Frontiers of Rent and Rentiership in the Green Economy

Sarah Knuth (Durham University) and Tyler Harlan (Cornell University)

Across multiple spheres and spaces today, geographers have argued that “contemporary capitalism is different”; that, as Birch, Ward, and Zeller (2017) maintain, “it is increasingly dominated by forms of rentiership rather than entrepreneurship.” Whether described as value extraction (Birch 2017) or value-grabbing (Andreucci et al. 2017), rentiership implies a transfer of economic value to the owner of a resource, rather than the creation of economic value through productive activities. While debates continue about the nature and future of surplus value production in late capitalism, its significance and temporalities over the longue durée, and its regional vs. global character (e.g., Silver and Arrighi 2003), it is clear that rentiership has gained prominence as a mode of accumulation in the present era. Moreover, recent interventions argue that rentier imperatives are colonizing and imperiling technologically advanced sectors often framed as the ‘saviors’ of capitalism, capable of infusing it with fresh value and innovating fixes for its other spiraling contradictions (e.g., Mazzucato 2015; Christophers 2016; Birch 2017; and see Storper and Walker 1989; Ekers and Prudham 2015). In this session, we take on a key contemporary frontier for these turbulent questions of rent, rentiership, and (post)capitalist futures: the green economy.


Our focus on the green economy builds on established political economic and ecological critiques of green capitalism, ranging from work on green urban infrastructure financing to rural resource enclosures (McAfee 1999; Fairhead et al. 2012; Christophers 2018; Langley 2018). Yet, rather than emphasize the arenas where green accumulation occurs – be they conservation (Büscher and Fletcher 2015), restoration (Huff and Brock 2017), decarbonization (Bumpus and Liverman 2008), or others – we aim here to foreground the specific mechanism(s) through which value is appropriated, which we suggest increasingly occurs through rentiership. We understand the green economy as a ‘frontier’ of rentiership in two key modes: as an extensive expansion of large-scale land conversions and ‘grabs’ for the inputs and infrastructure (such as renewable energy installations), and as an intensive expansion into novel realms and asset classes (such as bioprospecting and risk) (e.g., Johnson 2013; Goldstein and Johnson 2015; McCarthy and Huber 2017; Rignall 2016; McEwan 2017; Knuth 2018; and see Walker 2017). We argue that these parallel forms – and, particularly, novel ways in which they are being interconnected – remain an outstanding empirical and theoretical challenge for contemporary political economic and ecological scholarship, over and above both fields’ now-extensive engagements with value (e.g., Kay and Kenney-Lazar 2017) and recurrent invocations of accumulation by dispossession (Harvey 2003). These developments span rural, urban, and industrial geographies. Moreover, they suggest deepening entanglements between traditionally construed forms of rent/rentiership: rooted in, for example, monopoly control over land, money, or intellectual property – all embedded in complex ways with state powers and permissions. As such, they demand ongoing engagements across political ecology, political economy, and their established remits in rural land relations, on the one hand, and urban-industrial geographies, on the other.


In this session, we seek contributions that engage these new rent frontiers in the green economy empirically and/or theoretically. Questions to consider include (but are not limited to):


  • · What new assets and forms of rent are prominent in the green economy? To what extent is the existence of these new assets predicated upon the ability to extract rents from them (as opposed to actual value creation)?
  • · How do rent and rentiership shape new green investment location decisions, particularly as they relate to frontier spaces? How might these decisions reshape or deepen processes of uneven development?
  • · How does the extensive expansion of the green economy articulate with its intensive expansion? That is, how does the green economy re-inscribe traditional frontier spaces and relations, even as it simultaneously constructs new assets and forms of rent?
  • · Relatedly, what are the entanglements and paradoxes of materiality and immateriality in the green economy, and how do such complexities matter in the evolving politics of rent/rentiership? That is, how does a nominally ‘post-industrial’ and eco-efficient green capitalism nevertheless reshape land relations, industrial geographies, and other materially embedded geographies? 
  • · Are Schumpeterian technological rents accruing to ‘disruptive’ cleantech players more productive than rents extracted by financial players or landed capital, as high-tech champions and defenders of intellectual property often claim? How might different configurations of innovation and industrial policy (Mazzucato 2015) shape such determinations? (Conversely, how might we evaluate and counter similar claims to productivity from ‘market-making’ financial players such as private equity?) 
  • · How might green economic expansion contour existing capitalist/rentier strategy and lines of critical inquiry (e.g., questioning of ‘land as a financial asset’ or the ‘financialization of ‘nature’’ as financial players grab real property and value in new ways) (e.g., Christophers 2010; Knuth 2015; Ward and Aalbers 2016; Ouma et al. 2018)? 
  • · How do capitalist states enable, shape, and/or constrain resource and rent territorialization in frontier spaces (e.g. Bridge 2014)? How do they shape opportunities for rent extraction from financial and technological innovations? 
  • · What are the political challenges of rent in the green economy, and what opportunities exist to do rent and rentiership differently? For example, do state extractions of rent (such as from re/nationalized control of renewable energy infrastructure and landed inputs), and redistribution of such rents, offer new tools in growing a more just green economy? 

Please send titles and abstracts (max 250 words) to Sarah Knuth (sarah.e.knuth@durham.ac.uk) and Tyler Harlan (tyler.harlan@cornell.edu) by October 17. We will respond by October 20.




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