Tag Archives: more-than-human

Commodity geographies: bringing liveliness into the fold

Maan Barua, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford


Left: The ‘panda effect’: giant pandas escalated Edinburgh zoo visitation rates and merchandize sales © Credit: Todorov.petar.p CC-SA 4.0; Right: Transporting bees to pollinate orchards is now a growing industry © Credit: Migco CC-SA 4.0.

In December 2011, a pair of giant pandas arrived in Edinburgh zoo. Flown in 5,000 miles from Sichuan, they triggered what some have called ‘the panda effect’: visitation rates and merchandize sales escalated. Income increased by 53%, rescuing the zoo from almost going bankrupt (Anon., 2013) . In an analogous vein, transporting bee hives to pollinate crops is a growing industry in the USA and Europe. Crashes in pollinating insect populations means farm and orchard owners are now willing to pay as much as $200 per hive for the service (Kleinman, 2016). Pandas and bees are examples of ‘lively commodities’ par excellence: commodities whose value derives from their status as living being.

Lively commodities strike at the heart of conventional geographical and political economic thinking about production, consumption and exchange. In no way are they made by capital, although they can become part of capitalist accumulation and reproduction. If socially-necessary labour time embodied in a thing indexes the value of commodities (cf. Marx, 1976), the value of lively commodities cannot be understood through analytics solely focused on human actions. As Sarah Whatmore, presciently observed in Hybrid Geographies over a decade ago, what is at stake are ‘lively currents’ in an ‘inter-corporeal commotion’. They amount to much more than ‘traffic in things set in motion by exclusively human subjects’ (Whatmore, 2002; p.118).

In my recent paper titled ‘Nonhuman labour, encounter value, spectacular accumulation: the geographies of a lively commodity’, I develop a set of relational diagnostics for understanding how liveliness – living potentials and material forces – configure political economies of capitalist accumulation. Tracking archival stories of lion trophy hunting in colonial India, and subsequent commodification of lions in 20th century ecotourism enterprise, I show how liveliness emerges at particular historical junctures and assay the circumstances in which it is brought into the fold of capitalist reproduction. Central to this endeavour is to make evident commodity lives: how animals’ worlds undergo changes when commodified and conversely, ways in which material and ecological lives have bearings upon the commodification process. I then turn to mobilizations of lions as ‘lively capital’ – the various ways in which animals, or their body parts, are set in motion to open up possibilities for further valorization.

Drawing upon these empirics, the paper posits a triad of concepts – nonhuman labour, encounter value, spectacular accumulation – that provide insights for understanding relations between ecology and the economy.

Nonhuman labour is an intransitive activity performed by animals and plants, immanent to many commodities that are on sale in contemporary economies. Nonhuman labour goes into circulating animal and plant bodies as well as their parts. The production of ‘ecosystem services’, the generation of consumptive encounters with charismatics in zoos, are contingent upon bodily labours of animals. Nonhuman labour is integral to the generation of what I, following Donna Haraway (2012), term encounter value: the value of a commodity derived not just from human labour embodied in it, but co-configured by lively potentials themselves (also see: Barua, 2016). When considered part of a tripartite structure with use and exchange value, encounter value enables understanding ways in which nonhuman labour becomes vital, value-forming practice (Barua, 2015). The labour of bees in co-producing many of the commodities that end up in supermarket shelves are a case in point.

I further argue that contemporary capitalist economies gravitate toward producing spectacular natures. They are specular: encounters with lively commodities are constantly orchestrated, reiterated and amplified, giving them a currency of their own. They are also speculative. As I show in the case of lions, the animals are deployed to set new forms of accumulation in motion, with dynamic effects and promissory orientations in dispersed spaces. The consumptive spectacle triggered by pandas is yet another example of spectacular accumulation at work.

With nature fast becoming a frontier for accumulation, ongoing geographical debates on commodification have significant charge and critical import. Understanding how lively potentials configure or thwart such processes adds to these debates. Furthermore, products of nonhuman labour are not automatically aligned with the logics of capital. They retain the potential for being value-forming for other socio-ecological projects. Attending to these tensions is likely to be a fruitful geographical intervention, especially in a world that is increasingly becoming contingent upon the exchange, sale and consumption of lively commodities.

About the author: Maan Barua is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, and is also an Early Career Fellow of Somerville College. Maan’s work engages political ecology and posthumanist thought to develop new understandings of the geographies of nature.


