Section 2 of "The Commodification of Wildness and its Consequences", originally published at Black and Green Review:
No matter what form, the entire paradigm of resource commodification is connected to delayed return economics (here defined as production and utilization of a surplus for purposes of storage and trade), as opposed to immediate return economics (the utilization of resources for immediate and direct use by the producers). Delayed return economics can be viewed as a spectrum of resource utilization, with subsistence oriented food and material storage at one end, and storage oriented towards commodification and wealth accumulation at the opposite end. Activities at either end of this spectrum have the potential to evolve into an undesirable set of circumstances. The particular focus of this essay, however, is the consequences of the latter more advanced and expansive mode of delayed return activity.
Utilization of a surplus for commodification is representative of a dangerous evolution for any socioecological system. Commodification is a trigger point for expanding authoritarianism, mass-ecological alienation, the reification of physical and psychological needs, and socioecological overshoot. I argue that realization of the above consequences does not necessarily require domestication or agriculture, as many anti-civilization activists have posited, but only requires commodification at relatively rudimentary levels for the potential to evolve towards socio-ecological crisis. Several factors are likely at play regarding a society’s evolution towards practicing a mode of commodification but for our discussion here I propose we look to specialization and associated division of labor as critical starting points on a liner trajectory towards the practice of commodification, the premise being that when a specialist of any type becomes the only person within a group who can provide a necessary good or service, a foundation is developed for class division and incentives comes to exist for specialists to grow wealth and power. Specialization in a craft has the potential to create oppressive power dynamics if common people become dependent on specialists that utilize specialization as a means to build power through commodification of the goods being produced. Here we find a strong possibility for the rise of primitive forms of accumulation, occurring at the point where a wild resource is stored and commodified for use in trade practices meant to grow the wealth of an individual. Egalitarianism fades with increasing accumulation, because in this practice some person or group always gets the upper hand.
Various arguments have been made that spiritual specialization could be one of the earliest forms of evolving hierarchy, with shamans representing the original hucksters. With a realization that economic advantage could be gained from specializing in various rituals which professed a power to control the forces of nature and the spirits of the animals which the people relied upon to live, it is logical to grasp how the spiritual specialist easily could become too powerful if people came to believe that this person had real influence over the natural world. In this process the shaman learns how to turn supposed spiritual influence into a commodity that can be exchanged for both political and material capital. As the shaman’s power grows he receives tidings from the producing class (the hunters and foragers). Eventually through this process the shaman commodifies the performance of healing ceremonies and rituals and thus begins amassing power and wealth.
This is not to say that manipulation and commodification is the case in every occurrence of spiritual specialization. Certainly there are cases where a gifted person practiced shamanism and healing within an egalitarian context. Likely reminiscent of the primal human spiritual praxis are cases such as the Siberian Yukaghir animists for whom “shamanic specialization is a question of degree…the shaman’s activity and experience, rather than being some kind of mysticism at the disposal of a particular religious elite, is a specialized form of what any other member of society is capable of doing”. For Yukaghir hunters “concrete bodily processes of perception and experience” at the individual level are seen as primary “rather than exaggerated or enhanced control of abstract religious representations, signs, and symbols”. Concomitantly, Yukaghir hunters maintain a direct and unmediated connection with the living wildness they inhabit alongside animals and spirits, “all of whom are understood to be mimetic doubles of one and other.” The deep participatory spiritualties entirely rooted in place cultivated by these circumstances are atrophied by increasing specialization, the reduction of the healer to the far more pervasive role of a commodifier channeling spirituality toward imperial ambitions, a few generations of shamans evolving into a powerful family that controls access to resources and spiritual realms without ever physically domesticating them.
Based on historical knowledge of various indigenous peoples, it is likely that among the earliest humans small trades or gifting occurred for simple negotiation of peace with a neighboring band, for example. But an evolved dependency on accumulation for trade – both at the inter-band and intra-band levels, may be representative of a point where surplus production, commodification, and trade become necessary for the actual survival of a people. Here a group of people or an individual person becomes physically and/or psychologically dependent upon some type of hierarchy for survival, dependent for some type of good or service that can only be provided by a specialist, or dependent on a previously unneeded resource that can only be supplied through trade.
As this process plays out in a society, not only does it drastically shift relationships between humans and wildness, it also drastically shifts relationships among individuals within human communities. Here specialists, no longer generalist producers with direct on-the-ground full-spectrum holistic relationships with wildness, have domesticated themselves and the once free hunters have been duped into becoming dependent on elitist commodification specialists. This may well have been the beginning of our social and ecological crisis: one person in the group figures out how to specialize in a specific trade, divides the labor, tricks the common people into becoming his dependents, thereby amassing power and wealth through commodification. Endangered rhinos, 50+% biodiversity loss, the Anthropocene, the sixth great
extinction - all to follow.
Continued in: The Catastrophic Feedback Loop of Delayed-Return Dependency