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production of nature

  The social production of nature by human societies. The phrase derives from Neil Smith (1984), whose Uneven development provides the clearest explanation of how nature is produced within capitalism. The idea of the production of nature seems quixotic. After all, nature is usually defined as the non-human or that which is beyond human control. Against this, Smith argued that such a notion of nature as \'external\' to society is an ideology which in fact obscures nature\'s real nature under capitalism. Specifically, he used Marxian economics to argue that capitalism has replaced a non-human \'first nature\' with a socially produced \'second nature\'. From new agricultural landscapes to managed fisheries, nature is thus for Smith materially transformed by capitalism.

The \'production of nature\' argument is easy to misinterpret in at least two ways. The first misinterpretation overstates the power of capitalist production by assuming that Smith argued that production occurs right down to the last atom (Castree, 1995). Here, nature becomes a mere tabula rasa — or blank slate — for capitalism. Yet this is clearly an untenable position and one Smith distanced himself from. For instance, even the genetically modified foods produced by large multinational corporations require sunshine, water and soil minerals to grow. The second mistake is to assume that production equates only to what occurs in the labour process (e.g. in the factory or on the farm). However, against this rather narrow definition of production, Smith argued that it involves the whole system of capitalist economic relations, including exchange, distribution and competition. In this way he drew attention to the systematicity and extended scale of nature\'s production under capitalism. Perhaps the finest empirical exemplification of Smith\'s arguments is Nature\'s metropolis (1991), authored, ironically, by non-Marxist William Cronon (Cronon rejects Marx\'s labour theory of value among other things).

The \'production of nature\' thesis has three strengths. First, by registering the redundancy of thinking of nature as an external realm, it undermines the arguments of those environmentalists — like neo-Malthusians (cf. limits to growth; Malthusian model) — who would impose social sanctions on people in the name of a nature to be \'protected\' or \'saved\' (cf. conservation; preservation). Second, by insisting that nature is produced, not given, it reveals how capitalism makes nature into an instrument of accumulation. Nature thus becomes subordinated to the profit imperative. Finally, though, insisting on nature\'s production also opens up the liberating possibility and politics of producing nature along more socially and ecologically progressive lines associated with socialism.

In recent years, the \'production of nature\' argument has been modified and extended. As awareness of a \'global environmental crisis\' has grown, it has been recognized that Smith failed to theorize the ways in which capitalism actively produces environmental problems. Harvey (1996, part II) has thus sought to demonstrate how produced nature has a materiality which can be ecologically and economically deleterious for capitalism. At the same time, Swyngedouw (1997) has tried theoretically and empirically to show how Smith\'s arguments feed into a Marxist urban political ecology in which economic and ecological change are but sides of the same coin and in which nature reflects and refracts power relations between dominant and subordinated groups in society. Finally, Harvey (1998) has recently suggested that the human body is becoming increasingly commodified as an \'accumulation strategy\' (see body, geography and). (NC)

References Castree, N. 1995: The nature of produced nature. Antipode 27: 12-48; Cronon, W. 1991: Nature\'s metropolis. New York: W.W. Norton. Harvey, D. 1996: Justice, nature and the geography of difference. Oxford: Blackwell. Harvey, D. 1998: The body as an accumulation strategy. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. Smith, N. 1984: Uneven development. Oxford: Blackwell. Swyngedouw, E. 1997: Power, nature and the city. The conquest of water and the political ecology of urbanisation in Guayaquil, Ecuador: 1880-1990. Environment and Planning A 29: 311-32.



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