Intersections Seminar on ‘Making nature investable’, University of Toronto

March 7, 2018

I’m looking forward to giving this talk on Friday at the University of Toronto’s Geography Dept. I’ll be drawing especially on the following new publications:

Sullivan, S. 2017 On ‘natural capital’, ‘fairy-tales’ and ideology. Invited Review Essay, Development and Change 48(2): 397-423.

Sullivan, S. 2017 Making nature investable: from legibility to leverageability in fabricating ‘nature’ as ‘natural capital’. Science and Technology Studies.

Sullivan, S. and Hannis, M. 2017 ‘Mathematics maybe, but not money’: on balance sheets, numbers and nature in ecological accounting. Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal 30(7): 1459-1480

Sullivan, S. 2018 Nature 3.0: will blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies save the planet? Entitle Blog, 1st Feb.



Friday, March 9, 2018 | 3:00 PM – 5:00 PM

Sian Sullivan  

Sidney Smith Hall – SS5017A (map)

Making nature investable? Considering some outcomes of coupling ‘nature’ with ‘capital’

The contemporary moment of global ecological crisis is also a moment wherein ‘nature’ is being named and framed as ‘natural capital’. The term ‘natural capital’ is a potent metaphorical device asserting that one multiplicitous category, namely ‘nature’, can be known through invoking another multiplicitous category, namely ‘capital’. This paper considers some implications of coupling these two complex categories, focusing in particular on the financing and development of conserved natures as capital assets.
Sian Sullivan is an environmental anthropologist working at the intersections between culture, nature and finance, with the objective of supporting just and equitable environmental policies. Since 1992, and through a longstanding collaboration with the Namibian NGO Save the Rhino Trust, she has conducted ethnographic and ecological research in north-west…

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Nature 3.0 – Will blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies save the planet?

February 1, 2018

ENTITLE blog - a collaborative writing project on Political Ecology

by Sian Sullivan

Can new cryptocurrencies finance projects with positive environmental impacts, whilst unlocking ‘the $120 trillion natural capital market’? Mining cryptocurrencies through appealing to environmental concerns seems more consistent with speculative tendencies in an era of financialised neoliberalism, than attuned with practices of environmental care and equitable distribution of value.

image 1. Blockchained earth. Source: Front News International.

First there was Nature. Sometimes an Edenic garden, whose fruitfulness we live with in peace and reciprocity; sometimes a vast wilderness to be feared, tamed or worshiped. But always a lively mesh of entities, whose magnificent diversity is now threatened by a single biological species – Homo sapiens.

Then came Nature 2.0. A material world progressively understood, shared and commoditised in user-generated digital information cascading through multi-player communities inhabiting Web 2.0 – exemplified, perhaps, by the aptly named Second Life. In this technologically inscribed and consumed world…

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Nature is being renamed ‘natural capital’ – but is it really the planet that will profit?

September 13, 2016

Image 20160912 19225 fgphsm.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1China’s Jiangxi mountains: now just an asset? Shutterstock

Sian Sullivan, Bath Spa University

The four-yearly World Conservation Congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has just taken place in Hawai’i. The congress is the largest global meeting on nature’s conservation. This year a controversial motion was debated regarding incorporating the language and mechanisms of “natural capital” into IUCN policy.

But what is “natural capital”? And why use it to refer to “nature”?

Motion 63 on “Natural Capital”, adopted at the congress, proposes the development of a “natural capital charter” as a framework “for the application of natural capital approaches and mechanisms”. In “noting that concepts and language of natural capital are becoming widespread within conservation circles and IUCN”, the motion reflects IUCN’s adoption of “a substantial policy position” on natural capital. Eleven programmed sessions scheduled for the congress included “natural capital” in the title. Many are associated with the recent launch of the global Natural Capital Protocol, which brings together business leaders to create a world where business both enhances and conserves nature.

At least one congress session discussed possible “unforeseen impacts of natural capital on broader issues of equitability, ethics, values, rights and social justice”. This draws on widespread concerns around the metaphor that nature-is-as-capital-is. Critics worry about the emphasis on economic, as opposed to ecological, language and models, and a corresponding marginalisation of non-economic values that elicit care for the natural world.

Naming nature … but at what cost? Shutterstock

Naturalising ‘natural capital’

The use of “natural capital” as a noun is becoming increasingly normalised in environmental governance. Recent natural capital initiatives include the World Forum on Natural Capital, described as “the world’s leading natural capital event”, the Natural Capital Declaration, which commits the financial sector to mainstreaming “natural capital considerations” into all financial products and services, and the Natural Capital Financing Facility, a financial instrument of the European Investment Bank and the European Commission that aims “to prove to the market and to potential investors the attractiveness of biodiversity and climate adaptation operations in order to promote sustainable investments from the private sector”.

All these initiatives share the UK Natural Capital Committee’s view that “natural capital” consists of “our natural assets including forests, rivers, land, minerals and oceans”. People used to talk about “nature” or “the natural environment” – now they speak of “natural capital”.

