Replacing Cheap Nature? Sustainability, Capitalist Future-Making, and Political Ecologies of Robotic Pollination

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This article undertakes a critical examination of emergent technologies involving the use of robots to carry out crop pollination in the context of declining populations of bees and other insect pollinators. It grasps robotic pollination research and development as a future-making practice, which imagines and partially materialises one possible future by inscribing a specific ontology in the present which is geared to enact that future. Unpacking this, the article traces how artificial pollination reframes pollination ecology around a productivist ontology and inscribes a web of meanings around nature, technology and economy which point to a future where insect pollinators are largely absent or extinct. It argues that this effectively backgrounds alternative futures in which structural transformations of agriculture and the world food system are able to mitigate and avert pollinator decline and biodiversity loss, and also reveals the deep rationale of artificial pollination. While invoking notions of sustainability and food security, robotic pollination defines these in highly anthropocentric, economistic and self-referential terms, as a matter of enabling the reproduction of agro-industrial capital accumulation. Drawing upon the political ecology of Jason W Moore, the article situates robotic pollination as a future-making project in relation to capitalist strategies of accumulation through the appropriation of ‘Cheap Nature’, to show how the automation of pollination would enact a shift in the composition of agro-industrial capital, with systemic consequences inimical to both ecological sustainability and sustained accumulation. In this respect, robotic pollination is a case study in the propensity of capital to invest in the making of sustainable futures only insofar as sustainability equates to the reproduction of capital within the web of life.
Original languageEnglish
JournalEnvironment and Planning E: Nature and Space
Early online date19 Jan 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 19 Jan 2021


  • Robotics
  • Pollination
  • Political ecology
  • Capitalism
  • Farming
  • Futures


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