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Wall Street’s Takeover of Nature Advances with Launch of New Asset Class

Unlimited Hangout

October 13, 2021

By Whitney Webb

 

A project of the multilateral development banking system, the Rockefeller Foundation and the New York Stock Exchange recently created a new asset class that will put, not just the natural world, but the processes underpinning all life, up for sale under the guise of promoting “sustainability.”

Last month, the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) announced it had developed a new asset class and accompanying listing vehicle meant “to preserve and restore the natural assets that ultimately underpin the ability for there to be life on Earth.” Called a natural asset company, or NAC, the vehicle will allow for the formation of specialized corporations “that hold the rights to the ecosystem services produced on a given chunk of land, services like carbon sequestration or clean water.” These NACs will then maintain, manage and grow the natural assets they commodify, with the end of goal of maximizing the aspects of that natural asset that are deemed by the company to be profitable.

Though described as acting like “any other entity” on the NYSE, it is alleged that NACs “will use the funds to help preserve a rain forest or undertake other conservation efforts, like changing a farm’s conventional agricultural production practices.” Yet, as explained towards the end of this article, even the creators of NACs admit that the ultimate goal is to extract near-infinite profits from the natural processes they seek to quantify and then monetize.

NYSE COO Michael Blaugrund alluded to this when he said the following regarding the launch of NACs: “Our hope is that owning a natural asset company is going to be a way that an increasingly broad range of investors have the ability to invest in something that’s intrinsically valuable, but, up to this point, was really excluded from the financial markets.”

Framed with the lofty talk of “sustainability” and “conservation”, media reports on the move in outlets like Fortune couldn’t avoid noting that NACs open the doors to “a new form of sustainable investment” which “has enthralled the likes of BlackRock CEO Larry Fink over the past several years even though there remain big, unanswered questions about it.” Fink, one of the world’s most powerful financial oligarchs, is and has long been a corporate raider, not an environmentalist, and his excitement about NACs should give even its most enthusiastic proponents pause if this endeavor was really about advancing conservation, as is being claimed.

How to Create a NAC

The creation and launch of NACs has been two years in the making and saw the NYSE team up with the Intrinsic Exchange Group (IEG), in which the NYSE itself holds a minority stake. IEG’s three investors are the Inter-American Development Bank, the Latin America-focused branch of the multilateral development banking system that imposes neoliberal and neo-colonalist agendas through debt entrapment; the Rockefeller Foundation, the foundation of the American oligarch dynasty whose activities have long been tightly enmeshed with Wall Street; and Aberdare Ventures, a venture capital firm chiefly focused on the digital healthcare space. Notably, the IADB and the Rockefeller Foundation are closely tied to the related pushes for Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs) and biometric Digital IDs.

The IEG’s mission focuses on “pioneering a new asset class based on natural assets and the mechanism to convert them to financial capital.” “These assets,” IEG states, make “life on Earth possible and enjoyable…They include biological systems that provide clean air, water, foods, medicines, a stable climate, human health and societal potential.”

Put differently, NACs will not only allow ecosystems to become financial assets, but the rights to “ecosystem services”, or the benefits people receive from nature as well. These include food production, tourism, clean water, biodiversity, pollination, carbon sequestration and much more. IEG is currently partnering with Costa Rica’s government to pilot its NAC efforts within that country. Costa Rica’s Minister of Environment and Energy, Andrea Meza Murillo, has claimed that the pilot project with IEG “will deepen the economic analysis of giving nature its economic value, as well as to continue mobilizing financial flows to conservation.”

With NACs, the NYSE and IEG are now putting the totality of nature up for sale. While they assert that doing so will “transform our economy to one that is more equitable, resilient and sustainable”, it’s clear that the coming “owners” of nature and natural processes will be the only real beneficiaries.

Per the IEG, NACs first begin with the identification of a natural asset, such as a forest or lake, which is then quantified using specific protocols. Such protocols have already been developed by related groups like the Capitals Coalition, which is partnered with several of IEG’s partners as well as the World Economic Forum and various coalitions of multinational corporations. Then, a NAC is created and the structure of the company decides who has the rights to that natural asset’s productivity as well as the rights to decide how that natural asset is managed and governed. Lastly, a NAC is “converted” into financial capital by launching an initial public offering on a stock exchange, like the NYSE. This last stage “generates capital to manage the natural asset” and the fluctuation of its price on the stock exchange “signals the value of its natural capital.”

Source: IEG

However, the NAC and its employees, directors and owners are not necessarily the owners of the natural asset itself following this final step. Instead, as IEG notes, the NAC is merely the issuer while the potential buyers of the natural asset the NAC represents can include: institutional investors, private investors, individuals and institutions, corporations, sovereign wealth funds and multilateral development banks. Thus, asset management firms that essentially already own much of the world, like Blackrock, could thus become owners of soon-to-be monetized natural processes, natural resources and the very foundations of natural life itself.

Both the NYSE and IEG have marketed this new investment vehicle as being aimed at generating funds that will go back to conservation or sustainability efforts. However, on the IEG’s website, it notes that the goal is really endless profit from natural processes and ecosystems that were previously deemed to be part of “the commons”, i.e. the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable earth. Per the IEG, “as the natural asset prospers, providing a steady or increasing flow of ecosystem services, the company’s equity should appreciate accordingly providing investment returns. Shareholders and investors in the company through secondary offers, can take profit by selling shares. These sales can be gauged to reflect the increase in capital value of the stock, roughly in-line with its profitability, creating cashflow based on the health of the company and its assets.”

Researcher and journalist Cory Morningstar has strongly disagreed with the approach being taken by NYSE/IEG and views NACs as a system that will only exacerbate the corporate predation of nature, despite claims to the contrary. Morningstar has described NACs as “Rockefeller et al. letting the markets dictate what in nature has value – and what does not. Yet, it’s not for capitalist institutions and global finance to decide what life has value. Ecosystems are not ‘assets.’ Biological communities exist for their own purposes, not ours.”

A New Way to Loot

The ultimate goal of NACs is not sustainability or conservation – it is the financialization of nature, i.e. turning nature into a commodity that can be used to keep the current, corrupt Wall Street economy booming under the guise of protecting the environment and preventing its further degradation. Indeed, IEG makes this clear when they note that “the opportunity” of NACs lies not in their potential to improve environmental well-being or sustainability, but in the size of this new asset class, which they term “Nature’s Economy.”

Source: IEG

Indeed, while the asset classes of the current economy are value at approximately $512 trillion, the asset classes unlocked by NACs are significantly larger at $4,000 trillion (i.e. $4 quadrillion). Thus, NACs open up a new feeding ground for predatory Wall Street banks and financial institutions that will allow them to not just dominate the human economy, but the entire natural world. In the world currently being constructed by these and related entities, where even freedom is being re-framed not as a right but “a service,” the natural processes on which life depends are similarly being re-framed as assets, which will have owners. Those “owners” will ultimately have the right, in this system, to dictate who gets access to clean water, to clean air, to nature itself and at what cost.

According to Cory Morningstar, one of the other aims of creating “Nature’s Economy” and neatly packaging it for Wall Street via NACs is to drastically advance massive land grab efforts made by Wall Street and the oligarch class in recent years. This includes the recent land grabs made by Wall Street firms as well as billionaire “philanthropists” like Bill Gates during the COVID crisis. However, the land grabs facilitated through the development of NACs will largely target indigenous communities in the developing world.

As Morningstar notes:

The public launch of NACs strategically preceded the fifteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, the biggest biodiversity conference in a decade. Under the pretext of turning 30% of the globe into “protected areas”, the largest global land grab in history is underway. Built on a foundation of white supremacy, this proposal will displace hundreds of millions, furthering the ongoing genocide of Indigenous peoples. The tragic irony is this: while Indigenous peoples represent less than 5% of the global population, they support approximately 80% of all biodiversity.

IEG, in discussing NACs, tellingly notes that proceeds from a NAC’s IPO can be used for the acquisition of more land by its controlling entities or used to boost the budgets or funds of those who receive the capital from the IPO. This is a far cry from the NYSE/IEG sales pitch that NACs are “different” because their IPOs will be used to “preserve and protect” natural areas.

The climate change panic that is now rising to the take the place of COVID-19 panic will surely be used to savvily market NACs and similar tactics as necessary to save the planet, but – rest assured – NACs are not a move to save the planet, but a move to enable the same interests responsible for the current environmental crises to usher in a new era where their predatory exploitation reaches new heights that were previously unimaginable.

 

[Whitney Webb has been a professional writer, researcher and journalist since 2016. She has written for several websites and, from 2017 to 2020, was a staff writer and senior investigative reporter for Mint Press News. She currently writes for The Last American Vagabond.]

WATCH: The New Financial Markets on Nature’s Destruction Explained to my Grandmother – Frederic Hache

Published November 24, 2020

 

 

“This video summarizes the below reports: – 50 shades of green part II: the fallacy of environmental markets – 50 shades of green part III: sustainable finance 2.0″ [Source: Green Finance Observatory] [Download: 50-shades-biodiversity-final]

“This [] illustrates why protection of nature based on a price mechanism is more unstable than protection based on law.” — Frederic Hache

 

[Frédéric Hache is a financial expert. He worked for twelve years in investment banking, selling and structuring currency derivatives. After that he was head of policy analysis at the NGO Finance Watch for six years, analysing EU legislation linked to systemic risks / financial stability. He now heads the Belgian think tank Green Finance Observatory, lectures in sustainable finance at Science Po Paris, works as a freelance expert on sustainable finance and environmental markets and is pursuing a PhD in political economy. His research interests are about market-based solutions applied to environmental and social policies. They include natural capital, carbon and biodiversity markets, catastrophe bonds and sustainable finance.]

The Dasgupta Review Deconstructed: An Exposé of Biodiversity Economics

The Dasgupta Review Deconstructed: An Exposé of Biodiversity Economics

Published online: 26 May 2021

 

“In fact, there is nothing new in The Review’s orthodox economic ‘solution’ for loss of biodiversity,
namely, putting a price tag on Nature so that businessmen and financiers can recognize its
existence in their accounts, capture its value and profit from trading. Neither is there anything
new about an economist claiming he can direct environmental policy by correctly pricing Nature
to optimize resource management. However, Dasgupta does not stop there.

Human health, education and population are also to be monetized and treated like man-made
capital. Together three forms of capital – natural, human and produced – are taken to represent the
‘inclusive wealth’ of humanity. In this way, all social, ecological and economic aspects are equated,
allowing their aggregation and integration into national accounting systems. Conflicting objectives
and interests are assumed commensurable via reduction to monetary equivalents that support
financial wealth accumulation. There is no error in this ‘independent’ report having been commissioned
by the Treasury department under a ruling Conservative Party. While pricing, trading-off
and optimizing are traditional economic fare, the political vision here involves a far reaching public
policy agenda, promoting the total domination of non-financial aspects of life by finance.”  [p. 2]

 

Source: Capitals Coalition (formerly Natural Capital Coalition), Twitter

Clive L. Spash & Frédéric Hache (2021): The Dasgupta Review deconstructed: an exposé of biodiversity economics, Globalizations, DOI: 10.1080/14747731.2021.1929007

Institute for the Multi-Level Governance & Development, Department of Socioeconomics, WU Vienna University of Economics and Business, Vienna, Austria; Green Finance Observatory, Brussels, Belgium

The Dasgupta Review is the latest attempt at justifying financialisation of Nature, but also much more. It represents a high point in applying concepts of capital and wealth accumulation comprehensively to all aspects of human and non- human existence. Unravelling the flaws in the arguments, contradictions and underlying motives requires both understand of and cutting through the specialist language, neoclassical economic models, mathematics and rhetoric. We offer a critical guide to and deconstruction of Dasgupta’s biodiversity economics and reveal its real aim. Framing critical biodiversity loss as an issue of asset management and population size is a blind to avoid questioning economic growth, which remains unchallenged and depoliticized despite apparently recognizing natural limits. Dasgupta ignores long-standing problems with capital theory and social cost–benefit analysis. Rather than a scientific review of biodiversity economics he offers impossible to achieve valuation, based on old flawed theories and methods, embedded in an unsavoury political economy.

