The “Free” Gift of Nature – A Conversation with Alyssa Battistoni

Facing the Anthropocene: a webinar series hosted by the Kenan Institute for Ethics, with Professor Norman Wirzba of Duke Divinity School

Faced with climate change, species extinction, and sea level rise, we are compelled to rethink humanity’s place in the world, as many of the built environments designed for human flourishing now imperil the lives of countless fellow creatures and the places they inhabit. Join leading scholars in political economy, history, anthropology, theology, philosophy, environmental science, and law, as they address these and other questions (including those from the audience):

  • How shall we evaluate and correct the economies and institutions that undermine the bases and flows of life?

  • What can we learn from the past as we look toward the future?

  • Where is there reason for hope?

What is the value of nature? In the second of the Facing the Anthropocene webinar series, Norman Wirzba invited political theorist Alyssa Battistoni to take on this question, not from a philosophical or theoretical lens, but from an economic one. Throughout the conversation, Battistoni gave the audience a realistic perspective on the dismal state of the environmental world, using the language of economists to commodify the contribution of nature to economic production. In doing so, she pointed to broader realities about humanity’s relationship to the natural world and what it would mean to responsibly care for that relationship.

Battistoni began by asking a question: “What is nature’s capacity to contribute to human well-being and how should we understand it in relationship to politics and economics?” To answer, she first looked backward, tracing the term “free gifts of nature” in the thought of the classical political economists Jean-Baptiste Say, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Karl Marx. These economists each attempt to reconcile the natural world with the economic enterprise of human beings. Jean-Baptiste Say, for example, affirms the usefulness of nature’s physical, vegetative, and biological processes, but he does not see these processes as significant actors in a political economy. Smith, too, admits that nature is useful, but he sharply distinguishes manufacturing from nature, viewing the former as a purely human labor process. On this, Ricardo takes Smith to task, arguing that nature is always at work; production without the contribution of nature is a myth. Finally, Battistoni turned to Marx, who views nature in light of capitalist systems, arguing that the gifts of nature are often intertwined with human labor, not increasing the wealth of laborers but instead increasing the wealth of capitalists.

Battistoni linked these thinkers together with their view of the value of nature. “They all essentially agree nature is valuable because it works for free…Labor and capital are costly, so nature’s…contribution is valuable because it doesn’t come with those costs.” Nature is essentially a free gift, “something that can be taken without repayment.” The absence of a price tag is an obstacle to commodifying nature’s value; while nature is useful, it is also free, and therefore does not have an exchange value. Humanity’s willingness to take from nature without repayment brings us to today’s environmental crisis.

For Battistoni, this gift relationship implies more than mere taking. She said, “Gift relationships are supposed to be governed by reciprocity.” She cited ideas of husbandry and care as the beginning of such reciprocity. For example, agrarian Wendell Berry advocates for a “take, make, use, and return” relationship to the land. Feminists Joan Tronto and Berenice Fisher advocate for an ethics of care that includes all species and their environment. Echoing the idea of meshwork from last week’s guest Tim Ingold, Battistoni argued that this ethic of care weaves species and environments together in a cooperative, life-replenishing relationship.

More practically, Battistoni argued for an economic reciprocity, one based on the human labor required to replenish the earth. Battistoni said, “In asking what it looks like to reciprocate nature’s gifts, we might also ask what it looks like to value… the human work that doing so entails.” She argues more fully in the book A Planet to Win (co-authored with Kate Aronoff, Daniel Cohen, and Thea Riofrancos) that we must fund jobs and organizations whose primary aim is to care for the earth. Many indigenous peoples are already taking steps to care for the land; they are not, however, being paid for their labor. By investing money in labor that replenishes the earth, we are participating in the symbiotic web of all living things. We are, in short, reciprocating.

As the conversation between Battistoni and Wirzba continued, it became apparent that this economic view of the natural world may not be a holistic one, particularly because it can diminish the value of the natural world to mere utility. Is it not better to view the world as intrinsically valuable or sacred and thus worthy of sacrifice? Battistoni did not see these as mutually exclusive: “Why do we think…when it comes to non-human nature that if we have a kind of relationship of usefulness…we can’t also recognize that [non-human nature has]… intrinsic value, that it has some kind of value that is not directly productive?” In the same way that workers in a labor union relate as friends and members of a union, our relationship to non-human nature can be one marked by nature’s usefulness and its intrinsic value. By drawing on the economic value of the natural world, Battistoni puts the conversation about environmental protection into terms a capitalist society can understand. Because the natural world will never demand a price or retribution, it cannot speak for itself in the economic world. Translating the gifts of the natural world into economic terms gives nature a proverbial seat at the table, a voice in the political economy to which it contributes.

Battistoni made the crucial point that the work of environmental protection is not merely “a giving up and getting nothing in return,” a discourse, both Battistoni and Wirzba said, is simply not working. People are unwilling to make personal, individual sacrifices for the sake of the environment unless they see a collective movement. By shifting the conversation toward the value of nature, Battistoni shifted the conversation toward collective political action. Changes to infrastructure, fossil fuel consumption, transportation, and agriculture require such collective action.

Battistoni ultimately maintained that this economic model is “not the final word, but a challenge to how we currently organize production.” A commodified relationship to the natural world is not an ideal one, but, for now, it is a realistic one. In calculating just how much we have been given, perhaps we can come to terms with what we owe. Nature gives generously; how will we respond?

Join us on February 4, 2021 at 12:00 PM (EST) for the next installment in the Facing the Anthropocene series. Dr. Norman Wirzba will be joined by MIT Professor of Science, Technology, and Society, Kate Brown. To register for this webinar and to learn more about the series, click here.