The business of bio(cultural) diversity?

On 8 July, an opinion piece was published in the journal Nature under the title ‘The Business of Biodiversity‘. In it, Ricardo Bayon of EKO Asset Management Partners, and Michael Jenkins,  Director of Forest Trends, argue that: ‘Imposing a price on natural resources and ecosystem services is by far the most effective way of forcing businesses to develop without damaging nature’ (p. 184).

I co-authored a responding letter with Michel Pimbert, International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), and Kathy Homewood, Anthropology Dept., University College London, which Nature declined to publish. I post it here instead.

The business of biocultural diversity

Ricardo Bayon and Michael Jenkins close ‘The business of biodiversity‘ (Nature 466, 184-185, 2010) by stating that ‘economic systems are blind to the destruction of the natural world’. This is misleading. Economic systems globally and historically exhibit great diversity. Many have demonstrated sustainability and have enhanced biodiversity over millennia (J. Loh, D. Harmon Ecological Indicators 5, 231-241, 2005).

In contrast, the yield- and growth-oriented economic systems of industrial modernity are creating global environmental destruction (J. Zalasiewicz et al. Environmental Science & Technology 44(7), 2228–2231, 2010; E. Lambin et al. Global Environmental Change 11(4), 261-269, 2001). Bayon and Jenkins suggest businesses be dissuaded ‘from plundering the natural resources on which their futures depend’. Their recommendation is to enhance business portfolios by offsetting habitat damage through investment in conservation elsewhere, and trading newly priced environmental assets (such as carbon credits).

Global socio-environmental accounting projects are working to proliferate tradable conservation products, including those derived from biodiversity (J. Mandel et al. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 8(1):44-49, 2010). Environmental conservation is being transformed into a frontier of market expansion of which the authors are bastions. Bayon was co-founder and director of the ‘Ecosystem Marketplace’ (www.ecosystemmarketplace.com/) which facilitates markets in environmental conservation and is a project of Forest Trends which Jenkins directs (www.forest-trends.org). Bayon now is a partner and co-founder of EKO Asset Management Partners (http://ekoamp.com), a merchant bank investing in markets in environmental conservation.

This ‘business of biodiversity’ embodies destructive tendencies towards diversity. It is rationalising nature and culture to conform with a particular economic system – neoliberal capitalism – that privileges price over other values, and profit-oriented market exchanges over the distributive and sustainable logics of other economic systems (Nature 466, 435, 2010). By assuming people to be individual utility-maximisers and private property to be the norm, it is simplifying biocultural diversity and contributing to the loss of linguistic, cultural and epistemological diversities globally (see UNESCO’s Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger).

In reducing conservation to the logic of the market, other sustainabilities are foreclosed. It is business that is sustained through the business of biodiversity. The ensuing loss of biocultural diversity impoverishes both human and non-human natures.

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3 Responses to The business of bio(cultural) diversity?

  1. Enhancing biodiversity? Now that’s an economics worth keeping.

    Friends –

    A recent thread on the environmental finance website may be worth your consideration, below. See my response to James’ comment regarding the EU’s Environmental Liability Directive, an interesting document for which there is no corollary in the US as far as I can tell.

    Here’s my concluding remark: “Can we fund (create) a future that is steady state, and matures within its ecosystem rather than through consuming its neighbors? Can we fund a future civilization that shrinks happily to accept resource limitations, as easily as playing a game of limbo? As the indomitable Sian Sullivan suggests, can we fund a future that speaks with the natural world, and learns from its ways, recognizing the cultural poverty of hyper-financialization, measurement and management?

    Wealth is in the eye of the beholder, we must be conscious of the stories we tell ourselves, and admit that the new ones we need may have a healthy dose of the very old. In any case, it is time to reevaluate every assumption, and take only the best of humanity forward.”

