Breaking the iron triangle: Technosphere, finance, land

Money is part and parcel of the technosphere. This includes the financial sector. Financial technology is all technical devices that manage financial objects aka assets. In old times, these were metal coins, gold and other valuables, and the means to store and transport them. Today, financial technology is mostly digital. Following social sciences approaches to technology, we should also include all kinds of rules and practices that govern the uses and manipulations of financial objects. Financial objects are pure artefacts that represent monetary value. This artefactual nature is most salient when it comes to constructs such as futures. But the same is true for all kinds of ‘assetification’, which means relating a financial object with another object that is real. This operation connects current uses of the real object with the future monetary yield, that means future income streams generated from the real object and its future monetary value on the markets where this is traded.

The most important asset to be considered in technosphere analysis is land (including water areas) because land is where technosphere and biosphere directly compete: The ongoing loss of biodiversity results from human claims on land driven by implementing technology, and the indirect impacts of human-induced climate change and other externalities on land that is not directly claimed (in most general sense, ‘sinks’). This creates what I call the ‘iron triangle’ of technosphere, finance and land. At the core we find the modern institutions of land ownership that emerged when capitalism overcame feudalism in Europe. These are of deep significance for understanding the relationship between technosphere, economy and ecology because the institutions of land ownership were the template for modern conceptions of property.

The key aspect is that property institutions evolved according to the interests of finance and more specifically, the interests of creditors and investors. This reflects the role of property as collateral and as the ultimate means to enforce claims by foreclosure. There are certain institutional conditions for enabling this function of property, most basically, tradability of the object and valuation on markets. In this regard, the evolution of pawnshops in the 19th century is most interesting, as increasingly people became dependent on credit in their everyday lives, which required ownership of objects that have a market value and can be easily traded. One conspicuous example is the pocket watch, which became an asset even for the poor, and was not just owned for knowing the time.

The most significant asset was land, and in many ways, this remains true today (just think of the pivotal role of real estate in the Chinese economy). Land was at the centre of the institutional transformations induced by capitalism. In principle, land became like a pocket watch, or, in abstract terms, a financial object. For this, clear property rights were created that are enshrined in land registers and deeds. These are financial objects that can be traded and priced, thus meeting the functional requirements of finance.

As we know (and the Chinese learned recently with great pain), this system is brittle and vulnerable. We meet a Marxian contradiction between use vale and exchange value: The actual uses of land eventually determine the economic value, and this can diverge substantially from financial values. Since land is a key collateral in finance, we often observe real estate bubbles and crises: The economist Edward Leamer is often cited stating that real estate simply is the business cycle. In China, land is deeply enmeshed in real estate business and local public finance, and declining land prices wreak havoc on companies, local governments and banks – well, and finally, the people pay the price.

This tension reaches tragic format when we consider the ecological dimension of land: Just think of Darwin’s ‘entangled bank’ projected on a land register and being owned by someone who uses this as collateral for getting a loan. The feudal system of ownership and all indigenous conceptions of land never developed the idea that land could be held as a private property of a single owner: This requirement only emerged when finance entered the scene. In other words, the institutions of land ownership are deriving from and are being sustained by financial capitalism. In this sense, a critique of capitalism focusing on property is partly misguided: The deeper structural factor is money and finance.

This issue has been recognized by many thinkers for long, just to name Thomas Paine and Henry George. In recent times, I want to mention Franklin Obeng-Odoom. They believed what is taken for granted by indigenous worldviews: Land is nature, and nature cannot be object of human property. Within human society, appropriating land creates land rents, and these are literally the oil of finance, if we include all kinds of natural resources tied to land. Hence, breaking the iron triangle is the condition for taming the expansion of the technosphere and preventing planetary collapse. Here, Marx was partly right in demanding a revolution of property. But as I argued in recent posts, this cannot just redistribute property among humans or innovate human property relations. All human and non-human members of the ‘entangled bank’ must be recognized in sharing ownership of the bank. Indigenous worldviews mostly took this for granted, resulting in arrangements of land use that constrained human appropriation, as was the case in European commons before the advent of capitalism. In this sense, revolution means reinventing these ways of life in our modern societies.

