Commodifying Nature: Reflections of Hegemony in Ecotourism

By Amna Abudyak
2021, Vol. 13 No. 02 | pg. 1/1


This paper will attempt to link fundamental ideas and terms of environmental sociology in the context of ecotourism relating to human society and conceptions of nature. Furthermore, connections to neo-Marxist and neo-Gramscian theories will be made. As humans’ urban “habitats” grow exponentially, the relationship between tourism (i.e. ecotourism) and the naturework associated with the industry becomes increasingly important on the environmental, political, and cultural levels. As the tourists flows primarily from the Global North to the Global South are investigated sociologically, ecotourism is shown to be a reflection of hegemony and “hyperseparation” (Bulbeck, 2005b, p. 183) of modern Man and external Nature.

The modern, neoliberal, globalized world order has done more than delineate functions and processes through economic and political institutions. Along with the divide of the world into the Global North and the Global South specified by the hierarchal nature of the world economy, intangible barriers beyond development related to Nature and humanity have also been established. The growing industry of ecotourism is a marker of this divide between the “urban” and the “civilized” versus the “Other.” As the Global North and South engage through ecotourism, the hyperseparation (Bulbeck, 2005b, p. 183) of Man and external Nature, and the asymmetrical relationship of economic and cultural hegemony is reflected.

Why Ecotourism?

Mintzberg (1996) had described Western society as being “out of balance” as a result of the increasing encroachment of privatization due to capitalism (as cited in Fennel, 2003, p. 94). Furthermore, as urban settlements become larger and more common, bifurcation (Lewis & Gould, 2012) becomes a reality for more and more sections of society across the world. Lewis Mumford had described globalization as a process of urbanization, in which humans order their social functions through their physical environment through the construction of cities (as cited in Spencer, 2014, 36). Similarly, Foucault had connected infrastructure and constructed space with knowledge and power (Foucault & Rabinow, 1984). John Friedman regarded this as “placemaking” as humans constructed the identity of contemporary Man along with their construction of built environments and urban space (Spencer, 2014, 24). In other words, humans create culture through their built environments and the interactions that happen within them. This creation of a built environment to generate culture or “cultural invention” is what Freud had considered how humans “impose their collective will on external Nature” (Bowring, 2012, p. 4). Consequently, even when “confined” to their urban spaces, humans impact Nature in their cultural invention.

As a byproduct of a capitalist society, advertising has led to the commodification of the tangible and the intangible (such as culture). Furthermore, as with the rise of subcultures in reaction to the materialism in the United States during the 1960s onwards, a recursive trend to achieve a closer relationship to spirituality is seen in what Torgovnick (1998) had termed “Neopaganism” as the religion of the “New Age” (as cited in Bulbeck, 2005b, p. 173) in a continual attempt to find deeper ontological meaning. This movement has gained traction most likely due to, as Hutchins & Wilson (2010) had described, the “three ills of the postmodern condition” of misanthropy, risk, and ontological insecurity (p. 163). Combined, these three elements are excellent drivers for consumption targeted towards attempting a deeper connection with nature, simulated or otherwise.

The prominent role of advertising and media in the life of the urban modern Man includes certain understandings, ideations, and representations of Nature in relation to humans and the urban space that they occupy. In general, and in line with the Neopagan movement, Nature is romanticized but also progressively more commodified from the mid 1990s onwards (Hutchins &Wilson, 2010). In other words, the ideological dualism between nature and society is perpetuated through popular images. External Nature, or what is considered part of “wilderness” is given a rather holy meaning i.e. “cathedrals of the modern world” (Hutchins & Wilson, 2010, p. 148) in juxtaposition to the hyper-industrialized life in urban settings, which is again another instance of dualism. Through media, Nature is commodified in a process of “imaginative seduction” (Hutchins & Wilson, 2010, p. 9). Furthermore, Feenberg (2004) had drawn from Heidegger and Marcuse in describing Nature as the “inorganic body” of Man (p. 126), in that it is the way in which humans perform subject production or the production of techne (art, culture) (p. 30). It then could be said that while the urban built environment is a physical manifestation of humans producing culture, the relationship of Man and Nature provides the ideological basis for this production or cultural invention. Because of this, Marcuse had connected the liberation of Man to the liberation of Nature (Feenberg, 2004, p. 129). Liberation in this instance, would refer to the intellectual liberation of Man.