                 Growing profits. Shutterstock

So what does the word “capital” do to “nature” when they are linked? And should nature be seen in terms of capital at all? One controversial aspect, backed by IUCN’s Business and Biodiversity Programme, is receiving particular attention. This is the possibility of securing debt-based conservation finance from major institutions and the super-super-rich based on the value of income generated from so-called natural capital assets conserved in situ.

Capitalising natures

At the IUCN’s conservation congress a Coalition for Private Investment in Conservation was launched. Led by financial services company Credit Suisse, and backed by the IUCN and the World Wide Fund for Nature, the coalition builds on a series of recent reports proposing capitalising conservation in exactly this way.

In 2016, and following a 2014 report, Credit Suisse and collaborators published two documents outlining proposals for debt-based, return-seeking conservation finance. The most recent is called Levering Ecosystems: A Business-focused Perspective on how Debt Supports Investment in Ecosystem Services. In this, the CEO of Credit Suisse states that not only is saving ecosystems affordable, but it is also profitable, if turned “into an asset treasured by the mainstream investment market”.

The report proposes a number of mechanisms whereby “businesses can utilise debt as a tool to restore, rehabilitate, and conserve the environment while creating financial value”. The idea is that as “environmental footprints move closer to being recognised as assets and liabilities by companies, debt can be used to fund specific investments in ecosystems that lead to net-positive financial outcomes”. Debt-based financing – for example, through tradeable securities such as bonds – is framed as attractive in part because interest received by investors is “usually tax-deductible”.

The Levering Ecosystems report followed quickly from Conservation Finance: From Niche to Mainstream, steered by a small group including the director of IUCN’s Global Business and Biodiversity Programme. This report estimated the investment potential for conservation finance to be roughly US$200-400 billion by 2020.

Of course, investors loaning finance to projects associated with conservation also expect market-rate returns to compensate for investments considered to conserve, restore or rehabilitate ecosystems.

In the documents above, financial returns are projected as coming in part from new markets in payments for ecosystem services and sales of carbon credits. These new markets will supply the potentially monetisable “dividends” of conserved and restored habitats as “standing natural capitals”. Investor risk is proposed to be reduced through mobilising these assets, as well as the “land or usage rights” from which they derive, as underlying collateral.

Two redrawn graphs representing the design of debt-based conservation finance, as per Credit Suisse reports in 2014 and 2016.

The graphs above present two schematic diagrams redrawn from the Credit Suisse texts to indicate how these flows of financial value may be leveraged from areas capitalised as investable natural capital. The models are based in part on expectations that recent United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change support for international carbon compensation mechanisms will release new long-term sources of public funding to “balance anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases”, thereby boosting possibilities for financial flows from forest carbon.

Such financialising moves, nascent and clunky as they are, may yet have significant implications if applied to countries in the global south with remaining high levels of “standing natural capital”. Caution is needed regarding the possibility that forest-rich but least developed countries may become indebted to ultra high-net-worth investors who access returns on their investments from new income streams arising from conserved tropical natures in these countries.

What’s in a name?

Pandas: sending a powerful message. Shutterstock

In 1986, the central secretariat of the WWF decided to change the name of the organisation from the World Wildlife Fund to the World Wide Fund for Nature. The thinking was that an emphasis on “wildlife”, borne of a concern for endangered species, no longer reflected the organisation’s scope of work for the conservation of the diversity of life on earth. It was considered that overall the organisation would be better served by the term “nature”. In other words, it seems that naming and framing “nature” matters.

Three of Namibia’s most famous lion family were poisoned – why?

August 23, 2016
Image 20160823 30231 nsb4fo.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The ‘Musketeers’ pictured here were stars of a recent National Geographic documentary. Sian Sullivan, Author provided

Sian Sullivan, Bath Spa University

Imagine that years of drought have forced you to graze your cattle on sparse grass in an open desert landscape, far from permanent settlements. The nearest small shop is 25 miles away, a journey normally made by donkey. Now imagine your one donkey is being mauled to death by a pride of lions, only yards from the flimsy tent that is your shelter.

This was the scene I encountered in November 2015, while travelling through Purros Conservancy in north-west Namibia’s Kunene region with two elderly Khoe-speaking people – Michael Ganaseb and Christophine Tauros – in the course of oral history research in the area. Both had grown up in this desert landscape. Our small party stopped at a remote Herero cattle-post close to Tauros’ grandfather’s grave. Khoe and Herero-speaking peoples both have long histories of dwelling in north-west Namibia, with sometimes different perspectives on living with indigenous fauna in the area. At this time, drought was causing Herero-speaking herders to disperse with their livestock to wherever they could find a few remnant tufts of perennial grasses.

In a drought, Herero herders move their cattle to remote areas like this in Purros Conservancy. Sian Sullivan, Author provided

Sheltered only by a made-in-China tent, the lone herdsman we met here was angry. The previous night a group of lions had killed his donkey. He had poisoned the donkey’s flesh in retaliation for the attack.

