Can Nations Really Save Nature?
Six hundred years of perspective on this week's COP15 framework on biodiversity
IF YOU MISSED the world’s latest attempt to save nature, the COP15 in Montreal came away this week with an agreement featuring a pledge to protect and restore 30 percent of the world’s ecosystems by 2030, what the nations call “30 by 30.”
Seven years to salvage biodiversity. Seven years for nations to collaborate for the benefit of wildlife and wild places. Seven years to halt and reverse an extinction crisis whose origin actually began not during the Anthropocene but rather six centuries ago — and won’t likely be remedied in seven years. A more honest moniker might be “7 vs. 600.”
My reasoning comes from the work of an international group of scholars and their colleagues, collaborating as the Commodity Frontiers Initiative (CFI), who have studied the history of commodities that most of us enjoy every day: sugar, cotton, coffee, soy, beef, chicken and many others, even the lithium powering our “green” energy.
Although it might be easy to blame the extinction crisis on the general and contemporary crimes of tropical deforestation, factory farming, ocean depletion and global warming, a more revealing and sobering explanation lies in tracing the combined cultural, political, economical and corporate histories of those commodities.
This is hardly a simple story of growth, of farmers and miners and ranchers over the centuries producing or extracting more commodities from the land to supply a growing world population of consumers. Instead, you cannot understand the biodiversity or climate crises — and how hard they will be to halt or reverse — without first recognizing how the commodities have intersected with some of the most potent of human forces: knowledge and innovation, the power of the state, and most of all the phenomenal rise and versatility of capitalism over the past 600 years.
This is a long view of destructive forces, against which the earth’s people, natural resources and biological diversity have had little defense. Examined through this lens, the lens of the “commodity frontier,” it becomes clear that the arc of history has for six centuries bent toward exploitation and depletion. These are the deep roots of our biodiversity crisis. Although there are many commodities to choose from, perhaps none illustrates this exploitation better than the sugar in your cupboard.
For this all-too-brief history of sugar and other commodities, I rely on Sven Beckert and colleagues (Beckert 2021) of the CFI, whose work I have only recently discovered. (I also feel compelled to point out, given our current state of political discourse, that theirs is hardly an exercise in reflexive capitalism bashing, but rather a recognition of capitalism’s remarkable ascendency and undeniable exploitation of land and people. I should also point out that this particular nexus with COP15 is entirely my own — and not specifically the work of CFI.)
Sugar began as a precious luxury available in small quantities to Europe’s aristocracy. But as its appeal grew through the fifteenth century, sugar became a commodity of Italian, Iberian, Flemish and Dutch expansion, notably throughout the western and eastern Atlantic. From the Canary Islands to the Caribbean, one island after another, one forest after another, and one people after another were vanquished into sugarcane plantations and slave labor.
By the nineteenth century, with slave rebellions and emancipation eroding its labor supply, the sugar commodity frontier would spread across the globe — from Java to Taiwan, to Guyana and Brazil. The frontier, now including sugar beets, would go on to expand into the United States, India and Thailand, with the market today controlled by transnational corporations, often benefitting from state-sponsored subsidies and other support. Cotton and other commodities ran separate but similar courses.
A crucial point here is that commodity expansion has been the most potent and proximate cause of declining biological diversity and abundance across the planet. Cotton, coffee, soy, beef, wheat and other commodities have profoundly transformed the global countryside. Forests are far more diverse than cotton fields or grazing land; tropical lowlands are more productive than coffee plantations.
More importantly, whenever a commodity might run up against some ecological or social limit to expansion — decreasing land availability or depleted soils, for example, or abolition — industrialization, innovation, the state and the rising power of transnational corporations would find the means to expand the commodity frontier ever onward. Growth was relentless and perhaps inevitable. No mystery there.
“Frictions" and “Fixes”
And yet indispensable to any solution to the biodiversity crisis is an understanding of the forces that overcame those intrinsic limits to expansion and exploitation. Beckert and coauthors call these forces “fixes” — basically capitalism’s adaptations to ecological and social barriers (“frictions”) to expansion in the commodity frontier. They identify four fixes, which did not necessarily follow a linear path for 600 years but nonetheless remain in place today to varying extent. To my mind, each illuminates powerful social and political barriers to any novel attempts to reckon with the biodiversity crisis:
Spacial Fix — When the merchants of commodities like sugar or copper or cotton would deplete soils, exhaust land or lose availability of labor, they would simply expand the frontier elsewhere around the globe, obliterating yet more forest, grasslands, indigenous communities and biodiversity. This was the earliest fix.
Technological Fix — Staring around the 1850s, the Industrial Revolution supplanted and augmented labor in agriculture and mining, allowing for yet more land conversion and expansion of the commodity frontier. This includes today’s rise of biotechnology and intellectual property in farming.
State-Led Fix — Later in the nineteenth century, the state would begin to play a greater and more supportive role in the expansion of the commodity frontier — with road, railways and other infrastructure support, along with favorable financial and corporate rights legislation, as well as aiding in the displacement of people from their lands and natural resources.
Corporate Fix — More recently, the state-led fix gave way to deregulation and a rise of transnational corporate enterprise, which the authors write is now the “dominant force on the commodity frontier.”
Recognizing these historical forces — most still in play — is essential to any genuine solutions to the biodiversity crisis and to the many causes of global injustice. That is in large part a history of the foods and comforts we enjoy every single day (even, as I pointed out earlier, in the lithium mined for our rechargeable “green” batteries).
This is a history still being written, and I have in a way done the Commodity Frontier Initiative an injustice in only summarizing its work for you. But anyone who’s watched warblers and insects and wild places decline in our lifetime, anyone who hopes for a genuine solution to the biodiversity crisis, might want to consider this unvarnished arc of history, which I believe portends a troubling future — more of the same — for global natural resources and human justice.
The “frontier” has always been more than a border separating two places. It is a scene of expansion and conquest of places, people and resources, most often at the barrel of a gun, in the wake of tanks and bombs, from the tips of fountain pens, and more recently the rise of transnational corporations. The commodities of these frontiers make our lives more comfortable — and bring those injustices into our homes. And to my mind the frontier won’t change anytime soon, certainly not in seven years. Instead I only see its expansion.
But don’t stop with my summary. Read more from the CFI. Yes, its academic prose can sometimes be challenging. But the stakes are high. I suggest you brew some fair-trade coffee, sweeten it with maple syrup, settle in, take a deep breath and read two accounts: one in Aeon and the other in the Journal of Global History.
Then think again about the seven years available to us under the Montreal agreement’s 30 by 30 proposal. What will be the next fix for that friction?
Seven years to save nature by 2030.
7 vs. 600 — I’m not so sure I like the odds.
Not incidentally, the U.S. and the Vatican are the only countries not signing on to the Convention on Biological Diversity, the governing institution for COP15. And with Republicans now in control of the U.S. House of Representatives, don’t expect progress in Congress on 30 by 30.
- atputs in a heroic effort to translate the COP15 framework's four goals and 23 targets into plain English. Although he's cautious about the agreement's prospects as well, Jason also offers hope. "The corporate, financial, and societal forces that drive the destruction of life on Earth are still running the show," he writes, "but the Framework is a strong sign that the better angels of our nature can make Earth-shaking policy too."
References and Reading
Beckert, S., Bosma, U., Schneider, M., & Vanhaute, E. 2021. Commodity frontiers and the transformation of the global countryside: A research agenda. Journal of Global History, 16(3), 435-450. doi:10.1017/S1740022820000455
Read for yourself the 14-page Kunming-Montreal Global biodiversity framework adopted at the COP15 in Montreal on December 19, 2022.