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Green Economy, Red Herring

2012

by Clive Spash

revolt4

“We see the goals of Rio+20, the ‘Green Economy’ and its premise that the world can only ‘save’ nature by commodifying its life-giving and life-sustaining capacities as a continuation of the colonialism that indigenous peoples and our Mother Earth have faced and resisted for 520 years.”
Photo: EPA/MARCELO SAYAO


This year sees Rio plus 20 years and much activity especially from United Nations (UN) related institutions to push forward various agendas which the environmentally concerned might welcome. The financial and banking crisis signals for many the tip of the iceberg of reality into which modern industrial economies must inevitably run. Growth of material and energy throughput is then doomed to sink. However, the reports and rhetoric prepared for Rio have little to do with attempts to revive the anti-growth and limits to growth discourse under de-growth or décroissance (a topic explored in a special issue of Environmental Values next year). No, the thrust of the argument being put on the agenda is that re-establishing growth as fast as possible is good, if not essential and unquestionable, but it should be a bit greener. We might venture to ask why this is deemed an adequate response to biophysical limits, increasing social inequity and general systems failure?

At the base of the international response is a dispute over ‘what is the problem?’ in the first place. If you are amongst the top few per cent of the worlds’ population who own the vast majority of its wealth and run its business interests then there is no problem. A financial crisis is just another opportunity to make money by switching assets (e.g., out of dollars or Euros and into gold) and then switching back when the time is ripe. War, famine and environmental disasters are all opportunities for the business men and women with the right goods and services in the right place at the right time. One man’s poverty is another man’s cheap labour and source of cost-efficient profit making. This line of thinking is what we now see being expressed far and wide as necessary to address environmental problems from climate change (Stern 2006) to biodiversity (TEEB2010) using newly created financial instruments (Spash 2010a; 2011).

The approach has been nicely encapsulated in the UN’s promotion of the ‘Green Economy’ with a more than 600 page report released last December. A UNEP policy brief aimed at informing Rio 2012 provides a succinct explanation of what this means:

In the transition to a Green Economy, policymakers should ensure that the full range of goods and services provided by ecosystems, including those which are currently non-monetised, are fully integrated in decision making and public policy. […] Placing a value on ecosystem services through mechanisms that facilitate investment in ecosystems will at the same time benefit local people and the private sector who are rewarded for good environmental stewardship. (UNEP 2011: 3)

Faith is required, namely faith in market mechanisms and the ability of technical experts to first value the environment and then capture those values with market institutions and private property rights. Yet the message is simultaneously intertwined with expressions of concern for the poor, the seriousness of environmentalproblems and the need for change. We are told that, the Green Economy ‘is a new development path that is based on sustainability principles and ecological economics’ (UNEP 2011: 2). The model is of course not new but involves rapid deployment of a growth stimulus package which is now Green because it will use ‘economic models for wealth creation, to focus increasingly on the value of ecosystem goods and services and natural capital’ (UNEP 2011: 7). ‘Compared with previous development paths, the uniqueness of a Green Economy is that it can directly turn natural capital into economic value whilst maintaining it, and conduct total cost accounting’ (UNEP 2011: 8). As if the smell of herring were not strong enough to lose the environmental trail, we are also informed that the aim is for ‘a common language of comprehensive ecosystem valuation’. The environment neatly slips off the agenda and is replaced by growth, jobs, capital investment and wealth accumulation. The environmentalists, conservation biologists and ecologists can be replaced by accountants.

Industrialisation and the spread of markets and consumerism was long ago recognised as corrosive of social and individual values. In this issue, Cannavò (2012) shows this concern formed an integral part of Jeffersonian Republicanism and the writings of Thoreau. The struggle for a more meaningful life which is environmentally benign is both a personal and community challenge. Thoreau’s ideal appears as a halfway house between living in towns to toil for needless luxuries and realising personal integrity and moral virtue from living in wild lands. What the Green Economy lacks is the essential reconnection with Nature that would put humans in context as members of a larger community of organisms. This divergence from conquering Nature is one that separates Thoreau from Jefferson, the environmentalist from the developer. The aim of Thoreau is to tread lightly on the planet while gaining basic requirements for personal flourishing, as exemplified by his experiment growing beans within a semi-wild natural setting. The point is rather different from maximising production while hoping to avoid destroying the basic systems upon which we depend.

The links between human social and environmental relationships are too easily neglected in favour of the simplistic splitting of the world into us and them, man and nature, culture and wilderness, economy and environment. As Matthews (2012) explains, the ontological human-animal distinction has been employed at various points in time to designate women, children, indigenous peoples, and ‘others’, as non-human. This serves to justify violence and oppression. Nature as object for economic exploitation falls within this same frame. Matthews calls for us to deconstruct how we think and conduct our lives so that we might feel, think and act differently.

The complexity of meanings of Nature is too easily brushed aside by calls for comprehensive total cost accounting. Ioris (2012) refers to the technobureaucratic rationality of monetisation and water pricing as removing the plurality of meanings associated with the allocation, use and conservation ofwater. Environmental economics is described as having subverted other values. He recognises a sentient ecology in which knowledge emerges out of feelings, sensitivities and skills developed through long experiences in particular environments. This bears a striking resemblance to Thoreau, and also attacks strong social constructivism as implying human cognition outside the world of Nature. At the same time Ioris argues for the values of water being generated from a perpetual interplay between individuals, their social groupings, and the multiple forms of socio-ecological interaction. Water takes on different meanings for different people. He concludes that systems of valuation are intensely politicised, involving struggles between groups. Thus, no single value dominates but multiple systems of values overlap and meaning is constantly reconstructed in relation to material, symbolic and discursive practices.

That the conceptualisation of reality is subject to contestation and change is exemplified by Van Assche, Bell and Teampau (2012). They argue that knowledge and power are intertwined. An imposed scientific discourse for environmental protection is shown to have in part alienated Romanians in the swamps of the Danube delta. The lack of trust in outside authorities creates a dismissive attitude to the value of wildlife and ecosystem protection. When this mixes with the personal experience of working directly in the swamplands and traditional and cultural values, the result can be confused and self-contradictory discourses. The same birds are at one moment described as beautiful and the next as ugly, while socio-economic problems are blamed on particular species that are derided as needing extermination because they compete with humans. The recent privatisation of common resources (fish and reed) that local people once depended upon did no more to help than earlier development plans and fish farms of the Soviet era. Both economic models have identical core features of growth and exploitation with an imposed technocentric value frame that fails to relate to local people.

Rejecting a single correct discourse challenges the traditional approach of science and claims to truth based upon objectivity. Western governments are increasingly aware of the potential for open scientific debate to undermine policy positions, which they claim are scientific, factually based and objective. Muzzling government scientists to prevent them talking to the media is now openly practised in Canada (Ghosh 2012) and was my personal experience in Australia (Spash 2010b). Contrary to the claims of the Green Economy, protection of the environment is in opposition to traditional economic interests and therefore the discourse must be controlled. Once again a series of dichotomies are employed to support a black-and-white, us-and-them mentality in which rhetoric replaces reason. Such a conflict is discussed by Robins (2012) for the case of genetically modified crops in Australia. The problem goes beyond one of different discourses and values and exposes changing reality through technology. The result is to remove whole ways of life and relationships to Nature.

A core of concern running through the papers in this issue relates to the metaphysical (ontological) questions of what exists, what are the primary entities of concern, what are their most general features and relationships? The ontological understanding of the world we inhabit appears challenged in a changing social and economic system that is undergoing crisis. One tendency, as seen in some of the papers, is to move from the realisation that knowledge is created in contested social and political contexts to assuming that all reality is a social construction. From there it is a small step to claiming all positions are equally valid. However, this seems to confuse ontology with epistemology. The distinction is between what exists and how we form knowledge about the world and what then is the meaning of truly knowing something.