ABSTRACT

1. Introduction

2. Dasgupta’s political economy and its values

3. The world as different categories of capital

4. Other issues

Download the PDF: The Dasgupta Review Deconstructed – An Expose of Biodiversity Economics

 

 

[Clive L. Spash is Professor of Public Policy & Governance at WU in Vienna, Editor-in-Chief of Environmental Values, and former President of the European Society for Ecological Economics. As an ecological economist he has promoted the need for social-ecological transformation and a paradigm shift in economic thought. He has published widely in the fields of economics, political economy, social psychology, project and policy evaluation, environmental policy, philosophy and ethics. Over thirty years he has conducted research on climate change, biodiversity loss, air pollution, conservation and land-use. His books include: Routledge handbook of ecological economics: Nature and society (Ed., Routledge, 2017), Ecological economics: Critical concepts in the environment, 4 Volumes (Ed., Routledge, 2009), and Greenhouse economics: Value and ethics (Routledge, 2002). More information can be found at www.clivespash.org.]

[Frédéric Hache is a financial expert. He worked for twelve years in investment banking, selling and structuring currency derivatives. After that he was head of policy analysis at the NGO Finance Watch for six years, analysing EU legislation linked to systemic risks / financial stability. He now heads the Belgian think tank Green Finance Observatory, lectures in sustainable finance at Science Po Paris, works as a freelance expert on sustainable finance and environmental markets and is pursuing a PhD in political economy.]

 

 

How Science Ignores The Living World — An Interview With Vine Deloria

This interview of Vine Deloria by author Derrick Jensen, was published in July of 2000, by The Sun Magazine.

Today, it is more relevant – and more important – than when it was published.

Deloria passed away on November 13, 2005.

 

July 2000: Vine Deloria is one of the most important living Native American writers. For more than a quarter century, he has produced an extraordinarily readable critique of Western culture. Central to Deloria’s work is the understanding that, by subduing nature, we have become slaves to technology and its underlying belief system. We’ve given up not only our freedom, but also our relationship with the natural world.

Deloria was born in 1933 on the Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. For many generations, his family has straddled white and Indian cultures. One of his ancestors, the son of a fur trader and a Yankton Sioux headman’s daughter, had a vision that his descendants would serve as mediators with the dominant society.

Deloria’s father, a Dakota Episcopal priest, took his young son to the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre and pointed out to him the survivors who still lived on the reservation. Deloria left home at sixteen to go to a college-preparatory school in Connecticut. After graduation, he turned down an acceptance to the University of Colorado and bought a used car with his tuition money. He went on to study geology for two years at the Colorado School of Mines (my own alma mater) before enlisting in the Marine Corps reserve. In 1956 he enrolled in Iowa State University, where he met his future wife, Barbara Jeanne Nystrom.

They moved to Illinois so that Vine could attend a Lutheran seminary in preparation for becoming a minister, like his father. For four years, he studied philosophy and theology by day and earned money as a welder at night. Although he completed his education, he grew increasingly disappointed with “the glaring lack of solutions” the seminary provided.

In 1964, Deloria went to work as the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, and there he began to see the importance of building a national power base for Indians through grassroots organizing. He soon came to appreciate the need for trained Indian lawyers who could defend tribal sovereignty and treaty rights within the legal system, and in 1967 he enrolled in law school at the University of Colorado.

Deloria maintained his ties to Christianity, even being elected to the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church. In one of his books, however, he posed a challenge to the religion of his childhood: “If, as they claim, Christianity is for all people, why not let Indian people worship God after their own conception of Him?” Deloria no longer identifies himself as a Christian, but, if pressed, offers that he is a “Seven Day Absentist.”

Since receiving his law degree in 1970, Deloria has written many books and lectured at colleges all over the country. In both his writing and his speaking, he has never shied away from direct assaults on injustice. It’s as though he doesn’t have time or patience for the polite indirectness that characterizes so much political dialogue today. His book titles alone testify to this directness: Red Earth, White Lies (Fulcrum Books) won the 1996 Nonfiction Book of the Year Award from the Colorado Center for the Book; Custer Died for Your Sins (University of Oklahoma Press) brought accounts of the trail of broken treaties up to date; and God Is Red (Fulcrum Books) remains one of the best books written on Native American spirituality.

Deloria recently retired from his position as a professor of history, law, religious studies, and political science at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He lives in Golden, Colorado, with his wife, who edits much of his work.

+++

Jensen: What would you say is the fundamental difference between the Western and indigenous ways of life?

Deloria: I think the primary difference is that Indians experience and relate to a living universe, whereas Western people — especially scientists — reduce all things, living or not, to objects. The implications of this are immense. If you see the world around you as a collection of objects for you to manipulate and exploit, you will inevitably destroy the world while attempting to control it. Not only that, but by perceiving the world as lifeless, you rob yourself of the richness, beauty, and wisdom to be found by participating in its larger design.

Science insists, at a great price in understanding, that the observer be as detached as possible from the event he or she is observing. Contrast that with the attitude of indigenous people, who recognize that humans must participate in events, not isolate themselves.In order to maintain the fiction that the world is dead — and that those who believe it to be alive have succumbed to primitive superstition — science must reject any interpretation of the natural world that implies sentience or an ability to communicate on the part of nonhumans. Science insists, at a great price in understanding, that the observer be as detached as possible from the event he or she is observing. Contrast that with the attitude of indigenous people, who recognize that humans must participate in events, not isolate themselves.

Ironically, although science prides itself on being a search for knowledge, Indians can obtain knowledge from birds, animals, rivers, and mountains that is inaccessible to modern science. And Indians can use this knowledge to achieve better results. Take meteorology. Scientists know that seeding clouds with certain chemicals will bring rain, but this method of dealing with nature is wholly mechanical and forces nature to do our bidding. Indians achieved the same results more peacefully by conducting ceremonies and asking the spirits for rain. The two methods are diametrically opposed. It’s the difference between commanding a slave to do something and asking a friend for help.

Being attuned to their environment, Indians could find food, locate trails, protect themselves from inclement weather, and anticipate coming events thanks to their understanding of how all things are related. This knowledge isn’t unique to American Indians. It’s available to anyone who lives primarily in the natural world, is reasonably intelligent, and respects other life-forms for their intelligence. Respect for other life-forms filters into our every action, as does its opposite: perceiving the world as lifeless. If you objectify other living things, then you are committing yourself to a totally materialistic universe — which is not even consistent with the findings of modern physics.

The central idea of science, as it has been developed and applied, is to get machines or nature to do the work human beings don’t want to do. This is immensely practical, but in a shortsighted way.

Jensen: How so?

Deloria: Developing the automobile, for example, allowed people to get quickly from place to place, but at what cost, both in terms of accidents and of damage to the natural world? And what effect have automobiles had on our spiritual life?In a capitalist system, whoever supplies the money determines the technology. This means that science, as it’s applied, is never really for the good of humankind, but instead for the good of the financial elite or the military.

In a capitalist system, whoever supplies the money determines the technology. This means that science, as it’s applied, is never really for the good of humankind, but instead for the good of the financial elite or the military. It also means that science will be dominated by the authorities who have found institutional favor, whether they have the best evidence for their beliefs or not.

When beliefs and knowledge harden and become institutionalized, we turn to institutions to solve all our problems: people purchase food grown by others, settle their conflicts in courts and legislatures rather than by informal, mutually agreed-upon solutions, and wage extended and terrible wars over abstract principles instead of minor battles over the right to occupy land for hunting and fishing. Similarly, beliefs about the world are processed into philosophical and rational principles rather than anecdotal experiences, and religion is reduced to creeds, dogmas, and doctrines.

Now, every society needs educated people, but the primary responsibility of educated people must be to bring wisdom back into the community and make it available to others. Because of hierarchies, European thinkers have not performed their proper social function. Instead, science and philosophy have taken the path already taken by Western religion and mystified themselves. The people who occupy the top positions in science, religion, and politics have one thing in common: they are responsible for creating a technical language incomprehensible to the rest of us, so that we will cede to them our right and responsibility to think. They, in turn, formulate a set of beautiful lies that lull us to sleep and distract us from our troubles, eventually depriving us of all rights — including, increasingly, the right to a livable world. They, in turn, formulate a set of beautiful lies that lull us to sleep and distract us from our troubles, eventually depriving us of all rights — including, increasingly, the right to a livable world.

Rather than trusting our own experiences and senses, we often look to scientists for explanations of the world. In giving explanations, these scientists defer to the dogma and doctrine they learned in universities and colleges. It’s gotten to the point where almost anything anyone with a Ph.D. says is taken as gospel, rather than as someone’s opinion.

One example of this credulity is the widespread acceptance of the notion that Indians came to the Americas across the Bering Strait. Newspapers and textbooks say that archaeologists have proven there were waves of people moving to and fro across the Bering Strait, but they haven’t proven anything of the kind. Assuming that carbon dating is anywhere near accurate, and that the researchers didn’t throw out as “noise” any results they didn’t agree with, all they can prove is that a group of people lived in such-and-such a place, however many years ago. Everything else is just theory and speculation. Respect for other life-forms filters into our every action, as does its opposite: perceiving the world as lifeless. If you objectify other living things, then you are committing yourself to a totally materialistic universe — which is not even consistent with the findings of modern physics.

Jensen: So you view the theory that human beings came to North and South America across the Bering Strait as an article of faith, rather than as fact?

Deloria: I’ve yet to see any remotely convincing evidence to support it. It’s a doctrinal belief that institutional science has imposed on us.

The effort to deny that Indians are native to this land really started with the old Spanish clerics, who tried to identify Indians as either survivors of Noah’s flood or members of the lost tribes of Israel. So modern scientific theories are part of an entrenched line of thought: a Judeo-Christian insistence on seeing the world through Eurocentric eyes. Indians cannot simply be Indians. They have to have come from somewhere in or around Europe.

Jensen: Why is this issue of deep origins important?

Deloria: People want to believe that the Western Hemisphere, and North America in particular, was vacant, unexploited, fertile land waiting to be cultivated according to God’s holy dictates. The hemisphere thus belonged to whomever was able to “rescue” it from its wilderness state. We see the same rationalization at work today in the Amazon and elsewhere. If the Indians were not the original inhabitants of this continent but relative latecomers who had barely unpacked when Columbus came knocking on the door, then they had no real claim to the land and could be swept away with impunity. Thus, science justifies history and eases the guilt over five centuries of violence. Even today, I hear some non-Indians say, “Well, aren’t we all immigrants from somewhere?” The short answer is no. By making Indians immigrants to North America, Westerners are able to deny the fact that this is our continent.

Another way science has assuaged Western guilt is by claiming to prove that Indians are just as destructive as Westerners. You’ve probably heard of the Pleistocene overkill hypothesis, which states, without any real evidence, that as soon as Indians “arrived” here, they started killing everything in sight. When the hypothesis was first proposed some fifty years ago by Carl Sauer, it was shot down almost immediately by Loren C. Eiseley, who raised numerous concerns that have never been refuted. One is the fact that not only large mammals disappeared during the Pleistocene Epoch, but also birds, mollusks, and frogs, which could not have been hunted to extinction. Also, there is no evidence that tribal hunting groups using ancient techniques could exterminate — or even significantly alter — an animal population, unless the hunters and prey were restricted to a very small area. The example of modern tribes who still use Stone Age methods supports this.

So the overkill theory remained dead in the water until the 1960s, when it was revived by a book called Pleistocene Extinctions. Since then, as the destruction of the natural world has become ever more difficult to ignore, Westerners have needed ever stronger salves for their consciences, so the theory has risen up again in full force. Although there is still little real evidence to support it, its ideological function — to prove that destructiveness is part of human nature, and not just the result of a destructive way of living in and perceiving the world — is important enough to justify its admission into the scientific canon.

There’s even a new theory that Indians were responsible for the near extinction of the buffalo. According to this argument, Indian winter encampments deprived the buffalo of feed, and so the population plummeted.

Jensen: How could anyone make that claim?

Deloria: Simple: by ignoring all evidence that contradicts the thesis, such as 1870s newspaper reports of white hunters shipping out trainloads of buffalo hides. In the Dodge City area alone, hunters killed 3 million buffalo in three years.

Jensen: If Indians didn’t cross the Bering Strait, how did they come to inhabit this continent? What do the Indians themselves say?

