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Man’s Labor and Nature’s Gift

1In 1662, William Petty affirmed that “labour is the Father . . . of all riches, as Lands are the Mother.” [1] With these words, he expressed in terms of political economy a sexualized representation of the relationship of man to nature, whose enduring presence in the West was demonstrated by Mircea Eliade. [2] In this cosmology, human labor appears as a male protagonist, fertilizing the womb of Mother Earth and delivering her offspring. According to technological treatises of the Renaissance, minerals “grew” in mines like plants, which gave miners and blacksmiths, similarly to farmers, the role of “midwives” of Mother Earth. (The “Gaia theory” that inspires thousands of contemporary ecologists is a revival of this representation of nature. [3]) These Renaissance-era concepts were still present a century later among the “physiocrats,” who asserted the supremacy of nature over labor. For them, the origin of all wealth lay in nature, which man “fertilizes” (by plowing, sowing, and so forth) and “delivers” (harvesting); hence the only “productive” laborers are those who extract the “gross product” of nature. The physiocrats’ natural philosophy was not “vitalist:” undoubtedly, agriculture illustrates the creative power of nature—since a whole ear of wheat will sprout from sowing a single grain—but the physiocrats classified all laborers of the earth as productive, thus including miners and quarry workers, who like farmers extract value from the earth.

2Adam Smith demolished this doctrine in his 1776 Essay. In the concluding section of his discussion “Of Systems of Political Economy,” he rejects both the “commercial system” (mercantilism), vitiated by a fetishization of precious metals, and the “agricultural system” (physiocracy), vitiated by a naturalist fetishism. [4] The “mercantile system,” which he identifies as the source of government errors, is clearly his main target. The “agricultural system” seems less dangerous, first of all because it inclines to liberalism, and second because it is harmless: “It at present exists only in the speculation of a few men of great learning and ingenuity in France.” He therefore treats it with contempt: “It would not, surely, be worthwhile to examine at great length the errors of a system which never has done, and probably never will do any harm in any part of the world.” [5]

3Once this rejection has been made, the case is closed: the “laborers of the earth” enjoy no privilege; all value proceeds from labor, regardless the material to which it is applied, raw or already worked. The theory of the “division” of labor gives a solid basis for this novel conception of value, fusing two registers, ontological and technological. For Smith, labor is “value” because it is human effort. By exchanging labor, human beings exchange quantities of effort, which are ontologically equivalent. But through these exchanges they make it possible for the division of labor to grow, enhancing the “productive power” of labor. The wealth contained in every hour of effort thus continues to grow in tandem with the progress of society.

4Smith’s theory of value notably was challenged by David Ricardo. But no one, at least to all appearances, revisited the epistemological break with the physiocrats. Their history has credited them with many merits—their hymn to liberalism, their attempt to model a national economy—but their philosophy of value remains unanimously rejected. I would like to show that matters are a little more complicated and that, in fact, the contribution of nature to the production of wealth remained muted in the economic tradition. In brief, the question is: Does nature “give” us anything? Or, put differently, do we “take” anything from it? The transition from the first to the second formulation corresponds to the increasing importance of the question of the possible exhaustion of natural resources.

From the Gift to the Exploitation of Nature: The Political Economy of Say

5Jean-Baptiste Say, a French follower of Smith, also emerged from among the physiocrats, if only through his ties to Pierre-Samuel Du Pont de Nemours. It is often overlooked that he was highly critical of Smith’s theory of the division of labor: [6]


Smith did not conceive of a complete idea of the grand phenomenon of production, which misleads him into drawing some false conclusions, such as when he attributes immense influence to the division of labor, or rather to the separation of occupations; not that that influence is nonexistent, or even middling, but the greatest such marvels are not due to the division of labor; they should be attributed rather to the use that one makes of forces of nature. His ignorance of this principle prevents him from establishing the true theory of machines with respect to the production of wealth. [7]

7This statement from 1817 is that of an industrialist. After breaking with Napoleon in 1804, Say created a mill in Oise after attending the Conservatoire des arts et métiers, the director of which was a close friend: Gérard-Joseph Christian. [8] But Say relied on an original theory of production, inspired by Lavoisier, which he formulated in the first edition of his Traité in 1803:


The mass of matter of which the world is composed never increases or decreases. Not a single atom is lost; not a single one is created. Things therefore are not produced, but merely reproduced in different forms, and what we call production is in fact nothing but reproduction. [9]

9No one ever produces matter, but only utility: “Production is not creation; it is the production of utility,” which is to say, “the quality of being able to serve.” [10] Say takes aim here at the physiocrats:


The foregoing explains to us how different industries, while not extracting anything from nothing, nonetheless make products; and how the manufacturing and commercial industries are productive in precisely the same sense as the agricultural industry is. They give value to raw materials or rather increase a preexisting value; and what else does agriculture do if not use a powerful tool to give value to raw materials preexisting in nature? [11]

