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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