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Noel Castree, 2007

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Manchester Papers in Political Economy

Noel Castree
Neoliberal environments: a framework for analysis.

Working paper no. 04/07

10 December 2007

Neoliberal environments: a framework for analysis

Noel Castree, School of Environment and Development, Manchester
University, Manchester, England, M13 9PL
Abstract: Our understanding of neoliberal environments is currently incomplete, theoretically and
empirically. On the one side, there exist many incisive studies of neoliberalism which examine now-familiar
topics like trade policy, employment policy and macro-economic policy but which do so with little or no
reference to the implications of all these for the governance of the non-human world. On the other side, there
is an emerging body of empirical work focussing on precisely these biophysical issues, but which is topically
diverse and currently quite piecemeal. What is required is an understanding of neoliberal environments in
both senses of the term: that is, the ambient policy environment (which goes beyond environmental policy
simpliciter) as it influences, and is influenced by, the fortunes of the non-human world. This essay works
towards such a holistic understanding at the theoretical level, in the hope that this can, in due course, yield
empirical insights through application and further development. The theory proposed is Marxian-Polanyian in
character, and of potentially wide relevance to critics of actually-existing neoliberalism. By synthesising
existing conceptual insights it is, the author hopes, more than the sum of its parts.
Keywords: neoliberalism; neoliberalisation; nature; meta-theory; holism; political economy; Marxism; Karl

I. Introduction
This essay has a simple objective, the realisation of which is by no means straightforward. I want
to provide a framework for analysing in a comprehensive and hopefully robust manner the
multifaceted relationships between neoliberalism and the biophysical world. The term
neoliberal environments thus has a double meaning here: it refers to the connections I intend to
explore between a profound shift in the intellectual and policy milieu worldwide this last 30
years or so, and the fortunes of the non-human realm. These connections go way beyond socalled free market environmentalism and its bed-fellows that is, the use of economic
instruments to internalise diverse ecological externalities or otherwise uncosted ecological
services. As with any political economic regime, the environmental aspects of neoliberalism
cannot be confined to an analysis of environmental policy simpliciter (however expansively
defined). I will suggest a way of examining neoliberal environments that makes good use of
Marxian political economy, leavened by the insights of Karl Polanyi. My cognitive and

normative stance on neoliberalism will, therefore, be a critical one (though not, I hope,
dogmatic) placing me in the company of numerous analysts on the Left dismayed by what
Bourdieu and Wacquant (2001: 2) have memorably termed the new planetary vulgate.
Why is a Marxian-cum-Polanyian framework for the analysis of neoliberal
environments worth constructing? Why, more generally, is it timely to fabricate an overarching
theory of how neoliberal political economy intersects with the biophysical world? I pose these
questions because it may seem to some readers that this essay will cover some already welltrodden ground. Firstly, in the relatively brief period during which the term neoliberalism has
become common currency in the social sciences, critical analyses of the political economic
regime so described have proliferated. Many of these critiques have drawn heavily on the rich
resources of the Marxian tradition, as well as a rediscovered and recuperated Polanyi especially
his analysis of classical liberalism, The Great Transformation (1944). Secondly, notwithstanding
the critics preoccupation with hoary political economic issues like trade, employment and
welfare provision, a significant literature on neoliberalisms environmental dimensions has also
emerged of late. This is well exemplified by a new edited collection from which I borrow my
essay title (Heynen et al., 2007a). This excellent book contains sixteen detailed empirical studies
of neoliberal environments interlaced with commissioned commentaries and sandwiched
between authoritative editors contributions. Taken together the studies focus on the first,
second and third worlds, examine a wide range of biophysical phenomena, and cover a broad
spectrum of interconnected actors (including business, workers, the state, quasi-state bodies, civil
societies, NGOs, NSMs and various weakly institutionalised protest groups).
The existence of a large critical literature on neoliberalism much of it Marxian and
Polanyian in character and including several studies of its connections to the biophysical world
may, then, appear to render pointless the present essay. But I want to argue otherwise. Our
current understanding of neoliberal environments in both senses of that term seems to me to
be far from complete and in an important respect bifurcated. On the one side, we have a set of
overarching accounts of neoliberalism and a larger number of sub-topical ones (focussing on
workfare, trade relations, financial deregulation and so on). What these studies, taken as a whole,
present us with is a thorough understanding of neoliberal environments in the first sense of this
term: that is, the political economic common sense prevailing in many parts of the world
today. But few, if any, of these studies focus squarely on the biophysical dimensions of
neoliberalised societies, economies and polities. A representative example is Robert Pollins

(2005) Contours of dissent. Pollins fine book connects the US political economy since the Nixon
administration with the drawn-out turn to neoliberalism transnationally up to the present
moment but it deliberately and apologetically brackets-out environmental questions.
By contrast, and on the other side, we have many detailed studies of the non-human
worlds neoliberalisation this last thirty years in its diverse forms and locations. These studies
offer us important insights into neoliberalisms environmental record, as well as the attendant
social costs and responses. However, because these studies are so topically and geographically
diverse a heterogeneity ranging from deer farming in Montana and wetland banking in Illinois
to water privatisation in Cape Town, shrimp farming in Indonesia and the landless peoples
movement in Brazil it is no mean feat to parse them.1 When, by contrast, one encounters
synoptic assessments of our environmental predicament like Jonathan Porritts (2006)
Capitalism as if the world matters neoliberalism is rarely thematised.2
What is currently lacking, in my view, is an approach to neoliberal environments that
explores the connective imperative between both senses of this term. We would, therefore,
benefit from having an analytical framework as encompassing as neoliberalism aspires to be: that
is, one able to make sense of diverse instances of environmental use, conflict and change by
situating them in a comprehensive account of new liberalisms many putatively nonenvironmental dimensions. Put simply, if we want to properly understand the dynamics of
neoliberal environments in a biophysical sense (and with the attendant social effects), we have to
understand the total intellectual and policy environment in which they unfold one, as I have
said, that goes way beyond the formal application of neoliberal ideas to the non-human world a
la free market environmentalism.3
If all this sounds like an argument for meta-theory thats because it is. Within critical
social science meta-theory gained a pretty bad reputation during the late 1980s and through the
Their collective focus on neoliberalism and their common use of this word does not, in itself, help readers of these
studies to identify the casual connections and substantive similarities between the diverse cases (or so I will argue).
An effort of intellectual labour is required to detect the proverbial signals in all the noise.
An even better example than Porritts best-selling book is Steven Bernsteins (2000; 2002) writings on what he calls
liberal environmentalism. Bernsteins is a global analysis, but only in the sense that he examines global
environmental accords, statements and meetings. Not only does he not strongly thematise the liberal in liberal
environmentalism. He also ignores local, regional and national neoliberalisations of nature for the most part.
Finally, he also puts to one side putatively non-environmental organisations and accords like TRIPS even though
these are manifestly a part of his category of liberal environmentalism.
To put all this in metaphorical terms, we already have many pieces of the intellectual jigsaw but have so far failed to
connect them together in a way that represents the totality of relationships, tendencies and socio-ecological effects
specific to a neoliberal political economy. Our understanding of neoliberal environments, in my sense of this term,
is currently rather fragmented when it need not be hence the rationale for the present essay.

1990s. I have no intention of revisiting the often acrimonious debates between meta-theorys
devotees and detractors debates that laid bare the differences between modern intellectual
worldviews and a range of post-prefixed approaches whose impact was such that, for a time at
least, they defined the academic zeitgeist. However, in the first main section I will mount a
defence of a certain kind of meta-theory so that the rather grand ambitions of this essay are not
misinterpreted as throwback to the past that is, as characteristically modern over ambitions.
This defence will also involve me saying more about the already mentioned divide within the
now large critical literature on neoliberal environments. Section two builds on the scene-setting
and justificatory work of section one. In it I offer some programmatic observations about the
general characteristics of neoliberalism and how they might be analysed given that, in the real
world, these general features are anything but consistent and universal Bourdieu and
Wacquants plenary observation notwithstanding.
From section three onwards having defined and defended my terms and objectives I
consider environmental matters in both the biophysical and metaphorical senses of the word.
So unfolds my substantive Marxian-Polanyian argument about how to make sense in a
synoptic way of neoliberal environments. This argument begins with a general, ideal-typical
account of capitalism-nature relations. I then consider the ways that nature matters to a range
of parties involved in the drama of capital accumulation, leading to a first-cut theory of
neoliberal environments. In section four I then outline a second-cut theory that can, I hope,
serve as an aide to the concrete understanding of natures neoliberalisation. Clearly, given the
essays ambitions, the account I provide can only be a beginning: a sketch rather than a detailed
theoretical picture. I offer it as an invitation for debate and a lure for others to do what I have
not the space to do here in more than elementary terms. Even so, the argument will necessarily
be quite protracted and some considerable patience will be required to stay the course. To aid
readability, I have chosen not to litter the text with copious references (hence the fairly short
bibliography). However, I want to acknowledge at the outset my indebtedness to several years
engagement with Marxisant research into environmental issues.4

II. Understanding neoliberal environments: what kind of theory for what sort
of analysis?

This engagement has produced a string of prior publications, including: xxxxxxx

Connecting the nature of neoliberalisation with the neoliberalisation of nature: the need for a
holistic framework
There is, I have asserted, an asymmetry and a patchy connection between critical literature
focussing on the nature of neoliberalisation and that examining the neoliberalisation of nature
(to borrow Heynen et al.s heuristically useful wordplay, ibid. 9). Let me now evidence and fleshout this assertion, before saying something about how to theorise neoliberal environments in a
joined-up fashion.
Neoliberalism has, of course, fast become a keyword in the lexicon of critical social
scientists be they members of the social left (e.g. many heterodox economists), the cultural
left (e.g. many working in a field like cultural studies) or the environmental left (e.g. those
philosophers who adumbrate principles of environmental justice). Defined simply, it describes a
transition in the political and moral economy of many present day societies towards market
rule: that is, the subjection of more-and-more areas of social and environmental life to the logics
of capital accumulation.5 Neo-liberalism is neo because of its historical filiations with the long
era of liberal capitalism centred on Western Europe and North America which ended in the
catastrophe of the second world war. In cognitive and normative terms, critics have used a range
of analytical templates to make sense of neoliberalism: feminist, ecocentric, Marxian,
Foucauldian, institutionalist and several others besides. For these critics, it is clear that the
neoliberalism in question is, in many or most cases, connected or synonymous with some other
well-known and closely related phenomena that have defined local and global realities this last 30
years such as globalization, the new imperialism, structural adjustment and the
Washington consensus. Equally clearly, inspection of their work shows that these analysts have
together examined the whole panoply of neoliberal ideas, policies and outcomes. These include
everything from financial deregulation, free trade, and patterns of foreign direct investment to
new employment relations, the erosion of public services, and new geographies of commodity
In sum, the critical literature on neoliberalism deploys a plurality of diagnostic-normative
frameworks, is voluminous, and when considered as a whole encompasses the totality of

Throughout this essay when I use the term the market I always do so on the basis that we are talking about
money-mediated commodity transactions that are governed by the three main logics of capital accumulation:
namely, the quest for profit, the search for competitive advantage by producers which, in turn, leads to the endless
search for all sorts of socio-technical and institutional innovations within and surrounding commodity production. I
will say more about all this in the section on Marx later in the essay.

neoliberal precepts, policies and practices. However, intellectually rich though it is, this
literature is hardly problem-free when seen in the context of this essays major objective. First,
while issues of biophysical resources and environments have received a good deal of critical
attention especially (though not only6) in the form of analyses of free market
environmentalism in its several permutations in relative terms these issues have been underexamined. I can illustrate this in two ways. First, if one looks at existing global assessments of
neoliberalism such as Pollins already mentioned book, David Harveys (2005) A brief history of
neoliberalism or Andrew Glyns (2006) Capitalism unleashed, they pay scant attention to
questions like climate change, water resource management, biodiversity loss and other
consequential biophysical issues. Instead, classic political economic topics like employment,
welfare provision and trade are the major focus. Second, if one goes beyond these macro-analyses
to consider all the other critical literature on neoliberalism (in the form of more specialised
books, journal papers, chapters and working papers) it is also disproportionately devoted to
issues other than environmental ones. For instance, a search of the ISI Web of Knowledge at the
time of writing reveals over 500 peer review publications containing the term neoliberalism as a
title- or keyword. However, a search using additional terms such as agriculture, farming,
fisheries, forestry, water resources, mining and so on reveals that only about one fifth of these
writings focus on the relationship to the non-human world in some way, shape or form. A
similar result was found using some of the related search terms mentioned above like structural
adjustment and others such as the market and laissez faire.
Added to this asymmetry of focus within the literature is a relatively patchy connection
between its non-environmental and environmental components. The critical literature on the
neoliberalisation of nature as showcased in Heynen et al.s new book is relatively small. It
has three signature characteristics that explain what I mean by the word patchy (and here I am
inevitably glossing a rather diverse body of work that spans several disciplines and theoretical
outlooks). First, given the range of biophysical phenomena any political economic regime
inevitably impinges on (neoliberal or otherwise) it is no surprise to discover that the literature is
topically diverse. Second, and relatedly, this literature goes beyond an assessment of formal
attempts to protect ecosystems, resources and the like by using economic instruments. This is

I am thinking here of the related arguments made under the banner of ecological modernisation and industrial
ecology. In both cases, and is with free market environmentalism, the operative philosophy is that a combination of
economic sticks and carrots can produce technical, behavioural and institutional change leading to a capitalist form
of sustainable development.

