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Neoliberalism and the problem of space : competing rationalities of governance in fair trade and mainstream agri-environmental networks

posted on 2017-12-06, 00:00 authored by Stewart Lockie, M Goodman
Neoliberal political ideologies have been criticised for their blanket prescription of market reform as the solution to almost any social or environmental problem. This chapter thus examines the ability of market-based solutions to deal with the spatial and social diversity that characterises environmental problems in agriculture. In doing so, the chapter draws on case studies of the international fair trade movement and the regionalisation of natural resource management measures in Australia. Both these cases accept the neoliberal view that social and ecological degradation arises from the failure of markets’ to reflect the full cost of production and seek, therefore, to achieve social and environmental objectives through the parallel pursuit of economic rationality. In Australia, voluntary planning and education activities coordinated at a range of scales from the very local to the water catchment encourage compliance with locally developed management plans and codes of practice that link the expression of private property rights with a ‘duty of care’ to the environment. In the process, landholders are re-defined as prudent and self-reliant businesspeople for whom sustainable resource management is an essential component of financial viability. Fair trade, by contrast, seeks to transfer social and environmental ‘duties of care’ through the entire fair trade commodity chain. Auditing, certification, and the payment of farm-gate price premiums enable Western consumers to become ‘partners’ in the economic and social development of small and marginalised farming communities; guaranteeing that the ‘fair price’ paid for commodities is reflected in the incomes and, importantly, expenditures of the people receiving them. Despite their differences, these cases are allied in their opposition to protectionist trade policies; their commitment to building the viability of farms as productive business units through exposure to ‘the market’; and their appeals to self-responsibility, empowerment and democratisation. And, ultimately, both fail, by themselves, to deal adequately with the spatial and social diversity that underlies agri-environmental processes and problems. Neither approach, it is suggested, should be abandoned. However, complementary processes of fair trade and bioregional planning are required if either are to achieve their maximum impact.


Category 1 - Australian Competitive Grants (this includes ARC, NHMRC)



Marsden T; Murdoch J

Parent Title

Between the local and the global : confronting complexity in the contemporary agri-food sector

Start Page






Place of Publication

Oxford, UK.

Open Access

  • No

External Author Affiliations

Centre for Social Science Research; University of California, Santa Cruz;

Era Eligible

  • Yes

Number of Chapters