Deloria: That last question isn’t asked often enough, and points out another problem with the scientific tradition. Somehow it is presumed that scientists, and thus Europeans, know better than the Indians themselves how Indians got here and how they lived prior to Columbus. That attitude is patronizing at best. Instead of digging and analyzing, why don’t researchers just ask the Indians? And then, having asked, why don’t they take the answers seriously?

Indians’ beliefs about their origins vary considerably from tribe to tribe. Many tribes simply begin their story at a certain location and describe their migrations. Others will say they came from another continent by boat. (Of course, archaeologists generally refuse to believe them, because they think Indians couldn’t have built boats, which is absurd.) A number of tribes say that they were created here. A few say they came here through a portal from another world. They walked into a cave or tunnel, for example, until it was completely dark, and they continued walking until a tiny light appeared ahead of them. As they kept moving toward it, it grew bigger, gradually revealing itself to be an entrance to a new world.

Personally, I like the Pacific Northwest tribes’ idea that, in the distant past, the physical world was not dominant, and you could change your shape and experience life as an animal, plant, or bird. Then the world changed, and some people were caught in different shapes and became animals, plants, and so on.

Much of the Indian knowledge of origins is revealed in ceremonial settings and involves views of time, space, matter, and cosmic purpose that the scientific perspective considers heretical. Because of this, such accounts are generally dismissed out of hand as superstition: nice campfire stories that have no connection to reality.

Jensen: Philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend has said that “whatever fails to fit into the established category system or is said to be incompatible with this system is either viewed as something quite horrifying, or, more frequently, it is simply declared to be nonexistent.”

Deloria: That’s standard scientific procedure. You throw out the results you don’t agree with, turn to the results that “make sense,” and say, “See, this is proven.” It’s nonsense.

Scientists gather data from what appear to them to be similar sources and circumstances and, after much meditation, announce the discovery of “laws” that govern the universe — with some notable exceptions we rarely hear about. Sometimes these “anomalies” are acknowledged and become the basis for fruitful discussion, but more often they’re simply swept under the rug. The increasing sophistication of scientific measuring instruments continues to reveal flaws in the previously agreed-upon canon, yet this seems not to bother a great majority of scientists, nor the rest of us, who should care far more than we do.

Scientists impose highly restrictive laws upon the natural world, thereby limiting its potential for response. They are asking incomplete questions of nature and, in many cases, irrelevant ones. In my opinion, fields purporting to be scientific should devote considerable time to reexamining what they can really prove and what is speculation, and then restate their principles. Standards of evidence need to be erected. There’s got to be some discipline and courage. Scientists should be willing to speak out when authoritative-sounding pronouncements are being made on the basis of questionable — or nonexistent — evidence.

I like the Pacific Northwest tribes’ idea that, in the distant past, the physical world was not dominant, and you could change your shape and experience life as an animal, plant, or bird. Then the world changed, and some people were caught in different shapes and became animals, plants, and so on.

Jensen: A friend of mine says that science is an even better means of social control than Christianity, because if you don’t believe in Christianity, you’re simply doomed to burn in a hell you don’t think exists, whereas if you don’t believe in science, you’re presumed to be stupid.

Deloria: I think science has replaced Christianity as the dominant religion in our society. You see evidence of this whenever someone goes to court to try to establish or protect religious rights. If science and religion come into conflict, religion always loses. That’s true for everyone from Christian fundamentalists to Indians to Orthodox Jews: anybody who has a religious view that’s unacceptable to scientists.

Jensen: What are some better ways of perceiving and living in the world?

Deloria: I would say one alternative to forcing nature to tell us its secrets is to observe nature and adjust to its larger rhythms. This alternative is practiced by many other cultures, but it scares a lot of people in the West because it derives information from sources that may be tinged with mysticism. For example, many centuries ago, three sisters appeared to the Senecas and said they wished to establish a relationship with “the two-legged people.” In return for the performance of certain ceremonies that would help them to thrive, the sisters would become plants and feed the people. The three sisters became beans, corn, and squash. And the soil of the Seneca farmlands was never exhausted, because these three plants, in addition to sharing a spiritual relationship with one another, also formed a sophisticated natural nitrogen cycle that kept the land fertile and productive.

The white man came later, planted only corn and wheat, and soon exhausted the soil. Then, after conducting many experiments, scientists “discovered” the nitrogen cycle and produced chemical fertilizers to replace the natural nitrogen. But now we know that these chemicals have unpleasant side effects that may be even worse for us than they are for the soil.

The point is that, for every scientific “discovery,” there may exist one or more alternative ways of understanding natural processes. But we can’t know what these alternatives are until we absolutely reject the idea of forcing nature to reveal its secrets and instead begin to observe nature and listen to its rhythms.

Jensen: I’ve heard about South American tribes who can take a poisonous plant and, by some complex process; boiling it three times, skimming off the froth, and so on — turn it into medicine. Usually, the tribes are assumed to have arrived at these processes through trial and error, but this seems ludicrous to me, because the original plant is a deadly poison. By contrast, you’ve written that “getting information from birds and animals regarding plants is an absurdly self-evident proposition for American Indians.”

Deloria: There are plenty of Indian stories where a plant will appear in a dream and speak to someone, or a person is walking through the forest, and suddenly a plant will say, “I’m edible, but you’ve got to do these various things in order to eat me.”

When I was much younger, I would bring Indian plant knowledge to scientists for them to investigate. But they always wanted to take the plant apart, break it down to see what its constituents were. Their efforts were pointless, because that’s not the way the medicine men use it. They use it whole, and then they get the natural product out of it by making a tea, or a poultice. You can’t chemically disassemble it, because it’s the whole of the plant that cures, not any one ingredient.

Jensen: This seems to get at the heart of the fundamental difference between Western and indigenous cultures: seeing the plant as a whole and letting it literally speak to you, versus putting nature, as Francis Bacon said, “on the rack and extracting her secrets from her.”

Deloria: That’s true, although most of the greatest scientists dabbled considerably in spiritual matters and believed that mystical and intuitive experiences provided them with knowledge. This is true even of Descartes, the first materialist, who is famous for articulating the mind/ body, human/nature split. He said an angel came and explained things to him. Heisenberg, Einstein, and Bohr all had sudden insights. What’s the difference between that and the Indian performing a ceremony and hearing the plant say, “Do this”?

Jensen: I’ve heard of ceremonies in which Indians would sing to the corn. How does that help? What does singing do for the plant?

Deloria: We’re giving energy and respect to the plant. It’s kind of like when you’re trying to teach your kid how to play basketball, and even though he can’t hit the hoop, you say, “Hey, that was really a good one.” You’re not only telling the plant, “We respect and appreciate you”; you’re also making a fuss over the fact that it’s growing. It’s a straight transfer of energy.

Any fool can treat a living thing as if it were a machine and compel it to perform certain functions. All that’s required is sufficient force. But the result of force is slavery, both for the victim and for the wielder.

Jensen: In one of your books, you cite the Osage chief Big Soldier on this: “I see and admire your manner of living. . . . You can do almost what you choose. You whites possess the power of subduing almost every animal to your use. You are surrounded by slaves. Everything about you is in chains, and you are slaves yourselves. I fear that if I should exchange my pursuits for yours, I, too, should become a slave.”

Deloria: That’s the best thing any Indian ever said. I teach at the University of Colorado, and so many of my students are convinced that they are free, yet they act just like everyone else. They all do the same things. They all think alike. They’re almost like a herd, or clones. They’re enslaved to a certain way of life. The thing is, once you’ve traded away spiritual insight for material comfort, it is extremely difficult ever to get it back. I see these kids hiking in the mountains, trying to commune with nature, but you can’t commune with nature just by taking a walk. You have to actually live in it. And these young people have no way of critiquing the society that is enslaving them, because they get outside of it only for the occasional weekend. They may see beautiful vistas and develop an aesthetic appreciation of this other world, but they’re not going to get to a metaphysical understanding of who they really are.

In this sense, poor Appalachian whites and rural blacks are much closer to the natural world than my students, because they live in it twenty-four hours a day. These groups also have in common their oppression by industrialization and the destruction of the land on which their lives depend. Their connection to the natural world teaches them who they are. And it’s not just an abstract connection, but a relationship with a particular tree or a particular mountain.

Jensen: How does being in one place for a long time teach you who you are?

Deloria: If you live in one place long enough, you begin to lose the defenses you’ve erected in order to survive in industrial civilization, and you fall into the rhythm of the land. You develop a different sense of the natural world and no longer have to think of things in the abstract. You think, instead, of how the land looks and what it’s telling you. I would think many Appalachian people have this sense, especially the ones who’ve lived back in the hills for five or six generations. They have begun to adjust to the land, as opposed to forcing the land to adjust to them. If you talk to them, you’ll find they don’t have many of the abstract concerns that so-called civilized people have.

Jensen: What sort of abstract concerns?

Deloria: Always wondering who you are. Always trying to prove yourself, to prove that you are good enough, strong enough, rich enough, good-looking enough. Always trying to define yourself in terms of what you do for a living or what your hobbies are or what you can buy. I can see how that would be an effective survival technique in New York City, but if you live in a place where you’re not always having your identity called into question, you don’t need to worry about those things. You can simply be yourself.

Because of the industrial machine, no one really has an identity anymore. So you have to keep giving people numbers and meaningless ways to define themselves. If you look at the bestseller list, you see all these books offering to tell you how to be yourself. Well, when the land gives you a foundation, you don’t have to struggle with that question. If you live a long time in one place, you have an ongoing experiential context. If you don’t, your life is limited to little disconnected experiences. To really feel alive, you’ve got to grab as many of these experiences as you can. Thus, you’ve got MTV and malls and discos.

Why do Western people — and the Near Eastern peoples from whom their religions are derived — need a messiah? Why is their appraisal of the physical world a negative one? . . . Why do they insist on believing that ultimate reality is contained in another, unimaginable realm?

Jensen: How have modern Indians been separated from the land?

Deloria: Obviously, there are some whose tribes came from the swamps of south Georgia, but who live on a reservation in Oklahoma, or on the south side of LA. People my age mostly grew up on reservations or in towns near reservations, but now a substantial number of young Indians grow up in the suburbs. When these kids come back to Indian culture, they are grasping the images rather than the substance. That’s why it’s important to live in one place, or at least to visit your place and your people often: to stay in touch with who you are, you need to know not just your peer group, but your family and your ancestors and the tribe you were born into. Young suburban Indians often can’t distinguish between the Indians of their tribe and all the information put out about Indians in general. Black Elk Speaks has become a kind of bible for a whole generation of Indians, but it’s really only about one Sioux medicine man.

Loss of ethnic identity, of course, is not just an Indian problem. It’s happening in the big cities. Take Roman Catholic churches. It used to be that you would have an Irish Catholic church, and two blocks over an Italian church, and then six blocks down a Lithuanian church. Now, for financial reasons, the three churches have to consolidate into one, and people lose that sense of community based on ethnicity. They become homogenized into one great big church that stands for nothing, because they’ve had to make so many compromises.

We all need to relearn our own cultural traditions. About six years ago, I brought together traditional people of different tribes for several conferences on Indian knowledge. The whole thing was very emotional, almost traumatic. Few of the Indians in the audience had heard real Indian storytellers tell about their own traditions. A storyteller would get up and speak for forty minutes, and the entire audience would be in tears. People would come to me and say, “I’ve never experienced anything like this in my life.” I’d respond, “Well, this is what our ancestors did. They didn’t spend twenty-four hours a day hunting buffalo. They’d kill a buffalo, have a feast, and then take a few days off to sit around the campfire and tell stories.” Those traditions built incredibly strong characters and happy people.

Jensen: How can we revive that sort of community?

Deloria: Well, in my own case, I would start by pulling together what’s been written down and getting to know it reasonably well, but then I would go out and ask some of the elders how accurate it is. Most books tell only part of the story, and some actually get things wrong. The authors just happen to find some Indians who want to talk and write down what they say. Once it’s in print, it becomes absolute: “This is what Sioux Indians believe,” or “This is what Shoshones believe.” But medicine men and elders often know better.