important because, as Ive already intimated, the neoliberalisation of nature need not (and
certainly does not) begin-and-end with attempts to make modern markets eco-friendly.7
Thirdly, this literature is very grounded, by which I mean it is highly empirical (though not
empiricist) with a predominantly local or regional focus. All three characteristics are very
evident in Neoliberal environments (2007), whose contents the editors describe as a collection of
rigorous, theoretically informed case studies (Heynen et al. 2007b: 2).
Seen from one perspective these characteristics are undoubted strengths. The studies
assembled by Heynen et al. and others not mentioned here show us how the neoliberalisation
of nature in its diverse forms plays-out on the ground. This means that we on the Left have an
evidence-base that can get us beyond lazy polemics about neoliberalisms actual (and likely
future) environmental record, with its associated winners and losers. However, the topical
diversity and groundedness of the literature means that comparing and relating its component
parts is by no means easy. As I noted above, there is (pace Pollin, Harvey and Glyn) currently no
grand analysis of neoliberalism that systematically incorporates the biophysical preconditions
and impacts of this political economic regime using appropriate concepts and data sources.
Symptomatically, specialised studies like those in Heynen et al.s book rarely stray beyond the
immediate context of the case in question (water policy, agrarian policy, pollution policy etc. in
a particular location) or if they do the larger neoliberal environment is typically explored in a
brief, generic or selective way (see Castree, 2005).
In short, we currently lack a holistic framework for analysing the neoliberalisation of
nature at any spatio-temporal scale (local or otherwise). As I said, this makes it quite difficult for
readers of specific studies to compare between or connect cases because these cases, even where
topically similar (e.g. two studies of water resource privatisation in two different third world
cities) and substantively related (e.g. by WTO rules or IMF loan conditions), are rarely analysed
with the same precise objective in mind. In some cases forms of resistance to neoliberal
environmental governance are the focus, in others new property rights regimes, and in still
others the environmental impacts of resource privatisation (to name but three foci). These and
other things are all, of course, key aspects of society-environment relations within neoliberalising
places, regions and countries. However, unless we have a way of bringing existing (and future)
studies together within a common frame of analysis we not only fail to respect the complex unity

I am referring here to everything from ecotourism to debt-for-nature swaps to carbon-offsets to polluterpays/emissions capping policies.

of actually-existing neoliberalism (of which more in the next section); we also, as a corollary,
have a fragmented sense of neoliberalisms environmental record by which I mean both the
biophysical impacts of this regime and the associated social impacts.
If a synthetic understanding of neoliberal environments (in the double sense of the
term) can be achieved then a number of prospective benefits will follow. First, we will have a
more accurate sense of how and with what effects (actual and potential) human relations to
nature have been neoliberalised since the early-to-late 1970s. Second, future studies of natures
neoliberalisation can be situated within an intellectual framework that extends beyond the
specifics of the study in question, immediately increasing the potential significance of the
findings for a wider research programme into the biophysical impacts of market rule. But how
can such a framework be crafted?
One answer is to carefully work-over the sorts of studies assembled in Neoliberal
environments with a view to making connections that the authors of these studies did not make
when undertaking their own research. A second answer is more theoretical and less bottom-up:
to work out and down from a conceptual representation of neoliberalism and to systematically
unfold an argument about the range of points complex and contradictory, to be sure where it
entrains the biophysical world and a whole set of social actors implicated in this entrainment,
directly and otherwise. Finally, one can draw upon the sort of macro-analyses presented by the
likes of Pollin, Harvey and Glyn and use their inquiries into actually-existing neoliberal
environments to deduce or infer the ramified connections that these policy environments have to
material environments (drawing upon various secondary data sets about environmental and
resource trends). At some point all three of these tactics ought to converge and mutually inform
one another in a spiral of learning. However, I will pursue the second tactic here for the simple
reason that few, if any, others have done so before me.
A meta-theory of neoliberal environments?
To some readers, the comments contained in the previous paragraph may have set-off alarm
bells. They may sound uncomfortably close to the desire for a grand recits of the sort JeanFrancois Lyotard (1979) famously decried in his book The postmodern condition. But that is not
my intention. I do not believe there is a single, definitive framework capable of analysing
neoliberalism or any other complex, multiscalar social or environmental phenomena. I do,
however, believe that a certain kind (or style) of meta-theory retains cognitive and normative

value and that such a theory is, in fact, broadly consistent with the insights of several postprefixed approaches typically seen as hostile to it. Let me explain, drawing upon the work of a
determined defender of meta-theorys enduring relevance, the already mentioned David Harvey.
Harvey is, of course, a Marxist one whose work is for the most part grounded in a
direct reading of the late Marx rather than readings provided by any of Marxs numerous
interpreters. He has been a consistent champion of the theoretical endeavour since Social Justice
and the City (1973) and, by his own admission (Harvey, 2002: 161), his favourite book is also his
most uncompromisingly conceptual: namely, The Limits to Capital (1982, reissued in 2006). In
that book Harvey describes the aim of theory thus: to create frameworks for understanding,
an elaborated conceptual apparatus, with which to grasp the most significant relationships at
work within the intricate dynamics of social [and environmental] transformation (1982: 450-1).
In other words, for Harvey theory exists to help us substitute a complexity we do not
understand with one that we do. Harveys use of theory so defined in both his conceptual and
more empirical works has, as Ive argued elsewhere (Castree 2006), yielded three advantages for
him and his readers. First, it has enabled them to see the proverbial wood for the trees: the most
significant relationships at work (or at least some of them). Second, it has made visible invisible
(and often large-scale) forces that in significant measure govern the historical geographies of
ordinary people and places (and indeed elites, who collectively seek to orchestrate these forces).
Thirdly, and relatedly, it has shown how general processes operate in, on and through all sorts
of socio-spatial differences.
However, this trio of functions can be (and has been) easily misconstrued. In his most
famous and audacious book The Condition of Postmodernity (1989) Harvey confronted the
critique of a certain kind of theory by using that self-same theory to explain (and undercut) the
critique (something fellow Marxists Fredric Jameson [1990] and Alex Callinicos [1989] did
around the same time). That certain kind was the meta-theory that Lyotard decried, along with
numerous critics writing subsequent to his landmark book of 1979. For them, meta-theory was
cognitively and normatively exorbitant: that is, too confident in the completeness and authority
of its knowledge-claims, be they Marxist or otherwise. Unfortunately, in the debates following
the publication of The Condition positions became polarised, with Harvey seen by his detractors
as just the sort of modern intellectual many wanted so desperately to be post (see, for instance,
Deutsche [1991] and Jones [1999]).

Theory of the sort that Harvey has consistently produced and advocated for over 30
years is indeed meta that much his critics got right, and his admirers would certainly concede
the point. However, in my view such theory is not intended to serve as some sort of total
explanation of the world a master-frame to trump all others. So in what sense, it might be
asked, is it still meta-theory rather than what one commentator influenced by the several
posts has called theory in a minor key (Katz, 2006: 490)? There are a couple of points to
make here. First, Harvey has long made the un-controversial observation that we live in an
interdependent world structured by transnational forces. A theory of these forces is meta in the
simple sense that it has global relevance geographically: it is not simply or only a local theory
whose claims relate to only one specific context (except insofar as it has been created by
individuals like Harvey who are inevitably educated and socialised in one or other place on the
earths surface). Secondly, the sort of theorising Harvey has long undertaken is also meta in the
sense that it is interested in a combination of processes, relations, actors and events. It is, at least
in aspiration, holistic rather than narrowly specialised in its outlook because the world is seen to
be connected in some broadly consistent (rather than entirely random) ways. Note that in this
second sense meta-theory need not necessarily be global in its epistemic ambitions (meta in the
first sense): it would be perfectly possible to develop and use meta-theory to investigate the
weave of forces in a particular locality or region without reference to much else beyond unless,
of course, the salient forces were transnational ones.
In a recent essay entitled Towards a theory of uneven geographical development,
Harvey (2005b) has explained things thus:
If theory is construed as a clean logical structure specified in direct propositional terms with lawlike statements neatly derived from fundamental abstract categories then the materials I assemble
here would be incapable of theorization. But I have a somewhat looser conception of theory in
mind: one that acknowledges the power and importance of certain processes that are specifiable
independently of one another but which can and must be brought together in a dynamic field of
interaction (pp. 60-61, emphasis added).

What we have here is a willingness to undertake grand analysis and in a reasonably muscular
way too (certain processes that are specifiable independently of one another but which can and
must be brought together in a dynamic field of interaction). However, there is a clear

recognition that theory, as Harvey long ago put it in The Limits, cannot hope to explain
everything there is (1982: 450) not least because most theorists (like Harvey himself) cut into
the worlds complexity from one or other vantage point (in his case a Marxist one). Some
vantage points may be especially perspicuous (as Harvey believes Marxism still to be). But alone
and even together they cannot account for all the tides and eddies of social and
environmental life. Theory is whatever stripe is not created for this purpose and its epistemic
claims can never be entirely coincident with their ontological objects.
What I take from Harveys work, then, is an understanding of meta-theorys nature and
value not inconsistent with the need at once analytical and political to respect the
complexity, dynamism and unpredictability of the world. The aspiration to theorise global
processes and in a way that searches-out the connections between apparently different
phenomena does not, in my view, amount to meta-theory in the pejorative sense of that term.
Like Harvey, in this essay I seek to be meta-theoretical in a defensible and (hopefully) useful way
a way that respects what Louis Althusser, after Freud, famously called over-determination,
while still insisting that the apparent messiness of the world is not quite as befuddling as it may
seem. Further to this argument let me now offer some programmatic comments on the nature of

III. From neoliberalism to neoliberalisation

What is neoliberalism?
As I said earlier, defined in simple terms neoliberalism is a project to expand the scope of the
market and I am, of course, referring to the sort of market where commodities are exchanged
using money (and where money itself is a commodity), rather than any of the other marketforms existent past or present. The term neoliberal is rarely used by neoliberals themselves.
Instead, it has entered the discourse of Left academics, intellectuals and activists where it
functions as something of a shibboleth: whatever our other differences, we on the Left know we
are somehow against it. As such, neoliberalism has displaced some of the other key terms the
Left recently used to describe our contemporary situation notably globalization, which was
surely the buzz-word of 1990s social science.8

This raises the perennial question of where social scientific concepts come from: are they designed to capture realworld developments or do they, despite appearances, say more about the values and aspirations of the academics
who deploy them?

Currently, two critical approaches to understanding neoliberalism stand-out from all
others. There is a significant political economic literature about neoliberalism in which (as the
books by Pollin, Harvey and Glyn show) Marxist, neo-Marxist and post-Marxist accounts loom
large.9 There is also a large Foucauldian literature which as the work of Nikolas Rose
demonstrates focuses on neoliberal governmentality (see, for instance, Economy and Society
[1993]). As will by now be abundantly clear, I wish to focus on the former literature not only
because I regard myself as a political economist in the Marxian tradition, but also because much
of the current work on the neoliberalisation of nature is political economic in character. This
literature typically situates neoliberalism within a wider account of the dynamics of capital
accumulation. For this reason, it regards the word liberal in neoliberalism to refer principally
to economic rather than political or social liberty especially that of capitalists and consumers.
Notwithstanding its non-trivial internal diversity, broadly speaking it defines neoliberalism as a
project comprised of the following seven processes (those readers familiar with these may wish to
skip ahead):

Privatisation (i.e. assigning clear, legally enforceable, private property rights to hitherto
unowned, state owned or communally owned aspects of the social and natural worlds).

Marketisation (i.e. rendering alienable and exchangeable things that might not previously
have been subject to a market calculus lubricated by monetary transactions within and
between nation states).10

State roll back or deregulation (i.e. the withdrawal or diminution of state intervention in
certain areas of social and environmental life in order to enable firms and consumers to
exercise freedom of choice; and the creation of new quasi-state or state-sanctioned actors
to take-on functions that states themselves could otherwise perform in theory or

Market-friendly reregulation (i.e. a reconfiguration of the state so as to extend the frontiers

of privatisation and marketisation. Here, then, the state in its various forms becomes
market manager and less of a provider to the citizenry or special interests therein: it
intervenes for the economy not, as it were, in it. This entails fiscal discipline, a focus on

Other examples include Robinson (2006) and Comaroff & Comaroff (2000).
Its worth noting that, for many commentators, it is the conjunction of privatisation and marketisation that
defines commodification. Needless to say, in practice both privatisation and marketisation take a number of
concrete forms as befits the particular commodities, firms, consumers and other relevant parties in question.


supply side investments, entrepreneur- and consumer-friendly tax policies, firm-friendly
labour market policies, and measures to enable free movements of money capital and
also other less fluid commodities).

Use of market proxies in the residual state sector (i.e. making remaining state services more
market-like in their operation through the use of measures like internal markets, costrecovery and budget-capping).11

The strong encouragement of flanking mechanisms in civil society (i.e. state-led measures to
promote the growth of (i) informal and social economies, and (ii) voluntary, charitable,
non-profit and community groups. Together these are intended to fill the vacuum created
by the absence/diminution of direct state-support in the social and environmental

The creation of self-sufficient individuals and communities (i.e. the cultivation of an ethic
among persons and communities that emphasises less, and ultimately limited, reliance on
public services for lifes necessities).

