On the spirit(s) of oil

July 20, 2015

Manari UshiguaIn the last few days, I have met Manari Ushigua of the Sápara people (‘Zapara’) of Pastaza Province in the upper Amazon forest of Ecuador[1]. Formerly vice-president of the Confederation of all the Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), Manari is currently Sápara president of the Bi-National Sápara Federation of Ecuador and Peru.

Some 575 Sápara people now live on what is left of their ancestral lands. Only seven individuals, Manari included, continue to speak the Sápara language, which was proclaimed by UNESCO in 2001 as a ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Mankind‘.

These remaining Sápara are struggling to retain their land, as well as the integrity of the forest that is their home, in the face of enormous pressure for the extraction of oil from the ground underneath Sápara territory. Sápara legally own their land, and Ecuador has appeared to be a leading light on environmental issues due to its constitutional recoginition of the ‘Rights of Nature‘. Nonetheless, the Ecuadorean government claims rights to below-ground fuels and minerals, and has now commissioned blocks of these rights under Sápara and other indigenous territories to international oil corporations[2].

(left) Sapara territory, Pastaza Province, Ecuador; (right) oil block concessions in east Ecuador, including Sápara territory (in dark red). Click to enlarge.

(left) Sapara territory, Pastaza Province, Ecuador; (right) oil block concessions in east Ecuador, including Sápara territory (in dark red). Click to enlarge.

As described by the Pachamama Alliance – an organisation that works with Ecuadorean and Peruvian indigenous peoples to protect Amazonian land and livelihoods against extractive industry: ‘two years ago the Ecuadorian government announced plans for oil development in this region. This past year [2014], a development concession to two blocks of land, approximately 500,000 acres, was assigned to a Chinese oil company. These blocks, in Sápara territory, represent a gateway into the entire South-Central region’.

This is a tragic situation for multiple reasons. Of immediate concern is the imminent destruction of the china-dont-drill-the-amazonbiocultural diversity embodied by the interconnected cultural and natural diversity of the forest in this geographical space. The south-central Amazonian area of Ecuador is considered by ecologists to be amongst the most biodiverse localities on the planet. And the loss of language and indigenous knowledge regarding this diversity is surely as impermissible as the loss of species with which these cultural elements are entangled.

To step for a moment into Sápara cosmology, however, is to see a broader tragedy caused by industrial hunger for the potent minerals fuelling contemporary economic and technological growth. Manari spoke of there being spirits deep in the earth associated with the oil found there. These spirits, which confer vitality to oil, nourish spirits around five metres below the surface of the soil, which in turn animate the roots of plants that burst through the surface of the soil to provide food and habitat to animals and humans dwelling above the earth’s surface.

In this spirited understanding of the connected nature of being – in which mineral, plant and animal-human entities are all alive and in relations of nourishment with each other – extraction of the earth’s potent below-ground materials engenders imbalance in the lifeforce of the connected entities above ground. This perspective affirms that the zone of life on earth referred to as the ‘biosphere‘ by environmental scientists, is intractably entwined with minerals found deep in the earth. In other words, that above-ground socio-ecological health and diversity is connected with the spirited liveliness of intact below-ground fluids and minerals.

There are echoes of this perception in many other cultural contexts. U’wa people of Columbia understand oil as the blood of a feminine mothering earth. In the late 1990s they threatened collective suicide in protest aginst the affront of oil exploitation by the US-based corporation, Occidental Petroleum. American Indian Movement activist John Trudell describes another potent mineral – uranium – as having being and spirit; as nothing less than the DNA of the earth, for which an industrial mining-refinement process creates a mutated form of power that ultimately is toxic to life[3].

I cannot claim to know whether or not these perspectives are ‘the Truth’. But they certainly cast our current environmental predicament in a particular light. They suggest that the effects of pulling fuel and minerals out of the earth may be more unpredictable, mysterious and far-reaching than the echoes of a post-Enlightenment mechanistic worldview is able to register. They give weight to a view that the holes in the earth created through mining processes, coupled with changes in atmospheric composition caused by pumping these elements into the layer of gases permitting life to thrive on earth, are causing sickness in the living, breathing body of the earth itself.

Indeed, science increasingly recognises this moment as the ‘Anthropocene‘: a geological epoch in which humans have achieved the dubious honour of becoming the key planetary force shaping our world. A defining part of this epoch is an extinction event that may also take with it Homo sapiens sapiens.

Given what seems to be an apocalyptic moment, it seems relevant – perhaps even imperative – to be curious about how different cultures globally have understood their relations with nature-beyond-the-human: particularly where an ability to live with multiple kinds of selves is apparent in the diversity of species with which such cultures are associated[4]. In other words, to learn of knowledges and practices that have acted as checks on the instrumental, industrial and ownership practices that tend instead to be destructive of such diversity.

Of course, there is complexity here. Manari flew to the UK using the substance whose exploitation threatens his people with extinction. We are all caught within the web of industrial-techno-capitalism in ways that make it impossible to fully shrug off our culpability in systemic planetary changes that many consider are drawing us towards broad spectrum catastrophe.

This seems to be a critical challenge for our times. To sit with compassion for our own accountability for the losses now occurring; whilst acting for the possibility of systemic change that prevents these losses. To face what can seem to be the impossibility of reorienting the global compass bearing away from financial profit and economic growth; so as to keep hope alive for a systemic re-orientation towards equitable socio-ecological relationships that give space for the flourishing of the spirit that animates all beings.

It will be incredibly sad, not to mention idiotic, for a species with such extraordinary intelligence, sensitivity and potential for poetic connection with selves beyond-the-human, to fail at nourishing ourselves and our companions here on earth because we’ve forgotton that this is possible. Charges of romanticism and naivety frequently negate the value of connecting with and learning from the different perceptual realities of people who retain ancestral cultural links with landscapes. But listening to and sharing with individuals such as Manari seems key to learning that the quality of assumed reality, and of the ethical actions that flow from this, is not fixed.

As invoked by John Trudell in the poem below, it might be possible to choose different sorts of socio-ecological futures, if we acknowledge and remember the existence of different kinds of pasts.

Of Many Realities – John Trudell[5]

In the reality of many realities
How we see what we see, affects the quality of our reality.

We are children of earth and sky
DNA – Descendant Now Ancestor
Human Being, physical spirit
Bone, flesh, blood as spirit
Metal, mineral, water as spirit

We are in time and space, but we are beyond time and space.
The past is part of the present. The future is part of the present.
Life and being are interwoven.

We are the DNA of earth, moon, planets, stars.
We are related to the universal.
Creator, created, creation.
Spirit and intelligence with clarity.
Being and human as power.

We are part of the generations of evolution.
We are part of the memories.
These memories carry knowledge. These memories carry our identity.
Beneath race, gender, class, age.
Beneath citizen, business, state, religion.
We are human being.

And these memories are trying to remind us, human beings, human beings –
It is time to rise up.
Remember who we are.

[1] Manari travelled to the UK through the support of the Pachamama Alliance and the School of Movement Medicine.

[2] See ‘Reasons for Hope and Action‘ by Susannah Darling Kahn for more detail.

[3] ‘They’re mining us’, John Trudell, Descendants Now Ancestors, 2001, ASITIS Productions.

[4] after Kohn, E. 2013 How Forests Think: Towards an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

[5] ‘Of many realities’, John Trudell, Descendants Now Ancestors, 2001, ASITIS Productions.

Sápara people are working towards alternative and sustainable development possibilities on their land through the Naku project, a community ecotourism initiative that seeks to support Sápara culture and the biodiversity of their territory, through sharing their perspectives on the natural and spirit worlds.

The Pachamama Alliance seeks to stand with indigenous peoples of the Amazon to protect the forest from extractive industry whilst also working through education and the Pachamama Symposium to shift the worldview fueling environmental and cultural destruction.

These initiatives can be supported at the links above.

Reflections on Clyde Reflections: a film installation by film-maker Stephen Hurrel and social ecologist Ruth Brennan

July 14, 2015
'Clyde Reflections' installed at the Glasgow gallery of Modern Art, June 2015.