11Their mistake is twofold. On the one hand, they have confused wealth with matter itself, which is only a potential medium for some utility; on the other, they incorrectly ascribe to agriculture the power to create matter. Say’s critique of the physiocrats is original compared to Smith’s: he does not advance a theory of production that depends exclusively on human interaction. On the contrary, like the physiocrats, he establishes a relationship between man and nature in his analysis. If the physiocrats are mistaken, it is because their natural philosophy is erroneous, insofar as they ascribe to agriculture, wrongly, the power to create matter: “No one has the gift to create matter; nature herself cannot.” [12] If we recognize here the principle of the conservation of matter, we can reformulate the physiocrats’ question: “Man forces nature to collaborate to create products.” [13] This theoretical shift allows Say to expand the scope of physiocracy to encompass all industrial activities:


When I say nature, I mean all the material entities that comprise the world. Each one has its own properties; all or nearly all are capable of contributing to the creation of products useful to man. Thus fire softens metals, wind turns windmills, water, air, and earth nourish the plants, the trees that are useful to us. The elasticity of steel enables us to fashion the springs that make clocks run; the gravity of bodies serves us in the same way; we take advantage of all the laws of the physical world. We are almost always working in collaboration with nature. [14]

13For Say, “landholdings,” the valorization of which the physiocrats identified with the origin of all wealth, are no more than a particular form of capital, or rather a productive machine that enables man to take advantage of natural forces:


There are many analogies between land and capital. A piece of land is only a machine, indeed a truly admirable machine, but one that nonetheless, like every other instrument, collaborates with the industry of man and his capital to make the products that constitute his wealth. Portions of capital are, namely, a machine, a productive instrument . . . all the aid that this nation draws directly from the power of nature, such as wind power or water currents, is still part of what I would call its landholdings, despite the impropriety of the expression and for lack of a better one. [15]

15In the “collaboration” that man undertakes with nature, he has every interest in placing responsibility for production on the latter: “Now it is easy to see that in this collaboration man wins doubly by placing as much responsibility for productive labor as possible on nature. He wins either an exemption from labor or an increase in products, and often both advantages simultaneously.” [16] Say can then introduce the principle of the commensurability of productive agents:


The ancients did not know of windmills. In their time, men ground wheat to make bread. It took twenty men to grind as much wheat as a single windmill can grind. A single miller, or at most two, suffice to supply and watch over the mill. These two men using this ingenious machine make a product equal to that of twenty men in the time of Caesar. We thus force the wind to do the work of eighteen men in each of our mills. [17]

17In later editions of the Traité, this idea gives rise to the central concept of “productive service,” [18] which anticipates the neoclassical principle of “factors of production.” Say actually identifies “productive service” and “labor,” while not reserving the ability to “work” to man alone:


Thus, when one works and sows a field, besides the knowledge and labor that are employed in the operation, besides the existing value of which one makes use, such as the value of the plow, the harrow, the seed, clothing, and food consumed by the workers while production takes place, the soil, the air, the water, and the sun perform work to which man contributes nothing, yet which helps to produce a new product that will be gathered at harvest time. I call this work the productive service of natural agents. [19]

19Armed with this concept, Say consequently can reject both the physiocrats and Smith. [20] Smith’s error is to derive everything from human labor; that is why he attributed disproportionate importance to the effects of the division of labor. The corollary to his overvaluation of this phenomenon is his inability to take into consideration the “power of natural agents that civilization and industry make work to our benefit.” [21] Human labor, by directing the labor of nature to our own profit, creates value that is greater than nature’s own: “When one fells a tree, a spontaneous product of nature, does one not have greater value than that of the work of the woodcutter who cuts it down?” [22] One thus cannot derive all value from the accumulation of human labor, as Smith does: “Smith drew a false conclusion from this error: namely, that all produced value represents recent or past human labor or, in other terms, that wealth is only accumulated labor; hence, according to a second conclusion, also false, labor is the only measure of wealth or produced value.” [23] Smith’s error is parallel to that of the physiocrats:


We see that this system is the opposite of that of the economists of the eighteenth century, who on the contrary argued that labor does not produce any value without consuming an equivalent value; that consequently it leaves no surplus, no net product, and that land alone, which provides value gratis, can give a net product. [24]

21Smith apparently forgot products of the labor of nature, just as the physiocrats apparently forgot those of the labor of man.

22Say’s solution, interesting as it is, ends in a theoretical quandary. His theory of production is as ingenious as its translation into terms of value is fragile. In essence, does all utility acquire a market value? This question was the subject of a cordial but merciless debate between Say and Ricardo, conducted in correspondence and in their respective publications from 1815 until Ricardo’s death in 1822. Ricardo put Say on the defensive by showing how his value-utility theory was illogical, because the sine qua non of the utility provided by nature is that it is “gratis.” In response, Say was led to distinguish between “natural utility” and “utility created by industry” that alone confers value, [25] which brought him in line with Ricardo’s position. Say thus was torn between his original technical approach to production and the accounting maxim that forbids one to tally up on one side for what is considered gratis on the other. To escape this dilemma, in later editions of the Traité he added a note about nature’s “gift” to the consumer:


It will be countered here that nonowned natural agents, like atmospheric pressure in steam engines, do not produce value. Since their help is free, the argument goes, it does not result in an increase in the exchange value of the products, the only measure of wealth. But we shall see later that all produced utility that does not cost the consumer anything amounts to a gift that is made to him, an increase of his revenue. [26]

