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Succeeding from Nature: The Non-Human Agency of Portuguese Cork

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Original languageEnglish
Accepted/In press27 Oct 2019

King's Authors


Non-human life has economic agency. It acts on the cultural values of products. Naturalness is an important property in the market and imbues vibrant materials with organic, healthy, traditional and other contingent properties. However, “natural” products can be succeeded in form and function by “synthetic” alternatives. Their value is further affected by non-humans. Our signal case explores Portuguese cork-bark, an agroforestry product grown in the montado, a biodiverse managed mosaic landscape of forestry and farming. The natural value of cork bottle stoppers is based on their effect on wine flavour. Oxygen permeable cork enables beneficial ageing to enhance flavour, whereas cork contaminated with taint degrades wine. Synthetic stoppers recreate the form and function of corks without being a vector for contamination. A succession from natural cork stoppers to reliable artificial polyethylene corks led to a decline in demand for cork bark and negative impacts on montado biodiversity. Yet here we demonstrate that such successions can be reversed as the affective properties of cork bark products became revalued with improvements in manufacturing, increasing concern for environmental sustainability and rising consumer demand for natural products. This leads us to explore further the dynamics between natural goods and synthetic replacements. We argue that rather than being two discrete domains of reality, natural and artificial products are both co-produced through assemblages of human and non-human action. Understanding succession between “natural” and “artificial” products enables new insights in to the geographies of non-human agency.

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