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Neoliberalizing Nature? Market Environmentalism in Water Supply in England and Wales


Correspondence: Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z, Canada, e-mail:


The 1989 privatization of the water supply sector in England and Wales is a much-cited model of market environmentalism—the introduction of market institutions to natural resource management as a means of reconciling goals of efficiency and environmental conservation. Yet, more than a decade after privatization, the application of market mechanisms to water supply management is much more limited than had been expected. Drawing on recent geographical research on commodities, this article analyzes the reasons for this retrenchment of the market environmentalist project. I make three related claims: resource commodification is a contested, partial, and transient process; commodification is distinct from privatization; and fresh water is a particularly uncooperative commodity. To illustrate these claims, I explore how water's geography underpinned the failure of commodification initiatives in England and Wales. I focus specifically on contradictions faced by industry regulators, water companies, and the government when attempting to implement direct competition, universal metering, and full-cost pricing of water supply. The failure to resolve these contradictions was a critical driver in the reregulation of the water supply industry and in the overall trend toward improvement in environmental and drinking water quality, a finding that underpins my closing argument—that neoliberalization is implicated in processes of reregulation that rescript the entitlements of both humans and nonhumans, with outcomes that are not necessarily negative for what we conventionally delimit as the environment.