‘Clyde Reflections’ installed at the Glasgow gallery of Modern Art, June 2015.

One evening in May 2015 I started to read Pirate Utopias: Moorish Corsairs and European Renegadoes (2003(1995)) pirateutopias200by Peter Lamborn Wilson, a writer whose ruminations on ‘ontological anarchy’, under the pseudonym Hakim Bey, have inspired me for years.

Pirate Utopias opens with a chapter called ‘Pirate and Mermaid’, based on a legendary pirate known as Lass el-Behar from the town Rabat, which faces out towards the Atlantic Ocean on the coast of Morocco. Here el-Behar built a white tower – the Torre Blanquilla, ‘in order to hide his treasure within its walls’ (p.7). Wilson writes that:

Lass el-Behar was young, handsome and brave. Many a captive Christian woman fell deeply in love with him, as did the daughters of rich and powerful Mohammedans. But … above all it was the sea he loved; he loved her with so deep a passion that he could not live away from her; and he spoke to her as men speak to their sweethearts. His warriors would say that at the hour of prayer he would turn his eyes away from the direction of Mecca in order to gaze at the sea. …

He shut himself up in his tower; from there he could contemplate the sea and the ships as they moved slowly on the horizon. The charqui, more breeze than wind, made the water dance under the warm summer light.

“The best sermon…”, thought el-Behar, “could never equal the beauty of this scene. What prayer, be it ever so perfect, could equal the sweet murmur of rippling? What on earth is as powerful as the sea which stretches from one shore of the world to the other?” (pp. 8-9)

The morning after reading this story of the powerful and prayerful pull of the sea, an email popped into my inbox rather literally ‘out-of-the-blue’ – inviting me to speak at a seminar at the Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) reflecting on a film installation about the sea.

Like el-Behar’s legendary prayerful connection with the sea, Clyde Reflections powerfully evokes the endless yet always changing rhythms of the Firth of Clyde on the west coast of Scotland: the mystery of its depths; and the dynamic atmosphere generated by space and weather as these meet the moving horizon of the sea. Created through a collaboration by social ecologist Ruth Brennan and film-maker Stephen Hurrel, and described as ‘a meditative, cinematic experience based on the marine environment of the Firth’, Clyde Reflections is a moving and effective invocation of the multiple perceptions that different people may associate with the same place. Through skilfully combining words and images to create suggestive textures of sounds and the visual, and at once aesthetic and informative, the film brings to the fore the heterogeneity of views and experiences of one environmental circumstance.

This is, perhaps, the installation’s greatest success. To provide space for plural and competing views to jostle with each other in the same context; and thus to draw attention to indeterminacy and uncertainty in our understandings of nature-beyond-the-human[1]. In doing so the film works effectively to highlight the always present complexity of deliberative processes and management choices for such contexts.

Screenshot 2015-06-12 23.19.52

Screenshot from ‘Clyde Reflections’, used with permission.

A tragedy is that frequently it is those voices with the greatest intimacy with environmental contexts – including understanding of how to live well with its possibilities, limits and dynamics – that may be sidelined and occluded in discussion, as observed in multiple contexts globally. Although there is complexity here too. In Clyde Reflections, for example, I was particularly struck by the thread of commentary associated with the voice of now retired fisherman Howard McCrindle and the depth of lineage of fishing practice in the Firth of Clyde. He speaks of his father being a fishermen, his father before that, and his father before that and so on, saying that fishing is in the blood. But then, he speaks almost immediately of the ‘terrible slaughter’ linked in recent decades with improved fishing technology, and the over-fishing of stocks. In other words, intimacy with environmental contexts is not enough to live well with these contexts, especially if there are other powerful forces – in this case technological change and market demand – pulling practice in destructive directions.

Clyde Reflections works to draw the viewer-listener into such storylines through the quality of suggestion rather than prescription. I appreciate this absence of an authoritative narrator, which is in contrast to much that is conventional in ‘natural history films’ and documentaries[2]. The film’s pace allows the power of images and sound to evoke and communicate meaning that ultimately rests the viewer-listener. This creates an encouragement to yield into identification with the spaces and issues evoked in the installation – rather than to be fed a directed storyline[3]. It generates a destabilisation of power-relationships: there is no expert leading the viewer-listener into a particular version of ‘the Truth’. As a viewer-listener, I am empowered with the space to come to my own meanings from immersion in the juxtaposition of images, words and sound that flow from the installation. This orientation supports cinematic encounters with reflective appreciations of, and perhaps connections with, nature-beyond-the human. It might thus become part of a broader encouragement for adjustment of our ways of living so that ‘we’ might support, rather than destroy, the diversity of life-forms with which we inhabit Earth.

Screenshot 2015-06-12 23.08.07

Screenshot from ‘Clyde Reflections’, used with permission.

Moving to a slightly different but related point, I want to say something about my sense of how the film installation encourages viewers to meet nature-beyond-the-human in this context. This is in part through its evocation of elemental forces: especially, of course, the movement of water in the Firth, but also the wind rippling this water and the prayer flags on Holy Island, and the sun as it reflects off the water.

But additionally there is an encouragement to really witness the ‘nonhuman’ other. For example, I loved the underwater sequences of jellyfish – I could watch these for hours! And also the fascinating images of the microscopic world and its movements and agencies.


Screenshots from ‘Clyde Reflections’, used with permission.

It seems to me that seascapes and marine environments perhaps encourage us – as the biological species of Homo sapiens – to think particularly hard about how to approach and relate with nature-beyond-the-human. This is not only because of our impacts on seascapes, marine environments and fisheries – as identified throughout Clyde Reflections. It is also because the other-than-human inhabitants of marine contexts are seemingly so very different to ourselves. flusser

I want to make a connection here with an extraordinary little book, philosopher Vilém Flusser’s (2011(1987) meditation – or what he calls a ‘fable’ – on a cephalopod inhabiting the deep seas of the Atlantic with which, via the Irish Sea, the Clyde of Firth ultimately is connected. The Latin name of this creature – Vampyroteuthis infernalis – means ‘vampire squid from hell’. It is described as ‘among the most fascinating animals on earth’, with ‘proportionally the largest eyes of any animal in the world’.


Being encouraged to bear witness to such radical othernesses as they are embodied in our companions here on earth perhaps assists us to think and relate ethically across this radical difference, so as to support the flourishing of diversity. As such it can provide a much needed corrective to an impetus in ‘natural history’ and ‘wildlife’ film-making more broadly that seems to convey the natural world as a spectacular action drama. Instead of drawing us closer to nonhuman nature, such films can have significantly disconnective effects.

At the same time perhaps in this witnessing we might find possibilities for kinship, recognition, resemblance and solidarity across these differences. To return to jellyfish: it might be easy to think that such creatures are utterly images.003different to ourselves. And yet, these animals – which have been around for hundreds of millions of years – embody an intricate neural circuitry that in evolutionary terms is connected with the emergence of the extraordinarily complex nervous system of humans.
We can perhaps find the evolutionary remnants of our inner jellyfish in our soft jelly-like brain, and the tendrils of the spinal cord and connected nerves that flow downwards from this – which now, 500 million years later, are protected by a skeletal and muscular structure. In other words, we are perhaps more connected with such differently embodied natures than may be apparent at first glance.

This is an emphasis that of course is very lively today, given a new recognition of the geological force of humanity – as indicated by proposals to name the geological era of our times ‘the Anthropocene’. Plastics are found in the bodies of sperm whales, Pacific bluefin tuna in California contain radiation contamination from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown in Japan, and fossil fuel emissions appear to be forcing global climate change. As the fisherman interviewed in Clyde Reflections says on fishing out a bucketful of seawater filled with coloured fragments ‘bugger me, was it not tiny bits of plastic!'[4]


As such, I appreciated the voices in the film that spoke of there being no such thing as a balance of nature, as well as the repeated references to flux and dynamism. At the same time, and as many of the voices in the film affirm, it seems to be the case that the particular participations of modern industrial economic practices are also changing everything.