This is not the place to explore the roots of neoliberal thinking (the Mont Pelerin society, the
Chicago economics department, the Hayek-Keynes debate etc).12 Nor is it the place to examine
in detail where, how and why neoliberal ideas have become translated into policy and practice
since the early 1970s. Instead, I offer two observations followed by a programmatic comment.
Neoliberalism, as the name suggests, traces a thread of continuity back to the long period
Polanyi interrogated in The Great Transformation and during which Marx wrote Capital.13
However, what makes it new is not simply its return after 60 years of managed or organized
capitalism.14 According to some, it is also new in that it breaks with the fundamental liberal
principle with which it started: mutual recognition of the separate spheres of state and market
Not only is the state seen as having no goals or modus operandi different from those of market
actors, but it is seen to gain by subordinating its activities as much as possible to such actors
(Crouch, 2004: 248; see also Gledhill, 2004). This means as the seven-point definition makes

In the West, the term new public management has become a familiar descriptor for this process, which
emphasises value-for-money, budget-capping, cost-recovery and an aversion to deficit spending where possible.
For more on this see Pecks (2007) magisterial essay (with its superb bibliography), and Mirowski & Plehwes
(2008) new book.
For this reason, and with not a little irony, it is sometimes called advanced liberalism.
Sometimes also known as embedded liberalism in order to contrast it with the relatively disembedded (classical)
liberalism of the long nineteenth century. See Ruggie (1983).

clear that critics see neoliberalism as more than just an expansion of the domain of the market:
in effect, it is an attempted colonisation of other spheres of human existence so that those spheres,
if not successfully internalised, become residualised. What is more, unlike classical nineteenth
century liberalism, neoliberalism is also a purposively global project one not confined, like its
forebear, to just a few key states.
But this use of the singular term it leads me to my programmatic comment: neoliberalism,
as described in the seven points above, exists nowhere as such. This is not at all to deny the
actuality of various neoliberal reforms over the last three decades. All I am suggesting as others
have done before me (e.g. Larner, 2003; Barnett, 2005; Castree, 2006) is that if the septet above
represents the neoliberal model, then this model by definition is never realised in a pure form
in the real world or, to put it differently, realised in a uniform way through time and across
geographical space. Jamie Peck (2004: 395) puts it like this: While neoliberal discourses and
strategies mobilized in different settings share certain family resemblances, local [and
national] institutional context clearly (and really) matters in the style, substance, origins and
outcomes of reformist politics.
I make this point for two reasons. First, the use of the term neoliberalism in various
political economic analyses can easily make us forget that analysts are not always examining the
same precise thing notwithstanding the common signifier. As Wendy Larner (2003: 509) has
argued, we need to recognise the different variants of neoliberalism, the hybrid nature of
contemporary policies and programmes, [and] the multiple and contradictory aspects of
neoliberal spaces, techniques and subjects. Secondly, the tendency of some on the Left to discuss
neoliberalism in grand and polemical terms can blind us to the issues of path dependency,
contingency and hybridity that Larner emphasises. For instance, Perry Anderson (2000: 17)
who Michael Watts (2007: 275) describes as the Lefts great pessimist has opined that
neoliberal principles rule undivided across the world [], the most successful ideology in
world history. To be sure, neoliberal common sense has diffused-out from its heartlands
(notably the US and UK) this last 30 years under the auspices of the IMF, World Bank and
WTO. But this is not the same as saying it is the only game in town. Aihwa Ong (2006: 14)
expresses it well: neoliberalism migrates from site to site, interacting with various assemblages
that cannot be analytically reduced to cases of a uniform global condition . Aside from being
factually inaccurate, claims like Andersons are also politically paralysing. By depicting a
neoliberal grand slam they suggest that efforts to resist or rework new liberal policies are

somehow marginal or doomed to failure. The reality is surely more complex, and the theoretical
and empirical efforts of neoliberalisms critics ought to be able to make this complexity plain and
explore its consequences for understanding and action (Gamble, 2001).
In short, we need to approach neoliberalism in a way that makes meaningful part-whole
connections between localized and institutionally-specific instances of reform and the wider
discourses, ideologies and practices of neoliberalism. Otherwise the concept of neoliberalism has
little, if any, utility (Peck, 2004: 396). What Brenner and Theodore (2002: 351) call actually
existing neoliberalism (a term I used in passing earlier) is, as Larner and Ong insist, an unevenly
implanted glocal regime and to understand it we need to walk a line of sorts between
producing over-generalized accounts of a monolithic and omnipresent neoliberalism and
excessively concrete and contingent analyses (Peck and Tickell, 2002: 381-2).
Neoliberalisation and uneven spatio-temporal development
Neoliberalism, I am arguing, is really a set of differentiated yet substantively connected
neoliberalisations in the plural. This suggests, analytically, that we need to focus on combined
and uneven processess rather than on some notional end state when neoliberal principles and
policies have somehow been made flesh in textbook fashion. As analysts we ought to be able
reckon with a range of actors and institutions who are operative at different geographical scales
all the while attending to the myriad connections between markets, states, quasi-state actors, civil
society, workers, the natural environment and other things besides. We need to be alive to
contradictions, barriers to neoliberal statecraft, partial successes, forms of resistance and all those
elements of non-neoliberal context that confront attempts to make that context otherwise.
Because actually-existing neoliberalism encompasses politics, economics, cultural life and much
more besides, the analysis of it in both theory and practice cannot be confined to any one
dimension of the real. It is also too simplistic to suggest that the policies of global institutions
(like the WTO) uniformly overlay what might otherwise be national or local forms of
neoliberalism (in the US, Britain, New Zealand, Mexico and elsewhere). These institutions have
themselves evolved different kinds of neoliberal policies at different times, and their impacts on
the ground are very much dependent on the local/national context in question. And then there
are various forms of, as it were, sui generis neoliberalisations where local and national actors have
not had to respond to external forcings by the likes of the IMF but have, rather, neoliberalised
voluntarily. Finally, in all cases, neoliberal transitions have to be understood against the

background of pre-existing institutional arrangements and moral economies many of which are
far removed from the new realities that neoliberal policies seek to create.
Clearly, then, undertaking a proper account of neoliberalism is a tall order as it ought
to be with any political economic regime. It is far easier to proliferate specialised studies of this
or that element of neoliberalism promoted by this or that institution in that or that place,
country or continent than it is to undertake a comprehensive and synthetic account of
neoliberalisation in its diverse local and transnational dimensions. Yet the latter task is not
impossible. The Pollin, Harvey and Glyn books are important attempts to pave the way here,
even though as I said earlier they ignore some important issues (such is the scale of the
analytical challenge they face). But so too is the work of Peck and Tickell (2002, 2003), which
attempts to provide a conceptual vocabulary for getting a handle on the last thirty years of
neoliberalisms uneven implantation worldwide (see also Brenner and Theodore, 2002). I want to
briefly rehearse their arguments before bringing this extended discussion of neoliberal capitalism
to bear on biophysical questions in the remainder of this essay.15
Peck and Tickell contend that where Leftist accounts of neoliberalism have not been
Andersonesque polemics they have, instead, been closely specified, institutionally contingent
accounts, typically focussed on concrete forms , such as particular Thatcherite restructuring
strategies (2002: 382). This latter claim, I have already suggested, applies to a good deal of the
existing work on the neoliberalisation of nature (though this is not Peck and Tickells focus).
Though conscious of the risks of overreaching, Peck and Tickell (ibid.) write, we seek a
preliminary way to explore some of the more generic and abstract features of the
neoliberalization process. Their aim, then, is to parse the insights of specific studies of
neoliberalization without reverting to the formalism and homogeneity of the seven-part
neoliberal model I presented earlier.
Focussing on the North Atlantic zone, Peck and Tickell periodize three decades of
neoliberal reform using a set of heuristically useful concepts. Like other political economic
commentators on the Left, Peck and Tickell identify the severe economic crisis of the early-tolate-70s as the opening neoliberalisms advocates had spent the best part of 40 years waiting for.
Proto-neoliberalism the long period when neoliberal ideas were both adumbrated but also
confined within several think tanks, university economics departments and foundations gave

Other attempts to map the spatio-temporality of neoliberalism include Overbeek (1993) and Soederberg et al.

way to roll-back neoliberalism. Building on the Chile experience, neoliberal ideas found a home
in two of the worlds most important nation states (the US and UK) where the Reagan and
Thatcher administrations launched an all-out assault on the institutions and mores of the FordistKeynesian compromise. The period of roll-back neoliberalism was, Peck and Tickell argue,
essentially destructive and also inevitably politicized, generating powerful counter-currents in
defence of the old political economic order. For this latter reason it was also, they argue,
shallow: something not yet part of the marrow of the British, American and other political
However, from the early 1990s roll-back neoliberalism was gradually superceded by rollout neoliberalism. By this Peck and Tickell mean a period of entrenchment where neoliberal
ideas and practices metamorphosed into more socially interventionist and ameliorative forms,
epitomized by the Third Way contortions of the Clinton and Blair administrations (ibid. 388-9).
On the one side, this meant a softening of certain neoliberal policies in order to tackle the
perverse economic consequences and pronounced social externalities of narrowly marketcentric
forms of neoliberalism (ibid. 388). But on the other, it also entailed a normalization of
neoliberal common-sense. Roll-out neoliberalism can, then, be regarded as a creative, realitybuilding process with two dimensions: namely, the use of experts and governance bodies to
technocratise and apparently depoliticise all those things (like monetarist economic policy) that
were previously contested hotly; and the unfolding of new state interventionist agendas around
crime, welfare policy, immigration, policing, the family, lifestyle issues and so on. This twinprocess, Peck and Tickell (ibid. 390) suggest, represents both the frailty of the neoliberal project
and its deepening. It amounts to a recalibration of that project not so much due to the sort of
external shock that created space for neoliberalism in the first place (circa 1973-4) but, rather, in
response to the internal problems with roll-back neoliberalism such as its tendency to produce
financial crises (e.g. the late 90s Asian flu) which impact serially on the real economy, the
wider society, and the biophysical world.
This mutation in neoliberalism within its geographical heartlands has, Peck and Tickell
argue, been coincident with the use of global institutions to introduce neoliberalism shock style
elsewhere (such as Russia and Mexico). What Peet et. al. (2006) sardonically call the holy trinity
of US-dominated finance and trade organisations have, along with all sorts of fast policy transfers
and borrowings between existing and new neoliberal states, produced an internationalisation of
neoliberal political economy since the late 1990s especially (see Figures 1 and 2). This

internationalisation has, Peck and Tickell suggest, inevitably involved an up-scaling-cumrelinquishment of several national-state powers. It has also, they further argue, been coincident
with a down-scaling of national-state powers to sub-national levels. This has made intra-national
spaces more responsive to international neoliberal policies and has also, Peck and Tickell argue,
fragmented national-scale opposition to neoliberal projects. This said, neoliberalisms purposive
internationalisation threatens to generalise the earlier problems the US and UK experienced with
roll-back policies: the spectre is raised that the very channels though which the neoliberal
project has been [internationalized] subsequently become the transmission belts for rapidly
diffusing international crises of overaccumulation, deflation and serial policy failure (ibid. 399).
Therefore, they conclude, even in mature neoliberal states there is the near-term prospect of
push-back neoliberalism if not even more far-reaching change linked to a wider
disintegration of the neoliberal regime elsewhere.
The utility of Peck and Tickells conceptual vocabulary is not only positive (a way of
describing the here and now) it is normative too (a recommendation for how to think about
neoliberal realities). They are suggesting a way to grasp actually-existing neoliberalism that
appreciates its transnational dimensions while also respecting the highly uneven historicalgeographies of its transmission and implantation. It would be a mistake to regard theirs as
simply a transition narrative in which neoliberalism is seen to progress through four stages
sequentially and unproblematically. Instead, their real point (as I see it) is that under the aegis of
certain global actors and rule-regimes, different localities and nation states are currently
differentially neoliberalised and (still) neoliberalising. This said, their argument does still risk
simplifying various local, regional and national situations by positioning them within one or
other sector of a rather too-neat taxonomic grid (i.e. deep/shallow, roll-out/roll-back
neoliberalisation). With these points in mind, I want (at last) to think about how the biophysical
world can be integrated into an account of neoliberalisms uneven and evolving global-local
IV. Neoliberal environments: towards a Marxian-Polanyian framework
I suggested earlier that there are three ways to arrive at a joined-up understanding of neoliberal
environments (in my expansive sense of this term). In the remainder of this essay I want to
explore the second of these: that is, work towards a general theory of how neoliberal
environments can best be analysed. Given my comments about meta-theory and the nature of

neoliberalism, my use of the word general here is intentionally scare-quoted. As will become
clear, I cannot possibly claim that the theory proposed is definitive. And it will certainly be too
abstract to offer detailed insights into substantive questions of cause and effect on the ground
(this, after all, is the function of meso-level theorising and empirical work). I hope, though, that
the framework presented is sufficiently comprehensive and robust to aid research into any given
local neo-liberalisation of the biophysical world, or similar research focussing on a larger spatiotemporal scales not least because, apropos Peck and Tickell, it is the uneven and combined
relations between different scales that is ultimately of greatest interest and importance.
The argument will unfold in a step-wise fashion, moving from the more to the less
abstract and in this sense mirroring the discussion of the previous section. I start by considering
briefly the value of ideal-types when thinking through the neoliberalisation of nature metatheoretically. The following sub-section then develops a conceptual argument about capitalismnature relations from insights provided by Marx, Polanyi and the recent work of green
Marxists.16 After this I make some programmatic comments about the materiality of nature
and its role in influencing the possible trajectories of capital accumulation. Thereafter I
progressively adumbrate and refine a theoretical argument about natures multifaceted
neoliberalisation, leading to a further section (V) and a short conclusion.
Abstraction and ideal-typical thinking
One way of working towards a holistic theory of neoliberal environments is to start with idealtypes a quintessentially conceptual device that can produce real gains for concrete
understanding. Used iteratively, initially simple and abstract ideal-type arguments can be
thickened and transformed over time so that they lose their ideal-typical character and more
accurately (if never completely) represent the world they are designed to help us understand.
They are part of an unfinishable process of theorising the real, not a crude substitute for this
difficult task. Let me briefly elaborate, using the arguments of two accomplished practitioners of
ideal-typical reasoning: the sociologist Andrew Sayer (1995) and the legal theorist Margaret
Radin (1996).


I scare-quote this term because green here does not mean ecocentric. It is simply a descriptor for those Marxists
who are interested in understanding how and with what effects capitalist economies engage with the non-human

In his book Radical political economy: a critique, Sayer defines all theory as a process of
abstraction from the real which renders comprehensible, even as it simplifies, some of the
worlds concrete complexities. If reality was dominated by one or other systemic logic or set of
processes then one theory alone might get us a long way, both cognitively and normatively.
However, as a critical realist Sayer rejects this view and argues that understanding the world
typically requires some combination and modification of several different theoretical positions:
for Sayer, then, good theory is, like good theorists are, typically syncretic and combinatory.
Radin makes a similar argument, calling for pragmatism in all theoretical argumentation. Her
book Contested commodities undertakes a set of thought-experiments into what reality would be
like if various scenarios actually applied: specifically, complete commodification, universal noncommodification and compartmentalised commodification. Her argument uses what Sayer
recommends: counterfactual arguments that sharpen our sense of what the world would have to
be like if the claims of ideal-typical representations of the real were to hold-good. Like Sayer,
Radin works towards a robust representation of actual commodification by working out-anddown from abstract arguments, ultimately connecting them with real world examples of
contested commodities such as human kidneys for sale.
In light of their arguments, the link with my own case for meta-theory ought to be clear
enough. Meta-theory can aim to represent one or other dominant logic or set of processes that
insinuate themselves into all manner of different phenomena. But meta-theory can also aim to
describe the combination of independently specifiable processes that together govern significant
elements of social and/or environmental life. The second is the more ambitious and difficult task
because it entails combining different theoretical positions. But the first is no mean feat either if
the object of analysis is something as promiscuous and hydra-headed as capitalism and its various
actually existing forms. Though I intend to connect Marxist and Polanyian perspectives below,
I will be meta-theoretical in the first sense because these two perspectives are so consonant
Polanyi, after all, was a Marxist avant la letter when he wrote The great transformation.
Towards a general theory 1: capitalism-nature relations
The theory I propose is, then, going to be intentionally abstract and ideal-typical in the first
instance a propadeutic to further study or, put differently, a foil for others better equipped
than I am to realise this essays ambitions. Throughout, my assumption is not only that
neoliberalism is, in ideal-typical terms, one possible form of existence of the capitalist mode of

production. My additional presumption is that neoliberalism is a form of political economic life
that, as Glyn (op. cit.) puts it in his book title, unleashes capitalism. A theory of neoliberal
environments is thus, in a meaningful sense, not far removed from a theory of capitalism-nature
relationships tout court. This links to a final assumption being made here, and a necessary one
too: namely, that we do not currently live in a world totally neoliberalised, which means that
neoliberalism is best seen as a project an unfinished attempt to expand the social and biophysical
frontiers of capital accumulation. Hence the need to theorise, as well as study concretely, its
actual and likely socio-environmental dynamics.17
At the very considerable risk of stating the obvious, the substantive theoretical argument begins
with a telegraphic recapitulation of what I take to be the central insights and signal strengths of
the late Marxs anatomisation of capitalism. As with an earlier part of the essay, some readers
may wish to skip ahead but I revisit Marx here because his core claims seem to me just as
relevant as ever, and yet are not well understood by many Leftists socialised during the period
when the posts were intellectually ascendant.18
The Marx of Capital regarded capitalism as a process not a thing: that is, a system whose
governing logics ensure that it is astonishingly dynamic. Three logics or rules of the game
stand-out above all others within this mode of production. First, capitalism is growth-orientated:
it is a process of commodity production, distribution, sale, servicing and consumption whose
central goal is to realise more wealth (notably, in the form of money-capital) than was required
to make, move, maintain, sell and dispose of commodities in the first place. Secondly,
commodity production occurs within a competitive environment: firms of various kinds in
diverse economic sectors find themselves vying for market-share with rival producers, except in
relatively rare cases of monopoly control where barriers to market entry are high. Third, the
compulsion to accumulate wealth in a competitive economic environment ensures constant
pressure for producers to innovate in any and all aspects of their business practice. These
innovations can relate to new products, new processes and locations of production, the creation

Note that in the sections to come when I use the terms capital and capitalists I will be referring to both those
involved in owning and controlling finance as well as productive capital. The two ought to be teased apart and their
relatively autonomous dynamics explored. However, this will further complicate an already complicated argument
so I bracket the issue here, as well as the important links to rentier capital.
Interestingly, Marx seems to me making something of a comeback, judging by the number of new books on his
work and its contemporary significance (Albritton, 2007; Bensaid, 2002; Collier, 2004).

of new needs and wants among consumers, the search for new markets, efforts to alter regulatory
rules, and a host of other things too.
Together, this trinity of logics ensures that the accumulation of capital is a restless and
unstable process. The fine details and, in time, broad outlines of prevailing patterns of
commodity production, transportation, sale, servicing, consumption and disposal are always
being remade. Periodically, and in the absence of highly skilled regulation by governmental
bodies and other powerful state-like actors, this ceaseless process of change produces crises by
virtue of the internal contradictions between growth, competition and innovation. The classic
example is when numerous firms increase productivity and efficiency by displacing wage labour,
causing consumer purchasing power to tendentially decline this being Marxs famouslyidentified tension between the forces and relations of production. Crises take the form of surplus
capital (commodities, money, capital equipment, fixed plant, and so on) existing in the midst of
insufficient opportunities for their absorption. This seemingly peculiar combination of surplus
and scarcity reflects the specific form in which wealth is measured in capitalist societies: not as
material wealth (the quantity and quality of diverse commodities) but as social wealth
(represented as the real abstraction money, and created in the process of production by wage
workers). Because workers are commodified within the capitalist mode of production they
require wages (money capital) in order to live, and accordingly lack the capacity to self-produce
the basket of basic and (depending on their income) more luxury commodities they use their
wages to purchase. Capitalist crises are thus, fundamentally, both crises of over-production and
under-consumption at the same time: material abundance juxtaposed with social want is part of
capitalisms irrational rationality because of the contradictions surrounding the source of both
wealth and consumer demand (i.e. wage-labour).
Such crises are also ramified events for the simple reason that economic affairs are
always more than simply business matters this applies equally during periods of economic
growth and stability. State bodies dependent on taxes and loans to fund their suite of activities
can suffer fiscal and legitimacy crises when the motor of capital accumulation dies down.
Workers and their dependents whose reproduction depends on requisite jobs and wages can
find themselves un- or underemployed, poorly paid, compelled to migrate, or even completely
destitute. And all manner of civil society, voluntary and charitable organisations, necessarily
dependent on flows of money from the productive sphere, can also find themselves unable to
perform their roles and functions effectively or at all.

In order to address minor or major crises, firms, state bodies, workers and their
representatives, and a range of civil society actors have a range of options acting alone and
together. One is to share the pain of a shake-out (equally or otherwise), which means the
devaluation of variable, commodity, fixed and other forms of capital to different degrees.
Another, connected strategy is to thoroughly restructure in situ the prevailing practices of
production (product types and mixes, production processes, labour relations etc), regulation
(fiscal and monetary policy, competition, consumer and labour law, education and training
policy etc.) and consumption in order to move towards a new and hopefully more stable regime
of capital accumulation. And a third option is to seek-out what David Harvey (1982) has
famously called a spatio-temporal fix where, through the financial system, surplus money
capital is switched into virgin territories and/or the future (e.g. by tying it up in major
infrastructure projects). Such a fix may serve as a palliative for capitalists in search of renewed
profits, but it also threatens to generalise capitalisms crisis tendencies geographically and into
the future. It may also offer few returns to state-institutions, civil societies, workers and their
dependents in capital-exporting zones, unless profits therefrom or new external investment can
be utilised productively to restart the engine of capital accumulation. Unlike large fractions of
productive capital and many of those governing the flows of finance capital, these actors are
thoroughly embedded in specific localities, regions and national territories making them
vulnerable when economic downturns or full-blown crises strike.
Clearly, this is only a sketch of Marxs theoretical word-picture of capitalism. One of its
key attributes, it seems to me, is its demonstration that processes of capital accumulation not
only have creative destruction written-into their DNA but are also tendentially all-encompassing.
They insinuate themselves far beyond the formal sphere of the economy, influencing daily life,
patterns of social and biological reproduction, state strategies and options, the public domain and
much more. This means that the (il)logics of capital accumulation both internalise a set of
putatively separate domains of existence, and that these domains even if they are ultimately
irreducible to these (il)logics cannot fail to be affected by them, often profoundly so.
The great transformation is an historical essay, but it is perfectly possible to extract some general
insights from Polanyis otherwise specific argument that might help us make sense of the
neoliberal present. As with my summary of Marx, I am not going to dwell on different possible

readings of Polanyis work (see, among many examples, Block [2003]) instead I extract what I
regard as some powerful and useful insights from his best-known text.
Polanyi wrote The great transformation in the early 1940s in an attempt to make sense of
the long era of liberal capitalism that had ended in a global, six year conflagration. A close
student of Marxs writings, Polanyis argument repeats but also usefully supplements the
formers political economic teachings. Four Polanyian insights stand-out. First, The great
transformation made use of the important idea of a pseudo- or fictitious commodity. This is
any commodity whose social, cultural and/or ecological value exceeds the market value placed
upon it within a capitalist system. Polanyi identified labour (workers, their dependents and the
unemployed) and land (nature and environment) among his list of fictitious commodities because
neither human beings nor the biophysical world exist to meet the demands of capital
accumulation. Even so, both are deeply affected by its logics and rhythms meaning that they are
characterised by doubleness or duality: they inhabit a world both within and beyond the
market. Secondly, this connects to the notion of embeddedness the idea that a capitalist
economy must exist in a more-than-capitalist world. This is a world of social, cultural, economic,
political and biophysical diversity that confronts capitalist economies as both opportunities and
barriers: outsides that can be made profitable given the right conditions but whose noncommodification may, also, be necessary to capitalisms survival.
Thirdly, Polanyi coined the term the double movement to describe a situation where
attempts to expand the reach and depth of capitalist commodification are met by more-or-less
vocal (even violent) forms of resistance. The self-protection of society from the excesses of
liberal capitalism such as low wages, a minimal public sector, and unchecked environmental
externalities can take various forms. It is, Polanyi showed, an indication of free market
capitalisms inability to disembed itself socially and biophysically from what E. P. Thompson
(1991: 10) called a tissue of beliefs and usages.19 However, the double movement need not be
read as a prediction borne-out by past history of the likely fate of neoliberalism. For
Polanyis fourth key insight was that a market economy can extend itself quite far so long as
what he called a market society can be engineered and suitably regulated. A market society is
one where individuals and communities are somehow encouraged to live with the fairly stark
forms of creative destruction that are the hallmark of capitalism unleashed. Capitalism can,

Andrew Sayer (2007) provides a contemporary reflection on the important but far-from-new concept of the moral

then, live with, as well as influence, a wide range of moral economies some of which are more
accommodating than others.
Clearly, Polanyis argument takes its leave from the late Marxs analysis of capitalism. It
is ultimately an account of how capitalist crises occur, but with an accent not only on internal
contradictions but also (and equally) external friction between capitalism and what we might
call its constitutive outsides. Where Polanyi differs notably from the late Marx is in two areas.
First, he brings biophysical issues more directly and crisply into a critique of political economy
via the concept of fictitious commodities. Secondly, where Marx hoped that capitalism would
be undone by revolutionary struggle instigated by waged-workers, Polanyis argument points
alternately to cooptation (a market society) and reform from within (the double movement).
This means that Polanyi was ultimately far less sanguine than Marx about the possibility for
crises (of capital, the state, working people, of resource availability, and/or within civil society)
to lead to structural change (see Burawoy, 2003; cf. Birchfield, 1999).
EcoMarxism: the work of James OConnor
Marx said little of a systematic nature about capitalism-environment relations. Over the last
fifteen years or so a set of authors have sought to make amends, in order not only to bridge the
well-known red-green divide politically but also to address an analytical deficiency within the
Marxian tradition. These ecoMarxists include Elmar Altvater, Paul Birkett, Ted Benton and
John Bellamy Foster all of whom have produced major treatises (Altvater, 1993; Birkett, 1999;
Benton, 1993; Bellamy Foster, 2000).20 Since this is not the place to rehearse the debates and
disagreements within the ecoMarxist camp (of which there are many), I want once more to
selectively emphasise arguments and ideas that can help us create a coherent theoretical account
of neoliberal environments. To this end, I examine briefly the work of arguably the best-known
of all the ecoMarxist scholars, James OConnor. OConnor is not only a student of the late Marx
(preferring not to read Marxs through the lenses of his various acolytes and interpreters); he has
also taken a good deal of inspiration from Polanyi.
In his book Natural causes (1998) and a series of programmatic journal essays, OConnor
has coined the terms the second contradiction, the conditions of production and underproduction crises. This trinity of concepts is useful, properly understood. The first and second