60-world2 Anon. 2013 Edinburgh pandas help zoo to turn around its fortunes. BBC News 07 May 2013 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-edinburgh-east-fife-22441069

books_icon Barua M 2015 Encounter: Living Lexicon for the Environmental Humanities Environmental Humanities 7 265-270

books_icon Barua M 2016 Lively Commodities and Encounter Value Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 34 725-744

books_iconBarua M 2016 Nonhuman labour, encounter value, spectacular accumulation: the geographies of a lively commodity. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. doi: 10.1111/tran.12170

books_icon Haraway D 2012 Value-Added Dogs and Lively Capital in Sunder Rajan K ed Lively Capital: Biotechnologies, Ethics and Governance in Global Markets, Duke University Press, Durham and London 93-120

60-world2 Kleinman Z 2016 Can tech keep the world’s bees buzzing? BBC News http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-37386490

books_icon Marx K 1976 Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I Fowkes B trans Penguin Books London

books_icon Whatmore S 2002 Hybrid geographies: natures, cultures, spaces. Sage London

Geographers and the ‘beepocalypse’

Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Amidst the buzz of the Great British Bee Count, which is currently in full swing, a recent article in Geography Compass, by Watson and Stallins (2016), has looked at the process of knowledge production about honey bees, evaluating the various oppositional approaches to theorising honey bee decline. As animal geographers repeatedly reinforce, animals and plants are inextricably linked to human lives, the honey bee providing a good example of human-animal entanglement. By examining honey bee populations, it is also evident, as geographers have contended, that our attempts to define, categorise, and control the non-human are constantly defied by the contingent nature of the natural world. Human-insect and human-plant relationships, however, Watson and Stallins (2016) stress, have been neglected in geographical literature. It is, therefore, necessary to investigate the role of the ‘more-than-human’ in order to inform our use of anthropogenic spaces. In the example of the honey bee, it is vital that we understand the dynamics of bee populations in order to inform agricultural land-use, due to the implications for both agricultural sustainability and human health.

The western or European honey bee (Apis mellifera) is semi-domesticated, beekeeping being practised on a range of scales, from the hobby apiarist to industrial bee farmers. The honey bee, wild or otherwise, is an important constituent of our ecosystems, worldwide; it is the chief pollinator of more than a third of global produce, including many fruits, vegetables, nuts, and spices. In America, an estimated $12 billion of crop value is directly attributable to honey bees, generating $168 billion for the global economy (Watson and Stallins, 2016). Recent global decline in honey bee populations have variously been described as an ‘environmental crisis’, the ‘beepocalypse’, and a ‘planetary ethical catastrophe’ (Watson and Stallins, 2016). This has, therefore, caused concern in the media, as well as amongst the scientific community, agricultural businesses, and environmentalists.

In Britain alone, 20 species of bee have vanished entirely, and a further quarter are on the red list of threatened species (FoE, 2016a [online]). This concern about low bee numbers has led to the Great British Bee Count, an annual event which attempts to enlist the public in a national bee population survey. The campaign portrays the bee as our ‘friend’, as important to our ecosystems, and vital to the economy. The event, organised by Friends of the Earth, runs from May 19th to June 20th, and last year saw over 100,000 recorded sightings (FoE, 2016b [online]). However, surveys have indicated that only 33% of the British public can correctly identify the honey bee from a line-up of other bee species (FoE, 2016b [online])! It is, therefore, not surprising that environmentalists have got a bee in their bonnet about this subject.

Watson and Stallins’ (2016) article focuses on Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) – a little-understood cause of honey bee population decline – which has become sort of a ‘buzz word’ amongst scientists and agriculturalists. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), CCD is the formation of a ‘dead colony’, in which the queen is still alive but there are no adult bees to keep the colony going (USDA, 2016 [online]).  Whilst scientists have yet to agree on a cause of CCD, there are many suggested factors, involving both human and non-human actors. Amongst the anthropogenic causes are neonicotinoids (pesticides), climate change, pollution, changes in demand for certain luxury crops, and land-use changes associated with intensification of monocultures for industrial agriculture. The more-than-human is also partly to blame for bee population decline; pathogens, pests, viruses, and predation by other insects also pose threats to our black and yellow friends. The latter has, in fact, been in the news of late, the arrival of Asian hornets in Britain threatening bee populations (Boyle, 2016 [online]). A perhaps more discrete migrant than the people of Kent, Surrey, Sussex, and Devon were expecting, the hornets, originally from the Far East, have made their way over from France. They can eat up to 50 honey bees per day, and are also potentially deadly to humans, causing both DEFRA and the National Bee Unit to express a desire for the hornets to buzz off (Boyle, 2016 [online]).

