Introducing: The Commodity Frontiers Initiative

Rachel Steely's picture

The transformation of the global countryside has been essential to the emergence and consolidation of capitalism over the last 500 years. Commodity frontiers have swept vast grasslands and forests, mountains and marine spaces, setting populations in motion, transforming social relations, and drawing raw materials, food, fuel, and people into global networks of labor and trade.

Sugar, cotton, soy, gold and oil frontiers, among others, have reshaped environments and economies around the world. Through dispossession, the radical simplification of landscapes, and construction of infrastructure to harness the power of the countryside, commodity frontiers have appropriated ecological and social resources with drastic implications for the ways that billions of people have lived.

The Commodity Frontiers Initiative aims to systematically study a wide variety of such commodity frontiers over the past 500 years. It strives to understand the role of the countryside and its people in the history of capitalism through an integrated and interdisciplinary research design that combines local studies with innovative methodologies such as the creation of large data hubs, data visualization, and mapping. By providing a long historical perspective on problems that are often assumed to be modern, the Initiative endeavors to recast our thinking about issues of sustainability, resilience, and crisis and thus contribute to the politics of our own times.

The Commodity Frontiers Initiative is a network of individual scholars, research teams and non-governmental organizations from all over the world. Participants have been working extensively on global commodity production, rural societies, labor history and the history of capitalism, and have published some of the most important books in the field. Together, they are expert on a wide range of global commodities, covering all the principle producing regions of the world, from the early modern period to the present day, employing a range of approaches, including social and economic history, anthropology, economics, sociology, political science, ecology and development studies.

For More Information 

You can find further details on CFI participants, activities, and publications at our website. For more information, contact Rachel Steely at rsteely@fas.harvard.edu.