I shoul also note here the work of several Marxisant scholars, such as Fred Buttel, Allan Schnaiberg and Ken

connect Marx and Polanyi in order to suggest that the external contradictions capitalism
confronts are just as important to its evolution (and potential demise) as the internal dialectics.
By conditions of production OConnor refers to all those phenomena upon which capitalism
depends for its existence but which, either absolutely or relatively, it is unable to produce from
within. This is a version of the fictitious commodity and embeddedness arguments, but it is given
a systematic spin by OConnor. He identifies environmental conditions (biophysical resources,
be they economically productive, indirectly productive or ambient), personal conditions (all
those things necessary to self-reproduce a living person, like housing) and communal conditions
(all those shared amenities and assets that people rely upon for social and biological
reproduction, like roads, public transport, schools, the legal system etc.). So conditions of
production is OConnors way of capturing the umbilical connection between capitalism, the
domain of human reproduction, and the realm of biophysical nature. It is his way of suggesting
that the first and second contradictions may be concurrent and causally related rather than
separate even though it is possible for a growing economy to be governed in such a way that a
sharp deterioration in the conditions of production occurs (think of China today or early-to-late
Victorian Britain).
OConnors central argument is that capitalism has a tendency to underproduce these
conditions of production, though not necessarily all at the same time or to the same degree. For
instance, if we take environmental conditions, it is clear that firms rely upon naturally occurring
resources and spaces for a range of things, notably: (i) raw materials for immediate production
and a range of built environments that support such production, (ii) energy supplies, (iii) spaces
to make, move, sell, service and consume commodities (factories, airports, road systems,
shopping malls etc.), (iv) and zones into which to expel wastes generated by commodity
producers, distributors, sellers, servicers and consumers. In all these roles and capacities, the
biophysical world has a materiality that capitalist production cannot ultimately master or
control. For example, raw material deposits become exhausted; insufficient space may be
available in the right places for new infrastructure projects; and environmental sinks may
become polluted and harm a range of constituencies.
Cases like these, OConnor argues, are not just problems for capitalist firms and their
employees. They are also problems for society at large because resource scarcity and
environmental degradation pose the wider issue of who has access, or suffers the consequences,
when particular elements of the biophysical world are enclosed or altered by processes of capital

accumulation. If that world is, for capitalists, merely a means to the ultimate end of profitability,
for diverse other stakeholders it is variously a source of spiritual meaning, aesthetic pleasure,
subsistence use-values, and so on. This immediately poses the question of how conflicts over the
appropriate way to value the non-human world are to be avoided or somehow negotiated. And
here, unsurprisingly, OConnor points-up the central role of the national state and its adjuncts,
building on his germinal work The fiscal crisis of the state (1973).
In a now very familiar argument within state-theoretical debates, OConnor regards the
national state as the key regulator of capital accumulation within its sovereign territory. It must
somehow work within and outside the capitalist system, helping to ensure economic growth and
social stability by ameliorating the systems internal contradictions and playing a role in
providing, and maintaining the health of, various conditions of production.21 This involves a mix
of setting framework conditions for business practice (e.g. commercial law), being a service
provider to the full range of social groups and, more generally, steering the content and
discursive framing of public debates about national affairs. For business, the national state and
the sub- and supra-national institutions it may distribute some of its power to can help to
mitigate or offset the first and/or second contradictions. For instance, it can raise business taxes
to pay for environmental clean-ups or craft taxation policy so as to encourage the development
of replacements for declining natural resources. However, other national stakeholders workers,
non-governmental organisations, charities and so on may politicise the conditions of
production in ways that run-up against business interests. In this situation the state somehow has
to mediate, depending on the balance of power among competing parties.
Objective material changes to nature caused by capitalist firms do not speak for
themselves. They are, instead, framed discursively by a range of actors who may as workers
often do find themselves, rather uncomfortably, wearing more than one hat (are you an
employee, a consumer, a shareholder, an environmentalist, a concerned parent or all of these
things?). Whether and how capitalisms tendency to underproduce the conditions of production
is deemed to be a problem, let alone a crisis, depends greatly on how these actors represent
these conditions semiotically and their ability, at any given time, to use the state apparatus to
their advantage. For OConnor, then, struggles over meaning and the material power to


This basic view of the capitalist state is not out of line with later, more fine-grained analyses of the complexities of,
and dilemmas besetting, state bodies see, for example, Jessop (1996).

vanquish rivals are every bit as important as objective realities pertaining to the conditions of
production and the substantive economy.22
OConnors work is, as my summary suggests, very relational and holistic. It works
biophysical issues into Marxs political economy in a fairly systematic way, building on Polanyis
ideas. It has several specific things to recommend it. First, it strongly accents the spill-over
effects of capitalist political economy onto ecology and society, even as it highlights capitals
absolute dependence on these two connected domains. It usefully identifies the multiple sources
of tension between actors who, in many cases, must simultaneously reside within and without
the capitalist economy. Secondly, it rightly focuses on national states and their adjuncts as key
mediating bodies in the triangular relations between capitalists, nature and the wider society (see
also Block [1994] and Eckersley [2004]). Thirdly, it moves beyond objectivist accounts of
environmental problems and crises, reminding us that discourses and power-plays of various
kinds occupy a key role in determining whether and how real contradictions become politicised
by those who stand to suffer from them (see, also, OConnor [1987]). Fourthly, it makes plain
how the socio-economic and cultural positionality of different actors makes a difference to how
the internal and external contradictions of capital are experienced, negotiated and/or reacted to.
A crisis need not be all-encompassing for a place or society, even though it could be. For
instance, a successful logging company observing commercial and civic law may nonetheless
create acute problems for peasants or deep ecologists because of its commitment to deforest hilly
or biodiverse areas.
Finally, and relatedly, OConnors work shows that the labour movement and the (now
not so new) new social movements have much to gain by working in concert.
Environmentalisms of various kinds are still typically represented as social movement struggles,
as are those concerning identity, cultural recognition, gender, race and the like. Yet classic
labour movement concerns about the workplace and the reproductive sphere, OConnor
suggests, cannot be divorced from a consideration of putatively non-economic issues like a
persons right to clean water, unpolluted air or access to the environmental commons. They
bleed into each other because capitalism perforates whatever membrane formerly separated
them. Revolutionary and reformist movements against capital cannot, therefore, begin-and-end


This makes for a contrast with the putatively realist language of many environmentalists on the far-green end of
the spectrum who are often prone to apocalyptic claims as if biophysical change will have (or has) deterministic
societal outcomes.

with classic labour struggle. In the case of the environmental movement specifically its Leftwing components the challenge is to connect productively with labour politics while somehow
negotiating the jobs versus environment antithesis that partly explains the historic red-green
Neil Smith
I conclude this general discussion of the place of nature in capitalist societies by examining the
work of Marxist geographer Neil Smith. Like OConnor and the other ecoMarxists I mentioned,
Smith respects both the spirit and the letter of Marxs mature writings. Where he differs is in his
treatment of the biophysical dimension. This has three elements, even though he is best known
for one of these the once counter-intuitive idea of the production of nature. All three are
evident in his book Uneven development (1984) and several subsequent essays (Smith, 1996, 1998,
First, in OConnors work a residual naturalism is sometimes evident that runs-against his
insistence that nature is always practically and discursively mediated. Smith is
uncompromisingly consistent on this score: Nature, he has remarked, is nothing if it is not
social (Smith, 1984: 30). This is not an anti-materialist claim or exaggerated form of social
constructionism. It is, more simply, a generalisation of economist Eric Zimmermans famously
wise observation that resources are not, they become. Different actors located within and
without the capitalist system cannot, Smith argues, interpret and engage with the non-human
world in ways uninfluenced by those actors interests, worldviews, social locations and learnt
practices. Nature never speaks for itself, whether we are dealing with extreme events like
Hurricane Katrina or more everyday activities like tending an allotment or jogging in a local
park. It is social all the way down since discursively specific and technologically mediated
appraisals of the non-human world are ceaselessly operative, contested and changeable.
Secondly, Smith argues that the biophysical world is both a condition of, and propellant
to, capitals uneven development in space and time. This is true not only in the case of naturedependent industries and areas (think of agricultural, forestry and mining districts, or fisheries
communities). It is more generally true for capital writ-large, since ultimately all aspects of


It should by now be abundantly clear that both Polanyis and OConnors writings have strong family
resemblances to the French Regulation School of political economy, which has a biophysical dimension in the form
of some of Alain Lipietzs work (e.g. Lipietz, 1992).

capitalist society are nature-dependent in some way, shape of form: the making, moving, selling,
servicing, consuming and disposal of any and all commodities necessarily requires raw materials,
energy sources, physical spaces and waste disposal opportunities. It follows, for Smith, that
uneven development is simultaneously a political economic and biophysical process. Capitals
restless search for new investment opportunities and new markets routinely entails: (i) the
abandonment of no longer productive zones (where the conditions of production may be
deteriorating and too costly or risky to fix); (ii) biophysical changes in virgin territories because
new energy- and raw-material intensive infrastructures may emerge combined with new
productive activities that may themselves make large biophysical demands; and (iii) the use of
these territories as absorption zones for surplus capital from growth regions, including myriad
resource-commodities like trees, foodstuffs and minerals in search of market opportunities. At
moments of crisis economic, political and reproductive environmental problems in one area
can become the impetus for new rounds of biophysical transformation elsewhere as capital
switches (often speculatively) into new growth areas. But even in non-crisis conditions, Smith
argues, the compulsion to work existing biophysical assets harder and seek-out new ones is partand-parcel of capitalisms normal functioning.
Finally, Smiths work at one level challenges Polanyis (and OConnors) pseudocommodity idea. His seemingly counter-intuitive notion of the capitalist production of nature
can be read in a number of ways. One is the idea that capitalist firms, where it is technically and
biophysically possible, materially remake nature in order to secure new or additional profits.
Nature, here, becomes less an exogenous force that capital has to circulate around and more
something it can physically circulate through by virtue of scientific-technical innovation that
renders it more malleable. Clearly, the production of nature can only occur in biologically-based
economic sectors (like agriculture, forestry, fibre industries, and fisheries). But it is a useful
reminder that, biophysically, capital is not only destructive but simultaneously creative too (see
Goodman et al., 1987): it finds ways and means to materially subsume the non-human world
(think of genetically modified foods and animals), or else substitute natural products with
manufactured ones (think of chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers). In a rather profound
sense, parts of nature become manufactured rather than found as it were, unnatural.24 This
sort of creativity is, of course, that celebrated by so-called optimists or Cornucopians within

In Marxian terms, this capitalist production of nature can seek to engineer both the forces/means of production
(e.g. a GM maize plant) and the final product (e.g. an ear of GM corn). See Kloppenburg (2004) for a classic example.

the environmental movement (currently represented in the social sciences by ecological
modernizers and industrial ecologists). Of course, such creativity is not the same as control
Smith is clear about this in all his writing. The capitalist production of nature can, just as much
as the formal subsumption of nature, spark social opposition and a range of unanticipated and
even unmanageable environmental problems. Here, pace OConnor, state bodies have important
roles to play in terms of (de)legitimising and practically regulating capitalist practices and may
themselves suffer or enjoy fiscal and legitimation effects accordingly. Ultimately, then, Polanyis
pseudo-commodity insight applies to Smiths production of nature idea, even if some capitalist
firms are successfully able to reposition the boundary between the social and the natural worlds
in the case of certain commodities (see Boyd et al., 2001).
Towards a general theory 2: the matter of nature
If, as I am suggesting, we piece together the insights of Marx, Polanyi, OConnor and Smith we
arrive at a complex and holistic understanding of capitalism-nature relations even at the level of
abstract theory. I say even because such theory is often (incorrectly) thought to aim for
certainty and simplicity, whereas it ought as I argued earlier to offer researchers the sort of
conceptual complexity typically required to fathom empirical complexity. In order to progress to
a theory of neoliberal environments I now need to add to the conceptual complexity somewhat
by teasing-out something that was mostly implicit in the previous sub-section or else scattered
throughout the discussion: the material significance of the non-human world to the course of
capital accumulation in space and time. I will use the term matter here in both of its familiar
dictionary meanings, namely the physical properties of something and its significance (practical,
moral, spiritual, aesthetic) to those affected by it directly or otherwise. I take each in turn, but
the point of course is that they are closely connected and of equal relevance to the argument. As
Becky Mansfield (2003: 177) puts it aptly, we ascribe meanings to things without erasing the
material nature of those things.25
The biophysical world is at once differentiated and connected, animate and inanimate,
biological and non-biological, micro and macro, local and global. It comprises entities, species
and systems that are, variously, autonomous from one another, codependent, asymmetrically


