For the G20 alternative summit, 2009

Notes on the poverty of constructing nature as service-provider

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. (UN Declaration of Human Rights, article 19)

This post consists of my notes for a short talk I was due to give at the Alternative G20 Summit planned at the University of East London (UEL) today (April 1st) to coincide with the G20 summit meeting in London on April 2nd. The latter has been called with some urgency in the search for solutions to the astonishing meltdown of the international finance markets that has occurred in the last few months.

It was announced on 31st March, however, that the management of UEL has decided to close the University Campus  completely on April 1st and 2nd. The official reason is over security concerns, given the proximity of UEL’s Docklands campus to the Excel centre where the  G20 meeting is being held. But the noticeable effect is the cancellation of the Alternative G20 summit: amounting to prevention of public  expression of a range of concerns and ideas regarding the various global crises of our time that might run counter to those discussed behind closed doors by the leaders of 20 of the world’s nations.

A petition has been circulating that emphasises the need for ‘the university to act as a truly public space for debate in a time when nobody can doubt that radical new ideas are needed’. Currently, a reduced event with a range of speakers is still planned, via occupation of two lecture theatres in the university. Go to Alternative G20 Summit for more information.

Notes on green capitalism, and the poverty of framing nature as service provider
As we know, capitalism is in crisis.

But it is too early to write its epitaph.

As Peter Mandelson said on Channel 4 news on Monday; the purpose of this G20 meeting is to ‘restart the global economic machine‘.

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We know from history that capitalism thrives on crisis.

This is its engine of innovation and creativity.

It is in crisis that new forms of capitalist value, new frontiers of accumulation, and new enclosures and dispossessions, are created.

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Currently the new frontier is ‘the environment’.

Major corporations and investors are falling over themselves to get a slice of emerging ‘ecosystem markets’, and of the promised cash flows from the protection and enhancement of the world’s ecosystems (Equatorial Environmental, LLC).

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We think, intuitively, that the capitalist crisis and the ecological crisis are interlinked.

This is true, but perhaps at times we understand the interlinkages naively.

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As we have seen with the Kafkaesque derivatives markets that in part have pushed the international finance market into such toxicity ~ capitalism makes a virtue of crisis.

If the risk of loss or hazard can be priced, and thereby traded and speculated on, then the logic is that everyone can win.

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Similarly, the current view of a new wave of ‘green capitalism’ is that if we just price ‘the environment’ correctly ~ creating new markets for measures of environmental health and degradation ~ then everyone AND ‘the environment’ will win.

If nature can only be transformed and priced into assets, goods and services ~ then risk and degradation can be mitigated and offset.

So, with the help of the raft of scientists who produced the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in 2005, nature has been effectively transformed into ‘service-provider’.

But, of course, payments for the ‘environmental services’ produced by nature’s labour do not go to ‘the environment’ itself, but to whoever is able to capture this newly priced value.

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Take the new trade in carbon. The financial value attributed to carbon is actually given to, and therefore captured by, heavy industry emitters.

It is they who are allocated tradeable carbon credits under the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme.

Some scarcity is built into the market by allocating credits at a level slightly below what major installations require to cover their emitting levels.

But once these credits enter the international financial system their value can be speculated on (as with any other commodity) and with a buoyant market significant profits can ensue.

In the wake of this, a veritable ecosystem of economists, stock brokers and financial advisors has emerged to service and profit from this new trade.

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But of course it is as vulnerable as any other commodity to a crisis of faith in the market.

So, although the value of the EU ETS scheme was some $50 billion in 2008, the value of carbon has plummeted in the months since, reducing trade and creating a surplus of carbon credits on the market (Carbon Markets Continue to Fall in Value).

(Because arguably the incentive to trade is based on creating new financial value for emissions as opposed to ceasing pollution, the motivation for participating in the trade plummets along with the financial value of the commodity.)

Profits fall; and so does the incentive to reduce emissions.

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Nevertheless, the new market in carbon is being embraced by both business and environmentalists as the model for pricing nature across the environmental spectrum.

This is under the rapidly proliferating zeitgeist of ‘Payments for Ecosystems Services’.

These schemes are being lauded by big business because by assuming that environments in very different locations are substitutable they allow impacts in one location to be offset against environmental investments in another.

Or, even more attractively, they will permit companies to trade newly priced ‘marketable ecosystems services’ on appropriated land that they now own, thereby capturing new financial value from the newly priced idea of nature as service provider.

Thus mining conglomerate Rio Tinto are exploring with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), ‘opportunities to generate marketable ecosystems services on land owned or managed by the company’ (Bishop, J. 2008 Building biodiversity business: notes from the cutting edge, Sustain 30: 10-11, p. 10.).

It seems that we really are now inhabiting an Alice in Wonderland World where the corporations who have done harm in the mining of natural resources are not only be applauded as environmentalists, but can also profit from this new status (accompanied by the encouragement of various large environmental organisations worldwide).

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The core idea underlying these initiatives is that so-called environmental services have not been correctly valued to date.

Of course I would agree that capitalism has tended to ride roughshod over both biological and cultural diversity.

But it seems to me that pricing something financially is not necessarily the same thing as valuing it.

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We are critically impoverished as human beings if the best we can come up with is money as the mediator of our relationships with the non-human world.

Allocating financial value to ‘the environment’ does not mean that we will embody practices of appreciation, attention, or even of love in our inter-relationships with the non-human world.

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In a very different context ~ with Damara people living in the dry, open landscape of north-west Namibia ~ I witnessed and experienced a very different way of relating with the non-human world.

Here, the process of acquiring food and other substances from the landscape required constant conversation and exchange.

The non-human world was alive to be spoken with ~ variously remonstrated, or celebrated, with song, dance and gifts.

People were not separate and alienated from the non-human world; they were co-creators with it.

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It is clear that collectively we need a radically different way of valuing ‘the global environment’.

But I think that to look towards the worlds of economics and finance, markets and pricing mechanisms, will leave both us and the non -human world further impoverished.

It is time to turn instead for training and inspiration to those in many different contexts, and often against the odds, who have trod relatively lightly on the land.

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