Sometimes, what is most common is most remarkable. For those of us living in a city or suburb, a typical day starts with rising from (cotton) sheets, hopping under the shower for a quick wash with (palm oil-based) soaps, dressing in (cotton) shirts and pants, drinking a hot beverage (coffee or tea) and then eating a (sugary) cereal or jam, perhaps followed by a (soy-fed) processed meat sandwich, wrapped in (fossil-fuel-based) plastic.
What describes an unremarkable day in the lives of hundreds of millions of the world’s urbanites, a day you have experienced year in and year out without much thought, is actually a miracle produced not least by the stunning expansion of commodity frontiers over the past 600 years. Almost all the products that made your morning come from places far from your home. The cotton, most likely, was grown in China, and the palm oil in Indonesia or Malaysia; the coffee was perhaps harvested in Guatemala, the tea in India, the sugar in Australia, and the soy in Brazil, while the oil might have been pumped out of the sand in Saudi Arabia.
The accelerated output of commodities is not just the result of science-inspired intensification of production, but also of the tremendous spread of commodity frontiers into new continents, countries and regions. While we are usually unaware of these flows – even in the statistical representation of our contemporary industry-and-services-dominated economy, they play a marginal role – their impact is nonetheless dramatic, as a cursory look at the global countryside shows.
In 2022, reports indicated that, on 28 July, the world had already used up all the resources it could replenish in the course of a calendar year; maintaining that level of exploitation of natural resources would require a planet almost double the size of Earth. Between 1960 and 2008, the global acreage under cultivation for sugarcane grew three times, for soy 3.5 times, and for palm oil more than four times. Gorging on ever more land, these commodity frontiers apply immense pressure not only on local food production but on precious resources such as the world’s rainforests. Just for soybeans – and in defiance of the Amazon Soy Moratorium of 2006 – an estimated 100,000 hectares of rainforest were cleared over the past 10 years alone. In Sumatra and Kalimantan, 250,000 hectares of rainforest are cut down annually just for palm oil production, every decade’s growth amounting to the equivalent of the entire surface area of the state of Massachusetts in the US. And it is not just uninhabited nature: entire villages are bulldozed to make way for new commodity frontiers, as happened, for example in 2011 in Cambodia, where they made way for sugarcane fields.
As these examples show, our daily lives are based on a continual and massive conversion of forests, flatlands, valleys, marshes and lakes into areas of commodity production. [Continue reading…]