Many of these elders probably reached adulthood in the 1930s. This means their grandfathers did not grow up on reservations, but were the last generation brought up in freedom. Now we’re losing the last people who ever spoke to the last people who were free. We’re at a very dangerous time. When my generation goes, people are not even going to remember rural communities with no paved roads. In the small towns near reservations, there are no longer any benches where people can sit and talk. Where can we find the coming together, the old visiting? Not at the tribal councils, which are just about policy decisions. Not at the powwow, where everyone is trying to win the dance competition. The old kinship responsibilities are all fading away. How many people today, Indian or otherwise, know where their grandparents are buried? There are no family cemeteries anymore. There is no returning to a place where you feel at home.

Jensen: Why do you think the West destroys every traditional culture it can reach?

Deloria: I don’t think those in power want it known that there are other ways of living, because for the industrial state to succeed, all the citizens have to be part of the economic machine. If you have people living out in a rural area pretty much self-sufficiently who spend their time singing and writing poetry, it tempts those who are still part of the machine to try to seek better lives themselves. If you saw the lack of stress in indigenous people, and then looked at the stress created by the industrial machine, you’d realize that the whole system has gone crazy. We don’t control machines; they control us. So the system has got to crush any alternatives.

This is the legacy of Christianity. The stated Christian ethic is to “love thy neighbor,” but, historically, Christians have been afraid and suspicious of any neighbor unlike themselves. And if those neighbors won’t change, they’ve simply killed them. Certainly, millions of Indians were given the choice of Christianity — and enslavement — or death. The same thing happens today, but it’s generally couched in economic terms, rather than religious ones.

Jensen: How are Indian religions different from Western religions?

Deloria: Most Indian cultures never had a religion in the sense of having dogmas and creeds, nor did they have the sort of all-powerful deity that Christians speak of — a specific higher personality who demands worship and adoration. Rather, they experienced personality in every aspect of the universe and called it Woniya (“spirit”) and looked to it for guidance.

Jensen: So Indians believe everything has spirit?

Deloria: Not exactly. It’s not something they believe. What happens in the different Indian religions is that people become so intimate with their particular environment that they enter into a relationship with the spirits that live there. Rather than an article of faith, it’s part of their experience. I think non-Indians sometimes experience this, too, when they spend a long time in one place.

Indians believe that everything in the universe has value and instructs us in some aspect of life. Everything is alive and is making choices that determine the future, so the world is constantly creating itself. Because every moment brings something new, we need to strive not to classify things too quickly. We must see how the ordinary and the extraordinary come together into one coherent, mysterious story line. With the wisdom and time for reflection that old age provides, we may discover unsuspected relationships.

In this universe, all activities, events, and entities are related. Thus, it doesn’t matter what kind of existence an entity enjoys; whether it is human or otter or rock or star, it participates in the ongoing creation of reality. To Indians, life is not a predatory jungle, “red in tooth and claw,” as Western ideology likes to pretend, but a symphony of mutual respect in which each player has a specific part to play. We must be in our proper place and play our role at the proper moment. Because we humans arrived last in this world, we are the “younger brothers” of the other creatures and therefore have to learn everything from them. Our real interest shouldn’t be to discover the abstract structure of physical reality, but rather to find the proper road down which to walk.

I would also say that another major difference between Western and indigenous religions is that aboriginal groups have never had any need for a messiah. In fact, there really is no place for one in their cosmos.

Jensen: Why is that?

Deloria: If the world is not “a vale of tears,” then there’s no need for salvation. Indians know nothing of a wholly different world — a heaven — compared to which this world has no value. Indian religion is instead concerned, as sociologist Robert Bellah has noted, with “the maintenance of personal, social, and cosmic harmony, and with attaining specific goods — rain, harvest, children, health — as men have always been.” The North American Indians don’t desire transcendence. They simply want to learn more about the reality that confronts them.

Why do Western people — and the Near Eastern peoples from whom their religions are derived — need a messiah? Why is their appraisal of the physical world a negative one? Why do their societies suffer such crises? Why do they insist on believing that ultimate reality is contained in another, unimaginable realm beyond the senses and the span of human life? I don’t understand it. Religion, as I have experienced it, isn’t the recitation of beliefs, but a way of helping us understand our lives. It must, I think, have an intimate connection with the world in which we live, and any religion that favors other places — heaven and the like — over the physical world is a delusion, a mere control device to manipulate us.

Jensen: What, then, to an Indian, is the ultimate goal of life?

Deloria: Maturity: the ability to reflect on the ordinary aspects of life and discover their real meaning.

Now, I know this sounds as abstract as anything ever said by a Western scientist or philosopher, but within the context of Indian experience, it isn’t abstract at all. Maturity is a matter of reflection on a lifetime of experience, as a person first gathers information, then knowledge, then wisdom. Information accumulates until it achieves a sort of critical mass, and patterns and explanations begin to appear. This is where Western science derives its “laws,” but scientists abort the process there, assuming that the products of their own minds are inherent to the structure of the universe. Indians, on the other hand, allow the process to continue, because premature analysis leads to incomplete understanding. When we reach a very old age, or otherwise attain the capacity to reflect on our experiences — most often through visions —we begin to understand how experience, individuality, and the cycles of nature all relate to each other. That state seems to produce wisdom.

Because Western society concentrates so heavily on information, its product is youth, not maturity. The existence of thousands of plastic surgeons in America attests to the fact that we haven’t crossed the emotional barriers that keep us from experiencing maturity.

Jensen: I’m friends with an Okanagan Indian, from British Columbia. I once asked her where dreams come from, and she said, “Everybody knows the animals give them to us.” How would you answer the same question?

Deloria: You have to remember that the Indian relationship to the land is not abstract, but very particular, tied to one piece of ground. My people come from the plains, so we say dreams come from the spirits, not from animals. This is because, if you look around the Great Plains, you see only three large wild creatures: the buffalo, the bear, and the wolf. And you don’t run into them all the time. On the other hand, in the Pacific Northwest, where your friend’s from, there are so many living things that a person is in danger of disappearing into the crowd. So if she says that dreams come from animals, she’s absolutely correct — for her area. If I say dreams come from spirits, I’m correct, but only for the plains.

Jensen: It seems pretty clear to me that if the dominant culture has its way, it will destroy the planet.

Deloria: No question about it.

Jensen: What can we do, then?

Deloria: So long as we perceive science to be a cure-all for everything and a means to overcome nature, there’s nothing we can do. Our answer to increasingly violent weather, for example, is to build cement bunkers to protect us from tornadoes. We’re adjusting to the destructive system rather than abandoning it.

Jensen: You’ve suggested the beautiful possibility that extinction might not be forever, but that, instead, the endangered creatures go away and come back when their habitat is once again being treated properly.

Deloria: About ten years ago, I spoke to members of the Society for Ecological Restoration. I told them that traditional Indian knowledge says that beings never become extinct. They go away, but they have the power to come back. I predicted that, in their restorations, if they were preparing the area right, plants they thought were extinct would begin coming back unaided after four or five years. Plants would come back first, and then animals, and then birds.

Of course, my audience thought I was crazy. But later, when I went to get a cup of coffee, several people followed me. They said, “You’re right. We’re seven years into a swamp restoration in Wisconsin, and all the original plants are back.”

This is not as extraordinary as it might sound. The elders tell us that the buffalo used to go back and forth between two worlds. In the summertime, people would find themselves in the middle of a big herd for weeks. But in the wintertime, there would be only a few buffalo down in the river bottoms, or up in the grasslands. Where were the huge herds? According to the Sioux, they were underground. There were about ten places where they went in or came back out.

When I first heard that, I didn’t believe it. Then I talked to some of the elders, who said, “Of course,” and showed me the buttes where the buffalo used to come out in the springtime. I thought, This is insane, so I scoured the literature, but I couldn’t find any accounts of big buffalo herds in the wintertime. Then, come June, the damn plains were covered with buffalo. In the fall, they started disappearing again.

I’m still working on this one. But that’s what life is all about. You take disparate facts, bring them together, and say, “Now, what’s the real question?” And so often you’re amazed to find that the matter is much deeper than you ever imagined. But the point is to ask the questions, and keep asking them.

The Price of Putting a Price on Nature

“Our oceans are worth at least $24 trillion, according to a new WWF report Reviving the Ocean Economy

Medium

“The Price of Putting a Price on Nature”

September 29, 2019

By Alexa Firmenich

Lacandon teenager, gazing at the Metzabok lake which has since gone dry // Alexa Firmenich

“The economic benefit of the rainforest if it’s conserved is $8.2 billion a year”

I read these sentences, and many similar ones frequenting headlines today, and I endear us to pause and consider their implications. Consider how this information actually makes you feel. Does knowing how much the oceans are worth evoke genuine care in you? I ask because when I care, my heart beats harder in my chest. When I “care”, I feel warmth, vitality, excitement, potential. When I care, my actions arise from a place deep within — the only place that sustains authentic long-term action. I don’t want my care to arise from an economic calculation of trade-offs.

I want to care because I actually care about the ocean.

The moment that my care has a price tag on it, I can be bought. What happens if the equation is subsequently calculated differently, and fish are now worth more dead than alive? What effect would that have on my care? What actions would that then justify?

If our civilisation and our leaders depend on the above metrics to convince us to protect the oceans — if we are even asking whether a forest is worth more alive or cut down — we are asking the wrong question in the first place.

Is our highest human potential really the ability to keep a forest on a life support machine just enough so that we can keep harvesting its organs appropriately to fuel our human world? Or, is our highest potential found in the myriad of ways we can collectively imagine how to live with that forest in right relationship, asking ourselves constantly how we can help enable the forest to thrive and evolve in all its splendour?

The outcome may look the same on the surface — the forest stays in the ground and trees don’t get cut down — but the guiding intention and energy behind both actions couldn’t be further apart.

It is to this intention I am called to draw attention to.

We should strive to be fully aware of the real motivations for doing what we do. Let’s not fool ourselves. The current breakdown in our systems is not really about short term versus long term profits, nor whether our cost benefit analyses accurately capture natural capital. It is not about shareholder versus stakeholder value, Business for Good or What is Our Purpose. These things are important, part of our journey, yes, but what is hurting lies a few layers underneath.

The real question for me is whether human beings have the right to put a price, a cap and trade, a bond or a derivative, on Nature and other sentient beings — ever. Is it in our place to put a price the joy of our children, as their faces light up in rapture watching a wave crashing on the beach or an eagle hunting at sunset? On the chorus of songbirds that rouse us from a summer slumber as a faint breeze tousles our blankets? On a forest so alive that to walk through it makes your very skin tingle with the crackling of dry leaves and the smell of pine?

I’ll state it simply. Nature never has been and never will be ours to own and measure, and as long as we continue do so, it is us who will pay a steep price. The world that exists ‘out’ there, right out there where the concrete breaks away, right there where the wet earth and vines tumble out, ‘out’ there, that world is of such exquisite and beatific complexity that it will forever defy human measurement. And Thankfully. No matter how well-intentioned our attempts to instrumentalise and quantify it, to reduce Nature’s complexity is to enter into dangerous territory. Let’s not mistake the woods for the trees.

And let’s remember, that when we debase someone or something, it is ourselves we debase.

Somehow, we have to make room and allow in for this other form of “care” that arises from deep within. Somehow, we must rediscover it, ready to come alive to pour through our veins. We must remember what we already know. I say we must, because otherwise we will forever be incomplete. I still believe with all my heart that every single person on the planet knows this care. The reduction of everything to objectified measurement is only part of our story. The question is not carbon credits or fossil fuel mitigation. Even if we succeed in staying under ‘two degrees’, let’s not stop there and rest on our laurels considering the book written. Something else is profoundly wrong in our relationship with the living world and those pages are still to be written.

Some might say that over time, utilitarian values crystallise into core life values. I don’t necessarily agree and history shows us otherwise. All I know is that I am much too heartbreakingly in love with this world not to at least try to push the edges of what I think is possible in our dormant potential to truly care.

[Alexa Firmenich is the co-founder of Atlas Unbound // Journeys into the Wild, Systems Thinking & Regeneration, Weaving Stories and Paradigms // www.alexafirmenich.com ]

 

The Insane Nexus of “Natural Capital” & the Rights of Nature

The Insane Nexus of “Natural Capital” & the Rights of Nature

January 3, 2020

By Michael Swifte

 

To my mind, the concepts the ‘rights of nature’ and ‘natural capital’ are counterposed. To me, Rights of Nature thinking supports the recognition of nature’s pricelessness, its intrinsic value, its interdependentness; whereas Natural Capital thinking supports, as Clive Spash says, “the commensuration of all values”.