Keeping the abovementioned in mind, the commodification of culture (i.e. techne) through media has created a dissolution of high culture, putting in place a mass culture instead (Bowring, 2012). Bowring (2012) has considered this cultural commodification and “artistic alienation” (p. 18), a contributor to the narrowing gap between reality and art. In relation to techne, art, and the simultaneously romanticized and commodified representations of Nature in media, Nature comes to be as a detached, “untouched” world representing purity and spirituality. This could be otherwise referred to as the terra nullius myth (Bulbeck, 2005a, p. 136). However, how do these false perceptions carry over to inhabitants of these seemingly “untouched” areas?

Tourism, and more particularly ecotourism, is a market representation of the overarching definitions of nature and civilization in modern society.

Ecotourism: Who and Where?

Carrying over from the above discussion of cultural invention through both built environments and ideology in media representations, ecotourism becomes a “praxis” of the perceptions of the Nature.

In examining ecotourism, patterns could be discerned. For one, the bulk of ecotourists are those of Westerners desiring to go through a “redemptive” experience (Hutchins & Wilson, 2010, p. 148) in their contact with external Nature, while the majority of ecotourism destinations lie around or below the Equator in what constitutes the Global South.

As ecotourists, people desire to maintain the illusion provided through their own perceptions of external Nature and through ecotourism marketing tactics. That is, ecotourists desire an experience quite akin to an “adventure,” where they are able to interact with the environment and perhaps gain some knowledge of the indigenous culture (Fennel, 2003a). Mies had asserted that beyond the pursuit of deeper contact with Nature, ecotourists also want to see the “backward, exotic, distant, and dangerous nature” of regions in Asia, Africa, and North America (1993, p. 133) (as cited in Hutchins & Wilson, 2010, p. 143). Relatedly, Fennel (2003a) had viewed the expectations and behaviors of ecotourists as a result of the psychological change brought upon by the spatial change as they travel from their countries to the “wilderness.”

When viewing the managerial aspects of ecotourism, the above expectations of ecotourists must be considered by the host country in order to maintain business (hence ecotourism being a “praxis” of modern naturework) in a continual balancing act between the carrying capacity of natural habitats and resources as well as the demands of tourists.

As an empirical example, the popularity of the Amazon as a tourist destination has led to the government and indigenous groups themselves to embrace the image of the Amazon as a “different world” (Hutchins & Wilson, 2010, p. 10). Furthermore, the fetishization and folklorization of culture (Hutchins & Wilson, 2010, p. 14) in marketing and media has only reinforced stereotypes of the “pure” and “poor” Indian as an icon of spirituality (Hutchins & Wilson, 2010, p. 131), or what could otherwise be termed as the image of the noble savage. To maintain this illusion, tours would have indigenous guides as symbolic “translators” of Nature (Hutchins & Wilson, 2010, p. 143). Similarly, Bulbeck (2005a) had also regarded the discourse maintained by Western society as that of indigenous or “primitive” peoples as being “original ecologists” (p. 134). Despite the rather demeaning and inaccurate representations of cultures of Amazonia, indigenous groups wield the ethnocentric stereotypes as ecotourism provides opportunities for a more diversified economy. For this reason, ecotourism is sometimes regarded as a sub-category of cultural tourism (Davidov, 2013), despite the eventual weakening of cultural practice and dissolution of authenticity due to the fact that as discussed above, a narrowing of the gap between reality and “art” through false representation. These prevalent and false representations ultimately lead to a cheapening of meaning (Feenberg, 2004).

Besides the violation of human dignity and cultures, ecotourism also presents a threat to land rights in places such as Tanzania, where tribes like the Maasai traditionally possess a pastoral structure. As with the Amazonian tribes, the Maasai also consider ecotourism an “alternative livelihood strategy” (Goodman, 2003, p. 111; Wight, 2003) due to a general lack of technical skills and secure land rights as the country seeks to modernize and develop economically through privatization of land for agricultural purposes (Goodman, 2003).

Additionally, although ecotourism does provide employment for those underqualified to enter the labor force, the industry does not benefit all those involved equally. The economic surpluses given off my ecotourism do not necessarily find their way into the local economy, despite the community being impacted most drastically in what Fennell (2003a) had termed the “demonstration effect.” In general, communities where ecotourism is commonplace alter local consumption patterns to suit the incoming hordes of tourists despite these patterns not necessarily being congruent with local values or cultures (Fennell, 2003a). The demonstration effect especially becomes a problem when the “cycle” within tourism is considered. The “cycle” characteristic of tourism includes: euphoria, apathy, annoyance, and antagonism (Fennel, 2003a, p. 59).