24I will not be able to analyze this point here, which amounts to drawing a distinction between “wealth” and “value.” The question is important, because Say’s reflections would ultimately lead, by way of Pellegrino Rossi, his successor at the Collège de France, and then Augustin Cournot and Jules Dupuit, to the prolegomena of the neoclassical theory of value. [27] I would like to dwell only on the philosophical significance of Say’s statement: For what reason does nature give man the consumer a “gift?” And is the consumer prepared to “give back” to nature, in accordance with the triad of the gift? It is not far, after all, from a “gift” to “predation.” According to Jared Diamond, man has always had the tendency to thoughtlessly “take” what nature seems to give him without limit. [28] This predatory tendency was reinforced when man began to exploit “nonrenewable” fossil fuels. Say had formulated this problem in 1828, when coal mines began to be exploited in France:


It is felicitous that, long before the creation of man, nature set aside vast supplies of fuel in coal mines, as if she had foreseen that once man was in possession of his domain, he would destroy more material for burning than she could reproduce. But these stores, though rich, have limits. There are people who fear that the world will end by fire; we should rather fear that it will end for lack of fire. [29]

26Concern at the risk of exhausting natural resources recurred throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century. While in 1863, in France, Augustin Cournot elaborated on bioeconomical subjects forgotten by the tradition, and in 1864, in Great Britain, William Stanley Jevons explored the question of coal exhaustion, [30] Karl Marx in 1867 paraphrased Petty’s formulation in a negative rhetorical reversal: “Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.” [31] For Marx, work and nature, a social and an ecological question, are intimately associated in a critique of the destructive effects of capitalism, just as they would later be associated by Karl Polanyi, who made “land,” alongside labor and money, one of the three “fictitious commodities” that cause the dissolution of human societies when subjected to market forces. [32] At the end of the nineteenth century, an original economist who is today forgotten, Otto Effertz (1856–1921), presented this symmetry of work and nature in a “ponophysiocratic” doctrine guided by “ponocratic socialism,” exclusively concerned with the exploitation of labor:


By eating into labor, one destroys time for freedom and, by eating into land, one destroys the span of one’s neighbors’ life. By eating into labor, one exploits, one produces misery. By eating into land, one kills. By eating into labor, one sucks the blood of one’s kin; by eating into land, one spills it. [33]

28On this basis, Effertz attempted to develop an original theory of value, which was the subject of lively discussion at the time. [34] The theme of the gift of nature is ambivalent. If nature “gives,” we ought to “give back” to it. If we do not “give back,” then we only “take” from it and therefore exhaust it. One might criticize the greedy spirit of capitalism, which encourages one “to squeeze nature to the last drop” to maximize profits. But Diamond has shown that people in precapitalist societies often acted no differently. The reproach of predation thus can also justify capitalist property rights, since an owner is more interested than anyone else in maintaining the condition of his or her land. [35] That is why he or she “invests” in nature. The statement thus can be reversed. Nature does not “give;” it “returns” in proportion to what we give it, but deducting a “tax” in the transfer. It is the theme of “returns” (rendement in French) that I will turn to now.

Nature’s Returns: Mechanics and Agronomy

29Rendement, the French term for the English returns, can be verified as a synonym for the French reddition (“(sur)render(ing)”), derived from the Latin redditio, from the beginning of the seventeenth century. [36] It is the act of surrendering to an enemy (se rendre), but also of “giving thanks” (rendre grâce) or of “giving an account” (rendre un compte). In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, rendement du compte and reddition du compte were commonly used as synonymous accounting terms. The technological sense, which attributes to an inanimate object the power to “return” or “yield” something, appears later and in specific professional fields. It describes the amount of usable product left over from technological processing. Apparently, the first sector to use this expression was that of wool working, where we find it used in 1775 to denote the proportions of pounds of washed wool to raw (unwashed) wool: The kind of wool affects the yield [rendement]: an arroba of raw Leonese wool produces twelve and a half pounds of washed wool. [37] The yield in flour from wheat is calculated in the same way. [38] A treatise on distillation from 1817 gives this definition: “Yield [rendement]. An expression used by distillers to indicate how much brandy or spirit their wine produces. Thus, instead of saying six hectoliters of wine produce one hectoliter of spirit, they say that the spirit obtained is a sixth of the yield [rendement].” [39] The expression would then be used from the 1820s in the sugar industry (yield in sugar from beetroots), for threshing grain (pounds of grain versus pounds of chaff), in metallurgy (yield in metal from a mineral), and so on. It is always used in measuring the quantity of a useful substance that can be extracted from a raw material.

30This meaning of the term corresponds to the meaning that became established in the 1830s in industrial mechanics. [40] The “mechanical yield” [rendement mécanique] is the ratio of “useful work” to the total expended to obtain it. [41] In a mechanical process of transforming motion, there are losses caused by collisions and friction. The yield is thus necessarily less than one. The physicists who devised this pattern situated it in an economic framework. They knew Say’s political economy and drew inspiration from it. The expression “mechanical yield” appears in the 1830s: thus a report on the waterwheels of Poncelet states, “The yield [rendement] of waterwheels with curved blades is twice that of waterwheels with straight blades.” [42] The notion of thermodynamic yield appears when heat extracted from the combustion of coal begins to be used to produce mechanical motion. The “mechanical equivalent of heat” is measured by substituting a quantity of coal for work as the denominator of the equation. This equating of heat and mechanical work led to the concept of energy. The thermodynamic model relies on the same economic calculation of total cost versus useful product. The expression “thermodynamic yield” [rendement thermodynamique] appeared in scientific literature in the 1880s.

31What characterizes the concept of yield or return, both in mechanics and in thermodynamics, is the economic equation: cost = product + loss. The yield is thus necessarily less than one, in accordance with the first technical uses of the term. But the expression was used in other, mathematical meanings. Thus, we find in 1830 an assessment of the “yield of mines,” [rendement des mines] which simply describes the quantity of ore and silver produced per annum. The term was also used in soap making to measure not the rate of remainder in a loss-producing process but on the contrary the capability to gain through absorption, or rather the quantity of soap that could be produced with a given quantity of oil:


The yield in soap is always estimated at 225 grams of soap per millerole of oil; we thus estimate that this amount, which weighs about 140 grams, is capable of receiving an additional weight of 85 grams, whether in salts or in moisture; but it was rare before the Revolution to obtain a similar return. [43]

33In the same vein, the “yield in bread” from flour was calculated—and normatively standardized: “The administration long ago fixed the yield of a 325 pound or 156 kilogram sack of flour at 102 round loaves, of 2 kilograms.” [44]

34In the 1830s, use of the term was generalized in a loose economic sense of monetary product from an activity. In this context, we see emerge the expression “yield of lands” in the sense of the fiscal profitability of property: “The revolution felicitously at work in the cultivation and return of lands.” [45] The expression “agricultural return” [rendement agricole], in the sense of the production rate of grain or any other agricultural product per surface unit, did not appear until the 1850s. [46] The origin of the concept of “return” or “yield” thus is not from agriculture; that is perhaps why it was thought for a long time that agriculture did not “return” but “gave,” as in creation ex nihilo. The expression “agricultural return,” moreover, does not correspond to the strict meaning of the term, which presumes a relationship between quantities produced and quantities expended of the same kind.

35In the sixteenth century, however, Bernard Palissy postulated a principle of the calculable equivalence of what one “takes” and what one “adds” to the earth:


You ought to understand the reason why one adds manure to a field.... It is to restore a part of what you have taken away, for so it is that in sowing wheat one hopes that one grain will produce many more, yet that cannot happen without taking some substance from the land. [47]

37Two centuries later, Antoine Lavoisier, who was connected to the physiocrats, developed this theory further. Nowhere is the close link between the economist and the chemist better demonstrated by the astute Lavoisier than in the area of agronomy. [48] He applies accountancy thinking, based on the postulated equivalence of “input” and “output” in a process (provided one knows how to measure things correctly), throughout his entire work as a scholar and administrator. From 1779 to 1788, he systematically recorded “income and expenditure” on his Sologne estate: “Everything enters the barn by number and by weight.” [49]

38The development of the concept of “agricultural return” took place during the successive transformation of agronomic theory over the nineteenth century. A vitalist conception inspired by German agronomy dominated the first half of the century: the humus theory of Albrecht Daniel Thaer (1752–1828). It was imported to France during the Bourbon Restoration by Christophe Matthieu de Dombasle at Roville and by Auguste Bella and Jean-Edmond Briaune at Grignon. [50] Thaer’s followers in Germany and France developed a sophisticated technique of agricultural bookkeeping, which was given a variety of names: “agricultural statistics,” “agronomometry,” “euphorimetry,” and so on. It was intended to model algebraically the relationship between what the soil provided and what one added in work (labor and so forth) and fertilizer. Without a sound biological basis, these calculations anticipated the economic model of the “function of production.” [51] Formulated in modern terms, Briaune’s version of agronometry may be represented by writing out F = f (P, W), where F (“fertility”) represents the production of grain per surface unit, P (“potency”) a certain state of soil, and W (“wealth”) the amount of manure applied per surface unit, and putting it in the form F = P. W. This thus is a Cobb-Douglas function, in which each “production factor” (here “fertility” and “wealth”) has an exponent equal to one. The marginal productivity of each factor in such a model is constant and equal to its average productivity, and it is impossible to have a decreasing factorial return. [52] This metrology confirms the idea that the addition of fertilizer, multiplied by the natural state of the soil, is more productive the better the soil, and recalls ancestral peasant wisdom: “The peasant knows full well that the best land repays the best fertilizer.” [53]

39In the 1840s, Théodore de Saussure (1767–1845) in Switzerland, Jean-Baptiste Boussingault (1802–1887) in France, Justus von Liebig (1803–1873) [54] in Germany, and John-Bennett Lawes (1814–1900) in England extended Lavoisier’s and the agronometrologists’ approach, shifting the area of study from the field to the plant before modern biochemistry turned its attention to cells. [55] This new generation denounced the vitalism of Thaer’s school, demonstrating that the fertility of soil was connected to the presence of mineral elements necessary for the growth of plants and thus could be reconstituted by corresponding supplements: phosphorus, nitrogen, and potassium. Lavoisier’s accounting model took on a new rationale. Just as previously mechanical engineers had, the founders of organic chemistry in the 1840s unambiguously advertised the economic nature of their conceptualization, such as here, for example, Jean-Baptiste Dumas:


Allow us then, borrowing from modern science an image large enough to bear comparison to major phenomena, to assimilate current vegetation, a veritable storehouse in which animal life is nourished, to that other storehouse comprised of ancient deposits of coal, which, when burned by the genius of Papin and Watt, will produce carbonic acid, water, heat, motion—one might almost say life and intelligence. [56]

41This statement concerns plant physiology. But it also applies to animal physiology, where it would lead to Auguste Chauveau’s concept of “physiological work.” [57] At the dawn of the following century, Jules Amar applied this compatibility of energy to human labor. [58] Thus things had come full circle: natural activity was traced back to work, in the sense of human labor, and, symmetrically, human labor was traced back to natural activity, in the sense of an energy process.

42While nature seemed to have been toppled by the dominant economic science in the tradition of Smith, over the course of the nineteenth century an economic conception of nature developed in the most diverse scholarly fields. No one could account for this vast natural economy better than the economist and philosopher Augustin Cournot, who inspired and supported the industrial development of the nineteenth century at least as much as the political economy:


Ex nihilo nihil: no force (mechanical or otherwise) is created out of thin air; all production and expenditure of force entails the expenditure or production of related forces in equal measure. Under the influence of this principle, natural science greatly resembles our industrial or economic theories: working on a reduced scale, man conforms to the laws of the labor that is done incessantly in the vast laboratory of nature. [59]

44Yet how might one combine this natural economy and the political economy? In this respect, the forestry model, which also inspired Cournot, leads to a disconcerting thought. It essentially turns natural production into the very archetype of capitalist exploitation.

The Forest: Pure Capital

45In 1828, Say declared that “a forest or park full of large trees should be considered a property on which an annual product, wood, is allowed to accumulate.” [60] In 1832, Louis Noirot, a forestry expert in Dijon, a whole section of whose Traité de la culture des forêts (Treatise on the Cultivation of Forests) is dedicated to “the economy of forests with respect to the political economy,” similarly wrote that “two-hundred-year-old oak trees... are nothing more than accumulated capital.” [61] About ten years later, this theme was expanded on by his brother, a geometry expert at Langres, who wrote under the name Noirot-Bonnet: [62]


A tree of which one postpones the exploitation may be compared to capital to which annual interest is added over a more or less long period. The wood is a kind of living capital that grows of its own accord, a method of expansion not found in any other kind of capital, which always requires human intervention to develop. [63]

47Here the forest provides a model for the political economy, that of production without work. Cournot had already utilized such a model in 1838 to elaborate his mathematical economy, the prime example of which is the production of mineral water. [64] The only constraint on consumption there is the proprietary right of the “producer,” who can fix “output” to maximize revenue. [65] The forestry model differs in that the level of production does not depend on the good will of the owner but on natural constraints on the growth of trees. To that effect, forestry production is pure capitalization or, in other words, production in which the only factor is time, or Y = f (t).

48The theoretical purity of this model made forestry exploitation a textbook case for economic theory. Buffon, for his part, was in 1739 the first to formulate optimum production as the leveling out of marginal productivity to zero:


Wood grows more and more during the initial years, that is to say, production in the second year is more substantial than in the first, growth in the third year is greater than in the second; thus the growth of wood increases up to a certain age, after which it declines: that is the point, the maximum that one should take advantage of to extract all the benefit and possible profit from one’s thicket. [66]

50In other words, Y = f (t) is an increasing monotonic function, from which the derived function dY/dt is decreasing. Y thus reaches its maximum when dY/dt is equal to zero. [67] This formula of Buffon’s is the basis for the theory of “forest planning,” a doctrine of rational management of forestry capitalization that emerged at the end of the eighteenth century in France and Germany. To this end, in 1821, the German forester Heinrich von Cotta (1763–1844) published growth tables for different kinds of forest that made it possible to calculate the optimal felling age for each. [68] The tabular presentation rather than in curves led foresters to privilege not annual growth defined by Buffon as dY (t)/dt, but average growth Y (t)/t, corresponding to the volume of a tree at a given time divided by its age. This method of measuring is more immediate statistically, since in practice the total volume of a tree is measured annually. This method of measuring also made it possible to smooth out interannual variations caused by weather. The concepts of annual and average growth, which correspond respectively to “marginal” and “average productivity” in economic theory, would sometimes be confused in debates among foresters. However, in the third edition of their Cours élémentaire de culture des bois (Elementary Course on the Cultivation of Wood) in 1855, Bernard Lorentz and Adolphe Parade formulated a theorem in three propositions, today familiar to every aspiring economist, according to which the curve of marginal productivity intersects the curve of average productivity at its maximum:


1.) As annual growth rises, average growth clearly also rises; 2.) When annual growth declines, average growth continues to rise as long as annual growth, even while declining, remains greater than the corresponding average growth; 3.) average growth reaches its highest point when it becomes equal to the corresponding annual growth. [69]