Natural Capital proponents will always say that their concern is with conserving and protecting nature, but it is the process of ‘commensuration’ that transforms responsible stewardship into opportunities to exploit nature for profit. Nature is transformed from something of intrinsic value to be preserved and protected, to an asset class delivering ‘services’ for humans and great returns on investment.

Natural Capital and ecosystem services are the products of what Derrick Jensen in his 2015 Open Letter to Reclaim Environmentalism calls the “Conservation Industrial Complex”.

It is in the intersection of environmentalism and corporate conservation that I encountered the insanity of trying to engage simultaneously with two counterposed ideas.

3 Moments

I will outline 3 moments that left my head spinning. I will highlight moments when individuals and organisations that are deeply committed to Natural Capital thinking engage with individuals and organisations that are committed to promoting the intrinsic rights of mother nature. In these moments the fundamental contradictions between these 2 types of thinking did not become apparent to those involved. My concern is particularly with the absence of a contest of ideas. Surely those advocating for the Rights of Nature should be shouting out about the risks posed by further integrating our care for nature into the sphere of financial reckoning?

Context: Rights of Nature

People's Agreement of Cochabamba

People’s Agreement of Cochabamba

 

In 2016 the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund – International Center for the Rights of Nature prepared an historical timeline presenting key moments in the development of the Rights of Nature ‘movement’. While ideas were posited as far back as 1972, it wasn’t until the late 2000s that Rights of Nature were formally recognised under the provisions of local, state or national governments. Ecuador is the most often cited example having recognised the Rights of Nature in its constitution in 2008, but it wasn’t till 2010 that a collective voice was heard. [SOURCE]

In April 2010 the ‘People’s Agreement of Cochabamba’ presented an historic formulation and assertion of The Rights of Mother Nature:

In an interdependent system in which human beings are only one component, it is not possible to recognise rights only to the human part without provoking an imbalance in the system as a whole. To guarantee human rights and to restore harmony with nature, it is necessary to effectively recognize and apply the rights of Mother Earth. [SOURCE]

Rights of Nature as a position of environmental advocacy has been carried forward over the last decade by various organisations including the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, Australian Earth Laws Alliance and Mumta Ito’s Natures-Rights.org.

Context: Natural Capital

May 15, 1997

May 15, 1997

 

Natural Capital thinking finds its roots in the merging of economics and ecology that was started at the 1982 Wallenberg Symposium in Sweden which was themed ‘Integrating Ecology and Economics’. In attendance at the Wallenberg Symposium was before a brief stint with the World Bank where he advocated for “rights to pollute” within his ‘steady state’ framework. In 1997 Costanza had the dubious honour of being the first person to present a Natural Capital valuation of the whole earth’s “biosphere” at somewhere between US$16-54 trillion per year.

In her 2007 obituary of Ecological Economics co-founder AnnMari Jansson for the  International Society for Ecological Economics newsletter, Karin E. Limburg highlights the “chasm” between ecology and economics at the first Wallenberg Symposium:

Several days of intensive meetings brought home the philosophical chasm between these disciplines, but also made it clear that there was some common ground to be nurtured. [SOURCE]

All the most wealthy conservation organisations on the planet support Natural Capital thinking through various means; WWF, The Nature Conservancy, and Conservation International being prime among them. Collectively these organisations who are deeply engaged with corporations and governments, and in possession of unprecedented access to land and resources in the global south are represented by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Nature or Natural Capital is viewed by the Conservation Industrial Complex, embodied by the IUCN, as a “stock”, “producing value for people”. Under a policy motion prepared for the IUCN for the World Conservation Congress 2020 in Marseille the IUCN envisage their role as sustainable managers of nature to deliver “goods and services”. [SOURCE]

Mumta Ito, Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature

It’s hard to know what became of the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature’s (GARN) efforts to get the IUCN to operationalise recognition of the Rights of Nature. The trail goes cold in 2017 after an event hosted by Nature’s Rights in the European Parliament in Brussels. [SOURCE]

Between 2012 when the first Rights of Nature resolution was presented at the IUCN World Congress, and 2017 when the IUCN Global Programme 2017-2020 came into action, Rights of Nature advocates led by Mumta Ito put in significant efforts imploring the IUCN member organisations to incorporate nature’s rights in “all its initiatives”.

Between 2012 and now many IUCN member organisations have accelerated their efforts to push forward with the ‘natural capital approach’. The Natural Capital Coalition was formed in 2012 and the Natural Capital Protocol was launched in 2016.

Here is a quote from Conservation International CEO Peter Seligmann upon the launch of the Natural Capital Protocol:

The urgency of addressing climate change requires innovations across all sectors of society. This is why Conservation International strongly supports the innovations of the Natural Capital Protocol. Their breakthrough methodology provides Businesses with the tools to understand their dependency on nature and their impact on nature. This is essential if they want to achieve sustainability. It is a challenge that enlightened business leaders should undertake for their bottom line, as well as for the interest of humanity and the preservation of the benefits we all receive from nature: fresh air, clean water and food production. [SOURCE]

2012

The Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature (GARN) asked for nothing less than a deep commitment from IUCN member organisations. Here’s a selection from the resolution presented to the IUCN at the 2012 World Conservation Congress:

RECALLING that the Peoples’ World Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth held in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in April 2010, resulted in a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth, announced and supported by indigenous peoples and social movements, who, as representatives of an active civil society call on their governments and the United Nations to include this topic in key debates such as those on climate change and biodiversity; [SOURCE]

2016

At the IUCN World Conservation Congress in 2016 the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature again asserted the need for a deep commitment from the IUCN.

We ask for your support in urging the IUCN to implement its 2012 Resolution on nature’s rights. WCC-2012-Res-100, “Incorporation of the Rights of Nature as the organizational focal point in IUCN’s decision making,” calls on the IUCN to adopt a Declaration of the Rights of Nature and incorporate nature’s rights into all its initiatives. Help us ensure the IUCN makes implementation of this Resolution a key action item in its 2017-2020 work program. [SOURCE]

In a TedXFindhorn talk in 2016 Mumta Ito argued for the implementation of the Rights of Nature “in law”. My concern is that her argument that implementing Rights of Nature is a “counterbalance to corporate rights” puts the cart before the horse. Corporate rights are being advanced through Natural Capital projects supported by the IUCN and its member organisations. GARN and Mumta Ito have implored the IUCN and its members to operationalise the Rights of Nature while the architecture supporting Natural Capital has rapidly expanded.

Rights of Nature proponents do not challenge Natural Capital thinking in their advocacy. Rights of Nature cannot act as a counterbalance against corporate rights unless it is operationalised. Merely promoting Rights of Nature without at least attending to the possible threats posed by Natural Capital thinking does nothing to contest the appropriateness of measuring and managing nature into the sphere of financial interests rather than into the interests of priceless nature. If Natural Capital thinking can coexist or supplement the operationalisation of the Rights of Nature then Mumta Ito and GARN ought to be on record somewhere making that case. The reality is that Natural Capital thinking, and the projects initiated and supported by IUCN members like The Nature Conservancy, WWF and Conservation International are barely given any consideration by Rights of Nature advocates.

Here I’ve transcribed a quote from Mumta Ito’s TedXFindhorn talk:

Establishing rights of nature in law is the first step to moving us to a holistic paradigm of ecological governance, and it’s also a very powerful counterbalance to corporate rights. It’s a game changer.[SOURCE]

The response by the French representatives to the inclusion of “the rights of nature” in the IUCN Programme 2017–2020 makes clear that no additional Rights of Nature have been conferred.

France supports the IUCN Programme 2017–2020. Concerning the inclusion of “the rights of nature” in Programme Area 2 (Objectives 14 and 15), France interprets the terminology used in the Programme as creating no additional rights to those that France recognises in its national legislation and within the framework of the United Nations.[SOURCE]

The ‘IUCN Programme 2017-2020 Draft 2’ suggests that the IUCN will spread the word about the Rights of Nature. The text of the only reference to the “rights of nature” in the 2017-20 programme  suggests that Rights of Nature will be used to inform certain approaches to conservation, but it does not suggest anything like operationalisation. Aiming to “secure” Rights of Nature is not the same as adopting the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Nature’.

IUCN also aims to secure the rights of nature and the vulnerable parts of society through strengthening governance and the rights-based approach to conservation. Knowledge is disseminated widely and is taken up widely by the Union itself, the international system, governments, the donor community, the business sector, individual scientists and practitioners. [SOURCE]

2017

In March of 2017 Nature’s Rights held an event at the European Parliament in Brussels titled ‘Nature’s Rights Conference: The Missing Piece of the Puzzle’. This event seems to be the last hurrah for the Rights of Nature.

I keep coming back to this particular moment in my research and I wonder where the battle went from here. I suspect Rights of Nature have been disintegrated into the “rights-based approach” referred to in the 2017-2020 programme.

Luc Bas, Director, IUCN European Regional Office was non-committal in his response to pressure to support a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Nature:

Being a science-based and evidence-based organisation, IUCN will continue to explore and evaluate the benefits of such an initiative, [SOURCE]

2020

The IUCN have 128 motions listed for their 2020 World Conservation Congress. None contain any reference to the “rights of nature”. [SOURCE]

Here is a quote from ‘IUCN World Conservation Congress 2020 – Motion 062: Towards a Policy on Natural Capital’.

Natural capital is defined in these Principles as the stock of natural ecosystems on Earth including air, water, land, soil, biodiversity and geological resources. This stock underpins our economy and society by producing value for people, both directly and indirectly. Goods and services provided to humans by sustainably managed natural capital include a range of social and environmental benefits including clean air and water, climate change mitigation and adaptation, food, energy, places to live, materials for products, recreation and protection from hazards. [SOURCE]

Robert Costanza and NENA 2017

Robert Costanza was one of the guests at the New Economy Network Australia (NENA) annual conference 2017. NENA was founded and is directed by the founder and convenor of Australian Earth laws Alliance (AELA), Dr Michelle Maloney. AELA are the most active proponents of Rights of Nature in Australia having partnered with Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) on a 2018 campaign for Rights of the Great Barrier Reef. [SOURCE]

Costanza sits on the Earth Economics – Advisory Group along with Herman Daly, Annie Leonard (Greenpeace USA) and former Gund Institute colleague Joshua Farley. The Gund Institute are members of the New Economy Coalition and played a leadership role in the development of the Natural Capital Approach that is at the heart of the Natural Capital Project which is a partnership between The Nature Conservancy, WWF, and Stanford University. The Natural Capital Approach is defined here with crucial input from Natural Capital Project partners and the Gund Institute:

A means for identifying and quantifying the natural environment and associated ecosystem services leading to better decision-making for managing, preserving and restoring natural environments. [SOURCE]

I sat outside The Edge conference hall in Brisbane as Robert Costanza presented to the New Economy Network Australia conference in 2017. I tweeted furiously to the conference hash-tags while Costanza offered his 1997 valuation of the earth’s biosphere. I received zero replies.

I cannot comprehend how the conference organiser Dr Michelle Maloney reconciled herself with the imperatives and networks behind Natural Capital thinking while trying to promote Rights of Nature thinking.

You can view Costanza’s slide presentation here:

The Reforms Needed to Build an Ecological Economy

Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, Deep Green Resistance and Spencer Beebe

"After a century as a hub for the goods of the industrial economy, our building has become a focal point for a new economy in which “Natural Capital” — the flow of goods and services from nature — is our measure of prosperity and resilience."The 70,000-square-foot Natural Capital Center also houses Ecotrust's headquarters and a mix of nonprofit and business tenants gathered around the themes of ecological forestry and fisheries, green building, technology and financial investment. Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company known for its environmental ethic, is our retail anchor, working in its largest retail outlet anywhere."

“After a century as a hub for the goods of the industrial economy, our building has become a focal point for a new economy in which “Natural Capital” — the flow of goods and services from nature — is our measure of prosperity and resilience.” “The 70,000-square-foot Natural Capital Center also houses Ecotrust’s headquarters and a mix of nonprofit and business tenants gathered around the themes of ecological forestry and fisheries, green building, technology and financial investment. Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company known for its environmental ethic, is our retail anchor, working in its largest retail outlet anywhere.”

Image: [Source] [Source] [Source]

When the Community Legal Defense Fund and Deep Green Resistance lawsuit against the State of Colorado was summarily dismissed in October 2017 I started to look at the environmental organisations that engage Natural Capital thinking in regard to the Colorado River Basin. I found that Earth Economics had completed an assessment of “nature’s value” in the Colorado River Basin in 2014. The identified/key stakeholders in the Colorado River Basin were utilities and irrigation companies. Here is a quote from ‘Nature’s Value in the Colorado River Basin’:

Based on the ecosystem services examined and treated like an asset with a lifespan of 100 years, the Colorado River Basin has an asset value between $1.8 trillion and $12.1 trillion at a 4.125 percent discount rate. [SOURCE]

When I looked at the staff and advisory board membership of CELDF I found connections to both Derrick Jensen’s ‘Open Letter to Reclaim Environmentalism’, and the Conservation Industrial Complex. I also wondered how it was possible that DGR and CELDF did not give consideration to environmental organisations that employ Natural Capital thinking in the Colorado River Basin. Surely a key component of the risk assessment for a significant law suit would include consideration of the economic stakeholders in the Colorado River Basin?

Thomas Linzey is the founder and senior legal counsel of CELDF as well as a signatory to Jensen’s open letter. On the advisory board with Jensen is Spencer Beebe, the founder of Ecotrust. It is Beebe’s career in the Conservation Industrial Complex that I will unpack here.

Beebe could be said to be the embodiment of the Conservation Industrial Complex. He spent 14 years working with The Nature Conservancy before becoming the founding president of Conservation International.

He developed the Ecotrust headquarters in Portland with a 2 million loan from the Ford Foundation and named it the ‘Natural Capital Center’.

our building has become a focal point for a new economy in which “Natural Capital” — the flow of goods and services from nature — is our measure of prosperity and resilience [SOURCE]

Ecotrust clearly treat nature as an asset class, a set of ecosystem services to be valued, data captured, and capital to be managed. A biography written by Aaron Reuben in 2014 outlines the engagement of the financial sector in the work of Ecotrust:

Early on, Ecotrust partnered with ShoreBank to form a community development bank, ShoreBank Pacific (now Beneficial State Bank), to support small and natural resource-based businesses with sustainability goals, including fishing, farming and redevelopment enterprises. Beneficial State now manages $500 million in sustainability-minded assets across the Pacific Northwest. Ecotrust also started the world’s first forest ecosystem investment fund, with the goal of generating profits for investors through the sale of forest products, like timber, and ecosystem services, like wildlife habitat and carbon sequestration. In all, according to the organization, Ecotrust has “converted $30 million in grants into more than $1 billion in capital assets at work for local people, businesses, and organizations from Alaska to California.” [SOURCE]

In 2016 Ecotrust partnered with Earth Economics on a ‘Pure Water Partnership’ with Eugene Water and Electric Board (EWEB) who have dams and power stations on the McKenzie River.

The following quote is from a news item titled ‘Eugene’s Incentive Based Approach to Protecting Water Supply’ posted to the Earth Economics website in November 2016:

The work has involved partnership with other key organizations – Ecotrust, our primary partner, provided all of the GIS mapping and biophysical data, including collecting shade and carbon data.

Early in 2017 the utility EWEB announced that it was beginning a rehabilitation and modernisation project. It’s clear to see that the utility was the primary beneficiary of Ecotrust’s work in collaboration with Earth Economics.

The Eugene Water & Electric Board (EWEB) announced beginning March 27, and continuing for the next five years, it will begin a US$100 million rehabilitation and modernization project at its 114-MW Carmen-Smith hydroelectric facility along the upper McKenzie River, about 70 miles east of Eugene, Ore. [SOURCE]

Long term plans for the McKenzie River are to be led by the utility. Here are 2 quotes from a document titled ‘McKenzie River Sub-basin Strategic Action Plan for Aquatic and Riparian Conservation and Restoration, 2016-2026’:

McKenzie Collaborative: This group was formed in 2012 to develop new programs that protect water quality and protect and restore habitat. The Voluntary Incentives Program (VIP) and the McKenzie Watershed Stewardship Group are products of the Collaborative. Member organizations are CPRCD, Earth Economics, Ecotrust, EWEB, LCOG, MRT, MWC, MWMC, OSU, The Freshwater Trust (TFT), UO, USFS, and UWSWCD. The group is led by EWEB and meets monthly on the second Friday.

 

Ecosystem Valuation and the Economic Benefits of Source Protection EWEB recognizes that the McKenzie Watershed is an extremely valuable asset. Although the natural services that it provides are not financially accounted for in traditional economic models, new methods are being developed attempt to place value on this ‘natural capital.’ In 2010, EWEB hired Earth Economics to conduct a watershed valuation, which estimated the annual value of McKenzie Watershed ecosystem services at between $248 million to $2.4 billion. Services include things such as water supply, flood mitigation, soil erosion control and many other ecosystem services. [SOURCE]

No Contest

The proponents of the Rights of Nature are failing to contest the greatest threat to the achieving their objectives. The integration of the measurement and the management of nature and natural resources,  and watersheds and carbon sinks into our existing systems of corporate finance continues unabated. Promoting the Rights of Nature through entreaties to collective bodies and legal actions against governments does not necessarily function as a challenge to Natural Capital thinking. Former Managing Director at JP Morgan and Capital Institute founder John Fullerton has integrated Natural Capital thinking in his ‘regenerative capitalism’ concept. John Elkington, B Corporation boss and corporate responsibility ‘leader’ has a new book coming out called ‘Green Swans: The Coming Boom In Regenerative Capitalism’. The commensuration of all values is taking place at speed under the #NaturalClimateSolutions hash-tag underwritten by the leading lights of the Conservation Industrial Complex. Proponents of the Rights of Nature need to take account of the language of ‘assets’, ‘investments’ and ‘services’ used by the proponents of Natural Capital thinking and their clients.  Rights of Nature proponents need to name the problem and contest the ideas presented by those individuals and entities who are promoting dangerous and counterposed thinking. The Rights of Nature is a revolutionary demand requiring a clear and uncompromising response. Natural Capital thinking only offers capitalist reform which only ever leads to business as usual.

 

Notes:

*The following notes provide some background to the work of Conservation International in its first year of operation under the leadership of Spencer Beebe and Peter Seligmann. Debt-for-nature swaps were a vital tool for the penetration of conservation organisations into the developing world and establishing the groundwork for the implementation of Natural Capital thinking.

1.‘Eco Rover: It’s Hard to Pin Down Spencer Beebe’ By Aaron Reuben

1987, in search of a more nimble organization, he and fellow Yale alum Peter Seligmann co-founded Conservation International (CI) to pursue the same goal, global biodiversity conservation, through more innovative means. (One of CI’s first actions was to complete the world’s first “debt for nature swap,” buying foreign debt from Bolivia in exchange for the creation of a three million acre nature reserve).

https://environment.yale.edu/news/article/eco-rover-its-hard-to-pin-down-spencer-beebe/

2.‘Tropical Rain Forests: Bolivia’

In 1987 Conservation International initiated the first “debt-for-nature” swap when it purchased $650,000 worth of Bolivian debt for only $100,000.

https://rainforests.mongabay.com/20bolivia.htm

3.‘A Challenge to Conservationists’ By Mac Chapin

*It took Conservation International 1 year to engineer the world’s first debt for nature swap.

Conservation International began in dramatic fashion in 1986. During the previous several years, TNC’s international program had grown rapidly, and tension with its other programs had mounted. When TNC’s central management tried to rein it in, virtually the entire international staff bolted and transformed itself into CI. From the start, the new organization was well equipped with staff, contacts, and money it had assembled before-hand.  In  1989,  it  brought  in  yet  another  group  of defectors—this time from WWF—and began expanding with the help of an aggressive fundraising machine that  has  become  the  envy  of  all  of  its  competitors. However, a substantial portion of its funding comes from just  four  organizations:  the  Gordon  &  Betty  MooreFoundation,  the  MacArthur  Foundation,  the  World Bank,  and  the  Global  Environment  Facility  (GEF).

https://redd-monitor.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/WorldWatch-Chapin.pdf

4.‘Profiles of Impact: Swapping Debt for Nature in Bolivia’ By Maria Rodriguez

In 1987 — the year that both Conservation International (CI) and Vanguard Communications were founded — CI undertook the first-ever “debt-for-nature” swap between Citicorp and the government of Bolivia. Vanguard publicized the groundbreaking deal, wherein CI purchased a portion of Bolivia’s foreign debt in exchange for the protection and management of nearly 3.7 million acres in the Beni Biosphere Reserve.

[]

Conservation International is also turning 30 this year, and now employs more than 1,000 people and works with more than 2,000 partners in 30 countries. Vanguard President Maria Rodriguez caught up with CI’s CEO, Peter Seligmann, to discuss how this groundbreaking deal paved the way for CI and the work it does today. 

  1. What’s your best memory of that July day back in 1987 when you announced the first debt-for-nature swap?

 “A couple of things stand out. First, it was so powerful to demonstrate that foreign debt accrued by countries impacted the health of tropical forests and there was a way to solve that problem. We were able to do something truly worthy that impacted the ultimate health and well-being of a nation.

 “Second, the announcement was essentially the coming-out party for Conservation International, since we’d just opened our doors at the end of January of that same year. What an impactful way to gain attention for our mission to link conservation of nature with finance and economics. Through the incredible media attention garnered by the debt-for-nature swap, we illustrated that solutions to environmental problems have to be sensitive to the livelihoods of people.”

https://www.vancomm.com/2017/02/01/swapping-debt-nature-bolivia/

5.’Overview of Debt for Nature Swaps and Description of the Structure of Debt for Nature Swaps’ By Romas Garbaliauskas

Why do NGOs like Conservation International, the Nature Conservancy, KEHATI, and WWF participate? There is a cost here. We pay 20% of the debt forgiveness. One is that, invariably, we always work in the countries where we participate in these debts for nature swaps. I believe that has always been the case. It would be hard to understand why an NGO would participate in a debt swap for a country where they are not working. We get to basically help establish conservation priorities.

http://redd.ffpri.affrc.go.jp/events/seminars/_img/_20150203/234_D2S2_04_Mr.%20Garbaliauskas%20_final.pdf

6.‘New impact investment instrument aims to restore degraded cloud forests and improve energy security in Latin America’

“Cloud forests are among the most water-productive of any tropical forest ecosystem, are uniquely biodiverse and deliver a multitude of clear benefits, but finance for conserving and restoring forests has fallen short of the need,” said Justus Raepple, Conservation Finance Lead for TNC’s Global Water division. “There aren’t many connections in nature like this, where the benefits are so profound to a single beneficiary that the restoration actions can potentially pay for themselves.”

“Restoring cloud forests helps hydropower operators reduce significant sedimentation management costs, and also prolongs the life of the plants, so it avoids having to build more dams, or finding the energy in less environmentally friendly ways,” explained Romas Garbaliauskas, Senior Director of Conservation Finance at Conservation International.

https://www.conservation.org/press-releases/2018/09/27/new-impact-investment-instrument-aims-to-restore-degraded-cloud-forests-and-improve-energy-security-in-latin-america

7.‘Hydropower threatens Bolivian indigenous groups and national park’ by Eduardo Franco Berton/RAI

Torewa in the Tsimané (also called Chimane) language means “place of enchantment.” This is a community of 46 indigenous families, located in an area of 300 hectares within the forests of the Integrated Management Natural Area and Madidi National Park. Combined, the natural area and the park cover nearly 1.9 million hectares. Torewa is one of 17 communities that could potentially be affected by the construction of two dams planned in the El Bala and El Beu canyons on the Beni River.

https://news.mongabay.com/2016/10/hydropower-threatens-bolivian-indigenous-groups-and-national-park/

8.‘Bolivia announces plans to develop hydropower in Grande River basin’

In October 2018, HydroWorld reported that Bolivian energy authorities were in the process of identifying about US$2 billion in financing for early stage hydro and wind power generation projects. This included Rositas.

https://www.hydroreview.com/2019/07/30/bolivia-announces-plans-to-develop-hydropower-in-grande-river-basin/

9.‘Bolivia’s ENDE awards contract to Chinese firms for Rositas hydroelectric plant’

The deal comes with an initial US$1 billion in financing from the Export-Import Bank of China and will see China Three Gorges Corp. and China International Water & Electric engineer and construct what is expected to be a 500 MW to 600 MW project.

https://www.latinamericahydrocongress.com/en/news-en/bolivia-s-ende-awards-contract-to-chinese-firms-for-rositas-hydroelectric-plant

 

[Michael Swifte is an Australian activist and a member of the Wrong Kind of Green critical thinking collective.]