The environmental movement has long depended upon scientific investigation, empirical evidence and the acceptance of a biophysical reality. At the same time the social context and community aspects of valuing and relating to the world are accepted and seen as important, from Thoreau’s good life to the social norms preventing littering, as investigated by Torgler, García-Valiñas and Macintyre (2012). The vision for the future must, then, combine social ecological and economic understanding – but not in some simplistic unifying language of a Green Economy, nor through denying basic realities.

Societal, economic and environmental crises are unified as the result of an old but common deception that growth is good, more is better and there can be more for everyone. In the Green Economy the poor are promised environmental riches, recycled materials and renewable energy can be exploited without environmental impact, and technology always finds a substitute for what runs out. All things can be made compatible by ignoring the basic contradiction between ever-expanding human activity and a finite world. The illusion grows thinner every day, but in Rio expect to see people wearing green tinted spectacles and waving smoked fish at each other.

 

[Clive Spash I am an economist who writes, researches and teaches on public policy with an emphasis on economic and environmental interactions. My main interests are interdisciplinary research on human behaviour, environmental values and the transformation of the world political economy to a more socially and environmentally just system.]

 

References

Cannavò, P. 2012. ‘The half-cultivated citizen: Thoreau at the nexus of republicanism and environmentalism’. Environmental Values 21(2): 101–124.

Ghosh, P. 2012. ‘Canadian government is “muzzling its scientists”’. Retrieved 22 February 2012, 2012, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-16861468.

Ioris, A.A.R. 2012. ‘The positioned construction of water values: pluralism, positionality and praxis’. Environmental Values 21(2): 143–162.

Matthews, J. 2012. ‘Compassion, geography and the question of the animal’. Environmental Values 21(2): 125–142.

Robins, R. 2012. ‘The controversy over GM canola in Australia as an ontological politics’. Environmental Values 21(2): 185–208.

Spash, C.L. 2010a. ‘The brave new world of carbon trading’. New Political Economy 15(2): 169–195.

Spash, C.L. 2010b. ‘Censoring science in research officially’. Environmental Values 19(2): 141–146.

Spash, C.L. 2011. ‘Terrible economics, ecosystems and banking’. Environmental Values 20(2): 141–145.

Stern, N. 2006. Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. London, UK Government Economic Service.

TEEB 2010. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity: Mainstreaming the Economics of Nature: A Synthesis of the Approach, Conclusions and Recommendations of TEEB. Bonn, UNEP.

Torgler, B., M. García-Valiñas and A. Macintyre. 2012. ‘Justifiability of littering: an empirical investigation’. Environmental Values 21(2): 209–231.

UNEP 2011. ‘Restoring the natural foundation to sustain a Green Economy: A centurylong journey for ecosystem management’. International Ecosystem Management Partnership (IEMP) Policy Brief. Nairobi, UNEP: 30.

Van Aasche, K., S. Bell and P. Teampau. 2012. ‘Traumatic natures of the swamp: concepts of nature in the Romanian Danube Delta’. Environmental Values 21(2): 163–183.

 

 

Terrible Economics, Ecosystems and Banking [TEEB]

Social Ecological Economics

2011

by Clive Spash

TEEB 1

Why do conservation biologists, ecologists and other natural scientists working on environmental problems feel the need to copy, or rather parody, a narrow economic discourse? At opposite ends of Europe (Austria and Norway) I have this year listened to prominent spokespersons from such disciplines making use of supposed economic values calculated for everything from wetlands to bees. Despite the problems (see Spash and Vatn 2006), values are being transferred as needed across time and space. The recommendation is for more monetary valuation and improving the techniques of environmental cost-benefit analysis amongst which stated preference methods (e.g. contingent valuation) have become predominant. When challenged the typical response is: ‘I don’t pretend to understand the details. Yes there may be problems and everyone knows contingent valuation is nonsense, but these numbers get attention.’ Well do they and if so from whom and to what end?

