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What's Nature Got To Do With It? A Situated Historical Perspective on Socio-natural Commodities


  • Nancy Lee Peluso

    1. is Henry J. Vaux Distinguished Professor of Forest Policy in the Division of Society and Environment, Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, 130 Mulford Hall, University of California, Berkeley, California, USA. Her main research focus is on forest and agrarian political ecologies in Java and West Kalimantan, Indonesia.
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I have greatly benefited from the comments on an earlier version of this article made by members of this year's ‘Landlab’ at UCB, including Jade Sasser, Alice Kelly, Hekia Bodwitch, Mike Dwyer, Jason Morris-Jung, Freyja Knapp, Kevin Woods, Ashton Wesner and Daniel Suarez. Catherine Corson and Georg Winkel, as well as Bram Büscher and Murat Arsel, provided comments on a second draft that helped it transition from the keynote speech given at the Nature™ Inc. conference in The Hague (June, 2011), where the ideas were first presented. Denise Leto, as usual, demonstrated great perseverance, offering both substantive and editorial comments, suggestions and assistance. The remaining shortcomings are, of course, my own.


Nature(s) have been commodified since the early days of capitalism, but through processes and socio-natural relationships mediated by their times, histories and localities. While the conditions under which nature's commodities are being trademarked today may be new, their potential for commodification is not. Commodifications of nature should not come as a surprise to environmental social scientists and activists. In this article, I argue that commodification of ‘nature's products, places and processes’ produces new sorts of socio-natures. Situated histories of rubber are particularly relevant because, like carbon, ecosystem services and other recently commodified natures, rubber sits comfortably on the line between a fictitious commodity and a commodity produced explicitly for market: the latex alone has almost no use value, and to give it any exchange value, it requires processing. Yet analytically, it is still considered a ‘natural commodity’, different from ‘synthetic rubber’ and other tradable tree latexes in qualities and socio-natural characteristics. However, it is the social relations constituting rubber's production and trade in various rainforest and agro-forestry environments that have given it a positive or negative connotation, rather than its natural properties or the ecological contexts within which it has been produced. By situating rubber in three of its globally important temporal and spatial contexts, I show how it has been subjected to fairy-tale-like stories that masked and naturalized its commodity lives of the moment. Understanding how history is told or remains untold is thus an essential part of the politics of knowledge production, but also of human experience and mobilization for change. It should be part of any political ecology analysis.