Rio+20 – Saving Biodiversity or Capitalism?

‘Among the issues: What does moving from sustainable development to green economy mean? What is hidden behind this new concept of green economy: green growth? Green capitalism? Something else? What conclusions should we draw from these twenty years, while environmental degradation has accelerated, inequalities have widened and that democracies are being undermined? Which alternatives?’  – from Rio+20: From sustainable development to green economy, what is at stake? Which alternatives? by Alter-Echos 

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development Rio+20 next week will address the crisis of biodiversity. Since the first UN conference at Rio in 1992 the UN has attempted to protect the natural world with policy initiatives based in a mistaken understanding of our relationship with the natural world. Even before the Rio 1992 critical environmentalists were aware of the short-comings of the ‘sustainable development’ as an approach for the conservation of nature. David Orton wrote;

Greens and environmentalists who today still use this concept [of sustainable development] display ecological illiteracy. There is a basic contradiction between the finiteness of the Earth, with natural self-regulating systems operating within limits, and the expansionary nature of industrial capitalist society. The language of sustainable development helps mask this fundamental contradiction, so that industrial expansion on a global scale can temporarily continue (Orton 1989).

In short, sustaining or increasing levels of consumption on the diminishing resource base with more people wanting ‘better’ lifestyles (i.e. more consumption) is not possible in the current context. It is not surprising that environmental problems continue to become more severe as policy makers continue to ignore material realities.


Today we find ourselves at a situation where most of the proposals on the table at Rio+20 will only accelerate problems. Strategies promoting ‘the green economy’ create new markets within natural processes as a means of protecting nature. Yet the ecological commons cannot be saved by turning ecological processes into commodities. I will briefly summarize three main reasons why creating commodities out of natural processes will not work to do the important work of protecting ecological systems:

1) Irreplaceable Nature. It’s no small thing to bring nature into the space where everything must prove its financial worth. We simply do not have the scientific capacity to measure all of the life-sustaining services provided by nature. What is possible to know for sure is that there will be no financial system to create this human construct we call money without the benefit of a stable climate, clean water and healthy local ecosystems. The paradox remains that in attempting to protect nature by assigning it’s services economic values, we reinforce the idea that the only thing that matters is the economic impact of a particular course of action. ‘Priceless’ is a concept that is quickly being destroyed as the scope of the market expands.

2) Price Tags as Absurd. When scientists do fix a price for nature these values are not only always absurdly low, but in the big picture view they are simply ridiculous. Consider the recent The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) report, which estimates a total economic value of insect pollination worldwide at €153 billion (Gallai et al. 2009 in TEEB, 2010: p.8). It’s a high number, but does this number actually reflect the value of pollinating insects? Considering that we are dependent on functioning ecological systems, surely these ‘ecosystem services’ and the pollinating insects which are a vital part of these ecosystems are in fact priceless.

3) Quantification, Instrumentalism and Radical Reductionism. Reducing the value of nature to financial terms is an epistemological prelude to exploitation on a material realm. Nature is more complex than what we can capture through a financial valuations and equations. Over-simplifying the processes of a system on which you are completely dependent is terminally foolish. This arrogance will have severe consequences not only for the natural world we claim to want to protect, but for the survival of humankind.

We must develop proposals to protect the commons that will replace the flawed approaches of ‘sustainable development’ and the so-called ‘green economy’ presented by those committed to bringing nature into the capitalist economic order. Acknowledgement of both the crisis conditions in the natural world and the systemic drivers of this crisis in the economic system is the first step towards genuine renewal.

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