For those who may have failed to notice, 2010 was declared biodiversity year by the United Nations. One attempt to gain relevance for the loss of biodiversity and ecosystems degradation as an international public policy problem followed the above approach. I refer to the project supported, by the United Nation’s Environment Programme, entitled The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), which produced its final synthesis report at the end of last year subtitled: Mainstreaming the Economics of Nature. Indeed the aim was to follow the global cost-benefit method of the, claimed to be successful, Stern Review on climate change (despite no noticeable impact of that report on greenhouse gas control). TEEB differs from Stern in conducting no new work but, rather, actually is a review (which Stern was not). While the project has covered much ground through a variety of reports the synthesis report is the key summary in which those driving the project show their true colours. The synthesis report is packed with monetary numbers transferred out of context and stated as if objective facts. The document is, of course, almost purely a rhetorical exercise (as was the Stern Review, see Spash 2007). The stance of those natural scientists employing the same approach, and supporting this and similar initiatives, is both rhetorical and pragmatic. Getting international reports produced and government officials to listen then seems worthwhile regardless of the means. This is New Environmental Pragmatism in action (Spash 2009).

The great success, of switching away from an ecologically driven discourse involving plural values to a monistic pseudo-economic one, is then that big business and financially squeezed governments appear to be listening. For example, the UK Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Caroline Spelman, has made the following endorsement of TEEB, being used in the publishers publicity blurb: ‘We need to understand the true cost of losing what nature gives us for free, and integrate this into our decision making across government, business and society. At the national and international level TEEB for Policy Makers helps us think about how this can be done.’ In October 2010, the United Nations Finance Initiative (UNFI) published a briefing entitled Demystifying Materiality: Hardwiring Biodiversity and Ecosystems into Finance. This is an initiative supported by organisations such as Rio Tinto, Industrial Development Corporation, JP Morgan Chase & Co., Uni Credit Group, Credit Suisse, Citigroup, Barclays, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, and many others.

That the numbers are crude and lack theoretical foundation is actually almost irrelevant. Once in print they can be used and cited, for whatever ends seem suitable, as has been done with numbers on the value of the world’s ecosystems and all remaining wild nature. In any case the real aim is not to demonstrate that Nature has value. Indeed, the big message here is that demonstrating value in money terms is not enough. No. Values need to be ‘captured’. How, you might ask? Easy, through new institutional arrangements or, in other words, market-like institutions.

Traditionally the main financial and banking concerns around the topics of ecosystems and biodiversity have been damage to a corporation’s reputation when it gets caught polluting or destroying the environment, although only if this is reflected in the share price. Potential impacts on a development project’s finances (e.g. due to delays trying to meet regulations) have also been something to note. However, reports like TEEB, and the associated UNFI briefing, point in a different direction. They indicate that there is much for the finance and banking sectors to consider besides taking care of the risks and potential liabilities.

Financial institutions can seize opportunities related to biodiversity and ecosystems services in different ways: early movers can bolster their organisation’s reputation and create value for marketing practices; building capacity in-house can be beneficial in terms of advisory services for corporate clients; advising clients how to integrate biodiversity and ecosystems services in supply-chain management can lead to cost reductions for clients; and last but not least, financial
institutions that understand the new and expanding environmental markets can profit through offering brokerage services, registries, or specialised funds. Nothing like a financial crisis to get the high flyers of the banking world into innovation mode.

If you thought great ideas like tradable permits might be limited to carbon markets then think again. Innovative marketing devices like wetland banking, biodiversity banking and endangered species credits are now ready, available and being implemented. The USA endangered species credit system is a biodiversity cap-and-trade system producing ‘endangered species credits’, which can be used to offset a company’s negative impacts on threatened species and habitats. Bio-banking has been pioneered in Australia, where in 2006 a pilot project in New South Wales allowed developers to buy ‘biodiversity credits’ to offset negative impacts on biodiversity. These credits can be created by ‘enhancing’ other land (e.g. areas previously degraded by development). Then back to the USA for wetland banking, where companies or individuals undertaking development or agricultural expansion are allowed to degrade or destroy wetland ecosystems by making payments called environmental credits. As the TEEB synthesis report notes, there is big money in these schemes with the market for wetland credits in the USA estimated at $1.1 to $1.8 billion. No more worrying about absolute protection or annoying regulations – just opportunities to trade and create new financial instruments to capture those wild values roaming too freely for their own good.

Developers with enough ready cash will be unfettered (as if they were not already: see Veuthey and Gerber, 2011). Is this the success ecologists and conservation biologist pushing monetary values having been trying to achieve? This is not about protection or conservation this is about banking, finance and investment returns. This is about removing regulation and restrictions. Increasing possibilities for trading financial instruments has little apparent relevance for the drivers of ecosystem degradation and biodiversity loss (e.g. human population increase, war, corruption and greed, colonialism). Changing the international banking and financial institutions to redirect development away from environmental destruction would seem to require a little more than making wild claims for the monetary value of bees. Dropping the discourse of plural values, and those discourses which empowered ecologists and conservationists in the first place, is at best misguided. Not just species are threatened but social and environmental responsibility itself.

One thing these issues raise is the over reliance on collective action and the need for alternatives. Individual action, for example, is often undermined by the argument that any one person can contribute so little that doing anything is pointless. Last year in this journal Hourdequin (2010) made an eloquent attack on the logic of such a position within the context of climate change. This issue sees her defending that stance in reply to a commentary. As climate change has shown, misguided strategies are unfortunately not limited to ecosystems and biodiversity. In this issue Gardiner (2011) discusses geoengineering the climate. Such options arise due to the failure of governments and international organisations to take serious mitigation measures to prevent human induced climate change. How does the Royal Society suggest addressing this institutional and political failure? By using science and technology as if there were no issues of power politics. The many-faceted ethical aspects of the approach are carefully surveyed by Gardiner.

We then return to conservation biologists, who come in for criticism from Joye and De Block (2011). While noting the influence of Wilson’s writing on the concepts of biodiversity and biophilia they critically analyse the latter. This brings into question the faith shown in the evolutionary explanation for human relationships to life-forms and the assumptions surrounding biophilia and biophobia. Further food for thought in terms of how conservation biologists perceive human motivation.

The theme of human motivation continues with Ojala and Lidskog (2011) presenting a study raising a range of interesting issues about human intervention in natural systems and the value conflicts which people feel. The life-form here (mosquitoes) is perceived as largely negative and this supports an eradication programme in central Sweden using aerial chemical applications. Reading the mixed motives and justifications seems to rather strongly contrast with an evolutionary biophobic explanation, and so lends credence to part of the argument by Joye and De Block. Short-termism, anthropocentrism, systems control and narrow species preferences seem to dominate in the Swedish case study.

A different type of value conflict concerns the endangered Moabi tree. Here we observe the spread of markets, power of developers and international trade. The conservation of Moabi is certainly not served by the extension of the commodity frontier outlined in this study. Nor would the further extension of property titles, wood trade, and monetary exchange values via TEEB or UNFI mechanisms help. Indeed the intervention of the World Bank appears as an extension of the trade problems driving exploitation. Solutions require addressing the fundamental power relationships embedded in a colonial past. Veuthey and Gerber (2011) use a feminist ecological economics perspective to explore the value pluralism and conflicts. This reveals the commoditisation of Moabi as a tool of power through which environmental valuation is imposed, claims made on the resources of the politically weak, and socio-environmental impacts on the poor are traded-off against financial returns for the rich.

The issue closes with an appeal to the concept of mercy for Nature and its inclusion as an environmental virtue to be added to virtues like love, care, respect, humility, and wonder for Nature. Being merciful then demands a different behaviour than might be legally permissible or institutionally sanctioned. Mercy does not seem to be compatible with treating another less harshly for primarily egoistic reasons, e.g. as a means of avoiding trouble or lining one’s pockets. So
don’t expect to find mercy amongst orthodox economists’ or financiers’ reasons for avoiding ecosystems destruction and biodiversity loss. As Ferkany (2011) notes, environmental ethicists have seemingly tried every avenue of appeal to inspire their fellow human beings to forbear in the wanton destruction of Nature. To these he adds the prospect of a charge of mercilessness.

