On constructing nature as ‘service-provider’

Green capitalism, and the cultural poverty of constructing nature as service-provider

in Radical Anthropology 3 (2009), pp. 18-27.

‘People differ not only in their culture but also in their nature, or rather, in the way they construct relations between humans and non-humans.’ (Latour 2009)

We hear a lot these days about loss. In April 2009, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated that banks, insurance instruments and pension funds have ‘lost’ some US $4.1 trillion from the global economy. The amounts lost to taxpayers via government removal of the toxic assets littering the financial sector are so huge as to be almost meaningless. According to the IMF, UK taxpayers have already lost over £1.2 trillion to Britain’s financial sector, while in North America the Inspector General of the ‘Troubled Asset Relief Program’ (TARP) stated recently that potential government/taxpayer assistance could total $23.7 trillion. Meanwhile, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature asserts that the wildlife crisis actually is worse than the economic crisis, with almost 900 species lost already in an analysis of some 45,000, and no less than 16,928 of these currently threatened with extinction. Habitat loss to ‘development’ is a major cause of these extinctions. Greenpeace reports of the Brazilian Amazon that ‘one acre [is] lost every 8 seconds’, the hamburger-cattle sector identified here as the major driver of clear-felling in this landscape.

Crisis capitalism and the creation of ‘value’
Notwithstanding the complexities beneath these alarming figures, they do seem to signal some sort of crisis, both of capitalism, and of ‘the environment’. Intuitively it makes sense to think that these crises might be connected in two key ways. First, that economic exploitation and the profit motive, in driving production and transformed consumption of ‘natural resources’, is causing and contributing to ecological crisis. And second, that the ecological crisis arising from these pressures is itself generating crisis in the global economy, through making manifest the material limits to economic production and consumption. This is the so-called ‘Limits to Growth’ argument of the 1970s, which posited resource limits to economic growth, and the need to sensibly distribute resources as well as reducing production and consumption to avert both economic and ecological crises.

But this intuitive view – that ecological loss is entwined with and also signals economic crisis – seems to be somewhat naïve. To look at these connections another way is to see that capitalism thrives on crisis. This is its engine of innovation and creativity. As with the Kafkaesque derivatives markets that in part have pushed the international finance market into such recent toxicity, capitalism makes a virtue of crisis. If the risk of loss or hazard can be priced, and this financial value captured via trade and speculation, then economic growth – the unassailable good of capitalist ‘culture’ – will be maintained, to the presumed benefit of everyone.

It also is in times of crisis that new forms of capitalist value, new frontiers of accumulation, and new enclosures and dispossessions, are created. In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein forcefully argues that various crisis events, from natural disasters to terrorist attacks, in fact are central to the creation of the openings required for incursions of corporate capital investment, thinly masked by the seemingly liberating guise of instituting free markets and democracy.

In this zeitgeist of crisis capitalism, ‘the environmental crisis’ itself has become a major new frontier of value creation and capitalist accumulation. Referred to by terms such as ‘market environmentalism’ and ‘green capitalism’ the understanding is that if we just price ‘the environment’ correctly – creating new markets for new ‘environmental products’ based on monetised measures of environmental health and degradation – then everyone and ‘the environment’ will win. If nature can be rationally abstracted and priced into assets, goods and services, then environmental risk and degradation can be measured, exchanged, ‘offset’ and generally minimised. At the same time, the new financial values accruing to nature’s assets, goods and services might in and of themselves attract more financial value via speculative trade on stock exchanges. Indeed, stock exchanges focusing only on new environmental products are now arising, the Climate Exchanges in London and Chicago being key examples. These have been established for the sole purpose of brokering and trading the new commodity/currency of tradeable carbon – itself created as the vehicle via which climate-change-causing carbon emissions can be measured and ostensibly reduced.  -cont’d…

Download full article (.pdf)

Also Ch. 23 in Böhm, Steffen and Dabhi, Siddartha (eds.) Upsetting the Offset: The Political Economy of Carbon Markets,
Mayfly Books.

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