52The forestry model illustrates how difficult it is to manage a product of nature. Time gives us trees without there being any need to do the least work. If these trees are not gratis, it is a consequence of property rights. If, conversely, anyone can cut down trees freely, the tragedy of the commons mercilessly ensues. Deforestation, in fact, is one of the cases raised most frequently on this subject. For example, it is also Jared Diamond’s prime example concerning the history of Easter Island. The forestry case thus drives toward a legitimist conception of property law. Yet it nonetheless proved powerless to prevent deforestation, which in France, beginning with Colbert’s edict in 1669, led to the creation of authoritarian public rules of forest management. These regulations, briefly suppressed during the Revolution, were reaffirmed under the Bourbon Restoration. They are probably the first case in France in which a systematic framework for the “self-defense of society” was established, to use Karl Polanyi’s expression. It is interesting to note that the revolutionary law that liberalized forest management dates to 1791, the same year as Le Chapelier’s law liberalizing labor. But while a forestry code that derogated from the ordinary liberal law was established in 1827, it would not be until 1906 that a similar labor code was established.

53In the eighteenth century, foresters were asked about the discrepancy between individuals’ interest and the general interest with respect to forestry. Georges Le Roy, author of the article “Forest” for the Encyclopédie, explained this discrepancy in terms of time. The general interest is long term, while that of individuals is short term. Thus, the production cycle of forests is very long, greater than that of a human life for mature wood:


If woods should be considered state property by reason of their general utility, a forest is often simply a collection of woods owned by several individuals. Different interests arise from these two points of view, which good administration should reconcile. The state requires wood of all kinds and at all times; it should concern itself primarily with large woods. While we use them for our current needs, we must conserve them and prepare in advance for future generations. Conversely, the owners are eager to enjoy them, and sometimes their eagerness is reasonable. . . . Public vigilance thus is obligated to check the shortsighted rapacity of individuals who would sacrifice the lifespan of their woods for the enjoyment of the moment; it is the guardian of the rights of posterity; it must attend to its needs and provide for its interests in advance. [70]

55This theory was developed during the Revolution by Philibert Varenne de Fenille (1730–1794). [71] This large forest owner in Bresse, appointed steward of the forests of Ain in 1791 and guillotined at Lyon in 1794, enriched Buffon’s model by distinguishing between a “simple maximum” (Buffon’s: the maximum point of biological growth) and a “compound maximum,” the financial optimum that takes into consideration the capital cost. The return from the forest must be compared to that from another potential investment or the “opportunity cost” of conserving the forest, which could be cut down, with the results arising from this being invested at interest. For the exploitation of the forest to be profitable, its annual growth would have to be at least equal to the regular interest rate. Reviewing Varenne’s thought, Noirot-Bonnet considered the matter utterly impossible: “The production of material calculated in an average year [simple maximum], will constantly increase from 1 to 150 years, while annual production in cash [compound maximum] will constantly decrease from the former term to the latter.” [72]

56Noirot-Bonnet pushes this line of thought further, asking why, therefore, do owners not systematically cut down their forests. To resolve this paradox, citing Say and Cournot, he draws an innovative distinction between “rent” and “revenue” respectively as a “real” and “nominal” measurement of capital. It is only with respect to nominal capital that forestry returns are mediocre. In other words, only one part of this nominal capital is active; the other part is, in his words, “inert.” By distinguishing between “revenue” and “rent,” Noirot-Bonnet contrasts “absolute” and “relative” value, that is, relative to the capital from revenue. Following the modern theory of the decreasing marginal utility of money, he holds that the subjective value of revenue is relative to the extent of the wealth already possessed. We thus see, as Varenne had already noted, how the attitudes of small and large landowners differ with respect to forest properties: the former are inclined to clear them, while the latter can afford to wait until their trees grow. With this argument, Noirot-Bonnet sociologizes the question and invents what economists in the twentieth century have designated the “actualization rate:” the rate of anticipated returns from a property is not a factor hypothetically equal to the current interest rate but rather a variable. It is not the same for all actors, because it depends on the period of time in which they can think, which in turn depends on their level of wealth. The poorest people, who can think only in the short term, have a heightened actualization rate. [73] The richest, who can plan over the long term, have a low actualization rate. Neither group assigns the same value to time. Noirot-Bonnet argues that forestry property should therefore be reserved for the richest individuals and, particularly, the state itself: “The government undoubtedly would be the worst cultivator of farm land, meadows, and vineyards; it clearly is the best cultivator of forests.” [74]

57Cournot, without retracing Noirot-Bonnet’s argument in detail, adopts his principal conclusion; the forestry model shows that, contrary to the doctrine of economic optimism developed by Frédéric Bastiat in the wake of Smith’s providentialist interpretation, individual interests do not necessarily converge with the collective interest:


Persons knowledgeable in forestry economy seem to us to have firmly established that the forest planning most suitable to producing the largest annual product in cubic meters of wood, and consequently the most useful to society, and the best with respect to the exploitation of natural forces and the resources of the air and soil in the interest of man, is secular planning that no individual could possibly manage: because taking into account his interest (as he must), his annual revenue, assessed in money, would constantly decrease, while the material product would constantly increase. [75]

59This idea of Cournot’s inspired the socialist reflections of the young Adolphe Landry, who in his 1901 thesis criticized the utility of private ownership and thereby indirectly the ponophysiocratic doctrine of Otto Effertz, which I cited a moment ago. [76]

60The forestry question thus illustrates the limits of monetary economic metrology. Such metrology is by nature instantaneous. It does not take the long term into consideration. This problem had already been raised by Ricardo in his theory of labor value: [77] Is having one hundred men work for one day equivalent to having one man work for one hundred days? In both cases, one hundred units of daily labor are used. But in the former case, the product is available at the end of one day; in the second, at the end of one hundred, which is not equivalent if we take into consideration economic actors’ “preference for the present.” What is true of the distribution of direct labor over time, is true a fortiori when one takes into consideration capital from accumulated labor. The more capitalistic production is, the most spread out over time it is. Since different sectors of production are not equally capitalistic, we cannot simply count up quantities of labor to define their value. [78] Industrial mechanics have faced the same problem: Can one consider two machines equivalent when they produce the same yield but not at the same speed? Yes, answers Coriolis, because a machine can be doubled. But that entails investing capital, that is, introducing a cost that is not taken into consideration in the immediate measurement of mechanical yield. Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk addressed this question, building on Ricardo, Marx, and also Jevons. [79] His psychological conception of interest as the “price of time” is the basis of his theory of “production detours:” to have water available, one can go to the source when thirsty, build a cistern in the ground, or install pressurized pipes. Investing in advance reduces the later cost of accessing the water. To choose an option, it is necessary to know its “actualization rate.” Thus the question of time leads from the subject of labor to that of capital. The forestry case played a vital role as a theoretical model on this subject because it illustrates a limited case of productive organization in which time is the only factor.

Conclusion: Nature, Man, and Time

61Having reached the end of this road, we are compelled to question the notion of nature and the viability of its application to economics. “Nature” per se does not exist, as has clearly been shown by Serge Moscovici. [80] Nature without man is a conceptual abstraction and an object thus constructed, provided it is consistent, no longer interests us. Thus to ask about the gift of nature, its product, its yield, is to ask about the organization of human economic life. If nature makes us “pay” for what we take from her, it is because we take it from other people, those of today or of tomorrow. What we call “nature” thus is in fact other people, present or yet to come. If we no longer believe today that nature can “give” to us without ourselves having to give in return, it is because we fear taking from our descendants on the Earth. The question of nature thus gives rise to the question of time. Market theory is essentially located in an instantaneous temporality. Even if a contract includes temporal clauses, time is flattened like the determinist time of classical mechanics. The lives of humans, however, and a fortiori those of societies, like those of all living species, animal and plant, and even those of the Earth and universe, if viewed on the required scale, are located in time, in a multitude of temporalities that cannot necessarily be collapsed in upon themselves.

62Classical cosmologies situated man in a cyclical temporality, in which he was thought to find harmony with the temporality of things. The transition from these “cold” societies to “hot” ones, in the words of Lévi-Strauss inspired by thermodynamics, [81] overturned our temporalities. We personify the interest of nature in order to conceive that of other people in the long term. As I have emphasized elsewhere, drawing inspiration from Turgot and Cournot, such a subject demands discussion. [82] Indeed, the more distant the long term we consider, the more difficult it is to consider the interest of our descendants on the earth. Translating this rationally unknowable interest as that of nature is a convenient rhetorical solution that originates in the ancestral cultural core of humanity, but it comes neither without intellectual risk nor political danger. Invoking a supreme being so as to impose a rational order—and nature is one—always entails distancing oneself from an open conversation about what we want and what we can do.


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    Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (New York: Collier, [1776] 1909), book 4, chap. 9.
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    Gérard-Joseph Christian, author of Vues sur le système général des opérations industrielles, ou Plan de technonomie (Paris: Huzard et Courcier, 1819), also founded the journal L’Industriel, in which Say published.
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    Jean-Baptiste Say, Traité d’économie politique, 1st ed. (Paris: Déterville, 1803), 23.
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    Say, Traité d’économie politique, 1st ed., 40–41. The principle of the interchangeability of man, animals, and natural forces is the source of the mechanical metrology inaugurated at the end of the seventeenth century by Guillaume Amontons, which would result at the beginning of the nineteenth century in the mechanical concept of “work.” See François Vatin, Le Travail: Économie et physique (1780–1830) (Paris: PUF, 1993); and B. Grall, Économie des forces et production d’utilité: La pensée gestionnaire des ingénieurs des ponts (1831–1891) (Rennes, France: PUR, 2002).
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    Say uses this expression concurrently with “source of production” in book 4 on “revenue” in the 1803 edition of the Traité. In later editions, he transforms this concept into a bolt to rivet his theory of production, examined here, to his theory of distribution, which becomes book 2 of his treatise.
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    Say, Traité d’économie politique, 3rd ed., 28.
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    Say, Traité d’économie politique, 3rd ed., 31 and 33.
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    Say, Traité d’économie politique, 5th ed. (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, [1826] 1972), 70, the last edition to appear within Say’s lifetime.
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    Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Penguin, 2005).
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    Karl Marx, Capital (London: Penguin, [1867, 1890] 1976), 1:638.
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    Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1944).
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    Otto Effertz, Travail et terre: Nouveau système d’économie politique (Arheim, Netherlands: Effertz, 1893). Effertz relies on the agronomic theory of Justus von Liebig (see infra). [Translator’s note: Quotation back-translated from the French-language version of this article.]
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    François Vatin, “Landry lecteur de Cournot: Un parcours forestier ou les chemins de traverse de l’histoire de la pensée économique,” Économies et sociétés: Histoire de la Pensée Économique 49 (October 2013): 1705–1730
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    What is for everyone is for no one, recalled Garett Hardin in “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162 (1968): 1243–48, according to an argument used by the liberals in the eighteenth century against collective property.
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    Jean Nicot, Thresor de la langue francoyse, tant ancienne que moderne (Paris: Douceur, 1606).
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    Pierre-Joseph Buchoz, Dictionnaire vétérinaire et des animaux domestiques, vol. 4 (Paris: Brunet, 1775). This usage is abundantly attested in the years 1820–1830.
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    Vatin, Le Travail.
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    Dominique-François Baudoin, Traité théorique de l’art du savonnier (Marseille, France: Bertrand, 1808) (composed in 1795 according to the author). This measurement, which it would be more appropriate to call “yield in oil,” is common in technological literature at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
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    In Germany, Heinrich von Thünen developed his economic theory on the basis of the agronometric method, revised in light of Ricardo’s thought, which he discovered between the first (1826) and second edition (1842) of the first volume of his magisterial opus, The Isolated State.
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    See Justus von Liebig, Chemische Briefe (Heidelberg, Germany: Winter, 1844); von Liebig, Naturwissenschaftliche Briefe über die moderne Landwirtschaft (Leipzig; Heidelberg: Winter, 1859).
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    Jules Amar in his thesis: Le Rendement de la machine humaine (Paris: Ballière, 1909).
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    He frequently cites the economists, Say and Adlophe Blanqui, but also Cournot, whose work Recherches sur les principes mathématiques de la théorie des richesses (Paris: Hachette, 1838), though practically unknown at the time, he praises as “one of our best treatises on political economy.” These forestry experts were brothers of Abbot Matthias Noirot, professor of philosophy at Lyon and a friend of Cournot’s.
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    Only at a later stage did Cournot complicate his model by introducing a function of cost.
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    This function does not increase permanently, since the tree will eventually die, but it increases while the tree is alive.
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    Heinrich von Cotta’s tables were translated into French by Dagobert de Salomon and make up the second volume of his Traité de l’aménagement des forêts (Paris: Bureau de l’Almanach du commerce, 1837).
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    Bernard Lorentz and Adolphe Parade, Cours élémentaire de culture des bois (Paris: Huzard, [1837] 1855), 152.
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    Philippe Varenne de Fenille, Observations sur l’aménagement des forêts et particulièrement des forêts nationales (Paris: La Feuille du cultivateur, 1791); Varenne de Fenille, Mémoires sur l’administration forestière et sur les qualités des bois indigènes ou qui sont acclimatés en France, 2 vols. (Bourg, France: Philipon, 1792), as well as Philibert Le Duc, “Biographie,” in œuvres agronomiques et forestières de Varenne de Fenille (Paris: Rothschild, 1869), 7–40.
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    Noirot-Bonnet, Théorie de l’aménagement, 90.
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    Noirot-Bonnet, Théorie de l’aménagement, 279.
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    Augustin Cournot, Principes de la théorie des richesses (Paris: Vrin, 1981), 277–278. Augustin Cournot had addressed this question in his Traité de l’enchainement des idées fondamentales dans les sciences et dans l’histoire (Paris: Hachette, 1861), 433. In these two works, he cites “people knowledgeable in forestry economy.” He did not reveal his source until 1877, in his Revue sommaire des doctrines économiques (Paris: Vrin, 1982), 25: “The highly esteemed and too-little-known work of Louis Noirot-Bonnet.”
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    See Vatin, “Landry lecteur de Cournot.”
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    David Ricardo, The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, Mineola, N.Y. : Dover Publications, 2004, chap. 1, sect. 4.
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    This question is central to the thinking of Piero Sraffa, Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities; Prelude to a Critique of Economic Theory. (Cambridge [Eng.]: Cambridge University Press, 1960).
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    Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, Positive Theory of Capital, trans. William A. Smart (London: Macmillan, [1889] 1891).
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    Serge Moscovici, Essai sur l’histoire humaine de la nature (Paris: Flammarion, 1968).
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    Georges Charbonnier, Entretiens avec Claude Lévi-Strauss (Paris: UGE, 1961), 38–39.
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    See François Vatin, L’Espérance-monde. Essai sur l’idée de progrès à l’heure de la mondialisation (Paris: Albin Michel, 2012), particularly the last chapter and conclusion.

What is the place of nature in the economic tradition? A survey of literature shows three entities: the gift, service, and returns. This article questions the meaning and limits of the personification of nature in a certain environmentalist doctrine and highlights the issue of temporality. Understood by contemporary economic theory in terms of capitalisation, temporality leads to insights on anthropological and cosmological issues linked to the destiny of mankind and societies.

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