 

 

 

 

 

Watch: Banking Nature

Watch: Banking Nature

October 30, 2019

 

In “Banking Nature”, directors Denis Delestra and Sandrine Feydel document the growing movement to monetize the natural world, and to turn endangered species and threatened areas into instruments of profit.

2014. 90 minutes

This film investigates the financialization of the natural world.

PrintProtecting our planet has become big business with companies promoting new environmental markets. This involves species banking, where investors buy up vast swathes of land, full of endangered species, to enable them to sell “nature credits.” Companies whose actions destroy the environment are now obliged to buy these credits and new financial centres have sprung up, specializing in this trade. Many respected economists believe that the best way to protect nature is to put a price on it. But others fear that this market in nature could lead to companies having a financial interest in a species’ extinction. There are also concerns that—like the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008—the market in nature credits is bound to crash. And there are wider issues at stake. What guarantees do we have that our natural inheritance will be protected? And should our ecological heritage be for sale? [Source: Via Decouvertes Production]

Grand Prize of the City of Innsbruck nature film festival. Jury statement:

“Whoever thought that capitalizing natural resources could be a solution for our ecological crisis knows better now: thanks to the investigative approach of the directors. It is clear that the protection of endangered species should not be left to multinational companies and financial consultants. Although the topic is highly complex, the film remains exciting to the very end. The development to profit from nature as revealed by the film is frightening.”

9 AWARDS & 24 sélect. internationales

Voir la liste complète/To see the list

 

The Climate Movement: What Next?

Clive L. Spash: Social, Ecological Economics

May 2019

By Clive L. Spash

 

Joan Wong illustration for Foreign Policy [Source: Why Growth Can’t Be Green]

 

*Invited Comment for the Tellus Foundation [Note: This short commentary was written as a contribution to a Great Transition (Tellus Institute)roundtable discussion focused on the climate movement that started with an invited statement from Bill McKibben. The focus was on three questions: What is the climate movement’s state of play? System change, not climate change? Do we need a meta-movement?]

 

A CAPTURED ENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT?

The climate movement, like all environmental NGOs, has been subject to the influence of neoliberalism and corporate capture. Neo-liberals love to attack government while totally ignoring the corporate control of the economy. In the USA the extent of government capture is just ignored (from the President down and not just the most recent President either). There is a general failure to link the social and economic to the ecological. Political analysis is lacking, social theory is absent and there are a dearth of substantive ideas as to alternative economies from the existing paradigms of economic growth and price-making markets.

Hence the climate movement promotes price incentives (taxes, carbon trading), innovation and new technologies, commodification of Nature (ecosystems as goods and services, natural capital), offsetting losses of biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions, and new quantitative measures of growth as progress.

TECHNO-OPTIMIST CAPITALISM, GREEN GROWTH AND GREEN NEW DEALS

Cutting past the personal anecdotes, Bill McKibben’s GT piece appears to promote systemic change, but does it really? The piece includes the following:

• “the divestment movement […] with commitments from endowments and other portfolios worth about $8 trillion”
• “Seventy-five years from now, we will run the world on sun and wind because they’re free.” [unlike coal, gas and oil?]
• “we can’t make change happen fast enough”
• “student Climate Strikes now underway thanks to the inspiration of Sweden’s Greta Thunberg”
• “the incredibly exciting fight for a Green New Deal”
• “If we replace fossil fuels with sun and wind, the effect will inevitably lead to at least some erosion of the current power structure.”
• “There will be solar billionaires”
• “The extremely rapid fall in the price of renewable energy and electric storage is one indication that the necessary conditions for rapid change are now in place.”

The aim is for a large shift in financing towards new energy sources, which is basically the mainstream (neoclassical) economic argument that substitutes exist and the price mechanism will supply them. This relies on the belief that price mechanisms send the right signals and actually reflect resource costs rather than being determined by power relations, rules and regulations, subsidies and public infrastructure. If its cheap it must be good. There is little or no connection to politics, resource extractivism or biophysical limits (e.g., on the resources required for electric technologies), nor the need for demand control rather than supply increase. Technology will save us, markets work and there will be ‘free’ electricity for all.

The mythical innovative capitalist entrepreneur of neo-Austrian economics and neoliberal ideology appears to be lurking in the background of such claims. The Green New Deal is similar, subject to being hi-jacked by the entrepreneurial ‘billionaires’. In the USA special rules are proposed to take the trillions outside political process to be placed into the hands of a ‘special committee’, and you can expect the standard vested interests behind the scenes. The French regulation school describe how capitalism has historically adapted in response to the crises it creates; enabling with changes in the controlling minority but maintaining a power bloc that rules over the majority. Karl Polanyi, long ago, noted the way in which crises leads to social payback (e.g., ‘new deals’) to prevent total breakdown, civil unrest and potential rebellion. When that fails it uses authoritarian force, as seen with securitisation and the rise of the political right.

Contrary to McKibben’s claim, there is nothing in the ‘new technologies’ that inevitably changes the political and economic power relationships. Indeed, the trillions being requested are for investment in the growth of the economy via increased ‘green’ industrial energy and market product supply. What stops the money going to the B-Team (that Hans Baer mentions)? Where are the new institutions to prevent funds being funnelled through the usual financial channels and into the hands of the existing power players? Technology does not create institutions, it requires them!

The existing institutions of modern economies are those supporting economic growth. The growth priority has been made clear by the over 3500 economists supporting a climate tax and opposing structural change. Similarly, Lord Stern is the academic figure head of the New Climate Economy, a concept created by members of the Davos elite, with its ‘Better Growth, Better Climate’ reports. Their explicitly stated concern is that: “In the long term, if climate change is not tackled, growth itself will be at risk.” Change is coming and the corporations and billionaires are fully aware of this. They have been actively lobbying on climate and environment since Johannesburg (Earth Summit 2002) and were a dominant force at Paris. They have also long been seeking to control the environmental movement for their own ends.

The ‘smart’ money already supports Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg. Greta is lauded and praised, hosted by the international and Davos elite, and they hope can be used to help spring the trillions of funding. She can expect prizes and awards, as long as she plays the game. Ask yourself how a child is suddenly propelled into the international media limelight and given access to the most powerful people on the planet, and then ask yourself why? Why was she not just ignored like all the protesters saying exactly the same things for decades?

Clearly, as a new superstar environmentalist, a single person, she is useful to circumvent other organisations; useful as long as she attacks the right people (e.g. politicians, ‘government’) as the wrong doers (diverting attention from corporations), and supports funding of the ‘New Economy’ based on innovation, technology, new markets and economic growth. Media can downplay and cut anything critical of the system and the growth economy and report only what serves financial interests. If she turns ‘political’, expect her to be dropped like a hot potato.

Extinction Rebellion (XR) is similarly useful. It claims no political agenda, which is obviously a disingenuous, if not fraudulent, claim. They are engaged in a power struggle, but on whose behalf? Pushing a ‘climate emergency’ that seeks trillions for whom and under what political process of allocation? Claiming the need for a ‘civic forum’, but representative of whom and to endorse what? The honest concern and sincerity of individuals joining XR does not have to be questioned any more than that of Greta. However, there are clearly political games going on here of which its members appear almost willfully ignorant. Who is Extinction Rebellion opposing and where is their political analysis of the power structure that needs to change? What exactly is the change they are seeking? Rebelling against extinction not corporate and state capitalism!?

What is happening right now appears to be a classic case of a passive revolution. When hegemonic power is threatened it captures the movement leaders and neutralises them by bringing them into the power circles and takes the initiative away from radical revolutionary change. In addition, the aim is to split movements and their demands by separating the pragmatic from the radical, forming new alliances with the pragmatic wings and thereby incorporating radical movement language with their own ‘pragmatic’ demands. The threatened elites create captured movements and leaders, adopting the language of the rebels and claiming to address their concerns. Those joining them can claim to be more ‘pragmatic’ because they are connected to the powerful and see how to save the system. None of this is any different from the decades of NGO capture and new environmental pragmatism, but the latest moves are more overt because the stakes are getting higher.

WHAT NEXT?

The climate movement runs along a knife edge between re-establishing another phase of competitive economic growth, and making radical economic and political reform a reality through social ecological transformation. The current thrust is to the former and will remain so as long as the potential forces for change operate via corporations and remain committed to productivism, equitable materialism and nationalism. The climate movement is a real threat to powerful elites and that is exactly why it is being infiltrated and invited to have ‘a seat at the table’. Climate change has been and is being used to wipe off the agenda all other environmental issues and to impose singular ‘solutions’ to systemic problems.

Any ENGO, like any economists, that claims to be free of politics is either totally naïve or totally untrustworthy, and possibly both. Can the Green New Deal be made into a degrowth/post-growth deal which is not controlled by an elite? Can the well-meaning environmentalists campaigning for neoliberal solutions, and going to prison for the wrong reasons, be educated about corporate manipulation and political power?

Activism and academia need to be integrated far more. Solidarity could start with seeking some common understanding of the structure of the political and economic system. Connecting that understanding to biophysical reality also means deconstructing the growth economy not re-establishing it as ‘Green’ based on mythical free energy sources and the benevolence of billionaires.

Yours,
Clive L. Spash
6th May, 2019, Vienna

 

[Clive L. Spash is an ecological economist. He currently holds the Chair of Public Policy and Governance at Vienna University of Economics and Business, appointed in 2010. He is also Editor-in-Chief of the academic journal Environmental Values. He has been working on climate change as an economist since the late 80s and engage on environmental issues since 70s. His personal website is https://www.clivespash.org/]

 

Trees Don’t Grow on Money – or Why You Don’t Get to Rebel Against Extinction

Tim Hayword 

April 29, 2019

 

Money doesn’t go on trees, and although people can make money out of trees, they cannot make trees out of money. This much may seem platitudinous, but it is worth keeping in mind.

What is true of trees is true of the natural world as a whole, including the human beings that are part of it. Nature is real; money is an abstraction. If money seems real that is because our institutions and practices are so deeply premised on beliefs in it. There is an important sense in which those institutionalized beliefs – in crediting it with a certain value – make money real; but it is not real in the way the natural world is real. If a bank goes bust, if a whole economy crashes, the social upheaval that follows may be immense, but life goes on – people will pick themselves up and start again (and some people, meanwhile, will likely have found a way to profit from it!). By contrast, if a species goes extinct, if an ecosystem collapses, then there is no prospect – certainly not on human timescales – of a recovery. The threat of extinction to our own species is the ultimate threat.

Extinction Rebellion has given publicity to critically important concerns of our time – the ecological crises as exemplified by dangerous climate change and biodiversity loss.[1] But it also gives rise to some perplexity.

A circumstantial puzzle is how an apparently spontaneous social movement of protest comes to have the energetic backing of big business interests and even to receive notable support from influential sections of the corporate media.

On deeper reflection, what does it even mean to stage a rebellion against extinction? Rebellions usually involve a group of people rising up to protest or overthrow another group that wields unjust or illegitimate power over them. How can you ‘rebel’ against extinction? It is not as if you can choose to disobey the laws of nature.

The website that asserts the copyright © Extinction Rebellion, states certain demands directed at government.[2] The moral clarity of their seemingly simple message, however, could be deceptive.[3]

Two key demands are: “halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.”