    Also, I’d like to bring Ellen’s new article “Time for a New Theory of Money” to wider attention. Geoff, I would love to get your response to Friendly Favors the community currency Ellen cites in the article.

    http://globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=21691

    Leland
    INNOVATIVE FINANCING FOR BIODIVERSITY An Update on the GDM Initiative

    At the 9th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity which took place in May 2008, the Parties called for “studies on approaches to develop markets and payment schemes for ecosystem services at local, national and international levels.” They also agreed “to improve actions and cooperation for enhancing the engagement of the business community… in the implementation of the three objectives of the Convention” and to “come forward with new and innovative financing mechanisms in support of the strategy for resource mobilization…”

    james mcnally • I am currently working on a project that identifies our Client’s liabilities with respect to the ELD. The project relates to quantifying the liabilities (soil, water and biodiversity), assessing the adequacy of existing provisions and then provides alternative provision mechanisms. In this way bonds are avoided as much as possible and insurance is optimised for unknown liabilities. With the Hungarian alumina plant disaster high in the public profile do people feel that compulsory provisions will be more readily adopted by member state countries?

    Leland’s response:

    Although not an EU citizen, (US, NY) I researched this fabulous thing called the Environmental Liability Directive (ELD) and found it interesting, but insufficient to the task, which really cannot be accomplished until the accounting principles are reorganized along the lines of the Prince’s Accounting for Sustainability project, but with teeth. I am excited about the new integratedreporting.org initiative, and hope people will weigh in on that project in order that we can solve the problem of mis or unpriced externalities once and for all.

    In my work in New Mexico on renewable energy finance policy, it was Art Hull, the top lobbyist for the energy company there (PNM) who explained to me what the deal really was. It’s all about the GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles), he told me, because that’s how things are decided when it comes to the courts et al, which is how the prices of things are set, which is how policies are set, which is why the public believes coal electricity is cheap (it isn’t, it’s just that the true costs are “off balance sheet”).

    There may be no better way to change perception than to change the accounting laws, as it turns out, and much more effort should be targeted there than is currently.

    Regarding your work on quantifying liabilities, this is critical, although of course controversial. I saw a recent report that human damage to the environment amounted to $5 Trillion last year. The work of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) is prominent in this area.

    There is a metaphysical problem that emerges here though, because measurement, management and unintended consequences are intimately connected, and this early in the morning, I will wax philosophical on the subject, with a hat tip to Geoff Chesshire of Regenerosity.com.

    The most important thing we tell ourselves in economics is actually the story about our values and objectives (et al). If the objective is some type of unlimited dominating growth, or even a kind of moderated and hesitant conquest through normalized expansion of the human sphere (paving paradise with sustainable, permeable, non toxic, recycled, renewable energy powered materials) we will only end up using our measured liabilities as a way to slow down the destruction. There is even the danger that the measurement and quantification of ecosystems will lead to a kind of slave-master mentality, as the masters of the universe financiers haggle over the value of the ecosystem slave on the auction block. It is this dangerous shadow side to the environmental markets that has motivated Sian Sullivan’s urgent work to highlight the anthropological undercurrents at work here:

    https://siansullivan.wordpress.com/

    Can we fund a future that is steady state, and matures within its ecosystem rather than through consuming its neighbors? Can we fund a future civilization that shrinks happily to accept resource limitations, as easily as playing a game of limbo? As the indomitable Sian Sullivan suggests, can we fund a future that speaks with the natural world, and learns from its ways, recognizing the cultural poverty of hyper-financialization, measurement and management? Wealth is in the eye of the beholder, we must be conscious of the stories we tell ourselves, and admit that the new ones we need may have a healthy dose of the very old.

    In any case, it is time to reevaluate every assumption, and take only the best of humanity forward.

  2. Macrobe says:

    Thank you for posting your response. I applaud you and others like Büscher, Darlington, etc. in efforts to vocalize critical concerns and analyses regarding the global trend to monetize nature. I hope others, including those in fields such as social sciences (e.g. conservation psychology), will join forces in this endeavor. Before we lose it all. Even now, ecologists, conservationists, and environmentalists are fractioned to the point of incapacity and paralysis, whereas many key environmental NGOs subscribe to the PES system, facilitating destruction of many species.

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