On which, for me there were perhaps some silences in the film which I was curious about. Of course, different people will speak of and emphasise different things. But given the emphasis of the meditation on change caused by human agency I thought we might hear some more about the historical and current role of the Firth of Clyde in a range of heavy industries. These include the shipping industry, as well as the importation of fossil fuels, especially oil/coal, which of course are connected with climate change, a motif that was mentioned at different points in the installation.

These elements connect the Firth of Clyde in fascinating ways with global commodity markets, as I’ve tried to show on the map below. So, for example, Finnart oil terminal [A] is connected by pipeline to [B] Grangemouth oil refinery on the other side of Scotland. Under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the UN Framework Convention for Combating Climate Change (UNFCCC), Grangemouth has been offsetting its fossil fuel emissions through investing in plantation forests in Brazil [C].

Through these connections, plantation forests in Brazil are framed as soaking up fossil fuel carbon emitted from Grangemouth. But they bring about their own problems because the plantations invested in are Eucalyptus, planted to supply pulp for paper mills. Eucalptus plantations create a green desert in these contexts. They displace all native species, cause different forms of industrial pollution, lower the water table and have precipitated displacement of local people.

And of course, for me coming from ‘down south’, a lively issue concerms expenditure on the Trident nuclear missile and submarine programme, and the proposed movement of Trident submarines to Plymouth (not all that far from where I live in fact). I had not realised until preparing this talk that Faslane [D], where the Trident-bearing submarines are located, and Coulport [E], where the Trident missiles are stored, are both located on waters that extend from the upper reaches of the Upper Firth of Clyde. Connection with these broader contexts might have illuminated further the pressures facing the Firth of Clyde over the years.


Click to enlarge.

Nonetheless, Clyde Reflections is for me is an effective provocation that encourages – even entices – reflection on a wide range of different views and voices present for one geographical space. It encourages consideration of our positionality within the natures of which we are part, as well as of the effects that we are having through our participation in these natures.

As such it brings us towards reflection on a series of poignant edges, invoked for me by some of the final images in the film generated by the movement of a boat through water. Edges between hope and despair, crisis and recovery, annihilation and choices now that might make possible different sorts of future.

Screenshot 2015-06-12 23.21.59

Screenshot from ‘Clyde Reflections’, used with permission.

[1] A brief note on terms used here to denote ‘nature(s)’. ‘More-than-human nature’ is advocated by phenomenologist David Abram as a way of overcoming the way that ‘nonhuman nature’ defines nature-beyond-the-human in a negative sense, i.e. as nature-that-is-not-human (Abram, D. 1996 The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. London: Vintage Books). Abram’s intention is to acknowledge that the human world is always a subset of ‘nature’, but never the other way around. The human world thus is always ‘embedded within, sustained by and thoroughly permeated by, the more-than-human world’, while the more-than-human world, although including the human world, and frequently ‘profoundly informed by the human world’, ‘always exceeds the human world’ (Abram, D. pers. comm., 4 March 2015). I also use the terms ‘other-than-human’ nature(s) or ‘nature-beyond-the-human’ (after Kohn, E. 2013 How Forests Think: Towards and Anthropology Beyond the Human. Los Angeles: University of California Press), when referring to organisms, entities and contexts other than the modern common sense understanding of the biological species Homo sapiens. At the same time, the situation may be even more complex. This is because in many ‘animist’ and amodern cultural contexts embodiments other than the modern biological species category of Homo sapiens may be perceived ontologically as representing different bodily perspectives – different natures – that nonetheless are embraced by a broader, inclusive category of human persons (see Viveiros de Castro, E. 2004 Exchanging perspectives: the transformation of objects into subjects in Amerindian ontologies. Common Knowledge 10(3): 463-484; also Sullivan, S. and Low, C. 2014 Shades of the rainbow serpent? A KhoeSān animal between myth and landscape in southern Africa – ethnographic contextualisations of rock art representations, The Arts, 2014, vol. 3(2), pp. 215-244). Invoking ‘nonhuman’ or ‘more-than-human’ nature in these cultural contexts might thus discount the perceptual and ontological reality guiding understanding and practice in such contexts, in which a greater degree of underlying ontological, communicative and cultural continuity is acknowledged between different embodiments ‘in nature’ than might be the case in the species thinking informing modern natural science.

[2] I discuss this further here.

[3] On which, also see the non-narrated film meditation Green

[4] See the documentary The Mermaid’s Tears: Oceans of Plastic, directed by Sandrine Feydel. 


Protected: A techno-recipe for making nature the friend of capital

February 9, 2015

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On ‘natural capital’ and ‘ecosystem services’ in the proposed Nature and Well-being Act (The Wildlife Trusts and RSPB)

January 11, 2015

This post responds to an invitation to add my views to a comments thread regarding the recently published ‘Green Paper’ for A Nature and Well-being Act (hereafter ‘Green
PNWA imageaper’), by the The Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB. The comments thread makes reference to work of mine by the anonymous ‘todaysmysteryguest’, writing on Jan 8th (for which many thanks!). The comments respond to a letter by the The Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB, which in turn responds to a blog post critiquing the uses of ‘natural capital’ and ‘ecosystem services’ language and thinking in the Green Paper, as well as a 38 Degrees petition started by the author of this post, Ginny Battson, requesting that such language be removed.

I am broadly in support of the Wildlife Trusts’ (WTs) and RSPB’s Green Paper. In particular, I agree that it is immensely important to celebrate the systemic connections between ecological and human well-being – a context affirmed in various UK government documents including the Lawton report (2010), the UK’s National Ecosystem Assessment, and DEFRA’s White Paper on the Environment (2011). It also seems appropriate that an advisory non-departmental public body – perhaps an ‘Office for Environmental Responsibility’, as proposed in the Green Paper – be established to take forward the monitoring and integration challenges and commitments identified in the above government interventions.

My comments here relate to the use of ‘natural capital’ and ‘ecosystem services’ language in the ‘Green Paper’ for describing and defining aspects of ‘nature’. I understand the desire and even imperative to be pragmatic[1], and thus to use language and categories considered to have political and economic traction. Given a market- and growth-oriented political economy in which the flows of money, the models of economics, and the balance-sheets of accountants hold sway, the choice to use economic and monetary designators of value is part of this pragmatism. As the RSPB and WTs say in their response to Ginny Battson’s post:

we believe that one of the most profound reasons for nature’s decline is the inadequate consideration for nature within decision-making processes at all levels of government and in many parts of business. At the moment nature is almost always ‘trumped’ by the language of ‘profit’, ‘growth’ and ‘jobs’ – often overlooking the many ways that it supports us all, including, ultimately, our jobs and economy.

Meanwhile, their Green Paper asserts that ‘many natural services are undervalued, or not valued at all, because they are not directly traded in markets‘ (p.21, emphasis added), and that this:

has led to the unsustainable over-exploitation of the unvalued and undervalued elements of the environment for short-term gain and has resulted in their accelerating degradation over time, reducing their ability to produce future human wellbeing (p. 21).

There are different ways of thinking about this, however. First of all, are we being asked to vest all power for valuation to the allegedly self-regulating capacity of markets, such that it is only when some aspect of nature is visible to and even traded in markets that it is valued? Doesn’t the established propensity for market-driven behaviour to under- or de-value ‘nature’s values’ imply caution in asserting exchangeable values for the natural environment as a means of addressing the failure of markets to be kind to ‘nature’? Isn’t there a stronger role for government here? – to act so as to protect natures and peoples from such ‘market failures’ through regulation and taxation that reduce problematic consolidations of growth and profit; perhaps exactly through providing stronger ecological and human well-being reasons for preventing destructive developments associated with such growth.

Instead, what we are seeing is an immense amount of work by both private and public sectors to make nature, or at least numbers considered to represent particular measures of nature, more and more visible in economic models and accounts. But this in itself will not prevent the liquidation of thus-calculated ‘nature’s assets’. Such prevention is the stuff of political choice and action based on different sorts of values.

The government’s Natural Capital Committee (NCC) is ‘developing methods to measure and monitor the health of nature and ecosystems at a national level so that we can determine whether as a society we are having a positive or negative impact on it, and action can then be taken accordingly’ (as affirmed in RSPB’s and WT’s response to Battson’s post). Such calculations, however, are not enough to encourage different and enforceable practices of governance – by either government or business – towards the natural world. It is unclear, for example, how exactly the new set of ‘natural capital’ categories and metrics devised by the NCC[2] will enhance existing practices of ecological assessment, or translate into care for the emergent and exacting vitality, variability and dynamism of real species and ecosystems.

Also worrying is a framing by the NCC of  ‘natural capital’ as the parts of nature that produce value for people, as in:

Natural capital refers to the elements of nature that produce value (directly and indirectly) to people, such as the stock of forests, rivers, land, minerals and oceans’.[3]

The value that nature produces for people is highly varied and situated (so who chooses which value to value?). At the same time particular land-, river- and marine-scapes can generate multiple values for different people, values which may sometimes be in conflict with one another. Choices for which natures to value, and how to do this, thus are lodged firmly in the arena of power and politics. New economic frames and practices of valuation are likely to privilege particular types of calculative expertise and may consolidate inequitable accumulations of the nature values thus calculated.[4] There are also aspects of nature that do not noticeably ‘produce value to people’. Are these not then valuable?

These observations, of course, are nothing new, and some are also made in the NCC’s writings.[5] But questions remain. Why and how exactly are ‘natural capital’ and ‘ecosystems services’ constructions of ‘nature’ better than other ways of considering nature’s value? Are economic accounting models appropriate for creating and calculating ecological values? And if ‘[n]atural capital therefore includes all elements of the environment, including natural resources, that provide benefits to people now and in future’[6] (albeit with some stated exclusions – the NCC names the sun as amongst these[7]), then are natural capital accounts able to generate measures for all these present and future benefits? It seems certain that the registers, categories and partitions of ‘natural capital accounts’ will create their own externalities and overflows, since this is in ‘the nature’ of such calculative models. Natural capital accounts cannot in themselves redress the fact that economic models and analyses create externalities. There are always ‘outsides’ to the simplifying grids of such models.

The particular language of ‘natural capital’ and ‘ecosystem services’ affects how we understand and relate with the multiple selves of ‘the natural environment’. Herman Daly’s article linked to in Ginny’s original post observes that the term ‘capital’ derives from ‘capita’, meaning head of cattle. In the case of cattle biological and ecological constraints bear on productive dynamics. Such dynamics are intrinsically relational, embedded in the particular characteristics of environmental contexts. Commercial dairy herds in the soft, moist hills of Somerset and Devon are starkly different to the hardy cattle of nomadic pastoralists in the unpredictably varying drylands of Africa (such as north-west Namibia where I conduct research). When such particularities are conceived as stocks of ‘natural capital assets’, with ‘capital’ and ‘assets’ also conveying common understandings as wealth that can be calcuated and accumulated in monetary terms, we are embarking on a process of abstraction and homogenisation that lifts us away from what is particular about such contexts.[8] Indeed, a key intention of natural capital accounts is to calculate ‘natural capital’ in the aggregate (i.e. overall) in such a way as to permit subsitutability between the calculated values for different types of capital, as well as between different types of ‘natural capital’. This paves the way for losses and gains to be exchanged between these different ‘capitals’, such that ‘no net loss’ allegedly occurs in aggregate.[9] ‘Natural capital accounting’ abstracts the productive dynamics of nature into a ‘stock of natural capital assets’, conveyed in the specific numerical monetary values that can be factored into treasury and/or business accounts alongside columns for other monetised capital values and costs. Through this process nature calculated as natural capital assets is indeed being made more legible in monetary terms.[10]

The question I ask myself here is this. When we convey nature in monetary terms, is it nature that we value or is it money? This is a deceptively simple question. These valuations and calculations effect multiple acts of translation that turn ‘nature’ from a series of particular, complex, dynamic, and interacting constituents, into a universal category (money) that is capable, at least conceptually, of being part of generalisable exchanges. Natural capital accounts in the UK context thus propose potential substitutabilities between ‘land use categories’ for areas of land used as ‘units of accounting’,[11] between different units of ‘natural capital’, and between sites of development and sites of enhancement calculated using biodiversity offsetting metrics.[12] The intention is that aggregate measures of ‘natural capital’ are maintained, even as losses are justified through the possibilities offered by substitutability.

The WTs and RSPB clarify that they are not proposing or supporting any pricing, buying or selling of natures thus accounted for as ‘natural capital’. But there are signs that this sort of leveraging of ‘natural capital assets’ is exactly what follows accounting practices considered to enhance the economic visibility of these assets.[13] Indeed, the second working paper of the NCC on ‘corporate natural capital accounting’ introduces this as a methodology to enable landowners to recognise the full natural capital values of natural capital ‘assets’ and ‘liabilities’ under private ownership (i.e. two-thirds of Britain); and provides a methodology for converting these values and the ecosystem flows they generate into monetary terms.[14] For large landowners there may be considerable gains from leveraging and selling newly legible ecosystem services and various offsets from lands they own. In written evidence submissions to the UK Parliament Environmental Audit Committtee’s inquiry into biodiversity offsetting (2013), the large landowner and construction company Lafarge Tarmac, as well as the Mineral Products Association (representing large landowners and mineral-based extractive industry), both affirm interests in becoming providers of biodiversity offsets on their land, if the price is right.[15] In such contexts calculated monetary values for ‘natural capital assets’ may act in nature’s favour by discouraging conversions to more destructive land uses. But questions also arise regarding the consolidations and accumulations of privately owned capital(s) supported by such accounting practices, and the inequality on which they are based. Inequitable land ownership in Britain, in combination with a disproportionate capture by large landowners of farming subsidies based on taxation, does not feature in the Green Paper as amongst the factors reducing well-being amongst communities by limiting access to natural areas, but surely is relevant.

I have great appreciation for the work of the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts for the direct relationships they sustain with varied and emplaced species, habitats, and ecosystems, their encouragement that diverse peoples enjoy access to these natures, and their emphasis on science-based evidence on which to make decisions. Much of their Green Paper stresses all of these dimensions. Their embrace, rather than contestation, of ‘natural capital’, ‘ecosystem services’ and ‘no net loss’ thinking, however, seems confusing. These approaches do not necessarily encourage better behaviour and practices by peoples in relation to natures. They may, in fact, offer an increasing array of technical justifications for causing particular losses.

The Wildlife Trusts’ and RSPB’s Green Paper opens by asserting that ‘our environment is under more pressure than ever before’ and that we need ‘fundamental changes in how we value, use and interact with our natural world’. I agree. But I would question whether wrapping natures’ values further into financial accounts and balance sheets is either the most ecological, or the most equitable, way forward in terms of generating these fundamental changes.

Recent work of mine on these and related issues includes:

Sullivan S. 2014 From legibility to leveragability in performing nature as natural capital.

Sullivan, S. and Hannis, M. 2014 Nets and frames, losses and gains: Value struggles in engagements with biodiversity offsetting policy in England. LCSV Working Paper 5.

I am also working on a monograph entitled The Natural Capital Myth: Nature, Finance, Values to be published by MayFlyBooks.

Comments and/or reality checks are welcome!


[1] cf. Helm, D. 2014 Taking natural capital seriously. Oxford Review of Economic Policy 30(1): 109-125, p. 109.

[2] Mace, G. 2014 Towards a framework for defining and measuring changes in natural capital. https://www.naturalcapitalcommittee.org/working-papers.html NCC Working Paper, p. 2.

[3] Ibid. p. 3.

[4] See, for example, Smith, N. 2007 Nature as accumulation strategy, pp. 16-36 in Panitch, L. and Leys, C. Coming to Terms with Nature. London: Socialist Register, The Merlin Press.

[5] Ibid. p. 6.

[6] Ibid. p. 4.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Moreover, for ‘traditional’ pastoralists in multiple global contexts, the translation of ‘head of cattle’ into the more abstract ‘stock’ of cattle in itself effects a violent reduction of the complexity of biographical knowledge and poetic celebration that pastoralists tend to have with each individual animal.

[9] For a full discussion of these points, see Helm op. cit.

[10] As in Mace, op. cit. . p10.

[11] Mace, op. cit. p. 6, following the newly invigorated UN System for Economic and Environmental Accounts (SEEA).

[12] See DEFRA guidelines on biodiversity offsetting; Helm op. cit., pp. 118-120; see critique in, for example, Hannis, M. and Sullivan, 2012 Offsetting Nature? Habitat Banking and Biodiversity Offsets in the English Land Use Planning System. Dorset: Green House.

[13] See, for example, Carbon Trade Watch, Counter Balance and re:Common 2014 The Natural Capital Financial Facility: a window into the “green” economy.

[14] Mayer, C. 2014 Introduction to the Natural Capital Committee’s Corporate Natural Capital Accounting Project, NCC Working Paper.

[15] See discussion in Sullivan, S. and Hannis, M. 2014 Nets and frames, losses and gains: Value struggles in engagements with biodiversity offsetting policy in England. LCSV Working Paper 5, p.15. Similarly, the mining conglomerate Rio Tinto, with IUCN, thus has been ‘exploring opportunities to generate marketable ecosystems services on land owned or managed by the company’, including ‘potential biodiversity banks in Africa, as well as the opportunity to generate marketable carbon credits by restoring soils and natural vegetation or by preventing emissions from deforestation and degradation’. See, for example, Bishop, J. 2008 Building Biodiversity Business: Notes from the Cutting Edge, Sustain 30: 10-11, p. 10, discussed in Sullivan, S. 2009 An ecosystem at your service? The Land, Winter 2008/9: 21-23; The embrace by Rio Tinto of biodiversity offsetting as a potentially significant business opportunity is discussed in Benabou, S. 2014 Making up for lost nature? A critical review of the international development of voluntary biodiversity offsets. Environment and Society: Advances in Research 5: 103–123.

revisiting ‘Isolation Came’ dance piece 1993

October 9, 2013

Isolation Came 

Choreographed by Katy Wilson to ‘Stomache Music’ by Colin Murrell (apologies for poor sound quality – sound was recorded only through video camera)

Dancers –

Sian Sullivan | Penny Whitecross | Trevor Williams | Katy Wilson

Lighting – Amar Shah

Bloomsbury Theatre 1993

At the Edinburgh Forums on Natural Capital and Natural Commons: From disavowal to plutonomy, via ‘natural capital’

November 21, 2013

In Edinburgh over the next two days the inaugural World Forum on Natural Capital claims that ‘a revolution is taking place in how businesses and governments account for natural capital’, and that ‘there has never been a better time for senior decision makers to exercise leadership for the benefit of business and the planet’. Meanwhile, the counter-Forum on Natural Commons, held by an array of social movements and civil society organisations, believe that this ‘revolution’ ‘is the first step to creating financial markets in water, air, soil and forests’ thus ‘effectively privatising nature’. This seems to be a pivotal moment in contemporary struggles over how nature is best valued, managed and allocated.

These struggles are nicely illustrated by some of the tweets tugging on the concept of ‘natural capital’:

People abuse nature if they think it is free, they’ll value it better if they see its value – @AlexSalmond #NatCap13
21/11/2013 17:25
Concept of #naturalcapital has more to do with the expansion of capitalism than sound ecological management #natcap13
21/11/2013 16:49
If CEOs and CFOs get it, things happen – @andyheald on embedding #naturalcapital accounting. #natcap13
21/11/2013 16:07
1question no longer on the table @ #natcap13 is how 2 reduce environmental impact. Why should you if you can offset it?via @counter_balance
21/11/2013 15:26
Restoring ecosystems is good but not if it ‘allows’ destruction elsewhere. So how do you pay for it? Tax the polluters #natcap13 #notforsale
21/11/2013 14:17

And so on..

In reflecting on the logics pulling this concept in different ways, I offer a few thoughts as follows…

Offsetting nature | disavowing reality[i]
In 1938 the pioneer of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud published a short essay entitled ‘Splitting of the Ego in the Process of Defence’.[ii] In this, he asserts that in order to accommodate traumatic and dangerous reality the ego may behave in remarkable ways. In short, a defensive splitting can be effected such that the threat associated with particular behaviours is both acknowledged and systematically turned away from. Attention instead is directed towards fetishised solutions that facilitate continuation of the dangerous but satisfying behavior, at the same as constituting symptoms of the acknowledged reality of the danger that exists. Freud uses the term ‘disavowal’ to describe this simultaneous defence against and displaced acknowledgement of reality, while the creation of a fetishised substitute as symptom of the recognition of psychical trauma is referred to as a displacement or transference of value.

The insights of psychoanalytic theory increasingly are being brought to bear in understanding our human psychical relationships with current environmental crisis.[iii] A particular intention is to shed light on the multiple defences being erected socially so as to avoid facing the trauma of the broken socioecological systems that are the fallout of modern industrial effort, and that may effect our own demise as a species. These defences act to reduce psychic exposure to such traumas whilst permitting the simultaneous avoidance of behavioural choices that might act to reduce the trauma itself. They thereby permit continuation of the satisfactions generated by practices acknowledged to be causing danger. In this analysis, then, contemporary environmental crisis, and the violence to other species, landscapes and cultures that underpins this, is seen as causes of dangerous psychical trauma,[iv] acknowledged precisely by transferring attention instead towards ‘solutions’ that seemingly ‘offset’ this danger.

Current systemic proposals and policies for the offsetting of environmental harm, through proliferating mechanisms such as carbon offset markets, wetland mitigation banking, species banking and biodiversity offsetting, do precisely this. They can be understood as ‘symptoms’ indicating recognition of the danger posed by the environmental harms caused by economic development and financial investment, that act as artful ways of turning away from the direct effects of this harm and its underlying causes.

In this reading then, offsets, and the market structures on which they are based, are functioning as fetishised substitutes for genuinely pro-environmental behaviour. They are fetishised as solutions to the socioecological dangers posed by capitalist ideology and practice, when instead they permit the sustenance of the satisfactions and privileges afforded through continuation of these same dangerous practices. Thus biodiversity offsetting is proliferating in accompaniment with massive new investment in extractive industry and industrial agriculture, both of which are extremely destructive to local ecologies and cultures. This is creating a paradoxical situation in which environmental care and conservation is thoroughly development-led – paid for and managed by the corporations and structures generating the scarcity (and thus the enhanced value) of environmental health.[v] Indeed, in some cases investment organisations can profit simultaneously from harms caused by investments in development and investments in conservation elsewhere. We heard from one major public financing organisation today, for example, about how financial investment in a conservation bank for biodiversity offset credits is receiving lucrative returns from the sale of these credits, whilst also requiring that investments by the same organisation in development should include offsets in their environmental requirements, which in principle could be purchased from the offsets also provided by the investing company.

The defence of the collective capitalist ego (if its possible to speak of such a thing) is thereby sustained precisely through deepening the rift between acknowledged danger and the substitute ‘solutions’ that mask this danger, such that satisfying yet danger-producing behaviours can be sustained. In psychoanalytic terms such intensified splitting engenders conditions ripe for psychosis – for a disavowal of reality that becomes pathological. It constitutes a rejection of both the reality of development-related environmental harm and of the redress and prohibition of satisfactions that this reality suggests would be rational (reduced consumption or desisting from the harmful practices, for example). It thus creates the artful possibility of disavowing the harm caused by corporate enterprise and global patterns of consumption, and the associated dangers for our species as well as the other species that are our companions here on earth. It is a brilliant move that sustains the fantasy that corporate capitalism is good for nature, as well as creating opportunities for connected corporate capitalist entities to profit from conservation solutions that become fetishised substitutes for the destruction that these solutions seemingly offset. What is in fact sustained here is the control over the global economy and the global environment vested in a closely entangled ‘super-entity’ of corporate and financial organisations and their shareholders. This is why offsetting as a solution to development engendered environmental harm is contested by social movements and civil society organisations globally.[vi]

Biocultural diversity
This is of concern for a number of reasons. For one, it masks the massive environmental destruction on which the current global political economy and its structures of investment is built. More worryingly, it masks the time-lag of environmental debt that will it seems catch up with us sometime soon. This is in terms of the major pressures that will be caused by anthropogenic climate change generated by our human experiment with fossil fuel burning. It is also in terms of the lag in species extinction associated with reduced ranges and habitats. The latter situation is addressed in part through expansionary aspirations in establishing protected areas globally, but this generates its own crises. It frequently entails the eviction of local and indigenous peoples,[vii] or at least the significant modification of pre-existing land use and access practices. The irony here is that frequently it is these same cultural practices that have generated the landscapes now of such value as areas to be protected for modern conservation purposes.[viii] The associated massive loss of emplaced biocultural diversity is a tragedy not only for the cultures and peoples directly affected but for all of us who have much to learn about how to live directly with other species as living companions,[ix] rather than as contemplated exhibits, viewed from behind protective barriers and as on-screen and dramatised natural history spectacles.[x] And even these ‘protected areas’ seem not in fact to be protected when it comes to finding that they also house economically important fossil fuels and minerals. Thus licences have been granted for the mining of oil from under the UNESCO designated Biosphere Reserve of Yasuní National Park in Ecuador (considered the most biodiverse location on the planet), the boundaries of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania have been adjusted to make way for uranium mining, and numerous other examples abound.[xi] Not to worry though – the harms caused by these extractive developments no doubt will be ‘offset’ through both biodiversity and carbon offset investments, and we can all breathe a sigh of relief and continue with our busy consumptive lives. Of course, this is of little reassurance for the indigenous Huaorani forest communities – including Tagaeri, Taromenane, Oñamenane and Huiñatare – who live in voluntary isolation in Yasuní, and whose sustaining lifeworlds hang in the balance of decisions made in distant government and corporate boardrooms. Or for Tanzanian villagers finding that mining concessions can override pre‐existing land uses within so-called Wildlife Management Areas bordering Selous,[xii] and who now also have to attend to the projected environmental health impacts of industrial uranium mining.

Indeed it is starting to appear as though the clearing of people from landscapes for conservation is rather systematically linked with the creation of cleared landscapes for industrial mining activity. In this, then, above and below-ground ‘natural capital’ are in competition with each other, and, it seems that only the size of the flows of capital will determine which will be invested in. This has been seen rather tragically in the case of Yasuní, wherein funds from the international community to ‘keep the oil in the soil’ have not materialised and, since money seemingly is the only measure of value, the choice instead apparently is now to exploit the oil. This choice enhances biodiversity crisis, the production of CO2 emissions associated with global climate change, and control by global corporate wealth whilst demolishing local cultures with much to offer regarding how to live in long-term attunement with other species. Hence pathology.

The nature of ‘natural capital’
The remaking of nature as ‘natural capital’ enters this scene as a pragmatic metaphorical tool for increasing the value visibility of nature within the contemporary global market economy. The metaphor has a history that is coincident with the expansion of neoliberal governance forms that took hold with the Reagan-Thatcher years of the 1980s and in the wake of the Washington Consensus agreed in 1989 as the austerity-inducing guide to International Monetary Fund and World Bank lending practices. Indeed, current usage of the term ‘natural capital’ is associated with, amongst others, the late Professor David Pearce – the environmental economist who was also economic advisor to Margaret Thatcher.[xiii] The metaphor is powerful in its conception of ‘nature’ as a ‘stock’ of ‘assets’ producing goods and flows, or ‘ecosystem services’, as modern conservation and economic science would have it. It is considered that bringing nature as ‘natural capital’ into modern accounting and economic practices will enable nations and corporations to better recognise their natural capital wealth and thus manage this for both sustainability and profit. The whole enterprise is built on increasing the visibility of nature to capitalism, the argument being that nature has been violated because it has not been measured, costed or priced appropriately in contemporary market structures.[xiv] The utopian vision here is that capitalism will thus become better aligned with ‘nature’, so as to generate the multiple wins of a ‘green economy’ wherein economic growth is maintained and ‘natural capital’ is too.[xv]

This is a laudable vision. At the same time there is considerable slippage here between aligning capital so that it works better with ‘nature’, and conceiving of nature so that ‘it’ is better aligned with capital. I have used the metaphor of a doubled-edged sword to describe this move that is able to cut both ways, and have suggested that there is cause for concern in current endeavours to account for nature literally as if it can behave, i.e. be put to work, as money capital.[xvi] The simple observation here is that money capital is leveraged through practices that split actual stored capital so as to create more financial value and thus greater liquidity or flow of money in the system over all. These practices include: fractional reserve lending, in which the total value commanded by a bank is a vast multiplication of the value it actually houses; the splitting of debt into complex tradable packages that turn it into assets on the portfolios of ‘securities’ managers; and the management of large virtual funds of money through betting on ultimately unpredictable market probabilities. Nature revisioned as materialised capital, i.e. as capital that is visible in financial/ised accounts, might be leveraged through similar processes. Indeed, a growing raft of financial products are being constructed so as to capitalise the ‘value’ stored in standing nature, and then to leverage this value in such a way that more money can be made.[xvii]

Notwithstanding the presence of well-meaning individuals and organisations within the natural capital nexus, there is a shadow side to the current revisioning of nature as ‘natural capital’. ‘Nature’ is being painstakingly conceptualized, abstracted and constructed such that ‘it’ is made more visible to an economic system led by concentrated wealth and power. This is a system associated not only with extreme disrespect regarding the finely-tuned system of life within which we are embedded, but also with desperate and growing socioeconomic inequality. Ideology aside, recent systems theory analysis by Stefania Vitali and co-authors – an analysis that considered connections and material flows between over 43,000 trans-national corporations and financial institutions – has demonstrated that the financial flows controlled by the corporate world are dominated by what they describe as a super-connected corporate ‘super-entity’.[xviii] They write that overall the global network of Trans-National Corporations and financial institutions ‘consists of many small connected components’, but the largest connected component, consisting of ‘3/4 of all nodes contains all the top TNCs by economic value’ and accounts ‘for 94.2% of the total TNC operating revenue’. This entity of corporate and financial connections consists almost entirely of major international financial institutions, and these few organisations and associated individuals are basically able to act as a bloc to determine network control and ownership. This is indicative of extreme inequality in wealth distribution and economic control. It is also a mirror of extreme poverty which means that in 2013 the richest 200 people were calculated to have about $2.7 trillion, i.e. more than the wealth of the poorest 3.5 billion people combined (around $2.2 trillion in total or $630 per person).[xix]

Some of the organisations identified as part of this concentration of wealth and control have a presence at the inaugural World Forum on Natural Capital taking place over the next two days in Edinburgh. It is thus tempting to see in part an interest in nature as natural capital as a new attempt by this bloc and its associates to conjure and invigorate a new frontier for capital accumulation.

In this reading then, increasing the visibility of nature as capital to capitalist enterprise means finding coherent modern methodological accounting abstractions that can create and perform nature as if it is money. It has little to do with reconfiguring human relational approaches to the embodied forms and relationships that constitute ‘nature’. For this we need to turn towards different sorts of practices based on the energetic, affective and also material exchanges that come from direct relationships with entities in themselves.

There are many routes towards such different value practices and culturenature entanglements. What is interesting, but unsurprising, is that these also propose systematic redress and unlearning of many the Enlightenment ‘truths’ we have inherited in our collective cultural urge to be ‘modern’. These include recognising the socioecological benefits of commons as a coherent form of organisation based on more equal sharing and representation; and approaching the myriad entities that surround us with curiosity and affection (or biophilia) – understanding these to be kin rather than as disconnected and threatening ‘aliens’ to be managed and instrumentalised from afar. They include pragmatic choices such as procuring closer to home and thereby reducing the embodied energy and other impacts of globalised production systems, as well as generating energy from renewable sources and consuming less overall. These are some of the themes picked up on by the Forum for Natural Commons that is occurring as counter to the Forum on Natural Capital in Edinburgh. The former emphasises a view that market-based solutions are not necessarily the best route towards solving market failures.[xx] Or, as Einstein is reputed to have said, that ‘we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that created them’.

[i] This title echoes that used by Hannis, M. and Sullivan, S. 2012 Offsetting Nature? Habitat Banking and Biodiversity Offsets in the English Land Use Planning System. Dorset: Green House

[ii] Freud, S. 2009(1938) Splitting of the ego in the process of defence, pp. 3-6 in Bokanowski, T. and Lewkovitz, S. (eds.) On Freud’s ‘Splitting of the Ego in the Process of Defence’, London: Karnac Books.

[iii] See especially the volume edited by Weintrobe, S. (ed.) 2013 Engaging with Climate Change: Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. London: Routledge; and Fletcher, R. 2013 How I learned to stop worrying and love the market: virtualism, disavowal, and public secrecy in neoliberal environmental conservation. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 31: doi:10.1068/d11712.

[iv] Yusoff, K. 2012. Aesthetics of loss: biodiversity, banal violence and biotic subjects. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers NS 37(4): 578-592.
[v] Bracking, S. 2012 How do investors value environmental harm/care? Private equity funds, development finance institutions and the partial financialization of nature-based industries. Development and Change 43(1):271-293; Sullivan, S. 2012 Financialisation, Biodiversity Conservation and Equity: Some Currents and Concerns. Third World Network.
[vi] See, for example, the campaign No to Biodiversity Offsetting.
[vii] On which see the seminal paper by Brockington, D. and Igoe, J. 2006 Eviction for conservation: a global overview. Conservation and Society 4(3): 424-470. Also see cases documented at www.justconservation.org
[viii] For further discussion see Sullivan, S. 2011 Conservation is sexy! What makes this so, and what does this make? An engagement with Celebrity and the Environment. Conservation and Society 9(4): 334-345.
[ix] Disussed further in, for example, Sullivan, S.2009 Green capitalism, and the cultural poverty of constructing nature as service-provider. Radical Anthropology 3: 18-27. Sullivan, S. 2010 ‘Ecosystem service commodities’ – a new imperial ecology? Implications for animist immanent ecologies, with Deleuze and Guattari. New Formations: A Journal of Culture/Theory/Politics 69: 111-128, Special issue entitled ‘Imperial Ecologies’. Turnhout, E., Waterton, C., Neves, K., and Buizer, M. Rethinking biodiversity: from goods and services to “living with”. Conservation Letters 6:154-161.

[x] Igoe, J. 2010. The spectacle of nature and the global economy of appearances: anthropological engagements with the images of transnational conservation. Critique of Anthropology 30: 375–397.

[xi] See, for example, Büscher, B. and Davidow, V. (eds.) 2013 The Ecotourism-Extraction Nexus: Political Economies and Rural Realities of (un)Comfortable Bedfellows. London: Routledge.

[xii] Noe, C. 2013 Contesting village land: uranium and sport hunting in Mbarang’andu Wildlife Management Area, Tanzania. The Land Deal Politics Initiative Working Paper 15

[xiii] Pearce, D. 1988 Economics, equity and sustainable development. Futures 20(6):598-605.

[xiv] E.g. see the UN / EU Programme on the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) http://www.teebweb.org/.

[xv] cf. http://www.unep.org/GreenEconomy/

[xvi] See Sullivan, S. 2013 The Natural Capital Myth

[xvii] see, for example, www.forestbonds.com; Cranford, M., Henderson, I.R., Mitchell, A.W., Kidney, S. and Kanak, D.P. 2011 Unlocking Forest Bonds: A High-Level Workshop on Innovative Finance for Tropical Forests. WWF Forest and Climate Initiative, Global Canopy Programme and Climate Bonds Initiative. http://www.globalcanopy.org/materials/unlocking-forest-bonds; Cranford, M., Parker, C. and Trivedi, M. (2011), Understanding Forest Bonds: A Guide to Raising Up-front Finance for Tropical Forests. Oxford: Global Canopy Programme. http://www.globalcanopy.org/sites/default/files/UnderstandingForestBonds_0.pdf UNEP-FI and Global Footprint Network 2012 E-RISC: A New Angle on Sovereign Credit Risk. Online. http://www.unep.org/PDF/PressReleases/UNEP_ERISC_Final_LowRes.pdf; UNEP-FI, Volans and Global Footprint Network 2011 Integrating Ecological Risk in Sovereign Credit Ratings and Investments http://www.footprintnetwork.org/images/uploads/UNEPFI_Ecobonds_Brochure.pdf. On issues relating to ‘materialising’ biodiversity loss as insurable risk see Dempsey, J. 2013 Biodiversity loss as material risk: tracking the changing meanings and materialities of biodiversity conservation. Geoforum 45:41-51.

[xviii] Vitali, S., Glattfelder, J.B. and Battiston, S. 2011 The network of global corporate control. PLOSone http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0025995
[xix] For an excellent and alarming summary of the contemporary wealth-poverty nexus, see Hickel, J. 2013 The truth about extreme global inequality. Aljazeera 14 April 2013 http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/04/201349124135226392.html, after Oxfam 2013 The cost of inequality hurts us all. Oxfam Media Briefing 18 January 2013.
[xx] Büscher, B. 2012 Payments for ecosystem services as neoliberal conservation: (reinterpreting) evidence from the Maloti-Drakensberg, South Africa. Conservation and Society 10:29-41.

Plenary Panel with Pavan Sukhdev at the Trondheim Conference on Biodiversity

June 1, 2013


Back in Norway again! This time as part of a ‘high-level’ Plenary Panel on ‘Trade-offs in National Policies’ at the 7th Trondheim Conference on Biodiversity – the theme of which was  ‘Ecology and Economy for a Sustainable Society’ (27-31 May 2013). Designed to enhance science-policy communications following the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the Trondheim Conferences on Biodiversity have been organised by the Norwegian Government and the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity since 1993.

The panel was moderated by Pavan Sukhdev, leader of the high-profile UN and EU programme on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB). I was extremely honoured to be invited to speak alongside key actors in the biodiversity policy world, namely Sir Bob Watson, Co-Chair of the UK National Ecosystem Assessment; Edgar Selvin Pérez, Director, National Council for Protected Areas, Guatemala; Valerie Hickey, Wealth Accounting and the Valuation of Ecosystem Services (WAVES), World Bank; Nik Sekhran, UNDP; Anthony Cox, Head of the Climate, Biodiversity and Water Division, OECD; and Diego Pacheco, Head of Delegation, Bolivia (from left to right in the image above).

We each had five minutes to speak, and this is what I said! me

It is an honour to be invited to be part of this panel – thank you.

I want to make some comments on the creation of nature as ‘natural capital’.

Yesterday afternoon, Pavan Sukhdev mentioned the Higgs-Boson which is an elementary particle in subatomic physics. Now I am not a physicist, but the story of the Higgs particle is interesting. It was first theorised in 1964, but was only tentatively confirmed to actually exist in March of this year. Its existence is important in order to confirm particular models in physics. And indeed since the 1960s, immense work and resources went into finding it, including the construction of a massive particle collider at great expense and with significant environmental impact. (1)

The Higgs particle is now considered to be an objective fact that exists and has an effect in the world. Another way of looking at this, however, is to say that it has been brought into being through all the work, resources and technical construction that permitted its observation.

I think that the creation of nature as ‘natural capital’ is similar to this. In some respects ‘natural capital’ does not really exist. It is brought into being by particular ways of conceiving, measuring and valuing nature (2). Nonetheless, it is a way of thinking about and constructing nature that has the potential to have powerful effects in the world.

One of these effects might be the provision of numerical information that can assist with generating the sorts of accounting feedback needed to change behaviours and preferences so as to stimulate actions that are more friendly to biodiversity. Great work is being done in this direction. We heard yesterday, for example, about the Trucost and TEEB for Business report that provides prices for the costs of corporate impacts on what have been treated as environmental externalities (3). This is fantastic work, but I would also like to learn more about how companies would in fact internalise these costs and continue or perhaps discontinue their business. We are also hearing about the World Bank’s WAVES [Wealth Accounting and Valuing Ecosystem Services] project, which seeks to assist countries to recognise the capital value of unexploited assets, including perhaps biodiversity (4).

It is noticeable that these approaches seek to change behaviours by making biodiversity more visible within the current economic paradigm. As we have heard this is done through economic methods that assign monetary values to aspects of nature, that turn ecosystem services into work that can be priced, and that construct biodiversity – the myriad breathing and living entities with whom we share earth – into a form of capital, just like any other.

This also worries me. It is a movement that seeks to demonstrate nature’s value, but within the economic and evaluative system that has devalued nature so atrociously. Is there a possibility that by making biodiversity increasingly visible to market logics we might enhance rather than reduce its exposure to market failure?

There is another connection here that I think it is important to make. This relates to the extent to which the economic valuing of ecosystems and biodiversity might contribute to current patterns in wealth allocations – which have a tendency towards both significant inequity, and ‘plutonomy’ – that is, to disproportionate influence by the very wealthy in society. We heard a lot yesterday about poverty, and about the intentions in the Sustainable Development Goals to eradicate poverty – but I think we need to understand this much more clearly as the mirror of extreme wealth. Many figures exist on this, but to provide a snapshot – Bloomberg Magazine reported last year that the global economy allocated US $2.7 trillion in net worth to 200 people who they describe as ‘the billionaires who pull the levers on the global economy’. [That’s an average of 3.5 billion each.] The poorest 3.5 billion people were allocated only $628 each(5). [A report published this year by Oxfam states that globally the incomes of the top 1% have increased 60% in twenty years. The growth in income for the 0.01% has been even greater(6).] In addition, the divergence in wealth seems to have intensified since the financial crisis.

These figures are concerning not least because it is obscene for such poverty to exist alongside such wealth, but because economic inequality – both between and within countries – has also been shown to be a robust predictor of rates of biodiversity loss(7).

In relation to this I hope that the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals place due emphasis on measures and mechanisms of wealth distribution as an indicator of societal progress, in the knowledge that this also connects with environmental impacts.

To sum up.. some questions I have include:

  • to what extent does current economic valuation for ecosystems and biodiversity contribute to, or counter, unequal wealth distribution, both within and between countries?
  • Is there more to say about where the appropriate boundaries of economic valuation might lie? for example, might there be basic societal commitments to the sustenance of biodiversity, or to wealth redistribution, that are beyond pricing?(8) And how can governments be supported to enact such commitments?
  • And finally, how might it be possible to more fully recognise, and also to learn from, the diverse other ways that people all over the world have lived with, known and valued other species? On this point, cultural and linguistic diversity correlate strongly with biodiversity presence – we know this because most biodiversity hotspots and national parks tend to be located in areas of high linguistic and cultural diversity(9) – both of which are sadly as threatened today as biodiversity. Is it possible for us to create deliberative forums for listening to and learning from different ways of living with and valuing other species and ecosystems? .. rather than requiring that everyone, every species, everywhere, succumb to the reductive evaluative framework of capital.

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In preparing for the Plenary Panel, panelists were asked to complete an ‘aide memoire’, guided by the following three questions:

a) How can public service, business and households be made aware of the meaning and values of biodiversity and of the actions they can take to conserve and sustainably use biodiversity?

b) How can the biodiversity and economic planning sector assess and integrate biodiversity values and actions into national planning, poverty reduction, accounting and reporting?

c) In what ways can the ecological foundation for measurements of societal progress beyond GDP be advanced?

Below I include my ‘aide memoire’ as guided by these questions.

Title of presentation –
On Evaluative Frameworks, Value Pluralism and the Wealth-Poverty-Biodiversity Nexus
By Dr Sian Sullivan, Leverhulme Centre for the Study of Value, and Birkbeck College, London University

Abstract Since the CBD entered into force in 1993, enormous work and resources have gone into various layers of biodiversity assessment, measurement and accounting. These have included National Biodiversity Assessments, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005 and subsequent National Ecosystem Assessments, various academic analyses of biodiversity indicators, and now the move towards Natural Capital Accounting. Over the same period, there has been no reduction in the rate of global biodiversity decline. This raises questions about the relationship between measurement, assessment and accounting on the one hand, and the actions needed to prevent decline on the other.

Current measurement and accounting practices for ‘valuing nature’ are occurring within an economic calculus designed to support both biodiversity and economic growth, through voluntary internalization of new nature prices and market incentives. It is not clear, however, that such design can produce the massive changes needed to reverse or even slow down biodiversity decline, because of the strong vested interests in developments that transform habitats, damage biodiversity and displace relatively low-impact livelihoods. Given measured links between income inequality and biodiversity decline, both within and between countries globally, it also seems clear that biodiversity decline will continue in the absence of strongly redistributive policies both between and within countries.

Such trends suggest that support for biodiversity will require:

  1. strong regulation and planning;

  2. progressive and redistributive taxation and public service policies;

  3. and deliberative spaces from local to global levels where plural value considerations can enter democratic decision-making regarding choices for both biodiversity and economic sustenance.

Key considerations
How might the CBD process support the need for strong and collaborative regulation by well-advised governments so as to mandate the cessation of actions damaging to biodiversity?
– How can the relationship between inequality and biodiversity decline be better measured, understood and incorporated in policies that support Sustainable Development Goals and targets?
– How might poverty be understood more systematically as a relational phenomenon mirroring mega-wealth and over-consumption, and arising from socio-economic structures that impoverish both people and biodiversity?

Key discussion points and conclusions
What are the appropriate boundaries of economic valuation and natural capital accounting? What are the contexts in which other evaluative frameworks might be more appropriate for making decisions that halt actions causing biodiversity decline?
– Is there a possibility that making biodiversity increasingly visible to market logics as ‘natural capital’ will increase rather than reduce its exposure to market failures?

The conference’s core message was projected in large letters on various screens throughout the event:

ecol as currency

(1)See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Higgs_boson

(2) I discuss this further in a blog post called ‘The Natural Capital Myth’ for the Public Political Ecology Lab, http://ppel.arizona.edu/blog/2013/03/15/natural-capital-myth

(3)Trucost Plc and TEEB for Business 2013 Natural Capital at Risk: The Top 100 Externalities of Businesshttp://www.teebforbusiness.org/js/plugins/filemanager/files/TEEB_Final_Report_v5.pdf

(5)Miller, M.G. and Newcomb, P. 2012 The world’s 200 richest men. Bloomberg Markets Magazine 1 November 2012http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-11-01/the-world-s-200-richest-people.html

(6)Hickel, J. 2013 The truth about extreme global inequality. Aljazeera 14 April 2013 http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/04/201349124135226392.html, after Oxfam 2013 The cost of inequality hurts us all. Oxfam Media Briefing 18 January 2013.

(7)Mikkelson, G., Gonzalez, A. and Peterson, G.D. 2007 Economic inequality predicts biodiversity loss. PloS ONE 2(5): e444.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000444

(8)On which, see Bolivia’s ‘Framework Law of Mother Earth and Integral Development for Living Well’ (http://www.ftierra.org/ft/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=4288:rair&catid=152:cc&Itemid=210), in which Chapter 2, Art. 4(2) states that ‘The environmental functions and natural processes of the components and systems of life of Mother Earth are not considered as commodities but as gifts of the sacred Mother Earth’.

(9)See, for example, Loh, J. and Harmon, D. 2005 A global index of biocultural diversity. Ecological Indicators5: 231–241.


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