The arguments in this section have benefited from engagement with rich literatures on (i) material cultures (e.g.
Miller, 1998), (ii) cultural economy (e.g. Amin & Thrift, 2004), and (iii) consumption cultures (e.g. Fine & Leopold,

connected or co-constitutive. Complex couplings and decouplings, loops and feedbacks,
thresholds and continuities, barriers and pathways characterise the non-human world at a range
of spatio-temporal scales from the smallest to the largest. Through our economic and other
practices we have inserted ourselves into this world, serving to simultaneously reproduce,
destabilise, degrade, reconstitute, repair, restore and eliminate the various elements and relations
that comprise it. Capitalism, I would argue, is easily the most transformative mode of production
the world has ever seen (see McNeill, 2000; cf. Lomborg, 2001). But, as the previous sub-section
argued at several points, the traffic is not all one way. For not only is capitalism dependent on
the biophysical world for a range of goods and services that may or may not be costed
monetarily. Its very organisation is also physically influenced by the capacities and affordances
that nature possesses in its unmodified or humanly modified states.
In the previous sub-section I described these capacities and affordances at both a general
level entities and services that capitalists cannot ultimately produce and a more specific level
(the quartet of: raw materials; energy sources; spaces to make, move, sell, service and consume
commodities; and waste disposal sinks). There are, however, some additional things that can be
said and here I think the categories of quantity, quality, connectivity, extensiveness and location
have a usefully general relevance.26
Quantity describes the physical availability of raw materials, energy sources, biophysical
spaces and waste sinks. Even though absolute biophysical scarcity is rare in capitalist societies,
quantity issues are important to the cost-calculus that determines at which point natural goods
and services become relatively scarce. Renewable and non-renewable resources are both, at some
point, finite goods; spaces that can be given over to infrastructures of production, reproduction,
distribution, sale, servicing and consumption are not limitless; and waste sinks have real
tolerance thresholds. All this connects to quality, which is the specific character of a biophysical
entity or system its signature feature(s), as it were. A giant redwood is not the same as a
Douglas fir, and neither are anything like a minke whale, a cougar, a dung beetle or a quetzal.
The qualitative characteristics obviously matter enormously to how all the actors involved in the
drama of capitalist accumulation confront nature. Firms may have to adapt their production
processes if they cannot physically produce nature in Smiths sense this is especially evident in
non-biologically based resource sectors where enormous costs may be involved in accessing


These categories are partly derived from Boyd et al. (2001).

things like oil, copper or diamonds; state-bodies may wish, at the behest of their citizens, to
protect or restore rare species and ecosystems; and indigenous (fourth world) peoples, to cite a
third example, may vigorously resist corporate encroachment into ancestral lands. In these and
other cases natures qualitative characteristics are central to clashes of value between actors vying
to determine its proper use.
Connectivity describes a key characteristic of the non-human world. In simple terms it
means that any attempt to enclose, degrade, alter, abstract, remediate or relocate an element of
nature is likely to have non-trivial knock-on effects at one or more spatio-temporal scales. This is
obviously the case with atmospheric and water pollution, but there are numerous other cases
where capitalist firms or other social actors create ripple-effects often unintended and
sometimes difficult to govern by enclosing, abstracting, moving, restoring or disposing of some
element(s) of the non-human world. Extensiveness refers to the physical scale of biophysical
resources required for some element of capital accumulation. It is a particular challenge for
primary producers to access extensive resources where thousands and millions of hectares of land
or water are needed for production to be viable (see Prudham [2003]). Think of large-scale
forestry or many commercial fisheries. Finally, and relatedly, location matters because many
biophysical resources and assets are geographically specific and unevenly patterned. Their use
demands that actors have to be proximate to or in legal-cum-administrative control of them,
something that can require a lot of money, time and effort; these resources may be embedded in
unique ways of life (think of Pacific salmon and west coast aboriginal communities in Canada
and the US); and they may, because of their unique or iconic status, become the focus of overseas
attention by those wishing to exploit or protect them (think of Rwandan gorillas, Chinese white
dolphins, old-growth Clayoquot Sound forest, or oil in Alaskas protected areas).
So, in a range of ways, natures biophysical characteristics play an important role in
determining whether and how they are used, by whom, in what manner, and with what effects.
But the second sense of mattering is crucially important too and it is useful to venture a
vocabulary to get a handle on this issue. Social actors invest the non-human world with
significance, for biological (e.g. the need for clean water) and non-biological (i.e. social, cultural
and spiritual) reasons. The latter, as I have argued, directs our attention to actors values and
interests, their capacity to realise these interests relative to other parties, and the wider moral
economies in which they operate at home and abroad. The biophysical world only matters in the
second sense of the term if social actors have sufficiently strong reasons and desires; if they have

the power to act successfully via the state-apparatus or directly, or if lacking such power they
have some way to express their discontent as forms of non-trivial resistance. In these conditions,
struggles over nature are always already struggles over meanings (Peet and Watts, 1996):
environmental imaginaries both arise from and alter environmental practices in a ceaseless
The great complication here, which I hinted at earlier, is that the same individuals and
communities may have internally contradictory stances on different, or even the same,
biophysical issues. The fact that people are an amalgam of subject-positions each position
involving different social relations, value systems, and social practices complicates the ways
that they value the non-human world. A stereotypical and hypothetical but nonetheless
instructive example, is the CEO of an oil major who assiduously recycles plastic bottles at home,
buys only organic fruit and vegetables, and refuses to shop at large supermarkets in favour of
local shops stocking low food miles produce. Multivalence, not simply ambivalence, becomes a
normal condition. Even where the internal contradictions are not so acute, people still have to
make decisions about what elements of the non-human world matter to them and why. Is ones
stance taken as a worker, an owner or manager of a firm, a consumer, a smallholder, a member
of an NGO or NSM, a member of a national or global public, or a member of a specific cultural,
gender, sex, age, religious or ethnic group?27 And lest this sound like voluntarism people
autonomously deciding whether and how to value nature in certain ways it is worth recalling
how many of our beliefs and values are not our own: they are social, inherited and sometimes
imposed (benignly or otherwise). This means that the presence or absence of specific valuations
of things like forests, honeybees, coral reefs, aquifers or atolls in large measure reflects the ideas
and incentives built-into such things as the mass media, the education system, the world of
advertising, the charitable sector, our parental and community upbringing and so on. If capitalist
interests are able to forge these ideas and incentives, or at least make the profit-motive consistent
with them, then they have an awful lot to gain not least the relative absence of protest at their
specific uses of nature for raw materials, energy sources, physical spaces or waste sinks.
Finally, having said something about the complexities of valuing the non-human world in
societies where capitalism dominates or intrudes, let me say something about where challenges to


As Billig et al. (1988) have argued, even in simple societies (never mind complex ones) individuals have a
continuously dilemmatic existence since the roles and relations that constitute their life courses are rarely
consistent and harmonious.

its uses of nature can focus, deploying a set of familiar but still useful terms. They can focus on
open access resources (like the atmosphere), communal resources (e.g. land once used
collectively by herders for cattle grazing), public resources (e.g. a government-owned and run
marine reserve), club resources (e.g. a private golf course), world heritage (e.g. a UNESCO
designated site like the Galapagos Islands) and any number of private resources (e.g. farmers
fields, titled mineral deposits, leased land given-over to airport construction, or exclusive game
reserves). Depending on who is doing the valuing of specific things within each of these broad
categories, they can be regarded as either necessary for life or, alternatively, as things that help to
make life worth living. What is more, the things signified by these categories all have certain
geographies and temporalities. This means that the actors involved in using them and deciding
their fate including any aggrieved parties may be proximate but also far more distant (and
may have to consider future generations). Depending on who they are, and the subject-positions
that inform their environmental concern, these parties can focus on any or all of the several
phases constitutive of the encounter between capitalist economies and biophysical environments,
namely: enclosure, commodity production (e.g. extraction, cultivation or restoration),
transportation and distribution, consumption, maintenance (including recycling) and waste
disposal. And, depending on the context in which they are operating morally, monetarily and
institutionally, these parties can address their concerns to capitalist firms directly, to various
arms of the state (local, national or otherwise), to the media or to and through a range of civil
society, voluntary and lobby groups.
To summarise, from the perspective of capitalist firms of various kinds the biophysical
world matters in three ways: it presents barriers (physical and/or socio-cultural), opportunities
(to garner profits in a variety of ways) and surprises (unintended or unanticipated biophysical
problems, related forms of reactive state regulation, or social protest by various actors).28 Seen
from the perspective of other social actors within and without the capitalist economy, the nonhuman world matters in similarly complicated ways. It provides a range of use-, symbolic-, and
affective-values that are sometimes amenable to commodification, but sometimes not. The
dilemmas and conflicts attaching to all this manifest themselves not simply between individuals,
communities, nations and organisations, but within them too. They may result in quiescence or


I gratefully borrow this three-fold terminology from Boyd et al. (2001). However, I intentionally broaden its
meaning to capture capitals insertion not only into a biophysical world not (mostly) of its own making, but a social
world irreducible to its dictates too.

protest, depending. Regulatory bodies, where they are robust enough, must somehow deal with
protest without threatening jobs and profits within their territorial ambit unless they can nip it
in the bud.29
Towards a general theory 3: Neoliberal environments
Were now in a position to speculate theoretically about the trajectory of natures
neoliberalisation past, present and future in a world that is simultaneously capitalist but
more-than-capitalist. Because, like many others, I think it non-sensical to analyse neoliberalism in
abstraction from its capitalist integument, the previous two sub-sections have been a necessary
way-station to this part of the essay. Figures 1 and 2 seek to capture the main arguments
presented in these sections.30 They are different ways of diagramming what has been said so far.
The arguments they depict, I am suggesting, need somehow to be tailored to make sense of the
neoliberal environments that are my concern here.
One place to begin is by returning to the ideal-typical, seven-point definition of
neoliberalism that I presented earlier, and then subsequently complicating the account. This
definition does not constitute some fixed standard that remains unchanged by the insights of
empirical studies into neoliberalisations. Instead, it is a provisional definition without which it
is not clear how analysts [would] recognise neoliberalism when they see aspects of it in hybrid
form (McCarthy, 2006: 87). What, then, are the connections between each dimension of
neoliberalism and the biophysical world? I take each one in turn, though they ought not to be
seen in isolation. The overall message will be that, whatever else it is, neoliberalism is also a
[profoundly] environmental project and necessarily so (McCarthy and Prudham, 2004: 277).
(i) Privatisation: All property rights are, of course, about social relations they are not simply
bloodless rules and procedures crafted by politicians, bureaucrats and lawyers. They define who
has access to what, when, and under what conditions. Privatisation, in its various forms, defines
a bundle of property rights that empower certain individuals, communities or institutions to

Note that I am intentionally avoiding the now-tired language of environment determinism versus social
constructionism because, unless its highly refined, this language robs us of the vocabulary we need to grasp the
complexity of natures mattering. This complexity is captured well in Bridge and Bakkers (2006) review essay on
the biophysical world and its interpretation, and in Daniel Millers (2005) more general text.
In Figure 2 the upper case letters in the upper part of the diagram have the following meanings: M = money; C =
commodities; I = direct physical inputs to commodity production; MP = means of production; LP = labour
power; P = the production process; C = new commodities; = monetary profit; OMP = capitalists.

exclude other parties from access to (or use of) certain things, both physically and/or discursively
(think of land and trademarks). These things can be exchanged voluntarily in many cases, but the
right of alienation belongs to the owner(s) so long as there is an effective legal and penal system
to enforce the rules and norms of property in any given instance. Privatisation thus gives owners
certain powers to use or exchange their property, regardless of what rival users or owners
wishes may be. Depending on who the owners are, privatisation can license radically different
patterns of use and alienation in relation to the full spectrum of entities, symbols and ideas that
can be the subject of property rights in both theory and practice.
Seen from a Marxian-Polanyian perspective, privatisation whatever else it may be is, of
course, vital to the operations of capital. Without more-or-less exclusive rights of title and/or
access to everything from parcels of land, built environments and inventions to labour power
and licensed software, capitalists could never launch commodities into circulation with a view to
realising profit at the end of each round of production. Where capitalists do not directly own
certain things deemed necessary for their productive activities they may lease rights of access and
use from others (e.g. from rentiers or various state bodies). The key question then becomes: how
much access and use do various capitalist class fractions have in any one instance?
Neoliberalism is a project to maximise various forms of privatisation, most especially in
the interests of profit-seeking businesses. The privatisation process can occur both within mature
capitalist economies but also in territories previously non- or only partly-capitalist. It can take at
least two forms: the private appropriation of previously state-owned and run assets; or the
private appropriation of previously open-access and communal assets. The latter Marx famously
called a process of primitive accumulation. However, in his two books on neoliberalism,
Harvey (2005a, 2005b) uses the term accumulation by dispossession to remind us that the
frontiers of privatisation are still being extended today: Marx should not be read as implying that
enclosures of various kinds were a historic phase, a hallmark of 18th century capitalism. The
system, Harvey rightly insists, still has many outsides it wishes to internalise with a view to
deriving profit.
In what respects and with what effects, then, can privatisation writ-large be seen as a
process with a strong biophysical dimension? Firstly, and most obviously, it entails land, subsurface resources, terrestrial waters, marine waters, genes, representations of nature and even the
atmosphere being the express target of enclosure. Various environmental conditions of
production are directly or indirectly appropriated by capitalist as, variously, sources of raw

materials, energy stocks, spaces to sustain economic activities and waste sinks. Secondly, this
enclosure process frequently involves the exclusion of groups formerly dependent upon
biophysical resources for their livelihoods (e.g. freeholders, peasant farmers, nomadic herders) or
who otherwise enjoyed valued rights of access (e.g. hikers, tourists). In countries where a large
public sector once prevailed state bodies are also, of course, similarly excluded. But in neoliberal
regimes they of, course, self-exclude by selling-off or leasing formerly state run nature reserves,
mineral deposits, transportation networks and the like. Thirdly, an important biophysical aspect
of neoliberal privatisation involves enclosing nature for no other purpose than to conserve,
preserve or restore it. This, when attached to marketization (see ii. below), is what I have been
calling free market environmentalism, where so-called tragedy of the commons problems are
addressed by establishing rights and responsibilities in environmental harm and redress (market
failures need market solutions is the mantra). Exclusion applies here, of course, but the accent is
not on the sort of environmental degradation that so commonly accompanies capitalist

Marketisation: Privatisation need not be connected to marketisation (i.e. pricing and sale).

