Bringing in the Work of Nature

Date01 February 2017
Published date01 February 2017
Subject MatterNature Returns
Political Theory
2017, Vol. 45(1) 5 –31
© 2016 SAGE Publications
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/0090591716638389
Nature Returns
Bringing in the Work of
Nature: From Natural
Capital to Hybrid Labor
Alyssa Battistoni1
Ecological concern has recently prompted efforts to assess the economic
value of ecological functions: the “work of nature” must no longer be taken
for granted as a free amenity, but priced and accounted for as “natural capital.”
Critiques of this approach tend to defend nature’s intrinsic value against
intrusions of economic logic, but fail to articulate a compelling politics in
response. I here argue that nature ought indeed to be brought in to the realm
of political economy, but question the category of natural capital: instead,
extending the insights of feminist theorists regarding undervalued forms of
production, I articulate an expanded idea of hybrid labor that understands
the “work of nature” as a collective, distributed undertaking of humans and
nonhumans acting to reproduce, regenerate, and renew a common world.
This approach poses the value of nature as inherently political and suggests
the potential for new forms of more-than-human politics.
nature, labor, capital, political economy, environment
Theorists of political economy have long been interested in natural resources:
how they can be obtained and whether they are being depleted; by what
means they are extracted from which regions of the world; how they are used
1Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA
Corresponding Author:
Alyssa Battistoni, Yale University, Rosenkranz Hall, 115 Prospect Street, New Haven,
CT 06511, USA.
638389PTXXXX10.1177/0090591716638389Political TheoryBattistoni
6 Political Theory 45(1)
to justify expansion of territory or contraction of populations; how they
should be divided and distributed. More recently, however, concern about the
effects of human activity on the environment has prompted efforts to assert
the value of nature in economic terms: “nature itself” must no longer be
treated as a free amenity to be taken for granted, but priced and integrated
into economic functions so that it might be valued.1 Dubbed “natural capital,”
the nature in question is not the raw resources needed for commodity produc-
tion in the manner of coal or cotton. Rather, it is composed of the “services”
that ecosystems provide to human societies through continued function: reg-
ulating carbon cycles, pollinating crops, filtering water, decomposing waste.
Political theorists thus far have not paid much attention to the rise of eco-
system services—but they should. At stake are not only the modes of con-
ducting contemporary environmental politics, but perennial concerns and
categories of political thought that are presently of growing urgency—the
relationship of the economic to the political, humans to nonhuman nature,
and intrinsic to instrumental value. Michael Sandel worries that “market val-
ues are seeping into every aspect of human endeavor”; the concept of natural
capital demonstrates that they are seeping into many aspects of nonhuman
endeavor as well.2 Indeed, critiques of the economic appraisal of nature
abound. Yet most tend only to affirm the intrinsic value of nature against
intrusions of economic logic or question the simplification entailed in mak-
ing natural processes legible to economics.3 Few have considered the impli-
cations of this shift for politics or suggested alternatives that do not rely on a
vision of nature kept apart and unsullied.
In this essay, I argue that nature ought indeed to be brought in to the realm of
political economy, and that political theorists ought to be concerned with these
changing modes of value and production. I question, however, the category of
“natural capital.” Extending the insights of feminist theorists regarding underval-
ued forms of production, I instead articulate an idea of hybrid labor that under-
stands the “work of nature” as a collective, distributed undertaking of humans
and nonhumans acting to reproduce, regenerate, and renew a common world.
I begin with a brief history of the concept of natural capital, and consider
the effects of calling things capital more generally. I review ethical arguments
against economic valuations of nature grounded in intrinsic value and explain
my sympathetic disagreement, and I discuss the views of the new materialists
who, from a different vantage point, urge us to consider nonhumans as actors
in our shared world. I consider the significance of labor as a category with
reference first to Karl Marx and then to Marxist feminists, whose efforts to
recognize unvalued forms of labor offer rich resources for understanding
“natural” production. I develop the concept of hybrid labor and explain why
I find it a more politically generative category than natural capital.

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