These may sound like goals that any ethically rational person could wholeheartedly endorse, and yet, as a recent critical study by Cory Morningstar has demonstrated, what their pursuit entails does not necessarily correspond to what people might imagine.[4]

First, reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero does not mean eliminating emissions, or even necessarily reducing them at all. It refers to the possibility of engaging in other activities to offset them. The offsetting may be accomplished by various means of  technological fixes and/or accounting innovations, but what these means have in common is that they will be profitable to engage in. As was made explicit some years ago in the influential Stern Review of climate economics, a policy approach allowing emissions offsetting creates great opportunities for businesses and the financial sector.

‘Capital markets, banks and other financial institutions will have a vital role in raising and allocating the trillions of dollars needed to finance investment in low-carbon technology and the companies producing the new technologies.’ (Stern 2006: 270)

‘The development of carbon trading markets also presents an important opportunity to the financial sector. Trading on global carbon markets is now worth over $10bn annually’. (Stern 2006: 270)

By attaching a price to carbon, a whole new commodity is created over which the distribution of rights represents a new income stream. So it’s good for shareholder profits, but what about nature? How confident can we be when its protection relies on a new multi-billion dollar market involving the same people responsible for the global financial crisis?

The other key goal, to halt biodiversity loss, sounds like one that should not allow wriggle room for profiteers to game it. And yet, consider for a moment how one might propose – even with the best and purest of intentions – to bring biodiversity loss to a halt. The sheer extent of activities around the world that are undermining habitats and ecological systems is so great and complex, it is hard to conceive what exactly could and should be done, even given determined political will to do it. The proposed policy in reality, therefore, is not literally to stop doing everything we are currently doing that compromises biodiversity. Instead, it once again centres on putting a price on the aspects of nature that market actors attach value to. The premise is that if we accept it is not possible to halt the destruction of biodiversity in some places, it is still possible to protect and even re-create biodiversity in others. Thus, just as with carbon emissions, the ideas of substitution and compensation play a pivotal role: biodiversity loss may not be literally halted, but it can be offset.

And how is biodiversity loss to be offset?[5] Here comes the familiar move: in order to weigh the loss in one place against a putative gain in another they must be subjected to a common scheme of measurement. Biodiversity being something of value, the way to record how much value any instance of it has is taken to be by reference to monetary price. Hence we learn that ‘biodiversity conservation and the related concept of “natural capital” are becoming mainstream. For instance, the Natural Capital Coalition is developing the economic case for valuing natural ecosystems and includes buy-in from some of the biggest players in business, accountancy and consulting. And the financial industry is moving toward more responsible investing.’[6]

Yet this unidimensional quantification of value completely disregards the point that biodiversity is a complex and quintessentially qualitative phenomenon. It is of the essence of biodiversity that its biotic components and their environments are diverse. Being diverse means being different in ways that cannot be reduced to the measure of a single common denominator. Hence the essence of biodiversity is an irreducible plurality of incommensurables. The idea of ‘compensating’ for loss of biodiversity of one kind by the protection or enhancement of biodiversity of another kind elsewhere means disregarding the very meaning of biodiversity.[7]

The idea of biodiversity offsets, then, does not have its rational basis in ecological concern but in the expansionary logic of capitalist profit seeking.

A rebellion that really has any prospect of fending off disaster for our biosphere and ourselves needs to be based on a proper understanding of who and what needs to be rebelled against.

Extinction Rebellion publicity material says that it is apolitical. Yet there is nothing apolitical about the real struggle that is required for people to seize the power currently concentrated in the hands of plutocrats. And to those who say – rightly – that ecological issues are greater than mere politics, it may be responded that this is why we cannot let it be “dealt with” by those who currently so misuse their political power.

Asking governments to enact policies that corporate and financial backers are lining up to draw massive profits from is not what the people protesting against impending ecological disaster have in mind. It needs therefore to be clear that you can’t actually protest against disaster. You need to take on those who are driving us towards it. So you need to know who they are and how they are doing it. It’s a good idea to look carefully at who is shaping the demands you are being enlisted to make, and what exactly they entail.

land-savings

[1] For other, less discussed but no less significant problems, see Rockström et al. (2009).

[2] Why they are directed at government without reference to the central role of powerful corporations is not completely obvious, and nor is the reason why the site also says the protest is ‘apolitical’, a question to be returned to.

[3] We humans, especially the worst off – and not even to mention members of other species we share the planet with – certainly have powerful reasons for concern at the ecological crises being provoked by our collective global exploitation of the biosphere. But what “we” can do about that is nothing like as clear.

In fact, there is no “we” that can act as a collective. There are multifarious different people, groups, tribes, classes, and nations that have competing interests. “We” are not organized to respond in a concerted, ethical and rational manner.

On the other hand, a very small group of people – who alone command as much of the world’s aggregate resources as half the rest of the world’s population put together – is very well coordinated. At the highest levels of corporations and financial institutions they hold great power. With their immense wealth comes control over those – including politicians, journalists and various “thought leaders” – who exercise greatest influence over publics. Their power to manipulate public perceptions vastly exceeds most people’s awareness of it.

So we – ordinary members of the public, whether old or young – can protest and engage in symbolic actions and go green in aspects of our lifestyle, yet to real little effect. In our heart of hearts we may know this, and yet we may still believe it important to try and to act as we think all should. So when the makings of a real social movement appear, we energetically embrace the opportunity it appears to present for making some more noticeable impact. Hence the enthusiastic welcome of Extinction Rebellion, in which school kids and pensioners have united around the moral and existential cause.

But what sort of ‘rebellion’ is it that is conjured into action by a consortium of corporate-backed organizations and given extensive positive coverage in the corporate media? The commitments and beliefs of the multifarious individuals and groups on the ground are various and sincerely held, and they do tend to converge around something like the headline goals stated in the publicity material ©Extinction Rebellion. But the exact goals being endorsed focus on two very specific demands: “halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.” And in this post I am arguing that it is very easy to be misled into thinking these capture what we really want to achieve, whereas in reality they may in fact capture our acquiescence in the further extension of corporate power over the natural world and our own lives.

[4] Morningstar’s set of six articles makes for somewhat demanding reading, and her purposes have sometimes been misunderstood or misrepresented on the basis of apparently rather casual perusal. Certainly, this has been noticeable in comments on Twitter, so I tried to distil some of her key points, without her detail or her critics’ distractions, in a Twitter thread: https://twitter.com/Tim_Hayward_/status/1120748645069021185

[5] Some useful introductory sources are World Rainforest Movement: http://www.wrongkindofgreen.org/tag/green-economy/; Clive Spash 25 minute talk: https://vimeo.com/33921592; and the collection of material here: http://naturenotforsale.org/author/berberv/

[6] Richard Pearson, ‘We have 15 years to halt biodiversity loss, can it be done?’, The Conversation, 26 Oct 2015 https://theconversation.com/we-have-15-years-to-halt-biodiversity-loss-can-it-be-done-49330.

[7] For a pithy presentation of the basic ideas here see the short video ‘Biodiversity offsetting, making dreams come true‘ https://vimeo.com/99079535.

References

Rockström, Johan et al. (2009), ‘A Safe Operating Space for Humanity’, Nature 461: 472–75.

Stern, Nicholas et al. (2006), Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change, London: HM Treasury.

The Most Valuable Players of the Natural Capital League: Part 2

Wrong Kind of Green

October 19, 2017

 

 

The Natural Capital League (NCL) has gained it’s power and influence steadily over time and through it’s extensive networks.

After 35 years of the development of ecological economics two senior foundational figures have emerged who are utterly worthy of the title MVP.

One of these senior figures is a revered economist and the other is a lawyer, networker, manager, author, and academic.

Herman Daly

Herman Daly is not only a most valuable player, he has defined the game itself while developing the other talented players who’ve pushed the league forward. His great conceptual achievement is the idea of the ‘steady state’ (1977). He has been a very active proponent of the ‘polluter pays principle’. In 1991, while he was at the World Bank to work on sustainable development policy, he argued for the idea of ‘rights to pollute’. In 1992 he co-wrote a paper containing one of the earliest usages of the term ‘natural capital’ titled ‘Natural Capital and Sustainable Development’. In this paper a definition of the term ‘natural capital’ was provided based on a ‘functional definition’ of capital – “a stock that yields a flow of valuable goods and services into the future”.

Herman Daly was the 1996 winner of the Right Livelihood Award, the 2008 Adbusters ‘Man of the Year’ and the 2014 Blue Planet Prize winner. He co-founded the journal Ecological Economics, was closely involved in the founding of the International Society of Ecological Economics and is currently on staff at the Centre for the Advancement of Steady State Economics (CASSE). In 2012 he was a featured interviewee in the documentary ‘Four Horsemen’ directed by Ross Ashcroft who is also known as the Renegade Economist.

“Instead of maximizing returns to and investing in man-made capital (as was appropriate in an empty world), we must now maximize returns to and invest in natural capital (as is appropriate in a full world).”

Herman E. Daly (1994) in: AnnMari Jansson. Investing in Natural Capital: The Ecological Economics Approach To Sustainability. 1994. p. 24

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‘Rights to Pollute’

Allocation, distribution, and scale: towards an economics that is efficient, just, and sustainable. Ecological Economics

http://www.uvm.edu/~jfarley/EEseminar/readings/sus%20jus%20eff.pdf

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CASSE – Meet our staff

http://www.steadystate.org/meet/our-staff/

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Natural Capital and Sustainable Development

http://www.life.illinois.edu/ib/451/Costanza%20(1992).pdf

“The SSE will also require a “demographic transition” in populations of products towards longer-lived, more durable goods, maintained by lower rates of throughput.”

http://www.sd-commission.org.uk/data/files/publications/Herman_Daly_thinkpiece.pdf

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Gus Speth

James Gustave Speth is all about networking and was once dubbed the “ultimate insider”. He’s an MVP because his whole contribution is much greater than the some of the parts he has played, and he has played so very many parts. His list of fellowships and board appointments stretches to every corner of the sustainable development project. He is the highest ever American office holder at the united nations. He was the administrator of the United Nations Development Program, and he went on to become the Special Coordinator for Economic and Social Affairs under UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and chair of the United Nations Development Group. He cofounded the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and founded the World Resources Institute (WRI). Crucially he knows how to reposition his career to the advantage of sustainable development.

Gus Speth got arrested with climate justice movement leader Bill McKibben in an anti-KXL pipeline protest for the first time in 2011 shortly after moving on from the NRDC and WRI. He responded to the threat of climate change by joining the US advisory board of climate justice organization 350.org and followed up on his vision for the future laid out in his book ‘America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy’ through his various networks and positions held in the new economy movement. He is a senior fellow of the Democracy Collaborative, associate fellow at the Tellus Institute, co-chair of the NextSystem Project, board member of New Economy Coalition, former dean Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Professor at Vermont Law School and was chairman of the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality (Carter Administration). He has a string of other fellowships and advisory roles all relating to sustainable development and new economy issues.

It’s Gus Speth’s role as consultant to the Capital Institute that ties all his networks to the Natural Capital League. The Capital Institute could be called the home of ‘regenerative capitalism’ which connects natural capital flows to the restoration of nature to improve the value of ‘ecosystem services’. Several natural capital economists from organisations such as the Gund Institute with which he shares a close relationship are involved in the Next System Project which he chairs. The Next System Project is focussed very much on social enterprise, support for communities and democratic process. We can expect that Gus Speth will continue to refine his networks and position himself to see sustainable development and the Natural Capital League flourish.

“CHILDREN CENTERED, NOT GROWTH CENTERED. Overall economic growth will not be seen as a priority, and GDP will be seen as a misleading measure of well-being and progress. Instead, indicators of community wealth creation — including measures of social and natural capital — will be closely watched, and special attention will be given to children and young people — their education and their right to loving care, shelter, good nutrition, health care, a toxic-free environment, and freedom from violence.”

America the Possible: A Manifesto, Part II

https://orionmagazine.org/article/america-the-possible-a-manifesto-part-ii/

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Measuring What Matters: GDP, Ecosystems and the Environment

http://www.wri.org/blog/2010/04/measuring-what-matters-gdp-ecosystems-and-environment

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Review of America the Possible by John Fullerton

https://capitalinstitute.org/blog/crb_book_review/gus-speths-america-possible/

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Gus Speth Returns to WRI, Inspires

http://www.wri.org/blog/2014/11/gus-speth-returns-wri-inspires

 

Further reading:

 

The Most Valuable Players of the Natural Capital League: Part 1