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NPIC: The Advocacy of the Neoliberalisation of Nature

Re-establishing an Ecological Discourse in the Policy Debate over How to Value Ecosystems and Biodiversity

Research paper:

Received 21 March 2012
Received in revised form
20 April 2015
Accepted 22 April 2015
Available online 28 May 2015

by Clive L. Spash and Iulie Aslaksen

 

“Most recently international support has been given for an experimental accountancy approach which shifts uneasily from physical measurement into monetary valuation, where apparently all the world’s assets (whether human, natural or social) are to be conceptualised as capital to be made commensurable and traded-off one for the other as necessary (United Nations, 2013). In the world of the mainstream economists and accountants, everything has a price and nothing is sacrosanct or inviolable.”

BBC 10 answer

Above: October 8, 2016, BBC: “Can you cost the Earth? Play our fund game and find out. Play to find out the financial value of nature

EXCERPT:

“This [the general conflict over development and values as ecologist and conservation biologists adopt a new environmental pragmatism] is exemplified by the Nature Conservancy in the USA which, under its director, ecologist, Peter Kareiva, advocates widespread use of biodiversity offsets in “development by design, done with the importance of nature to thriving economies foremost in mind” (Kareiva et al., 2012). In this framing, conservation should not pursue the protection of biodiversity for its own sake, but rather as instrumental to providing economic benefits. Traditional conservation is painted as the enemy of the poor. “In the developing world, efforts to constrain growth and protect forests from agriculture are unfair, if not unethical…” (Kareiva et al., 2012). A moral righteousness is evident in the necessity of poverty alleviation achieved through a very particular form of economic ‘development’. The recommendation is that: “Instead of scolding capitalism, conservationists should partner with corporations in a sciencebased effort to integrate the value of nature’s benefits into their operations and cultures.” (Kareiva et al., 2012). Such strong rhetoric in favour of traditional economic growth via resource extractivism, under a capital accumulating corporate imperialism, firmly places Nature and human labour in the role of resources to be exploited by the best available technology. The advocacy of the neoliberalisation of Nature, as a conservation strategy, is indicative of the increasing dominance of a narrow economic discourse (Arsel and Büscher, 2012).

As part of this trend, the arguments of environmental economists have come to the fore in conservation. Their position is that markets can work well to allocate resources efficiently, but that all costs and benefits must be taken into account. This means calculating social and environmental costs and internalising the resulting values within the institutions of the market place. That there are unpriced objects in the world is then the central problem that must be corrected by calculating hypothetical market (shadow) prices. This is meant to allow optimal resource management decisions to be taken on the basis of a comprehensive understanding of the financial consequences of all possible actions. Environmental management then becomes a form of accountancy.

Ecologists and conservation biologist have for some time been engaging in the realm of economic discourse both in terms of the subject matter, its language and concepts (e.g., Daily et al., 2000). Increasingly, Nature has become capital, ecosystem structure and functions have become goods and services, and what was valued in its own right requiring protection has become instrumental for providing consumers with utility. Simple money numbers, ideally large and aggregated (e.g., Balmford et al., 2002; Costanza et al., 1997), are seen as using the economic language of business and politics. The UNEP, European Commission and branches of various governments (German, Norwegian, Swedish, Japanese) have supported a major international initiative to establish a dominant monetary value discourse under the title of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), with the central aim of “mainstreaming the economics of Nature” (TEEB, 2010). Most recently international support has been given for an experimental accountancy approach which shifts uneasily from physical measurement into monetary valuation, where apparently all the world’s assets (whether human, natural or social) are to be conceptualised as capital to be made commensurable and traded-off one for the other as necessary (United Nations, 2013). In the world of the mainstream economists and accountants, everything has a price and nothing is sacrosanct or inviolable.

More than this, biodiversity values can be ‘captured’ by developing new financial instruments which represent units of biodiversity that can be traded and bought to offset the impacts of development (UNEP Finance Initiative, 2010). As Sullivan (2012 p.9) states: “Monetisation here is the process whereby something can be converted into money, and thus behave as a commodity that can be exchanged for a monetary payment. A key strategy [in promoting monetisation] is the recent discursive shift towards the use of language that brings ecology into the domains of economics and accountancy.” We might well ask why natural scientists are prepared to effectively drop their own language in favour of this economic and finance discourse? This has little to do with a traditional scientific understanding of biodiversity or ecosystems or indeed the discourse of ecology that helped establish the modern environmental movement….

This mainstream economic approach to the environment is essentially predicated on the mistaken belief that all choices are trade-offs between competing human preferences (Holland, 2002; Spash, 2008b). Preferences are taken to be what determines peoples’ demand and willingness to pay, and those preferences cannot and should not be questioned because people are assumed the best judge of their own interests (as noted by Easterlin, 2003). Allowance might be made for better informing people, but this should somehow avoid forming preferences, otherwise individuals would be unable to make independent choices and the implicit liberal political foundations of economics would crumble. The application of this approach to the environment reduces complex ethical questions such as whether elephants, tigers, bees or phytoplankton should have a place on the planet to a matter of personal preferences. Once all choices are made analogous to consumer desires or wants then optimal species extinction (as discussed, for example, by Swanson, 1994), becomes little different from choosing between flavours of ice cream (see Sagoff, 2004). You just need some basic product information, a means of payment and an institution that delivers the product when you pay.”

Read the full paper:

2015 Spash_Aslaksen Ecological_discourse JEM