Knowledge about honey bee population decline, Watson and Stallins (2016) state, is produced by scientists, the agricultural industry, environmentalists, and the media. They identify three ‘narratives’ or claims made about the causes of CCD, which work in opposition to each other. The first approach, the “Ecological Conservation Narrative”, stresses the causal primacy of the influence of industrial agriculture causing the proliferation of monocultures at the expense of vegetation diversity. The second approach, the “Reductionist Regulatory Narrative”, prioritises isolating the main cause – which it claims is the use of pesticides – over any historical analysis, or use of historical trends to predict future populations. The third and final narrative is the “Socioecological Complexity Narrative”, which recognises the complex combination of social and ecological causes. Watson and Stallins (2016), advocate a pluralistic approach that combines all three narratives and recognises the continuum of social and ecological causality of bee population decline. It is also, they argue, important to be sensitive to variations over space and time; it is impossible to have a rigid approach to such a fluid and complex ecological phenomenon.

It is hard to understand the sheer importance of honey bees to our ecosystems and economies, these tiny little creatures appearing so mundane in our day-to-day encounters with nature. They really are busy little bees, more so than they are often given credit for, and they are so closely intertwined with our lives that it would be a real cause for concern if the ‘beepocalypse’ was to become a reality.

Wbooks_iconatson, K. and Stallins, J.A. (2016). “Honey Bees and Colony Collapse Disorder: A Pluralistic Reframing”, Geography Compass, 10(5):222-236.

60-world2Boyle, D. (2016). “Deadly Asian Hornets that devour bees and can kill humans arrive”, The Telegraph Online, 18th May, 2016. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/05/18/deadly-asian-hornets-that-devour-bees-and-can-kill-humans-arrive/

60-world2FoE, (2016a). “About the Great British Bee Count”, Friends of the Earth. Available at: https://www.foe.co.uk/page/great-british-bee-count-about

60-world2FoE, (2016b). “Get involved with the Great British Bee Count”, 19th May, 2016. Available at: http://blueandgreentomorrow.com/2016/05/19/get-involved-great-british-bee-count/

60-world2USDA, (2016). “ARS Honey Bee Health and Colony Collapse Disorder”, United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service. Available at: http://www.ars.usda.gov/News/docs.htm?docid=15572


If only plants could talk

By Hannah Pitt, University of the West of England

What am I being shown? Image Credit: Hannah Pitt

What am I being shown? Image Credit: Hannah Pitt

Plant scientists at Virginia Tech recently reported their discovery of communication between a parasitic plant and its host. By exchanging genetic material the parasite seemed to be urging the host to lower defences to its invasion. The researchers described it as a form of dialogue between the two, with one communicating new information to the other. This revelation adds a further form of plant conversation to others previously recognised in which plants exchange messages in the form of chemicals or electrical signals.

These quite capable forms of floral communication come as a surprise to many because plants have long been seen as the least active or intelligent living beings. In a hierarchy with humans at the pinnacle, plants sit well beneath them and other animals. But human geographers are increasingly recognising that this portrayal is misguided. The more we know about what plants do, the harder it is to see them as unintelligent. And there is an ethical imperative pushing us to recognise plants’ abilities for the habit of regarding flora as passive and insentient has allowed humans to dominate and neglect it, with serious ecological repercussions.

This is a topic ripe for geographic investigation because plants are everywhere and make a significant difference to places. Human geographers have made interesting progress with research into human-plant interactions. In my contribution to Area I explore how they tackle this, and examine some of the ways social scientists like me learn what plants are doing. I invited gardeners to act as guides and encouraged them to show me what they do with plants. Their expertise taught me much about plants’ actions and capabilities because good gardeners have to understand how they grow. Techniques such as time-lapse photography helped to show plants growing and moving. By speeding up and zooming in on processes which are otherwise difficult to perceive it was possible to see plants as active and mobile.

These methods, guided by the intention of paying close attention to plants were helpful, and ensured that plants ‘showed up’ in the research. But, unlike the team at Virginia Tech I’m not very skilled in understanding what plants have to say. In the paper I conclude that the techniques I used were limited because plants speak a language social scientists don’t understand. To really research plants as independent active beings, human geographers will need to become skilled in communicating with them or look to experts such as botanists to act as interpreters. Because plants can talk, we just need to know how to listen.

About the author: Dr Hannah Pitt is a Research Associate within the Department of Health and Social Science at the University of the West of England. Hannah is currently working on research projects which evaluate programmes related to food, public health and sustainability. 

 Pitt, H. (2014), On showing and being shown plants – a guide to methods for more-than-human geography. Area. doi: 10.1111/area.12145

60-world2 Maynard, G. (2014) Prince Charles was right all along: Plants really can talk to each other Express

Relational Geographies: Sea – shore and the Super-rich

by Fiona Ferbrache

Super yachts at St Tropez (author's own image)

Super yachts at St Tropez (author’s own image)

In 2012, the Economist noted that even in troubling economic times it was still possible to discern rich people, alongside the poor. It then asked “will there also be the really rich, the super-rich?”.

There seems to be substantial evidence for the category ‘super-rich’. Geographer Danny Dorling notes that the (super-)richest 1% in Britain (“people with a pre-tax household income of at least £160,000”) are growing wealthier and that the gap is increasing between them and the remaining 99%. In 2013, “Geographies of the Super-rich” (authored by Professor Iain Hay) was introduced to bookshelves and identified a class of individuals with investable assets in excess of $1 million. In recent weeks, the British media have reported on the super-rich overseas buyers of prime London addresses who buy properties as investments and then leave them empty; drawing Kensington and Chelsea nearer the top of the ranking, alongside northern towns such as Blackpool and Bradford, of areas with the highest number of empty homes.  Another article reported that for those coming to visit their London investments, the most popular mode of travel is private jet.

As the above examples demonstrate, the lives and mobilities of the super-rich are being opened up to enquiry. Contributing to this trend, a paper by Spence, in Area, explores leisure activities of super-rich mobility along the Cote-d’Azur – “between sea, super-yacht and the shore” (and air, via private jets) (p.203). While examining the leisure activities of the super-rich on board luxury yachts, Spence also provides insight to the lives of the crew catering to them through a relational framework spanning sea, shore and ship. Spence uses this case study to argue for a more-than-sea approach to maritime geographies, which plays on the idea of more-than-human geographies and indeed captures the relationality of human and non-human materialities.  A more-than-sea geography aims to promote a perspective from the sea, to incorporate the land, rather than the other way around. Spence achieves this by discussing cabin fever, seasicknes and the meaning of going ashore. Here, the experiences of the super-rich (guests, tourists and yacht owners) and the necessary supporting and waiting crew, differ in a cyclical series of relations between sea, shore and ship, as the yachts move into and out of port.

Spence’s paper offers two key insights: a conceptual framework for exploring geographies of the sea, and which complements earlier works by authors such as Peters (2010) and Hasty and Peters (2012); and micro-geographies of the super-rich that help to flesh out media representations and existing geographical knowledge of this group.

books_iconSpence, E. 2014. Towards a more-than-sea geography: exploring the relational geographies of superrich mobility between sea, superyacht and shore in the Cote d’Azur. Area 46(2): pp.203-209
books_iconHasty, W. and Peters, K. 2012. The ship in geography and the geographies of ships. Geography Compass 6: pp.660-676
books_iconPeters, K. 2010. Future promises for contemporary social and cultural geographies of the sea. Geography Compass 4: pp.1260-1272

60-world2Danny Dorling on the super-rich

60-world2The super-rich will always be with us (and so will the repo man). The Economist

60-world2A passage to Mayfair: India’s super-rich elite are colonising the heart of the former British empire. The Economist
60-world2The ghost town of the super-rich: Kensington and Chelsea’s ‘buy-to-leave’ phenomenon. The Evening Standard

Content Alert: New Articles (13th April 2012)

The following Early View articles are now available on Wiley Online Library.

Original Articles

Body capital and the geography of aging
Maurizio Antoninetti and Mario Garrett
Article first published online: 4 APR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4762.2012.01089.x


Combining sustainable agricultural production with economic and environmental benefits
Amir Kassam and Hugh Brammer
Article first published online: 10 APR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4959.2012.00465.x

Original Articles

Spatialising the refugee camp
Adam Ramadan
Article first published online: 10 APR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00509.x

The geographies of community-oriented unionism: scales, targets, sites and domains of union renewal in South Africa and beyond
David Jordhus-Lier
Article first published online: 10 APR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00504.x

Corpses, dead body politics and agency in human geography: following the corpse of Dr Petru Groza
Craig Young and Duncan Light
Article first published online: 10 APR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00502.x

Towards geographies of speech: proverbial utterances of home in contemporary Vietnam
Katherine Brickell
Article first published online: 10 APR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00503.x

The biopolitics of animal being and welfare: dog control and care in the UK and India
Krithika Srinivasan
Article first published online: 4 APR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00501.x

‘An instruction in good citizenship’: scouting and the historical geographies of citizenship education
Sarah Mills
Article first published online: 4 APR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00500.x

Boundary Crossings

Geography, film and exploration: women and amateur filmmaking in the Himalayas
Katherine Brickell and Bradley L Garrett
Article first published online: 10 APR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00505.x