Owners may not be willing or able put a monetary price on their possessions, nor willing and
able to exchange them with other parties in price-fixing markets. However, in neoliberal regimes
the one implies the other two. Capitalists enclose physical things, symbols, tokens and ideas
precisely in order to monetise and exchange them. Given that far more of the biophysical world
is likely to be privatised within neoliberal regimes, it follows that far more of it is likely to be
marketised too. What, generally speaking, are the forms and effects of natures accelerated
First, and most obviously, the non-human world is either directly traded (as with
foodstuffs) or serves as a necessary production condition for the trading of other commodities (as
with a new privately-run container-port built on formerly public shoreline). This means that its
social value comes more-and-more to be determined by its market value as a final commodity, a
means of production or a force of production: that is, the monetary price that various producers
and consumers are willing and able to pay for it. Secondly, as numerous Left-critiques of the
market have pointed out, the conflation of monetary with social value means that less well-off


For a set of rich reflections on privatisation and non-human nature see Mansfield (2007).

parties proximate to or distant from a biophysical resource get little if any say in its fate. These
parties are forced to pay (or pay more) for the use of a resource or environmental amenity that
was previously free or low cost. Conversely, those with relatively high purchasing power near
and far get a disproportionate say in whether and how certain biophysical assets and spaces are to
be used (see ONeill, 2007). Thirdly, because the logic of capital accumulation is profit-making, it
follows that expanded marketisation means the greater quantitative use of nature and the
appropriation or perceived degradation of a wider range of biophysical phenomena in the
qualitative sense. So, the formal and real subsumption of nature to capital become writ-large.
Only in a post-material economy or one in which materials were mostly recycled would this
statement not hold good.32 This is connected to the likelihood of ever larger feedback-effects as
more biophysical entities are exploited, abstracted, moved, relocated, consumed and discharged
along the entire circuit of capital accumulation. And it is connected too to the likelihood that
more locationally unique (non-ubiquitous) resources will become commercial targets. Fourthly,
the heightenend marketisation of nature by productive, financial and rentier capital creates new
groups of wage-labour dependent for their living on natures saleability.
Finally, where the feedback-effects and concerns about appropriating locationally special
resources are politicised in ways that require their mitigation or elimination, marketisation
becomes the neoliberal tool to address the environmental problems that marketisation itself
partly helped to create. I am, once again, referring to the use of economic instruments to protect
and/or restore terrestrial, atmospheric and marine environments from harm inflicted by
monetary under- or non-valuation by firms, rentiers and consumers. Depending on the rules of
the eco-markets in question, these instruments can be more or less effective though they
almost always take profit-making as a means or an end. They are intended to be the green
thumb attached to Adam Smiths famous invisible hand.
(iii) and (iv) State roll back or deregulation and Market-friendly reregulation: I take these two
elements of neoliberalism together. State organisations remain vitally important actors in setting
the boundary between what is internal and external to capitalism that is, the boundary

There is currently a lot of discussion in environmental policy literatures about the possibilility of decoupling
economic growth from large scale biophysical transformation. This discussion is founded on the hope that growth
can, in future, change in its quality. This may well be an idealistic and unrealistic aspiration. In the meantime, the
most likely source of a reduction in capitalisms biophysical impact in precisely the normal recessions and crises
that are part of the systems operations.

between that which is non-, partially- and completely-commodified. They are also crucial to
determining how capitalism is to be governed once boundaries are set in any given instance. The
reason, of course, is that the (national) state has a monopoly on the means of violence and is the
legally recognised representative of the societal interest. Neoliberal states can, theoretically
speaking, be of two kinds: those having to dismantle an inherited apparatus of governmental
procedures and regulations that placed limits on market-rule (e.g. post-communist and postKeynesian states); and those seeking to build a neoliberal order where the states role in
commercial and civic affairs was previously quite contained (think of several so-called failed
states). Clearly, a process of regulatory roll back in the interests of capital accumulation can
only occur in states of the former type.
To the extent that these states actively encourage privatisation and marketisation they are
directly implicated in the biophysical effects of both processes. In addition, though, they are
relieved of the financial and legal responsibility for providing, maintaining or guaranteeing access
to a range of public, open-access or communal resources such as countryside rights of way,
clean water and sufficient land for the construction of public housing. However, they are not
necessarily dissociated from any unwelcome consequences attending the withdrawal of
responsibility. Aside from having to set the framework conditions for the private use of
formerly non-private elements of the biophysical world, they may suffer legitimation crises
among their various publics and stakeholders if natures privatisation and marketization creates
problems for significant social groups witness recent the gas and water wars in Bolivia, among
many other possible examples.
In theory, these sorts of crises can be headed-off at the pass by purposeful roll-out
policies that, for both kinds of neoliberal state, so normalise neoliberal principles and practices
that the normative basis for critique among sections of various publics and activist organisations
is significantly undercut. Here, once more, free market environmentalism is a key weapon in the
neoliberal states policy arsenal when it comes to biophysical issues. As the recent enthusiasm for
carbon-offsets and debt-for-nature swaps suggests, a range of potentially concerned and critical
social actors can be coopted into the neoliberal way by assurances that externalities can be
internalised by market-friendly societies. Some of them may even be financial beneficiaries:
witness indigenous groups allowing paid access to their ancestral lands to overseas tourists. But
another, more general weapon is for the state to disperse its regulatory power among quangos
and quasi-governmental bodies like the WTO. These shadow state bodies, typically run by

experts unelected by and far removed from national citizenries, can serve to regularise
neoliberal practices by enforcing rule-systems from a distance (geographically and/or
institutionally). Those disaffected by natures neoliberalisation can, in this context, find it
difficult to seek redress for their grievances, as they confront a complex world of standing
committees, arbitration panels, audit trails and distributed powers (see vii below).
(v) Use of market proxies in the residual state sector: In their own right state organisations are, of
course, significant economic actors at the local, national and supra-national levels. They may
employ very large numbers of people and they may be significant providers of services, amenities
and commodities. Neoliberal states directly provide only those things that, for whatever reason,
the commercial sector is unable or unwilling to provide for itself, its workers or sections of civil
society. Where possible it provides those things so as to maximise the cost-efficiency with which
they are produced or maintained. For instance, a neoliberal state may run a monopoly gas
industry based on reserves existing within its own territory (think Russia). But because this
monopoly is run as a commercial enterprise one competing with other gas suppliers in
wholesale and retail markets internationally to all intents and purposes it is a private firm (one
lacking domestic competitors). The biophysical effects attaching to state activities can, in a
neoliberal context, be remarkably similar to those of private sector enterprises (as discussed
above). Exceptions occur where even neoliberal states place limits on capitals access to the nonhuman world, or where these states use market instruments to organise their own governance of
various externalities produced by their in-house commercial activities or those of private sector
bodies. As with the national states regulation of capitalist enterprises, failure to suitably regulate
(practically and discursively) its own suite of activities from an environmental perspective can
make it the focus of discontent among social groups domestic or overseas.

The strong encouragement of flanking mechanisms in civil society: Neoliberal state bodies

(and again, I am speaking theoretically here) are at pains to encourage the growth of (i) informal
and social economies, and (ii) a range of charitable, voluntary, not-for-profit and third-sector
organisations to fill the void created by the roll-back, or sheer absence in the first-place, of state
provision of personal, communal and environmental conditions of production. These economies
and organisations are intended to help individuals, families and communities deal with any social
or environmental externalities arising from the wider project of neoliberalism. The organisations

can fulfil this role only if they are sufficiently numerous, sufficiently niched and sufficiently
well-funded. However, their success also depends upon them accepting and hoping their
various constituencies accept the basic terms and conditions of the neoliberal settlement. The
absence of such organisations in certain situations, or their failure to represent or assist their
various constituencies, can lead to them being negatively politicised along with the neoliberal
business and governmental practices they broadly seek to ameliorate. If they do not accept the
neoliberal settlement, these civil society groups can launch direct attacks on government policy
and commercial practice in the name of a post-neoliberal order33. This becomes highly likely
where extant informal and social economies offer people precious little shelter from the rigours
of the neoliberal order.

The creation of self-sufficient individuals and communities: The liberal in neoliberal

recalls one of the classic arguments for non-collectivist modes of living: the supposed freedom
of people to think and act as they see fit. This is a potentially powerful argument that the Left
has often dismissed to its own detriment. Neoliberalism, in ideal-typical terms, promulgates the
ideal of freedom along with its mirror-ideal, that of responsibility for oneself and ones
immediate relations. In respect of biophysical issues this amounts to a project of discursive
desocialisation of the causes and effects of, as well as responses to, neoliberal political economy.
People are interpellated in the workplace, by the neoliberal state, by the media etc. so as to
fragment any sense of common action along class, gender or other collectivist lines. Neoliberal
subjects are encouraged to relate to the non-human world in a number of ways that cross-cut
their simultaneous positioning within and without the capitalist system. As people who may be
displaced and dispossessed by privatisation they are encouraged to be entrepreneurial and look
for new employment opportunities; as people who may now have to pay for access to formerly
communal or res nullius resources they are encouraged to see themselves as consumers who are
free to spend; as people who may care about environmental degradation and social poverty
overseas they are similarly encouraged to do their politics through the cash-register as ethical
consumers; as parents or citizens who may seek to protect a valued local biophysical amenity
that has, say, been illegally damaged by a neighbouring firm, they are encouraged to seek redress
through the courts, arbitration bodies, or representative interest groups (NGOs, NSMs,

A highly visible example of this is the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee in South Africa. See Bond & McInnes

community organisations etc.); as pension-holders and shareholders they are encouraged to see
nature as an investment opportunity, albeit often-times with a green conscience. I could go on.
Where neoliberal individualism does not put all its emphasis on the market as the place for voice
and choice, it emphasises peoples right to pursue their own agendas through a panoply of
administrative, legal, statutory, voluntary and charitable bodies. In short, where it does not
restrict peoples relations to nature to atomised blind market decisions (which are always
income constrained and thus highly unequal social and geographically), it seeks to decollectivise
and depoliticise neoliberalism and its effects via a tangle of governance institutions and nonelected administrative organisations.
Of course, the individuals and communities to whom a neoliberal ethic is addressed are
also the very firms and enterprises seeking to benefit from the previous six elements of the
neoliberal programme. Small, medium and large businesses spanning the full spectrum of
economic sectors are encouraged to take responsibility for their activities including the
biophysical conditions and outcomes. This means they are free subject to costs, regulations
and any social protests to use the biophysical world as they see fit. This freedom, in neoliberal
regimes, includes responding to economic (dis)incentives created by government-dictated quotas,
taxes and compensation-obligations that are together designed to reduce perceived environmental
damage locally or translocally. And it also includes observance (in theory at least) of a range of
voluntary codes, self-monitoring procedures, certification criteria and external kite-marks that
states, workers, publics and others feel are necessary to minimise a range of social and/or
environmental harms.
V. Neoliberal environments: a second-cut theory
Where does this abstract discussion of neoliberal environments get us to? It is a first-cut
theorisation that is usefully holistic, is quite rich in an explanatory and heuristic sense, and is
able to detect a certain complex-order at work where antinomies, tensions, negotiations and
comprises are the order of the day. It allows us, I think, to imagine two ideal-typical scenarios
that are not so much alternatives as different aspects of the same Janus-faced situation.
The first scenario shows neoliberalism proceeding apace sectorally and spatially,
extending capitalisms reach still further within existing capitalist states while also entraining
territories hitherto non- or only weakly capitalist to dramatic effect. The biophysical world
becomes increasingly subsumed to capital, both formally and physically creating profits and

jobs. New raw material sources, energy sources, physical spaces and waste disposal zones are
sought-out and used. This subsumption, courtesy of free market environmentalism, also involves
remediation, conservation and nature-protection so that raw material stocks, energy sources,
physical spaces and waste sinks are not always aggressively suborned to profit (or, rather, their
protection/remediation becomes the means to the end of profitability). This is a generalisation of
the environmental Kuznets curve idea (see Stern, 2001), a neoliberal version of sustainable
development which even some Marxists reluctantly concede may not be too far fetched (see
Buck, 2007). The interpellation of people as individuals allows them to exercise consumer
choice over how they relate, through the market, to the biophysical world. The dependence of
large numbers of jobs upon nature-based commerce additionally binds many individuals to the
continuation of natures neoliberalisation. More generally, the creation of a set of market
societies smooths the transition to a set of interconnected market economies. This minimises
dissent regarding the various remaining externalities of the market, not least because previously
political issues become bureaucratised and monetised. It means the business sector can proceed
with broad public, worker and consumer consent. It means that the state does not, on the whole,
get dragged into let alone become the focus of outstanding problems of market failure, be
they biophysical or social. And it means that various NGOs, NSMs and voluntary groups are,
for the most part, able to act successfully as flanking organisations that, through their piecemeal
actions, do not threaten the neoliberal order or encourage others to seriously challenge it.
The second scenario, in contrast to all this, looks very different indeed. It depicts a world
in which the rapid expansion of capitalism which is, after all, what neoliberalism amounts to
produces massive additional environmental change that cannot be successfully managed
discursively or materially. This change is caused by unprecedented levels of commodity
production, transportation, consumption and disposal.34 Some of this change is highly localised
and regionalised, some of it leads to slower, longer-term, large-scale changes that may not be
immediately apparent but which are nonetheless significant over time. Alone, or together with
the various employment and social problems created by neoliberalism, this environmental
change gets politicised: there is a double-movement against deteriorating conditions of
production as a market economy rubs-up against various pre-existing moral economies and
unruly biophysical systems. It is a reaction in which otherwise separate and atomised labour

