On Valuing the Work of Nature

Authors: Alyssa Battistoni*, Yale University
Topics: Economic Geography, Environment
Keywords: natural capital, labor, value
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 1:10 PM / 2:50 PM
Room: 8222, Park Tower Suites, Marriott, Lobby Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The work of nature is often taken to be immensely valuable–one famous estimate valued all biospheric activity to be worth $33 trillion, nearly twice global GNP at the time. Some critical perspectives suggest that “ecosystem services” therefore represent a major new source of potential accumulation, while others, following the argument of Wages for Housework, argue that the cost of nature’s work may be more than capitalism can afford to pay. But for the most part, capitalism has not had to pay very much. Long treated as a “free gift,” Nature still “works at times for almost nothing,” as the agrarianist Wendell Berry once observed. In this paper, I examine efforts in the 1980s and 1990s to convert the use value provided by nature into exchange value—to “put a price on nature,” in the oft-used phrase—and difficulties of doing so. Rather than reading nonhuman labor through Marxian or energy value theories, however, I am interested in the political dimensions of valuing nature, as well as in the political implications: in how free gifts become more expensive, and who pays their costs; in struggles over what we might think of as “nature’s wage”; and in the possibility that the work of nature is valuable because it is so cheap.

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