversity, we are continuing to ignore one of the strongest mechanisms directly or indirectly enabling our future vulnerabilities (i.e. biodiversity loss).
In a sense, as long as we are working through the dialectics of global capitalism, everything is taken out of context because everything becomes globally exchanged – or maximized. This is absolutely dangerous because we, as ourselves and our circumstances, are absolutely contextual in every way.
Through global capitalism, we are forced to work backwards. Like trying to apply a conscious to Frankenstein after the fact, after it is already in motion, killing, destroying and damaging. Any form of regulation will always be reactionary, rather than proactive. Childhood labor laws in the global north haven’t stopped childhood labor in the global south. In fact, by enacting childhood labor laws in the north we essentially exacerbated them in the global south – through global capitalism. We are left trying to apply regulations and equality on a system that was never meant to be equal. Perhaps we should begin questioning the system itself?