A new report then seems to be required. Something to explain the current merciless economics of scientists and society (MESS). Although, exploring the MESS is unlikely to be of much interest to empowered neoliberal politicians or the banking sector.

Part IIa Mainstream Economists Shutout Reality:

[Clive Spash is an economist who writes, researches and teaches on public policy with an emphasis on economic and environmental interactions. My main interests are interdisciplinary research on human behaviour, environmental values and the transformation of the world political economy to a more socially and environmentally just system.]
References
Ferkany, M. 2011. ‘Mercy as an environmental virtue’. Environmental Values 20(2): 265–283.
Gardiner, S. M. 2011. ‘Some early ethics of geoengineering the climate: a commentary on the values of the Royal Society Report’. Environmental Values 20(2): 163–188.
Hourdequin, M. (2010). ‘Climate, collective action and indivudal ethical obligations.’ Environmental Values 19: 443-464.
Joye, Y. and A. de Block. 2011. ‘“Nature and I are Two”: a critical examination of the biophilia hypothesis’. Environmental Values 20(2): 189–215.
Ojala, M. and R. Lidskog. 2011. ‘What lies beneath the surface? A case study of citizens’ moral reasoning with regard to biodiversity’. Environmental Values 20(2): 217–237.
Spash, C. L. (2007). ‘The economics of climate change impacts à la Stern: Novel and nuanced or rhetorically restricted?’ Ecological Economics 63(4): 706-713.
Spash, C. L. (2009). ‘The new environmental pragmatists, pluralism and sustainability.’ Environmental Values 18(3): 253-256.
Spash, C. L. and A. Vatn (2006). ‘Transferring environmental value estimates: Issues and alternatives.’ Ecological Economics 60(2): 379-388.
Veuthey, S. and J-F. Gerber. 2011. ‘Valuation contests over the commoditisation of the moabi tree in South-Eastern Cameroon’. Environmental Values 20(2): 239–264.

Distorting Reality

Public Good Project

By Jay Taber

network-independent-elites

For those who had high hopes for The Real News Network, the TRNN love fest with social capitalists like Naomi Klein and other con artists on Wall Street’s payroll — laundered by foundations like Ford, Rockefeller and NoVo — comes as a disappointment. So it should come as no surprise that TRNN start-up money ($350,000) came from Ford and MacArthur foundations. Two thirds of TRNN ongoing operating revenue comes from the rich.

After doting on Ms. Klein’s magical social revolution (funded by the Rockefeller Brothers and Warren Buffett), TRNN is now promoting Klein, et al’s “new economy,” that aims to place all control of social change in the hands of Wall Street front groups like 350, Avaaz, Ceres and Purpose. The solution to looting of state treasuries by financial institutions, according to social capitalists featured on TRNN, is to create non-profit co-ops that are dependent on philanthropy.

TRNN strategy is limited by dependency on capitalism, which funds them as gatekeepers. They offer liberals a place for venting rage, then point them toward false solutions, promoted by other capitalist-dependent liberals. TRNN has never exposed the brainwashing of liberal capitalism, because they are part of it.

Ironically, the only funding for research on violent white supremacy in the US has come from MacArthur and Ford. All my liberal colleagues take Ford or MacArthur money, and consequently have kept silent about Ford’s role in global privatization, as well as continental ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples.

Their research is valuable, but they are reluctant to acknowledge the significant contribution Public Good Project has made to their work, because we also expose Ford Foundation fraud. Until they and TRNN divorce themselves from this dependency, their message will continue distorting reality by omission.

 

[Jay Taber is an associate scholar of the Center for World Indigenous Studies, a correspondent to Forum for Global Exchange, and a contributing editor of Fourth World Journal. Since 1994, he has served as communications director at Public Good Project, a volunteer network of researchers, analysts and activists engaged in defending democracy. As a consultant, he has assisted indigenous peoples in the European Court of Human Rights and at the United Nations.]