The Biosphere Market

I recently saw The Fraser Institute express the hope that everything in the biosphere will eventually be owned as a marketable commodity, “every square inch”.

And I was like:



So I thought it would be worth taking a moment to show a couple of the things which this dystopian nightmare hypothetical future assumes are possible, leaving it to you whether or not they’re plausible – nevermind desirable.

There are two basic assumptions I won’t pick a fight with: First, that all value is utilitarian; that “man is the measure of all things”. And second, that there could be a legal administration big enough and efficient enough to handle all the property rights and enforcement of contracts (which if we’re talking about every square inch of theĀ  biosphere – from land to the water table to the atmosphere to underground mineral deposits – is a very, very big administration). Let’s just pretend these aren’t problems.

I’d rather take a narrow focus on the following question: what kinds of characteristics does something need to have to become private property or an exchangeable commodity? Some criteria seem obvious. Imagine a piece of gold: it is solid, measurable, immobile, immutable, and belongs to an identifiable class of things which other people can recognize and value. All of these qualities seem to make it an ideal candidate for ownership and exchange. What about something like a fishery? A population of fish is not obviously solid, not easily measurable, highly mobile, mutable (its demography is always changing), and although it may be mostly one species, there may be so much individual variation that a general classification will miss a lot of details that matter to traders (at least compared with gold, which is simply classified by atomic structure). This at least seems to explain why fisheries are much harder to own and exchange than gold.

Some cases are harder still, like the atmosphere: it is gaseous, mostly immeasurable, always mixing and stirring, and doesn’t belong to a class since it is a sui generis entity.

So because of their physical or functional properties, some things are easier to turn into tradable commodities than others. But there’s an important proviso: it’s not directly the physical and functional properties which matter; it’s our classifications which do the work, and classifications don’t always match up with physical or functional properties.

Consider wheat. Before the western expansion of the American railroad, wheat was sold by the sack. Buyers would inspect the quality directly and haggle about price. But with the railroad came grain cars, silos, and the mixing together of wheat from different origins. There still had to be some sort of quality discrimination but since the buyer could no longer inspect it before purchase, there had to be a new set of classifications: No.1, No.2, No.3, and rejected wheat. Suddenly wheat came in standardized classes which varied on one dimension where, until then, the farmer and buyer had to consider a large number of characteristics. That is, where wheat had been a discrete unit – sold by the sack – it was now a continuous flow; where it had been diverse, it was now homogeneous. In effect, it became more of a commodity. (Interestingly, it was at precisely this time that a futures market came into existence in Chicago. Since the commodity now existed as an abstracted set of standards, people could trade in promises on the future – the actual quality or quantity of wheat at any time didn’t matter as much.) But wheat didn’t become more of a commodity because of its physical properties; it became more of a commodity because of the way people chose to represent and classify it. And this classification had less and less to do with the natural world. Differences in the ecologies of farms were ignored, as were many characteristics of the grain. A rift was created between the tradable thing and the thing itself.

This strikes me as the most basic rebuttal to those who want to commodify the world and turn it into one big market. The problem is that some things just don’t have the right properties for being traded as commodities, and that creating an abstract classification which makes them tradable will necessarily neglect many of their properties which we may think are important. If we are trading in abstractions and ignoring many actual properties, then it should be unsurprising if the market fails. Farms will lose their topsoil, fisheries will be depleted. This is not a market worth celebrating.

To put the argument in another way:

(1) The natural world is made up of all kinds of things and processes; some are easily classified, isolated, and traded as commodities, some are too complex, functionally entangled with their environments, or mobile to be so classified.

(2) Treating something as a tradable commodity doesn’t only depend on its physical properties but also on our classifications, like the wheat.

(3) The market pressure for standardized classifications (to make things comparable and tradable) will ignore a great deal of diversity and many of the properties of the now-commodity, either its physical properties or its functional role in local ecosystems, etc.

(4) Some of these properties and functional roles will be unknown to us, and will have effects which we would say mattered if we knew about them – like discovering that a fishery was a keystone species in a whole ecosystem.

(5) Since our ignorance about the composition and function of the natural world is still great, commodifying it and trading it will surely be destructive in many ways.

(6) Such a market would fail by any standard of efficiency.


I’ve left a lot out, but I just want to finish by pointing out the part of the argument that does all the heavy lifting. Let’s call it the epistemic gap – that we don’t know enough about the world to properly represent it in our own terms. This is clearly value-laden. If we think that everything is functionally tied up with everything else, and that we don’t know the ways in which it is so tied, then we are going to say the epistemic gap is too wide to represent things as commodities – the risk of destruction is too high. If we don’t think that there are any functional connections (as with bits of gold lying around) then the epistemic gap won’t matter. Which one we think we’re dealing with will change from case to case but will also be driven by our ideology of what we think nature is like.

So where the issue seems to turn – unsurprisingly – is whether or not we see nature as a complex, interactive, and evolving system which is full of mysteries, or whether we see it in mechanical terms – full of discrete piles of things just waiting to be used. It’s at least worth noticing that the commodificationist ambitions of marketeers assume the latter from the start.

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