Some of this may be offset by the demise of ecologically harmful and now uneconomic state-run or statesubsidized economic activities that are uncompetitive in a neoliberal context.

and non-labour movements, organisations and struggles may find common cause. The interests
and claims of those workers whose jobs are directly dependent on environmentally destructive
practices are outweighed by those of other labour and non-labour groups. Unless roll-out
policies can stymie this double movement, business practice in the environment/resource sectors
becomes the focus of social protest. In regard to environmental conditions of production, market
policies may ultimately fail to keep-up with, and tackle, the proliferation of market failures
associated with an expansionary neoliberal capitalism. State bodies must somehow deal with all
this, and may themselves become the subject of intense pressure from citizens, workers, NGOs
and the like. Depending on how these bodies and capitalist firms respond, the double movement
leads to strong reform at a minimum, or something even more radical and threatening to the
neoliberal order.
The point, of course, is that these two rather stark scenarios should be seen as
representing interpenetrating tendencies within the theory of neoliberal environments that I
have laid-out. The dialectical interplay of multiple opposing forces something which is
internalised by numerous actors, individuals and institutions defines a research agenda for the
analysis of neoliberal environments in the real world. Which raises the crucial question: how can
the theory be used as a strong heuristic to guide future empirical research into neoliberal
environments, as well as to help us synthesise some of the already-existing concrete studies?
If the two scenarios outlined above were to operate in a largely ageographical, atemporal
world they would describe a universal dialectic where one of them won-out, or where there was
some sort of compromise. But actually-existing neoliberalism does not, needless to say,
correspond to this image of two sets of warring tendencies operative at all points of the compass.
We need, then, to venture a language that can help us get a handle on the variable character of
neoliberal environments, their effects and responses to them. We need, in other words, to refine
the argument made thus far. As Mansfield (2004: 580) insists, The particular forms that
neoliberalism takes should not be taken as aberrant from an ideal [We] need to acknowledge
that [neoliberalism] is something created in practice, and that through practice it becomes
varied, fractured and even contradictory (emphasis added). Here I want to return to Peck and
Tickells arguments, underpinned by Harveys and Smiths proper insistence that capitalism and
its dialectics operate unevenly in time and space. Since this has been a very long essay, I simply
want to hint at what a less abstract approach to really-existing neoliberal environments might
look like before moving to a very short conclusion. I trust that readers will be able to read some

of the complexity of the foregoing argument into the theoretical sketch provided below without
me retracing the contours of that argument.
Peck and Tickells thesis, recall, is that diverse but connected neoliberalisations have been
an experimental policy response to economic crises in some countries, while an enforced regime
change in others and in all cases have the capacity to generate their own crisis conditions
(economic, cultural, political and, though Peck and Tickell do not accent it, environmental too).
What they call roll-back neoliberalism in its various local, regional and national forms clearly
has a strong capacity to generate environmental bads and to therefore elicit many forms of civil
society protest. This, one might expect, is especially true in places and countries where many
people are highly and directly dependent upon the use of the non-human world for their
livelihoods (waged or otherwise) and where the state apparatus, the ruling party/ies, the
military and the police/security services are temporarily or permanently weak. Think of
Bolivias gas and water wars, or the Zapatista struggles against free trade in Mexican agriculture.
However, in those economies where most people are not directly dependent upon the
biophysical world for their livelihoods, roll-back neoliberalisms environmental effects may not
(for this reason) factor strongly in the regimes politicisation by dissenters. Think of how the
environmental movements strength in the USA waned badly during the Reagan and Bush
Senior years, only now recovering as Bush Junior exits office. Then there are those cases where
roll-out neoliberalisms accelerated destruction of nature does not, in fact, generate strong
opposition because so many new jobs are dependent upon this destruction and because an
authoritarian state can maintain social order think of contemporary China, which Harvey
(2005a, 2005b) regards as a neoliberal state in all but name. Alternatively, in the absence of such a
state forms of protest may erupt call to mind the landless peoples movement in Brazil but
the balance of social forces locally, regionally or nationally may be such that the protest does not
lead to immediate change.
Roll-out (or deep) neoliberalisation is, one might expect theoretically, difficult to
achieve in those many places, regions and countries where economic activity is still significantly
non-capitalist and where livelihoods remain nature-dependent. This is because accumulation by
dispossession is the blunt tool that permits neoliberalism to become implanted, albeit
precariously absent a strong state. The elections of Morales in Bolivia and Chavez in Venezuela
can be read as rejections of the neoliberal way by those many people who lose when important
aspects of nature are neoliberalised. However, in the environmental domain, roll-out

neoliberalisation is arguably quite possible indeed, an actual accomplishment in advanced
capitalist states, with their typically large ecological footprints and significant ecological debts to
the rest of the world. In these heavily urbanised states where most people are physically removed
from the biophysical world, free market environmentalism can be successfully sold as a
biophysical management tool and, indeed, credited with some real successes (see, for instance,
Bakker [2003]). Where it cannot, the politicisation of environmental issues typically occurs
among a minority of disadvantaged groups (e.g. poor communities suffering environmental
injustice), articulate and educated NIMBYs of various kinds, sub-national state bodies opposed to
neoliberalism on principle,35 or those ethically-minded citizens concerned about global problems
like greenhouse gas emissions. In all cases, national state institutions are unlikely to see such
dissent challenge society-wide acceptance of neoliberal policies, not least because the populace is,
in so many registers, coopted into the neoliberal way of living.
Heuristically useful as this theoretical disaggregation of natures neoliberalisation is, it is
still not useful enough. As I suggested in my earlier (and otherwise positive) discussion of Peck
and Tickells arguments, it offers a worldview in which the analyst looks for places, regions and
countries that fit into one of two categories of neoliberalisation, or which, alternatively, are
proto- or post-neoliberal. But this is, of course, too simplified a geography. We would, I suggest,
be better advised to presume that roll-back and roll-out neoliberalisms actually coexist on the
ground in many situations, affecting different elements of what is ostensibly the same place,
region or country. Take Mexico, with its massive rural spaces, farming and peasant populations:
the dynamics here are arguably very different than in Mexico City, where middle class
professionals, rentiers, financiers and capitalists live in their own particular neoliberal worlds.36
These differentiated sub-national geographies of neoliberalism matter immensely to whether,
how and by whom it is opposed or accepted. Peck and Tickells argument about the downloading of some national state powers and responsibilities means that local state bodies may have
to bear the brunt of dissent, meaning it does not necessarily filter-up to the national scale. When
it does, it is very much dependent on how the agitators define themselves and what the issues are
as to whether movements form as opposed to fleeting, topically-specific campaigns the latter,
unlike the former, are cognitively unable to take-on neoliberalisation and its capitalist core (see

I am thinking here of elected sub-national bodies that are social democratic, green or socialist in outlook.
Interestingly, and rather unusually Id suggest, in the US even Republican states (like California) have of late
criticised their national leaders on their poor record of environmental management.
Peck and Tickell have, in a recent (2007) publication, arrived at much the same argument.

Miller [2007] pp. 237-8). Movements are much more likely to emerge among those sections of a
population that have not succumbed to the interpellations of neoliberal subjectivity, and where
critical livelihood or lifestyle issues are at stake. Indeed, they may even garner sub-national state
support, when local/regional state institutions who are opposed to national policies, make
common-cause with disaffected elements of their home support.
Of course, overlaying, connecting, and modifying various sub-global neoliberalisations
are those global institutions whose policies and rules have furthered free trade and cross-border
investment this last 30 years. The focus here is far broader that ostensibly environmental
organisations and accords, like UNEP and Kyoto. It also includes bodies (e.g. the EU) and
agreements (e.g. TRIPS) relating to investment, debt, currencies, production, property and trade
whose ostensibly non-environmental character belies their significant implications for the
biophysical world. Given their distance from the populations of neoliberal states, one might
expect that those states populations could only meaningfully force change within them via their
own national state bodies a typically slow process with few guarantees. I say this because
direct supranational, civil society action is logistically difficult to organise and sustain (witness
the high-visibility but low-impact of various anti-capitalist struggles this last decade).37 This
suggests that very severe and widespread environmental problems would, in the biophysical
domain at least, be the only effective lever for such global governance change any time soon.
Such problems would be linked to a delegitimation of the use of market instruments and
supposed smart technologies as tools of biophysical management, and a strong realisation by
business that its own profits are at seriously risk without profound environmental remediation.
That the US population has so far failed to demand more aggressive forms of environmental
regulation from their leaders, with the likely positive knock-on effects this would have on Kyoto
and other global accords, does not bode well for the near-term reform of roll-out neoliberalism
nor of transnational bodies like the WTO which connect roll-out with roll-back neoliberalisms
within a global political economy.
The theoretical picture being painted here of uneven, often intersecting processes of
roll-back and roll-out neoliberalisation suggests a highly variable pattern of environmental use,


I realise that this is a very summary judgement. Even so, I find little evidence that protests staged at WTO meetings
and the like have much altered multilateral, governmental agendas.

regulation and societal response worldwide.38 I am hypothesising that the double-movement will
most likely have direct, underlying biophysical causes in those roll-back situations where very
resource-dependent societies (mostly second/postsocialist and third world) are being
neoliberalised unless countervailing forces put a lid on or diffuse dissent. By contrast, in more
complex, less resource-dependent societies I am suggesting that environmental issues are, in
theory, less likely to feature in any double movement during either roll-back or roll-out phases
unless local or transnational environmental problems are perceived as very severe, such that their
amelioration requires reform of the total policy environment seen to cause or exacerbate them.
Elements of both these hypothesised situations could well be found within one urban, regional
or national space, depending. The validity of these rough hypotheses can only be understood
empirically, of course. But as a guide to doing such empirical research (and reflecting on separate,
existing studies), the sort of ideal-typical reasoning that I have engaged in here is arguably of
some utility. It focuses analytical attention on whether and why certain expected processes and
outcomes actually occur. It sensitizes us to whether and how natures neoliberalisation is a hybrid
process, one where neoliberal policies and practices articulate with social democratic, religioethical, communitarian, nationalist (etc.) ones at different spatio-temporal scales. These other
policies and practices are not residual to the analysis mere complicating factors to be noted
dutifully. Instead, they ought to feature as central elements that make all the difference to how
the sort of tendencies specified theoretically in this essay are (or are not) made flesh in more-orless unadulterated forms. After all, we live in a more-than-capitalist, more-than-neoliberal world.
And, in such a world, the material and discursive effects of the biophysical environment cannot
be neatly managed within a box called environmental policy, nor are environmental
movements the only stakeholders beyond business and the state with something to say about
the fate on the non-human.
VI. Conclusion
The theory of neoliberal environments I have put forward in this essay is just that: a theory. It is
thus, from the perspective of empirical researchers, ultimately indeterminate: it cannot in itself
explain the concrete-real because it lacks sufficient granularity. However, there is a large
difference between conceptual indeterminacy and sheer randomness. The framework presented

Here I disagree with Prudham and McCarthys (2004: 275) judgement that environmental concerns represent
the most powerful source of political opposition to neoliberalism. I think the picture is more complex and uneven.

contains, I hope, sufficient cognitive content and complexity that it can help us address the gap
in understanding that has formed this essays premise.
However, far more than cognitive issues are at stake here. This essay, like much of the
supporting literature to which it has referred, is critical of its theoretical object (neoliberalism).
But what does it mean to be critical of something that does not exist in the theoretical form in
which it is represented? What, in other words, does it mean to be critical of natures
neoliberalisation in practice rather than just conceptually? These are important questions because
even the theoretical argument presented here has sought to steer clear of simplicities and
universalisms. It has been a meta-theoretical argument yet one that does not, I hope, fall foul of
the criticisms made by those suspicious of totalising arguments. This suggests that Left critics of
natures neoliberalisation indeed, of neoliberalisations in all their dimensions cannot (and
should not) assume that is it always and everywhere regressive and to be opposed on principle.
As Sayer (1995) has argued powerfully, the Left does itself no favours if it evaluates complex
objects by way of blanket moralisms that side-step the challenges of proper normative
argumentation. The neoliberalisation of nature in both theory and practice ought certainly to be
the subject of our censure for all sorts of compelling reasons. And there will be some concrete
situations that are relatively simple to understand and evaluate negatively. But, equally, we have
to take seriously those situations in which natures neoliberalisation seems to work, without
always supposing that those for whom it works are the victims of ideology, sell-outs or
otherwise nave. In short, we need to operationalise an evaluative mind-set every bit as a complex
as the cognitive one I have presented in this essay. Local and national scale successes must be
reckoned with just as much as failures, and all of these married with more global forms of
evaluation. At that point, the Left will have a truly comprehensive and robust approach to the
variable, local-global geometry of neoliberal environments. Achieving that will be challenging
indeed. But, then again, it is both the curse and excitement of social science that its objects of
analysis are simultaneously small-scale and large-scale, complex and dynamic, factual and
evaluative. To shy away from the challenge is to concede that the world ultimately escapes our
capacity to understand and appraise it. And that would amount to intellectual and political
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Table 1: Modes of neoliberalization (from Peck & Tickell, 2003)

Table 2: Geographies of neoliberalization (from Peck & Tickell, 2003)