The eventually antagonistic community is then left with a system of no particular sustainable use to the local economy when the tourism site falls out of favor of international tourists. Despite the claim of ecotourism assisting developing countries to diversify their economies (Davidov, 2013), it could be argued that ecotourism may help “grow” the economy but not develop it. According to Wight (2003) growth would increase income but also simultaneously increases the dependence of one economy on another. Development however, allows for differentiation and the addition of value (Goodman, 2003). Furthermore, there is the issue of ecological damage as a direct cause of activities related to ecotourism. In some ways, the relationships between countries and people in the ecotourism industry are reminiscent of colonial ties.

Even in relatively “green” and eco-conscious countries of the Global North such as Canada, there have been multiple hurdles to achieving a balance between ecological conservation and submitting to the demands of the ecotourism industry. The Canadian government has managed to preserve principles of sustainability through partnerships, educational programs, pilot research, and the establishment of standards prior to extensive privatization of the mid 1990s (Wight, 2003). However, the inequalities in economic gains, violations of carrying capacity, and breaches of property rights were still issues those involved in the Canadian ecotourism industry faced (Wight, 2003). Consequently, effective management of ecotourism sites may be less than a viable option for many developing countries due to lax regulation, understaffing, and domestic political issues (Fennel, 2003b). This leads to whatever management issues in developed countries to be “magnified” in a lesser regulated legislative environment, along with a divide between local knowledge and expertise and executing entities. In connection to the concept of economic growth and economic dependence, developing countries could be regarded as “playgrounds” of exploitation for foreign investors as a result of the high rates of deregulation and established dependence on international markets (Fennell, 2003b, p. 150).

Hegemony and Ecotourism

Fennell (2003b) viewed tourism in developing through the World Systems theory in attempt to explain the patterns of dependent development found between the Global North and the Global South. To Fennell (2003b), the “flows” in the tourism industry from core, semi-periphery, and periphery states are usually expat professionals from the core in the periphery states, and the movement of tourists from the core through the semi periphery and to the periphery. It could be said based upon the above discussed impacts of ecotourism that the tourists bring more than themselves: they also bring about ethnocentric, neoliberal change. Because of this, Hutchins & Wilson (2010) consider ecotourism to be a form of ethnocentrism and “ecoimperialism” (p. 59), as it helps maintain an exploitative, hierarchal structure. This also becomes apparent in the various development initiatives that aim to maintain “primitivism” in developing countries (Davidov, 2013, p. 56) in order to preserve the image of the “pure” and “poor” indigenous peoples.

This disproportionate relationship could also be analyzed in terms of Gramsci’s hegemony. To Gramsci, hegemony constituted more than dominance of the state, but it also included an interplay between various social forces and economic interests (Green, 2011). Gramsci regarded the integral state as being a sum of civil and political society. This includes mechanisms of the state such as media, police, and education (Green, 2011). Consequently, although hegemony is not purely state dominance, the state acts as an instrument of hegemonic control. The end result of the hegemony-generating process would be dominance of a particular social group which dictates certain ideas that are now widely accepted on the “universal plane” (Green, 2011, p. 151). Gramsci’s analysis could be applied to the previous discussion of common media representations of Nature and indigenous peoples. In this case, the discussion could be extended to say that the Global South are in a state of subalternity, as the Global North dictates the structure or world order that the Global South adheres to (Green, 2011). Furthermore, there is the concept of dualisms mentioned earlier that is also similarly covered by Hall (2011) in his discussion of “the Other” (p. 17). In other words, as external Nature and indigenous peoples are portrayed to be of a different world, a process of symbolic distanciation of “Us” and “the Other” occurs as well, further cementing the ethnocentric nature of ecotourism. Because the ecotourism industry is marketed and built upon naturework separating the Global North from the Global South in both a concrete and symbolic way mentioned above, it could be said that the subalternity or Otherness of the Global South is based on social, political, economic, cultural, and philosophical planes (Green, 2011, p. 70).

While Hutchins and Wilson (2010) had stated that representations of Nature and thus, cultural invention occur in a “co-construction between humans and non-humans” (p. 148), the co-construction is evidently largely restricted to a dominant social class.

While Gramsci had stated that the subaltern groups would bind in their own groups in attempt to lessen their degree of subordination after abiding to the system (Green, 2011), they are still “paradigmatic victims” (Green, 2011, p. 84) of a larger ideological, economic, and political system. This is shown by the increasing privatization and foreign intervention in countries of the Global South as they strive for economic development and international recognition.

Because the Global South is marginalized and victimized through a dominant hegemonic paradigm, it could be concluded that as modern Man defines urban space by distancing external Nature, the Global North defines itself through a process of cultural invention separating people of the Global South from civilization and into the “alternate” world of external Nature, where they can choose to venture to in their intermittent “purchases” of ontological meaning and spiritual connection.


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