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Bulk commodities and preciosities

The increased use of energy and materials in the world economy means that many remote areas around the world have become extractive frontiers from where ‘bulk commodities’ essential to the metabolism of the rich economies (oil, coal, gas, iron ore, bauxite, copper, timber, hydroelectricity, etc.) or ‘preciosities’ (diamonds, gold, mahogany, aquaculture shrimp, etc.) are supplied. The distinction in world systems theory between trade in ‘preciosities’ versus trade in ‘bulk commodities’ was proposed by Wallerstein (1989).

Bulk commodities are products that are relatively inexpensive per kilogram and that usually have serious environmental impacts during the extraction process. Preciosities on the other hand, have a high chrematistic value per kilogram, and are non-essential for the metabolism of the importing countries or regions, but they may also have large-scale environmental impacts on ecosystems and human livelihoods, as with gold mining or shrimp farming.

Early bulk commodities (such as guano, wood, cotton and sugar) played a substantial role in the metabolism of importing countries in the nineteenth century. In contrast, the local ecological impacts of precious exports of ivory or tiger body parts are great compared to the irrelevance of such trade for the importing countries’ social metabolism. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the countries of today’s European Union depended on their own coal and biomass as energy sources. Now they have become large net importers of oil and gas, and may well resort to large-scale agrofuels imports. Taking all materials together (energy carriers, minerals, metals, biomass, etc.), the European Union (15 countries) imported about four times more than it exported in the year 2000. Meanwhile, Latin America exported six times more tonnes than it imported. This almost certainly means heavy environmental impacts in the extractive regions, along with local resistance from communities whose livelihoods are threatened.

The distinction between ‘bulk commodities’ and ‘preciosities’ has been contested. Anthropologists, for instance, object to the view that exchanges of preciosities are not essential to the constitution of world systems. They argue that pure ‘prestige goods’, far from being superfluous, are on the contrary crucial in a social sense (as dowry for instance, or for the accumulation of political power in clientelistic systems).

At the beginning of European colonisation, all imported goods were preciosities, for instance silver and pepper. The means of transport at the time made bulky trade impossible. Interestingly, some preciosities have changed status and become staples. Sugar for instance was a luxury good. However, later, as a result of the slave plantations, it became a source of cheap calories, that is, a bulk commodity playing an important role in the bio-metabolism (endosomatic energy) of the English working class. However, some preciosities remain non-essential inputs to production processes and they have not become cheap wage-goods. They are genuine luxury goods – even though in the extractive region they destroy human health and the environment, as was the case with the use of mercury in silver mining in Potosi (today’s Bolivia) in colonial times.


Wallerstein, I. (1989) The Modern World-System. The Second Great Expansion of the Capitalist World-Economy, 1730–1840, Vol. III, San Diego: Academic Press.

For further reading:

Martinez-Alier, J. (2007) Marxism, social metabolism, and international trade. In: A. Hornborg, J.R. McNeill and J. Martinez-Alier (eds.), Rethinking environmental history: world-system history and global environmental change. Lanham: AltaMira Press.

Martinez-Alier, J. (2009) ‘Social metabolism, ecological distribution conflicts, and languages of valuation’, Capitalism Nature Socialism, 20(1): 58-87.

This glossary entry is based on a contribution by Julien Francois Gerber

EJOLT glossary editors: Hali Healy, Sylvia Lorek and Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos

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