The UN’s Rio+20 declaration ‘The Future We Choose’ warns; ‘the scientific evidence is unequivocal…the time to act is now!’ With this document the UN calls for ‘a great transformation’ emerging from the recognition that business as usual is no longer sufficient. Humankind is now in the ‘Anthropocene’ wherein we must live within the ‘safe operating space of planetary boundaries’. Does this environmental rhetoric demonstrate that the UN is serious about addressing the biodiversity crisis? Or has the UN simply appropriated green language to sell its new project to the global public?
The so-called ‘Green Economy’ launched at Rio+20 reveals a new approach to sustainable development, based on creating new markets for nature’s processes. The basic provisions of the natural world are now ‘ecosystem services’ (water purification, plant pollination, carbon capture and maintenance of soil fertility, etc.). Presently free and commonly shared, the emerging programme will soon quantify, financialise and marketise them. The commodification of the natural world supposedly aims to protect nature by accounting for ‘externalities’ of environmental damage by industry. According to this logic, once nature’s processes are given a financial value, prices of goods and services will reflect ecological costs and it will no longer make economic sense to produce ecologically harmful products.
The problem with the Green Economy starts with the assumption that Nature’s processes can be effectively managed as commodities. The project is built on the staggering philosophical error that assumes that the economy is of greater importance than the ecological system on which the economy depends. By permitting ecosystem services to be sold to the highest bidder (therefore subject to destruction by industrial processes) it assumes that forests, species, stable climates, etc. are somehow replaceable.
Nature’s processes cannot be safely disaggregated. Ecological systems are not fragmented but are complex webs of interconnected and interdependent relations that cannot be effectively understood – much less managed in isolation. Reducing the value of nature to financial terms is an epistemological prelude to exploitation on a material realm. It is no small thing to bring nature into the space where everything must prove its financial worth. Nature is more complex than what we can capture through financial valuations. It is foolish to over-simplify the processes of a system on which we are entirely dependent.
Philosophical errors spawn further methodological errors in the quantification and financialisation of nature’s processes. 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.
When scientists do fix a price for nature these values are often absurdly low or simply ridiculous. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) report estimates a total economic value of insect pollination worldwide at €153 billion. It’s a high number, but does this number actually reflect the value of pollinating insects? Considering that we are dependent on these ‘ecosystem services’ and the pollinating insects that are a vital part of these ecosystems, it follows that insects are priceless. Our own survival depends on their survival.
The political problem with the false ‘Green Economy’ is its ruin of democratic participation in environmental decision-making. In privatising the commons, the conservation of nature becomes yet another aspect of modern life subject to the whims of the market. Democratic control of development agendas will no longer be possible as markets become the space where environmental decisions are made. Those making decisions become those with the financial clout to participate (i.e. corporations and the financial sector).
The false ‘Green Economy’ is an intensification of the long trajectory of the enclosures of the commons. This state supported transfer of common land from commoners (i.e. the 99%) to politically powerful elites has occurred over several centuries. The Indigenous People’s Kari-Oca 2 Declaration at Rio+20 describes the Green Economy as ‘a continuation of colonalism… a perverse attempt by corporations, extractive industries and governments to cash in on Creation by privatizing, commodifying and selling off the Sacred and all forms of life and the sky’. The so-called ‘Green Economy’ is the commodification of life itself. We, the people and the earth that we inhabit, are a community – not commodities ripe for exploitation.
The false ‘Green Economy’ is attractive to the financial and corporate sectors as it creates new areas for market growth in the global commons. Contrary to the environmental rhetoric used to sell this project, in no way does this agenda offer a solution to the biodiversity and mass extinction crises. Instead, the project uses the ecological crisis as an opportunity for extracting even greater profit from ecological systems. Nevertheless, the UN (and especially the UK) is pressing ahead with the commodification of nature. Nature is being redefined as ‘natural capital’ as a prelude for the intensification of its exploitation. The same innovative but opaque financial mechanisms responsible for the economic crisis will be transferred to already endangered ecological system. The earth – the material, geo-physical context that makes social and economic systems possible – is necessarily the final frontier for capitalism.
Papers and resources on Rio+20 can be found here.