This donkey met the Musketeers. Sian Sullivan, Author provided

We related this incident to the dedicated founder of the Desert Lion Conservation Project, Philip Stander, who tracks the movement of Namibia’s special desert-adapted lions. He suggested that a group of five brothers named the “Musketeers” – stars of the 2015 National Geographic film Vanishing Kings: Lions of the Namib – may have been responsible.

A few days later I encountered the Musketeers, close to Namibia’s spectacular Skeleton Coast, while recording memories of places previously inhabited by Ganaseb’s brother Noag, and their cousin Franz ||Höeb (the two lines signify a “click consonant” in Khoe-languages). They claimed that in the past people did not have problems with “wild animals” – they would simply ask them nicely to move, so that the people could be on their way. Some elderly Khoe-speaking people continue to practice these rituals, asking both known ancestors and anonymous spirits of the dead to protect them from lions. Whimsical perhaps, but these narratives illustrate variety in local experiences of lions.

Less than a year later, on August 9 2016, three of the Musketeers were killed in Purros Conservancy by poison set by cattle farmers. These lions had been troubling people for some time. The radio collars that tracked their movements were burnt.

Meet the Musketeers.

Tragically, only days earlier Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism had approved the transport of these three lions and their remaining brother to a national park where they would be kept apart from farmers and their livestock. But as the three lions returned from unreachable mountainous areas they encountered a cattle-post, where they slaughtered a donkey and whose poisoned flesh later killed them. The ministry is seeking criminal charges.

Although one of the worst cases, this is only the latest in a series of recent conflicts between humans and lions in the area. In June 2016, a lioness was shot dead after a bull was killed by a pride of lions near the settlement of Otjindakui. Earlier that month, the first Musketeer to be killed died from a bullet wound near a temporary cattle-post in the region.

Conflict is inevitable

These incidents reflect recent expansion in lion distribution in Namibia’s Kunene region. A result is economic damage, borne disproportionately by unlucky farmers. Compensation, when received, may not cover the cost of a lost cow or bull. As such, increasing lion numbers cause tour guides to celebrate while locals are dismayed.

Clashes between humans and lions in a region celebrated by tourists and conservationists have encouraged significant investment in addressing human-wildlife conflict. Community game guards were established in the early 1980s, beginning a widely praised model of “community-based natural resources management” financed by donors including the WWF and the US and UK international aid departments.

The kraal and tent of a lone Herero herder whose donkey was killed by lions, illustrating the vulnerable conditions in which some people are living and experiencing lion attacks. Sian Sullivan, Author provided

Since 1996 indigenous Namibians have been able to legally derive incomes from wildlife in recognised territories managed as “conservancies”. The vision is that this income will increase the value of indigenous fauna and flora as economically-productive resources, countering the costs to other livelihood activities of sharing land with wildlife whilst offering routes towards rural development.

The success of these conservancies, combined until recently with favourable wetter climatic conditions since the mid-1990s, has led to increasing lion populations. Efforts to smooth over resulting tensions with local people include a compensation scheme for herders paid for by safari operators; a community “lion task force” and “lion rangers” who monitor lion movements and advise herders when to move away; lion proof kraals (cattle pens); and bright lights, ultra-sound and fireworks to discourage lions from approaching settlements.

These initiatives do much to mitigate the conflict. But current drought is causing herders to overlap with lion, the former seeking dispersed grazing, the latter dispersed prey animals. Expanding tourism has encouraged lions to become more confident around humans. And prey animals like zebra and antelope already affected by drought may be reduced further by shoot-to-sell policies, whereby conservancies sell rights to outside contractors to shoot animals to supply butcheries elsewhere.

Different strokes for different folks?

Human-lion conflicts can also act as a flash-point for other frustrations. Livestock herders in communal areas are experiencing punitive measures for trying to protect their animals in a context of historical land appropriation that squeezed indigenous Namibians into less productive landscapes. Namibia’s commercial (and still largely white-owned) farming areas sometimes experience lion attacks but benefited historically from significant clearance of major predators. One celebrated former warden of Etosha National Park killed 75 lions to help farmers protect their cattle, before being employed in conservation in 1958.

Today, wealthy visitors from afar hunt “game” animals as trophies, including the occasional lion. Many conservancies are financed significantly by trophy-hunting and tourism, and some local people succeed as hunting and tourism professionals. But these benefits aren’t evenly distributed, and can cause distrust over new inequalities linked with conservancy management and private sector investments.

The ConversationAll these factors contribute to the intractable nature of the human-lion conflict. This problem is not about to disappear. At the same time, local people with different histories have different ideas about how to live with lions. Learning more about positive stories of how people lived with predators in the past may yet help people and lions to live alongside each other into the future.

Sian Sullivan, Professor of Environment and Culture, Bath Spa University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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. 


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. 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.

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