4 Replies to “Breaking the iron triangle: Technosphere, finance, land”

  1. Great post! Land is generally another forgotten category that characterizes the early attempts done by Marx, George, Polany and, in a minor extent, Weber to understand the very concept of capitalism and its abstractions and for which it deserves to be raised again as a central element for analysis and for transformation. In the realm of Enviromental History, I should draw attention to William Cronon’s book “Changes in the land: Indians, colonists and the ecology of New England” (1983) and the sharp scrutiny on disputed views over land. Yes, it was all about land. Leaving Gaia behind (or aside?) and delving into land might push us closer to a myriad of other cosmological domains; domains in which most people on this Earth, especially in the so-called global south, comprehend their own living, vital experiences and interconnections. Latour’s “Down to Earth”, Obeng-Doom’s critique of the “western left” and the “conventional wisdom” on the commons by pledging a renewed attention to the concept of land, and Ailton Krenak’s “Ideas to postpone the end of the world” are, for instance, an interest movement towards an open discussion that emphasizes terrestriality. From the point of view of western-oriented science, I ask myself whether we have the conceptual frameworks and institutional “ambience” to dare to question the utter meaning of land. As Prof. Herrmann-Pillath suggests, questioning land is to question the artefactuality of finance. Nothing could be more political than that.


    1. Indeed, land is a forgotten category in social science and economics, reflecting the modernist aspirations of capitalism overcoming feudalism. In the age of the ‘meta’, seems that land becomes even less significant, as we might multiply ‘spaces’ virtually. Twenty years ago, pundits announced that the ‘world is flat’, and that globalization would make geography irrelevant. Against such visions, I found it sobering to start thinking about land. Land is space and place, and the concept of ‘land’ may be seen as a performative idea sui generis. In my post on the ‘blue acceleration’ I discuss the phenomenon that ‘land’ is also the implicit metaphor in shaping the human appropriation of the oceans. It is time to get back to ‘Ur-ideas’ such as the ‘four elements’ that you find in all human cultural traditions. Approaching oceans like ‘land’ fails to recognize the peculiar nature of ‘water’. We must start thinking about the social ontology of these ‘elements’ which are truly elements in the sense of being the pillars of the world in which we live: land (‘earth’), water, energy (‘fire’) and the atmosphere (‘air’). This is different from the scientific view, but still dovetails with it. In that context, it is fascinating that in ancient China there were five ‘phases’ or elements, adding ‘gold’. That might point to the economy, and hence the transformative power of money.


      1. Dear Carsten.. great to exchange some ideas with you. Yes, I indeed tend to agree that the onthological meaning of the world (whatever that means) is of utter relevance and the very relationship between land and water, being the former the “home” of mankind, is not a global fait accompli either (e.g. insular societies in Oceania, ribeirinhos people in the Amazon). Perhaps “air” is where we all inhabitate (our core province)… well, I do not want to go further in this argument 🙂 .. the very question behind incorporating THE ELEMENTS in the economic-social rationale is also a question of political representation. Global discussions on climate and biodiversity assume the political concepts of representation that grosso modo emanate from the West and voices are only heard through the system of nations, not “system of the peoples”. “We”, the ones who destroy the planet and organized in nation-states, still have the upper hand while indigenous peoples (The Forces of (ecologic) reproduction by Stefania Barca) by criteria of representation do not count to decide impending matters. An eco-economic based on ELEMENTS is due to review a great bunch of political philosophy especially the role played by infra-state indigenous communities.


      2. I fully agree on that! My post on the ‘blue acceleration’ sketches a vision of ‘ocean commons’ where the coastal communities (and not the nation states) are owners of commons that encompass the continental shelf. Beyond that, there would be a federation of ocean commons that deals with the oceans beyond that spatial scope. The key point is that the United NATIONS would no longer be in charge. the national states would be bypassed via a direct institutionalization of a global network of local ocean commons where the local communities (such as the indigenous fishers) regain voice.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: